With a show about high school football players, you would think there would only be a few finale-worthy situations to facilitate the inevitable decisions and events that will either propel the show to the next season or fittingly end its run. State championships, prom, or, of course, graduation all seem tried-and-true, however “Tomorrow Blues” uses the Billy Riggins/Mindy Collette wedding as the episode’s gathering point. It still seems a little bit convenient and cliched, but I’m okay with it, as they’ve been talking about this wedding since the season premiere. For this finale, Friday Night Lights uses the celebration as a catalyst for decisions—some wise, some rash—and adds that small town touch that we’ve come to love from the show. It’s not as much of an all-time great like last week’s “Underdogs,” but the Season 3 finale stands strongly as a capper to the season.
Instead of solely flashing a title card reading, “Five months later,” the show begins things in its own Dillon way. We see Panther uniforms, but they’re baseball jerseys. Billy and Tim are renting tuxedos. Buddy and Eric are playing a round of golf. The Taylors are shopping for a car. Lyla is basking in the Texas sun, and Tyra and Landry are enjoying a lake all to themselves. Summer is just around the bend, and this great little montage perfectly fills the gap between the Panthers’ loss at State and the current events, giving them that sense of impending finality.
With most of the students already enrolled in their colleges of choice, Tami and Buddy express to Lyla their concerns over her decision to attend a “crap-ass party school” like San Antonio State University. This girl was academically the second in her entire class, and they both feel that she could reach higher. Lyla’s problem is that she’s convinced herself to settle for less, partially because of monetary problems and partially because she wants to stay with Tim. However, Vanderbilt is willing to accept her, should she choose to do so within the next few days. When Lyla asks how they’d pay for Vanderbilt, Buddy mentions calling her uncle Gary, a man that reciprocates Buddy’s hatred for him. But after getting his daughter into this mess, Buddy is willing to do anything to get her into her school of choice, even if it means humbling himself in front of a man he loathes.
Over at Riggins Rigs, Billy’s soon-to-be-opened auto repair shop, Lyla meets up with Tim and essentially looks for reassurance in her dilemma. She lies to Tim about the nature of her meeting with Tami, but she tries to invite Tim out to lunch so they can work on their San Antonio State schedules. Tim can’t, as he and Billy are heading to an auction to pick up a hydraulic lift for the shop.
The two pick up the lift for an absolute steal, using the rest of their money to buy a real live Texas longhorn steer. “I defy anyone to pass through Riggins Rigs with that steer in front of it and not go inside,” Tim declares. Things happen for a reason, he says, and this is one of those things. Well, that providential steer takes a toll on Billy’s truck engine, leaving the brothers on the side of the road. Billy tinkers with the car as Tim complains about the lack of good bars and the plethora of thick text books at San Antonio State. The younger brother eventually fixes the car, frustrating Billy, the one who just bought a repair shop but can’t even fix his own truck. The two muse about what it would be like if the two Riggins brothers just sat around all day, fixing cars and drinking beers. At the same time this is happening, Lyla asks her father to call Uncle Gary.
Billy and Mindy’s wedding arrives with an oddly appealing rendition of Peter Frampton’s “Baby, I Love Your Way,” and at the reception, Lyla confesses to Tim that she got the money for Vanderbilt, but she doesn’t want to go. She even begins to ask forgiveness for trying to make that decision without him, but he interrupts her with one word: “Go.” They both know she’s better than San Antonio State, and he loves her too much to be the guy that holds her back. Occasionally I’ve questioned some of Taylor Kitsch’s acting abilities, but he and Minka Kelly play this important scene so perfectly, just as they’ve done over and over throughout Season 3. There’s a struggle from Lyla, some resistance, but the two know what needs to happen, and what that means for their relationship, and they have to go through with this decision anyway.
Tim, however, believing that everything happens for a reason, tells Billy that, now that Lyla’s going to Vanderbilt, he doesn’t have to go to San Antonio State. He can stay in Dillon drinking beer and fixing cars with his brother, living the dream. Billy takes Tim aside, calling him a “little idiot,” informing him that he’s going to college, and he’s getting a degree, even if it takes seven years. He needs to accomplish this so that he can tell his kids, and they can tell Billy’s unborn child, that they don’t have to settle for less because this man was the first Riggins to ever go to college. Billy realizes that, as much as he would love to have Tim around forever, this is bigger than the two of them. This is about doing things the right way to open doors for their future families.
While most students already have their college plans cemented, Tyra sits on the University of Texas waiting list. To celebrate this, she throws herself pity party after pity party. Landry suggests that she visit UT, just to see if there’s anything more she can do to help her chances. It’s there that she learns that she’s on a waiting list with about 1,000 other students. Landry finally has enough of his girlfriend’s self-pity on the drive back as he pulls the car over on the side of the road. He finally tells her to shut up and listen, because it doesn’t matter what some counselor or naysayers may tell her. Landry believes in her, so darn it, she needs to start doing that as well. She needs to believe that she deserves college, therefore, one way or another, she will get college.
