While last week’s episode of The Righteous Gemstones barely stepped foot in the church, “They Are Weak, But He Is Strong” fully baptizes itself in the waters of prosperity theology as Walton Goggins makes his debut as Baby Billy Freeman and runs off with the entire show.
Keeping true to Danny McBride’s promise that Gemstones would have more dicks than Euphoria, we meet the elderly Baby Billy in an outdoor bathtub as his extremely young wife Tiffany brings him a glass of warm milk. The two have dollar signs in their eyes as Baby Billy promises a lifestyle change full of “name brand clothing stores” once he gets his new church. We also know from photographs in his home that he’s the brother of Eli’s late wife Aimee-Leigh Gemstone, and the Freemans were apparently child stars on the gospel music circuit. Clearly, fortune only blessed one of the siblings as Aimee-Leigh, though deceased, became a Gemstone while Baby Billy lives in a rundown house at Freeman’s Gap. Is he scheming to make a run at his brother-in-law’s obscene fortune? Quite the opposite actually. For now.
After Baby Billy’s wang ushers in the title credits — which I’m guessing was a stunt cock? These are the thoughts that keep me up at night — Jesse’s family is trying to leave for church, but they’re being held up by wayward son Gideon, who returned to the fold last week after his first attempt to blackmail Jesse ended in a series of broken bodies. While Jesse has no idea that Gideon is behind the extortion plot, he sure as shit isn’t thrilled to have his “prodigal son” back after he abandoned the family for Hollywood, and it doesn’t help that his wife Amber is continually gushing that her baby boy is home.
Meanwhile, on a similar trajectory, Kelvin and Judy stroll through a mall where the Gemstones have opened a new church inside an abandoned Sears. Except this isn’t just any church. It’s the new Locust Grove location that led to a tense confrontation between Eli and Dermot Mulroney’s Reverend John Seasons in the series premiere, and that bad blood becomes the focal point of the third episode. On top of that, the new pastor is one Baby Billy Freeman who secured the position after reaching out to Eli for work. It’s not exactly the job that Baby Billy had in mind, but one he eventually strives to make the best of, and the episode features several exchanges between Goggins and John Goodman that are exactly why McBride comedies absolutely murder at HBO. There’s just something about the way Goggins delivers the line “You threw a potato through the man’s window” that makes me wonder why he’s not on every single show on television.
More importantly, Christianity was back at the forefront, and The Righteous Gemstones continues to show that it’s done its homework.
While the Gemstones leans heavily towards satirizing the salacious misdeeds of real-life televangelists like Jimmy Swaggart, Ted Haggard, Jim Bakker, and Jerry Falwell Jr., this week’s episode hinted at Eli running afoul of the IRS, which was a thing for a very brief while. In the mid-aughts, there was a concerted movement to look into the financials of several prominent televangelists who were leading very decadent public lifestyles. Granted, American evangelicalism has always played fast and loose with The Bible, it’s kind of hard to square Jesus being cool with $30,000 bathrooms and private jets. However, those investigations conveniently died after Republicans determined there was no wrongdoing amongst the most prominent figures in their most reliable voting bloc. What an amazing coincidence!
When it comes to pure, uncut patriarchy, you can’t get it more straight from the tap than religion, and misogyny was front and center in “They Are Weak, But He Is Strong.” Baby Billy insults his wife’s intelligence from the pulpit, Judy continues to desperately vie for Eli to even acknowledge her presence, and Jesse makes his wife catch a cocktail wiener in her mouth during a serious talk about Gideon’s returns. Why would he bother listening to her when he’s already set the dynamic as the head of the household? Amber is wrong for “babying” the boy while Jesse is right in giving his son the tough love treatment that Eli would’ve presumably given him, which spirals directly into the next topic…
During a dinner table scene with the entire Gemstone family present, Jesse’s second youngest son Pontius has escalated his behavior from blowing kisses at his dad to agonize him. Now, Pontius is flat-out telling Jesse to “shut the f*ck up” before daring him to smack him in front of everyone, which is a bold move considering Eli, the man who taught Jesse that children are to be reared with violence, is literally sitting right next to Pontius. Where do you think your dad learned it from, son? Although, in one of life’s most brain-melting moves, Grandpa Eli just sits there like the situation is no big deal and even says as much later. “Kids mouth off! What’re ya gonna do?” I’m pretty sure your preferred method was assault, motherf*cker.
As for where McBride is taking this subplot, God only knows because the series premiere already made it very clear that this show has no qualms getting dark as hell and never forget that Vice Principals had a goddamn school shooting. Literally anything on the table. That’s why it’s extremely foreboding that Jesse brings up how often Pontius gets detention at school and is clearly an angry young men, which is usually what happens when a boy spends his formative years living in fear of getting his teeth rattled. Trust me. In the meantime, McBride has hinted in interviews that Gemstones would explore how Jesse learns that smacking kids isn’t delivering the results his dad had with him — then again, Jesse isn’t exactly a well-adjusted individual — so I’m riveted and terrified to see where this Pontius situation goes.
Pastoral Goon Squads
In case I haven’t made this clear, even though I’m parsing through the show to highlight it’s mostly accurate descriptions of Christianity, the Gemstones should obviously put the story and characters first. I’m enjoying the hell out of this show — have I mentioned how much I love Walton Goggins yet? — and I’m not smart enough to say it should be doing a single thing different to advance its narrative.
That said, even though it was rife with comedy, having John Seasons’ men trash Baby Billy’s church was probably the stupidest thing they could’ve done for revenge. We’re talking about a belief system with a massive persecution complex, so vandalizing a church is practically a goddamn goldmine. Just think how easily something like that can be pinned on Satan or “The Enemy” as he’s more commonly called. The Gemstones could feast on something like that for years. “Remember when The Enemy attacked our very place of worship? Well, let’s fill those offering plates and show him that God’s children are stronger than ever! CHA-CHING.”
Granted, the show is treating these churches as little mob families and again, I’m not here to criticize the entertainment angle of that choice. But these people are genuinely dangerous in a much more terrifying way. Case in point:
Another mass shooting carried out in Texas by a white male domestic terrorist, just ahead of a loosening of Texas gun laws. Here’s my analysis as to how and why the Christian Right remains our biggest impediment to #GunReformNow.#EmptyThePews https://t.co/KQOU3lgW4L— Chrissy Stroop (@C_Stroop) September 1, 2019
See you at the next mass shooting. Bring thoughts and prayer!
Header Image Source: HBO