Episode 13 of most network shows' first season tends to be pretty interesting for a simple reason -- most networks only offer an initial order of 13 episodes, so it puts showrunners in a tricky position. They have to produce an episode that could, for all intents and purposes, be the end of the series if things go poorly, but which also leaves the door open for plenty more. It has to be both an ending and a beginning, and that is this episode to a tee.
Because we get growth, and culmination, and the possibility of a next step for everyone. When we meet Matt, he's a going-nowhere back up quarterback who can barely keep his home life together. He was hesitant, lacked confidence in himself, and basically just went with the flow. At the end of this episode, he has the conviction to hug his dad because it's what he wants, even if he's clearly a little reluctant about it. His family feels stronger in that sad goodbye followed by the sweet hug between him, the grandmother he looks after, and the girlfriend he found the strength to open his heart too. And he goes to his coach with a play of his own design, gets the trust to run it in a do-or-die situation (Though real world note, that was probably a dumb call to make in that specific situation!), and he had the confidence in his abilities to pull it off and save the day. The Matt we met in episode 13 is very different than the Matt we met in Episode 1, and he still has plenty of places to go.
The same is true for the climax of the Jason-Lyla storyline. Again, this should be more interesting than it is. There's a lot of pathos and struggle in the decision whether to be with someone after your life has changed and it means changing their life too. Jason's proposal is a little predictable, but it's a logical (if rushed) endpoint to the whole tedious love triangle. Both he and Lyla have gotten on solid ground again, and are ready to go forward together after their rocky times. It's cheesy, but it makes sense, and it gave us the scene between Jason and Buddy which was one of the stand outs of the episode in how it made Buddy very much the bad guy, but also made his POV understandable if very unfair.
We also get some progress from Tyra and her family. I have to admit, I didn't particularly care for this one. The idea that they had to fix the flat tire on their own or they'd be stuck forever, and the whole "I need to save you to believe I can save myself" business was a little too much turning subtext into text for me. But again, it's progress for the character, and a sign that she believes in her mom and in herself to figure a better life. Even Tim Riggins gets a nice grace note by helping Tyra's mom get the interview. The whole receptionist job seems destined for sexual harassment, but still! It's progress! Kind of!
And Tami has a job working for the mayor's campaign, which is again, a sign of her settling into this community and finding a place where she was still struggling with having to be the coach's wife, and has now decided that this is something she wants to do for herself. The scene where she tells Coach about it is great, between the things said, the things left unsaid, coach's steely reaction, and the lovey-dovey stuff after. Their relationship feels very lived in, and that helps a lot. The homophobia isn't a good look, but it's not malicious and it's true-to-life, so I can appreciate it as texture to these complicated people.
And speaking of complicated, I love love loved the Brian story. Smash's mom is one of my favorite characters, because she just has such conviction. She is unrelenting moral certitude, and while that can come off officious if not written or acted well, here it feels like it comes from a place of love and deep care and belief. The whole "clean your room and found drugs" bit is a cliche, but her fury, her abiding affection for her son, and her strong moral principles come through in the aftermath and elevate the scene. One of the thing I've appreciated about the show as its developed is how it's expanded on the characters motivations and had them intersect. The culmination of the pressure on Brian because he feels like his family's future depends on him, and his mom's desire that he be healthy and safe more than anything works well.
It leads to a great moral dilemma for coach. I realized that I'm a sucker for these moral dilemmas, and seeing Coach Taylor having to decide whether to stick to the letter of the law which would ruin Brian's life, or give him a pass, however temporary, which also goes against his ideals. He picks a middle ground, and takes time to both do the honorable thing by holding Brian out of the game and requiring him to do testing, while also showing him the error of his ways and forcing him to think that football isn't the answer to all his problems. It's great acting from Kyle Chandler throughout, but especially in his scene with Brian at the diner. As with Smash's mom, the combination of anger and care comes through very well, and makes the scene compelling.
And hey, the Panthers even made the playoffs. That too is both an ending and a beginning. After all the setbacks from the beginning--an injured star QB, the behind-the-scenes jostling and intra-team squabbling and rule-bending issues that threatened to sink the whole season, Coach Taylor's team made it to the dance and that is an accomplishment in and of itself. But the fun is just beginning as every team they play will be a tough one from here on out. After thirteen episodes, the show itself had several setbacks (the worst of them being that damn neverending love triangle), and I had my reservations, but despite some recurring cheesiness and spotty acting in places, I'm pretty firmly on board now, and happy to see where the show goes from here.
Matt's dad is shown going back to Iraq in this episode. At the bus station we see him in his uniform wearing the insignia of a Sergeant in the United States Army(E-5). It was established in a prior episode that he has served for twenty years. This is not possible as the requirements of High Year Tenure in the Army only allow an E-5 to serve for 14 years before being automatically discharged.