Emayatzy Corinealdi, Ron Perlman

With a bold, outlandish premise and a powerful, imposing lead, it’s surprising—and not a little disappointing—that Hand Of God lacks a strong center, but, in its second episode, the show continues to drift. Ron Perlman’s Pernell Harris is intended to take his place in line after the big boys of modern television antiheroes, but the thing that the Drapers, Sopranos, and Whites had going for them was a well-articulated core. If their stories played out like Shakespearean tragedy, it’s because we knew their characters well enough to spot their tragic flaws, and watch them struggle (and fail) to overcome them. Pernell Harris’ conception continues to leave him (and Perlman) lurching from scene to scene in search of purpose, a construction which may make sense for a guy receiving inconsistent, vague messages from God, but which leaves Hand Of God floundering.

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“Your Inside Voice” sees Pernell receive another message in his comatose son’s hospital room, this time in the form of an annoyingly catchy television jungle for an exotic fish store (performed by an unrecognizable Lance Bass, of all people.) Having already orchestrated a murder based on a separate vision last episode, Pernell sets out to discover what the Lord wants him to do this time, eventually realizing that the fish store both represents another time when he failed his son, and is the next step in his investigation of who is behind the rape of daughter-in-law Jocelyn. Apart from how tiring it is (already) to have Pernell’s visions play out the same way—Pernell sees something and reacts disruptively, only for it to be revealed that no one else saw what he saw—this structure shores up the idea that Hand Of God is going to be less about the imperious, corrupt judge confronting his sins due to his newfound faith, and more about Pernell (and Garret Dillahunt’s violent, scripture-quoting henchman K.D.) waiting for the judge’s visions to lead them to their next clue/victim. Sort of like a grim, murderous Wonderfalls.

Which is a shame, as the idea of a character-driven drama about the conflict between Pernell’s past (and present) venality and his recent conversion to a very literal and fervent concept of morality would give the ever-vivid Perlman more to work with. Instead, as in the pilot, the judge continues to treat his religious awakening either as a supernatural means to find out who victimized his son and daughter-in-law, or as an inconvenient niggle to be shrugged off whenever one of the various corrupt practices propping up his luxurious and powerful existence needs him to do something unethical.

Tonight, facing disciplinary action over his blatantly improper exoneration of the useful K.D., Pernell puts the strong arm on the female judge who’s planning to throw him to the wolves with such practiced menace that any trace of newfound conscience is invisible. Perlman’s good in the scene—placing the absurdly vulnerable tropical fish he bought for his son on the table in its baggie of water, his Pernell never raises his voice or outright threatens, letting his measured cadence and physical presence in the restaurant’s leathery booth (and that quivering fish) make his intentions clear to the equally shaky woman opposite. (Even so, his threats are one step more sophisticated than Michael Palin’s gangsters in those Python sketches.) Similarly, when Dana Delany’s Crystal expresses concern that his rebirth will rock their boat, Pernell responds contemptuously, “I am okay. I found Jesus, I’m not quitting my job. I’m not gonna walk away from everything we’ve built up and run screaming into the woods.” Which begs the question of what, exactly, Pernell’s religious awakening means other than it is a convenient gimmick for the show to drive its conspiracy story.

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With Pernell and K.D. essentially playing “monster of the week,” waiting on the judge’s next vision to tell them who to target next, Perlman is left to play isolated scenes of whatever emotion the plot requires. Which is a decent acting showcase for Perlman—tonight, his expression of regret to Crystal about how he’d once bought an expensive fish for son P.J. as a passive aggressive response to his son’s rejection of a job in his father’s empire is understated and profound. (“What did I care if my son didn’t wanna take a job? Why couldn’t I just let him be my son?”) Pernell’s admissions that he let his son down continue to be fruitful ground for Perlman and Hand Of God—it’s especially touching how physical the powerful Pernell is with his brain-dead son, tonight gently stroking P.J.’s face with those huge paws—but those moments continue also to serve mainly as prelude to Pernell’s visions, which come in P.J.’s voice. As the mystery is teased out, the plot machinations keep crowding out Perlman’s best efforts at humanizing the judge, or confronting what his perceived failures as a father mean, other than as an excuse for Pernell to continue his obsessive pursuit of vengeance.

With Pernell receding at Hand Of God’s center, there are some fringe benefits to be had at the show’s edges, luckily. Andre Royo’s mayor Bobo Boston continues to get a few good lines in, tonight quipping at lunch that he wants to order fish, but is afraid of offending Pernell’s friend on the table. Royo’s such a living presence on the screen that even his rather perfunctory confrontations with the pair in charge of his and Pernell’s shady land deal spark with energy. (Told the project is held up because the proper kind of earthquake-proof gravel can’t be found, he snaps back knowingly, “How long until we get these magical earthquake rocks?”) There’s also a nice comic chemistry developing between the mayor and his aide/son Asa (Cleavon McClendon), with the younger Boston alternatingly exasperating his father with incompetence and shooting the mayor searching asides. Although thoroughly underused, Emayatzy Corinealdi (so good in Ava DuVernay’s Middle Of Nowhere) brings a few new shades to her hooker with a heart of gold Tessie, meeting Pernell is the fish store and swapping philosophical musings which, while not especially revealing, convey the genuine warmth underneath their business arrangement (the judge still pays her her customary $1,500). New addition Erykah Badu, too, gets slotted into a “minority side character” role as Crystal’s wise pot dealer, but the singer/actress plays especially well off of Delany, their smoky parking lot conversation natural and warm. It‘s not certain how knowingly Hand Of God is giving Pernell and Crystal one wise, criminal, woman of color as a sounding board each, but the actresses are good, at any rate.

