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Friday Night Lights Recap: Kingmaker

We’ve said it before and it bears repeating: Friday Night Lights is the best show about adults on television. Admittedly, this may seem like an outlandish claim for a series focused on the trials, tribulations, and touchdowns of high schoolers. But the complicated lives of Jess and Becky et al only resonate because of their interactions with the equally complicated lives of Coach, Tami, and the rest of the legal drinkers in Dillon (a caveat we have to make because, jeez! Doesn’t anybody card in that part of Texas?!?). “Swerve,” this final season’s second outstanding episode in a row, was ostensibly about the suddenly complicated predicaments of Vince (evil Kenard is back and wants his money — or else), Luke (without a scholarship from TMU he’s facing a life of baling hay and chugging beers), and Julie (who takes out her shame and frustration about being called a slut on her poor, innocent hatchback). But it was elevated by the unpolished reactions and fumbling attempts to help made by the grown-ups on the show. Rare is the program that allows fathers (and father figures — and mother figures, too) to be as sloppy, confused, and occasionally flat out wrong as they are in real life.

But we begin in a place of relative happiness and calm — or, as they call it in Texas, “church.” Vince and his dad pray together merrily while, across town, Tami is happy to be singing psalms with Julie again and Buddy Jr. snores piously in a back pew. Even Alien Baby Gracie seems content! (Actually she was generally cute and content throughout this episode — the calm before the storm?) Afterward, Jess’s Aunt Bird (just how long can Steve Harris be away on his fact-finding barbecue field trip before it gets suspicious?) invites the reconstituted Howard family over for Friday-night dinner, while Buddy Jr. and Julie meet cute — and by “meet cute” we mean “ew, gross, shut up, Dad!” Hasn’t Buddy Jr. made it clear that he prefers MILFs?

Anyway, over on the non-observant side of town, the Rigginses and Becky watch football just like a normal family made up of a Napoleonic auto mechanic/football coach, his stripper wife, and the high schooler they’ve adopted. Billy fields a staticky phone call from Tim — apparently there’s bad service on set in Hawaii in prison — and we hear Billy say that he’s been making payments on Tim’s dream ranch so it’ll be waiting for him when he gets out, which is nice. Look, obviously this was included to keep Tim alive in our hearts (LIKE HE COULD EVER BE ANYWHERE ELSE) when he can’t be alive on the show owing to ludicrous-movie commitments, but Billy’s reactions — and the way he wouldn’t let Becky get on the phone — just made it seem sketchy, like Billy was faking the whole thing. In the first episode, Becky was visiting her age-inappropriate beau weekly — now she can’t even say hi? We guess it’s true what they say: You can’t adapt a popular board game from the sixties into a ridiculous motion picture without breaking a few eggs aircraft carriers hearts.

Now onto the trauma, in ascending order of severity. First up: Luke Cafferty. Last week, Vince let it slip to Luke’s nighttime alter ego, Drunk Luke, that he, Vince, was TMU’s real target, not his pal. Of course, at the time all Drunk Luke wanted to do was to jump into a fire and brand himself with a coat hanger (not, as Coach mistakenly believes, a salad fork). But now that Drunk Luke has receded into the nighttime shadows, Luke has processed the gravity of this: He storms into Coach’s office — or should we call him what a national high school sports magazine (such a thing exists? in 2010?) calls him, Kingmaker — and demands to know the truth. In a well-played scene, Coach admits it and apologizes: “I should have been watching out for you better.” Luke is distraught, stumbling through practice and throwing a major hissy with his best buds. Finally, Drunk Luke reemerges to get stuff done. Namely, receiving a psychological boost from noted motivational speaker Billy Riggins.

Billy isn’t anyone’s idea of a perfect role model. In fact, his advice to Luke seems downright screwy: Together, the two of them continue to drink, hit coals like golf balls, and deliver primal yawps and angry voice-mail messages to TMU coaches from atop the toilet that sits in the Riggins’s backyard (?). Billy’s ultimate message to his staggering pupil? To reconnect with his love for the sport, something Still Slightly Drunk Luke manages the next night in the (mercifully) unseen game. Another victory and another life turned around, this one by the redemption-seeking Billy Riggins who, along with his casual-sex-encouraging wife, represents a different sort of parental figure, one caught between the generations and, thank goodness, decidedly less saintly. And it works, even when Billy takes his new charge under his wing, quite literally. “Coach, you smell, man,” Not Yet Drunk Again Luke squawks. Quoth Billy: “Breathe it in, little bird, breathe it in.”

