Friday Night Lights isn’t just a show about football. Yes, episodes often begin or end with football games and each season is centered around the sports season, but at its core Friday Night Lights is about being a good person, and more often than not, a good man. Masculinity is the show’s persistent theme, and Coach Taylor (Kyle Chandler) is the exemplary best man, leading as many adolescents as he can toward a healthier, kinder understanding of manhood than sports culture and rural Texas life might normally inspire.
No chapter communicates the crushing weight of this transition quite like the Emmy-nominated fourth season episode “The Son”. It’s the series’ most overtly emotional hour, anchored by Zach Gilford’s disconcertingly raw performance and director Allison Liddi-Brown’s penchant for subtle, powerful filmmaking choices. The episode follows Matt (Gilford) in the aftermath of his father’s death and plays out a bit like an inverted version of Buffy the Vampire Slayer’s “The Body” (S5E16), a meditation on the pointless, confusing death rites that do little to soothe the living. Unlike Buffy, though, Matt quietly hated his father, an active duty military member who kept both physical and emotional distance from the family.
Early in the episode Matt stays stoic, as if crying would signal failure. But when the camera lingers on his reaction as he looks inside the coffin at the unidentifiable remains of his father, Gilford’s face becomes that of a helpless boy, a mask of pain and fear. Liddi-Brown uses close-ups several times throughout the episode, and each manages to serve a wholly different emotional purpose than the last.
When Matt later breaks down while eating dinner with the Taylors, he’s given a moment of validation and comfort that his own parent couldn’t offer. He sobs in the street, wracked with grief for the love he never held for his father, when Coach Taylor meets him. Instead of telling him to suck it up, as Matt’s dad or teammates might, Coach wordlessly walks him home.
In the final scene, Matt tirelessly shovels dirt onto his father’s coffin. A blink-and-you’ll-miss-it shot reveals his blood smeared over the shovel’s handle. It’s a grave, emphatic final image of a wounded son.