The letter from UT finally arrives, and Tyra grabs it and runs out into the night where Landry is driving away from the house. She flags him down and he jumps out of the car, already knowing what his girlfriend holds in her hand. He tells her he’ll still love her no matter what that letter says, and it really is a satisfying, moving scene as Tyra reads her letter of acceptance, her proud boyfriend holding her tightly.
At the Saracen house, boxes are being packed as Lorraine is being moved, in some capacity, to a senior living community. The impression I get is that Shelby will stay at the house while Lorraine stays at the community, eventually coming home from time to time. Grandma Saracen seems to be taking this a lot better than she was five months earlier, as she packs her magazines from the ’70s and a framed picture of Matt as a 7th grader. She plans to keep the picture by her bed, so that if she has one of her spells again and can’t remember what her grandson looks like while he’s off at college in Chicago, she can just look at that smiling picture and feel reassured.
Matt moves her into her new living situation, trying to make sure she has everything she needs, but she tells him to go, insisting that she’ll be fine. He walks out of her room, but hesitates in the hallway for a moment, tears in his eyes, wondering if he’s done the right thing.
Julie is scared about what’s going to happen between her and Matt. After receiving a new car as a gift, Julie (in another great scene this season between Aimee Teegarden and Connie Britton) expresses her pride in Matt, but admits that she never thought he’d actually be leaving. All of her friends are graduating, and now her boyfriend’s moving several states away. Tami tries to help her daughter come to grips with the possibility that her and Matt may not be “meant to be together.”
It’s because of this that, at the wedding, Julie tries to break up with Matt, anticipating the struggles of a long-distance relationship. You can tell it’s not what she truly wants, but she believes it would be doing Matt a favor. He calls her BS and tells her they’re going to make things work. It’s one of those situations where Julie doesn’t want to hold Matt back in any way, but she can’t help but be relieved at his dedication towards her. As she sits on his lap at their reception table, she mentions to her boyfriend that his grandmother would have really liked an offbeat wedding like this one. Matt rushes to Lorraine’s new home and tells her to get dressed, because she’s going to a wedding, and then she’s going back home, for good. He wants to stay in Dillon and be with her. “You’re the only person who’s never left me.” He brings his grandmother back to the Riggins wedding, sharing a dance with her as Julie looks on.
The events are truly heart-wrenching. They can be looked at as a way for the show to keep the character of Matt around, but it doesn’t feel contrived. Matt, Julie, and Lorraine have been so tightly knit to each other that not one of them has the strength to let go and do the right thing for the young boy. He’s sacrificing his potential because of his love for these women, and it’s so hard to blame him for it. It’s just as hard for me to blame Julie or Lorraine because I feel that Julie in her youth and Lorraine in her old age simply don’t realize what they’re doing.
The redistricting situation of a few episodes ago finally shows up again, as the proposition will be met with a vote from the board. Also on the board’s agenda is the state of Coach Taylor’s contract with the school. It seems odd that it would come up for a coach who’s led the Panthers to two state championship games in three years, winning one of them. In the meantime, Eric is making house visits to potential players (technically not recruiting, because that would be illegal, as we learned from the VooDoo Tatum storyline a few years ago). However, as Buddy tries to convince a football prospect’s parents to enroll him into Dillon High, the father interrupts, telling him they’ve already chosen Dillon. In fact, they’ve already been visited by Wade Aikmen and Joe McCoy and got the impression that Aikmen was the head coach of the Panthers. This all begins to make sense to Eric; Joe’s trying to get him fired because of the CPS incident (and probably because he yanked J.D. from the championship game). He confronts Joe about this, and McCoy tells him that, against his better judgment, he’d like to offer Eric the opportunity to keep his job under two conditions: J.D. starts every game for the Panthers, and Wade Aikmen calls all the plays. “Well, I’m sure you know what you can do with that opportunity,” Eric says as he walks out.
The board meeting arrives and with boosters filling the audience it feels as if Eric’s firing is already a done deal. There’s no discussion, but they do let Eric get some words in. He simply makes everyone aware of the mistake they’re about to make. He loves this team and this school, and they essentially want to replace him with a guy who has a lot of money and his son who’s got a nice arm.
At the wedding, Tami only needs to squeeze Eric’s hand and exchange a look with him for him to know that he’s been let go as coach. The job has been offered to Aikmen, but Tami shares another bit of information: the board would like to offer Eric the job as head coach at East Dillon High when it reopens. Post-reception, Eric and Tami walk onto the field that East Dillon used to play on. It’s a run-down part of town, far from the JumboTron-boasting glory of Panther Stadium, and the two silently wonder if this is where their future rests. In the season’s final shot, the two wrap their arms around each other, standing mid-field in the slowly setting sun, and the camera cranes skyward before we cut to black.
