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Friday Night Lights: The White Flag of Survival

Editor’s note: DirecTV is airing season four of Friday Night Lights now, in advance of NBC.

Last week’s shocking conclusion — Coach forfeits his first game at East Dillon owing to the overwhelming carnage inflicted on his players — has an immediate and equally shocking affect on this week’s episode: the heartbreaking image of Mrs. Coach, up before dawn, carefully removing a forest of white surrender flags from the front yard. A killer scene: Not only does it reinforce the depth of love between the Taylors, but it also allows us to see saintly Coach Eric Taylor in a new, less flattering light.

Last week we understood the forfeit as a typically selfless act, done only for the well-being of the kids. Now we see how the town — and indeed, the players — saw it: Just another well-off dude giving up on the poor part of town. So no wonder Julie and Matt — sharing a tender, if unlikely, predawn canoodle at the kitchen counter (seriously, who graduates from high school and still wakes up before noon?) — get a full blast of Grumpy Morning Coach. (“I’ll get my own damn paper!”) Who can blame him? This is not a man used to forfeiting his own morning paper, we mean football game.

On we go to another bleak morning at East Dillon High! “It’s a high school, Mom, not a prison yard,” says Julie about her first day on the wrong side of the tracks. But the grim images suggest otherwise. Seriously: It looks like grainy outtakes from High School Musical: Leavenworth. The white surrender flags are everywhere here, too: from new phenom Vince’s locker to the locker room itself, where the team has gone AWOL. Even Landry (Landry!) is upset, walking away from Coach’s entreaty for help in the middle of the cafeteria. But Landry, you might say, you were bleeding! From the mouth! Kids in East Dillon can be so headstrong! (Except when they are being tackled by better high-school football players — then they bleed from their heads.)

Anyway, Landry is probably just being cranky because he ran over New Love Interest’s bike. Oops, we mean “Jess Merriweather.” Anyway, she is cute and spunky, which is a good match for Landry. Also, she is African-American and castigates Landry for the big car his father bought him and etc. Landry is intrigued, as are we: The show seems to be using East Dillon as an opportunity to explore issues of race and class that lesser shows would shy away from.

The introduction of Jess also allows the show to finally tackle the one thing more important in Texas than football: barbecue. And Ray’s BBQ — the paper-plate ribs joint run by Jess’s Stern But Loving Father™ — seems to be a sterling representative of the craft. Landry shows up there not only for a lunch of burnt ends, but also to pay Jess some money for her ruined bike. And to take out the trash. Love!

But what of Matt Saracen, Pizza Delivery Boy? He’s enrolled now at the local art college. It’s so backward they sketch half-nude models, but the teacher has hooked him up with a prized internship with a local big-deal artist. Matt, ever earnest, shows up for his first day in a suit. But Howard Finster the big-deal artist greets him in grease-stained tightie-whities (the better to see the back-sized tiger tattoo) and tells him to start moving pieces of scrap metal around. Don’t you get it, Matt? Art isn’t about delivering pizzas and hard work. Art is weird! “I wear shoes,” Matt mumbles as he follows beatnik Mr. Miyagi inside. DESTINATION SQUARESVILLE. POPULATION: YOU.

But as usual, the heartbeat of the show lies with Coach. And we gotta tell you, things are looking bleak. Until Sad Buddy Garrity (this week moonlighting as Crafty Buddy Garrity) shows up and takes his old pal for a ride to an abandoned lot with a mailbox on it. The reason? This is the made-up address of Dillon Panther star running back, Luke Cafferty. Luke should be at East Dillon! Crafty Buddy Garrity, you did it again!

Or did you? Because Big-Chinned Joe McCoy and the rest of the Jerk Patrol are pretty steamed when Principal Tami tells them about her husband’s discovery. They get all skeevy and aggressive and imply that (a) they will make her pay for this if she goes through with it, and (b) maybe her husband knew about this mailbox before? And that old state titles might be in jeopardy if she goes public — state titles like the one we all enjoyed so much in season one. Quandary! Tami comes home and confronts Eric and they fight. But God, they are so good together. They should win the Emmy for Best Fight Scene by a Loving Couple every year.

Because Tami is as saintly as her husband, she goes ahead with it all, publicly humiliating the Jerk Patrol and then telling handsome Luke Cafferty that he has to pack up his things. The scene that follows, in the rain, is one of the best in recent memory. Matt Lauria, the new regular playing Luke, makes a phenomenal first impression, transforming from denial to panic to sadness to acceptance in an utterly believable way. Another thing this show is so good at: letting kids be kids. Scared. Emotional. Weirdly polite. So: Luke packs up his things.

But Coach still has no team! After striking out with Landry (Landry!) he tracks down Vince, but instead has a disturbing interaction with Vince’s hollow-eyed mother who wants nothing to do with her son’s life (but does want twenty bucks). Conflicted and desperate, Coach gives her the money. And, of course, Vince sees this. And fumes. This, you see, is the old Dillon way. With the boosters and the kickbacks and the JumboTron and the mailboxes in vacant lots. East Dillon can’t afford this sort of fuzzy morality, and good for the show for making this so plain.

Later that night, Coach has a surreal, David Lynch–ian encounter with a crazy person at a gas station. Oh, wait! That’s not a real crazy person. That’s famed Texas Tech football coach Mike Leach! But he looks crazy! Especially when he tells Eric to “get his pirate on.” Is that even legal in Texas? But it gives Eric an idea nonetheless. He asks Vince to gather the team for a nighttime practice on the field. Vince throws his money back in his face and leaves.

Coach is low now — maybe even near tears? But a savior approaches. It’s Tim Riggins! Tim critiques the East Dillon uniform (“it’s pretty red”) and then volunteers to help. GOOSEBUMPS.

The night of the practice, only the coaches and Luke Cafferty stand on the field. But then the team, led by Vince, shows up! Coach lights a bonfire and apologizes for not letting his players “finish that fight.” He says he wants to finish the fight with them. And then he encourages them to burn their uniforms. They all do! GOOSEBUMPS times two!

So now we’ve got the band team back together! They just need some new uniforms. And (we’re guessing) a new name. Bravo.

So: Are you impressed by Vince’s jaw muscles? Are you upset that we still haven’t mentioned New Girl Who Sings, the one that’s letting Tim Riggins live in her backyard? What about Tami’s rough road ahead after being booed at a pep rally?

Tater us! (Is that catching on yet?)

More Recaps: At EW.com Ken Tucker is loving the new characters, scratching his head over the chronology.
Alan Sepinwall agrees that the show isn't afraid to tackle issues of race and class
At at the AV Club, Keith Phipps was also struck by actor Matt Lauria's introduction as Luke Cafferty.

Photo: Bill Records/DIRECTV/NBC Universal