The Righteous Gemstones‘ first flashback episode, season one’s “Interlude”, was a revelatory moment for the young series, positing the series was about something more than light Biblical metaphors and exuberantly delivered black comedy. “Interlude” brought to light the true heart and soul of the series – Aimee-Leigh Gemstone – firmly establishing the series as something more emotional… and decidedly more tragic, in the way Danny McBride uniquely does with his capital-A Asshole Protagonists. In similar fashion, “Interlude II” offers a phenomenally potent blend of emotional nuance and narrative clarity, deepening the conflicts of previous episodes with a carefully constructed trip back to Christmas 1993, in an episode I’ll be thinking about for months to come.
“Interlude II” steps into the Gemstone story during a time where a lot of external forces were weighing down on the family; burdened by bankruptcy rumors and tax questions (there is mention of a Barbara Walters interview going very poorly), the episode opens with Eli desperately attempting the “grow too big to fail” strategy he clearly employed during his nascent wrestling career; intimidation is a powerful tool, and appearing as Goliath (even when one might be more akin to David’s stature) is often a critical part of the Rich Evangelical identity. But with dwindling funds, Eli finds himself at a moral crossroads when a retiring Glen Marsh shows up to launder $3 million through the Gemstone empire, setting himself up with a nice retirement.
All season, The Righteous Gemstones has posited Eli’s resistance to bringing Junior into his life for a particular reason; bringing up memories of the boy he used to be, not the righteous man he’d become. Of course, we’ve been led to believe that’s because Junior is a shit stirring wild card with no morals and a loose trigger finger; which he definitely is, but “Interlude II” reveals that in fact, his vendetta runs much deeper with Eli – and more importantly, gives frightening voice to the visual parallels the first four episodes of this season have hammered home (yeah, I’m talking about all the thumb-breaking).
Like his father, Junior showed up to Eli’s unannounced, offering up “help” that Eli didn’t explicitly ask for (though, you know – he’s not complaining about a pile of money or the lack of an annoying journalist poking around), and now he’s pissed about being rescinded – the parallels of father and son are disturbingly neat, in a way that makes me think Kelvin may be shooting Junior before we get to the end of the season – because remember, murder brings death.
However, the reveal of why Eli is so uncomfortable and hostile about Junior is but only one of the episode; there are plenty of other characters in “Interlude II” trying to bury their darkest thoughts in concrete – though as this season has suggested, those ghosts and feelings are never going to go away. The most obvious of these, of course, is Baby Billy, who is struggling with the hubristic decision to leave his wife and child at the mall (because he was too embarrassed he wouldn’t be able to provide for them, or so he says). Baby Billy, in his usual duplicitous ways, shows up for a Gemstone Christmas hoping to get a fancy Christmas gift – but also, to ignore the catastrophic feelings of failure and self-pity he’s drowned himself in… again, to the point he left his fucking kid staring at a Christmas gift he was never going to get.
Again, “Interlude II” is giving new voice to events we’ve spent the past three weeks observing the ripple effects of; Junior’s strange reappearance, Martin and Eli’s relationship (another highlight: Martin’s first day of work and 90’s mustache), Baby Billy’s anxiety around having (another) child… as one would expect, this flashback episode gives voice to how those conflicts may have begun, observing the seed of regret, jealousy and damnation and how they formed at critical moments in these characters’ past (again, building out that generational, soap opera vibe McBride and company are explicitly aiming for).
But what this flashback episode does (as it did back in season one) that separates itself from the familiar trappings of the popular structure, is exactly what it did in season one, by challenging viewers both in their assumptions of these characters back stories – and more importantly, challenging us as audiences to see the complexity of their inherently ridiculous characters. It is perhaps the single thing McBride does best in his art, providing vulnerability and pathos to characters we’d often view as the absolute nadir of humanity’s gross excesses. His protagonists are vulgar, almost in a way that exudes classic German expressionism, in the form of evangelical satire – to say it is impressive would be an understatement (and would also require a lot of repeating what I’ve said in previous episodes, so let’s move on).
The other real highlight of “Interlude II”, of course, is the return of Jennifer Nettles as Aimee-Leigh, and the return of one of television’s most stunningly underrated performances. Nettles was an absolute revelation in her first appearance in “Interlude”, pulling off what was a rather remarkably difficult task: providing a voice and presence adequate enough to bring weight to the entire series, a performance that requires almost as much in its absence, as it does in its on-screen presence. Nettles again reminds us why she’s so fucking good as Aimee-Leigh, offering up so many different complicated shades of a woman who is both slightly addicted to fame, but moralistic and naive enough to not see what’s happened to the brother (and children) she loves so dearly.
The moment-to-moment machinations of “Interlude II” are great – of course, M. Emmet Walsh’s return as goddamn phenomenal, as expected – but that’s perhaps the most subtle, indirect pleasure to come out of the episode. Instead, it is scenes like Baby Billy punching a Christmas tree, Aimee Leigh visibly scrambling when Eli announces their business plans on live TV, or Junior spinning and pointing a pistol wistfully offscreen, that provide the emotional tambor and narrative harmony that makes The Righteous Gemstones one of the most quietly versatile shows on television. Truly a Christmas to remember.
- It’s insane to think that the humor of a Righteous Gemstones episode could be carried by the children, but J. Gaven Wilde and Emma Shannon are again so fucking good as young Jesse and Judy Gemstone. They probably have 3/4 of the episode’s punchlines, and they carry them like it’s nothing. Extremely impressive performances, on a cast full of them.
- “We ain’t playin’ no dong pong in here.”
- This episode also reveals why Eli keeps riding The Exodus over and over (I knew BJ’s reveal meant something!) – it is the ride that Glen is buried under, the stain Eli Gemstone’s never been able to rid himself of. No matter how many years pass, no matter how many laps he does around the sun, the secrets of Glen’s death are still buried there, and will always leave a shadow hanging over Eli and his declaration that he’s a “different man now”.
- Gemstones does visual metaphor better: Eli and Glen skeet shooting is a great representation of how many steps ahead Glen is able to think, while Eli’s inability to project and plan leaves him with kids he cannot understand or control (or seeing dangerous schemes when they’re heading his way).
- “Break his back, Daddy!” Never change, Judy Gemstone.
- Baby Billy’s deep contempt for Eli shines through a bit here; he views Eli as a “poor” person who got lucky, as opposed to him, who latched onto a superior talent for a career that made him feel worthless and small in the end (well, until Tiffany got her teeth fixed and he charted on the Christian pops, of course).
- “Conflict will fuck with my sleep.”