When The Killing debuted, most reviews made mention of the fact that the scenes where the Larsen family grieved for the death of Rosie Larsen were emotionally compelling and moving. But as the season went on and the characters didn’t move on from their grief, that stasis became a kind of symbol for what was wrong with the show—namely that no one ever moved past the situation they were in in the first handful of episodes and when they did, it was only due to unlikely and bizarre plot contrivances—but that complaint didn’t really make sense if you looked at it in a literal sense. We were watching the story over 13 weeks, and we didn’t know and love Rosie, so it was natural for us to want everything to move forward a bit. But the Larsens had been deprived of their only daughter before she turned 18 just under two weeks ago. It would have made absolutely no sense for them to have moved on, to have done anything but keep mourning.
Grief’s a quicksand that way. You think you’re past it, and then you find yourself stuck right back in the midst of it. (I still acutely miss my grandfather, and he died almost 10 years ago at this point.) My friend and colleague Matt Zoller Seitz likes to relate a story he heard from the great TV critic Andrew Johnston (who passed away in 2008), and I’ll very briefly paraphrase it here: Grief is like climbing a mountain, and every time you think you’ve reached the summit, you see another peak to scale just ahead. But you don’t reach an end, a final summit from which you can breathe a sigh of relief and head forward. You just, in Johnston’s words, “learn to like hiking.”
The thing I’ve always liked best about Rescue Me is that somewhere at its core, it’s a show about a lot of people trying to learn to like hiking and constantly realizing just how far they still have to go. For all of the unlikely plot machinations meant to mire the characters in misery and stand in for real, character-based drama, the show has always been good at portraying how the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11 and the later tragedies they indirectly spawned (by giving Tommy an excuse to indulge his self-destructive side) weigh on the characters and always threaten to swallow them whole. They can be futzing around, doing something else, and they’ll suddenly see something that reminds them of the horrors and miseries they’ve been through, something that makes them unable to move for a few minutes before they get back to what they were doing. But at the same time, we’ve been watching this show for seven years. It’s realistic, yes, but is it satisfying?
For the most part, I’d argue that this part of the show is the one thing that has consistently worked throughout its entire run. Look, for example, at tonight’s scene where Tommy is stopped short by seeing a 10th anniversary retrospective of the attacks being set up in a bookstore window. In his head, he drives his car through the window, lights the books on fire, struts off vengefully. In reality, he’s just standing there, staring, unable to find a way to close up that gap in his heart left by his cousin and friends’ deaths, the gap that indirectly led to so many other tragedies that have befallen him. If the planes don’t hit the Towers, Jimmy lives, of course, but do all of the others? Tommy’s son and brother and father and so on and so on and so on? Maybe not. Maybe those events still happen. But for Tommy, there’s a dividing line, always has been, and as the rest of the world moves on, takes a moment to remember the attacks before going on with the rest of its day, he can’t help but get angrier and angrier at the emptiness and crass commercialization of it all.
This notion unites tonight’s unusually formless episode, “Press,” an episode that continues this season’s sense of feeling like every episode is just part of some long story that is improvising its way to a conclusion. When I put it like that, it sounds kind of awesome (Treme is a show that pulls off this feeling brilliantly), but in practice, it’s been rather enervating. Still, I liked “Press” more than the first two episodes of this season, and I think that sense of all-consuming grief is why. That hits home hardest in that scene where Tommy has gone over to Kelly’s place and the two talk about God and death and how it is to be constantly surrounded by grief. Kelly is the first female character on the show in ages who’s credible as something other than someone who’s there for Tommy to have sex with. She really does seem like a kindred spirit, someone he could actually be friends with.
A lot of that is due to Maura Tierney, who plays the character like an open wound. She gets the best out of Denis Leary, as well, giving him someone to bounce off of who’s simultaneously warm and prickly, something that suits him well. The show has fallen into such a rut of Tommy being the cool guy, the guy who immediately knows what to do and can alleviate any situation by being cool, that it’s kind of nice to see him in situations where he doesn’t know what the hell to do. (That stammer when Kelly implied she’d been chatted up by Derek Jeter was delightful.) I feel like if this series ends with Tommy’s redemption, then that redemption has to go through Kelly, but I have a refreshing sense that this doesn’t mean he needs to sleep with her. They may just be able to help heal each other.
Sadly, the rest of the episode was nowhere near as strong as all of that. The stuff with Lou was all right, I suppose, because I like John Scurti so much, but to reduce him to a funny fat man with an eating problem this late in the show’s run feels like a mistake. Lou’s the soul of the show, and he’s been sidelined into a storyline about cupcakes? If anything, he and Kelly should be double-teaming Tommy, trying to get him to mend his ways. Similarly, the very minor plotline with Feinberg obviously having trouble remembering stuff feels like something that’s been done millions of times before and needs more than the rest of this season to really gain any weight (since Feinberg’s such a minor character in the grand scheme of things).
But I still like some of what the show is going for here. When Tommy steps in and talks to the reporter about how there are no happy endings, it feels like one of the first honest moments his character has had in quite a while. And as the show reorients itself around that idea of grief being an all-consuming void no one can escape from, it gains a lot of the ferocious dark power that characterized the show in its earliest days. There’s nothing as good as those episodes here, but there is a sense that the show is attempting to course-correct just a bit headed into the end. And that could be a good thing. Maybe.
- The Colleen and Black Shawn get married plot isn’t really doing anything for me, even as an excuse to let the guys do some comic hijinks or whatever. Garrity picking up the girl in the bridal dress store was a predictable snore, as was Mike knowing a lot about weddings. But I did like that real life has invalidated the bit where the girl asks Garrity if he and Mike are getting married in Vermont or Connecticut and he says they will right there in New York. (Or maybe Denis Leary is psychic.)
- Other stuff that didn’t quite work: that whole confrontation between the crew and Lou. Plotlines like this need some time to build, and this one just sort of… happened.
- That said, this episode has mostly non-terrible appearances by Janet and Sheila, so there’s that, I guess.
- "She wears that tulip bodice like a princess."
- "The Cubans are just dull as milk."