In all likelihood, Eli Gemstone lives to see another day. (I genuinely don’t know for sure, however. As a rule, I never watch ahead of the episodes I’m recapping.) Though they look incredible, like the gang from anime classic Akira made flesh, the “Cycle Ninjas” are such woefully inefficient assassins that the local sheriff suspects that they may be “teenagers up to no good.” But even before Eli gets peppered with more bullets than James Caan in The Godfather, this episode of The Righteous Gemstones keeps implying a question that’s been frequently asked on the show: What will happen to the Gemstones after he’s gone?
Strike that. What’s happening now that he’s already gone in spirit?
From the beginning of the season, when we were introduced to “The Maniac Kid,” the show has asked us to ponder the connection between Eli’s past as a wrestler and thumb-breaking enforcer and his present as the leader of a megachurch empire. That combination of showmanship and flimflammery makes the connection obvious enough, as Glendon Marsh Jr. and Sr. both recognized instinctually, impressed that Eli had made the transition from entertainer to entrepreneurial icon. But here’s what the Marshes missed: Eli actually believes in what he’s selling. You could see Junior’s surprise when Eli took him out to dinner and introduced him to the power of prayer. And when Eli talks in this episode about Aimee-Leigh “saving” him, he’s completely sincere about that, too.
As grotesque as it has become, the Gemstone empire is about speaking to God through the largest megaphone — or at least that’s what Dr. Gemstone keeps telling himself. But Aimee-Leigh’s death has taken him so far off mission that sliding back to his “Maniac Kid” roots, seeming quieter but no more righteous than the three 4-D, surround-sound failures that he’s raised as an adult. When he tells Jesse not to take action against the Cycle Ninjas, Jesse brushes him off entirely: “I’ve been feeling outlaw blood coursing through these veins since I could piss standing up. I know I get that from you.” As much as Eli tries to be a good man — and he does at least try, like when he humbly asks for Kelvin’s forgiveness after breaking his thumbs — the devil on his shoulder still chatters the most. Eli’s children are a daily reminder that he’s not the person he wants to be and certainly not the person his flock understands him to be.
There’s no need to eulogize Eli yet, but the situation with Junior and the assassins has loosened his moral authority nearly as much as Kelvin’s smoothie-glass-grip on the God Squad. After the cliffhanger ending two weeks ago — broken up by a mid-season “Interlude” — tonight’s episode makes it obvious that Jesse has to take action, despite daddy ordering him to stay on the compound. He says he wants to protect his family from future attacks, but Jesse is mostly embarrassed that Amber confidently winged an assassin from 50 yards while he shot metaphorical blanks. Director Jody Hill frames Amber’s “Run, motherfuckers. Run!” line like Amanda Plummer at the beginning of Pulp Fiction when she “gets into character” at the diner. Only Jesse is not Tim Roth in the background. He’s fumbling suggestively with his spent pistol.
The entire Jesse subplot in this episode is a devastating critique of a specific brand of wounded masculinity, which demands to be answered by a reckless show of hyper-defensive bravado. (This is basically how Ben Shapiro’s life works.) Surely Jesse realizes that those bullets were intended for his father, who was supposed to be on that luxury bus after the baptism, so he’s not really protecting his family. However, he does need to make a statement after the sheriff describes him as feeling “powerless” and after the marriage support group cheers Amber for her badassery. (“Let’s not lose sight of why we’re here,” he responds, “and that’s that most of you have fucked your marriages up.”) He must be the David to take down Junior’s Goliath. And he’s got a box full of authentic slings to do the job.
In the face of a gunslinging Jesse and a mob of Christian men with bad marriages, Junior doesn’t flinch, even though he literally has nothing more than a dick in his hands when they approach. He may be a small-time gangster, with a henchman who wears jean shorts and assassins who can’t shoot straight, but Junior knows how to execute power. So does Eli, as witnessed in the parking lot scene earlier in the season, when he was calm and polite until it was time to put a loudmouth in his place. Junior just stands there calmly, assesses the situation, and realizes Jesse and his posse aren’t a real danger to him, despite a threat from the gallery to take out “grandparents, kids, special needs.” Though Jesse leaves triumphantly, with his manhood restored, all he’s done is put a target on his own back that wasn’t there before.
It’ll probably be up to Amber again to protect the family now. Presuming he survives, Eli may wind up believing that getting shot was a blessing because other than Amber, he’s the only person capable of handling the Junior situation. And handling it would send him further down the slippery slope he’s been on since Aimee-Leigh’s death. Perhaps God is granting him the mercy of not having to reckon with his past. His kids, on the other hand, can’t do the reckoning for him.
• Judy speculates that perhaps the attack on Jesse and Amber was provoked: “Did y’all flip somebody off on the road? Did Amber stand up in her car seat, press her ass against the window and flash her bleached butthole?” In a scene later with Eli, BJ speculates that his wife is expressing built-up hurt in outbursts like that. Eli is surprised to find himself in agreement.
• The entire God Squad revolt on Kelvin’s compound is a delight, but Tony Cavalero gets all the best lines as Keefe. (“I tried to call curfew, but they would not retire to their yurts.”)
• Tiffany on the phone with a hospital, still frantically searching for Baby Billy: “No, he’s not a baby. He’s a slender, silver-haired man in his late 60s.”
• The similarities between Succession and The Righteous Gemstones are so rampant that I hesitate to bring them up, but the scene where Jesse hurls threats at a totally unfazed Junior recalls a scene in the second season of Succession where Kendall, after failing to convince Stewy to back down from a Waystar takeover, hits him with the crudest threats he can imagine. Stewy mocks him by completing his sentences. Here, Junior just stands there and says nothing when Jesse talks about “how we handle sickos.” He’ll speak later.
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