Series Finale — Friday Night Lights, “Always”

One LAST TIME, this is the review I wrote during FNL‘s DirecTV run.

I will be completely honest with you, I’ve avoided reviewing the last handful of episodes of Friday Night Lights because it’s just been too damn hard to let go. From “Fracture” onward, I’ve basically been left in a heaping ball of my own tears by the time each episode has ended. I had so many things to say about those episodes but actually putting them down made it more real that this beautiful, wonderful ride was about to come to an end and I just couldn’t deal with that. I tried to make up for it yesterday by posting some thoughts on my top 25 episodes of the series before “Always” aired, but even that was difficult to finish because there are so many other episodes, even in that rough second season that I just adore.

I haven’t been watching television like I do for that long, but I’ve experienced my fair share of final seasons and series finales and FNL has impacted me the most in both cases. I know that this final season didn’t have as much to accomplish as say the final season of Lost or the final season of Battlestar Galactica, but that shouldn’t take away from the fact that season five of this series is one of the best final seasons ever, capped off by the most satisfying series finale I have ever seen in my young life. I never had a doubt that “Always” would be a fantastic episode, but somehow this is an episode that meet and then surpassed every single one of my expectations I had going in. I watched this episode early this afternoon and basically could not function from then on — thankfully no one came to my office hours — and I just watched the last 20 minutes again before finally deciding to bite the bullet and rambling on here about how much I love this series and how much I will miss it forever.

Friday Night Lights has been about a lot of things over the years, football, small-town politics, love, family, economics, and a dozen other things. But for me, this is a series that’s always been about community and not just in the broadest sense, but this specific community of Dillon, Texas and what it’s like to love it, leave it and maybe return again someday when you recognize that things weren’t half bad inside the city limits of Dillon. So much of this series has been about people trying to figure out how the hell they’ll get out of Dillon as if it’s a suffocating and repressive place to be (it probably is in a lot of ways). In the early seasons, Julie, Tyra, Lyla, Jason, Landry, Smash, Matt, they all had dreams to be elsewhere. And for the most part, those people have gotten their wish, they’ve moved on to presumably bigger and better things.

But this season, it’s been about not Dillon the physical space, but the Dillon in your heart and what it truly means to be apart of a community and a family that will always have your back no matter where you go and what you do in life. Lyla figured it out last year when she returned from break and Julie and Tyra seemed to experience the same sort of phenomenon when they returned at various points this season. We didn’t see much of Street and Landry or any of Smash, but there’s still a sense that even when they’re gone, Dillon never, ever forgets them and they’re most certainly not forgetting Dillon. This is a place that burrows deep into your soul and no matter how much you might hate it when you’re the football coach’s daughter or when a dweeb who basically joins the football team to impress a girl way outside of your league, Dillon is home for all these people.

And throughout its running time, “Always” either explicitly reminds us and characters of this fact or implicitly shows it through various events and circumstances. People like Landry, Tyra, Matt and Julie might live elsewhere and plan to do so for the majority of their life, but they’re still home for holiday breaks and to support Coach Taylor and the Lions. Dillon and its people have changed their lives, presumably for the better. Tyra’s prospective goals to be a “Mrs. T only bigger” would have never happened if Tami didn’t take an interest in her. Landry and Matt wouldn’t be as confident in their own skin without the tough nurturing of Coach Taylor and without he ever taking the job with the Panthers in the first place, Julie never meets her future husband in one Matthew Saracen. You can leave Dillon, but Dillon never, ever leaves you.

This applies just the same to Coach and Tami. Their relationship has been taken to the brink this season with the struggle over whether or not Coach would allow Tami’s professional goals become the primary driver of their personal interests and with Matt’s out-0f-the-blue (and super Saracen-esque in front of the Alamo Freeze) proposal to their daughter, the Taylors see themselves in Matt and Julie, even if they don’t want to admit it. Coach is furious with Matt’s assertion that he’ll marry Julie no matter what Coach thinks and tries to give them the big speech about trust, compromise, etc., which only makes both he and Tami recognize that something isn’t right in their relationship no matter how much they want to present themselves as together to their daughter and future son-in-law.

Since Tami’s been given this offer, Coach has spoken a lot about Dillon being their “home” and how they’re a “Dillon family” and whatnot, but he slowly begins to realize that he’s had one hell of a ride in Dillon, but if it’s time to go, it’s time go. They can be in Philadelphia and still fondly remember the time spent in Dillon, Coach can be a Texan and still leave on the east coast. And though this wasn’t the town’s intention, being in Dillon has taught Coach that there’s nothing certain in this world and you have to stick by the people you hold dearest. With Julie set on her path and Coach’s unbelievable experience with the Lions, he’s got nothing else to do in Dillon. He’s a legend, he’s made a connection with the town and its people that no one can ever take away from him, and in the end, he recognizes that it is in fact Tami’s turn.

