After five seasons and 76 episodes shown back-to-back in the UK, the lights were finally switched off on Friday Night Lights with a finale that provided a satisfying sense of closure to the East Dillon Lions’ season and players, and to the series as a whole.
The pride of Lions
A new season dawns and it’s all change in Dillon. The cash-strapped Lions have progressed from laughing-stock to team on the rise, and who knows how far they can go?
The team’s two stars, Vince Howard (Michael B Jordan) and Luke Cafferty (Matt Lauria), experience contrasting paths. Despite starring on both offense and defense Luke, in his senior year, finds himself unwanted by major colleges. Meanwhile junior Vince, steered by his returning ex-convict father, is illegally courted by several colleges and has his head turned, upsetting his relationship with Jess Merriweather (Jurnee Smollett), who has coaching aspirations of her own. Luke’s relationship with Becky Sproles (Madison Burge) also has its ups and downs following her unwanted pregnancy.
Becky’s abortion ultimately cost Tami Taylor (Connie Britton) her principal’s job at West Dillon and leads to her resuming a role as guidance counsellor at East Dillon. In this season she has to deal with a problem student named Epyck. It’s a storyline which echoes her earlier project to turn Tyra around, but it quickly peters out and feels like a tacked-on plot to give Tami something to do until she receives a life-changing job offer.
Similarly, new Lions recruits Hastings Ruckle (Grey Damon) and Buddy Garrity Jr (Jeff Rosick) are never fully developed. Hastings becomes a key member of the Lions’ offense but we learn little about him, while Buddy Jr is quickly sidelined through injury. Meanwhile Buddy Sr (Brad Leland) swaps his car dealership for a bar and straightens out both Buddy Jr and Tim Riggins (Taylor Kitsch).
It’s an up-and-down year for the Riggins boys. The season opens with Tim still in prison, having taken the fall for his brother’s illegal chop-shop. Billy (Derek Philiips) becomes a coach at East Dillon but falls out with Tim after his release. After considering a move to Alaska, it takes the return of Tyra Collette (Adrianne Palicki) to remind Tim that Texas is his true home.
Julie Taylor‘s (Aimee Teegarden) ill-advised affair with a married college teaching assistant mars her freshman year. This drives her back to Matt Saracen (Zach Gilford). But if Julie has a tough time, spare a thought for the once mighty Dillion Panthers. The McCoys – quarterback J.D. and father Joe – are gone, as is coach Wade Aikman, and the Panthers are soundly drubbed by the Lions en route to State.
The most satisfying arc is saved for Coach Eric Taylor (Kyle Chandler). Having established a sense of pride in his first season at East Dillon, culminating in a last-gasp victory over the Panthers, this year he takes his team of overachievers all the way to the State. In doing so, he proves himself both as an inspirational coach and as a father figure to his players, digging deep in a way he never had to while in charge of the well-funded and privileged Panthers. In between he has to deal with family issues, the emerging threat of closure of the East Dillon football programme and Tami’s desire to pursue her career in Philadelphia, a conflict which briefly undermines their stable marriage.
In addition to Tyra’s return, we also have welcome appearances by past FNL alumni. Landry Clarke (Jesse Plemons) leaves for college in the opening episode, but the final season also welcomes back Tyra, Jason Street, now a successful sports agent, Matt’s grandmother Lorraine Saracen, Mac MacGill (now the Panthers’ head coach) and Brian ‘Smash’ Williams (who is only seen on TV but is a growing success at Texas A&M).
In my experience, shows where the writers have foreknowledge that the end is nigh generally have disappointing finales, tying up loose ends too neatly, suffering from an overdose of self-indulgent schmaltz and resulting in a rushed, frenetic ending. FNL avoids these traps, delivering a beautifully judged and paced finale, Always, which celebrates five years of ups and downs and provides a genuine sense of closure without ever feeling forced.
It achieves this despite the resolution of most of the key stories being obvious. The Lions are always destined to win State with a last-minute comeback, and Eric is always going to come around to supporting Tami and starting afresh. Just as each of his players have eventually moved on to embrace their futures either outside or within Dillon, it always made sense for Coach Taylor to wrap up the series by doing the same and moving forward towards a new challenge rather than taking the easy option of returning to coach the new Dillon super-team.
