There’s rarely any reason to talk much about direction in open-ended television series because most shows operate from a fixed aesthetic template and the contributions of individual directors are a little less pronounced. The Righteous Gemstones is a major exception. Save for two by Danny McBride, most of the episodes are directed by Jody Hill and David Gordon Green, who both have distinguished résumés in the film world and don’t seem to think about television any differently. It’s natural to focus on the dialogue and performances on the show because they’re so wonderfully pungent, but it’s worth noting how much stylistic panache Hill and Green bring to the table, which not only enhances the jokes but gives the action a propulsive, cinematic kick.
To that end, there are two standout moments for me in this episode, directed by Hill: The first is a hilarious sequence where Judy, BJ, and Tiffany confront Baby Billy outside the studio where he’s hawking coconut-flavored health elixir on television. (“Every disease cured with ease by this blessed formula, based on ancient Scripture.”) After an angry exchange between both parties, Billy peels off through an empty parking lot with a personalized car trailer full of elixir jugs in tow. When he makes a hard left, the trailer flips and out comes his entire stash of elixir. Hill likes to have an active camera, but he chooses instead to shoot Billy’s motorized temper tantrum at a distance from Judy, BJ, and Tiffany’s perspective and has a deadpan effect that makes the moment funnier. From that angle, Billy isn’t the charismatic snake-oil salesman but a small man whose desperate moneymaking scheme has been upended. Tiffany can now finally see him for what he is.
The other is the flashier sequence where Gideon uses his stunt-cycling skills to track down the two Cycle Ninjas who escaped the insane hospital ambush. The whole thing is thrillingly filmed, with those neon-red Akira-like motorcycles zipping through oncoming traffic like a William Friedkin movie, but the staging of the last confrontation between Gideon and a biker is particularly good. Taking high-noon positions at opposite ends of the frame, with back wheels screaming against the pavement, the two come together in an absurd machine-gun-versus-cattle-prod joust that Gideon ends by slipping the prod into his opponent’s spokes, sending him flying through the air. In the money shot, Hill goes back to a wide-angle, switches to slow-motion, and watches the last Cycle Ninja flip his bike end over end, like a motocross trick gone disastrously awry.
Hill is meeting the moment. With the season headed down the backstretch, with just two more episodes to go, the war between Junior’s “Dixie Mafia” types and the Gemstone family has spilled out into the open, thanks in no small part to Jesse taking matters into his own hands. The Gemstone children have fantasized about taking control of their father’s empire, especially Jesse, who confesses to Martin that he and Amber talk about it when they have sex. But the reality of a bullet-riddled Eli laying unconscious in the hospital, on death’s door, leaves them completely unprepared. The incredible cold open, with Jesse, Amber, Judy, and BJ all projectile vomiting outside the hospital like the obese diner in the Monty Python’s The Meaning of Life bucket sketch, is only a literal throat-clearing. It was easy to cast Eli as an inept, long-in-the-tooth square when he was alive and well, but the “new generation of Christian thought leaders” isn’t ready to take over.
For Jesse, the cold splash in the face comes during his first big Sunday sermon, when he and Amber triumphantly (and fake-soberly) take the stage in front of a packed arena to drum up support for his father. Even with a sympathetic crowd, they stumble through their introduction and Amber’s too-clever-by-half hashtag, #EliGemsHome, doesn’t improve by repeated explanation. (Though it has already taken off on Twitter, right?) At family breakfast, Jesse is ridiculed for trying to take daddy’s seat at the head of the table, as much as he claims to be taking it to “keep the spacing from looking weird.” Seeing the siblings erupt into a screaming match, Amber steps up with the specific claim that she feels like “the only person in the family who knows how to fill a power void,” but that’s not true, either, despite her steady, confident shooting. The truth is, they’re all lost without Eli and they’re genuine stung by the prospect that he might depart this mortal coil. That’s more than incompetence. That’s grief.
Still, there are messes to clean up and Jesse, the mess-maker, insists on grabbing the mop with both hands. Acting on a piece of advice from Martin, who believes the assassins will come back to finish the job on Eli if they heard he was recovering, Jesse organizes an ambush at the hospital that’s part The Godfather, part Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, and all stupid. The Godfather element is wheeling Eli out of the hospital room where the attack is coming. The Ferris Bueller bit is funnier, because it’s obvious that Jesse has seen the movie and laid a trap accordingly, with a dummy taking up Eli’s place in bed and a recording of someone snoring on cassette tape. This leads to maybe the funniest moment in the entire episode: the assassins blasting away at the dummy and then hearing the snoring noises as if Eli continued to sleep through it.
Though it ends in improbable triumph, with Gideon salvaging another one of Jesse’s poorly thought-through retaliation schemes, the episode doesn’t solve the Gemstones’ problems. Eli is still knocked out. Kelvin’s home has been seized by musclemen. And nobody but Amber knows how to fill a power void. It’s going to take many jugfuls of elixir to ease the ulcers this family has created.
• An erect penis on television. Ain’t that a stick in the eye?
• Keefe’s sycophancy toward Kelvin has no limits, even as he’s half-naked and starving in a yurt. As Kelvin whines about being “dethroned,” Keefe assures him: “Jesus had a pretty powerful papa, too. Many people said he’d never be as dope as his father. They called him a wannabe poseur.”
• Jesse’s speech to the Second-Chance club feels like a cruder version of a politician’s attempt to convince the public that a terrorist act was completely unprovoked: “Obviously this fellow we’re dealing with is a certified psychopath. Eventually he was bound to snap and do what he did regardless of anything we did.”
• Love Amber and Judy bonding over a tortured analogy likening men to microwaves, which are not necessary for soup that “will heat up just fine on the stovetop.” Tiffany agrees: “I love stove soup.”
• BJ saying, “They came for me, but I was too fast” while standing there with a throwing star lodged in his head? Absolute gold.
More From This Series
- The Best TV of the Year (So Far)
- Danny McBride Wants to Give You Closure
- The Righteous Gemstones Season-Finale Recap: We Were First Borns