Friday Night Lights: Season finale showcases trademark high-stakes dramatics

_Spoiler alert: do not read this post if you have not seen the conclusion of “Friday Night Light’s” third season._

The third season of NBC’s Texas high school football drama “Friday Night Lights” came to its conclusion this Friday with a season finale bursting with the same high-stakes dramatics and poignant emotion the show has delivered all season long.

The biggest question mark heading into the episode: who was staying and who would be going? Four of the show’s most beloved high schoolers were graduating seniors, and it was anyone’s guess as to who, if any, among Tyra Collette (Adrianne Palicki), Lyla Garrity (Minka Kelly), Tim Riggins (Taylor Kitsch) and Matt Saracen (Zach Gilford) would be returning to Dillon next season.

I had my theories going in: Tyra and Lyla would leave, and Tim and Matt would stay. I also felt that season 3 villain Joe McCoy, the beer tycoon whose son was the team’s star freshman quarterback, would lose his battle to overtake Coach Eric Taylor (Kyle Chandler) and choose to ship out of town.

Tyra, in easily the most joyous scene of the entire season, finds out she’s been accepted off the wait list at the University of Texas. She has been one of my favorite characters throughout the show (Palicki is second only to Chandler among the cast’s current members in terms of power and consistency in her performances), and as sad as I’ll be to see her leave Dillon, I couldn’t be happier for her. Her character arc (laid out quite succinctly in last week’s episode) has led her to this point, to defy all odds and family conditions and go to college so that she can make something of herself.

It will be easier for me to let go of Lyla. While I think at times she got an unfairly bad rap (characters who have sex with their paralyzed boyfriends’ best friends usually do), I just don’t think she was ever woven into the fabric of Dillon and the show as tightly as the rest of the show’s main characters have been. And with her out of the picture at Vanderbilt, perhaps Riggins can turn back from his current choir boy status to the edgier character of seasons 1 and 2 we all fell in love with (more on him later).

Saracen, as I predicted, appears to be coming back next season. He ended the episode by picking up his grandma Lorraine at the nursing home he had just checked her into, saying: “You’re the only person who’s never left me. I’m not gonna leave you.” While at first it felt like a bit of a stretch to me, I believed Matt’s decision to stay. For Matt, it’s always been less about accomplishing things (he does that quite easily) and more about finding stability in his life. I can see why he wouldn’t be able to leave Grandma and his girlfriend Julie Taylor. I expect he’ll end up on Coach Taylor’s new coaching staff next season while taking night classes on the side.

This means I was 3-for-3 on my predictions, and looking like I was going to be right about Riggins as well up until the show’s final few minutes. After two weeks of setting him it up for him to stay, the writers pulled a 180 when Tim approached brother Billy as he was about to go off on his honeymoon. Billy, in by far the most responsible thing he’s ever said his entire life, told his little brother that he couldn’t just stick around Dillon, fixing cars and drinking beers like he wants to, that he has to think of his children and take advantage of his football scholarship to San Antonio State.

I’m going to channel my colleague Summer Finck here, and apply the “nobody’s dead until they’re buried in the ground” theory she uses for her “Lost” blogs, and say that nobody has left Dillon until they’ve packed all their bags and driven off for good. It would be a damn shame to lose Riggins, especially one season after losing the equally captivating Smash Williams (Gaius Charles), and it’s hardly a stretch in believability for Tim to somehow blow his opportunity or change his mind at San Antonio State.

By far the most shocking development of the episode came via the McCoy-Taylor showdown. It was so not only because of the surprising end result, but also because of how unrealistic it was. The show has stuck with absurd plotlines in the past (having the 5-star recruit Williams unable to get a single scholarship offer from ANY schools, not even smaller ones, following his knee injury; having the millionaire car king Buddy Garrity lose all of daughter Lyla’s college savings in a single investment; the Tyra-Landry accidental murder plotline of season 2), but this one felt more forced than all of them.

That the school board and town would decide to move Coach Taylor to the cross-town, soon-to-be-opened, completely dilapidated East Dillon High School in favor of McCoy’s hired quarterbacks coach Wade Aikman is beyond absurd. Yes, Aikman is an exciting football mind, and McCoy has enough money to buy the whole school system if he wants to, but Taylor had led the team to two state championship games in three years – the ultimate accomplishment in this town – and had molded countless young men along the way. The fact that it all happened without much of a fuss on the part of the townspeople makes it that much more realistic.

However, I do think that the move will ultimately be good for the show. With so many major characters leaving, the change in Eric’s scenery will be a great opportunity to bring along new ones. Chandler said in an interview recently that it will also likely lead to the show introducing more Hispanic and black characters, two underrepresented demographics on the show.

More than anything else, Eric’s move will create a good old-fashioned rivalry between East Dillon and Dillon high schools, and one between Coach Taylor and Joe McCoy. I can’t wait for the first scene next season between the two of them. I’m going to have to put my money on East Dillon for that game.

With “Friday Night Lights” booked for two more seasons, there will be plenty of time to sort through all the unanswered questions. The finale did a superb job of what the show typically delivers, an episode that leaves you wanting more but still wraps up enough little things to keep its viewers satisfied. The Billy Riggins-Mindy Collette wedding was spectacularly tacky in a simultaneously hilarious and endearing way. Landry’s pep talk to Tyra hit every right note. And the closing shot of Eric and wife Tami surveying the worn-down football field at East Dillon High was absolutely beautiful.

My one demand for season 4: Coach Taylor has to bring the “Clear eyes, full hearts” chant to East Dillon. It just can’t be trusted in the hands of Joe McCoy.


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