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Episode 7 of The Righteous Gemstones makes the allegory at play clear

So while I don’t really do regular recaps anymore, I do write when I feel motivated to, when a show causes me to think or otherwise want to analyze it in a way I haven’t seen elsewhere.

If you know what I fan I am of the Jody Hill / Danny McBride / David Gordon Green creative team (see my Vice Principals recaps if you don’t), it should be no surprise I’m watching and quite enjoying The Righteous Gemstones. It is, as always from this crew, a particularly well-observed look at a certain slice of Southern culture, complete with outstanding character work (in both the writing and acting) and hilariously juvenile humor, often in the form of petty asides (but not always– there has been a whole lot of, in the parlance of It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia, hanging dong this season).

I’ll try to keep the series recap brief. (Naturally, there will be spoilers ahead.) The Righteous Gemstones, if you don’t know, is a story about a wealthy megachurch / televangelist family in spiritual decline after matriarch Aimee-Leigh Gemstone dies. Our major players are patriarch Eli Gemstone (John Goodman), his three children Jesse (Danny McBride), Judy (Edi Patterson), and Kelvin (Adam Devine).  In addition to them, the important supporting players are Aimee-Leigh’s brother Baby Billy (Walton Goggins), Judy’s fiancé (I think) B.J. (Tim Baltz), Kelvin’s best friend / greatest reclamation project / most devoted sidekick Keefe (Anthony Cavalero), Jesse’s wife Amber (Cassidy Freeman), and their oldest son Gideon (Skyler Gisondo), who let the family some time ago to pursue a career in Los Angeles. He has recently returned, a working stuntman, bringing his friend from the business Scotty (Scott MacArthur).

The major story arc is that a video of Jesse partying with some friends, some hookers, and some cocaine at a religious conference in Atlanta was sent to Jesse under threat of blackmail. It turns out the video was taken by Gideon, and he and Scotty are behind the blackmail scheme. When it fails– in part because Jesse is pretty ruthless in how he deals with them, though not ruthless enough, as we’ll see below– Gideon suggests to Scotty that they just rob the church, that he can get on the inside to figure out how it all works.

The latest episode (the seventh of nine on the season), “And Yet One of You Is a Devil,” brings this all to fruition on Easter Sunday.

This episode really made it click for me how this show is an allegory for sin and rot, and particularly for those who take half-measures in addressing or confronting theirs. In Biblical terms, these are people whose eye causes them to sin, so they start wearing a patch instead of gouging it out and casting it into the fire. Every action taken this season to deal with Scotty and the blackmail plot is a half-measure; Gideon and Jesse have each had chances to make sure the blackmailers end up, you know, dead, and they don’t take them. (I’m not endorsing murder here, but it seems like nobody is taking the existential threat in their midst as seriously as they ought to if they want to actually put this blackmail scheme to bed.) Each of them has had a chance to come fully clean, instead of, in true Vic Mackey fashion, only coming as clean as they think they need to to get away with what they’ve done. (Jesse in particular repeatedly blusters his way through dealing with the blackmailer, dealing with Amber and his friends who are concerned, and really trying to convince himself as much as anyone that it’s all over and done with.) And every time it’s come back hard on them. Scotty is the nemesis— in classic Greek tragedy, the demon called up by the Gemstones’ hubris, the representation of all the greed and avarice the Gemstones engage in, without any of the pretext of godliness and goodness (a goodness that, perhaps, the Gemstones even had once upon a time). And the Gemstones’ refusal to admit what they are and deal with him means he lingers and persists and never, ever, ever goes away. Their refusal to truly uproot their evil brings around this manifestation of Satan– literally in this episode; complete with devil mask!

I was thinking about Matt Christman’s comment on the Chapo Trap House episode discussing this show: He observed Hill / Gordon / DGG make “Protestant comedy.” To wit: While the history of American comedy is largely about outsiders, and often the unfortunate things that happen to them and how they deal with being outsiders, American evangelical Protestantism is much more about insiders, people who believe themselves exalted, and often find this view confirmed by the world. Despite the terrible things they do, a comeuppance often never comes– you are exalted because you believe, what you do is not who you are, and the bounties of the kingdom of heaven will be rained upon you. In other words, everything always works out! (Think about Kenny Powers’ success and fame and how it ultimately all worked out for him no matter how many times he fucked up; think about some of the terrible things Neal Gamby and Lee Russell did.) Anyway, I was thinking of “Protestant Comedy” because I realized the Gemstones’ problems could largely be solved by taking a page from the Catholics and confessing— not even to the public or the authorities, but just to each other. They can’t come clean, though: Jesse is clearly hiding some secret from Amber (and she’s clearly chosen to let it go, not to tug at the thread that might unravel her life), and Gideon can’t confess to his parents that Scotty was there to attempt a burglary of the church, and his role in helping set it up. If either of them had done so, they would all be much more prepared for what is to come. Instead, appropriately enough, it’s Jesse and Gideon who find themselves in the shit at the end of the episode; Scotty robs the vault and leaves the two of them tied up together.

The other side of this episode is a story about positivity and negativity are spread. After Eli sees Judy perform at Baby Billy’s service, he realizes he’s been unfair to her, so he offers her a chance to perform a song during the Easter Sunday service collection. (Just like Aimee-Leigh used to.) He also offers Jesse the opportunity to deliver the main sermon this Easter; perhaps Eli is realizing it’s time for him to hand off more responsibilities to his children, to encourage goodness in them instead of keeping them competing for his favor. Unfortunately, with Baby Billy pouring poison in Judy’s ear (he’s not wrong that she was overlooked, but seeing how his attitude with her immediately changes this episode now that she’s on board with him is very telling), Judy decides to reject this kindness. And it ends up with B.J. leaving her, really the only sensible thing to do when confronted by the constant disrespect and mockery of this awful, crap family. Jesse, meanwhile, embraces his opportunity and in turn extends some magnanimity to Gideon– which is perhaps why Gideon calls off the heist.

It’s an interesting way to view this episode; for as much as it’s clear the Gemstone family is rotten and has lost their way, the allegorical nature of the story suggests there’s still an essential goodness there; these were men (and women) of God once upon a time (and arguably still are, when compared to people like Scotty), and you see it in, say, how Eli’s ability to extend grace to his children affects them, and how whether they accept or reject it in turns affects what they do next. Jesse becomes closer to his son; Judy drives her husband away.

It’s also interesting in that Eli doesn’t offer any particular grace to Kelvin. Kelvin is, most of all, the one who sincerely believes in the teachings and has the true affinity for it and tries to live the life. He is the good son in this tale, and like in the parable of the Prodigal Son, he is the one who gets no special favors. Will that be enough for Kelvin to rebel? It remains to be seen.

In interviews, Danny McBride has said he wants this show to go on for a long time, unlike the limited runs of Eastbound & Down (which itself probably ran longer than originally intended) and Vice Principals (deliberately created as a short series with a definite end). If the Gemstones team is capable of telling such great stories, deep in action and character as well as allegory– and not to mention with some absolute, and totally original, earworms)– I hope this show stays on as long as team H/M/G wants to keep making it.