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Friday Night Lights Season Finale: Kitty Bowl

We’ve come to the end of the road, my friends. As the final episode of this stirring fourth season dawns it’s Thanksgiving in East Dillon. And, presumably, in West Dillon too, although it’s probably a lot fancier over there. But over on our tarnished side of the tracks, Thanksgiving is a time for the traditional “F”s: Food, Football, Friendship, Family, Felonies (and Fallout From Committing Them) and, of course, Freaking Out About Abortion. Nothing says the holidays like Friday Night Lights!

As others have noted, this is a strange sort of finale to process for the FNL faithful: unlike the three previous season-enders, it’s the first to be broadcast without the threat of cancellation looming. So while the first season completed a near-perfect story of a championship year and season two ... well, let’s not talk about season two ... and season three ended by giving us just the right balance of closure and intriguing possibility, this week’s episode left us feeling — okay. Seriously: just okay. Maybe it’s due to this bizarre lack of panic we’re experiencing, this unfamiliar knowledge that at least one more year in East Dillon is guaranteed. Or maybe it’s because — and we hate saying this, we really do — the promise of a truly great season wasn’t fulfilled by its finale.

Gasp! Heresy, we know. But hear us out: on nearly every plot point this week we felt more than a little let down. There’s no shame in saying why: the writers and producers set a ridiculously high bar this year and sticking the landing is always the hardest part of storytelling. So if the “Big Cat Clash” (great name!) ended up more like the a Medium-Sized Kitten Tussle it’s not the end of the world, because there will be another one next year. (Just imagine how frosted JD McCoy’s tips will be then!) And if Jess suddenly ditching Landry because he gave her a mixtape of his own band her undying love for Vince cropped back up at an inconvenient time, well, we’ll spend more time unpacking their connection next year. (Not too sure about Landry, however: he is a senior. Unless the producers attempt to de-age him again.) And if Tami just meekly tossed away her dream job in order to take a massive cut in pay and stature on the other side of town, well, it kind of makes sense since she was repeatedly seen actively cheering for her school’s blood rival on the West Dillon field. Right? Actually, not right. This last one stuck in our craw and we’ll return to it later.

But what of the episode’s real farewells? We’re speaking, of course, about loveable lug Tim Riggins, who as the episode opens is staring balefully at the smoldering wreckage of his future while his brother tries to get their lawyer to say something positive about their prospects. No dice: with a plea-bargain, they’re looking at 1-5 years. In prison. In Texas. Yikes.

The residents of Dillon — mainly the female residents — love nothing more than to make proclamations about Tim’s character directly to his (pretty, Canadian) face: either he’s a “good man” and “not like the rest” or, inevitably, after a canoodle or the rejection of one, he’s “a nobody” and “exactly like the rest.” (This week it was Becky’s turn at the plate for a rousing game of Whackbat with Tim’s emotions. Which seemed kind of unfair considering the billion and one ways he’s helped her over the past few weeks. Also: how did she find out about his arrest and the Taylors didn’t? Is she a CB Radio junkie?) Whenever people pontificate about the nature of Tim Riggins directly to his face, Tim himself tends to blank out, much like he did in this opening scene. The reason? Only Tim knows “what” he is. And our creeping feeling that Tim firmly believes himself to be a nobody that deserves the worst was borne out this episode as he nobly, quietly, predictably, and perhaps stupidly shouldered all of the blame for his brother’s boneheaded Chop Shop.

As frustrating as much of this was to watch, we were moved by the wonderful performances of Taylor Kitsch and especially Derek Phillips as Billy. The connection forged between the two of them — as actors and characters — seems 100 percent genuine. (And it’s a testament to the depth of this cast that a relatively minor character like Billy can be asked to shoulder the emotional heft of a season finale — as he did during his Thanksgiving speech — and he can knock it out of the park. Er, “score a touchdown”?) We even liked the moment where Tim asked Becky to hold onto the snowglobe, saying he’d be “back to get that” when his busy schedule filming John Carter From Mars lets up prison sentence ends. But ultimately the reason why Tim’s unhappy ending worked is because it, sadly, kind of made sense. For a show that’s (rightly) credited for its realism there have been an awfully lot of happy endings recently: Smash got to play Division I ball, Street got his dream job and his family, Tyra got into college and a part in a terrible horror film. Even already privileged Lyla gets to marry Derek Jeter! Tim Riggins has always known that the best days of his life ended in that stadium in Austin last year. “Aren’t you Tim Riggins?” the cops asked him a week ago. “I used to be,” he mumbled. Not everyone gets the ending we want for them. Not everyone gets to escape.

