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It's all flashbacks and family affairs on this week's outstanding The Righteous Gemstones

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Flashbacks aren’t exactly the most inventive way to fill in character backstories, and when this episode promised to take place fully in the past, I was worried that it’d be an unnecessary filler episode in a season currently riding high. Luckily, “Interlude” is remarkable. It’s a funny, sweet, emotionally-probing 40 minutes that gives us a peak at how the Gemstones came to be, and the contrast with who they were and what they are now is some of the season’s best work so far.

“Interlude” begins in simpler times. Eli and Aimee-Leigh (Jennifer Nettles) have a studio where they air a weekly religious show, and their kids are certainly brats, but not quite the monsters they’ll be as adults. Aimee-Leigh drops the news that she’s pregnant right before they’re set to go on air, and that’s the event that sets the entire Gemstone drama in motion.

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Aimee-Leigh’s pregnancy sends ripples throughout the family. Not only does Jesse despise the idea of his parents having another kid, Baby Billy, Aimee-Leigh’s brother, is upset that she’s cancelling their reunion tour to have the baby. These are the seeds of the current Gemstone dysfunction, from Jesse’s selfishness to the never ending feud between Eli and Baby Billy.

“Interlude” is a great use of flashback because it informs the present-day storylines in a meaningful way. The flashback isn’t just a vehicle for jokes and nostalgia, but rather a surprisingly emotional dive into the dynamic of this family. There’s a lot of layers here, both in the personal relationships and how the Gemstones have risen from their more humble beginnings, perhaps losing sight of their mission along the way.

At the heart of all this change and turmoil is Eli, and it can’t be overstated just how terrific John Goodman is. He seems to understand Eli on a level that gives The Righteous Gemstones some emotional heft, never really playing him as the outsized, greedy pastor you’d expect from a Danny McBride show about a family that runs a wildly successful megachurch. Goodman’s performance is more grounded than the necessarily amplified ones of Danny McBride and Edi Patterson, and “Interlude” is the best showcase for what Goodman brings to the show so far.

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In essence, Goodman is able to capture how much Eli has changed over the years, but in very subtle ways. If current day Eli is an imposing figure, the Eli of the past is much more demure. He’s kind, and he believes in family and serving God. Goodman’s smile is a force, softening Eli in ways that would seem impossible after the first few episodes of the season. But what Goodman also understands is that Eli doesn’t become who he is overnight. Part of that character—his ruthlessness, his cunning, his ability to get what he wants—has always been there. It’s in the way he tells Aimee-Leigh to do whatever she wants when it comes to the tour, but then immediately sets about attacking Baby Billy’s intentions. Most importantly, it’s in the way he acts around his father, those harsher qualities a byproduct of him slowly turning into his old man as he ages.

Danny McBride’s shows love to both indulge in and critique the toxic behaviors of abysmal men—you could certainly criticize Eastbound and Down and Vice Principals for having its cake and eating it too when it comes to the actions of its main characters—but largely there’s a root cause that’s eventually exposed. Eli and Jesse come from a line of men who dole out tough love. Eli’s father criticizes the outlandish, lavish birthday party his son throws for Judy; Eli maybe got out of chores on his birthday, which was the only gift he could expect. The lineage of toxicity continues, with Baby Billy giving Jesse beer and encouraging him to publicly humiliate his father. Jesse does, saying he’s going to make the new baby’s life “dumb” and pee in its face whenever he gets the chance.

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Outside of the moments with young Jesse though, this isn’t a juvenile, joke-heavy episode. Instead, it’s a look at the shifting nature of families and how that can create conflict. Baby Billy feels like he’s losing his sister, which is a genuine emotion, but he’s also lying to her and being selfish. Eli wants to project an open-minded vibe when it comes to Aimee-Leigh maybe going on tour, but he also just wants her to stay home, raise the kids, and build “their dynasty.”

Ultimately, “Interlude” is an ode to the late Aimee-Leigh. This is her first appearance in the show, but it’s an impactful one. She’s the force of good in this family, and her absence, as Baby Billy notes, leaves everything crumbling. As the episode comes to a close, back in the present day, Baby Billy sits in his car listening to an old tape of his and Aimee’s, one from their days as a childhood success. Eli stands in his backyard, his dynasty bigger than ever, and stares lovingly at the bust commemorating his late wife. “Interlude” is hardly a pause between acts: rather, it’s an insightful, grounded, necessary bit of storytelling from The Righteous Gemstones.

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Stray observations

  • Young Judy saying that watching Jesse get in trouble “makes her bird twitch” left me pausing my screener because I couldn’t stop laughing. Goodman’s follow-up about it being “her privates” only added to it all. Judy: “It is my privates!”
  • Interesting that Eli criticizes Baby Billy’s shameless attempts at earning money. How the times change.
  • Judy has never been more relatable than when she starts grabbing dinner rolls from the table before leaving the restaurant.
  • Young Jesse has some big plans: “Run away, join the WWF, become a bad guy.”
  • I love that the climactic fight between Baby Billy and Aimee-Leigh leans heavily into the melodrama. There’s a score of string swells as the two shout over each other. It’s beautifully over-the-top.
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About the author

Kyle Fowle

Kyle Fowle is a freelance writer based out of Canada. He writes about TV and wrestling for The A.V. Club, Real Sport, EW, and Paste Magazine.