It is impossible to have your life together at twenty-one. I first walked through the town of East Dillion, Texas at that exact age, a university student living in an old London flat; tipsy, alone, lost, homesick, lovesick, stressed out, starving, laughing, crying. I had a stack of things I needed to ‘figure out’, a plethora of memories I was trying to shelve away. And there I was, finding comfort in a show about Texas High School football. Who would have thought?
At first glance, Friday Night Lights gave me the impression of a southern propaganda machine; ‘honest’ Americans waving star-spangled flags, drinking beer, twirling guns, listening to country music, obsessing over American football. I thought it would be the stereotypical story of clenched fists and ‘following your dreams’. The cliche ‘give it your best’ schtick; overcoming adversity, taking the high road, being the ‘good guy’ – as inspirational and American as a piece of apple pie. All that’s true, of course, but only to an extent. The more I watched the show, the more I came to realise that there other things – more important things – that make Friday Night Lights a classic: the nuances in its writing, its honesty, its complex characters that you can relate to, its straight-forwardness, its pure-hearted urgency.
But what truly, truly makes Friday Night Lights special – what makes the show works – is its heart. FNL’s heart contains multitudes. It is so big, so huge, that it cracks and bleeds and bursts apart in your hands.
For many, the first season of the show is its finest. There is a clear fist-pumping, ride-to-greatness arc that you can’t quite resist: Jason Street, the team’s star quarterback, is paralysed in the first game of the season, but still the Dillon Panthers end the year as state champions. You get the love-triangle of Jason, Lyla Garrity and Tim Riggins; the blossoming of Julie Taylor’s romance with the likeable Matt Saracen; Coach and Tami emerging triumphant in both their personal and professional lives. By comparison, the fourth season is rather like the middle child; no less amazing, but always overshadowed by its grander, more boisterous older sibling. The fourth season attempts to rebel, but quietly and determinedly, by dismantling everything and starting again with the broken pieces. Dillon is no longer just a place for us viewers – dreamers who wish to be entertained. It starts to become, more than ever, a sad place, desolate and broken. A town of hypocrites and losers and lonely hearts.
Reinventing a show after the departure of numerous main characters is an ambitious feat that many other shows have failed at. But with its fourth season, FNL tackles the change head-on in classic FNL fashion: boldly, smartly, earnestly. The third season ends and the fourth season begins with Coach Eric Taylor no longer the coach of the famed Dillon Panther. Instead the town of Dillon has been split in two. The rich and popular Panthers have kicked Coach out and thrusted the job no one wanted at him: football coach of the East Dillon Lions. East Dillon is the ‘rougher’ side of town, we are told. The school has to be reopened, the football team recruited from scratch. The Lions’ football field is nothing more than a patch of grass, their field house an empty rotten building with its red paint peeling off. We have never seen Coach in such a position before. The Panthers were already great and mighty before Coach got there; all he had to do was keep them great. With the Lions, however, he has to make them great. It is a bitter pill to swallow for our hero. An almost impossible mountain to climb. After taking the Panthers to two state finals, this is what Coach gets: a slap in the face.
Coach tries his hardest, of course – he recruits, trains, puts his boys through the mud – but they keep losing so badly, he even has to forfeit their first game. For the first time ever, Coach does not know what to do. He cannot even get his boys to show up for practice. He strides out of the empty dressing room and stands looking at the sorry state of their football field. As the camera zooms in on him, we see a rare sight: tears of desperation in the Coach’s eyes. He is failing, he knows. And even after the boys have come back, he still keeps failing. Every week the lions get beat; no matter how much heart they play with, they walk off the field every Friday night defeated. But this is what makes this fourth season so unique and captivating: loss. The entire season is so weighed down by it, it makes us forget that it’s even there. Coach loses the funds and the prestige of being a Panther; Tami loses her job as principal after she’s wrongly accused of counselling Becky to have an abortion; Julie loses Matt; Tim Riggins loses, amongst other things, Lyla, the girl he loves; Vince loses his childhood friend, Calvin, and almost loses his mother. But the biggest loss of all – the loss that defines a large portion of this season – belongs to the pure, good-hearted, undeserving Matt Saracen.
