Week 5: A Moving, Accurate Portrait of Grief

Friday Night Lights, Season 4

Week 5: A Moving, Accurate Portrait of Grief

Friday Night Lights, Season 4

Week 5: A Moving, Accurate Portrait of Grief
Talking television.
June 4 2010 6:50 PM

Friday Night Lights, Season 4

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Hanna, Emily, as you expected, I was particularly drawn to the thread about Matt's grief, having lost my mother in the winter of 2008 (in very different circumstances), and because I'm writing a book about grief. The episode's portrait of grief and its surrounding hypocrisies seemed spot on. I just finished doing some research about funerals, and watching Matt and Tami at the funeral home—with the manager smarmily going on about Veterans Affairs—I started yelling at the TV in fury at the way these places shamelessly try to bilk their needy, confused customers. For example, this bullshit about not letting moisture into the coffin, as if that mattered; the body is going to decompose anyway, and so, one day, will most of the coffin. It's American capitalism at its worst: a plethora of options, one more elaborate than the next, but with no real upside. And the rhetoric the industry uses ("you can honor your father in the manner he deserves") is manipulative and cynical. Have you seen The Loved One, the film adaptation of Evelyn Waugh's satire of the American funeral industry? There's a priceless scene in which the funeral director at "Whispering Glades" says to a hapless British man whose uncle has died, "What would you prefer—" and he proceeds to offer a list that goes something like "entombment, encoffinment, ensarcophagusment," and so forth. "Well, I rather think we should just have him buried," responds the befuddled nephew, there to perform what he had mistakenly thought was a straightforward duty.

It's interesting to me that you were skeptical about moments that had seemed to me to be entirely natural and inevitable. Hanna, you ask why Matt would want to see the body in the casket. To me it seemed obvious, but I realize it's not at all: One of the most powerful feelings you have when a primary person in your life dies is disbelief. (I sat with my mother as she died, and for 40 minutes after, and sometimes I still am not persuaded she is dead.) The mind has a powerful need to see the body, to instruct itself: This is a new chapter. Over the centuries most burial ceremonies have involved a viewing. (The Western tendency to hide the body came later, as the fear of death grew more intense.) I think Emily is right—for most of Matt's life, his dad has been absent. So there would be a particularly powerful need to discern that this absence was of another order. And who wouldn't get screwy about things like carrots and meat touching each other, who wouldn't want to reinforce boundaries, after seeing your father's dead, mangled body? In any case, I found that my quirks or phobias grew more intense in those first days. Grief really is a form of derangement of the senses, and this episode got it just right.

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As for wanting the anti-eulogy to stand for everything—I actually don't think that's realistic in this case. Clearly Matt wanted more from his dad. So he hated him, but he loved him and needed him too. His anti-eulogy on the field is extraordinary, but it's also not entirely true—it's a partial truth. His dad clearly did love soldiering, and had been someone who made his pals laugh, and that's hardly nothing. (Especially in Texas, where soldiers are treated with a respect I've never seen on the East Coast. As I was waiting to board a plane from Dallas to El Paso last week, the flight attendant called for all military personnel to board first; when the soldiers stood, the other passengers burst into spontaneous, sustained applause.) So what Matt found to say about soldiering seemed right—not fraudulent or saccharine. Rituals aren't about emotion, actually, they're about containing and closing something off, about giving shape to a life. I felt Matt was honest yet not cynical, and this seemed deeply connected to who he is.

More broadly, it seemed that this episode was all about being alone—Becky's solitude after the pageant; Tim's solitude after he gets off the phone with her; Julie's solitude in the face of not being able to comfort Matt. Again, I'll say that one thing FNL does exceptionally well is evoke sentiment without being sentimental. See the moment you mention, Emily, when Julie comes home from taking Matt to the funeral home, and her dad and Gracie Bell are playing on the ground. Eric says, "How's he holdin' up?" and Julie says, "He's trying" and starts to cry. When Eric hugs her and says, "I'm not going anywhere," it was real, and sad, and comforting all at once. Emily, I think you're right: We have to make these false promises to one another out of love, at least until the moment comes when it's obvious that someone is, in fact, about to die. The wish of a parent not to ever abandon his child is a true consolation, even if we all know it is patently impossible. Think how different Matt would feel if he'd known that kind of love from his dad.

Compare that scene with what felt to me like a moment of emotional pandering: Becky's mom freaking out about the shiftless dad. Does Becky really need to be saddled with two deadbeat parents as part of her story line? Then again, I suppose it's realistic. But the mom seems cartoonish at times—unlike Tami, Eric, Julie, and Matt.

Meghan O’Rourke is Slate’s culture critic and an advisory editor. She was previously an editor at the New Yorker. The Long Goodbye, a memoir about her mother’s death, is now out in paperback.