As a study of intergenerational trauma, The Righteous Gemstones‘ been pretty consistent with one fact; the scars we keep are inevitably passed along to our children in unexpected, fucked up ways – ways we often can’t even control, or realize until it’s too late. “The Prayer of a Righteous Man”, perhaps the most heartwarming episode of the series, explores this idea from every angle it can fit into 32 minutes, examining how repentance and forgiveness can set us free to heal, even if its power is limited. Time does not heal all wounds – and though the Gemstone extended family is better for the realizations within “The Prayer of a Righteous Man”, they can never be perfectly whole – after all, forgiveness will not always provide the answers or safety we crave of it.
Though the appearance of Aimee-Leigh’s ghost serves an important role in pushing Baby Billy to a place where he can meet adult Harmon, her ephemeral presence serves as an important visual – after all, every character in “The Prayer of a Righteous Man” is facing a ghost of their past. Most involve the long-dead Glen Marsh (in this episode, we learn Junior thought Eli helped him run away to Bolivia with the money Junior raised), but Tiffany and Jesse both find themselves contemplating the ghosts hanging over their lives, both physical and metaphorical.
And though it all does seem a bit anticlimactic, especially with storylines like the God Squad or Zion’s Landing (especially the God Squad), Eli’s sudden, magnanimous change of heart is an interesting way to start closing the loop on the season’s stories. Though the Gemstones are terrible people, all sinners can seek redemption – and Eli does just that, coming clean to his children and his childhood friend about the weight he’s carried around for thirty years, the secret of Glen’s death even hidden away from Aimee Leigh in her last few years alive.
Letting go of pain and regret is not easy; in fact, I’d contend it is a harder thing to do than to just say “I’m sorry” – which Eli does, but from a place of peace, rather than a place of necessity. Eli’s been broken, but by his own doing; and rather than coward away from that responsibility, Eli finally steps up and embraces it – one can only live a false life for so long, after all. After spending the season observing his broken family (and you know, nearly dying) Eli finally has some perspective; and that helps fuel the other characters to take action, especially Kelvin and Judy – the latter of whom continues to tag along for one of the season’s most emotionally rewarding arcs.
More importantly, it helps Eli to start finding a way back to himself; it takes work to make oneself a better person, and Eli’s all but thrown that away in the post Aimee-Leigh years of his life. His kids and family don’t make it easy, of course, but Eli’s inability to come clean about Glen has built the last few decades of his life on a lie – and as such, he’s left with a bunch of unappreciative children, who go behind his back escalating conflicts and insulting family members in their self-righteousness. In this episode, Eli decides to check himself before he wrecks himself – and the result, is a rather surprising, healing episode of The Righteous Gemstones.
All things considered, there are really only a few scenes of consequence in “The Prayer of a Righteous Man” – which almost feels like it had entire scenes edited out of it at times(anyone find it weird the Gemstones are packing up Gideon’s shit without mentioning it?). In the pursuit of quick plot resolution, “Prayer” really has to tie up a lot of loose ends – and as a result, magnifies the importance of some story beats while downplaying others.
The best scene, of course, has nothing to do with Eli – it’s Baby Billy finally coming back to Harmon to apologize for the mistakes he’s made (led by The Righteous Gemstones again nailing it with casting, bringing in Macaulay Culkin to play adult Harmon). To his surprise – and our own – Harmon’s not really that mad; he’s disappointed and a little bitter, but he’s moved on. Instead of letting the past consume and define him, as Baby Billy did, Harmon went and made a life for himself – rather than dwell on his mistakes or the failings of others, Harmon moved on; turns out the only person still stuck in that mall pet store in 1993 is Baby Billy, rather than Harmon.
It’s a sad scene, one played with great energy by Goggins, and a beautifully restrained performance from Culkin; though its clear these two men will never be best friends, the power of forgiveness – particularly when uncoupled from the usual restraints of religion – is incredible. Harmon may not think about what happened to him on the worst birthday of his childhood, but it has shaped him into the man he is today; one who is committed to the family he is building, and one logical enough to realize Baby Billy’s probably right when he says that leaving him was the best choice for him. Of course, that is a decision no father should make – but given how things have turned out for the Gemstones, maybe the worst decision he’s ever made turned out well for those involved.
Of course, Baby Billy’s decisions still lack that kind of insight – the result in 2022, of course, is a distraught and lonely Tiffany, who is finally accepted by Judy as a part of the Gemstone family. Though this undercurrent hasn’t taken up a large block of the season, Judy’s slow acceptance to being a good niece to Tiffany makes for a really emotional resolution, and perhaps a sign that there is still something salvageable within the souls of the Gemstone children, even if they have to be brought screaming and dragging into being reasonably decent human being. Regardless, Judy extended a hand – and her home – to Tiffany is a powerful moment, one that sets the table for the forgiveness and acceptance to follow.
It all comes home, of course, when Eli and Junior step into the boxing ring one last time – not for a fight, however, but for Eli to open his heart, tell Junior the truth about his father, and give him back the gun Glen threatened him with decades ago as proof. Ultimately, Junior and Eli’s long-running conflict came out of issues they both have with their father – and as we’ve spent the whole episode learning (especially in the case of the season’s most illuminating flashback, featuring Junior and his father in 1993), the sins of the father can doom the sons to a lifetime of regret, if they never come to terms with it (thankfully, through characters like Harmon and Tiffany, there is hope for those who’ve been broken by others).
Of course, this episode is not the season finale – which it remembers in the final moments, when Junior reveals that the Motorcycle Gang is not employed by him (also, he didn’t kill that journalist; he really just missed his friend, and was bitter that his own father was prouder of Eli than him). Though not entirely surprising, how the episode resolves its central conflict and teases more plot to come is certainly a bit unexpected; the climactic shootout between Eli and his unknown nemesis (the Lissons? a bitter Amber?) is still shrouded in mystery, with the catharsis of this episode portending a very dark season finale.
But if only for a moment, The Righteous Gemstones sidestepped the toxicity baked into its characters and premises, and delivered the kind of heartfelt, rewarding story we expect from an episode where we see Aimee Leigh (I’ll say it again; how Jennifer Nettles is not getting more recognition from this performance is BEYOND ME). Heading into its finale, the Gemstone extended family is in the most peaceful state it’s been in for decades; all that healing will most likely come at a dramatic cost, but boy is the peace good while it lasts, isn’t it?
- I just don’t care about the God Squad story anymore… it’s good that we have Eli calling Keefe “Queef” accidentally, but the plot of this story’s been completely lost on me. Maybe the God Squad make the ultimate sacrifice to save the Gemstones next week? Probably the neatest way to wrap up this plot.
- The image of Aimee Leigh laughing uncontrollably at Baby Billy… well, that’s just good television right there.
- If Tiffany saying Baby Billy was a “dream that don’t exist no more” doesn’t break your heart, you are a cold human being.
- Eric Roberts is a goddamn national treasure, and I’m sad it appears his presence on this show will only last this season.
- “I have the devil in me, too” is a sentence Eli’s wanted to say for a long time, but hasn’t had the stones to do it.
- Let’s just put a pin in Jesse’s increased frustrations with Amber; I’m sure him whispering she is a “gold digger person” with her unchecked ambitions (she mentions how they should’ve spent all of Eli’s money on Zion’s Landing while he was in the hospital). Amber’s desperation for relevance is slowly coming to the forefront, and it may make for an interesting finale.
- “Time to cleanse the temple!” and “Goddang them frackers” are two phrases that are bound to worm their way into my everyday language.