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Friday Night Lights: Zach Gilford, Most Valuable Player

Usually we fill this spot with a wordy mixture of jokes and admiration for the latest episode of Friday Night Lights. Y’know, stuff along the lines of “who’s taking advantage of Landry now?” and “Tim Riggins took his shirt off again? Whoever could have predicted that!” But this week is different. Because this week’s episode was owned — owned — by the titanic performance of Zach Gilford as an angry, confused, and grieving Matt Saracen. To pay attention to anything else would be downright disrespectful.

It was at the very end of the previous episode when news hit Dillon that Matt’s father, an ornery, absent SOB named Henry, was killed by an IED during his fourth tour in Iraq. This week we witnessed the fallout, and while credit is owed to the delicate teleplay (by Rolin Jones), the heavy lifting for this emotional hour fell to Gilford. And if you were shocked at the way he delivered then you probably aren’t alone: For over three seasons, his quiet consistency has been underappreciated on a show that itself has pretty much rewritten the definition of “underappreciated.” Matt Saracen isn’t the pretty-boy superstar bound for the NFL, nor is he the brash trash-talking RB from the wrong side of the tracks. Heck, he’s not even a funny-looking dude with a Christian rock band and a thing for willowy blondes. He’s simply a good guy, a dependable if slightly mumbly rock of politeness and good intentions. From the character’s beginnings as an in-over-his-head backup QB through his sweetly awkward courtship of Julie Taylor, his championship season, and his current situation as pizza deliveryboy with dreams of being a capital-A artist, Gilford has embodied Matt so effortlessly that it’s hard to believe that there’s any capital-A acting going on at all.

Except, of course, there is. Just check out his performance in the excellent indie-drama Dare (in a few theaters now) to see that there’s more to Gilford than a thick-tongued drawl and calling people “Sir”: He’s actually a versatile, kinda studly guy from Chicago. As played by Gilford, Matt has always been tightly wound to the point of snapping (all that do-gooding and responsibility-shouldering has to lead to something). Julie and Landry seem to sense it when they show up at Chez Saracen to cheer Matt up with “bad movie night” only to find him looping a stilted Christmas video from his father on his laptop. Watch the way Julie and Landry are more comfortable joking with each other than they are in engaging with their friend — anyone who has ever tried to comfort the bereaved will recognize the honesty in this small moment. Ditto Gilford’s pale-faced intensity at the wake the following day: One minute he’s unable to get up out of his chair and the next he’s berating a poor soldier who made the mistake of remembering mean, old Henry Saracen as a “practical joker.” Matt can’t accept the idea that others might have gotten a chance to know the man that he will never see again — and never liked much in the first place.

Julie tries and fails to draw anything out of Matt; he just winds up making her cry. Tami, too, steps in nobly — just devastating the opportunistic funeral-home director in the same way we mere mortals might flick away a mosquito — but even she can’t break through the brick wall of tensed muscles and locked-down emotions that No. 7 has built around himself. Even the fellas give it a go: The Riggins boys and Landry take Matt out to the field for one of their patented beerfests under the floodlights. But not even horsing around and being called “Cobra” by tiny Billy Riggins works. Matt admits he hated his father and wants nothing to do with the eulogy he’s due to deliver to 100 strangers the very next day. The worst part of it? He’s not even sure if that’s his father at all in the wooden box. And so Tim Riggins — problem solver, beauty-pageant aficionado (more on that later) — suggests the obvious: It's time to drunkenly break into the funeral home and check for themselves.

Let’s pause here and just admire the Acting (capital A!) in the following scene as Matt forces the squirrely Funeral Home Guy to open the casket. Gilford was given a (presumably) empty coffin and God knows what direction. He has the muscle memory of playing this character a certain way for long enough that it must be like a second skin. And then the director (the deft Allison Liddi Brown) lines up the shot and says “Action,” and then ... how does this happen? How are there no words and yet we instantly know what Matt is seeing: something horrible and searing that he will never unsee. And at the same time, that this was the right thing for him to do. That he has confronted something and learned something, but also changed forever? We see a character that we have grown to love melt away in front of our eyes. Remarkable.

And then this new, shattered Matt shows up hours late for dinner at the Taylors: twitching, choking back tears, rearranging his sad plate of carrots and meat. “I don’t like being rude,” he stammers, sounding like anyone who has ever tried (and failed) to control a messy wave of emotions. And then, finally, he breaks: “I don’t think I’m okay,” he sobs. “I hate him.” The really impressive part isn’t just how gut-punching this scene is, it’s what happens next: After Matt runs from the house, Tami holds Julie back. And it’s Coach who chases after his surrogate son and makes it all better. But not by talking — because, God, everyone’s been doing enough of that to Matt from the minute the episode started, telling him how “important” his father supposedly was and other empty platitudes — but simply by offering to walk home with him. Rare is the television show that allows emotional moments room to breathe.

Finally: the funeral. Lyla is there, which is nice to see because her appearance feels real and unforced. She and Tim share a look, but this isn’t about them. It’s about Matt who, as always, rises to the occasion, telling a sweet, if small, story about a moment in the supermarket years ago, back when his family was intact. Matt is QB2 again here: on mop-up duty, taking his lumps so that everyone else might shine. But afterward, once everyone but Julie has left, Matt is once again the grown-up. Only this time he’s not play-acting. He’s actually become an adult. He takes off his jacket, rolls up his sleeve, and gets to work. Without complaint and without tears, he takes a shovel from a groundskeeper and buries his father.

Bravo to a small masterpiece of an episode and a performance that was something altogether greater. As we dab at our still-leaking eyes, some stray observations on the non-Matt moments:

• East Dillon finally puts some points on the board thanks to the use of the unpredictable Wildcat formation. Clearly the team’s new offensive coordinator is Eli Cash.

• Having Landry say a prayer for Matt is nice and all, Coach, but are you seriously back to calling him “Lance”? How can you go from knowing someone to unknowing them in the span of three weeks?!?

• All beauty pageants should be held in shopping malls with harried bargain-hunters climbing stairs behind the stage. Also: more xylophone solos!

• Everybody catch Brian “Smash” Williams tearing it up on Coach’s TV?

• “JD McDick”! Yes!

• But seriously: JD McDick. At this point, to call him a villain drawn in broad strokes is an insult to broad strokes. Paintballing pedestrians? Loving Johnny Unitas? Does he also keep his swimming pool full of sharks with frickin’ laser beams attached to them?

• Did you know that tips for hot-wiring SUVs can also serve as inspirational advice to 9-year-olds? Thanks, Vince!

• Is it just us, or is sad, windswept, third-place Becky the first character ever to be carded on a show with such a long, proud history of underage drinking?

• “What’s that, Taylor? No, no. It’s cool. Button that back up. We don’t need you shirtless this week. Lauria’s got it. Who’s Lauria? The new kid! You know: 27 but playing 16? Looks equally good baling hay and with oversized welts on his pecs? No? Don’t worry about it, Taylor. We’ll have you back to showering off a hang-over or Greco-Roman wrestling next week.”

More Recaps:
Alan Sepinwall, like us, has nothing but raves for Zach Gilford's performance.
At TV Squad Allison Waldman demands an Emmy!

Related: The Runner-Up: Friday Night Lights’ Zach Gilford would like to be first choice. Just once. [NYM]

Photo: Courtesy of DirecTV