Next in the firing line — though hopefully not literally — is Vince. Last year Vince came within seconds of wrecking his life when he bailed on accompanying local ne’er-do-well Kenard on a gun-toting mission to avenge Calvin, Vince’s fallen friend. Now Kenard has returned, demanding $5,000 from QB1 and interrupting a perfectly good afternoon jog. Jess, quite logically, advises going to the police or to Coach, but Vince, as usual, prefers settling things his own way: making large withdrawals from his personal closet ATM. But an insufficient payment only makes Kenard dial his anger up to eleven: He menaces Jess at her dad’s barbecue, touching her inapprorpriately and threatening to burn the whole place to the ground. This results in a choice that we very much hope isn’t fatal: After lingering for a moment on the Taylors’ doorstep, Vince instead decides to bring the problem to his father.

Now, we’ve had some frustrations with Ornette Howard as a character — first he was too casual and chummy to believed, then suddenly he was overly paternal and proud — but Cress Williams finally kicked it into gear with this scene. You see, Ornette knows Kenard and knows the situation — but he also knows that he can’t let Vince know what he himself realizes is suddenly inevitable: that he will take care of this problem but it will most likely send him back to prison. Or worse. World-weary and savvy, Williams asks his son for a cigarette (“nasty habit”) then beats the holy living crap out of Kenard just behind the stadium, taking his gun and humiliating him completely in the process. Ornette then goes and eats three pieces of pie at Jess’s dinner party. Nothing good can come of this, of course, but it’s a hell of a performance. Not even a veteran Al Pacino impersonator could do a better job of portraying a man who thinks he’s out, suddenly finding himself being pulled back in.

But the biggest mess of the season (in a good way) stems from what was up until last week the biggest mess of the season (in a bad way): Julie Taylor. After successfully hiding out at home for the weekend, Burleson’s favorite slut has no choice but to hop behind the wheel of her Chevy and drive back to the scene of the sex crime. But she only makes it down the block before pausing strangely. Is she going to drive to Chicago instead? Does that random suburban house have some significance? Wait, has the DirecTV press stream frozen again? No! Instead it’s Julie Gone Wild, as, rather than go home, she goes big: wrecking her car into a brick something or other. You crazy for this one, Jules!

But we can’t lie: We’re pretty happy to have an excellent emotional payoff to what had been a truly lame side story. The various levels at work here were fantastic: Julie’s desperation only buys her an extra day, because Tami — so marginalized by her daughter up until now — jumps at the chance to drive her marriage-busting offspring back to campus. It’s on that journey (really, they couldn’t have gotten far before stopping for lunch) that Julie says the words no parent ever, ever wants to hear: “I’m going to be on The Real World “If I tell you something, can you promise not to freak out?” And then FNL gets to do what it does best: encourage teenagers who recently had abortions to jump back in the sack with the jock who got them knocked up in the first place. Wait, no — though that happens, too (you stay classy, Mindy Riggins!). No, the show goes back to where it belongs, the Taylor home, and it lets the family dynamic rip. Coach is livid — wanting to go kick the ass of the world’s worst T&A-seeking TA (we’d actually like to see this happen!) — but also able to see immediately that Julie had wrecked her car on purpose. Then Tami does her World’s Best Guidance Counselor bit, only Connie Britton plays it beautifully, her desperate eyes undercutting her character’s usual steely saintliness. “It’s not about the money,” Tami says, as Julie babbles on about travels in Europe and maybe not being “ready” for college, “I’m talking about what are these choices that you’re making?”

And this is real: Coach is devastated by this, more shaken than we’ve ever seen him, disturbed enough to nearly miss a game. He doesn’t recognize his daughter and, when he physically tries to push Julie into her (repaired) car, back to the life he imagined for her, he doesn’t recognize himself. Imperfect things happen, even to perfect families like the Taylors. Plots like this may seem quiet, but they resonate so much more than headline-grabbing (well, website headline-grabbing anyway — it’s still Friday Night Lights) stories like last year’s abortion debate. Julie doesn’t know what to do. And neither do her parents. After the latest Lions victory, Eric sits with Gracie (a.k.a. the good daughter who may or may not be an extraterrestrial invader). Julie approaches: “I didn’t mean to disappoint you,” she says. And we end on uncertainty, a.k.a. the only thing we real life adults know about — and the one thing we try desperately not to show.

Photo: DirectTV