Discover more from Episodic Medium
Review: The Righteous Gemstones, "For I Know the Plans I Have for You" & "And Esau Ran to Meet Him" | Season 3, Episodes 1 & 2
The kids try on Eli's big shoes, and two new sets of enemies appear
Welcome to Episodic Medium’s coverage of the third season of HBO’s The Righteous Gemstones, starting with Donna Bowman’s take on the first two episodes that debuted tonight. As always, this first review is free, but subsequent reviews will only be available to paid subscribers. For more information, see our About Page, and our full summer schedule.
Cue the angelic choir and the background dancers! It’s time to return to the Gemstone Salvation Center and assorted side ventures to see if the worst siblings in the world can take over their father’s empire. That’s right, it’s Succession with (ironically) less chance of redemption.
As season 3 begins, the ministry is at a crossroads. Zion Landing, the Atlantis-style resort, is open and thriving. Kelvin’s youth ministry has transitioned from martial arts to “smut busting,” clearing out adult novelty stores and destroying piles of sex toys. Judy is wrapping up her “Judy On Top” tour with a hometown concert. Eli, in retirement, has joined the Cape and Pistol Society, a fraternal order with elaborate robes and a philosophy of gun-toting and forbearance. Gideon is recuperating at home from a stunt-driving accident. And Jesse is enjoying the chance to indulge his paranoid style as king of the castle, firing Eli’s driver for leaking inside details of their lifestyle to a Christian tabloid.
In these opening episodes, we meet two groups of antagonists. First are the Simkins, the Gemstones’ less tacky, more diverse millennial doppelgangers. They’re trying to poach Dusty Daniels, a driver who ran Jesus-themed monster truck rallies (“We can smush the things that the devil puts in our way!”) twenty years ago, but feels neglected by the Gemstones these days. The two best jokes of the first episode happen when the families face off on a NASCAR track. First, after the flashback to 2000 showed a baby-faced Dusty, Shea Whigham climbs out of a racecar as present-day Dusty, smoking up a storm and giving full Cryptkeeper. And then second, of course, Jesse stalling at the starting line in the big race-off with his Simkin counterpart (played by Stephen Dorff), then spinning out into the wall before the first turn.
The second enemy faction is fully introduced in the second episode, after a setup in the premiere. Eli’s sister May-May (Kristen Johnson), who attacks Aimee-Leigh with a wrench in a horrific county-fair flashback, asks for her brother’s help getting her two sons out from under the influence of her estranged husband Peter. When the Gemstones go in search of the sons, they find a full-blown Christian nationalist militia—guns everywhere, infantry-style training courses, mess hall slop on metal trays. And they find Peter (a crazed, scarified Steve Zahn) attacking the Gemstone brand of Christianity as a product to be sold, calling them charlatans and entertainers. “Are we to believe that these phony fakers will be called to the kingdom of heaven?” he asks his grim-faced, G.I. Joe cosplaying followers before the interlopers are shown the door.
A show like Gemstones thrives on spectacle, and there’s some impressive spectacle in this opening salvo. Best of all is the Hal Needham-inspired car chase that ends episode two, with Gideon taking the wheel and Eli calling out obstacles that aren’t in the driver’s neck-injury-restricted field of view. It’s a white-knuckle ride from the get-go, deftly paced by director Jody Hill, and it ends as satisfyingly as a big-screen smash-em-up, with the two pursuing pickups destroying each other while attempting a pincer move.
The style that Hill, Danny McBride and David Gordon Green (among others) have developed in their work relies on juxtaposing those spectacles—action-movie tropes, extravagant sets, over-the-top costuming—with the pettiness of the characters and the low stakes of their personal dramas. Jesse’s near-mumbled patter provides a constant ironic counterpoint to the visuals. Sometimes his commentary is obtuse (“Super relig, love their guns, live in a compound together—I’m embarrassed we’re even related to them,” he sums up Peter’s militia), but more often, Jesse is our surrogate on screen, admitting what this all looks like to the audience. Annoyed that the Simpkins’ “pull yourself up by your bootstraps” gospel is based on their parents’ dying in a plane crash, he complains that “nobody’s rooting for born-wealthy people to become more wealthy.”
