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Friday Night Lights Series-Finale Recap: Full Hearts

Whew! Everyone out there okay? More like "Wet Eyes, Broken Hearts, Can’t Breathe," right? Need a Kleenex? Need another one? Us, too. Let’s take a second to go get one.

We’ll get through this together.


This final episode of Friday Night Lights began by echoing the very first: press tents set up on a field, young men peppered with inane questions, expectations higher than the West Texas sky. But we’d like to begin this final recap with a moment that came at the very end of the episode, one that, to us, perfectly captured the walloping emotional brilliance of this show. It’s the state championship, shot in appropriately epic fashion, like the unreleased Imax cut of Gladiator. Trills of piano, guitars as anxious as we are. Each player shines: Luke rumbles for a score; Tinker blocks his massive, pig-loving heart out; Hastings continues to have more receptions than lines. But, as ever, it comes down to a miracle. The Lions are losing with only seconds left. Coach relays the play to Vince — his surrogate son, the only hope. The troubled, brilliant QB prepares to unleash his cannon, one throw to win them all. The ball soars through the humid southern night …

High-stakes sports drama, yes. But intercut with the gridiron opera are the faces of the friends and family we’ve come to know so well: There’s Tami, love in her eyes. Julie is there, Matt beside her, as she holds her nervous hands to her face. Regina exults with Bird. Buddy is hollering up a storm on the sideline with cranky Principal Levi right behind him. And at that moment we realized: It doesn’t matter who comes down with the ball or what the final score of the game is. That’s not what it’s about. The community is together. The emotion is palpable. The team is loved. No matter who comes down with the ball, they’ve already won. That was the show, right there.

Friday Night Lights was a Trojan horse from the start, using a cleverly constructed football-shaped vehicle to deliver a weekly sermon on small-town America touching on on TV-anthema like race, class, and religion with a rare eloquence. But more than any of that, it was a show about emotion: real, raw, and recognizable. Credit can be divvied up between the creators (the executive producer, aggro-emo stylist Peter Berg, has been doing this sort of thing on the big screen for awhile now — if anyone can make us tear up over a movie based on a board game, it’ll be him), the stunning, deep cast, and the show’s unexpectedly intimate shooting style that de-emphasized blocking in favor of natural, improvised movement and interaction. And when we speak of “emotion,” we don’t just mean histrionics and fireworks — although FNL could go big with the best of 'em. We’re thinking of the quiet moments when feelings were allowed to process and breathe, not unlike the way they do in real life: The great wave of hurt that crashes over Tami’s silent face at the “conversation dinner,” the unspoken intimacy of Julie catching her parents in an argument, then sitting with them silently the way only a relative could. Friday Night Lights, at its best, was utterly unique viewing, gut-rattling and occasionally almost suffocating. Like family, it could leave you smiling or sobbing. Or, on occasion, both.

And so, all week friends e-mailed and IM’d us, worried that this finale would be "devastating": Would Tami and Coach break up? Would the team lose at state? Would Ornette go back to prison? Would Landry return to finish the job? And of course, none of these "bad" things happened. But the finale was devastating nonetheless: hit after hit of elation, intensity, and tears for exactly the reasons we outlined above. “Let’s say family,” Tim Riggins says to Becky, as they make their lasting peace. “We’re family,” Mindy sobs as Becky is “returned” to her mother. “You gotta call me 'Grandma,' now,” Grandma Saracen tells Julie. “We’re family.” “Always” was a near-perfect final episode, because again and again show-runner and writer Jason Katims returned us to the show’s central thesis, a touchier-feelier and generally less fatal version of Lost’s “Live Together, Die Alone.” It was everything we loved about Friday Night Lights spread out over 60 punishing, rewarding minutes. Kind of like a football game!

So let’s get to it: The biggest family circus (No Dolly) was, of course, centered on the Taylors. As their bedrock partnership faces its biggest crisis — look at them snapping over the Christmas tree! — it’s suddenly thrown into sharp relief by the potential emergence of another union: That’s right, Matt Saracen is back from Chicago and this time he’s not painting hands, he’s taking them in marriage! As with Tami’s offer of Philadelphia Phreedom, we weren’t thrilled with this turn of events — there really ought to be a middle-ground for Julie Taylor to stake out between “campus slut” and “child bride” — but we loved the paths it led us down. And, really, having the former backup QB propose to the Coach’s daughter in front of the Alamo Freeze was just too perfect: It’s the site of their first meeting, back in the pilot, as well as home to some of their (chicken) tender-est memories. (Here’s hoping Smash will perform the ceremony, in his formal short-order cook cap.) But then Julie gets medieval on Matt’s ass, at least in a gender-role sense, saying that he has to ask Coach’s permission to marry her. Zoinks!

