I’ve written a lot over this Memorial Day weekend. Some of it is already up, and some f it will drop later in the week. But I wanted to write a few more about “The Son,” the fifth episode of the fourth season of “Friday Night Lights.” As many of you know, I’ve been catching up on the series over the past few months, making up for this glaring omission in my television viewing experience. Normally, I’ve been dropping thoughts after each season, but I wanted to make an exception for this. Because this? THIS is why I spent so much time watching television and writing about it.
I knew “The Son” was coming down the pike, almost from the moment I started the rewatch. No one really gave specifics away, but after the 100th “Matt will break your heart in Season 4” tweet, I pretty much knew that either Matt’s father would die, Matt’s grandmother would die, or that Matt’s father and grandmother would kill each other in a John Woo-esque duel. But knowing that and seeing it are two different things, and even if I was intellectually prepared for “The Son,” I wasn’t close to emotionally ready.
It’s something that I take for granted when watching it now, but upon first getting into the series this past winter, it alarmed me how close the show’s documentary-type style gets me to the characters onscreen. It’s not so much that I’m seeing things I shouldn’t be seeing. It’s that I’m seeing things that I don’t normally get the privilege to see. The combination of stolen vantage point and overlapping, seemingly improvised dialogue leaves no room to distance oneself from what’s happening onscreen. This makes the highs higher, but it also makes the lows lower.
What sparks so much grief in “The Son” isn’t so much the death of Matt’s father Henry so much as the reaction Matt has to it. There’s certainly pathos to be had in the death of a man who abandoned one family yet found brothers in arms overseas. But we really haven’t had to think about Henry much since the end of Season 2, when a drunken Matt cried his eyes out in the bathtub about how everyone kept leaving him. “Leave No One Behind” was the highlight of Season 2, and a highlight of Zack Gilford’s performance as perpetually beleaguered Matt Saracen. But “The Son” blows “Leave No One Behind” completely out of the water.
Henry’s narrative absence actually works in the show’s favor, as there’s little sense before the military police arrive at Matt’s house that anything could be amiss. Out of sight, out of mind, as it were. Until this point, Matt hadn’t exactly been served well by the show in this fourth season. His position as pizza delivery guy and local art student with a chip on his shoulder sounds fine on paper, but hadn’t really made a mark onscreen. Having his anger directed at Julie for her imminent departure rather than his grandmother for her incurable condition seemed a bit odd, as well. But all of that in hindsight seems like a four-episode sucker punch, a way to treat Matt’s life as benign and aimless before bringing reality crashing down around him. Life (and death) is what happens when you’re busy making plans. Or pizza runs.
The show’s treatment of Henry’s death is a combination of the way “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” dealt with it in its fifth season (a semi-comic episode proceeding a gut-wrenching, show-defining hour) coupled with a key death in the second season of “Deadwood” (depicting the ripple effects that a death can have on a close-knit community). And since those are two of my favorite depictions of the grief that follows death in my short time critically thinking about television, “The Son” turned into the Reese’s Peanut Butter Cup of morbidity for yours truly. For the ways in which episodes such as “The Body,”, “Advances, None Miraculous”, and “The Son” reward long-term viewers and long-evolving characters is to bring the pain, but it’s the type of pain that’s cathartic, not simply masochistic.
The cries that Gilford was robbed by not receiving awards for his performance tonight make intellectual sense to me. On the other hand, what are most voters supposed to do with a performance so raw on a show this unvarnished? The tendency for most would be to look away. My wife loved the pilot episode of this show, but decided her heart couldn’t take a show this heavy and emotional for five more seasons. That means I’m sneaking in episodes when she’s not around or already asleep. But I get where she’s coming from, and I imagine it’s the attitude a lot of people have towards “Friday Night Lights.” I don’t agree with it, but the ratings certainly bear this out. The point is this: Emmy voters reward performances, and it’s incredibly unclear if what Gilford does is actual a performance or an actual embodiment. The lack of artifice actually works AGAINST him in that regard. It’s unfair, but there you have it.
Again, I’ll have a lot more to say about how this all plays out over the season as a whole when I wrap up Season 4. I’m aiming to do so this week, which means I’ll have a full write-up in about seven days or so. But I wanted to get these thoughts out, on Memorial Day of all days, while they were fresh in my head. I did so not only to give all the people who were so anxious for me to see this episode to share their thoughts in the comments below, but for me to get a chance to transfer my thoughts onto virtual paper. Seemed like a more constructive thing to do than simply crying for the next few hours until I ran out into the street, tears streaming down my face.