No matter what happens next week, no matter what sort of inadvertent cliffhanger Friday Night Lights fans are handed as a result of the WGA strike, I think it’s safe to describe “Leave No One Behind” as a vintage episode. For me, certainly, it exemplified almost everything that made me a fan during the first season—and, more than that, almost everything which made the series a significant source of personal inspiration during some very hard times. With the series’s future unclear after next week, I’m just glad we were able to get one more such episode before what could very well be the end.
At least after spending a few minutes on Google, I’ve been unable to verify whether the phrase “Leave No Man Behind” originated as the tag line for Black Hawk Down or if it was a military slogan before Ridley Scott’s 2000 film. Regardless, it obviously wasn’t just for PC reasons that the title was rendered in a gender-neutral form: While several characters are rescued from emotional quagmires during the episode, others are indeed left behind, and they aren’t all male. But we’ll deal with that in due course.
Early in the episode, Coach Taylor meets with the Panthers and gives a speech very similar to the halftime talk that fired up the team to come from behind and win the championship last year in “State” :
“It’s about more than just football—it’s about adversity and how we stand up to it. What we are gonna do is we’re gonna work, we’re gonna adjust, and we’re gonna work some more. We’re gonna take adversity and turn it into an asset.”
It’s a speech you can boil down to six words he doesn’t say here, but which Smash does at the end of the episode—“Clear Eyes, Full Hearts, Can’t Lose”—and I’m helpless before any episode of Friday Night Lights which ends with that slogan. The first season of the show began a few weeks after I returned to work from a hiatus occasioned by cancer surgery, and over the course of the season I had a pretty rough time adjusting to the juxtaposition of work and chemotherapy as well as adjusting to life with a colostomy bag (a temporary situation reversed by another operation several months later). Throughout the year, Coach Taylor’s message about turning the negative into the positive was immensely valuable to me, in particular because of how vividly it was illustrated by the story lines involving Jason, Smash and Matt and how the Panther slogan never seemed like something to which mere lip service was being paid—it was a credo the characters lived by every week, and one I adopted as my own (at least as something to aspire to, because lord knows it’s a lot easier to just feel sorry for yourself sometimes). The 2007 football season hasn’t been any easier for the Panthers, yet this time around, the motto never seemed as relevant as it did tonight.
It’s a particularly rough week for Matt Saracen, who’s buckling under the stress of caring for his grandmother even before she has the fall that sends her to the hospital by the end of the episode. When we first see her, she’s sufficiently out of it as to be confusing the smell of eggs with that of sausage. After Matt leaves, he learns of Smash’s suspension on the radio just as a cloud of steam erupts from the radiator of the Dodge Dart I knew he shouldn’t have bought. It’s a somewhat clumsy visual metaphor, but Matt deserves what he gets for spending that much money on a nealy-40-year-old gas guzzler.
At the team meeting, before Coach tears into his speech, we see another example of the
Matt/Smash tension I found so enjoyable in the earlier episodes of the season—being a sarcastic dick, dare I say it, brings out Zach Gilford’s best as an actor. That made Matt’s exploration of the dark side more entertaining than it should have been, I dare say, though the sight of Riggins constantly egging him on, seeing how far he could make Matt go and using that as an excuse to descend to ever lower depths himself, was plenty depressing as far as Riggins’ own progress goes.
I always love a good Grandma Saracen/Coach Taylor scene, and the one at the hospital was a huge treat—her warmth and enthusiasm whenever she comes in contact with Coach is always palpable through the screen. It’s a quality that’s cleverly exploited here in that it lowers our guard in advance of the scene where Coach drags Matt into the shower (a scene which parallels the Tami/Julie dustup I’ll get to shortly) and tells him to shape the fuck up. Matt’s response reminds us that he’s just a kid: “You left me for a better job. Your daughter left me for a better guy. Carlotta left me for Guatemala. My dad left me for a damn war. What’s wrong with me?”
Sure, it’s a Good Will Hunting moment, and I have no doubt that more than a few viewers rolled their eyes. But clichés are true for a reason, and if you’ve ever had abandonment issues, it’s hard not to be moved by the scene and to feel that Matt is one hell of a lucky guy to have someone like Coach Taylor there for him.
And after everything that Smash has been through, he’s a lucky guy to have a mother as steadfast as Mama Smash, who refuses to drop the “I Told You So” bomb when her son’s gravy train goes hurtling off the rails. Her encouragement provides another echo of the team motto, motiviating Smash to give one hell of a pep talk of his own to the Panthers, who take to the field determined to transform adversity into an asset—and, by necessity, leaving behind Smash, who instantly turns into a crying wreck in an incredibly moving final scene.
