“One Saved Message” is the sort of episode that attracts an actor. It’s easy to imagine Ron Perlman looking at the big emotional moments here, the flashbacks and shifting perspectives on Pernell Harris’ character and signing on for the whole enterprise. And he’s as good as he’s been on Hand Of God in the episode—as disjointed as his characte’s been throughout, Perlman’s powerful presence has shifted ably from scene to scene as needed. “One Saved Message,” however, is still an episode of Hand Of God, which means that Perlman—left to carry an unstable load on those burly shoulders—is left lurching and stranded in the middle of an often bewildering mess. Here, Pernell goes to therapy and we see his backstory with P.J. and it’s all suitably moving as expected, even as it shows again how poorly constructed Hand Of God is.
Picking up right after last episode’s revelation that K.D. has murdered the innocent Josh, the opening scene begins with a bang, as Garret Dillahunt’s rage as K.D. is something truly frightening to behold. inexplicably sidelined for the last few episodes, Dillahunt—easily Hand Of God’s greatest asset—creates, in K.D.’s fury, a heartbreaking portrait of a man realizing his entire existence is built on a lie. “You said he was they!,” he moans as he manhandles the judge, before demanding, “Is this innocent blood on my hands?” Dillahunt has created a unique monster in K.D., a truly repentant sinner whose inner demons are tamped down only by an equally maniacal zealotry. Here, realizing that his faith has led him to follow a false prophet, his face—all hollow eyes and Dillahunt’s jutting, clenched jaw—is a representation of the true madness of despair and hate. Even so, Dillahunt continues to imbue K.D. with a ragged sympathy, the barest snatches of humanity left to a man who, it’s implied, never had a chance.
In response, all Pernell can do is whimper, staggering out of the parking garage repeating, “I tried to call you.” As fallen as Pernell is in K.D.’s eyes, he doesn’t fare much better as a character here, his mumbling exit invoking less a shattered soul than an actor left to play the unplayable. He doesn’t fare any better when the script sees him creeping back into Josh’s apartment to clear up evidence, and then hiding sheepishly in the closet (even having to silence Josh’s buzzing cell phone) when Jocelyn comes home, and then sneaking out the door behind her back. It’s the sort of clumsy transition Perlman’s left to play all the time, and it defuses whatever dramatic power he’d worked up.
So does the rest of the episode, as the judge abruptly decides (after seeing symbolic white doves flapping around his chambers) to check himself into an institution for the rest of the episode. Eventually, there would have to be an explanation of Pernell’s guilt about P.J.’s attempted suicide, and of his radical religious conversion, but the way “On Saved Message” simply slams on the brakes and becomes an hour long, flashback-heavy therapy session is a tiresomely ordinary way to do it.
Perlman being the actor he is, there’s a fair amount of stuff to like in all of this. We see the immediate aftermath of P.J.’s horrific injury, with Pernell comforting Jocelyn in the hospital, his gentle “Hey, we’re a family and we’re gonna get through this like a family” to his daughter-in-law a stark contrast to their current antagonism. We see the hardness he held onto about his son, telling Crystal bitterly, “My son shot himself in the head. He wants to die. So let him” (and earning a slap for his trouble). We see him cruelly ice out best friend Bobo (“Stop fuckin’ picking at me…Robert”). We see his breakdown as he goes to Tessie for comfort—and sex—and then trashes her place as he rants, “There’s this boy and he’s gonna die not knowing his father wanted to answer!” And we see how he ended up at Hand Of God ministry, finding the flier the predatorily comforting Alicia had slipped him earlier at the bar where he’d blown off Bobo. It all falls neatly into place with plodding inevitability, the sequence’s lack of surprise intermittently buoyed by Perlman’s Herculean efforts.
Part of the problem with this structure is that it stands alone like a well-intentioned (if pedestrian) serious drama in the midst of Hand Of God’s meandering crime story. “I’m not trying to turn this into a Hallmark moment,” sneers Pernell in his flashback with Bobo, but “One Saved Message” comes perilously close to doing just that, Pernell’s absurdly productive few days at the high-end institution yielding exactly the exposition the story demands at this point in the plot, telescoping his breakthroughs in the sort of perfunctory fashion good fiction does not. Not helping things is the introduction of Camryn Manheim as Pernell’s “cut the bullshit” tough-love therapist, whose face is continually telegraphing how much Pernell needs to cut the bullshit before she inevitably says, “cut the bullshit.” It’s not Manheim’s fault—the conception of the character is so abruptly one-note that, while it’s sort of fun to watch she and Pernell bark lines like “I don’t appreciate the tone you’re taking with me,” “Then take a swing,” at each other, it’s also part of the episode’s rote approach to Pernell’s revelations. (Manheim is also required to insert a “fuck” into literally every other line to show how no-nonsense her character is.)