It’s an obvious statement, but let me just say it anyway: Kyle Chandler and Connie Britton are fantastic in this episode and they’ve been so throughout this mini-arc to end the season. We at home knew that Coach would eventually see the error in his bull-headed ways and make the right call to leave Dillon so that Tami can have her time, but the last three or four episodes pulled every last bit of tension and struggle out of it that they almost had me going the other way. This season hasn’t been afraid to make Coach look like kind of an ass at home — with this plot and the drama with Julie — while he’s found himself professionally and that’s a massive testament to both the writers and Chandler. I think season five is most certainly his best work on the series ever, and that’s obviously saying a lot. And what else can be said about Britton? Tami’s been heartbroken for a few weeks now and even though she doesn’t fully agree with their decision, the scene where she slowly warms up to the idea that her daughter is going to marry Matt Saracen is just beautiful.

I’ve made it 1300 words in without talking about the Lions and the new kids and that’s not particularly intentional, it’s just that there is so much to discuss about this episode that I didn’t know where to start or how to structure it. In any event, for people like Vince, Jess, Tinker and Luke, this championship game is their last chance to feel apart of their little rag-tag band of Lions who took the community by storm and literally willed them to support the team. Vince and Tinker end up playing for the super team while Jess moves down to Dallas with her father and Luke joins the military, but no one can ever, ever take this season and this experience away from them. This experience is certainly inherently Dillon, but the Lions have been their own little subculture throughout their two-year run and so while they might not have the same initial connection to the town at-large, I have to imagine that Luke, Jess and Vince never let Dillon out of their hearts. And despite all their struggles both internal and external, these kids are better off for being Lions and even better off for spending some time in Dillon.

And finally, for the man who, since the beginning, has never wanted to leave Texas, “Always” sees Tim Riggins follow that promise home. Throughout all his ups and downs, from the drug-dealing ferret lover, to his relationship with Lyla to prison, Tim has stayed true to himself as an honest, wandering kind of dude just looking for a place to call home. Little did he realize until he got out of prison that it doesn’t really matter where he lays his head night, if he’s in Dillon, he’s home. Really, Tim Riggins is Dillon, Texas: He’s rough around the edges, but heartfelt and emotional in the center. He’s often a giant mess in the macro sense, but he’s always ready to do the right thing for the people he cares about. Dillon might be a hostile place to be if you’re involved in the football culture, but the town itself is so unique in its sense of community and togetherness, even in the most difficult of times. So in the end, while everyone else decides to keep Dillon in their hearts, Tim does what he does best: Finds a new place to live inside Dillon’s limits, this time by building a house on all that land he purchased.

As Billy says to him during construction, “Texas forever.” Texas forever, and Dillon always, Billy. Life goes on, people move away, but nothing can take from the experiences these people have had in this town over the past five years and even before we joined them. It’s been a beautiful, emotionally-wrenching and fully satisfying ride for five years Friday Night Lights. You will be forever missed.

A few random thoughts:

  • Both the state championship and the final montage were fantastically well-done. The game montage was probably the best of its kind throughout the series and the flash forward finale struck a great balance between providing some answers and letting the world continue onward. Similarly, the music played a big part in the success of those sequences. It was great all episode.
  • Landry only had one scene here in a conversation with Matt, but it was fantastic. Though I have fully enjoyed this season without the two of them hanging out together, the conversations in either one’s yard/driveway make up the backbone of this series.
  • The season and this episode did a beautiful job of circling back around to moments, scenes and threads that we cared about from earlier seasons as to show the real development. Tyra and Tim’s relationship is a great example of this, as is Julie’s line to her parents that they are her “inspiration” to get things right with Matt after we remember the nonsense she was selling in season two about not becoming Eric and Tami.
  • I really do adore the original characters, but thanks to great writing and really tremendous work from Michael B. Jordan, Vince is right up there with Matt and Riggins in terms of the younger characters. The scene right before the game where Coach tells Vince that he’ll never know how proud he is was the exact moment where I knew I was going to cry right up until the end. Vince’s domination of the story probably led to some short-changing of characters like Hastings or even Jess, but ultimately it was worth it to see Vince Howard become a confident, respectful young man instead of the immature, confused boy he was when we met him running down the street from the police in “East of Dillon.”
  • Though I just mentioned she got short-changed a bit, Jess’ scenes with Coach were great all season and helped fill in a lot of the blanks that we didn’t really get in the actual story. The way the two of them exchanged knowing looks on a regular basis made it work.
  • Stacey Oristano and Derek Phillips have been the unsung heroes of this season and that only continued in this episode when Becky revealed that she was going back to live with her mother. Oristano was particularly great in the scene where she and Billy drop Becky off in the same location that they swooped in and saved her not too long ago. Mindy and Becky are closer than Mindy and Tyra ever were and I’m not sure Mindy ever wants to let go of that. That relationship also hammered home the idea that everyone in Dillon is family.
  • I could seriously go on forever talking about this series and I just might since I’m considering writing about it for my master’s thesis, but I’ll close by ranking the seasons since that seems to be the hot thing to do: 1,5,3,4 and 2. Of course, those first four are thisclose together.
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