While writing the first season of The Righteous Gemstones, producers Danny McBride, Jeff Fradley, and John Carcieri found themselves a day ahead of schedule. Just to kill time, the team bounced around ideas for a flashback episode of Gemstones that would take place during Jesse and Judy’s childhood. Thus, their planned eight-episode season expanded to nine, and the 1989-set “Interlude” became the fulcrum upon which the entire show balanced. The success of this experiment has spawned a tradition, with “Interlude II,” set in 1993, serving both as emotional context for the family’s current troubles but also as an essential chapter in the second season’s ongoing murder mystery.
In the four years between the two “Interlude”s, the Gemstone family has grown not only in number (little Kelvin makes five), but in prestige and excess. The family has moved out of their upper middle-class neighborhood and onto their vast private compound, Eli (a digitally de-aged John Goodman) has been interviewed by Barbara Walters on national TV, and the 2000-seat theater at Gemstones Family Studios is steadily packed with enthusiastic believers. That’s not enough for Eli, who sees the sale of a local sports arena as an opportunity to expand the church. His accountant warns that he can’t afford to stretch himself further, and that even success would only attract the level of scrutiny that faces the tarnished Bakker and Swaggart megachurch empires. This call for moderation gets the accountant fired and replaced by the gleefully enthusiastic Martin Imari (Gregory Alan Williams).
News of Eli’s financial strains reaches the ear of his old Memphis mentor, wrestling promoter/Dixie mafioso Glendon Marsh, Sr. (Wayne Duvall), who offers Eli a $1 million investment in exchange for helping him launder an additional $2 million through the church. Eli is prepared to accept this bit of shady business. After all, Glen is the man who lifted him out of poverty and taught him the value of showmanship, one of the cornerstones of his own success. But, while Eli would not openly admit it, Glen also intimidates him. Director David Gordon Green and editor Justin Bourret create a sense of danger during Glen and Eli’s meetings by cutting abruptly to Glen’s hands performing seemingly benign gestures, which become emphatic and threatening in close-ups. Meanwhile, the frame continually tightens around Eli, boxed in by an offer he can’t refuse.
But refuse he does, after a good talking to from his wife, Aimee-Leigh (Jennifer Nettles). Like the first “Interlude,” this episode is a rare opportunity to get to know Aimee-Leigh as a living person rather than a saintly memory, and to see her marriage to Eli without his rose-colored widower glasses. Aimee-Leigh lives up to her reputation as a woman of good conscience, but what’s new is the revelation that Eli harbors some resentment toward her for striking it rich as a child star while he had to bust thumbs for the mob to escape poverty. The class skepticism cuts both ways—when Aimee-Leigh’s brother Baby Billy (Walton Goggins) warns her that Eli’s greed will never be sated because he’ll always be a desperate poor boy at heart, she doesn’t argue with him. She’s able to convince Eli to turn down Glen’s money, but not to cancel his expansion plans. He blindsides her on live TV with his announcement that their current headquarters will be closing its doors in three months in favor of a new venue that they can’t yet afford. They’ll need a miracle (read: more tax-free donations from their viewers) to make it happen.
Luckily for them, it’s the season of giving. This whole misadventure occurs around Christmas, the very same Christmas we glimpsed in flashback last week, wherein Baby Billy abandoned his wife Gloria and young son Harmon at a shopping mall. He arrives at the Gemstone compound claiming to be the dumpee, ready to swear off little Harmon for betraying him rather than the other way around. He seamlessly transfers his affection for his son onto young Kelvin (Tristan Borders), who at four years old is already playing harpsichord concertos while blindfolded. Baby Billy’s sob story may fool Jesse (J. Gaven Wilde) and Judy (Emma Shannon), but not Aimee-Leigh, who forces him to confess that he left his family out of shame for his failures as a provider. Eli offers him a paying gig performing on the Gemstones Christmas broadcast in the interests of picking up his spirits and encouraging him to reconcile with his family. (We in the present know that’s not in the cards.)
A joyful Christmas night is interrupted when a jilted Glen forces Martin at gunpoint to sneak him into the Gemstones compound. Glen confronts Eli and claims he’ll shoot Aimee-Leigh or even the kids unless Eli agrees to launder his money. There’s nothing either Eli or Martin can do, but they’re unexpectedly rescued by Grandaddy Roy (M. Emmit Walsh), Eli’s Alzheimer’s-stricken father who has been wandering the grounds with a hunting rifle. Roy shoots Glen dead, and Eli and Martin seal their bond of trust by burying Glen in the cement foundation of the compound’s new roller coaster, Exodus. Smash cut to the present day, where Eli is riding that same coaster, stone-faced, after his encounter with Glen’s son, Junior (Eric Roberts). Meanwhile in Memphis, Junior looks over photos of his father, now missing for almost thirty years, and fiddles ominously with a pistol. Has his entire involvement in this season been part of an elaborate revenge scheme?
“Interlude II” is more family drama than comedy, since the characters usually at the center of the show’s hijinks have been demoted to a supporting role. That said, the kids who portray young Jesse and Judy are both dead ringers in both appearance and performance, and deliver any time they’re called upon for comic relief. (Little Kelvin is treated mostly as a prop, but that’s usually a good call with a character that young.) Just as impressive, though, is Goodman’s performance as the younger Eli. His rejuvenation goes beyond his digitally-smoothed face; He has a completely different physicality, so effortless and animated that a viewer without context might never suspect that the actor is nearly 70. The flashback episodes of Gemstones have a warmer and less chaotic energy from the rest of the series, owed to the steadying influence of Aimee-Leigh. It’ll be interesting to watch the family’s decline into decadence in bite-sized morsels throughout the life of the series, which, as of this week, has been picked up for at least one more season.