Was Tami right to turn in Luke Cafferty, the West Dillon player who was faking his address? Dramatically, everything leads us to believe so. She scored a point against Joe McCoy and the dastardly boosters by taking their star player away. She accomplished this in one of the most satisfying you-go girl scenes in TV history, facing down McCoy publicly at a boosters meeting. She unflinchingly enforced the law, at the cost of her own popularity.
But I'm not entirely on her side here. This incident reminds me of the time last season when Tami called child protective services after seeing Joe McCoy strike his son. Most of the time, Tami follows her own moral compass. But every once in a while she turns into a strict constructionist and dutifully follows the letter of the law. In this case, what principle was she defending, except an arbitrary redistricting and her husband's right to field a decent team?
Operation Mailbox has devious origins, namely Buddy. And Eric never really answers Tami when she asks whether he knew about that fake mailbox in past seasons—"I didn't put that mailbox there!" he yells. But of course he didn't put it there. Still, Tami proceeds with the original plan to remove Luke, as if she has no choice in the matter. The only real victim here is Luke—big, handsome, heartbreakingly humble Luke, who will clearly be a competitor to Matt this season for our collective cooing and maternal sympathies. What do you think, ladies? Did you see any ambiguity here?
Otherwise, the direction of this episode was clear. It did a brilliant job of moving the action backward—that is, further away from ultimate triumph. Every one of our familiar characters was knocked off his game or disoriented. The episode opened with Riggins asleep in the truck and went downhill from there: Julie walked into a school where she was clearly the alien, assaulted by unfamiliar sights and noises. Landry's semi-ironic politeness got him nowhere, and he ended up crashing into a girl on her bicycle. Matt discovered that he is not really an artist, just a lackey for some tattooed lunatic in loose underwear who will occasionally say some artsy, prophetic things. Tami got booed at a pep rally. And Eric, at one point, almost looked like he was crying on the empty field. This all stands in sharp contrast to the steady cockiness of McCoy and his team. As usual, the show does a great job capturing this mood with a trademark gesture. Where Eric had his lip biting, McCoy has his gum chewing. "I can smell state," he says, chewing hard, although the football season has barely started.
Apart from the main East Dillon/West Dillon arc, we also got introduced to a lot of possible subplots. I'll list them here in order of my own personal preference, and please remind me of any I may have missed:
1. Buddy is starting to turn on the Panthers. This is candy for me; I can never get enough of Buddy.
2. Vince and his mom. This one has potential to draw us into the East Dillon scene but only if they have the guts of The Wire. It starts out convincingly, with Vince's mom clearly strung out and asking coach Taylor for money. Let's hope they have the courage to let that very raw, addict-mother story line play out slowly and painfully.
3. Jess Merriweather and Landry. She's sassy. I like her. But how did they find a beautiful black girl who somehow sort of looks like Landry? And can they get rid of her jazz hands moment in the opening montage? It makes me cringe every time.
4. Becky and Riggins. Becky is the highlight here. Without her sparky, jailbait quality, this development is just rank Riggins abuse—close-ups of his floppy hair, slow unfolding of his noble loserdom.
5. Matt and the artist Richard Sherman. Please join me here in condemning this man's property and thus ensuring he does not appear in future episodes.
There was also the genius cameo by former Texas Tech coach Mike Leach, who played the prophet who stopped coach Taylor at the gas station and told him to get back in touch with his "inner pirate." (Fine advice, except that Leach himself was suspended last year for allegedly abusing one of his players.)
And we did get our first little cathartic moment, with coach Taylor asking the players to burn their uniforms, as a kind of ritual bonfire purging of their shameful forfeit. It seemed like a suitably dramatic, almost spiritual move on Coach's part, and a promising way to force a new future. And by that point in the episode they had earned their triumph. Only I kept seeing it from Luke's point of view: This is a football practice? Won't these nylon uniforms smoke up the field? Is this what they call a "trash can fire"? Can these guys really afford new uniforms? Now can we please play some football?