Before we wax rapturous about the intense goings-on in this penultimate episode of the fourth season of
The Wire: West Texas Friday Night Lights, we thought we’d share an Instant Message we received yesterday from a fellow diehard Lions fan: “Can we talk about what a completely depressing, agonizing, joyless season this is?!?” she wrote, before adding a frowny emoticon. Yikes, friend! And yet we share her suffering: unlike, well, just about any show we can think of aside from David Simon’s HBO masterpiece, Friday Night Lights this season has flexed its improved storytelling chops, its broader social milieu and impressive new cast members to tell stories that are bleaker and more heart-wrenching than ever before. It was never Mayberry, but life in East Dillon is competely stripped of any Hollywoodian happy endings or gloss. And we love it! But sometimes, like with this week’s episode “Laboring,” this love can be a very painful thing indeed.
Yes, this week was a rough one, kiddos, as torn up and messy as the East Dillon field after a fleet of Panther-driven trucks are done doing donuts on it. You’ll have to forgive us if we’re a bit all over the place: we blame the tension caused by walking all of the season’s various plot lines right up to the brink. Also blame the complicated relationship we few, proud FNL fans have with our favorite show: the reason we love it is because of its unflinching honesty and respect for the truth of its characters. And yet because we love it so much we hide our eyes when terrible things happen and we wish desperately for happy endings — even though they would nullify what attracted us to the program in the first place. And so we take our lumps along with the Taylors, Vince, and especially Tim Riggins this week. In many ways we the audience are now in the same place as the citizens of East Dillon: hoping against hope for a miracle to occur on the football field in seven days time, just to provide a little spark of light amidst all the darkness.
But before we get too into each of the calamities, let’s take a slightly tongue-in-cheek detour, shall we? Of all the cruelties we witnessed during “Laboring” perhaps the hardest to stomach was the fate of our beloved #33, Tim Riggins. After seeing the hilarious, emotional, Red Bull-fueled, and nearly pants-less birth of his nephew, Stephen (Another Riggins boy! Hide the Shiner Bock!) Tim walks with Becky through his bucolic new property and, for one brief moment, lets his guard down. “I’m happy,” he drawls. “I can honestly say that.” And then of course the smack in the mouth that Tim has been conditioned to expect immediately follows: after giving Billy a night off to “be a dad,” Tim finds his illegal car chopping (and smoking air-guitaring) interrupted by the inevitable arrival of the cops. It’s tough to see how Tim gets out of this one (unless maybe he admits he’s actually a Canadian citizen?). Seeing the horror and the hurt and the humiliation in his eyes as Billy visits him in his holding cell was painful to watch. Poor Tim!
And yet: maybe not? Because we’ve been thinking a lot about this and we believe we’ve stumbled upon a Friday Night Lights theory that surpasses the academic standards set by our previous ULT (Unified Landry Theory). We’ll call it the Piltdown Tim Theory. Because like the (in)famous Piltdown Man and, y’know, humanity, everything in Dillon flows through Tim Riggins. Especially the crap! Let’s think about every bad thing that’s happened this year, shall we?
Thing #1: Tim and Billy run and illegal chop shop.
Verdict? GUILTY. Obvs.
Thing #2: Becky sleeps with Luke and becomes pregnant.
Verdict? GUILTY. It was Tim that practically pushed the two of them together! And it was Tim’s rejection coupled with the Tim-derived revelations about her father that drove a distraught Becky into the Car Wash on that fateful, unprotected night.
Thing #3: Tami advises Becky on her pregnancy “options” thus putting her career in jeopardy.
Verdict? GUILTY. It was Tim’s brilliant idea to bring Becky over to the Taylors’ thereby dumping a whole world of hurt into their well-intentioned lives.
Thing #4: Julie and Matt break-up.
Verdict? GUILTY. Well, maybe not directly. But Tim did take Matt hunting which Julie didn’t like and then helped him break into the funeral home which caused him to confront the reality of his father’s death which in turn led him to skulk away to Chicago in the middle of the night without so much as a goodbye.
Thing #5: Luke becomes addicted to painkillers.
Verdict? GUILTY. Who do you think gave young Luke Dr. Feelgood’s phone number anyhow?
Thing #6: Calvin is shot and killed, potentially leading Vince to a life of crime.
