For the longest time, I haven’t been terribly sure why the writers of Rescue Me kept Callie Thorne around as Sheila. The character could have easily been killed off at the end of season three, and she long ago seemed to outlive her usefulness as a character (her nadir coming when she drugged Tommy and raped him in season three), but the show kept a fine actress around and kept tossing her ridiculous material, designed, seemingly, to keep Sheila as a shrill dingbat, dragging down everything she touches.
But “Sheila” makes one sit up and say, “OK. I get it now.” As much as last week’s episode gave lots of material to Lou, getting into his head in a way the show hadn’t in a while, this week’s episode is likely the first since the series’ heyday to give Sheila something believable and emotionally honest to play, and Thorne manages great things with all of it. Hell, for as much as I’ve complained about Tommy dominating the show in recent weeks, this week’s episode had him in it in only a few places. He went out for a drink with Dwight, and he dropped in to comment on the Sheila storyline, but the bulk of the episode was given over to Sheila, Sean (who, similarly, hasn’t had a major story arc in seasons) and Black Shawn. Even Franco got some stuff to do, although continually shunting him off into Sept. 11 conspiracy theory plotlines is starting to feel a bit been-there, done-that.
The episode started eerily, with what began as a routine scene of the guys out in the truck, looking for a really good restaurant Lou had eaten at that no longer existed, seemingly. When a woman stopped the guys to take a picture of them, her camera flash seemed tied to a giant explosion, and the city descended into chaos from terrorist suitcase bombs. As soon as the suitcase bombs came up, it was obvious this was a dream sequence – Rescue Me’s not going to turn into 24 – but the sequence worked as well as it did because of how well it committed to the idea of being trapped in a nightmare, the way Franco seemed to turn up where he had no reason to be, the way the vague sense of order disintegrated, the way the guys standing around Tommy’s daughter Katie at the end just STOOD there, waiting for the bomb to blow. Rescue Me’s been very good this season about showing how barely healed over the Sept. 11 scab is in the American consciousness, and this sequence also highlighted just how easy it is to evoke those old feelings, to reduce a city to a wasteland and grown men to terrified animals, reacting only based on instinct.
Tommy, who’s having the dream of course, wakes up screaming, and even though he knows it’s just a dream, the damage is done. He needs to know why he hasn’t been hearing from Katie, and his subconscious just handed him a very pressing to-do list. So he heads off to do that, mostly dropping the plot from last week wherein he discovered his cousin, Jimmy, alive in a bit of film footage he shouldn’t have been alive in. Lou, then, gets to watch that footage, but so does Sheila (handed a copy by the French journalist, who now knows the secret it holds), and the look on her face when she sees her husband face – one of unalloyed joy at the thought his life didn’t end when she thought it did – almost entirely redeems all of the stupid crap the show has put that character through in the last few weeks.
Perhaps fittingly for an episode called “Sheila,” she’s got a lot to do here. If the show isn’t sweeping all of her past behavior under the rug, it’s at least finally putting it in context by getting the character into therapy and having much of her residual anger at her dead husband over his profession taking his life come out as she tries to stop her son from becoming a firefighter. Even now, when her therapist has encouraged her to support her son’s dream, she’s keeping him from training with Tommy, perhaps subtly sabotaging her son by setting him up for training with the sweet but a little slow Mike. Sheila’s finally trying, and she’s also starting to understand just how bad Tommy was for her and just how deeply screwed up it was for her to pin her hopes to him after Jimmy died. I have no problem with Sheila being a harpy to Tommy if it’s clear that he is just as bad to her, and the show got a little too far away from that idea in earlier seasons. It’s righting that balance now.
The other major plotlines involve Tommy trying to find out what happened to Katie and getting sidetracked by a day out with Dwight and Sean finally going to a doctor over his back pain. Tommy’s car ride to the bar with Dwight is a hysterical moment in a pretty dark episode, as things keep going from bad to worse. None of this would work so well without Michael J. Fox playing Dwight as such a raging, oblivious asshole, but he and Leary make a terrific team. The scenes at the bar aren’t quite as good, but they believably back Tommy into a corner where it seems like hardcore substance abuse is definitely back on the table. The reveal that Katie has been packed off to boarding school without Tommy even knowing about it is raised, but it seems like something that will come up more in future episodes.
The Sean storyline is more tragic. He’s got a tumor on his kidney, and his health insurance, through rather byzantine logic, won’t cover it. Steven Pasquale’s a fantastic comedic actor, but he’s rarely asked to play the sorts of dramatic shades he does here, and his scene where he breaks down in tears, a friend’s arm around his shoulders, is maybe his best dramatic moment on the show yet. (One thing I’m unclear on: Did Sean just imagine the doctor telling him all that stuff about his penis? It sure seemed as if that might be the case, but it also seemed unlikely Sean would just come up with that apropos of nothing.)
The other stuff was just all right. Black Shawn and Colleen sleeping together was bound to happen sooner or later, and, again, it feels like more setup for a punchline that will likely come in future episodes. Similarly, Franco at the Sept. 11 conspiracy rally just seems sort of dropped in from nowhere (as though the show just needed somewhere to cut to in the middle of a longer scene and chose that arbitrarily – the editing on this show is a little odd at times).
Sheila, though, got to close out the episode, talking to the journalist (whom I refuse to call Genevieve, apparently) about her life with Jimmy, who she was before the towers fell, the moment when she knew he was dead, how she’s tried to move on. It’s a beautiful monologue, played perfectly by Thorne, and it returns to the central theme of the season and the show: We’re not built to deal with grief. We can try to cover it up as much as we can, but all it takes is a persistent picking at the scab to bring it all rushing back.
- This is the rare episode of Rescue Me that doesn’t end with a musical montage. It also doesn’t stop in to revisit the bar subplot that’s been rather prominent in the last few episodes.
- What do we think about Tommy stealing Dwight’s drugs? At first, I thought he was just dumping them out, but it seems clear to me he’s taking them, probably to start popping pills again. Furthermore, how about Dwight saying he sees ghosts too? Surely not as literally as Tommy does.
- As predicted, the psychic disappears. I hope we get some resolution to that.
- This show’s really on a roll right now, and next week’s episode is maybe the best of the season so far. Hopefully, I’ll see you all there.