While Tim Riggins is the bad boy with a heart of gold that you keep coming back to (Tyra, I’m looking at you), Matt Saracen has always been the boy your parents hope you’d bring home; nice, responsible, kind, selfless. Matt has always been the everyday man, the good kid who’s been dealt a bad hand, but is always honest to a fault. We are desperate to see him happy. In this fourth season, however, we discover that Matt has turned down his spot at an art college in Chicago. Instead he has decided to go to community college and stay in Dillon with Julie and his sick grandmother. He does manual labour in his ‘internship’ with a bitter local artist, delivers pizza, keeps Julie company as she navigates her senior year. It is obvious that he is trying very hard to be okay with it all, to be satisfied with his lot in life. But then the hammer blow – the news that his father is killed in Iraq by an IED – hits. And everything falls apart.
In “The Son”, arguably one of the show’s best ever episodes, FNL does a powerful job of portraying not what grief is, but what grief does. Matt floats from scene to scene in this one; stoic, blank, dead-eyed. Almost on auto-pilot, he accepts people’s condolences, goes with Tami to the funeral home, comforts his grandmother, insists that he’s doing fine. When he finally, finally shatters, it is little by little, piece by piece. First, it is the drunken eulogy he gives to his former teammates, Tim Riggins and Landry Clarke: “Henry Saracen. His mother annoyed him, his wife couldn’t stand him, and he didn’t wanna be a dad so he took off to be in the Army… and all he left behind is a mother with dementia, a divorced wife and a son who delivers pizza”. But it is his meltdown at the Taylors’, after he has seen his father’s body, that is the episode’s true gut punch: “I don’t like hating people. But I just put all my hate on him so that I don’t have to hate anybody else. So now I can be a good person. To my grandmother, to my friends, to your daughter. And that’s all I want to say, I just want to tell him to his face that I hate him. But he doesn’t even have a face.”
The burden of Matt’s loss is made more terrible by the moments of silence in between the words he utters – words between him and his friends, his family, his family friends and his girlfriend, Julie. After the funeral, Matt and Julie finally acknowledge that he’s stayed in Dillon for her; that he has put his life on hold just to be with her for a little while longer. This verbal acknowledgement between them should have been another declaration of love. Instead, for the first time, it gives life to other possibilities for Matt. New and frightening possibilities. So after dropping Julie off at her house, he parks his car in front of his own, but does not go in. Inside his mother and his grandmother are chatting about what television set they should buy to replace their old one; a mundane conversation similar to the ones he probably has with his grandmother a thousand times before. And yet he sits and listens. Sits and listens. The moment stretches on longer than it ought, and still he sits. Until finally, Matt Saracen decides to do the most selfish, most brilliant thing Matt Saracen has ever done. He drives. On and on, he drives. Until the sun comes up and Dillon is behind him. All the way to Chicago. Without saying goodbye. Bob Dylan begins to sing then: “Don’t think twice, it’s alright”. And we see a small soft smile touches Matt’s lips. In that moment, we all understand what Matt finally understands: you cannot go forward without leaving something behind. No matter which direction you’re heading toward, you’re going to lose something you love.
Matt’s leaving scene, quite poetically, comes after a Tim Riggins scene. “I once loved a woman, a child I am told,” Dylan sings as Matt drives, as Tim stumbles back to the trailer he rents, “I gave her my heart, but she wanted my soul”. Tim sinks into a chair next to Becky, the teenage daughter of his landlady, while the song continues to play. He has just said farewell to his high school girlfriend, Lyla Garrity; she’s gone back to pursue her future while he has chosen to remain in the past. You can see on Tim’s face that the parting has hit him hard. He truly, truly loves Lyla, there is no question about that, but this farewell does not come as a surprise. Seeds of their separation have been planted since season three. You get the sense that Tim has never been overjoyed with the prospect of going to college; he would rather stay in Dillon, in his little corner of the world where he is comfortable. During this visit of Lyla’s, it is plain to see why they can never be together, no matter how much they love each other. Lyla is meant for more than Dillon, while Tim is Dillon. Season four shows us that his story has never meant to be a rags-to-riches story in the first place. This is not a tale of a messed-up, small town boy conquering the world. Tim Riggins is a simple man. For him, ‘Texas forever’ is simply that: Texas forever, always, everyday.
