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Friday Night Lights Recap: Tempted by the Fruit of Another

Only four episodes of Friday Night Lights remain. (We’ll pause to let you dry your eyes on your Oklahoma Tech beer koozie — it’s not like you’ll be needing it anymore.) But while the weekly exploits of the Lions may disappear from our (Direct)TVs, it’s hard to imagine Dillon, Texas, ceasing to exist. More than anything else, it’s the town that has become the star of the show and it’s a tribute to the writers, cast, and crew that a fictional place seems so utterly fixed, permanent, and real in our minds. Perhaps that’s also why so much of “Don’t Go” seemed concerned with a future we’ll never get to see, but one that is awfully comforting to imagine.

The biggest question mark hangs over Coach Taylor. We open this week with him being dined and wined by the dixie-fried athletic director of Shane State. “You’re exactly what we’re looking for in a head coach,” the AD drawls, while pushing a folder containing a no doubt generous offer across the table. While no decisions are made at dinner, this AD isn’t one to take no for an answer because waiting for Coach back at East Dillon are the big guns fruits: a crate of Florida oranges. Wow! Nothing says profligate university spending on athletics like citrus! Of course Encyclopedia Buddy is on the case (of oranges): “That right there marks the end of the East Dillon Lions program led by Coach Eric Taylor,” he tells ornery principal Levi. And thus a covert op is launched to keep Coach close: step one involves turning the school athletic banquet into a reverse roast (a freeze?), a sort of student-led love-in for Eric. We can only imagine that step two would involve free vitamin C shots for the entire Taylor family to offset the loss of fresh-squeezed O.J. every day, but, luckily, Buddy doesn’t get that far.

Anyway, Coach is clearly taken with the idea of a fresh start: The Kingmaker would really be able to live like one, for a change. And it’s not just the beautiful new house (with pool!) that’s appealing to him (and to Gracie, who knows an opportunity to develop her underwater anti-human maneuvers when she sees one): He’d be able to build a Division 1 program from the ground up, in his image, with all of the citrus resources he could ask for. And you know what? We don’t blame him! When we first met Coach Taylor the implication was, pretty clearly, that he was a comer. That he and Tami had moved around a lot in pursuit of his career and that his piloting of the championship-caliber Panthers (with an ambulatory Jason Street at the helm) would finally break him into the next level, a.k.a. college. And, lest we forget, it did! The Season-That-Shall-Not-Be-Named saw Eric shuttling back and forth between Dillon and his apparent dream job at TMU. Of course, he came back. (And Landry killed a guy. But that’s not important right now.) And the reasons seemed pretty plausible to us: His family was in Dillon, he was more fulfilled transforming boys into men than turning highly prized potential into professionals. But now the issue is back and it’s a tough line for even a subtle show to straddle: Dillon is wonderful and all, but Coach and Tami are adults with concerns of their own, financial and otherwise. Would anyone begrudge them chasing a cure for scurvy chance for a better life?

Still, Buddy won’t go down without a fight: At the banquet, all of the Lions get up and mumble heartfelt half-sentences about their love and admiration for Coach and, let’s be honest, they are very effective! “Playing for Coach is like a dream,” says noted dreamer/professional pig tamer Luke Cafferty. “You really have changed my life and I love you for that,” says offensive lineman/pig enthusiast Tinker. “I can’t believe they let me have a line this week,” says Hastings. “When I met Coach I was just a fat kid,” says a Fat Kid we’ve never seen before. Touching! But this isn’t what gets Coach to reconsider Florida. (And neither is Buddy’s sweet interaction with Gracie in which he gives her a Lions T-shirt and she, in turn, giggles and agrees to spare him in the coming cull.)

What else might work, you ask? How about the return of future board game movie star Tim Riggins! Ladies, you’ll be forgiven if you need a moment. Guys, you too. Yes, it’s parole time for Dillon’s favorite (grand) larcenous leonine Lothario! Billy is charged with delivering a speech in front of the board and he’s nervous — perhaps a Maori war dance would have been easier for him? Instead he’s lashing out at Becky and Mindy and stuttering over hand-scribbled notes about how his brother is a “good American.” Luckily, Billy isn’t alone: He recruits Coach to come along and Buddy, trying to teach Eric a lesson about loyalty and preowned vehicles or something, insists on coming too. And then, just like that, there he is! Tim! Downcast as ever, clad in angelic prison whites. (And we think we speak for everyone when we say thank goodness West Texas has the loosest inmate hair requirements in the nation! You could hide a shiv in those greasy locks — amirite, ladies!) We certainly hope Taylor Kitsch was paid by the smolder, not the word for this episode, though. Because he doesn’t have much to say! (Maybe the parole board would frown on such an evident Canadian accent?) What he does manage to communicate is that he’s angry at Billy. Wait, what? Maybe we’re swooning confused, but was Tim still this sore about the whole “taking a fall for my idiot brother” thing back in the season premiere? Billy has been making an effort to change: becoming a coach, taking in Becky, fathering another child, smelling like nachos. So why the gas face, Tim?

