To be honest, you can just say the words Friday Night Lights to me, and I’ll probably start tearing up. FNL fans know what I mean: The series as a whole was just the perfect mix of heartwarming and tragic storylines, and as a crier, I’m particularly vulnerable. Coach’s “we will be tested” speech in the pilot? Sobs. The Mud Bowl? Waterworks. Tyra getting into college? Niagara Falls on my face.
But nothing made me bawl more than season 4’s “The Son,” which – spoilers ahead, obviously – centered on Matt Saracen and his struggles to grieve over the death of his father, a man he hated. I didn’t need a Kleenex for this one; I needed a towel.
And I still do. Because anyone who has lost someone understands how hard it is to grieve and to go through the numbness that happens in the aftermath. And for Matt – awkward do-gooder Matt Saracen, number 7 and former QB1 – his father’s death doesn’t just numb him, it destroys him.
In Matt’s eyes, Henry Saracen was a terrible father. He was never around, always enlisting back in the Army and leaving Matt to take care of his grandmother. But when Henry dies in combat in Iraq, Matt’s forced to listen to one soldier after another telling him how heroic, how “funny,” how patriotic his dad was, and to him, it’s torture. Why should he remember someone he hated as “a good man”? Why should he have to eulogize someone he’s never really known? And from there, the episode launches into a barrage of character-defining, gut-wrenching Matt Saracen moments, each more painful than the last, and each contributing to why I just can’t get over “The Son”:
1. Matt’s speech on the football field with Riggins and Landry, venting out his frustration and anxiety about the funeral:
I gotta get up there in front of everybody and say good stuff about this man. And all I really want to say is, ‘Here lies Henry Saracen, his mother annoyed him, his wife couldn’t stand him, and he didn’t want to be a dad, so he took off to be in the Army because that’s the only way he could come up with to get out of here and ditch all your responsibilities, and no one could call you out on it, and that worked out great so you just decided to enlist four more times, and that ended up getting you killed, and now here you are. And all you left behind is a mother with dementia, a divorced wife, and a son that delivers pizza. Thank you for coming, 100 people I do not know.’ You know what the worst part is? Even if I did get up and say all that, I don’t even know if I’m saying it to him, because I don’t know what’s in that damn box. It’s a closed casket – might be someone else, someone funnier or a bunch of rocks.
2. The visit to the funeral home, when the camera lingers over Matt’s face as he looks into the casket and sees what’s left of his father’s corpse.
3. His meltdown at the Taylors’ house, when he says, “I just want to tell him to his face that I hate him, but he doesn’t even have a face,” and runs away, with Coach chasing after him.
4. And lastly, the final cathartic scene at the funeral, when Matt shovels the dirt on his own over Henry’s coffin, leaving his hands trailing blood all over the handle as Great Northern’s “Driveway” plays in the background, and Julie helplessly watches him.
It’s raw and powerful – and extraordinarily acted, thanks to Zach Gilford. Matt’s always been one of the most sympathetic characters on the show, and wrapping up his relationship with Henry like this hurts, but in the best way possible: We see the characters try to reach out to Matt, while Matt slowly gathers himself and delivers the eulogy for a father he considered a stranger.
So, no, I’ll never get over this episode, and I’ll never get over Matt or Zach Gilford’s performance. But what about you? What are you still not over in FNL?