In the fifth episode of the fourth season of Friday Night Lights, a shovel of dirt. A flash of red. A burial. Intrigued? Then it’s time for Mark to watch Friday Night Lights.
Trigger Warning: I know it kind of goes without saying, but this review must cover death and the myriad of emotional reactions to it in great detail. However, I’ll also add that it’s going to be impossible for me to write anything happy here. This is going to be a sad piece, so if you’re not up for that, either, I’d save this for another day.
Matt is his father’s son.
In an effort to avoid some repetition here, I’m going to ask y’all to read a primer of sorts if you’re not familiar with my earlier work. There are some chilling and upsetting similarities between what is portrayed in “The Son” and things that happened in my own life. I wrote about it in-depth in a non-fiction piece attached to a review of the final chapter of Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, and it will help provide some context to what I’m about to say here. Obviously, it’s a very difficult thing to read, so heads up, but I think it will give you a basis for understanding why I was so affected by this particular episode of Friday Night Lights.
I suppose it’s always an unnerving experience when art imitates life. I think a lot of us consider ourselves and our lives singular. We struggle to find ways to believe that what’s happening to us is not happening to us alone. However, do we ever make those connections? Do we find the community and the support we need? Or do we continue to drift, convinced that the world has targeted us for a kind of suffering that no one else is experiencing? For a long time, I believed in an existential sort of persecution, as if the universe simultaneously didn’t care about me, but also went out of its way to torment me with trauma after trauma. In hindsight, it’s clearly an egotistical, self-centered way of viewing oneself in the grand scheme, but at the same time, I don’t think I should be too hard on myself. Growing up as a brown queer in a conservative town with abusive parents and a school full of bullies, it’s very easy to believe that you’re the exception, that everyone else is getting along and has friends and is accepted. It’s the very nature of your mental state.
I’ve struggled with that for years, but it wasn’t until my father passed away in 2006 that I was faced with a traumatic experience that a lot of people had gone through. I didn’t have much of a support system at the time, but I did have some close friends and my own family to lean upon. What I didn’t expect was to have to deal with my own conflicting feelings towards my dead father and the rest of my family. When the world â€“ through popular media like movies, television shows like 7th Heaven or Leave It to Beaver, shows I was forced to watch with my family â€“ tells you that you must support your own family at all costs, it’s easy to assume that there’s something wrong with you when you’re at odds with that very idea.
I could never fully support everything my family did or stood for, and my dad’s death unearthed all of that at once.
A shovel of dirt. A flash of red. A burial.
Matt Saracen has always had a sad journey on Friday Night Lights. From the very beginning, we’ve watched him struggle with things that most teenagers never have to face. Even when he was presented with multiple opportunities to escape, to be selfish and find happiness on his own, he hesitates to do anything that would leave the ones he loves behind. He resisted putting Lorraine in a home, and even after he did, she wasn’t even there for twenty-four hours. He abandoned going to college in Chicago to stay with Julie. He encouraged his father to re-enlist instead of stay home and be unhappy. At heart, Matt is an unselfish character. It’s both one of his best qualities and the very sword he willingly falls upon.
A town like Dillon, Texas mourns in a public way. They are a community. We watch as the Taylors quickly rally around Matt however they can, inviting him to dinners, organizing the wake for his father, and getting the East Dillon Panthers to say a word of prayer in support. It’s a beautiful support system, one I don’t really want to criticize because it’s both genuine and effective for the most part. But the idea that this mourning period is so public is eventually what begins to grate his nerves. How can he continually put on a show for these people? That show â€“ the presentation of his own sadness for his father â€“ is deeply unfair for Matt because he’s not sad about his dad dying. He’s sad because his dad abandoned him. He’s angry with his father for having a life in the military that seemed so much more joyous than the one he gave his own son. He’s furious that his life could never be normal because he was left behind. How can he communicate that to these people? How could they possibly understand that he hated his father for what he did? In a town that believes that family comes first, how can they expect Matt to pretend that his own father believed that family came first?
We see manifestations of this struggle throughout the episode. Matt rejects the insincere condolences of the McCoys because part of the reason he had such a difficult year was due to the McCoys. He is distant and snappy with Landry and Julie. He outright confirms this on the Dillon Panther field to Billy, Tim, and Landry. This all feels like a charade to him.
So Tim suggests they make it real.
A shovel of dirt. A flash of red. A burial.
I resented my father’s refusal to bond with me. One of the things Friday Night Lights has allowed me to open up about is how the game of football became a divisive point between my father and I as I came to understand that his homophobia prevented him from getting close to me. My dad only enjoyed things that were typically masculine. Football. Westerns. The military. Hiding your emotions from others. At times, his Japanese/Hawaiian culture brought out the worst of these traits, especially when he’d lecture me about family duty and honor. No matter what my family did to me, I had to honor and respect them. I was never allowed to defend myself. A part of me will always believe that he told me these things because he saw how my mother treated me, and it scared him. But he didn’t have the tools to help me. He grew up in a family where the women were quiet and resourceful, where the men ran the household and made all the decisions. He married a white woman who was loud, boisterous, crude, and always in control. What was he supposed to do? His lectures would always come after a particularly brutal round of my mother’s discipline, the kind that would make me cry and shrink away from her, terrified of her presence in the room.
