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Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

Rescue Me: “Ashes”

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In the end, Rescue Me chose to go with the “life goes on” finale, the “nothing really changes but maybe you find a little closure” finale, the “these people will still be here in 10 years if you come back and look around” finale. And, really, good for it. For as often as Denis Leary and Peter Tolan talked to the press about how they considered having the show end with Tommy Gavin killing himself, you always had to know they wouldn’t actually do that. Those two guys talk a big game about the tragedy at the show’s center, but they also know that on some level, Rescue Me always worked best—even when it didn’t work at all—as a comedy with hefty doses of post-traumatic stress disorder. And so the series ends the only way it can: with Tommy and Franco passing on the names of the dead to a new generation, that they might be remembered, might be memorialized.

Do we have any people just scanning the first few sentences of the article who will be upset about spoilers still hanging around? Ah, good. Because let’s talk about the biggest, most major change to the life of Tommy Gavin in this episode: He loses Lou, the guy who was always his best friend and slightly busted moral compass. Lou, of course, has been marked for death since something like the end of season three, so this loss isn’t so surprising. What is surprising is that the episode doesn’t turn into an all grief, all the time, Lou-a-thon. There’s very much a sense of everybody in the show’s universe believing and understanding that, yeah, Lou probably wasn’t long for this world anyway, and though they all loved him, he went out in heroism and bravery.

Let’s start with that heroism and bravery, however, since that marked one of my few big problems with what was, overall, a surprisingly satisfying finale (given how broke-down the show has seemed to be in these last two seasons). The first fake-out with Lou giving the speech to the crowded cathedral full of people, the eulogy to mark the deaths of Tommy, Sean, Black Shawn, Mike, and Franco? Fine. I didn’t believe it for a second, since I knew there was no way this series ended without lots and lots of Tommy. But it was a nice little sequence, and it gave John Scurti one last monologue to deliver, one last chance to let us know that he was always the show’s strongest dramatic actor. But after that, things got a little less acceptable, with the way the show played fast and loose with who survived the fire, letting us think for far too long that Tommy was the only one to get out of that building alive, something that would have turned the misery meter up so far that the finale would have become laughable. (Indeed, I was chuckling in disbelief until we got that flashback—and what a relief it was!—that showed us that somehow, the fireball took only Lou.)

There were other problems as well. The fact that Janet was so excited about Tommy retiring, then apparently decided he couldn’t be anything but a firefighter after one ill-fated trip to the park was a little silly. (It might have worked better to have Sheila’s speech about how what Tommy always needed was sex and fire to become the catalyst for Tommy’s return.) And having Janet be the one telling him to go back onto the force but also back to 62 truck? Kind of ridiculous. Furthermore, that whole birth scene—which I enjoyed parts of, particularly how Black Shawn hovered around the edges, saying goofy things—was over and done with so quickly that it seemed like Janet had given birth to a little Lego man or something. I got what the show was going for—birth and death, circle of life, Tommy saying farewell to a friend and ushering his new son (Shea, aw) into the world, etc.—but it was still a sequence that needed more room to breathe than it got, leaving it feeling like Tommy was simply directing traffic, instead of delivering his son.

But the rest of the finale? It was pretty darn nice, all things considered. In particular, I loved the way the show allowed much of the hour to boil down to the guys just hanging out and shooting the shit, as it always did at its best. Whether they were talking about Tommy’s impending retirement or the (surprisingly minor, given the explosion) injuries they suffered or the many minor indignities they suffered upon Tommy on the ride to Lou’s ashes scattering, there was plenty of great banter for the guys. On top of that, the scene where events conspire just right to create a “vortex” that causes Lou’s ashes to swirl about the truck and settle on everybody? That was damn near a perfect scene of comedy, and I liked the long follow-up where the guys try to get “Lou” off of them, as well as the ultimate burial, which involves Lou’s few remaining ashes getting mixed with Duncan Hines cake mix.

I also liked how everything ended, with another overwrought but somehow powerful Tommy monologue, this one about how people are going to die in your life, and if you’re a firefighter, especially, you’d better learn to live with that. I liked the way the show acknowledged that now, 10 years after Sept. 11, there’s this whole other generation that knows of that day but has to be taught of its significance, a whole other generation that will be left to carry on the names and memories of the lives lost that day, even if they were much, much younger when the attacks happened. While I’ve been hard on the show for its somewhat opportunistic attempts to have its finale occur as close to Sept. 11 as possible, this was a genuinely moving tribute to that day and the memory of that day. And following that monologue up with the reveal that Franco was the new lieutenant and Tommy had started seeing the ghost of Lou? Just about perfect.


Because here’s the thing: Tommy’s ghosts have always been connected to trauma. They’ve always come when he’s drinking, to remind him of how much he’s failed his family, his friends, his city, and the world. But Lou comes when Tommy’s stone-cold sober, after he gets done talking to a bunch of new recruits. Lou comes to do what he always did with Tommy: banter. And over the course of this scene, as we watch Tommy meet up with one last ghost, perhaps the one that will be a more comforting presence in his tortured life, there’s a sense that, yeah, life goes on, but sometimes, you find yourself far enough away from trauma to let a little healing seep in. Tommy Gavin is never going to be “whole” again, but he’s beginning to understand how to live with that, with the help of his memories (or the actual ghost?) of a friend he loved more than any other friend he ever had. The series began with Tommy losing his best friend, and it ended with him losing his other best friend, but the trip in between somehow made the second loss come full of something Tommy’s always needed: grace.

Finale grade: B+
Season grade: C+
Series grade: B (though I’m sorely tempted to knock it down a point because of seasons four, six, and seven, as well as the last few of season five)


Stray observations:

  • Thanks for joining me on this ride these three seasons! Rescue Me was the first show I ever covered for The A.V. Club, and it was the first show I pitched to my esteemed editor, Keith Phipps, when bugging him for freelance work. As such, it’ll always hold a special place in my heart, despite the irritation I often felt toward it.
  • This finale felt like a particularly good farewell to almost all of the characters (even Maggie got a chance to say something nice at Lou’s memorial, though it made no sense that his memorial was so Gavin-heavy), but I might have liked one last moment with all of the many ghosts Tommy has carried with him over the years. Or that could have been too heavy-handed. Who knows?
  • So I’m still not entirely sure how only Lou got blasted in that explosion, when all of the guys were pretty close together. Anybody have a better idea than I do?
  • After last episode was filled to the brim with bad Sheila scenes, this episode gave her that nice speech about what Tommy needs, which ended up being a nice way to say goodbye to the series’ most problematic character by far.
  • Was there anyone that didn’t pop up in the final season(s) that you were hoping to see? I’ll always be a little miffed the show got rid of the Diane Farr character so unceremoniously. She was one of my favorites back when I started watching.
  • Best season: It’s hard to beat the first season for sheer, bracing honesty. The show always tried to chase that sense of real horror, and it never really recaptured it. (Runner-up: Season two.)
  • Best episode: It’s not a conventional choice, but I’m going to go with season five’s “Torch,” an episode that gave us a pitch-black look into the soul of Tommy Gavin. (The runners-up are too numerous to mention, but I’m very tempted by the second season premiere, which I thought was aces.)
  • "Babies have small fingers."
  • "I don't want you poking around in the ashes like it's some kind of Zen garden."
  • "It sounds old and like he's a mechanic."