Verdict? GUILTY. Okay, this one is admittedly a little shaky. But without Tim’s help, could Billy have kept the Chop Shop running? Maybe that would have caused Calvin to explore other East Dillon growth industries like Spanish language sports-talk radio or Habitat for Humanity.
Thing #7: Jess wasn’t appreciative of the bike Landry bought her.
Verdict? MISTRIAL. We tried but we really couldn’t hang this one on Tim. Maybe she just prefers Huffys?
To sum up: Tim Riggins may be foxy and he may look good shirtless but this guy is nothing but trouble, people! Those of us complaining about all the tough times this season should be thrilled to see him go. Free of his Machiavellian plotting, East Dillon should basically be like Candyland next year. Except with better barbecue.
Now that we’ve figured that out, let’s move on with some Elsewheres:
• Although Coach continues to call him “Lance” (note to show: we are over this joke!) Landry (Landry!) had some very nice moments this week, proving that the character’s gently comic decency can get along just fine without his straight man (Matt) or his tall girl (Tyra). Aside from the snafu with the bike, Landy managed to make an impression on Jess’s suddenly-existing mother, Bird. (Was Steve Harris unavailable this week? Or did it really take them this long to cast the role?) He also had the brilliant idea to seed the Panthers’ field with toothpicks, for which he was punished by Coach — until he nailed a 40-yard Field Goal the team would run Jingle Jangles. And by “Jingle Jangles” we can only assume Coach meant this and not this.
Landry and Vince also advanced their relationship: Landry’s kindhearted condolences about Calvin led Vince to tell Landry that he was a “good dude” who deserved Jess since she deserves the best. Seeing them bond would have actually been touching if it wasn’t for the fact that Vince’s comments served as a de facto suicide note. Which leads us to:
• Let’s put it out there: Michael B. Jordan is doing phenomenal, skyscraping work as Vince. Some of the best acting on television, we’d say. Behind all the tough-mouthed bluster there’s always been a dash of sweetness to Vince (blame that million dollar smile), an important nuance that would be lost in the hands of a lesser actor. Vince’s struggle this week to balance his loyalty to his dead friend and low self-worth with the flicker of hope that the football team has given him was mesmerizing. His almost methodical acceptance of his lot in life — that he had to avenge Calvin, that he didn’t deserve anything else other than to die on the same streets — was haunting. But Jess (who also impressed us a ton this week) never stopped believing in him. And so Vince, stronger than he thought he was, gets out of Kennard’s car en route to a bloody showdown. Enraged, Kennard lashes out at Vince with everything in his arsenal save for actual bullets: first pistol-whipping him then wounding him far more with words: “Your old man was right about you,” he sneers. “You ain’t nothing but a soft ass little boy.” Vince’s silent scream of shame and impotence was a powerful, powerful moment. But somehow we are allowed something positive: of all the bad stories swirling around the drain of the season, we didn’t expect this one to end as well as it did. (At least for now.)
• But nothing broke us up this week like the Taylors. For four years now their nondescript suburban home has been the safe haven for an increasingly dramatic show. It’s where dinners are eaten together. Where well-earned hugs are occasionally given. Where a glass of white wine can be enjoyed on the couch at the end of a long day fixing other people’s problems. And yet between the stress of the East/West Dillon showdown being moved (unfairly!) to West Dillon and the increasingly tight knot that Tami finds herself in thanks to some fired up Pro Lifers, we finally saw the unpleasantness seep inside this week. Coach is a nervous wreck, smashing the home telephone to smithereens. And Tami is preparing to make a statement that might cost her her career. Even the usually self-involved Julie could tell something was wrong. “Are you guys all right?” she stammers nervously at the sight of her two ashen parents sitting on the couch. And the answer is far from clear.
One week to go, friends. The long offseason looms. So tell us what you’re thinking. Do the Lions have a chance? Is Tami doomed at West Dillon? Will Riggins be sent to the big house? Did Landry take the opportunity to fill Jess’s borrowed iPod with Pedro the Lion b-sides?
See ya’ll next week at the big game.
Alan Sepinwall is equally taken with seeing our most hopeful characters, the Taylors, "at their most hopeless."
At the AV Club, Keith Phipps writes that the show "with no more cruelty than life itself" breaks the hearts of its characters -- and its audience.
Ken Tucker, at EW.com, agrees that the "subtle" Michael B. Jordan, as Vince, really "took command of the hour."