Ken Tucker
July 02, 2011 AT 05:23 AM EDT

The return of Tim Riggins — freed from jail last week, with not a little help from Coach Eric Taylor’s character-witness testimony before a parole board — set this week’s Friday Night Lights into emotional motion. What was striking was that, as superb as Taylor Kitsch has always been in this role, FNL has raised a supporting cast during his absence that has risen to the challenge of this terrific series.

The hour, titled “The March,” picked up right where last week left off: At the party in Billy Riggins’ house to welcome Tim home. Tim was poker-faced — he still had his prison demeanor on, his guard up, and it cracked only when he expressed his strong disapproval for high-schooler Becky waitressing at The Landing Strip. (“She’s only 17!” he’d yell later in the hour.) The employment Buddy had promised Tim turned out to be one bartending at Buddy’s place, a nice gesture, but a job almost designed to make Tim more morose. (Nice touch: Tim and Buddy watching news footage of Smash Williams on the bar’s TV playing Texas A&M football.)

While the East Dillon Lions kept up their inexorable drive to the state finals, the school got some bad news: The poor economy has hit Dillon hard, and the principal announced more than just budget cuts and a probable loss of jobs: “There’s no money coming in [for the school]; they want money back.” (Sounds like Gov. Chris Christie in New Jersey.) To his demoralized teaching staff, the principal concluded: “Pray.” Literally seconds later, Tami got a call about a possible job offer in Philadelphia; in a lesser show, I’d say this was too neat, but FNL has so much story to cram into its final hours, sometimes niceties of tempo must be forsaken. Last week, it was Eric being offered and rejecting a nice job in Florida; now Philly beckons to Tami.

In a spiral we were prepared to witness from last week but which was nevertheless painful to behold, Vince’s dad has taken to drinking and worse, threatening his wife’s sobriety and becoming defensive and surly. Locks had to be changed, and this was the worst time possible for Vince to have to deal with family troubles, lest they distract him from the football goals ahead.

Director/Lights overseer Jason Katims did an amazing job of keeping all the plots moving along, as Tami made the trip to Phildelphia, went into her interview and gave it such a Tami-riffic spin, she ended up being offered the job of the stuffed-shirt guy who interviewed her. Again, for anyone else but Tami and a show such as FNL, this would have been a bit much; as it was, it simply seemed like justice. And a future problem for the Taylors to sort out, though I think if Eric could turn down that Florida job (oh, how Tami and Gracie Belle wanted to swim in that house’s pool!), I think turning down chilly Philly isn’t going to be too much of a sweat, do you? I mean, there’s no way Principal Levi is going to lose of his most sought-after employee, is there? In the world of FNL, anything can happen…

While the series of football games was integrated smoothly into the hour, it was ultimately Tim Riggins’ episode. It was clear that it will take a lot for him to stop resenting Billy for letting him take the fall for their criminal enterprise. (Nice job by Derek Phillips as Billy and Stacey Oristano as Mindy for handling these tricky scenes). After getting into a fight at The Landing Strip over Becky that resulted in her losing her job (“Tim, I needed that job… You humiliated me!”), Riggins, in full, stoic, Cool Hand Luke mode, said, “I have to go.” And he was right: Tim (and Kitsch) have outgrown the series, but his return has made for an excellent set-up for his send-off. Tim, once the series’ most lovable rogue, devillish and clever, was the James Dean of Friday Night Lights. Now, he’s more like Sal Mineo in Rebel With A Cause; he’s been beaten down in a way that seemed heartbreakingly convincing.

How many more hearts will break before the final season of Friday Night Lights concludes?

Twitter: @kentucker

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