“Torch” is one of the best hours of Rescue Me ever and one of the better hours of TV drama I’ve seen in a while. Everything in the episode, from its central device, to its comic relief scenes, to even plotlines that I normally roll my eyes at, works. It’s a great examination of the show’s central character and just why we find him so compelling to watch, even when the show in question is kind of wandering all over the place. It’s a dark and gritty hour that doesn’t flinch from looking at some real ugliness, and that’s to its credit. If I could, I’d almost leave it at that. If you’re a fan of Rescue Me or have ever been a fan of Rescue Me, you owe it to yourself to check this one out.
The central device of “Torch” is the body of a very small girl, battered and burned beyond recognition in the aftermath of a horrific traffic accident the guys respond to. Lou’s the first to spot the tiny corpse, and he can’t even deal, unable to look, on the verge of weeping. As the other guys come over and look at the corpse, one by one, they, too, are unable to move, to focus, even as Needles says they need to cover her up before any press people come on the scene and take photos that might disturb the family any more than they’re already disturbed. But no one can move a muscle to take care of it, all paralyzed by the sheer horror of what they’re witnessing.
Except, of course, for Tommy, who grabs a blanket and steps forward, taking care of the awful but necessary business of wrapping up the body, shrouding it and taking it away where it will be safe from prying eyes. This section is handled via an absolutely terrific directorial decision, which focuses not on the process of what Tommy’s doing but on Tommy himself as he does it. We catch glimpses of what he’s doing, as the blanket twists in and out of frame and Tommy himself ducks in and out of it as well, the other guys in the background, looking over occasionally to make sure that, yeah, Tommy’s taking care of it and they don’t have to. It’s a terrific, mostly silent sequence (only Tommy’s grunts of exertion providing the soundtrack), leaving everything it can to your imagination and much more horrifying as a result. It’s a sequence I wish every other TV director would watch to get a better idea of just how awful things can seem when you’re not looking directly at them (please pay attention, every CBS crime procedural).
From there, the episode heads into a long series of scenes focusing on just how seeing the body affected the guys, and for once, the often disconnected vignettes that make up the storyline feel like a part of something larger. The episode actually gives over substantial amounts of time to Franco and Lou trying to process what they’ve seen with the help of their new lady friends. Franco’s new boxer girlfriend, a bit oddly, uses it to psych him up to take out his frustrations in a boxing match. It’s an odd scene, yeah, but it’s a much better scene than the similar one earlier this season when Needles tried to use Franco’s Sept. 11 conspiracy theorizing against him in a similar manner, and it suggests that there might be an air of instability to this girl that wasn’t immediately obvious before. Girls who are batshit crazy are a dime a dozen on this show, but the itch of that raw nerve worked well enough in this scene that I’m OK with it.
Lou, on the other hand, used the experience to tell Candy all about how he’s ready and willing to trust her again after she cleaned his apartment (and found, among other things, a Civil War chess set). Normally, again, this would set off warning bells for me (seeming as though it’s setting up another chance for Lou to get screwed over by a woman), but it was a sweet scene, exposing just how much the job can wear on Lou, just how much he just wants someone to come home to. And for once, I’m willing to believe for just a little while that Candy wants to be that for him, despite their history. (I do like one theory from comments last week, suggesting that Candy and Lou will realize the only thing they ever had in common was the fact that she was conning him. It’s a twist in keeping with this show without retreading the ground they trod in season two.)
But good God did this episode belong to Tommy, locking himself in the back room of the bar and watching that video of his kids that Mickey gave him last week. Seeing his son again, Tommy took another swig from his bottle and was visited by the ghosts of his son, his brother, his father and Jimmy. It was another decidedly stage-y sequence for the show (though I was quite taken with the cinematic lighting in the scene, which kept it all very hushed and spooky), but it was one of the better uses of Tommy’s ghosts in quite a while, and it both redeemed the fact that the show has spent so little time focusing on the death of Connor (which should have been a lot more horrifying for Tommy than it seemed to ever be) and a lot of Tommy’s swagger.
“Torch” views that swagger as somewhat necessary (Tommy’s the only guy who can go in and talk to the cancer kids, of course), but it also views it as a fundamental flaw in Tommy’s character. He spends so long making sure his armor is as thick and impenetrable as possible that things like the death of his son don’t quite get to him. It makes him a better firefighter, but it, arguably, makes him a less effective human being, no matter how hard he tries to pretend to function. So when Tommy burns himself with a blow torch to prove that he, indeed, can be hurt, it’s a horrifying sequence, blending up all of his issues into one big moment of searing pain. (And the scene immediately following, where Tommy goes to Sheila’s place to sleep with her is almost as horrifying, their sex a dark and desperate act, rather than the kinda goofy thing it’s been depicted as so far.)
What has made Rescue Me’s fifth season work so well, I think, is that it’s forcing us to wonder just why we enjoy watching Tommy Gavin, why we find him a compelling character. Rather than congratulating Tommy for being interesting and flawed, the show is suggesting just how much those flaws can hurt everyone around him and himself. “Torch” is the finest expression of this idea so far, and it just might be the best episode the show has ever done.
- The Garrity wakes up plotline was pretty clearly comic relief (providing a quick capper for the Teddy and Maggie go to the VA hospital plotline and also attempting to repair the Garrity-Maggie pairing in a mostly funny way), but because the episode so needed comic relief, it worked better than it might have in a less dark episode. Also, I’m glad the musical sequences are over and done with, since, while I enjoyed this one, they seem to have a sense of been-there, done-that to them now.
- That was a hell of a cover of “New York, New York” at episode’s end, apparently by Cat Power. This show’s musical ear rarely fails it.
- Next week’s recap might be a little bit later than usual, since I’ll be traveling. I have a screener but will need to find a DVD player. Here’s hoping it gets up in a mostly timely fashion.