Since I began doing Friday Night Lights recaps, I’ve generally avoided taking the temperature of fan/critical response to an episode before sitting down to write each week (though it’s been unavoidable to an extent when I’ve run late), so I sort of feel like I’m going out on a limb by saying that “How Did I Get Here?” is an exemplary episode, one that ranks with the best from season one. It restores faith in the series not by rejecting the plot elements that have piled up over the first five episodes or by rehashing fan favorite season one devices, but rather by recapturing the unique voice that seduced us all last year, then using it to go deeper. Simply put, “How Did I Get Here?” is the kind of episode that distinguishes great TV shows from those that are just pretty good.
On Gilmore Girls, the difference between an A episode and a merely passable one often came down to whether it was written by Amy Sherman-Palladino (and/or her husband/collaborator Daniel Palladino) or a freelancer. FNL at it its best involves a synergy between the writers, camera operators, directors, editors and actors (who are required to do much more real acting than on any other present network drama). “How Did I Get Here?” isn’t a perfect episode (the token acknowledgement of “Green is Universal” felt shoved in, but that may just be because of the surrounding campaign—people who see it for the first time on DVD next year may not even notice) but it gave me everything I could want from an episode of FNL as well as a few things I didn’t realize were needed.
In the teaser, when Jason Street asks himself what he’s doing with his life as he stands (so to speak) at the verge of 19, his words at first struck me as an example of his tendency to succumb to self-pity: “Dude,” I thought, “You’re a guy in a wheelchair who didn’t graduate from high school and doesn’t have a GED—but you’re an assistant coach to the defending state champion football team. There are dozens of guys your age who’ve come back in chairs from Iraq who’d give anything for what you have.”
But lo and behold, Jason’s angst proved to be a much-needed reminder of something it’s easy to forget about Dillon because of FNL’s tight focus on the characters: At the end of the day, the series takes place in a one-horse town where a lot of people live lives of quiet desperation because they couldn’t find a way out. By setting FNL in a fictional town, the creators glossed over a key element of H.G. Bissinger’s book that would admittedly be extremely difficult to illustrate on TV: How the oil business boom-and-bust cycle has taken a fearsome economic toll on Odessa, TX in real life over and over again. Having Dillon, and not the wheelchair, be the trap that Jason really wants to escape is a hell of a big step for the character, especially since having him on the sidelines as Coach Taylor’s protégé made so much narrative sense. It would have been tidy for Street to become a coach after losing the ability to play, and it would have been an easy way for the producers to keep using him to illustrate the theme of turning loss into victory, but life isn’t tidy and the easiest solution isn’t always the best one. Street’s gift of his memorabilia to Coach came across as a real sign of maturity, and Coach’s response, despite its echoes of “I coulda-shoulda done more!” moments from Schindler’s List and Dead Poets Society, was completely consistent with the emphasis that Taylor has always placed on mentorship, not winning, as the most important part of being a coach.
Equally moving was the Jason/Lyla scene that preceded Street’s conversation with Coach. His decision to turn to her for advice because she’s the only person he knows who’s successfully changed their life felt just right in light of their history, and Lyla showed how truly she loves him (as a person, if no longer romantically) by resisting the chance to shill for Jesus and giving him the hard truth: The only way to change your life is just to do it. Yeah, it sounds like a cliché, but it’s a piece of advice that slices through all excuses—certainly, it’s the only advice I’d ever give someone who wanted to give up drugs or alcohol or to leave a bad relationship. Its simplicity, I think, typifies the lack of rhetorical frills that helps make FNL so believable, even when it’s delivering a message (heck, especially then).
