If Rescue Me only really works as a series when Tommy Gavin is walking the extremely thin line between insanity and the intense self-destructive streak required to fight fires the way he does, then season five might have seemed like it would fizzle out unless it got Tommy back to a crazy place as quickly as possible. And, hey, when this season (which we’ll be halfway through in two weeks) started, one could be forgiven for thinking that Tommy was too much of a stand-up guy to build any show, much less this one around. He was in a committed relationship. He was a good friend. He was finally on the straight-and-narrow in regards to his drinking. Tommy Gavin was on the way to being a model citizen.
While that wasn’t as boring as it could have been, you could still feel the show pulling against those constraints, as though it sort of understood just how much it had painted itself into a corner. To Rescue Me’s credit, though, it hasn’t immediately sent Tommy flying back off the wagon. His descent into his old habits has been played gradually, and that makes them all the more horrifying to see resurface. It could have felt like a revisit of a storyline long-since-buried when Sheila seduced him in the middle of tonight’s episode (and, in some ways, it did), but it also felt a bit like a horror movie, like someone going up some stairs they really shouldn’t be going up, even though they knew the monster was up there.
That’s why the best scene in “Thaw” was when Tommy came out of the backroom of the bar, where he had gone to get some cigarettes, and entered the main room to find it filled by the ghostly visions of seemingly everyone who’s perished in a fire on his watch (right down to a badly burned little kid, scratching the fur of a cat, looking up at him with haunted eyes). Rescue Me has great, great dialogue, but it’s often best when it just gives itself over to the terrifying silences in its characters’ lives, lets us see just how they wander through their space, tortured by memories only they are privy to. That scene in the bar – just how quickly it arrived and dispersed – took us inside one of those tortured memories for a moment, reminded us of just why Tommy drinks. Even though he only sees these things when he drinks, it may be easier to see them, to interact with them, than to just have them as an ever-present nightmare inside of him. (I’m also liking the parade of alternate universe Connors we’re getting in these bar-centered fantasy sequences.)
So, yeah, I’m not so nuts to see that the show is going back to the pretty exhausted well of whether or not Tommy is going to be with Janet or Sheila. They’ve been over this territory over and over before, and even if Janet and Sheila pretend to be OK with it this time, we know where this is going, and that predictability doesn’t suit the show (especially since both of these women are such troubled characters as is). I liked the tag of Sheila telling Tommy that she was using sex as a weapon (particularly Callie Thorne’s delivery of “What? No. Uh-uh. Yes. It’s the only weapon I have!”), but the rest of this was kind of a snooze.
But the rest of Tommy’s storyline was pretty great, particularly the sense we’re increasingly getting that this is a man struggling to hold all of his demons in check and mostly failing. Tommy thinks he can control himself, but the central thing that makes him the good firefighter he is is that he completely lacks self-control. He’ll hurl himself through the flames to rescue Damien (which, surprise!, he does), and he’ll take one for the team when Needles is trying to get someone to take the blame for Damien’s near death, but he’s also unable to really stick to sobriety. He can make it a year, sure, but sticking with something is not really how he’s built. He’s in it for the thrill.
This episode didn’t have as much for the supporting cast to do, though they all got their nice moments. Seeing Mike end up as the voice of Tommy’s conscience for once was nice, since he’s one of the few characters on the show who still seems relatively innocent and unscarred. In that regard, he’s an even better way to puncture one of Tommy’s dream sequences than the more similarly self-destructive Lou, and his ability to dismiss Tommy’s drinking as easily as he does doesn’t feel forced like it might from one of the other characters.
Similarly, Sean’s call home to his mom and brother to tell them about his cancer gave us some new perspective on just why the guy is the way he is. That his mother seems to cherish his other brother, who still lives at home and is some sort of untapped genius, apparently, enhances the bristling class resentment this show seems to feel at all times. I also enjoyed having Sean be the one who interrupted Dwight’s confrontation with Tommy, upping the hilarity of having Dwight gripping Tommy’s crotch in his hand, by trying to help the guys fix the tire they were supposedly working on. In a pretty dark episode, this whole scene (including Lou sharing his gonorrhea diagnosis with Sean) managed to offer the sort of comic levity Rescue Me does well.
Again, Franco is shifted off to the side of an episode. A comment last week asserted that Daniel Sunjata is the one cast member who has true star quality and, as such, Rescue Me, which is a true star vehicle, often doesn’t know what to do with him. While I don’t agree with the comment’s assertions that this is some sort of conspiracy on the part of Denis Leary and FX, I do agree that Sunjata’s rather raw presence can throw off scenes he’s in, which is why he’s been shunted off into a couple of pretty ridiculous storylines this season. Tonight, he took on some old, one-eyed guy in a sparring match, and while it was amusing to see him get dropped by the old guy after one good shot, it again, felt like a bit of a waste.
The episode ended with a montage set to a song with lyrics about just wanting to be a woman, which felt odd at the end of such a Tommy-centric episode. Though it was nice to see Wyatt for the first time in a long time (possibly all season?) and the Sheila scenes continued to have that weird overlay of creepiness, it also felt as though what the episode wanted us to take away from it was that Tommy and these two women are somehow deeply, deeply linked. Whether or not that bodes well for the rest of the season, I can’t say (I’m not hopeful), but for tonight, at least, it was fun watching the guy fall apart.
- This is the last episode I have on screener. Future weeks are probably going to go up pretty late (since I’m on the West Coast) unless FX releases more DVDs. Hopefully, you don’t mind getting your Rescue Me thoughts on Wednesday morning instead of Tuesday evening.
- Black Shawn and Colleen had an argument about their relationship. That is literally all I have in my notes about this scene, so it obviously didn’t make too much of an impression, though Larenz Tate is always welcome.
- "I thought only female sprinters got that from bangin' too much."
- "My hand's starting to cramp up. I'm not used to holding something this small for this long." If my math is correct, that’s the last time we’ll see Michael J. Fox on this show (at least this season). While it wasn’t the most revelatory turn, it was fun seeing one of our foremost nice guy actors play a scumbag.