But it’s not like it’s all sunshine and roses and deep-dish pizza for those that do manage to get out of Dillon, a lesson we learned this week with the return of stumbling, mumbling, communication-averse Chicagoan Matt Saracen. Don’t get us wrong: we were thrilled to see him! His reveal behind Grandma was a true shock and Aimee Teegarden played it to perfection. Yet it seemed like his time in the Windy City hasn’t exactly improved his nervous banter: “The area I live in is called Greektown. There’s a lot of, uh, Greek people.” Also? Maybe stop talking for awhile! We mentioned a few weeks back that it is kind of ballsy to suggest that in order to actually get out of Dillon our beloved QB2 had to act a bit like a selfish dick — and that’s on display here. Not only is he sort of assuming that Julie is fascinated by his firsthand knowledge of all the good Hand Painting Studios in Ukrainian Village, he went ahead and bought her a plane ticket! As Landry asks him later in the episode (before slamming the door in his face), is Matt even familiar with texting? (To which we’d add: what about Facebook? Twitter? How about chatroulette.com for god’s sake!)

Anyway, despite a 1-800-THE-BEST scene with Julie and Alien Baby Grace at the Thanksgiving kids table (and a touching return visit to the spot where Matt “deflowered” Coach’s little girl), this really was the end of the road for Matt Saracen. And if it felt a little stilted — what with all the breaking up and all — it’s because our goodbye to Matt on Matt’s terms happened weeks ago. This was a goodbye on Julie’s terms. His future is set: Christmas in Chicag-bro with Landry! They’ll go windbro shopping on the Miracle Mile! Maybe paint each other’s hands! Julie’s future remains cloudy — and will have to be settled when the show returns in the fall.

So, yes, the football game. Sorry to say it: we were also a little let down here. Maybe it was the fact that every single possession ended in an easy touchdown. Maybe it was the fact that we barely saw JD or his jerk dad — thus dampening our excitement at seeing them beaten. Maybe it was the fact that Coach suddenly let a seriously injured Luke play, seemingly for the sole reason of winning the game. Maybe it was the fact that the Lions didn’t have a Quarterback until week five and suddenly were able to hold their own in a close game against a powerhouse like the Panthers. But really it was because we knew the Lions were going to win. As we said last week: too much has gone wrong this season off the field. A miracle on it was necessary. Also once Landry started practicing that “impossible” 40 yard field goal, we knew. (As did you, wise commenters!) Don’t get us wrong: we were plenty happy about it! But surprised? No.

Which leaves us with what was the most suspenseful moment in a show about sports: Tami’s press conference. The crowd ready for blood. The schoolboard ready for closure. Coach ready for ... what, exactly? Grandma Saracen’s leek-and-onion casserole? Honestly, he’s been a little blank during this whole abortion saga. Is he secretly a Tim Tebow fan? Anyway, Tami — looking resplendent in her power suit — goes off book and refuses to deliver the apology that’s been scripted for her. This was, in many ways, more satisfying than Landry’s thunderkick. Ha ha, Luke’s Mom! No fatted calf for you!

But then the next part in Tami’s story happens, and we’re not nearly as pleased. Look, we predicted in this very space that all of this abortion tsuris was a chessboard clearing move to get Tami over to East Dillon where she belongs. (And sorry to harp on it, but the real firing offense here wasn’t the advice she gave Becky — who doesn’t even go to her school — it’s the fact that she is the principal of a football powerhouse in Texas and she is openly cheering for her school’s blood rival! This is insanity!) We get it. Tami needs to be united with the rest of the cast. But this was a pretty clumsy way of doing it: silencing her lawyer and accepting what must be a massive pay cut to be a guidance counselor at an underfunded school on the other side of town. But beyond that, why would the supervisor let her do this? She just defied them! She got in trouble for giving advice and that’s what guidance counselors do! Are we supposed to believe that everyone in East Dillon is pro-choice? What about the fact that Luke goes to East Dillon. We guess this sets up some fun tension next year but it was all a little too pat for our tastes. Plus: ornery principal Levi had better start looking over his shoulder!

Okay, enough with the complaints. We nitpick because we love. Besides, despite the slightly sour taste lingering in our mouth, there was still plenty to enjoy in this episode, moments that will keep us company during the long drought ahead: Vince sharing pecan pie with his mom and Jess, Buddy travelling with his own turkey, Tinker scoring a TD, Alien Baby Grace licking an ear of corn, the Taylors inviting every day-player except Santiago to Thanksgiving dinner. And let’s not forget: beat for beat, this was easily the best season of Friday Night Lights since the first and one of the most compelling, complete seasons of any program anywhere in the last few years. FNL enters it’s fifth (and last?!?) season in the midst of a truly impressive creative resurgence. We love the new characters. We support the new team. We can’t wait to see what comes next.

And with that, we close the books on season four. A hearty thanks and tip of the cap to all you readers and commenters: obviously you all have impeccable taste in television and your insights have improved these recaps immeasurably. Enjoy your offseason, Lions fans. Take comfort in your Crucifictorious CDs, your snowglobes. Go build some houses. Go to the car wash. Paint a hand. And remember: no matter how much fun you have at karaoke, never, never mouthrape your boss.

And with that, this is Slammin Sammy Vulture, signing off!

More Recaps:
Like us, Alan Sepinwall "admires the ambition" of this "noticeably flawed" season.
Keith Phipps at AV Club was really rooting for Landry's field goal attempt to make it through the uprights.
Watching Coach Taylor outfox the Panthers reminded TV Squad's Allison Waldman of last weekend's Super Bowl.

Photo: Bill Records/DirectTV