Late in tonight’s hugely satisfying second-season finale, Jesse and Amber are standing onstage in front of their couples group, where they’re staging a reconciliation for their friends Chad and Mandy. The marriage fell apart last season when the blackmail tape of Jesse and his buddies partying showed Chad having sex with a prostitute. (It’s a running Gemstones theme for other people to take collateral damage for their epic wrongs.) Now, Jesse is preaching to the assembled crowd about the biblical requirement of granting absolution to those who ask for it. “Even if they sin against you seven times in a day,” he says, “and seven times they come to you and repent, you must forgive.” Chad only sinned twice against Mandy, Jesse reckons, so this shouldn’t be much of a problem.
If everything is forgivable, then everything is permissible. That’s how the Gemstones operate. They don’t give much thought to not committing CinemaScope, Technicolor sins whenever it suits them because they know the lord, along with a steady revenue stream from parishioners, will get them out of any jam. Yet there was something undeniably sweet about this season of the show because it was sincere about working through beefs that threatened to keep many of its characters apart forever. The Gemstones forgive themselves far too readily, no doubt, but their capacity to turn the other cheek is genuinely heartwarming to witness. It may be comically absurd, for example, for Baby Billy to turn up at his adult son’s home, complimenting him on his cup-holder couch and hoping for reconciliation decades after abandoning him in the mall. But it’s sweet to see that some measure of grace could be salvaged in the end.
Perhaps The Righteous Gemstones itself could be accused of having its cake and eating it too. Here’s a show that satirizes American grifters, with take-your-pick allusions to everyone from private-jet-owning televangelists to the Trump family, while simultaneously admiring their ability to absolve others as easily as they expect to be absolved themselves. They do not hold permanent grudges, even when they’re in the middle of disputes that are longstanding or seemingly impossible to resolve. The other side of that, of course, is they never actually learn any lessons and will no doubt get embroiled in blackmail, murder, and fly-by-night scams next season, too. Jesse will preach repentance and forgiveness for seven sins a day because he operates at roughly that pace.
The finale also underlines how cleverly the show is plotted — which, along with its cinematic flair, isn’t necessarily expected of a raunchy comedy. All the questions left dangling by the scene outside Thaniel Block’s cabin are answered: Who was the person holding the flashlight? (Lyle Lissons.) What’s with all the charred-up bodies by the car and over a tree limb? (One of Lyle’s dumb cohorts brought grenades instead of guns.) Who killed Thaniel? (Thaniel. And a sturdy skillet.) It turns out that Lyle was feeding information to Thaniel about his fellow ministers to avoid scrutiny into his own operation. And he was refusing to give up more dirt on the Gemstones because Jesse had already made a financial commitment to Zion’s Landing.
If they weren’t obvious enough before, the connections between Lyle and Jesse are expanded here. Both are next-generation failsons who want to inherit their daddy’s empire before he’s dead. Both have devoted posses eager to participate in every one of their half-baked schemes. And both have an understanding that spreading the word of God through a megaphone requires showmanship and a little moral flexibility. But vive la différence. In maybe the funniest exchange in the episode — though there are many candidates — Lyle tries to calm Jesse down after he finds out about his presence at Thaniel’s cabin. But like a child, he wants Jesse to promise not to get mad about the other stuff he needs to confess, like the fact that he sent the armed assassins, a.k.a. the “Cycle Ninjas,” that shot his father. (“Why ninjas? They ain’t got nothing to do with martial arts.”)
Lyle is counting on Jesse’s understanding because they have so much in common, including the ambition to create Zion’s Landing together and get out from under their fathers’ shadows. It may be absurd for Lyle to claim he was doing his buddy “a solid” by killing his dad, but it’s perhaps not so absurd to believe that maybe Jesse won’t stay mad about it. What he doesn’t realize — and what Jesse perhaps doesn’t know about himself until he projectile vomits over it — is that they part ways over family ties, which are tight in the Gemstone clan despite all the nasty kerfuffles and backstabbing that’s like white noise in the Sunday-brunch discourse. To be part of the Gemstones is to enjoy a powerful bond: That’s why BJ gets excited about Eli bargaining for his life as blood spurts from a gunshot wound in his leg or Baby Billy and Tiffany can reconcile and snuggle up to their “toilet baby” within the space of a few minutes.
And it all starts with Eli, the original sinner of the Gemstones, who’s the last person to throw stones. The season began with his criminal past as “the Maniac Kid” in Memphis, and it ends with him back in a new wrestling gym with his old running buddy, Junior. They stand together, admiring a large portrait photo of Junior’s dad Glendon and his wrestlers — the same Glendon who denied Junior’s inherence, tried to launder the money through Eli’s church, and wound up getting shot by Eli’s father. And yet Glendon’s vision set them both on their path, so it seems right to honor him. Eli isn’t going to take revenge on the Lissons, either. “It’s not our duty to judge one another,” he tells Junior. “That belongs to the Lord.”
• Jesse and Lyle do part ways in the end, but Jesse would definitely rat out his church buddies to a journalist about skimming money for “houses with pools” and then come back to the car to warn them that “somehow the man knows how y’all got your houses.”
• Danny McBride is so good at imbuing dumb statements with absolute confidence: “I’ve got a feeling that the Lissons and Gemstones teaming up is going to be the wisest decision this family has ever made.”
• Revealing Lyle’s orphanage (Lissons Kiddo Ranch) to be a training facility for motocross assassins echoes Kelvin’s God Squad (now Youth Squad), both like jihadist training camps for American Christians.
• The argument for Walton Goggins as the secret MVP of the season gets a boost from the scene where he tries to use the umbilical cord to pull his son up from the toilet. (“Like a bucket in a well.”)
• The ABC’s of bathing, according to Judy: “Ankles, butthole, coochie.”
• The Lissons hiding out in Alaska recalls Walter White in a cabin in New Hampshire at the end of Breaking Bad, albeit more luxurious than a single room with two copies of Mr. Magorium’s Wonder Emporium. Though well-armed, they did not think through their plan to surprise the Snowmobile Ninjas.