Luckily, Matt has a fugitive assassin best friend in town to run to. That’s right, ladies! Hide your lead pipes (and your corpses! In the river!), Landry Clarke, Rice University’s resident egghead/kicker is back in town, and we are thrilled to see him, new feathery hair and all. Of course, it would have been nice to see him and Matt reenact an erectile-dysfunction ad for old time’s sake, but their trademark banter was a welcome blast from the past (“Don’t mention that you work in an art gallery — that’s not going to be reassuring for a football coach”). It’s too bad we didn’t get any more of "Lance" — didn’t he want to see Tyra? Or Jess? — but we’re sure he was awfully busy cutting letters out of magazines to craft ransom notes, or putting lotion in baskets, or whatever it is unrepentant killers do in the off-season. And then Matt finally works up the courage to go to Coach’s office and it’s all gravy. Seriously, Kyle Chandler’s face alone in this scene deserves all the face Emmys in the world. He laughs! He looks for the candid camera! And then he asks a seriously important question: “Matt, how old are you?” (And we’re all: PLEASE TELL US! First you were 17 and then you were, what, 14? And now you’re 19? Good to know! Let us know if you plan to radically de-age yourself again sometime in the future!) And then the scene turns around quicker than Buddy Garrity when someone behind him yells “free brisket!”: Coach says the answer will be no “until the sun burns out.” We’re not scientists, but that sounds like a very long time!

Soon Tami gets involved and the two relationship stories become wonderfully intertwined: The foursome have a “conversation dinner” (not, it should be noted, a celebration dinner). Coach, still angry, tries to explain that marriage requires maturity and, above all else, compromise. This is, of course, on the nose like spectacles: Coach has shown exactly none of these things in his reaction to the Braemore bombshell. Yet Julie tells them: They’re the reason she knows she can get married and still have her life. They’re her inspiration. Tami cries and Eric still can’t find his voice. Later, over candy canes, Tami — super-heroically — agrees to snuff out her dream while Julie pleads her case. ("That’s not me and you guys should know that," she says. Really?!? All you do is crash your car into walls and bone authority figures! Kind of some behavioral red flags, don’t you think?) But on the day the bus leaves for state, Eric has his epiphany: It’s Tami’s turn. And, really, he’s had enough of Buddy’s 6 a.m. wake-up calls. (Kyle Chandler’s mostly silent, weary, and appreciative performance in this episode was stunning. Jess tells Coach that being a part of the Lions was “the greatest experience” of her life. It’s a testament to Chandler’s sustained brilliance that when he answers, “I think it’s been mine, too,” we believe both the character and the actor.)

Cut to the mall: Just as baby Gracie is about to tell Santa what she wants for Christmas (“A quick and efficient global takeover with a hassle-free relocation of human life to city-size terra-farms and internment camps. Also, a pony"), Eric grabs Tami from behind (she jumps in fright, quite reasonably — after all, Landry is back in town). He’s turned down the unprecedented five-year contract to coach the Super Panthers. He asks: "Will you take me to Philadelphia, please?" They kiss. They are mature. They will compromise. And as a result of this one decision, we instantly know that Matt and Julie are also going to make it: They don’t need to get married right away, they don’t need promotions at the museum, they don’t even need a plan. They just need each other. And it will all be okay.

Family is the foundation of everything on Friday Night Lights and everyone’s (mostly) happy ending was tied to it. Tim and Billy are working on his truck, and toward a truce — they at least agree that Tim sleeping with Tyra wasn’t technically incest, even if it was weird. (Also weird? Mrs. Collette has a portrait of herself over her mantle!) Tim’s sacrifice was about giving little Stevie a father and here we got to spend some sweet moments watching Stevie get an uncle, too, one who advises him (perhaps prematurely!) on the danger of boosters and the allure of cheerleaders. Thankfully — thankfully! — Tim doesn’t propose to Tyra during their sweet sashay on the dance floor at Buddy’s. (Actually, there were a lot of moments where, handkerchief in hand, we yelled "DON'T PROPOSE!" — we were worried for Vince/Jess and Luke/Becky, too. Heck, even Stan was giving Billy Riggins a dewy look!) She’s kicking ass in college and dreaming of a career in politics (not like Sarah Palin, though, thank God). But, Tim points out, maybe one day their dreams will merge. He’s gonna get a job, build a house, and never, ever do anything illegal again (we assume he’s going to start right then, since the night before he was illegally serving alcohol to Matt and Julie). It’s subtle and right. They’ll be okay.