It’s almost an odd shot (in a good way), because Friday Night Lights rarely shoots anything other than handheld (except some football sequences and certain slow-motion shots). I won’t go as far as to say that it breaks the fourth wall, but in a sense, with it being in such stark contrast with the rest of the show, it calls attention to itself and the fact that this is still a TV show. It reminds me of the final shot of Steven Soderbergh’s Full Frontal, a film that, after being shot in a gritty, digital, realistic handheld fashion, ends with the camera moving back to reveal a film set. It feels like a pulling back of the curtain, so to speak. I think that, if Friday Night Lights had ended its run with this episode, the directors wanted to get that one last shot in there.
The first season ended with the Panthers winning State, but also with Coach Taylor accepting a job at TMU. Nevertheless, that finale had a sober upbeat, if that makes sense; very few things could take away from the glow of the championship. With “Devil Town” playing in the background, the Panther parade rolling by, and the team gathering for one last time, relationships were mended and you felt that everything was going to be all right. We don’t know how Season 2 would have ended, but with Season 3, things are more somber. Sure, the resolutions to Tim’s, Lyla’s, and Tyra’s stories bring hope and satisfaction, but they’re countered by the uncertainty of Eric’s move to East Dillon High and Matt’s rash decision to sacrifice his future for his grandmother.
Of course, the fate of Friday Night Lights was up in the air at the time that “Tomorrow Blues” was created and first aired, so it had to fulfill two needs simultaneously by working as both a bridging season finale and a potential series ender. The writers needed to make sure that, should the show end at three season, the viewers weren’t left completely hanging, but should the show be picked up for more episodes, storylines were still available.
To make itself a series finale, “Tomorrow Blues” essentially marks the end of a certain era in the lives of pretty much everyone in Dillon. That’s easy enough to do with the high schoolers; graduation is a significant milestone in their young loves, acting as a gateway to an unknown future. For the students left behind, such as Julie and Landry, their paths have shifted course as well. Tyra’s departure (granted, to a Texas school) makes me wonder about Landry. Is that the end of his relationship with Tyra? Do they struggle through the long-distance thing? Does he move on? It would be weird, considering how long he’s burned, pined, and perished for her.
For Julie, most of her friends have moved on without her, but it seems that Matt’s still around, refusing to leave his grandmother. Nevertheless, Matt in college, even if locally, marks a different era in their relationship that raises even more questions than Landry’s situation. How will Matt struggle to balance college, a high school girlfriend, and still caring for a steadily deteriorating Lorraine? Will Matt blame and resent both Lorraine and Julie for his decision to give up on Chicago? And we don’t even know how Julie feels about the situation. Because Matt’s staying in Dillon, the questions are much more significant than the Landry/Tyra ones, making the story development unfit for a series finale. It’s just one of those situations where the show’s writers had to bite the bullet and risk leaving that storyline hanging for the sake of ensuring that the then-hypothetical fourth season would carry over some familiar plots.
With Tim and Lyla making the right decisions to take their own paths to college, that leaves Eric and Tami’s development. I like it because it works absolutely perfectly for both situations. Should the series end there, we’re left with that final craning shot, looking at this strong couple facing a future that’s unknown and no doubt rocky. But they’re together, as they’ve always been, and they’re going to move on together. As a setup for Season 4, it instantly shakes up the system by placing Eric in a new environment, with Tami still working at the rival school. New characters can fluidly be introduced as we inevitably lose some of the older ones, and the Taylors vs. McCoys conflict can continue with J.D. still playing ball against Coach Taylor’s new team. I’m actually excited about the new struggles Eric’s going to encounter, though I hope it doesn’t turn into a version of The Substitute, with Eric facing off against the troubled youth of East Dillon. The Panthers are a championship-caliber team, meticulously built, and with the boosters switching up the redistricting line, that leaves Coach Taylor and his Lions with the scraps of the town for a football team. You better believe they’re going to struggle, but I wonder how much. How long until Coach Taylor works his magic on the Lions? Who will be his next Saracen or Riggins or Smash or Santiago? With the 26 episode/2 season pickup, Friday Night Lights may very well shoot all of those episodes in one push, so I’m hoping for some juicy stories to span Seasons 4 and 5.
Either way, it seems a bit counterproductive to continue speculating and predicting what will transpire next season; we’ll find out soon enough. For DirecTV subscribers, the show will return about a half a year from now. For the rest of America, it’ll be 2010. That’s plenty of time to campaign to your friends on the show’s behalf, and plenty of time to catch them up on three strong seasons of quality television.
Jonathan Pacheco is a current web developer and future freelance writer. He blogs and reviews films at Bohemian Cinema.