We all saw this one coming, and yet it felt so unnatural. Matt is so in his bones a sidekick type that it hurt to have him pushed into center stage and then to have everyone watch him suffer. The only time he looked comfortable was when he was in passive mode, sitting and watching the video his dad made for him. That was an excellent scene, I thought. Matt at his desk watching his dad as the mirthless Santa Claus, surrounded by his own sketches of dismembered hands—signs of his artistic promise that have now taken on a macabre twist. "That was good," his dad says hurriedly to whoever is shooting the video because he, too, is uncomfortable taking the stage and wants it to end.
The episode did a fine job of pushing Matt through several stages of grief. You just knew when Buddy cornered Matt and told him how his dad was so "important" and such a "heee-ro" that Matt—gentle, wry, nonconfrontational Matt—was going to blow because of, we know from previous seasons, how he feels about his dad. And then he did blow, both at the soldier who came for the funeral and then at the Taylor house, where he seemed slightly insane, pushing his food around and complaining about the carrots touching the meat.
The best Matt explosion came on the football field, where Landry and the Riggins boys took him to drink beers and get him away from "death, dying, and deviled eggs." ( Lucinda Williams, steal those lyrics!) This was a clever scene as well. Billy Riggins was inventing memories, about football legends that never happened. "Never has he been called May Day," Tim complained. Then Matt decided to do his own complaining about the legend that never was and gave a fabulous anti-eulogy about his father: "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 in the army, because that's the only way he could come up with to ditch all his responsibilities."
You were prescient, Emily, about the extra pain Matt feels because he has an unresolved relationship with his father. Becky at least gets to chafe against some father-conflict, via her mother: "I don't care if you're hauling pieces of Jesus' cross back to Bethlehem," she yells at Becky's father, who has once again failed to show up at the pageant. And Vince gets to be quietly disappointed with a mother he has to rescue. But Matt has nothing to rub up against, just an idea of a father he's in the habit of hating.
I really wanted it to end at the hate. I have this fantasy that at my own funeral, people should only tell the truth and not make up stories about how I am the kind and charitable person that I am often not. (Anyone else share that?) I always righteously defend British newspapers, which do not observe the American habit of respecting the dead. But, of course, it shouldn't end there. The show rightly moved us into your territory, Meghan, about the importance of ritual and formality to keep someone in grief from sliding into madness and chaos.
Grandma gets her hair fluffed; Matt puts on a suit and gives the eulogy. It's a little strange and inappropriate, consisting mostly of a story about toilet paper that happened at a supermarket when he was 6. But it's sweet and respectful and ends on an admiring and somewhat grand note about the army being something important and something his dad was proud of. It even acknowledges that his father might have been funny sometimes. Then the soldiers in attendance fold the flag and fire three shots, and everything ends as it should.
Now, what to make of that Stand by Me interlude where the boys bust into the funeral home and demand to see the body? I understand that Matt needed to know he was not burying a "pile of rocks," but what was he looking for? Was this just a way of seeking some kind of resolution that seemed compelling and urgent but would inevitably disappoint? What was so important about the solidity of the face? Was this our signal that even if Matt broke through the euphemisms of death into the tangible horror, he was still not going to find his satisfaction?