After an episode that gave Hand Of God’s expansive cast some much-needed time to establish itself, “Welcome The Stranger” walks back any progress made with the series most forgettable outing yet. At the halfway point, it’s clear that creator Ben Watkins and company have no handle on what Hand Of God is supposed to be, what it wants to say, or even who the show is really about.
It’s even more disappointing since, like last episode, “Welcome The Stranger” eases back on the series central (and dramatically stultifying) gimmick—in fact, this is the first episode where Pernell hasn’t had a vision at all, instead musing offhandedly to Crystal, “He’s never gone this long without talking to me before.” And while it’s fine—more than fine—that the show is avoiding the “Pernell has a vision and runs around” structure of its first episodes, episode five doesn’t have anything to replace it. If Hand Of God wants to be a show about a corrupt, conservative judge whose belief that he’s a conduit for God’s will, then it needs to commit to that, rather than, as tonight, continuing to use Pernell’s religiosity when it’s convenient.
Coming along at Bobo’s insistence to “the Cartesian Conclave,” the sort of tony power-broker gathering where everyone dresses in immaculate white robes all weekend while naked women stroll around for their delectation, Pernell’s story tonight takes two tracks, neither of which does anything more than show how the show has never figured out what its protagonist actually stands for. In the first, Pernell, seeing that Emayatzy Corinealdi’s Tessie has been invited along for him by Andre Royo’s Bobo, continues to waffle over his infidelity. Pernell’s dilemma becomes even more dull with the introduction of local functionary Goldstein (Robert Joy), who proceeds to stoke the judge’s jealousy by lusting after Tessie, and making odious remarks about his previous engagements with her. (“That ball-licking comment was TMI no matter the situation,” commiserates Cleavon R. McClendon’s Asa, and he’s not wrong.) As a detour from Pernell’s (and the show’s) obsessive pursuit of the people behind Jocelyn’s attack, this cold all function as opportunity to further examine what Pernell’s newfound conversion means. In practice, however, the lengthy conclave interlude only serves to make Pernell more of a vague and contradictory character.
“Is this part of being born again? Pissing on everyone else around you?,” asked Pernell’s wife Crystal last episode, and it’s a fair question. Shooting bathrobe-clad skeet with Bobo here, Pernell explains his choice to forego sex with Tessie with a flat, “I’m born again,” but nothing Pernell has done since the start of the series has indicated what that means. He resists his desire for his mistress (with variable success), and attends occasional services at the makeshift church of clearly-untrustworthy Reverend Paul, but he still engages in the dirty land deal, acts unethically in his courtroom when it suits his needs, and assures Bobo and Crystal that nothing has changed. (Apart from pursuing a murderous course of Old Testament vengeance at the behest of what he believes to be God’s voice.) Tonight, he continues to use his faith an a cudgel to punish those who’ve crossed him, antagonizing Goldstein (while they and Bobo soak in the jacuzzi) with an escalatingly anti-Semitic series of putdowns, until the furious, naked government functionary storms off. Deflecting the man’s incredulous rage at being called a Christ-killer, the judge grinningly deflects every objection with assurances that he’s just kidding (“I mean, Jesus Christ Goldstein, I’m just fucking around.”) The fact that the guy insulted Tessie explains Pernell’s cruelty, but, as has been the case all season, there’s no sense of how seriously Pernell takes the fundamentalist insults he’s making on religious grounds (or how much he cares about the land deal dependent on Goldstein’s assistance), and how much he’s just being a prick.
Speaking of Tessie, Emayatzy Corinealdi remains too good for her role here. Apart from the fact that her nude scene here is so unnecessary that it’s infuriating, her anger at Pernell (who played Goldstein a hand of poker to unsuccessfully “save” her) is deeply prosaic. She’s not wrong to call out Pernell for being paternalistic, but her line saying so (“I heard you tried to win me in a card game. Is that how it is? You and a bunch of rich white boys get together and pretend we’re still living in the times when people get bought and sold?”), is obvious stuff. Even worse is Pernell’s bafflement at her anger—these are two intelligent people with a long-standing relationship. Not only is their conflict simplistic, it’s also of a piece with the episode’s nearly complete detour into irrelevance.
The worst offense here is the fact that fully a third of the episode is given over to Paul and Alicia, who, it turns out, have a plan to join up with big time television evangelist Bishop Congdon (Obba Babatundé) who, alongside wife Ida (Paula Jai Parker) is in town to see if the upstart preacher has what it takes (and to accept their big envelope of cash). Hand Of God’s potentially button-pushing treatment of religion has been mostly a non-issue, with the randy, compromised Paul and Alicia being objectionable mostly for how uninterestingly they steal focus from any examination of Pernell’s spiritual journey. So, naturally, Hand Of God delves more deeply into their story here, extending the irrelevance with not only the Bishop and his wife but a couple of swingers from Denver, who tempt the nervous Paul into a meth, sex, and Tom Cruise impression orgy the night before his big day. (Someone thought Julian Morris’ uncanny Cruise impression was worth a few minutes tonight.) So the pair steals Paul’s stake money, Paul delivers an impassioned sermon intended to get the betrayed Alicia to forgive him (it works on the Bishop, at least), and the whole subplot plays to bewilderment at its prominence in the episode. Yes, their church is called “Hand Of God,” but, on a show (now half-over) which hasn’t successfully defined its main character, the time spent on the eponymous ministry is baffling.
After solid turns last episode, even Jocelyn and Crystal’s stories play out to yawns this week. Crystal dines with land deal exec Anne (Elaine Tan), who reveals that Crystal’s been buying up parts of the deal behind Parnell’s back. But their story ends in a sitcom moment when the drunk Crystal brings Anne to meet the comatose P.J., only to stumble into Jocelyn attending to her husband’s unexpected erection. While people in comas do become aroused (look it up), the moment of intimacy may signal a shift in Jocelyn’s decision to pull P.J.’s plug, but her subsequent awkwardness with her mother-in-law is as dull as her function in forwarding the conspiracy plot. (She asks Crystal to ask Pernell about the book where P.J. was wont to hide his sought-after computer program, which was the reason she and P.J. were targeted by Shane Caldwell, Julio, and their shadowy masters.)
Which leaves Garret Dillahunt’s K.D., who orchestrates an elaborate jailhouse attack by his former neo-Nazi comrades in order to get Jacob Vargas’ Julio to tell him who put he and Shane up to the attack on Jocelyn. As great as Dillahunt’s been all season, he’s merely carrying plot here—the grateful Julio doesn’t know who hired them, but gives up an address.
The episode ends with Pernell pressuring Paul into forgiving his infidelity and then showing up in a hotel room bedecked with flowers, where the already-married Pernell asks Tessie to marry him. It’s another would-be dramatic development undermined by the fact that Pernell is whatever the plot needs him to be.
- Hand Of God continues to have a way of having its frequent sex talk sound especially unconvincing. Seeing Paul in the hotel room, Tessie’s objection is met by Pernell’s clueless “No, this is not a three-way.” I mean, these two have met before, right?
- Pernell continues to be very, very bad at concealing his murderous schemes, here telling Bobo all about his plans to use K.D. to question Julio.
- Pernell, on his way to the conclave: “I promise I won’t do anything stupid.” Promise broken.
- Pernell, putting off Tessie’s advances: “Because I can’t. Because it’s a commandment.” Thanks for explaining.
- Andre Royo still gets the best lines, here trying to defuse Pernell’s fight with Goldstein, saying, “We want to talk about boring, nondenominational shit.”
- “It’s about something strange Perell said.” “You’re gonna have to narrow that down.”