Friday Night Lights has dealt with a number of different controversial/layered story lines over the years. Whether it was teen paralysis, performance enhancing drugs, teen drinking, teen sex, war, or just sports in general, the show has always been less after school special and more documentary. But tonight’s episode took on two huge issues (teen pregnancy and separately, drug abuse) with such a knack for the subtle, that I’m almost in awe. Count me among those worried when I saw the scenes for this week’s episode and realized we’d be dealing straight on with Vince’s mom’s drug problem and Becky’s unwanted baby in the oven. It just seemed to bleed melodrama to the point of over saturating us with controversy for the sake of entertainment. I was wrong.
“I Can’t” dealt with children making adult choices. I say children, because although Friday Night Lights is an adult drama, it is easy to forget most of the characters are just kids. And while their decisions weren’t all easy, painless or without possible future repercussions, each faced an impossible choice in dealing with themselves or someone they loved.
Vince’s story continued to gain momentum from last week’s “The Lights of Carroll Park.” While his on field persona gained more confidence, the true essence of this kid’s dilemma came in the form of his relapsing mother and his struggle to bring her back from the edge. And in that struggle, Michael B. Jordan showed his acting prowess in a way we haven’t seen so far this season. Whether it was finding his mother passed out on the couch and his growing child-like anxiety about her condition, explaining to her that she OD’ed, asking if she takes drugs because she doesn’t love him, pleading with her not to leave him (or to choose her son over drugs), asking Virgil for the money to get her into rehab, and ultimately choosing a wayward path in order to help her was an exceptional acting performance from one of the younger cast members and on par with Zach Gilford’s turn in “The Son” and “Stay.”
Vince, who’s been basically running in circles since we first saw him literally trying to outrun the police in the season opener, begins to gain equal parts clarity and uncertainty as he’s clearly chosen a negative path – even if he did it for positive reasons. And when I saw him checking his mother into the rehab facility, and realized he got the money from somewhere, I just thought, “oh no.”
Meanwhile, we see Becky seeking some sort of justification for her actions. She wants to do the right thing without knowing what that thing is. And as she sat at the table with Tami, sniffling and asking things like, “Am I going to hell if I have an abortion?” it was easy to see her as a kid trapped in an adult body. The story of an unwanted pregnancy concentrated more on the emotions and less on the controversy, and the topic of abortion (which looks like it gains steam next episode) was handled more as a teenage dilemma than it was an ethical debate on the subject. So Becky (a standout performance by Madison Burge) walked through her world, much like Vince, being forced to make an impossible choice. And it’s easy to see why she went to Tami for guidance. Her father is gone. Her mother is clearly unequipped to handle the responsibility. She is poor. And the most stable person in her life is Tim Riggins. While that last part almost sounds comical, it actually is just more sad than anything. So she wants to make up for the mistakes of her mother (Becky was her mistake) by turning to a woman she barely knows because Becky (like Vince) is just a scared kid.
The kids on Friday Night Lights inhabit an adult world and with that world comes the pain of choice. Their problems don’t come with zero sum solutions and because of that we watch as their pain turns real. And although they operated with best intentions in mind, they’ll both find their lives as adults (they both grew up pretty darn quickly) are lived on a slippery slope. Once they’ve taken one step down, it’s an easy path to the bottom.
Other thoughts on a great episode:
- In this episode, every character turned to those they trust the most and it illustrated just how interwoven the Friday Night Lights world really is. Whether it was Vince going to Virgil, Tim going to Tami, Becky to her mother, Luke to his father, and Julie to her parents, each one looked for someone to lean on. And though their results varied, the message was clear: Everyone needs someone else and like Vince said, “Can’t do it alone.”
- Here’s hoping, along with Eric and Tami, that Julie’s Habitat for Humanity inspired relationship with Ryan is just a rebound. Although the comedic value of his trying to talk football with Eric was worth having him around another episode, it’s becoming painfully clear Julie is about to have yet another boy walk out of her life.
- Coach Taylor was in the middle of a bunch of comedic moments this episode. Whether it was the horror in his eyes when he says, “Tim Riggins is going to be a father?!” Or Tami making him walk to his car with a terrible hangover. Or his debate with Virgil over the best way to coach Vince. Leading me to...
- His conversation with Virgil was a nice way to deal with race, an underlying theme of this season. Eric sees Virgil’s advice as a black/white issue while Virgil sees it as an athleticism issue. And I get the sense they got very drunk just arguing in circles.
- The Riggins chop shop problem hopefully came to end this week with Tim pushing to end the madness. My wife put it best though when she said, “When Tim is the voice of reason, you know you are in trouble.” And actually on that note, Tim was also the one who guided Becky to Tami Taylor. An all around nice job by Mr. Riggins in this episode.