The most interesting presences on the show at this point continue to be Garret Dillahunt’s K.D. and Alona Tal’s Jocelyn, both of whom manage to exist inside of Hand Of God’s limp contrivances with a startling immediacy. Dillahunt, as always, excels at conveying barely-contained depravity, his born-again ex-con here a vivid portrait of a dangerous, warring mind. In his scenes with Pernell, K.D. alternates between cold-eyed, terrifying certainty in his belief that they’re doing God’s ugly work and the childlike vulnerability of a man ashamed of his past. It’s in the mouth—Dillahunt’s jaw is always on the verge of disappearing into the black cave of his maw, transforming in an instant from normal (even handsome) masculinity to slack-faced menace. In the episode, his eyes-averted, mumbling explanation of his white power tattoo to Elizabeth McLaughlin’s Alicia is a heartbreaker, the monstrous but repentant K.D.’s response to Alicia’s “That’s not you any more is it? That’s all that matters” conveying the man’s mass of contradictions with a glance.

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And, as Jocelyn, Tal continues to command the attention her role as “rape victim providing motive for the plot” seeks to take away. Whether manically dancing to a video game in her messy living room, or convincing her lawyer (an effectively slick John Tenney) that she is, in fact, willing to take on her powerful father-in-law in court in order to disconnect P.J.’s life support, Tal’s Jocelyn isn’t anyone’s pretext for anything. Even with Hunter Parrish’s handsome friend Josh clearly hovering around in wait for her to move on from P.J. (to him), Jocelyn’s weary pain is her own, and Tal makes more of the role than perhaps is on the page. Her wrenching explanation to the squeamish Josh of the twice-daily ordeal her artificially alive husband has to go through (there can be no wrinkles on his sheets, or the uneven pressure creates skin ulcers) comes with the unflinching matter-of-factness of grief prolonged past its natural endpoint. And while the impending court case over P.J.’s fate isn’t especially riveting in theory, the prospect of what Tal can do with Jocelyn’s pain certainly is.

In the end, however, this is Pernell’s story, and Hand Of God hasn’t yet shown that the dilemma it set up for him is complex enough to sustain it. So far, Pernell’s moral quandaries not related to him hunting down the people responsible for Jocelyn’s rape (and P.J.’s attempted suicide) involve him peevishly asking K.D. or Julian Morris’ fraudulent preacher why God won’t give him what he wants. (“I did what God said, and I got nothin.” “I kept my promise, why is my son still a lump in a hospital bed?”) There’s been a smattering of objection from religious types about the show’s treatment of Christianity, which, if you actually watch Hand Of God, seems irrelevant. Hand Of God isn’t so much engaged in a serious dissection of faith as it is using the trappings of religious cliché as a plot device in a thus far overwrought and dour mystery story.

Stray observations

  • Not included in the show’s roster of interesting side characters—Morris’ Reverend Paul and McLaughlin’s Alicia, whose presence at the center of Pernell’s conversion only undermines it. These two horny fakers may be presented as charismatic charlatans (even if there are are nods to their belief being sincere), but their function so far is to enable Pernell’s delusions (if that’s what they are) for their own gain. Tonight, Alicia attempts to seduce yet another recalcitrant authority figure (the guy at the piano store isn’t biting), while she and Paul have an extended sex scene on top of the piano that she eventually convinces Pernell to give them.
  • Luckily, Jacob Vargas’ Julio, a graffiti artist somehow connected to the mystery, dodges K.D.’s assassination attempt (in a tensely directed chase from Marc Forster), leaving the always interesting Vargas the chance to return.
  • Speaking of K.D.’s criminal prowess, the police already have surveillance footage of him abducting Shane Caldwell, someone spots him conspiring with the judge, and both the police chief and mayor now know it was he who Pernell sprung from jail. Coming all so soon, it’ll be interesting how Hand Of God explains why the guy isn’t arrested sooner rather than later.
  • Some good, witty fish work in this episode, with both Pernell’s unfortunate friend in the baggie and a goldfish (imagined) in a cops drinking water used to pull focus in their scenes.
  • Tenney’s best line, after telling the pushy Josh to wait outside: “Seriously?” “Or casually—as long as you end up on the other side of that door.”
  • “I’m pretty sure I could move on, even if they don’t let me bury him. But then they’d have to do this to him, twice a day, every day. Until Pernell says so.”

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