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Rescue Me: “Vows”

There’s a Sopranos episode not everybody loves that I still kinda dig. It’s called “Kaisha,” and it closes out the first part of the show’s sixth season (remember that for budgetary reasons, season six of the show was split into two parts of 12 and nine episodes each). Without spoiling, the episode seems to be heading in one direction, then it does something else (in true Sopranos fashion), and by the end, we get the sense that what we’re watching is the last good time, the last time when the Soprano family will be truly whole and happy. Obviously, when the episode first aired, there was no real evidence that the show would end in death and destruction, but the series cannily used our own knowledge of what was coming against us. Knowing that an end date was coming, the show felt free to imbue nearly every scene, no matter how subdued, with a sense of terror and foreboding.

Denis Leary and Peter Tolan, the guys behind Rescue Me, have always used The Sopranos as a key touchstone in describing what they’re tyring to do with the show. Back in season three, when the show was weathering the controversy of the “angry sex”/“possible rape” plot point between Tommy and Janet, Tolan and Leary frequently returned to the idea that Tony Soprano didn’t always do the right thing, and people still found him fascinating. The two have also talked about how much they found The Sopranos to be a series they looked to when creating this show, and that’s obvious in many ways, from the way the series uses local New York flavor to the way it toys with ideas of antiheroes. But perhaps the biggest influence has been in how the show mixes comedy and drama both very well and uneasily. The two are right next to each other in odd, often striking ways. (At TCA press tour, Tolan even suggested that the secret of the show’s success is to always use one part drama for one part comedy and vice versa.)

“Vows,” then, felt like a very “Kaisha” type of episode. The wedding sequence had clumsy moments, but by and large, it was a nice opportunity to hang out with characters that we still bear at least some affection for. I’m all in favor of a big wedding sequence, and this was one of the better ones I’ve seen in a while, particularly when the show stopped trying to force its storylines about Sheila needing to get laid or Tommy and Janet renewing their vows and just let the characters be, giving them space to breathe and have a good time. And then as the wedding drifted into that long sequence at the dance, where not a lot was going on, but it was sure nice to see everybody so happy, I realized that the show truly was going to kill somebody or have something awful happen. This was the last good time. There were only one-and-a-half episodes left, and not all of these people were making it out alive.

There’s nothing wrong with that, and there are certainly characters on Rescue Me who’ve grown less and less vital over the years, characters I wouldn’t mind seeing die heroically. (Franco would probably top this list.) But the show has so frequently used big dramatic deaths as maudlin button pushers that the whole prospect made me nervous. Would Lou die saving Tommy? Would Black Shawn die, with Tommy being unable to pull him from the brink of death at the last moment? Just how would the show choose to flagrantly lean on sentimentality, in lieu of saying something challenging and interesting about who these people are?

And then the show did something I totally didn’t expect: exactly what I wanted it to. The final act of this episode is one of the best things Rescue Me has ever done, and it’s the kind of thing that would only work this late in the show’s run. As the wedding sequence ends with Franco and Mike smelling Sean’s girlfriend’s toxic farts and not knowing what it is (their best friend having sex in a nearby secluded location), the episode fades out on Sean’s accepted proposal. Cut to a warehouse, seemingly on fire, a police officer staring up at it, waiting for the fire trucks to get there. What’s brilliant here is that the editing team uses very similar shot setups and movement to almost subconsciously suggest the two buildings are one and the same, as the conscious brain rejects that notion. (The camera pans down across the building to catch Sean and his now-fiancee in their romantic embrace. It then subtly looks UP at the burning building.) Life, love, marriage, death: They’re all part of the same continuum, Rescue Me has always argued, and here, it does it in two establishing shots.

Even better, the sequence that follows doesn’t disappoint. Leary and Tolan, along with episode co-writer and director Evan Reilly, expertly build the tension here, going from a routine small fire to something much, much worse: an arson that the guys just happened to end up in the middle of. As Mike realizes that the building is lined with diesel cans that the fire will inevitably reach, explosions start to rocket through the building’s frame. The guys beat their way through the flames to the waiting rescue of a ladder (and how great was it to see that ladder crash through the window?), but just as they’re about to clamber down it to safety, they hear something else: voices.

It’s here that the sequence went from just another fire (something the show has never forgotten how to do well) to one of the best damn things the series has ever attempted. Tommy and the guys have to go back through the fire—this time, they’re all with him, where earlier, he might have tried to lone wolf it—to find the trapped people, leading them up to the bulwark on the roof, where they’ll make their escape. There’s just one problem: There are propane tanks ready to blow, and once the guys get to the bulwark, they realize it’s been bricked over. There’s no way out. The building’s about to explode, and they’re all trapped in a situation they probably won’t escape from. Cut to an exterior, an explosion rattling the building. Cut to black.

It’s a viscerally exciting way to end the episode. (I had to completely restrain myself from going on to the next episode.) Plus, it’s something that makes the rest of the episode feel that much better. For all of my issues with, say, Sheila whining about not having a man or with the way everybody argued with Franco or made Mexican jokes at the wedding, everything became more poignant in retrospect, thanks to what came later. And in that view, Tommy’s renewal of his vows to Janet—a renewal that may end up being his last act of whatever devotion he can muster for her—becomes one of the linchpins of the episode. Before, it was just another piece of the stupid, “Tommy has to retire!” puzzle. Now, it really does feel like a guy who’s trying to make the decision to change and sees his life cut short before that happens.

Of course I don’t know what will happen. Maybe this will all end with improbable rescue. Maybe this will end with a sequence where all of the guys meet up in Heaven. Or maybe it will end with things going on pretty much as they have, with this whole sequence being the sign to the guys that it’s time to make good about their commitments to change. In some ways, it feels like this whole, messy season has been building to this sequence, and it’s a good enough sequence (and one that encapsulates enough of the show) to make up for a bunch of sins. Rescue Me has always been about waste and destruction, but here, it’s waiting to swallow these men up just when it seems like things might finally be pointing the way toward new beginnings.

Stray observations:

  • I cannot underscore enough how irritating I found the scene where a drunken Sheila wandered around and bragged about how she’d paid for the wedding before starting the “Tommy and Janet should renew their vows” train. Also, the scenes where she ranted about not having a man and knocked over the woman who caught the bouquet. I like Callie Thorne, and I’ve liked individual moments involving this character, but by and large, the character has been the show’s most consistent failing.
  • I did enjoy Lou wandering around the wedding and making Tommy’s life a living hell. A fun way to follow up on the somewhat ludicrous end of last week’s episode.
  • OK, final predictions kids. How does this all shake out when next week’s episode starts? I’m going to go peek right now.
Filed Under: TV, Rescue Me

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