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Friday Night Lights Recap: Hello, Good-bye

When last we saw the East Dillon Lions, they were triumphant. The team of cast-offs, good-for-nothings, and charming fat kids named Tinker had done the impossible and vanquished their (blue) blood rivals, the Dillon Panthers — on the strength of a Landry field goal no less! But life in Texas moves on, something we’re quickly reminded of in the opening shots of Friday Night Lights’ fifth and final season. The trash is getting picked up on a hot August day. The celebrations are done. So are the vacations and the hiatuses (hiati?). Even Slammin’ Sammy is back on the air, “sweating like a whore in church.” Translation: Summer’s over, football fans. It’s time to go to work.

Friday Night Lights, like the East Dillon Lions, is an unlikely success. Scratch that — it’s only successful on a certain metric. (Heck, the Lions — despite their David-like slaying of the West Dillon Goliath — still only finished 2–10.) Ratings-wise, the show is comatose — even its reruns were pulled off the air recently by ABC Family. Only a miracle deal with DirecTV has kept it in production past the troublesome second season. When series linchpins Kyle Chandler and Connie Britton were nominated for lead-actor Emmys this year, they — and the fans — acted like the U.S. at the World Cup: just happy to be there. But if there were awards given out for consistency in presenting thematically intelligent, emotionally rich television, then FNL would need a bigger trophy case (by which we mean they would need a single trophy case). All of this is just to say that the show’s final-season premiere lives up to its high standards and it doesn’t even need a last-minute touchdown pass to a 16-year-old who has literally never heard the word “hike” to do it. Although that does happen.

“Expectations,” as, uh, expected, deals with a number of beginnings. Tami is starting life at East Dillon and struggling to readjust to life as an underling (a working phone would help). But first and foremost is, of course, the new football season. The Lions are in full-sweat, two-a-day mode preparing for a statewide preseason tournament in which they are paired against the state champions. Despite Buddy Garrity’s fulminating on the radio, Coach isn’t optimistic. Is this because Tinker, one of his most reliable linemen, seems to be on a Fast-Food Diet? No, it’s because he’s finally noticed that his team has only about three recognizable players on it and at least one of them — wholesome hottie Luke — plays on both sides of the ball (not a metaphor!). Thus enters our new co-star, the aforementioned football-averse, “free-spirited” white kid who can jump, Hastings Ruckle (quoth Buddy Garrity: “it’s Welsh”). Hastings (Hastings!) prefers balling on the hardwood (not a metaphor!) and nothing seems to change his mind — certainly not the “rager” new besties Vince and Luke throw for him at the ol’ Cafferty Ranch, which is totally odd because seeing an obese 17-year-old kiss a pig is exactly the sort of thing that would convince us to get into the concussion game. The clincher is, in fact, Jess, who calls our new brooding boy a “coward.” (Maybe he’s just reasonable, Jess! Have you seen these new studies?)

Anyway: football, football, football, the Lions enjoy the first of what will be no doubt many miraculous come-from-behind victories. You know what? We’re fine with that. One, because it raises the stakes for the rest of the season. And two, the gripping reality on Friday Night Lights comes from all the other days in the week — the helmet-free time when life comes rushing in and can’t be blocked (not even by Tinker). A little uplift never hurt anyone.

Speaking of uplift, the most pleasant fresh start in the episode was seeing Vince and Jess at their happy, mature best. Big Mary is off franchising his tiny BBQ shack (whatever you say!), thus leaving Jess in charge of her siblings, including Andre, who is acting up. This leads to a beautifully played scene by Michael B. Jordan — who, let’s be honest, could recite a Tao Lin short story and make it emotionally rich and compelling as long as he clenched his jaw enough — wherein he gives Andre the “you’ve got to step up” with an absent father speech no one ever gave to him. Clearly Steve Harris wasn’t available for the episode and this is another small example of FNL turning a missing-actor lemon into plot-enriching lemonade, a trick also in evidence in the convenient but welcome transition of Becky into Tim’s old bedroom at the Riggins’ manse and, inappropriate Ronnie Lott quotes aside, Billy himself onto the East Dillon coaching staff.

But, perhaps somewhat perversely for a season premiere, the majority of the hour deals with FNL’s bread-and-butter: good-byes. That might seem an odd place to start but, really, FNL has always been about endings. Some happy, some heartbreaking. All inevitable. The hardest of these to witness is Tim Riggins: jailbird. Though he’s somehow been able to retain his trademark leonine locks, it’s clear that prison has changed Tim. He’s unsmiling, solemn. Billy won’t stop visiting him — the guilt he feels daily for his baby brother taking the rap for him has inspired him to become a better man — but Tim can’t offer the absolution his brother so desires. “I’m sorry, Billy, but I’m in prison,” he says. “I don’t think I can be your No. 1 cheerleader at the moment.” While we’re happy to learn that, owing to good behavior, Tim will be a free man in just three months — which should be just about the time he’s done filming Battleship with Rihanna of the series finale — we’re shaken that the show’ most essentially noble, if drunk, character may be forever scarred.

It’s also farewell season for Landry and Julie, two characters that started out at wildly different ages and somehow, thanks to the magic of television, ended up in the same spot. Landry is headed to Rice University, the “Harvard of the South,” which feels right. Despite his kicking heroics, Landry has been a bit adrift on the show since Tyra, his accessory to murder soul mate, left the show after season three. Still, he gets some nice moments here, saying good-bye to Grandma Saracen (who claims to listen to his music on her “MP player” which is actually a blood-pressure gauge) and playing one last gig with Crucifictorious. The show, while successful (though not necessarily successful enough to get Jimmy laid), feels a bit tame for Landry on his last night in Dillon. And so it’s up to Julie to get him drunk and get him a lap dance at the Landing Strip. Julie Taylor, you’re the best!

 And really, you kind of are! No character or actor has grown more over the five-year run of Friday Night Lights than Julie/Aimee Teegarden. She began onenote and shrill but ended up as complicated, appealing, and lived-in as the rest of her fictional family. And nothing brought out the trusty box of Garrity Auto–branded tissues faster than Coach and Tami saying good-bye to their daughter, off to the rest of her life at UT in Austin. The look of quiet sadness on Kyle Chandler’s face as he watches his wife, daughter, and alien baby eating breakfast (“I’m gonna miss this”). Or when he stays up late to dig out the paddles for one last father-daughter game of Ping-Pong. Or Connie Britton’s brilliantly controlled frustration when she can’t keep Julie at the table for cobbler or, really, by her side forever. And the last shot of Julie driving away when Coach grabs his wife and seems utterly overwhelmed for the very first time in what, really, has been an extremely whelming few years for the guy.

Oh, Friday Night Lights. We’ve missed you almost as much as the sales division at Kleenex has! We’re not sure where we’re headed this year — will “the hippie” steal Jess from Vince? Will Vince’s past come back to haunt him? Will Ferret Guy return? Will Landry kill again? — but we trust the behind-the-camera folks to get us there. For the moment, we’re content to just sit here beaming like Grandma Saracen. Now come over here and let us hug your neck!

Photo: Bill Records/NBC/DIRECTV