In all of this, the most affecting flashback deals with Pernell and P.J. (Johnny Ferro, finally freed to do more than be comatose in a hospital bed.) The idea that Pernell is a hard, conservative man has been alluded to at times, but, in his scene taking his distraught son to buy the gun eventually used in P.J.’s suicide attempt, their essential differences are sketched in effective shorthand. Waffling over the choice of weapon, he and Pernell briefly skirmish about the philosophical issue of guns before Pernell finally snaps:
She’d feel safe if you did what you promised.
She’d feel safe if you weren’t the pussy who sat back and watched another man rape his wife.
Blunt as is Hand Of God’s wont (and as needlessly sordid as Jocelyn’s rape is dramatically), the exchange lands, especially in Ferro’s flinching reaction, and Perlman’s remorse in confessing it to the therapist. The concept of a domineering father and a sensitive son who feels like a disappointment isn’t new, but, since it’s at the root of Pernell’s transforming breakdown, it at least registers.
In the end, Pernell checks out, box of his belongings in hand, hard truths learned. When he makes himself listen to the unreturned message P.J. left him before shooting himself (“I know it’s been a minute but I really need to talk to you. Today. Please call me back”), Perlman makes the moment into something, pain and resignation etched into that craggy, enormous visage. But it’s just another isolated moment in a show without direction. Hand Of God decided to spell out Pernell’s problems with two episodes to go, releasing him back into the conspiracy plot, the land deal plot, and the still-dangling question of whether his visions are truly just grief-induced hallucinations (and the fact that he’s a murderer). “One Saved Message” fails most because of how its tone convincingly makes the case that Pernell just needed to get a few things off his chest.
- Crystal, brushing off Pernell’s claim that he’d be there for her if she needed him: “When would you have the time? You have a job, a holy quest, at least one other wife.”
- Pictured in the header image, Bobo’s wordless embrace with Pernell at the institution is very moving. That said, this is an episode with a lot of hugs.
- Manheim’s therapist, hearing that the visions were supposed to lead Pernell to the bad guy: “You never found him did you?” “No.” “Worst hallucinations ever.”
- The explanation of how Pernell ended up being born again is where those accusing Hand Of God of condemning Christianity have a case, whether the show intends it or not. Alicia’s overture at the bar (which Pernell understandably mistakes for a come-on from a prostitute) is at least opportunistic, if not outright predatory, and the way she keeps applying pressure once Pernell appears at Hand of God continues the vibe. (Look how she stays close, and keeps physical contact with him at all times as she repeats Paul’s strident phrases into his ear.) We see a beatific, smiling K.D. there, and the entire congregation looks, like him (and Pernell) to be made entirely of lost and broken people, vulnerable and susceptible. Pernell’s baptism—after having been there for a long time, clearly shaken and unhinged—is noisy and cult-like, with the congregants under Paul and Alicia’s guidance chanting and laying hands on him. When he speaks in tongues before writing his new church a $50,000 check, the image of him collapsing gratefully into Paul’s arms while the preacher clasps the check behind Pernell’s back is designed to make Paul look untrustworthy and manipulative. If there’s a bone to pick with Hand Of God—which I maintain isn’t thoughtful enough about religion to get worked up over—it’s that there’s no counter to the idea that religion is home to only charlatans and the broken.
- Julian Morris and Elizabeth McLaughlin continue to do what they can with the deeply unnecessary Paul and Alicia, tonight making their expedient decision for Alicia to have an abortion suitably affecting.
- K.D., his faith shattered, tears up his lovingly maintained lawn before burning down his (well, Tessie’s) house. His strangled attempts to stay in control when Alicia arrives to stop him are some of Dillahunt’s best work yet, the drunk K.D.’s practiced civility finally overwhelmed by his self-loathing and despair. Dillahunt’s reading of K.D.’s “You’ve been good to me. Thank you. I would like you to leave now please” is a little masterpiece of compressed characterization.
- The San Vicente police would finally like to question Pernell. It’s about time—he’s really not very good at covering his tracks. At all.
- Crystal is still sleeping with Jocelyn’s lawyer. Just keeping you posted.
- “What would you do if P.J. woke up right now?” “Tell him how much I love him. I’d hold him in my arms for as long as I could.” “But more than a few minutes of that would be weird, right?”
- Bobo, in flashback, telling Tessie to get Pernell back home: “And again, I cannot stress the part about the pants enough.”