We were also grateful for the low-key resolution of Ornette’s story: He’s drunk and surly and pretends he’s got better things to do than attend Vince’s championship game. (“What are you doing in this part of town, boy?” he asks Vince, momentarily freaking us out: There’s another bad part of town? Will there be a surprise sixth season featuring the impossibly meaner streets and underlit public parks of Southeast Dillon?!?) But Coach sees through Ornette’s wounded pride and drops off a ticket personally. We have no way of knowing how this will all play out — Regina’s sobriety is still tenuous, Ornette’s criminality too entrenched — but at least he got to see his son at the big game. And as for Vince, his future also remains unwritten — he and Jess are a couple again, but Jess is off to Dallas (Big Mary’s four-month-long peyote, Tabasco-, and sweat-soaked walkabout has finally paid off!) and his senior year as a Panther and all the college recruiting that goes with it are still to come. But for one moment, in the jittery Lion locker room, all of the tension and all the uncertainty takes a backseat to Vince’s remarkable journey thus far. “You may never know how proud I am of you,” Coach says to his star. “You changed my life, Coach.” And at this point we needed the second box of Kleenex.

So, back to the start then: Vince throws his final desperation pass and it lands in ... Philadelphia! Coach is wearing green now, happily teaching the ragtag Pioneers the value of wind sprints and just what having clear eyes and full hearts can lead to. Tami is resplendent in her new wardrobe from Ann Taylor: Academia, taking the time to smell the almost-Ivy with nary an Epyck in sight. The beautiful “Devil Knows You’re Dead” by the Delta Spirit plays as we see Dillon, doing just fine without the Taylors, thank you very much. Vince is wearing blue. Billy, Crowley, and the rest coach the Panthers, while Buddy patrols his beloved sideline. Tinker has made the squad. Luke has joined the military, but leaves his championship ring in the loving care of Becky. And Tim and Billy build a house and toast the Rigglet-filled future with hope and longnecks. This was the right way to put a button a show that never made things easy and never talked down to us: Yes, football was important. But it was just a game. Life — real life — goes on for everyone, one way or another.

And it will for us, too, although it’s hard to imagine at the moment. We’ll miss the Landing Strip, Riggins’ Rigs, the Alamo Freeze, breakfast at the Taylors’ house, and late-night drinks at Buddy’s bar. We’ll miss Matt’s stammer and Smash’s smile, Tyra’s sass and Landry’s smarts. Fare-thee-well, evil JD! Adios, pious Lyla! We already forgot about you, Voodoo! Stay dead, Tyra’s would-be rapist — and stay sober, Glenn, Tami’s would-be mouthrapist! We could write a paragraph about Tim Riggins’s hair — and we have! (Look for our slash-fic blog, Lone Star Pecs & the City, launching this spring.) What will we do without Billy’s time-bomb temper and Tami’s eternal patience? Or the chance to make jokes about Santiago, Carlotta, and the immortal Ferret Guy? More important: What will we do without you loyal commenters and stalwart Panther Lion Panther fans? Your intensity and fandom for a program that was too often overlooked were an inspiration throughout these last two seasons. You knew the truth: that while universally lauded Hall of Fame shows like The Sopranos or Mad Men may make us gasp or think, only Friday Night Lights makes us cry like this, with joy or sadness. Those shows belong to the culture at large. Dillon belongs to us.

So fire up your Crucifictorious CDs and tater us, gang, one last time. Beware of Gracie Bell’s inevitable rise to power (let’s hope she’s absorbed at least a fraction of the common kindness and decency embodied in her terrestrial host-parents) and promise us you’ll never, ever mention the second season again.

And always remember this: TV shows come and go. But Texas? Texas is forever.

Photo: Bill Records/DirecTV