Jason’s decision to take a new path was, as usual, just one of several elements that gave the episode’s title its relevance. I’d been suspecting for awhile that the circumstances of Coach’s return to the Panthers wouldn’t be entirely rosy, and the revelation that he’s getting screwed on his salary bore that out. I’ve been in a roughly similar professional situation before—taking a step to the next rung of the career ladder and eventually realizing it wasn’t quite the right thing to do—and even if going back to your roots brings happiness, it’s never unconditional. The writers would have been derelict in their commitment to realism if there had been no negative consequences to Coach returning to Dillon. After winning the state championship and winding up with less money, more professional responsibility (the athletic director gig, which, I just realized, gives them an excuse to tell stories that take place after the end of football season) and the burden of another mouth to feed, Eric Taylor has every right to ask how he got where he is.
The titular question applies to Riggins in a big way as well, as I was glad to see that Coach didn’t want to cut him any slack for running off to Mexico. Some people have said that Riggins has regressed as a character between seasons, but I think any decrease in his maturity is really the result of him not knowing what it is he really wants, much as Jason didn’t either before tonight’s episode. Being kicked off the team puts him in a position where he needs to learn the answer to that question stat, and the process by which he does so is going to be crucial to the prospect of a third season: For FNL to retain its realism moving forward, Panthers are gonna have to graduate and be replaced, and keeping Riggins on the show by having him fail a year is one of the worst things the writers could do. I think they’re aware of the need to move forward judiciously, as evidenced by the superb use of Smash this week. He wasn’t at the center of any major story lines, but we know him well enough by now that his behavior made perfect sense. He’s serving his own interests by seeking to bring Tim back on board, true, but it’s also a sign that he’s realizing the importance of the “C” on his jersey, and of being the man of the house for his mom and sister. His scenes were a welcome reminder of Gaius Charles’ talent, and I look forward to a story line from Smash’s POV in the very near future.
The more I write about this episode, the more impressed I am with the amount of characterization that was packed in. There’s a lot to be said about what happened with Matt, Julie and Tami this week, and if I addressed all of it I’d be writing all day (my hope is that posting this recap in a relatively timely manner will lead to a more active comments section and allow me to make further points in dialogue with you, dear reader). Instead, I’d like to quickly acknowledge a few moments I loved that reflected this week’s theme—Landry, clueless as to why Tyra dumped him and pining for her she understandably starts to move on with life; Julie realizing the mistake she made by letting Matt go; Tami blowing up at her sister after being teased with a laundry list of things she can’t do because of her responsibilities—and skip forward to that which is probably sparking the most conversation about this episode, which is of course Landry’s scenes with his father.
After going back and forth in my mind many times about the Landry-kills-the-rapist plot, I’ve decided that “How Did I Get Here?” fulfills Jason Katims’ “wait and see” advice to fans in his conversation with Alan Sepinwall several weeks ago. A lot of Chad Clarke’s actions here don’t seem to make sense if you think about them—while there may be no more physical evidence linking Landry to the killing, the DMV would still know the family owned the right kind of vehicle unless Officer Clarke had a means of expunging the database, for one thing—I’m pretty sure Landry knows his dad’s actions are illogical, and that knowledge gives great emotional force to the scene where Landry is following his dad to the pit where they burn the car. Landry is fully aware that his dad could well be pissing away a 20+ year career in law enforcement by covering for his son, and until now, I don’t think Landry realized his father loved him enough to do something like that. It may be reading a lot into the scene, but as the illustrious Sars pointed out last week, Jesse Plemons is “a master of the slow-dawning on the face,” and that makes it easier than is often the case with TV to do a certain amount of projecting (okay, call it fanwank if you want to). Perhaps it was because of visual echoes to a film I love dearly, Sean Penn’s directorial debut The Indian Runner, but I was absolutely riveted by the scene. As soon as Landry began tailing his father, he must have known his dad was intent on destroying the GMC wagon; still, the “I can’t believe this shit is happening” look on his face gave everything an unexpected—and very effective—air of suspense. I’d hoped that tonight’s episode would wrap up the story line, but the loose ends his dad leaves behind make that seem unlikely. Even so, the plot was handled so effectively this week that, to my great surprise, it’s now fine by me if we haven’t seen the last of it.
Andrew Johnston is the television critic for Time Out New York.