As I said before, Julie’s plot largely parallels Matt’s, and those who picked up on her envy of Tami’s attention to the volleyball squad last week—something I missed—turn out to be right on the money. Much as in the later Coach/Matt scene, Tami gives her daughter a blistering lecture before abruptly realizing she’s the one who’s really in the wrong. In real life, I can’t imagine Tami having much success at persuading the license bureau dude to let Julie take the test late—not unless it she did a lot more eyelash batting and skin-flashing—but her success here made for a sweet scene indeed courtesy of Connie Britton’s inexhaustible reservoir of brassy charm.
Aside from Smash, the person most obviously left behind is, of course, Jean, who I’m sure is entirely right when she tells Landry that he’s making a big mistake. I was very impressed by Jean’s bluntness when she asks Tyra if she’s a friend or a rival, in a scene made all the funnier by the height difference between the two girls (I think Jean was sitting down in all of her scenes with Tyra last week; this time, we see that her eyes are about as far off the ground as Tyra’s breasts). Caught off guard by the question, Tyra gives Jean her blessing, and instantly comes to regret it. Throughout the episode, Tyra’s behavior seems to support the “she only wants what she can’t have” theory vis-à-vis her relationship to Landry, as opposed to the “he’s just too much of a geek for her” theory (which Landry himself subscribes to).
When Tyra seeks advice from her mom about the issue, her mom’s blunt words—“When haven’t I competed with another gal for a guy? I like the chase. I like the challenge. I like to win”—are words she clearly should have taken as a warning. Instead, she seems to take them as a license to aggressively pursue Landry. While he first gives her the treatment she deserves outside the movie theater, he soon reveals the extent of his weakness by dumping Jean (in a scene that, the more I think of it, reminds me quite a bit of John Malkovich’s brilliant “It’s beyond my control” kiss-off in Dangerous Liaisons) before running off to join Tyra. Much as I like the guy—how can’t you like a guy who’s torn as to whether Jaws is a better date movie than Star Trek: The Wrath of Khan?—I really want to see him learn his lesson after breaking Jean’s heart—if that didn’t happen, this wouldn’t be Friday Night Lights. The way things stand now, however, there might not be enough time left for us to ever find out what happens next.
A few miscellaneous notes: In the past, Dillon’s nebulous location has been described as “West Central Texas”, however in the DMV scene, the reality of the Austin locations collides with the series’s fictional world when we see that Dillon is on US Route 183, which has its northern terminus at Presho, SD and which ends at Refugio, TX, just above the Gulf of Mexico. The entire Texas portion is in the eastern third of the state, imcluding Austin, where it intersects with Interstate 35.
I’m sure Austinites can identify exactly which branch of the Alamo Drafthouse Cinemas Landry and Jean go to for their screening of Jaws (is it the same theater where Matt and Julie saw Eragon last year?), but since the Alamo has become a chain encompassing Houston, San Antonio and Katy as well as Austin, it’s not out of the question for there to be a Dillon branch of the Drafthouse on Earth FNL (or, if Dillon is really in “West Central Texas”, for them to have driven to the San Antonio theater). Of course—this is where the geek in me comes out—this means that Coach Taylor, Lyla Garrity and Tami’s high school boyfriend who we meet next week all exist in the same universe as a Kyle Chandler, a Minka Kelly and a Peter Berg, as the first two have cameos in The Kingdom while the latter directed the film. Naturally, the Drafthouse could have just been showing the Lars von Trier miniseries…
In the scene at Coach’s office, a quick shot of his PC reveals that he’s using Windows Vista at work. I’d like to think that Coach would be discerning enough to be a Mac user, and perhaps he is at home—at school, he’s of course at the mercy of the school district’s IT department. Given that we’ve seen evidence of Dillon High functioning on a very tight budget, I’m surprised the district decided to make the leap from XP—I’m sure they got a good deal on an educational site license for Vista, but the additional hardware and support costs sort of seem like a needless extravagant expenditure.
Finally, I gotta say I feel pretty bad for any surviving members of the 1958 and 1962 state champion Panther teams who still live in the Dillon area—their victories are acknowledged by plaques in the locker room but are left off the scoreboard, which mentions no Panther championships prior to 1966. The nine district championships won by the Panthers leave no room for any earlier district titles, but since only six of those nine teams went on to win State, there’s plenty of room on the right side of the board for acknowledgment of their success.
Incidentally, the scoreboard confirms that the year of Buddy Garrity’s state championship season was in 1978 (all we knew before is that Jimmy Carter was President at the time) and that prior to last season, the most recent Panther state championship was in 1998. The 55-game win streak mentioned on the board presumably took place in 1978-81, when they won four consecutive district titles. Can that be reconciled with them only winning State twice in that period? There are some questions that, in order to be answered, require a level of research more obsessive than even I am capable of…and this is one of them.
Andrew Johnston is the television critic for Time Out New York.