“So you’re saying that Anne ordered somebody to rape Jocelyn in front of P.J. to cover up someone stealing a book? In what world does that make sense?”— Crystal Harris
“There’s a difference between real life simple and TV simple.”— Bishop Congdon
In the end, Hand Of God can’t even pull off its lowest aspirations.
Billed as the story of a conservative, morally corrupt judge forced to reevaluate his ways after a religious awakening, the show never engaged meaningfully with any of the spiritual or moral implications of Pernell Harris’ conversion to born-again Christianity. What religious debate there was came from the judge’s fight over the fate of his comatose son and whether daughter-in-law Jocelyn could pull the plug. Whenever Pernell’s faith reared into view—other than when he used it as a cudgel to crudely mock a Jewish adversary who annoyed him—it was in service of a convoluted crime plot, where God (speaking in the voice of brain-dead son P.J.) ordered him to enact vengeance on those responsible for his son’s death. (And his daughter-in-law’s rape—always an afterthought.)
So Hand Of God was a story about a morally corrupt judge beset with visions and/or hallucinations which led him to follow the trail of a criminal conspiracy which may or may not be tied into the enormous, crooked land deal he’s involved in. A supernatural-flavored Chinatown could work, I suppose, if Hand Of God were capable of following through on its high-concept premise with any focus. But the show has been maddeningly prone to drift, leaving star Ron Perlman looking overmatched by an unplayable role. And, in the season finale, the payoff to Pernell’s pursuit of justice is even more ludicrous and disappointing than expected.
It was Anne Wu all along. Roger Ebert’s law of the economy of characters certainly had Elaine Tan’s corporate fixer in the running, but the revelation that—as per Crystal’s incredulous response to Pernell’s theory at the beginning of this article—Wu was not only having an affair with P.J., but that she was also:
—Acting under orders from her boss Brooks to seduce him
—That she was to do so to steal P.J.’s vaunted, “world-changing” Bathwater computer program
—That she was so hurt by P.J.’s decision to break off their affair and/or refusal to sell his program that she hired bad cop Shane Caldwell (and friend Julio) to not only steal the program, but to stage a home invasion/rape in order to humiliate her lover and his wife (and cover up the break-in)
—That she kept the incriminating book in plain sight in her apartment as a memento (“a gift to myself,” as she tells Crystal), where it could be photographed by a news crew interviewing her
—That she would invite Crystal to her apartment where she kept not only the book but a framed picture of herself and P.J. in plain sight.
So when Crystal, incensed at Anne’s increasingly crazy-eyed rant about having done all these horrible things out of love for P.J. (“It wasn’t because he loved her more, it’s because she got there first!”), murders Anne with a wine bottle just before Pernell shows up to do the deed, whatever tension or suspense involved in the whole, unifying conspiracy plot has collapsed in a wheeze of ludicrousness. It’s like the end of True Detective season one, if the rest of the season leading up to the anticlimactic conclusion hadn’t managed to generate anything but boredom and irritation.
For his part in all this, Pernell, as he has throughout the series, staggers from plot point to plot point, led again by visions of P.J., now that his brief sojourn into psychiatric care and medication have worn off with last episode’s epiphany about Anne. He finds Garret Dillahunt’s K.D. in the church’s basement, where the furious and newly-repentant K.D. promptly ties him to a crossbeam and whips him bloody until Pernell convinces K.D. that he’s back on the visions. (Which begs the question of just how soundproofed the church basement is, since Alicia is right upstairs, having shown Pernell down there.) He also waffles about attending the big “concrete pour” which will signal the inviolable commitment of Brooks to the land deal, until he decides to attend so he can steal Anne’s keys from her purse. (A pilfering staged so clumsily that it’s genuinely shocking he’s not caught—on a raised stage in broad daylight surrounded by hundreds of people and multiple cameras. Brooks himself even makes reference to how many of his nifty drone cameras are at the event.) When he arrives at Anne’s apartment to find Crystal covered in blood and Anne dead on the floor, it’s meant to be a shock, but the episode plugs along in such a perfunctory fashion that the outcome isn’t in question from when Crystal first finds the framed photo.
