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October 6, 2015

Full Hearts: A Review of the 'Friday Night Lights' Series Finale

by Maureen Ryan, posted Feb 10th 2011 2:50AM
The final episode of 'Friday Night Lights' aired on DirecTV Wednesday night. So as not to spoil anything for those who'll be watching the fifth and final season on NBC or on DVD, I'm not going to put anything about the series finale on this part of the post.

By the way, for a non-spoiler-y appreciation of the show, look here. For a non-spoiler-y discussion of 'FNL' on the Talking TV podcast, go here.

Read on only if you've seen the last episode of 'Friday Night Lights.'

"Look how far we've come." Vince Howard

"It's gonna be perfect." Matt Saracen

"We've got a long way to go, gentlemen. A long way to go. You know what, I'm looking forward to it." Coach Eric Taylor

If I could articulate everything I loved about the 'Friday Night Lights' finale, it wouldn't be the show that I love.

Maybe that's just a pre-emptive excuse for the words that follow. I certainly don't make any great claims to eloquence, but the truth is, I find that 'FNL' is most powerful when it connects with and creates feelings that resist description. Maybe what make those emotional states indescribable is what gives them their power.

The show painstakingly built up a world and created characters that not only seemed real but felt only a heartbeat away from our own lives. As a woman who lives in the suburbs of Chicago, in theory I have little in common with Vince. Yet when Coach Taylor said, "You may never know how proud I am of you," I not only felt the dramatic impact of those words on Vince, but I felt echoes of the times that I've been recognized, appreciated and loved for exactly who I am. (So yes, from that point onward in the show's finale, the tears were flowing pretty freely. I'll mourn the loss of 'Friday Night Lights' in so many ways, but perhaps the upside is that my tissue expenses will drop dramatically.)

Things felt immediate on this show: There was no distance between the residents of Dillon and us. In ways we'll be appreciating for years to come, 'FNL' consistently created a bond of empathy and compassion between the people on the screen and the people on the couch. Like few other shows, it was able to create incredibly potent emotional states that reached right into your gut and heart; it depicted and induced happiness and sadness and many inarticulate states in between.

It's only appropriate that the show, which focused so intently on the connections that sustain people in good times and in bad, created such a powerful bond between audience and characters. So often it felt that we weren't just observing them, we were with them. Maybe, sometimes, we were those people. The catharsis came from seeing ourselves on that screen -- celebrated, recognized, frustrated, angry.

Once in a while, 'FNL' is on the nose, if not a little clunky (the stuff with Vince's dad, for example, got a little grating at times this season). But all in all, by the fifth season of the show, so many things didn't need to be said. We knew these people and their world and their history so well that exposition wasn't necessary ('FNL' was like 'The Wire' in that way; neither show held your hand and both assumed you could keep up).

Much of the time, 'FNL' came at things obliquely, as people do in normal life. Vince didn't say much when he tried to give his father a State ticket. He didn't need to. We knew what it cost him to look his father up, and how his heart broke when his father spurned him. (What amazing work by Michael B. Jordan in that scene and so many others this season and last.)

When Vince's dad did show up at State, there wasn't an earnest reconciliation scene between then, with the two men talking about the factors that have made their relationship so rocky. We just knew from the look on the dad's face how proud he was, and, on some level, how sorry he was that he had failed to be the father that Coach Taylor ended up becoming.

And of course, much of the argument between Eric and Tami Taylor consisted of gaps and tense silences. That's an arena all committed couples know well: 'Always' perfectly depicted that standoff silence when both parties have made their positions known and a stalemate is in progress.

When Eric talked to Matt and Julie about marriage and compromise, we didn't need to have a long speech from Tami about how she'd felt those qualities were sorely lacking in her own marriage at that moment. And there was no big fight outside the restaurant, just a long hug, a few sentences and the acknowledgment that some things can't be fixed with a hug.

It was clear from the moment that Tami told Eric she wasn't going to Braemore that he was going to turn down the Panthers job. Her face said it all: She'd given up. And he's Eric Taylor: Having nurtured the dreams of so many high schoolers, he couldn't destroy his own wife's fondest hopes.

But everything about that final conflict between them felt earned and real, and kudos, once again, to Kyle Chandler and Connie Britton for showing how hard it can be to love someone, and how wonderful it is when the stalemate ends.

There were resolutions and sendoffs aplenty in the episode, which was just long enough (though there wasn't enough Landry, damn it). And I'll share more thoughts about those in a bulleted list below. But I want to single out two things in the finale for special praise: The State game sequence, and the incredible music, especially the lyrical, gorgeous score by W.G. Snuffy Walden and Bennett Salvay. If 'FNL' is about inducing emotional states, a serious share of the credit should go to the show's always spot-on music.

