Amid the absolute filth of any given episode of The Righteous Gemstones — the ornate swearing, the conspicuous greed and avarice, the petty and not-so-petty criminality, those free-for-all Sunday brunches — it’s always fascinating to take note of those moments when moral objections are raised, or somber religious sentiments are offered. Whenever it seems like the Gemstones have no limits at all to their sinfulness and venality, something will stick in their craw, and it’s always worth puzzling over why. And who. And how far they’ve traveled down the slippery slope.
That last part is important in “Interlude II,” just as it was in “Interlude,” the standalone episode dropped right in the middle of last season, too. “Interlude” and “Interlude II” each holds off on huge mid-season cliffhangers for an episode-long flashback that fills in the Gemstone backstory and helps us understand more about the tensions within the family — and the particular corrosives that have chipped away at decency. “Interlude” took place in 1989 and dealt with Eli’s contentious relationship with Baby Billy, who’s constantly in debt and who throws a fit when Aimee-Leigh’s unexpected pregnancy (with Kelvin) foils his plans for a lucrative tour with his sister. “Interlude II” moves ahead to Christmas 1993, when young Kelvin has a “boring haircut,” and Aimee-Leigh once again plays referee to Eli and Baby Billy, who’s crashing in their house for the holidays.
It’s worth keeping in mind that the late, lamented prize-winning Brooklyn reporter Thaniel Block was working on a story about Aimee-Leigh when he was murdered. That cannot be a trivial matter on a show as intricately plotted as The Righteous Gemstones, which has always worked surprisingly well as a stylish, Coens-influenced thriller when it’s not sending up its grotesque corner of American excess. The odd thing about “Interlude II” is that it doesn’t dim the halo over Aimee-Leigh’s head, but quite the opposite — she appears to be the one person trying to hold Eli back from the abyss. (Save for maybe his accountant, who he fires for not telling him what he wants to hear. And for looking like Jim Henson.)
Aimee-Leigh cringe-smiles through the filthy banter that’s always been the white noise of the Gemstones’ family life. In front of the huge Gemstone Studios Christmas tree in 1993, she leaves Eli to mediate a fight between young Judy and Jesse over whether “pussy” is a curse word. (“A pussy ain’t a cuss,” says Jesse. “It’s a type of person, one who doesn’t like to do stuff and is scared of everything.”) She believes in Eli and their mission, and would almost certainly take his side in the argument with his accountant over why it’s important for the Gemstones to “go big” because “Jesus’s message was bigger than life.” She isn’t as driven by vanity as her husband and her brother; she really seems convinced that it’s great to speak about God through the biggest megaphone.
But she has her limits. When Eli turns up with the excellent news that a man from his past, Glendon Marsh Sr., is gifting them a $1 million donation that will ease their financial woes, Aimee-Leigh doesn’t question it. The Gemstones are entitled to such miracles. When this obviously wicked and disgusting human being shows up for dinner, she doesn’t question it, either — that is until he breaks down his vending machine business and mentions video poker machines. Illegal gambling? She can look past this shady wrestling promoter from her husband’s past and keep herself from questioning why this sinner wants to buy his way into heaven with quarters. But gambling is a bridge too far.
Aimee-Leigh’s objections at the dinner table set a series of events into motion that ends in Glendon’s murder, though Thaniel could hardly pin the crime on her. She doesn’t think Eli should take dirty money, even though he tries to rationalize it, and Eli himself gets uncomfortable with the idea of laundering $3 million of Glendon’s cash to pocket a third. (Though would he have refused to take the money had Martin, his new accountant, not looked so disillusioned by the prospect? Maybe not.) But these are the types of rationalizations that Eli types have to make: Not all the money the Gemstones get in the collection plate is clean, he tells Aimee-Leigh, who rolls her eyes at the analogy. If you’re trying to build a bigger house of worship, maybe God will forgive you for cutting corners to get the job done.
Covering up a shooting is a different story, however. When Eli’s demented father blasts Glendon with his shotgun and Eli sets about burying the body in the foundation of Righteous Park, that’s definitely the type of thing that Aimee-Leigh doesn’t need to know. Now some puzzle pieces from the season start coming into place: We know why BJ found Eli taking an existential ride on the Exodus rollercoaster that one morning. We now have greater insight into the bond between Eli and Martin, who’s now his most loyal confidant. And we can fret all the more about Glendon’s son Junior and his motives for swinging through town to see Eli.
In the background of this entire mess is good ol’ Baby Billy, who happens to be spending this fateful Christmas with the Gemstones after bailing on his wife and kid and lying about it. On balance, he had the best Christmas of all. He got to sing onstage with his sister for money, and he has a boom box with a bass equalizer for his “gospel jams.” This year, he gets to sleep in the top bunk, the biggest and happiness of all the Gemstone kids.
• Jesse calling nunchucks “numbchucks” is so deliciously stupid. The great thing about Jesse as a boy and as a grownup is that he’s never lost his absolute confidence, despite not gaining much in the way of actual knowledge. A true failson.
• Uncle Baby Billy explaining to the kids why their quiet aunt hated them is a thing of beauty. “All those times she wasn’t talking? She was really making judgments. She didn’t like none of y’all, especially you Kelvin. You know what she said? You have the most boring haircut in the world. Zero. Give that boy some mousse!”
• The class difference between Aimee-Leigh and Eli comes out in their argument over taking the money. “Me and Glendon had to scratch our way out of the dirt,” says Eli. Coming from wealth allows her to be the righteous one.
• Young Judy using her karaoke machine to rap along with Eazy-E’s “Merry Muthafuckin’ Xmas” is fantastic. Lots of cusses in that song, Judy.