A better title for “Backfire” might have been “Blowback” or “Fallout”, as the episode has more to do with the consequences of plans not working out, as opposed to the actual failure—and even then, not all of the plans collapse and not all of the consequences are negative. While not one of FNL’s strongest-ever episodes, it still had a lot of what made me and others fall in love with the series and shows that while some unpopular storylines are still in play, the writers nonetheless have a firm hand on the rudder and know where they’re going.
It’s rare to see a Panther game at the top of an episode, and perhaps rarer still for one to take up so little screen time. It’s also rare to see the team get its asses completely nailed to the wall, though it did happen once or twice last season. Matt Saracen—the center of the show for many viewers—didn’t get a lot of screen time this week, but his on-the-field frustration with Smash, and with Coach MacGregor’s tactics, was pure Matt. What we’ve seen of Jason Street’s coaching technique has me convinced the Panthers wouldn’t have won State if he’d gone injured—he’s good at motivating a team and being a leader, but he simply doesn’t have the strategic grasp of the game that Matt does. Matt’s insight into the mechanics of football has done a lot to compensate for his relatively scrawny body and lack of experience, and one would think that letting him serve as field commander while making Smash the sparkplug would be an obvious winning strategy. It’s an obvious winning strategy that MacGregor ignores, out of willfulness or lack of vision, and that ignorance soon costs him his job.
It’s been obvious since the beginning that the people of Dillon have no patience with coaches who can’t bring the Ws, and the combination of a humiliating loss with the embarrassing public conflict between Matt and Smash gives the Powers that Be a pretty convenience excuse to give MacGregor the bum’s rush. While that was a dramatic necessity, I still had a little trouble buying it because of how quickly Buddy seems to have been restored to his role as Dillon’s football czar after his public humiliation in “Bad Ideas”. I can’t help thinking this would have been a good excuse to bring back Dillon’s long-unseen lesbian mayor, who seemed at least as football savvy as Buddy and perhaps even smoother as a dealmaker (actually, maybe the last bit isn’t really saying much).
A big theme this week is the finality of decisions—at several points, characters are told there’s no going back after they cross a certain line. One of the most memorable instances is the scene where Coach Taylor quits his job at TMU. The TMU head coach has been a great bit character, and I was pleased to see him get a strong sendoff via the scene where he tells Coach to consider his actions closely and that Coach Taylor’s transition plan is bullshit as far as he’s concerned. Coach Taylor has to choose what he stands for and while he gets the Panther job back by walking away from TMU, undoubtedly, it seemed very clear to me that he was choosing Julie and Tami first and foremost.
I was less skeptical than some about Jason’s “miracle surgery” plot, because I thought there was some real potential in him going on the road with Riggins. The Y Tu Mama Tambien homage that we got was enjoyable, though there were certain logical quibbles—how did Jason get his hands on $10,000 in cash (even if it was from the settlement over his injury, wouldn’t his parents control the funds?) And how can Riggins miss class and practice for a week without getting in incredibly deep shit? Maybe there’s some wiggle room there, due to the chaos surrounding the coach’s job (and, given the amount of time they appear to spend down there, a bye week for the team happens in the middle of the episode). It seems the resolution of this plot will hinge on Lyla entering the picture, and I’m hard pressed to think of a bad scene to date involving the Lyla/Rig/Street combo, one of the series’s most effective combinations of characters, so I look forward to seeing where things go next week.
Speaking of Lyla, I was genuinely pleased to see her money where her mouth is as a Christian by attempting to minister, however awkwardly, to the lads in juvie. As a lifelong agnostic who has nonetheless always deeply admired the teachings attributed to Jesus, I’ve always been frustrated by Christians who talk the talk but don’t walk the walk. The way Buddy seized the occasion to score points with his estranged daughter by hiring her protégé to work in the parts department at his dealership was an interesting case of unintended consequences and one that sets up some interesting future possibilities in terms of the relationship between Buddy and his daughter (though it’d be disappointing if they went in the most obvious direction possible with a story about the parolee being accused of embezzlement, vandalism or what have you at Buddy’s dealership.
My favorite parts of the episode, by far, involved the still rocky relationship between Julie and Tami. I can see how, to some people, the sight of all those empty beer cans outside Anton’s house, and the sight of the bong on his coffee table, might seem to scare Julie off given her relatively little experience with drugs and alcohol. What actually happens is far more subtle, and far more emotionally authentic. The last thing Julie wants is to become her mother, and her visit to Anton makes her realize that if she hooked up with Anton, she’d be taking a pretty huge step toward making the same mistakes that Tami once did and toward becoming a very similar person. If she gets back together with Matt, I dare say she’s going to be even more careful than before about attempting to ensure that the two of them don’t relive her parent’s lives. What Matt might have to say about this is food for thought indeed.
At last we come to Landry and Tyra, whose controversial story line seems to be rapidly heading to a close. It certainly seems awfully tidy for the cops to essentially dismiss the idea of seriously investigating the death of her would-be rapist simply because he has outstanding felony warrants in other states, but it’s by no means unbelievable—especially when you have someone like Landry’s father working on the inside. It’s telling that the shoulder patch on his uniform identifes him as a “peace officer”—in a city like New York, where police shootings of suspects seems to stoke the fires of racial tension about once a year, the phrase has a whiff or Orwellian doublespeak to it. In a place like Dillon, it sounds aspirational, hinting at the kind of American utopia the residents want it to be. It also speaks to the primary mission of cops in towns with low crime rates—just doing everything they can to keep things going smoothly. Sometimes this involves the Sheriff Andy Taylor brand of police work, locking up drunks and settling disputes between neighbors, and, well sometimes it involves covering up an anger-driven vigilante killing that the DA would probably classify as manslaughter. I’ve really liken Glenn Morshower in every scene we’ve seen him in as Landry’s father, even though there haven’t been that many of them yet, and the clash between him and Tyra hinted at in the trailer for next week’s episode certainly seems like a fairly promising way to wrap up the story line while keeping dramatic tension in the air and creating an opportunity to explore the depth of his feelings for Landry. I’m not crazy about the storyline in general, but, as I’ve said, at least it’s being done as well as possible under the circumstances—and “Backfire” provides enough substance, I dare say, to make that statement without coming across as a straw-grasping apologist.
MacGregor’s final scene again hits on the theme of unintended consequences, and reminds us that Coach Taylor was a surprisingly passive player in the events that resulted in his return to Dillon, which were primarily engineered by Buddy. Buddy is the one who screwed MacGregor, and the unintended consequences are both the damage to MacGregor’s personal life and his transformation into a personal enemy of Coach Taylor. While I would imagine there may well be other head coaching jobs open in the middle of the season in towns that have as little taste for losing as Dillon does, it’d be a shame if the scene was intended to set up a decisive late season encounter a la the return of Ray “Voodoo” Tatum in last year’s finale (which never quite made sense to me seeing as, in his last appearance before “State”, we were told Voodoo’s school in Louisiana had reopened—so how’d he wind up in the Texas championship game?). After the events of the past year, Coach Taylor probably deserves to be haunted by a reminder of the domino effect that our decisions can have on other peoples’ lives, but giving him the opportunity to defeat that personal demon in the flesh 20 episodes from now would really just be a bit too much.
Andrew Johnston is the television critic for Time Out New York.