“Blood is the most important thing,” he’d say to me, looking over the tops of his aviator glasses as he wiped sweat off his brow. He would always sweat a lot if there was fighting in my house. He was covered in sweat often. “Your family is all you have. You must respect them and do right by them in the world.” I’d nod, my eyes full of tears, or maybe I’d be holding my arm where I’d been struck, or maybe I’d be staring off into the middle distance, trying to navigate the horror of the possibility that they knew I was gay. The details were different, but the result was the same.
It never made sense to me because my family put me through so much, and it never seemed like they did right by me. If blood was the most important thing, then why was I so summarily rejected all the time?
A shovel of dirt. A flash of red. A burial.
I was not given the chance or the opportunity to see my father’s body. He wanted to be cremated, and that was done within a day or two of his death. When I came home, all that was left of him was his recliner and the empty gurney in the living room. You could trace the outline of his body in that chair, but I refused to. I refused to touch it. I refused to acknowledge that he was gone, and when I told my mom that everything would be okay, that he’d walk through the front door right now with some foolish joke, she looked at me, horrified that I’d say something like this, but she just hugged me and we cried together.
I am relieved that I never saw my father’s dead body. I don’t know that I could have dealt with seeing an object without the life in it. As soon as Matt and his friends burst into the funeral home, I knew this was a bad idea. I appreciate that the writers did not choose to reveal the corpse to us, mostly because it allowed them to rely on Zach Gilford’s absolutely soul-crushing acting. His horror is all that we need as the viewer.
I didn’t have a single moment that I could call a breakdown. I had multiple of them, including the one at the funeral that’s described in the review linked at the top. Banal things could trigger them, or my sister’s obstinate and rude behavior would. But when they did happen, they were confusing, vicious, and horrifying to witness, and I suppose I do feel bad for the people at my work, or the guy I was dating, or my brother and mother to have to witness them. I lashed out a lot, and I tried to keep things to myself so I didn’t hurt others, but it was too much to deal with by myself.
I can’t imagine, then, that it was easy to write Matt Saracen’s scene at the Taylors. I can’t imagine it was easy for any of the actors in that scene. In a world where we are expected to exalt our family, it is incredibly risky to center an emotional breakdown around a character hating his father. But what does it for me is the attention to details. It’s very easy to compare this episode to the writing and acting in “The Body” in season five of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and I mean that in the highest compliment I could possibly give. Matt focuses on the details of the dinner plate that the Taylors saved for him, and it undoes him. It pulls him apart, and suddenly, he’s telling these people who’ve known him for years about how he really feels, and he wishes he could tell his father that he hates him to his face, but he doesn’t even have one. This specific reference to the corpse is obviously upsetting, but it represents Matt’s utter horror at the whole affair. These things happen, he tells Julie earlier in the episode, except now they’re happening to him. Matt feels like the world doesn’t care about him while it simultaneously singles him out.
A shovel of dirt. A flash of red. A burial.
I ultimately made my own sort of peace with my father, and like my life with him, it’s complicated. I spoke positively of him at his wake, which was held in Riverside so that those who could not travel to Hawaii for the funeral could honor him. I chose to keep my reservations about my relationship with him to myself. I did not do so well at the funeral, but that was mostly due to my inability to stay quiet about my sister’s revolting treatment of my father. So I appreciate that in the end, Matt finds something to say about his father that isn’t a lie, but doesn’t drag the others into the storm of emotions that he’s feeling. It’s an admonishment of his father’s absence with some empathy thrown in. His father found happiness in helping others. Those others, though, just didn’t include his own son.
But once everyone has left, Matt stands with Julie as they watch the groundskeepers shovel dirt onto Matt’s father’s coffin. It’s not long before Matt grabs the shovel himself and begins to fling dirt onto what remains of his dad.
We see it. A shovel of dirt. A flash of red. The burial. There is no happy ending for Matt Saracen, and as he angrily buries his father, he bleeds. His father will always cause him pain, and what he told the funeral attendees doesn’t negate his extreme hatred for his dad. It is an unnerving end to an episode that frankly and brilliantly addresses the complications of Matt’s family. It honors and respects how Matt would feel, and it honors and respects Zach Gilford’s talent.
It is, simply put, one of the best episodes of television that I have ever seen.
Very briefly! There are a couple of other plots of significance here in “The Son” that are worth mentioning, but for the sake of developing a flow, I left them out. (LIKE LYLA OH MY GOD.)Â I’m glad that Tim very clearly rejects Becky’s interest because I really didn’t want the show to go in this direction. Plus, we get a sequence that heavily foreshadows a possible relationship between Luke and Becky, which is much more interesting to me. Luke has rejected J.D.’s friendship, too, especially once he realizes that J.D.’s classist attitude toward the East Dillon Lions is a means for him to make fun of and look down on Luke. It’s been really disturbing to see J.D. turn into his father when left to his own devices, but I’m honestly not surprised that this is the case. If the Dillon Panthers have come to represent everything wrong with football culture, then J.D. is a manifestation of that.
With Vince Howard, I’m still hoping that we get a nuanced and respectful story from what is introduced here. His mother is an addict, and the environment he lives in is representative of what happens in cities abandoned by funding and development, by racism and classism. I’m concerned of this slipping into stereotypes, but I appreciated where Vince’s story was taken. The man is confused and bewildered by the reverence he gets because he’s not used to it. He has to break the law to support his family, so why should these kids look up to him? But I noticed how much more exuberant they were when Vince spoke. Look at who runs up to him: It’s all the young black kids. They see someone who looks like them, and it excites them. It makes the possibility of success real to them. So how is this going to change Vince’s life? How can he support his family and play football?
It should go without saying at this point, but I really love this show.
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