Family Over Everything: Is the Family at the Heart of HBO’s The Righteous Gemstones Finally Beginning to Practice What They Preach?

The first season of the HBO dark comedy The Righteous Gemstones shone a hilariously unflattering light on the hypocrisy that is often present within American Evangelical Megachurches. The Gemstone family spends the majority of the first season dealing with a blackmailer who threatens to unravel the family, and their ministry, from the inside out. When we catch up with the Gemstones at the beginning of season two, they are once again under threat: this time by a reporter who has set his sights on exposing the past indiscretions of patriarch Eli Gemstone (John Goodman). It’s this incident, and the aftermath that follows, that kickstarts that family’s season-long arc towards something unexpected: a genuine love for each other.

A prominent figure from Eli’s past unearths shocking revelations about their father to the Gemstone children, who only know the man that was changed by his wife Aimee Lee’s positive influence and partnership in ministry. To their surprise, they learn that Eli was once a small-time wrestler known as “The Maniac Kid” who more than lived up to his name both inside and outside the ring. This leads to a mid-season confrontation with his youngest son Kelvin (Adam Devine) where Eli publicly breaks both of his sons thumbs in a fit of rage.

Without spoiling the entirety of the second season, Eli’s physical safety is threatened to the point that he lands in the hospital; Aimee Lee’s brother, Baby Billy Freeman (Walton Goggins) continues his selfish streak from season one and abandons his young pregnant wife, Tiffany (Valyn Hall) to be taken care of begrudgingly by Eli’s daughter Judy (the uniquely brilliant Edi Patterson), who has finally found her voice within the family ministry and married her longtime boyfriend BJ (Tim Baltz); eldest Gemstone son Jesse (series creator Danny McBride) and his wife Amber (Cassidy Freeman) are hoping to get financial support from Eli for a new Christian timeshare venture proposed by young ministry superstars The Lissons (Eric André and Jessica Lowe); and Kelvin is struggling to maintain a level of leadership within his ministry in the aftermath of the incident with Eli.

It’s in these storylines that the true through-line of season two reveals itself: the Gemstones are learning to put themselves to the side for the benefit of the family as a whole. When we see them in the second to last episode of the season, they genuinely seem to care for each other; something that surprises them as much as the audience.

The most striking evolution, however, comes from Judy, whose one-liners and monologues have proven Edi Patterson to be the true comedic powerhouse of the series. Initially blinded by her jealousy and inability to be seen for who she is within the family, this season we see her genuinely begin to care for other people and learn that family is who you choose it to be; it’s not necessarily dictated by blood. When BJ’s family belittles him at his baptism ceremony, Judy is right there to defend his honor and empower him to be his true self. When Eli is convalescing, Judy is there to play Aimee Lee’s old records and sing to her father at his bedside, a touching interaction that shows how much Judy has actually grown in her gift, which is not dependent on an audience for it to shine. When a very pregnant Tiffany is abandoned by Baby Billy mid-season, Judy not only allows Tiffany to live in her home, but acts as an emotional support and strength to shore her up in her moments of weakness and doubt:

“Look, I know you may be a backwoods simpleton, who scrubs her dresses on tree bark and stinks up the entire house with roadkill stew, but God damn if I wouldn’t miss the pitter patter of your filthy-ass bare feet, or the way you chew shrimp tails with the ice like an animal — you’re family. And the thought of you running away on this bus right now is making my gooch pucker.”

This is the strength of The Righteous Gemstones. There is no indictment without humanization. We can see ourselves in these characters. It’s human nature to want to protect yourself, and I think what resonates for me as a viewer is the mirror that is held up to my own shortcomings when I see them on screen. But, with each of the Gemstones’ evolution this season, we see that a larger goal is achieved: Aimee Lee’s family is really beginning to love each other. Something that I’m sure she would have loved to see while she was still alive, but is nonetheless powerful to witness, as these adults work against their own selfishness for the betterment of the family as a whole.

The season finale answers many of the questions that had been lingering since the premier episode, with the family coming together, protecting each other, and finally welcoming BJ into the fold after he gets shot in the leg:

“…did Jesse say I’m part of the family?”

If this season was any indication of where the Gemstones are headed, I’m sure that the more outside forces are at work, the more they will protect each other, regardless of the cost to their individual selves or to outsiders. And, at the end of the day, isn’t that what family is all about?

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