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Friday Night Lights Recap: Final Countdown

If the Lions’ improbable run to state has taught us anything, it’s that pouty basketball players make the best wide receivers. But if it’s taught us two things, the second would be this: It’s not necessarily the team with the most talent that wins, it’s the team that plays the best with what it has. This resonated for us this week, the penultimate in dear old Dillon, especially in light of our uncharacteristic complaints about the previous episode’s beatification of St. Tami in downtown Philadelphia. To recap the recap: We thought it ridiculous and unnecessary: Not only was Tami patently unqualified for the job, but it also played into a larger criticism we have of the show’s need to elevate the Taylors as not just exceptional within their community but within the universe (or at least the country) as a whole.

But the real issue with serialized television isn’t outlandish plot points themselves — all sorts of questionable decisions can emerge from the stress of the writers’ room, whether it’s killing off a main character or chasing a second dinner of garlic knots with a third Red Bull — it’s how they are integrated into the overall flow. Case in point: We hated — hated — Julie’s ridiculous (what’s the opposite of cradle robbing? Prius-snatching?) relationship with Derek, the TA. But we loved the wellspring of hurt, confusion, and capital-A ACTING the plotline tapped into. And so again this week, as with the soon-to-be-triumphant Lions, we may not have liked everything on the field, but we really admired how it played: Tami’s very real job offer drove a very real and very scary wedge into the previously insoluble Taylor marriage. This was a bold decision at any time, but especially so close to the finale. The nature of TV demands soap operatics, but the triumph of Friday Night Lights is that it gives us real human emotion instead.

But before we get into all of that, something else needs to be said: This episode was a challenge! Not in a bad way, mind you, but in that inimitably sweet-sour way that only the best episodes of Friday Night Lights are able to achieve. You can’t look away despite the stress, the tears in your eyes, the nerves, the pain, the tiny, occasional pockets of joy. It’s impossible to look away, no matter how much you might want to, especially now that it’s ending — and by “it,” we don’t just mean the show: The Lions are ending, too, their rags-to-riches championship season as compelling to the ritzy part of town as an all-day screening of The Decalogue would be to the Riggins boys. The decision to maintain the tradition-heavy Panthers and eliminate the scrappy Lions was the logical one all along (they do, after all, have a jumbotron) but the suspense allowed for some riveting moments: Vince and Jess (together again!) petitioning Frank Grimes, the harried town budget manager (it also finally allowed Vince to say all the heartfelt things about the Lions he left unsaid at the Eric Taylor appreciation banquet the other week), Buddy’s backroom machinations, Billy’s soaring stress levels regarding his place in the “football landscape next season” (not to mention his fast-approaching twins!), and then there was the announcement itself: crowds gathering, solemn faces. And — Jesus God! — they play “Devil Town,” the show’s unofficial, heartstring-pulling anthem, and we go to pieces. The Panthers “win” and the hurt is written on every Lion face: Luke knows it’s over; Buddy Jr. realizes he may never play again. It’s not fair, of course, but FNL is the rare show that lets things be unfair. And amid the disappointment, there was room for this: “You’re going to be the star QB of the Dillon Panthers next year,” Coach tells Vince, forcefully. “And you’re going to shine.” And then they hug. And we, uh, we’ve been chopping onions. Why?

But hark! What sass through yonder bar window breaks? Could it be? It could! Tyra Collette, our favorite, is back, and she's brought her legs with her! But she’s not here to resurrect her storied volleyball career — she’s got bigger hunks to rescue. With impeccable timing, she drops in on her ex-beau, Tim Riggins, just as he’s about to force-feed a knuckle sandwich to a mouthy drunk. Old reliable No. 33 is a mess and needs Tyra likes Tinker needs his show pig. Tim is haunted by nightmares that cause him to dramatically reupholster his ratty trailer in the middle of the night, and he’s still not talking to Billy — in fact, he plans on selling the land he bought for Skeeter himself and move up to Alaska. Alaska! Say it ain’t so, Tim! It would be very difficult to appreciate your smoldering glances underneath six layers of Caribou-skin Gore-tex! What would you rather see from your house, anyway, a bunch of cheerful jocks doing Maori war chants or Russia?

Digression alert: Alaska, interestingly enough, has a history on Friday Night Lights. We recently rewatched the pilot in order to prepare for next week’s hysterical crying jag finale and we noted that one of the very first things (a decidedly un-academic looking!) Tami says to Coach is that maybe they should consider giving up all the stress of high-school football and moving to a “much more relaxed environment,” namely: Alaska. Later that same episode, of course, is when an inebriated Riggins makes his immortal toast: “Texas Forever,” so the doubling was clearly intentional. This traumatic hour is cheekily titled “Texas Whatever.” It’s left to Tyra — who we can only assume is doing super great in college! — to bring Riggins back to life and keep him in the Lone Star State where he belongs. But how?

