Jesse: “‘Knock ’em down’ means kill.”
Judy: “And kill means murder.”
Kelvin: “And murder causes death.”
If The Righteous Gemstones ever gets a spinoff, tonight’s episode suggests The Gemstone Mysteries has quite a lot of potential. The Gemstone siblings spend much of the episode setting their grievances aside in order to figure out if their father murdered a journalist. The authorities already have good reason to question Eli about the incident since Peabody Award–winning reporter Thaniel Block was sniffing around his affairs. But Jesse, Judy, and Kelvin know details that are even more damning: The blood on their father’s pants when he came out late that night. The phone that he conspicuously guarded and tucked away when he drove them back to the scene of the crime. The unanswered calls from his shady Memphis buddy Junior. B.J. spots him riding a rollercoaster again and again and again.
The Righteous Gemstones pauses on this last item because it’s a show that likes to savor the transcendently stupid, like an oenophile taking in the tannins of a rarefied Cabernet Sauvignon. One advantage the show has over others, particularly TV comedies, is that directorial duties frequently fall to David Gordon Green or Jody Hill, both filmmakers known for their cinematic brio. Green’s knockout debut, George Washington, has a dreamy quality that recalled Terrence Malick for many critics, and Jody Hill, who’d championed Danny McBride with his debut, The Foot Fist Way, also made the brilliantly stylized black comedy Observe and Report. Green busts out the slo-mo and split-screen effects here for a sequence where B.J. rollerblades through an empty theme park with his matching pastel helmet, kneepads, and ski poles. (“It’s an exercise I do to keep swole.”)
It’s a character moment at best. We now have more of a window into B.J.’s madness. But from the plot perspective, B.J. spotting Eli riding the rollercoaster is a hilarious dead-end, similar to the Dude and Walter tracking down the kid who got a D on his homework in The Big Lebowski. Red herrings are part of any investigation, but The Righteous Gemstones calls special attention to the collective foolishness of the Gemstone kids here, who dutifully head to the park as if some meaningful clues to their father’s guilt might be hidden there. Judy has a theory: She says Eli would never ride the rollercoaster with her because it gave him “bubble guts,” so him riding it alone is psychopathic behavior, whipping him into “a murder frenzy.” Like Reefer Madness for theme parks.
The question for them (and for us) is this: What is Eli Gemstone capable of? The second season opened with that long stretch in Memphis, where we learn about his past as an amateur wrestler and thumb-breaking enforcer. That combination of ruthlessness and showmanship, along with the godliness of the Gemstone family, accounts for the success of his ministry. Given all this information, it’s little wonder that the Gemstone siblings (and us) have suspicions over how Eli exerts power. In fact, it becomes a topic of conversation when Jesse and Amber take their boys to Fancy Nancy’s Chicken for lunch. (Side note there: The soda machine–style gravy dispenser set a high bar for disturbing imagery in 2022.) Amber is horrified to hear Pontius and Gideon openly discuss how their grandfather murdered the journalist — they eventually agree that he’d hire someone rather than doing it himself — but Jesse quietly nods along. He’s convinced his daddy whacked the journalist personally. Put a bullet in his head.
The truth is more horrifying.
After so much sniffing around by his kids, Eli finally explains why he came home with blood-stained khakis and why he swore his chief enforcer, Martin, to secrecy on his phone. After bowling with Junior and three extremely available local women, Eli followed one of them back for a tryst and wound up slicing through his scrotum in a failed attempt at “manscaping.” (A cringe-comedy moment that recalls the opening of There’s Something About Mary.) Given the choice between Eli putting a bullet in the head of a Brooklyn journalist or shaving his balls to cheat their dead mother, it’s no contest for the Gemstone siblings. Murder is a far less egregious sin here.
In other developments, Kelvin’s efforts to turn himself into a Jim Jones–like leader of an agrarian cult of Bible-thumping musclemen run comically aground. As Kelvin, Adam DeVine’s voice has a lilt that’s uncannily similar to George W. Bush’s, and the God Squad is one of those catastrophic endeavors that Bush would dimly attempt to rationalize. When a performance for children goes awry, Kelvin’s leadership shifts into the paranoia and demagoguery of a leader whose grip on power is starting to wane. Keefe warns him that the downside of putting together a group of alpha males is, “As they grow stronger, they grow more defiant.” So Kelvin’s answer is to “summon the men to the fire pit” and turn himself into a sadistic Jeff Probst, forcing one of his turncoats into a humiliating ritual in order to bring him back in line.
Eli shames Kelvin for his idiocy, which has brought a lawsuit as a cherry on top of the other threats facing the Gemstone empire. But how much respect can Eli expect to command? If he were a murderer, the answer would be “plenty.” As a failed manscaper, however, not much.
• Credit to Kelvin: If the God Squad pyramid hadn’t collapsed, the kids would have stayed impressed by the demonstration of “virgin power” on display. Who knows what would have happened to mighty Torsten if he’d given in to temptation on prom night?
• Nice small detail: The lipstick stain on Amber’s straw at Fancy Nancy’s. She wants to look her best even for a sad family lunch at a fried-chicken joint with a gravy dispenser.
• “I drew you a piping-hot mustard seed and Epsom salt bath.” Something so Tony-Curtis-in-Spartacus about the scenario Keefe offers Kelvin in that scene.
• An important line from Keefe, when Kelvin asks if Eli was the type of person to kill someone: “It’s hard to say. Human beings are capable of horrific things, depending on the circumstances.”
• Jesse’s monologue about wanting the “Ken Burns documentary” on his father, rather than “the Lifetime Movie of the Week,” is a funny commentary on the stories that powerful people can have told about themselves — and how poorly such stories hold up under scrutiny.
• The decision to float a giant Black thumbs-up emoji next to Kelvin’s head to illustrate one of Martin’s texts? Chef’s kiss.