Tim ditching college after a few short months is him rejecting the future that his brother and Lyla want for him. He comes back to Dillon unrepentant, only to find himself as someone “who used to be Tim Riggins”. For the first time since the show started, Tim is no longer the ‘star’; he borders on being a has-been even before he has reached the age of twenty. Unsurprisingly, Billy and Mindy kick him out almost immediately. He then proceeds to have a drunken one-night stand with a single mother, before renting a trailer in her backyard to live in. No job, no football, no future prospects, Tim is lost. Stuck. Adrift. When Lyla asks him, “What do you want?”, he can only say, “You”. She then closes her eyes, her expression pained, and asks again, “What else do you want?” Once more he smiles a hopeless smile, and whispers, “You”. It is a deeply sad moment, not only for their relationship, but for Tim himself. Other than Lyla, he doesn’t know what he wants. He doesn’t even know who he is. People only see him as the star he used to be – the superman athlete, the popular jock, the mysterious long-haired heartthrob – and he is self-aware enough to know he is really none of these things.
Tenth-grader Becky, on the other hand, thinks he is. She hero-worships him. She falls a little bit in love with him because he is the only man who has ever been good and kind to her. (After Becky’s mother has bailed on yet another shopping date, he comforts her: “My mother never took me shopping for a pageant gown. And because of that I never placed at Miss Texas. That’s why I got into football.”) For a long while you wonder if these two characters are ever going to hook up. You cannot help but dread it; nothing good could ever come from Tim Riggins sleeping with a starry-eyed high school girl with father issues. The show writers, however, gave Riggins the best thing they have ever given him: restraint. Although he kisses Becky back once or twice, he always pulls back. “This is never going to happen,” he keeps insisting.
After Tim has given up on Lyla, Becky tries to comfort him by putting herself in the picture. The hint is all too obvious as she prattles on childishly about heartbreak, soulmates and falling in love again. Then suddenly he glares at her, and his tone is almost cruel as he cuts her off: “Becky. Shut up.” Becky looks wounded, betrayed, but then Tim’s eyes soften and his voice becomes pleading as he utters, “Please”. And she relents.It is this soft, heart wrenching “Please” that sums up Tim and his journey this season. He realises it is not a good thing he’s doing here – spurning her, cutting her off so spitefully – but he knows it is not the worst thing he could do. He checks himself just in time by adding “Please”. Stops himself just before he says something truly awful to her or does something he can never take back.
Eventually, not unlike what happens to many other characters in season four, Tim’s losses catch up to him. He ends the season walking into a police station to give himself up, having decided to take all the fall for his and Billy’s crimes so that his brother can be with his family. The act is a noble one; Tim is at heart a noble guy. But only in his own way and in his own time. This sacrifice is not a win in the traditional sense, but it is still a check-mate; amidst all the heavy losses, we still get these small moments of goodness. Tim tries and fails, but then he tries again. And again. Please. Please. Just like Tami’s refusal to issue an apology to the parents of West Dillon, the tenderness in the burgeoning romance between Vince and Jess, and Matt’s smile as he drives away from his hometown – these moments remind us that there is still a silver-lining of victory in a season burdened by grief, no matter how tiny. The flickers of triumph are still there to be seen.
In the last game of the season, the Lions get the chance to face their bitter rivals, the West Dillon Panthers, for the very first time. Having registered only one win in their entire season, a win here would bring the Lions nothing but consolation. In the dying moments of the game, Coach calls upon Landry Clarke to attempt a 46-yard field goal to win the Lions the game. When Landry – who has never been the most talented of athletes – protests that he can’t possibly do it, Coach, in keeping with the East Dillon spirit, simply tells him, “It could be worse, son. It could be 47 yards,” and sends him onto the field anyway.
And so the ball is set. Landry swings back his foot, kicks with all his might, and sends the ball sailing. It sails through the air, through the rain, through the darkness. Through those absurd, impossible, laughable 46 yards. All the way until it passes between the two goal posts like a curving, beautiful rocket.
A win. At last.
The small victories matter, the season insists. They matter all the more because of the losses.