Anyway, it doesn’t matter: Billy is predictably bad at the hearing until he drops the notes and speaks from the heart. And then Coach delivers in the best Coach-way: speaking simply and honestly about Tim’s tremendous abs character. Buddy, of course, steals the show, complimenting Erika of the parole board on her excellent choice in truck purchases and promises Tim a job when he gets out. There’s a nice little coda with just Tim and Coach: Tim’s been writing letters, he apologizes for disappointing Eric. There’s a manly handshake. And Tim is taken away. But not for long! Because at the end of the episode he is back where he belongs: drinking longnecks in the kitchen, glowering silently. Actually we’re looking for some explanations on this next week: Why is he being weird to Becky? The only thing less appropriate than her becoming a stripper would be her being in love with Tim again — that underage ship has sailed! Also: Will he forgive his brother? Will he really work at Buddy’s bar? And, most important, will he be reunited with his beloved Skeeter?!? Still, it’s great to have you back No. 33! Stay out of jail Canada trouble!

So Tim has come home. But will Coach be leaving? No, as it turns out. Though the banquet helped remind him of the good work that he’s doing and the parole hearing reminds him of all the connections he’s made, it’s left to Vince to seal the deal. Newly humbled from last week’s benching, Vince tells his dad to put the kibosh on the recruiting business after Oklahoma Tech puts the kibosh on him. The temperamental Ornette seems okay with it but, you know, yeah right: When Vince shows up for a family dinner at a BBQ joint (Come back, Big Mary! You’re losing your clientele!), he’s greeted by some glad-handed coaches from Mississippi State. Vince walks out, leaving Ornette scrambling and not in the way that Vince does in order to win games . Later, Regina stands up for her son, telling “O” to back off. You know who is not good at backing off? Ornette! (Just ask Kenard at his new home at the Broken Face Academy.) But Vince is determined to get back into Coach’s good graces: apologizing to him, offering to earn his starting job back. Poor Vince. So strong, yet so hungry to put his faith into a father figure. But here’s the thing: Vince has been let down and abandoned too many times. So before he casts his lot in 100 percent with Eric, he needs what no one else — not even Buddy! — has been able to get: a promise.

The morning the team is set to leave for its last pre-playoff road game, Vince shows up at Coach’s door. (Can you imagine how difficult advancing the plot of this show would be if the Taylors weren’t in the phone book?) And he does the thing that’s hardest for him in the world: He drops all the armor. “Having you as a coach is one of the best things that ever happened to me. I don’t know where I’d be without you. In jail or in a ditch somewhere. If you come back next season, I’m gonna be focused. No mistakes. No mess-ups. No drama. Just don’t go.” And it hits home. Because not only does Vince get his starting job back, he gets a ride to school. And there, in front of screaming, adoring fans, in front of the community that he and his wife have created and the one that we can’t bear to be without, Coach Taylor commits to staying.

Of course, the cynic in us feels like maybe this was a discussion he should have had with his long-suffering, pool-desiring wife. (We’re also a little concerned about how a furious 2-year-old alien baby will react when she finds out she’s not moving closer to NASA’s launch codes, we mean Disneyworld!) But Friday Night Lights is about the power of community, the power of home. And Dillon is home. And it’s a relief to know that it will continue to be long after the cameras stop showing up. (There’s still a little voice whispering in the back of our heads about Tami’s bizarro field trip to the conference where a college-affiliated woman who touches arms like we imagine Nancy Pelosi touches arms seemed awfully impressed with the former Panther Principal. Is the irony going to be that the Taylors are ripped out of Dillon because of Tami’s career, rather than Eric’s? Say it ain’t so!)

But enough for now. The playoffs await. Three more to go, Lions fans. Let’s make ‘em count.

Photo: Bill Records/NBC