Occasionally that juxtaposition becomes true hybridization: spectacle that accentuates the stupidity (without becoming stupid itself). And episode two has one of the best examples in the whole series. The ministerial staff calls a meeting with the siblings to air concerns about their ability to lead in Eli’s absence. It’s a massive affair, with rows and rows of tables for ministers labeled with their responsibilities. And when it devolves into shoe-throwing, the scale is part of what makes it so funny. There are just so much footwear, so many people taking cover or fleeing the scene, and so many rapid-fire shots of people being hit in the face with shoes—something I never realized was so inherently hilarious.
I’m hyped for what will come from this season’s antagonists. These are the perfect phenomena for the show to be tackling at this moment—the aging of those original megachurch congregations (and the threat to their growth opportunities from more millennial-oriented, slicker, more cosmopolitan options), and of course the normalization of apocalyptic Christian nationalism. While these groups have been around for decades (many of them, alarmingly, headquartered in my neck of the woods), they’ve exerted a far greater influence on evangelical culture in the mainstream since 2008, and have been brought out of the shadows into political and theological legitimacy by Trumpism. In both cases, the show is likely to explore questions about what draws people into these systems and cements their loyalty. And with the Gemstones being told straight out that their congregants are no longer buying what they’re selling, I’m looking forward to finding out which of their rivals’ products they are tempted to knock off.
Judy toys with BJ, playacting the loyal and loving wife after dramatically ending an affair with Steven the guitarist. When she blithely refers to them as being “back on the same page,” he’s so hurt by the revelation that she considered their recent life as a rough patch. I don’t feel much empathy for anyone in this terrible family, but don’t do that to poor BJ.
Steven is likely to be a problem in future episodes, after getting fired from the church and enduring his wife’s insults about his rock star fantasies (“you spend all day wearing ripped jeans and learning Kings of Leon”).
Jesse’s gang of minions are the only ones who take up Kelvin’s dumb “we, the three, and you” chant. They’re also the only ones who cheer the Gemstones’ aggressive and profane insults as the meeting spirals out of control. It all underscores the disconnect between the sheltered existence the siblings have lived as celebrity preacher’s kids, and what congregants are looking for from a church community.
Dusty Daniels is well known for his catchphrase “Whoohee Sucker!”
When the siblings draft Gideon to be Eli’s driver, Jesse tells him he’ll need to drive Eli to all his prostate appointments. “How often is he getting his prostate checked?” Gideon asks in confusion, and Jesse immediately asserts, “Bunches.”
My favorite non-sequitur Jesse line was when Martin comes to the meeting room under renovation to tell them about the ministers’ demands. Jesse’s got a laser measuring device which he idly points at Martin’s crotch and observes “Your penis is 22.8 feet away from me right now.”
Sword Drill: If you’ve paid attention to the episode titles of the first two seasons, you know most of them are biblical quotations. In this space I’ll identify the source of the titles and give a little context, for those of you who didn’t spend your childhood memorizing the Bible. Episode 1 is called “For I Know the Plans I Have For You” (Jeremiah 29:11), from a prophecy where God promises to bring the Judeans back to Palestine from exile in Babylon. And Episode 2’s title, “And Esau Ran To Meet Him” (Genesis 33:4), refers to a touching moment when Jacob returns to his ancestral lands after cheating his brother Esau, and finds an unexpected warm welcome.
Fair warning, subscribers—I asked Myles to let me write about this show because of my profession (Christian theologian), my background in evangelicalism, and my many many thoughts about the state of evangelical culture, institutions, personalities, and doctrinal priorities over the past few years. I’m likely to get into those technical issues, occasionally deep down the rabbit hole, in these reviews. I would love to get your feedback in the comments: Would you prefer those discussions to be integrated into the recaps, or separated out in a way that allows those not interested in them to easily skip? I’m thinking of the way Noel used to segregate Lost lore conjecture into its own set of stray observations. My natural inclination is just to take those deep dives as they come up in the course of writing about the episodes, but I’m happy to create a “Vacation Bible School” section to segregate them if that’s a better experience for you. What’s your preference?