But the journey to the final act is a pleasing one. The first half of the episode pivots largely around Matt’s proposal to Julie, and it is not until this prompts a lecture from Coach Taylor about the importance of maturity, listening and compromise in a marriage that this sets up Eric himself to follow his own example, turn down the new Dillon super-team and stand four-square behind Tami’s career, a move to Philadelphia and the opportunities this opens up. Tim squares off his relationships with Tyra – nothing definite, but an acceptance that they will always be important to each other whatever happens.
This pitches us into the final act and the State Championship game. FNL‘s Achilles’ heel has always been its in-game sequences, which have been slaves to an episode’s main story and often not entirely convincing. Here, however, the series goes out on a high with its most authentic sequence of all. Played as a series of silent vignettes, the story of the game is told in a sequence of moments and reactions that gives each of the main characters their turn, each picture painting the proverbial thousand words. And how fitting that the outcome of the game should come down to a Hail Mary pass – a low-probability desperation play launched in hope more than expectation – for hasn’t hope and the building of their own self-belief been the key to the Lions’ season all along?
We never see the play completed, but the closing montage shows some of the characters wearing championship rings, so we know the Lions came through against the odds. We see everyone’s storylines wrapped up without dwelling on any individual for too long: Vince, Hastings, Buddy Jr and Tinker are stars on the new Dillon super-team with Billy and the other East Dillon coaches all on board, Luke has enlisted to join the army, Julie is living happily with Matt, Jess is in Dallas and on the first rung on the coaching ladder, Tim is literally building his own dream with Billy’s help and there’s a blink-and-you’ll miss-it hat-tip to Jason Street. Best of all, we see Eric Taylor doing what he has always done best: at a new school in Philadelphia, inspiring a group of young men to achieve more together than they ever could alone.
Clear eyes, full hearts … [confused silence] … Yeah, we’ll deal with that later.
We’re left with Eric and Tami walking off the field together as the stadium lights are switched off, a symbolic act reminiscent of the extinguishing of a ghost light in a theatre – a light which is left on even when unoccupied and switched off only when the theatre closes down permanently.
In its final 13-episode season, FNL both sets up and pays off an impressive number of storylines and characters. Yes, some more peripheral plots were cut abruptly short at the expense of fleshing out the main narrative arcs. On balance, though, it was the right decision. While there were undoubtedly missteps with peripheral characters (Julie, Hastings, Buddy Jr and the complete misfire that was the Epyck storyline), the most important core plots – Coach Taylor, Vince and to a lesser extent Luke – were rich in detail and handled with a deftness that made the finale immensely satisfying.
The season’s central driver was the triangular relationship between Taylor, Vince and his father Ornette (Cress Williams). This took us from the rehabilitation of a broken family to the illegal recruitment of high school juniors and the resultant tug-of-war between coach and father, with both men taking a stand and Ornette gradually revealing his true colours. It’s a thoughtful new angle on Friday Night Lights‘ core theme of sport as an extension of family and community in a small town – and the sense of escapism from reality that even fleeting success can bring.
Taylor is the show’s ultimate father figure, bringing Vince back on to the right path, supporting Jess in her desire to pursue her coaching dream and speaking eloquently on behalf of Tim at his parole hearing, just as he had previously been instrumental in nurturing Matt and Smash. Throughout all five seasons, it has been evident he considers his team as a second family.
The contrast between junior Vince, who appears to have the world at his fingertips, and senior Luke – who is forced to face up to the reality that football will not provide a way out of Dillon – is as marked as it is poignant. Luke experiences anger, sorrow and envy, until in the finale he writes his own exit plan – not a perfect ending, but a logical resolution to the character’s story. As with Tim, it’s a gentle reminder that not everyone can have a fairytale ending without undermining Luke’s journey.
Above all, FNL has been about characters, with football providing only a backdrop and a metaphor to real life. It is a series that was never afraid to make brave character decisions – almost all of them deviating from the original book – or send them down different paths. How many other shows would have put its all-American poster boy quarterback (Jason Street) in a wheelchair, or make the barely literate alcoholic character a white one (Tim Riggins)? It turned a studious all-American girl (Julie Taylor) into a teenage rebel, while simultaneously converting stereotypical bad girl Tyra into a bright prospect. Most of all, it is a show which unflinchingly showed the realities of small-town life and the ups and downs that go with it. It has been a window into a world that many of us will never experience, and a far cry from what is commonly portrayed on television.
I will miss Friday Night Lights immensely. I started watching it as a former player of the game, but I stayed because I came to care deeply about the characters. It’s a crying shame the series never reached a wider audience.
Friday Night Lights is being repeated from the beginning on weekdays at 4pm on Sky Atlantic, starting on Monday 12th August.