The fifth episode in the sometimes hilarious and consistently interesting drama series The Righteous Gemstones is appropriately titled “Interlude.” This episode takes us back to 1989 before Eli Gemstone’s (John Goodman) wife Aimee-Leigh (Jennifer Nettles) passed away and her brother Baby Billy Freeman (Walton Goggins) is trying to get their childhood singing career back for a reunion tour. In many ways, this episode serves as the perfect build-up to what will inevitably be a knock-down, drag-out finale since it explains why so many characters are angry, broken, or downright crazy.
This episode devotes most of its time to Baby Billy and his jealousy over Eli taking his sister away from him. Or, at least that’s how he sees it. In the opening scene, we cut to Eli and Aimee-Leigh’s weekly TV show, where we learn she’s pregnant. This throws everything into chaos, from Aimee-Leigh and Baby Billy’s reunion tour, to young Jesse Gemstone and Judy Gemstone feeling like the new baby will ruin everything. Much of the episode — which clocks in at a slightly longer 39 minutes — is about how all the anger Baby Billy has today is due to the scenes we see here. His ignorant anger and frustrations in the present are founded on his selfish and sometimes sexist ideas in the past. It sets up the eventual battle he will have with Eli later in the season.
John Carcieri, Jeff Bradley, and Danny McBride are credited as the writers on this episode, and they do a stellar job. Goggins continues to be the funniest element in the show in part because he has the funniest lines. When Baby Billy finds out his sister is pregnant in her 40s, he blames Eli for the tour being canceled by saying, “You’re the one who splashed all that sperm all over her.” This show has a bluntness to it that’s particularly hilarious thanks to how these family members talk to each other, but also because they are supposed to be pure as members of the church. Later in the episode, Judy, who can’t be older than 9, says, “I like hearing Jesse get in trouble. It makes my bird twitch.” Eli is confused since she doesn’t have a bird, but Aimee-Leigh explains she meant her vagina. Yikes! Judy is quite the firecracker in this episode, stabbing her brother with a steak knife for kicks and telling her friend off for getting her a Barbie she already has four of.
The dramatic acting continues to be a highlight of the show too. Goggins is believable in his selfish whining when he convinces Aimee-Leigh to join him on tour even when she’s pregnant, while Goodman’s Eli is an honest-to-goodness concerned husband who loves his wife more than anything. There’s a corruption in Baby Billy that clearly infected the family, most directly in a scene where he gives Jesse beers to sabotage Eli at Judy’s birthday party. Meanwhile, Judy is a spoiled brat who seems to be ignored by the family from the word go. These scenes help explain why Judy (played by Edi Patterson) is so weird, messed up, and desperate for attention.
Other elements that work are Baby Billy and Aimee-Leigh going up on stage to play their childhood hit “Misbehavin’,” which David Gordon Green directs splendidly. You see the talent of Aimee-Leigh, the joy of performing, and Baby Billy’s addiction to the limelight. It’s a reminder of how this show is a commentary on televangelism and the falsehoods of these seemingly happy folks who hide their true persona. Props to the songwriters for this song, which has a catchy tune and could definitely exist in an older time as a folksy church song.
My only gripe is the imbalance of humor in the episode. Most of the jokes and humorous character moments occur in the first half. From there the episode gets rather serious, never lightening the mood but instead sticking to the drama of Baby Billy and Aimee-Leigh’s eventual feud.
This flashback-based fifth episode serves as a fantastic way to better understand these characters. Given Danny McBride created this show many will assume it’s a straight comedy, but much like Vice Principals, it weaves in drama and sometimes even makes that the focal point. McBride’s brand of awkward characters who desperately want something but don’t have the words to say it continues to delight and it continues to be oh so much fun to laugh at these wonderfully sad and sometimes inspirational characters.