In the end, what’s taken away from all this? Like True Detective, Hand Of God hints at larger forces—divine and criminal—that are driving the plot, only to pin all the various murder, rape, and mayhem on one individual crazy person. Anne’s craziness also carries the added taint of misogyny to it, too, as the root of all evil here turns out to be the spiteful wrath of one jilted, unstable woman. Not only that, but the episode makes a point of having Anne express how hard it is for her to be taken seriously as a woman in business, deriding the “boys club” at Brooks, and toasting “to the girls club” with Crystal right before its revealed how cartoonishly nuts she is. (“I’m just tired of guys’ sabotage. I don’t need this shit,” she confides to Crystal at the concrete pour, right before she’s fired by Brooks for sentimentally withholding the information about Pernell’s hospitalization out of sympathy with Crystal. You know—acting like a woman.) As a payoff, all this contrivance is bad enough. That a season’s worth of elaborate bloodshed can be laid at the feet of a romantically frustrated woman with a grudge is Hand Of God’s one final sour move on the way out.
When Pernell and Crystal arrive at the hospital to witness P.J.’s final, machine-aided breath, the big twist—P.J. starts to breathe on his own, despite all medical evidence suggesting otherwise—turns into a black joke. Which would be interesting if the show had ever engaged with Pernell’s moral quandary in any serious way. As it is, the swerve—with Pernell looking to the heavens in gratitude before the sound of P.J. flatlining rings out after the scene fades to black—lacks the punch of true darkness. The show never made the case that Pernell’s faith was anything more than a plot device. That it’s likely shattered here doesn’t register with anything more than a shrug.
- Possible season two storylines set up at the end of the episode, should Hand Of God get another season: Tessie’s pregnant with Pernell’s child, Anne Wu is shoddily buried in the Brooks building concrete (K.D. remains not very good at crime), Pernell’s on the verge of being arrested for Shane Caldwell’s murder (thanks to that vomit DNA), Bobo is set to make big changes in San Vicente. The last one looks interesting.
- Oh, and Khalil finds out that he’s actually Tessie’s son, and not her brother. Emayatzy Corinealdi and Kendre Berry are actually quite good in their parting scene, but, like so many of Hand Of God’s subplots, their story is seriously underdeveloped.
- On that note, Paul and Alicia get ratted out to the Bishop by Crystal, costing them their TV gig. As the two representatives of organized religion on a show purportedly about religion, this story went absolutely nowhere, and took up a lot of screen time doing so.
- Speaking of glib, sick jokes, Jocelyn is heard reading P.J. Dorothy Parker’s poem “Love Song,” which is interrupted just before she gets to the last line. Nothing against sick jokes, but that’s not the vibe Hand Of God has been going for, and Jocelyn’s motivation for reading that particular poem here escapes me.
- In a cast full of overqualified actors, Andre Royo comes out of Hand Of God looking best. (Garret Dillahunt was outstanding at K.D., but poor Keith’s character was inexplicably shunted off to the side for much of the second half of the season.) Apart from punching up every episode with some stellar comic timing, Royo’s scenes with father Bill Cobbs and son Cleavon McClendon here provide “The Tie That Binds” with a strong undercurrent of humanity independent of Pernell’s overheated machinations. Bobo’s move in not attending the concrete pour he couldn’t stop talking about and, instead, observing unseen from the hills above—where he’s joined by his father and his son—is as understated and thoughtful a moment as the series managed.
- Maybe it’s the book lover in me, but if P.J., as we’ve heard incessantly, loved poetry, would he make a book safe out of the collected works of his favorite poet? No—no he would not.
- As artificially tough as their characters talk, it’s fun to see returning shrink Camryn Manheim and Ron Perlman go at each other. “What’s in the fancy bottle.” “Fancy scotch.”
- The episode’s one stab at a philosophical discussion, from Pernell to the shrink: “You’re just throwing around delusional it’s like some fuckin’ fact. But it’s not. I mean that last one percent is just you fillin’ in the blanks, takin’ shit you think you know and then makin’ your best guess. You know what they call that in church? Faith.” And that’s it.
- And that’s it for season one of Hand Of God, people. Thanks for reading these last ten days of reviews. I’m going to go have a nap.