The game exemplified what I was talking about earlier: The judicious editing and the terrific music produced a vibe, an atmosphere. It wasn't about who scored what and when; we didn't need the jittery play by play that other games have featured. 'Always' depicted the feeling of the game, as experienced by those playing it and those watching it.

That last shot of everyone watching Vince's long pass was a perfect way to end the game. What was in their eyes wasn't just a desire to win. What shone on their faces was hope -- something that is, at times, in short supply in Dillon. But that's what the game does for those Dillon residents -- and that's what this show did for us. It made us part of of something bigger, part of something that could break our hearts and make our eyes well up. The game on Friday gave them an outlet for their hopes, fears and frustrations. And through the fly-on-the-wall depictions of the people playing and watching that game, we felt those emotions too. The game, and the show, gave us something look forward to and celebrate.

Yet State was a bittersweet experience, not just for the players and fans, but for us as well. It was the last time we'd see Coach on the sidelines; it was the last time we'd see all those familiar faces in the stands. It was an elegy for 'FNL' football games, and thus it was perfect that it led into the next thing, because 'FNL' is about how life goes on.

In a series of little moments, we got answers to our questions about State and what happened next for various people. The Lions won, as we saw from the presence of a ring on Vince's finger. He was a Panthers star, not surprisingly. Buddy had somehow found a way to support Dillon's superteam, and Buddy Jr. and Tinker had made the team (yes!).

We got one last "Texas forever" from Riggins, who had started building that house of his. Luke joined the Army, which sounds right for a good but not great athlete from Dillon. Jess was working with a coach in Dallas, and Matt and Julie were together in Chicago. (Question for you -- do you think they were married by that point? I didn't see a ring.)

And of course the Taylors had made a new life for themselves in Philadelphia. It looked as thought there were plenty of young men in the Philadelphia area who needed guidance, molding and leadership. The silence that greeted Coach Taylor's "Clear eyes, full hearts" was pretty amusing, but never mind. They'd get to that later.

When I look at the finale with the clearest eyes I can muster, I must pronounce myself happy in every respect. So many characters got sweet or at least peaceful endings. If you ask, "Is it true to this hardscrabble show that so many people ended up content?," my answer is, "Do you really think I'm going to quibble with Riggins building a house or Matt Saracen being happy or Becky getting to live in a stable home with an actual parent? I am not made of stone, damn it!"

I can't deny these people their small and large measures of contentment. For five seasons, 'Friday Night Lights' has shown us that trouble will crop up soon enough. For once, these hard-working people more or less got what they wanted. That's all I wanted too.

Hail of bullets time (and some of these bullets will just be my favorite quotes):

• A couple of notes: I wrote a story called "Twelve Things Television Can Learn from 'Friday Night Lights'; it's here. You should also read Alan Sepinwall's interview with the show's executive producer, Jason Katims.

• Tinker: "You are a total jackass!"

• Coach: "That's a Texas tree!"

• Coach as Matt stumbled and muttered as he arrived at the Taylor house: "What??!" Kyle Chandler has consistently done a terrific job with the comedic moments on this show from day one.

• Matt's proposal at the Alamo freeze was so perfectly Saracen-esque. When I first saw that proposal, I thought it was a bit much (these characters are very young). So I was glad the Taylors had the reactions they did. Eric's laughter when Matt first revealed his intentions was, again, comedy gold. And his stares when he realized Matt was serious were amongst his best Coach Taylor Patented Intimidation Stares.

• I loved the Landry-Saracen scene, it was so perfectly them. But I wish we'd had a bit more time with Jesse Plemons!

• Riggins tutorial with little Stevie was also comedy gold: "See that? Yeah. Never turn away a memory."

• I don't want to get into a whole thing about what worked or didn't in season 5, which I found to be mostly very strong, but what was the deal with Grey Damon's character? He was a series regular, yet we hardly ever saw Hastings Ruckle. I think Tinker had more lines than him in the second half of the season.

• Tami: "I think we agree on this!!"

• Not surprisingly, there were a lot of references to family in the finale: Coach said that word during his locker-room speech, Riggins and Becky reconciled at last and he called her family, and Grandma Saracen called Julie family as well. Misty Moment: Grandma kisses Julie's ring hand.