First it’s established that she’d been writing him letters — which is excellent because if Tyra Collette is good at anything, it’s writing letters! But post-penal Riggins is a brick wall. “If you’re asking if I was raped in prison, Tyra, the answer is no,” Tim drawls. Actually, she wasn’t asking! But good to know! (We smell a T-shirt-branding opportunity!) Ultimately, Tyra breaks through to Tim the way all women do: through his pants. In a scene that made us smile but strained credulity, Tyra shows up one last time at Buddy’s bar to hector Tim about how Billy always believed in him. Tim chases her into the parking lot and begs her not to go. She doesn’t go anywhere. Except, of course, all the way. The next morning, Tim takes her to his (still beautiful!) land. And she nails it, and him, in a different way than she did the previous night: “Alaska, Tim?” Now let’s be clear: Nothing makes us happier than the sight of Tyra Collette (except maybe one more glimpse of Landry, the Bonnie to her Clyde). But we were a little sorry that her only reason for being back in Dillon was to rehabilitate a dude. (And we will be very upset if Tim somehow manages to convince her to stay back in Dillon for good. One Riggins-Collette pairing is enough, thank you!) But for now, the sight of Tim’s long-missing lazy-cat grin made it all worth it.

But we’ve stalled enough: Things are not good in the Taylor manse, Lion fans. Not good at all. Coach is overwhelmed: preparing for the biggest game of his career just as his team is ripped out from under him. Even worse, for a man who has always had such an unerring sense of decency, who always seems to handle things the right way, he seems completely off-balance and tone-deaf when it comes to his wife and her tremendous opportunity in the City of Brotherly Love. (You know things are bad for both Eric and Tami when neither of them seem all that surprised that their daughter is back yet again from college just to hang out and do laundry and stuff. We’ve seen TMZ reporters who have more class than Julie Taylor ever did at Burleson!)

In short: He doesn’t want to talk about it or face up to Tami’s devastating truth bomb. She’s moved countless times in eighteen years for him and his job, now it’s time for him to repay the favor. Not helping matters is Buddy Machiavelli, lured back to the Panther fold with the promise of his old seat at the head of the booster table (and, presumably, some free blue paint to make things consistent). The new Panthers will be, in his words, a “super team” and it needs a super coach: The job is Eric’s if he wants it. And he kind of does! All of this was agonizing to sit through. Poor Tami left alone with her truant daughter and her trusty glass of bone-dry sauv blanc is reduced to boilerplate divorce talk: “You know your father and I love each other very much, right?” (We do! We do!) And then, after the Lions have been euthanized and numerous Buds with Buddy have been drunk, and Coach finally staggers home, she brings the hammer to her selfish husband: “I’m gonna say to you what you haven’t had the grace to say to me. Congratulations, Eric.” And, tears in her eyes, she takes her boots and walks out. The invocation of their better, alien daughter’s name isn’t coincidental. For a time we thought the very notion of the Taylors leaving Dillon was a betrayal. This, though, is a betrayal of who Eric Taylor is as a man and a husband, and it’s far, far worse.

There was so much more to comment on, of course: Matt’s tearful embrace of dear Grandma, who is so happy and seemingly in worse shape than before (she asks about his father; she didn’t know it was Christmas), Julie and Tyra’s newfound, beery perspective on the undeniable pull of their home (devil) town, Vince’s killer line to Jess: “I was born with two strikes against me.” And there was also the simple sort of scene we like the best, which we’ll miss more than words when the final credits run one week from now: the Lion players on the field, at night. Just boys again, on their field (though not for long) with their teammates (ditto). They drink beers (Buddy Jr. throws some back up) and play, tossing the football, savoring the night air, the possibility, the last few hours when their final game is still ahead of them, not rapidly disappearing in the rear-view of memory.

Luke, unimpressed by the pudding-eating rubes from Arkansas with their promises of fishing trips and a biyearly jaunt to Oklahoma, has come to the realization that this will be his last time in uniform and that, like Tim before him, it’s better to hang up his cleats with his love for the sport (not to mention his body) still intact. “They can’t take away from us what we did on this field,” Vince says. An elegant and simple eulogy for his improbable team and this plucky, beloved show — which, it should be noted, is also leaving at the height of its powers. In one week we’ll find out who wins and who loses, who stays and who goes. But for now, let’s be like Tinker: sitting in the grass, savoring the last hopeful moment.

Photo: DirectTV