“As To How They Might Destroy Him” is a tale of two disappointing fathers — one who cannot handle the job, the other whose failures haunt him every waking moment of his life. Eli Gemstone and Baby Billy Freeman do not see eye-to-eye on much because Eli recognizes his brother-in-law as a needy, scheming lowlife, and he already has three of those types to manage on the Gemstone compound. Out of lingering commitment to his late wife, Eli keeps bringing Baby Billy back into the flock, despite the long list of incidents that would justify permanent exile. (A few items on the list: Getting young Jesse drunk at Judy’s birthday party, throwing a fit over his sister’s pregnancy disrupting a money-grab reunion tour, blowing a pastor gig at the new mall expansion, etc.) The Gemstones believe in endless second chances. They forgive themselves for the sins they constantly commit.
Reveling in the music and fashions of the ’80s and ’90s, this hugely entertaining episode kicks off in a Charlotte mall in 1993, with Baby Billy cheerfully leading his son through a Christmas to remember as his wife Dory stands morosely in the background, perhaps sensing where this might be going. Baby Billy is preparing to abandon his family, but he’s hustling to make sure he leaves a good impression first, like trying to spray an entire can of Lysol over a permanent stench in the carpet. “The gift you get today is from your daddy,” he tells the awkward young Harmon, gesturing to a ’90s consumer paradise of Chess King, Sam Goody’s, and the Body Shop outlets. He’s the procrastinator scrambling to get that last-minute present to save Christmas, only this will be the last present his child will ever receive. And he’ll be damned if Santa gets the credit for it.
Baby Billy’s vanity is the important takeaway from this flashback, a need to make sense that he can still claim to be Harmon’s one-and-only father, even though he’s about to leave him behind. In a way, a cat might be the ideal gift since it will be a living reminder of him through the rest of Harmon’s childhood, lasting longer than the Chess King brand itself, which would die out completely two years later. In the quickest possible heart-to-heart with Harmon, Baby Billy emphasizes that he’ll always be his son’s daddy. “Just like this genuine pair of Oakleys,” he says, giving the boy his sunglasses, “there is no substitute for the original.” His wanderlust doesn’t mute his narcissistic impulse to stake his claim wherever he goes.
Though Baby Billy’s walkouts bookend the episode, Eli’s miserable fatherhood is front and center. All three of his children are not only furious with him but openly contemptuous, emboldened by the image of their father as a pube-shaving, skirt-chasing man about town. The one lasting effect of Junior’s resurfacing is that it reminded Eli of his past and weakened the false piety that he could hold over his kids, whose sins are much louder and on the surface. Though it’s never articulated, Jesse, Kelvin, and Judy feel like the manscaping incident puts Eli at their level now, so he can be mocked and defied as vociferously as they flambé each other. They underestimate him at their peril.
The main problem for the Gemstone children is that Eli holds the purse strings tightly, controlling the family’s considerable fortune, which Bing estimates at $600 million. (Bing will forever be a punchline of a search engine. Sorry, Microsoft.) Eli keeps the children tucked away comfortably in their McMansions, but any major purchases or initiatives must meet with his approval first. His refusal to front the $10 million investment money for the Lissons’ Christian timeshare project spoils Jesse and Amber’s friendship with Lyle and Lindy, who make it more obvious than ever that their relationship is contingent on payment. It’s a little touching that Jesse reacts so strongly to the breakup, like a grifter who can’t comprehend that another grifter would be just after his money. “There’s nothing in this world I’d rather do than discuss pool shapes with you,” he says through tears.
Eli has continued to fund Kelvin’s God Squad initiative, even after a performance mishap led to a lawsuit, but there are limits to his patience there, too. Kelvin’s plan to fly himself and his Christian beefcakes to Israel for “40 days and 40 nights” of religious pilgrimage gets halted in humiliating fashion on the tarmac. (Incidentally, the music cue for the God Squad’s slo-mo walk out of the airplane hangar is “Through the Desert, Through the Storm,” by the Christian metal band Signum Regis.) The further slight of the God Squad getting shut out of BJ’s baptism and reception is the final straw for Kelvin, who calls him “a false prophet” and gets two broken thumbs for his insolence.
The broken thumbs are a case of bad timing for Kelvin, though, because it’s Judy’s lavish Christian coming-out party for BJ that’s soured Eli’s day more than anything. Judy screams at Eli for half-assing his way through the baptism (“We’re getting emo, low-energy Eli”), and Eli counters by correctly guessing that Judy bullied the spineless, secular BJ into converting. In Judy’s demented mind, bringing BJ into the family as a baptized convert puts her nearer to the seat of power, and the reception doubles as a wedding soiree everyone was denied when the two eloped in front of Prince Eric at Disney World. With its bowtie and cummerbund, BJ’s velvet onesie may look like a toddler in need of a good tickling, but it’s intended as a formal romper, fit for a groom.
When BJ accidentally hits Eli with a fistful of cake intended for his sister KJ, who’d been hassling the Gemstones with her secular humanism, that’s it for the preacher: “You kids are an embarrassment,” he says. “All of you.” (Jesse gives him an incredulous “Hey, what did I do?” look as if he hadn’t just screamed at his dad minutes earlier for not supporting the timeshare.) After breaking Kelvin’s thumbs, Eli’s expression suggests the realization that he’s gone way too far and broken the patina of divine serenity that supports his image as a religious leader. These rotten apples of his haven’t fallen far from the tree.
• Incredible episode for Edi Patterson as Judy, especially when she’s dealing with BJ’s family, whom she sees as a miserable hassle at best and at worst a threat to BJ’s mind and body, which she’s claiming for herself. KJ’s irritation over not staying on the Gemstone estate sets Judy into a hysterical fit about the solemn import of the occasion. “You wouldn’t expect to look at shit if this was a circumcision. If BJ was getting his dick cut off, you’re wouldn’t be all like, ‘Hey, we want to stay at your house.’ You’d be like, ‘This is important. This is about God.’”
• A shame that the pool-shape conversation couldn’t continue because the two so far, infinity pool and “old-school kidney bean,” sound great.
• Junior isn’t done with Eli yet, though he’ll have to do better than a mulleted enforcer in a wife beater, jean shorts, and a visor. Nothing that the Maniac Kid can’t handle.
• “There is a fountain filled with blood / Drawn from Emanuel’s veins / And sinners plunge beneath that blood / Lose all their guilty stains.” Baby Billy probably sold some downloads of his new LP, Lightning Round.
• Director Jody Hill’s performance as Levi has always been a minor delight on the show, but he’s especially fun this episode as the person who’s getting by far the most out of the baptism and the reception. Judy has found her audience.
• Tough break for Baby Billy’s toothsome young bride Tiffany, who won’t be getting those Funyuns she craves any time soon. She may be a “toilet baby,” but she’s still too good for him.
• Nothing is known yet about the barrage of machine-gun fire that shredded the Gemstones’ luxury bus at the end of the episode, but Eli was supposed to be on that bus, so presumably Junior has stepped up his retribution efforts from a guy throwing at a tomato at Eli’s windshield. Stay tuned …