• I've loved the way the show has developed Billy Riggins over the past couple of seasons. Great job by Derek Phillips as the big, goofy ball of energy that is the senior Riggins brother. Kudos also to Stacey Oristano, who took Mindy from close to a stripper stereotype to a much more nuanced and likable character.

• Becky's mom: "He's a sweetheart. As long as he learns to wear a condom."

• Misty moment: Jess: "Being part of the Lions has been the greatest experience of my life. Coach: "I think it's been mine too." If I'm not much mistaken, Kyle Chandler himself got choked up not only in that scene but in the final locker-room scene as well. As is only right and proper.

• "Maybe one day, our dreams can merge." I loved how Riggins' story ended, with the perpetual Lost Boy in his field, with a woman who understands him, drinking a beer and watching the sunset. Lovely.

• Coach: "Will you take me to Philadelphia with you, please?"

• As the Taylors walked off Coach's new field in Philadelphia, the lights over the field went out. Full hearts. Clear eyes. Can't lose.

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Jesse Jackson

So I made it through the box set tonight. I had gotten to the last 4 episodes a week or so and almost dreaded watching them. I would have my "Alexander wept" moment. I shouldn't have worried, I was so busy crying over the final scenes that I was drained of tears when the final credits rolled. A wonderful 5 years (even the season that we don't like to discuss) but even more special is that we got 5 years. Getting to spend this much time with these wonderful people is a miracle and I remind myself about this show getting 5 season when I want to by cynical about TV and want to complain that "everything I love gets cancelled." Often it does but sometimes it doesn't and that's something.

May 01 2011 at 1:42 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

Thanks so much, Mo. It was a perfect ending to a nearly perfect show.

The only face I found missing was Smash. Would have loved to know what he was up to. I wish at least Mama Smash could have been in the stands watching the game. I loved her!

Would have also loved a Landry/Tyra reunion scene, but not if it sacrificed the Matt and Landry deja vu moment in the back yard. So classic for those two.

Bravo to all those involved in FNL. I miss them already.

February 11 2011 at 12:11 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

As a native Texas who always hated the football culture here when i was growing up, I just couldn't make this show a regular thing. On the other hand, the times I did watch it I experienced the most perfect, believable dialogue and acting I have ever seen on TV. I recognized someone I knew in every character on the screen, but never in a cliched or forced way. I hope the creators go on to something else that rings as true.

February 10 2011 at 2:20 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

I really couldn't sum it up better. It's so hard to explain to other people why this show affected people they way it did, but you hit the nail on the head. The viewer was PART of the show. We know these people. We love these people. Now we're moving out of town and we're never going to know what happens to them all in the future. It's heartbreaking. Yes, it's a television show, but our emotions were invested in this show in a why I haven't been before.

February 10 2011 at 2:01 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

I watched three straight episodes last night. I should have dragged it out to savor it more. I weeped. I kind of wish Landry and Tyra would have reconnected but I did like the closure between Tyra and Riggins.

February 10 2011 at 10:18 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

The FNL ending left me fulfilled unlike many show finales that leave me with an empty feeling.

The State game sequence was done to perfection. Coach Taylor in the locker room with Vince was a classic FNL moment.

This show will be missed like few others. I am so glad I was bored one Saturday afternoon 4 1/2 years ago and decided to download the free "pilot" episode online.

February 10 2011 at 8:37 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

Coach's line to Tami (mentioned above) was my favorite, possibly ever. "Will you take me to Philadelphia with you, please?" Great ending, great show. I can't top it with a few silly comments. FNL will be missed.

February 10 2011 at 8:17 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
Mark William Hedrick

Under the football as a metaphor category,
it's fitting that the season and the Taylors' tenure
in Dillon ends. Regardless of how beautiful, painful,
or profoundly meaningful you high school experience
might be, it inevitably ends. For most people, we
look back on our high school days with melancholy
and missing that station in life - especially those of
us who were fortunate enough to have played team
sports with quality people. FNL developed quality
characters who were good people --- and like
high school, there will be a lot of us who will
go on to remember it fondly with a low-grade visceral ache
for a long time.

February 10 2011 at 5:39 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

The end of a truly great piece of TV. It took some convincing a few years ago for me, an Australian, to watch a show that seemed to be about American football and I am so glad I did. One of the few that was brave enough to show not only people, but America as it is - flawed and good and trying hard even when times are tough. A show that reminded us that TV is a visual medium, where you don't always need words, and that emotion driven by great acting can make a look as resonant as the most eloquent speech. A show that stuck to no formula, did things differently, and managed to survive. Will be long remembered.

February 10 2011 at 4:50 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

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