"The only thing he can feel is heat. Only thing that gets through that thick Irish skin of his is fire. And even goddamned flames ain't gonna make him cry." -Tommy's dadDamn, that was good, wasn't it?
It's easy to dwell on the negative with "Rescue Me," but episodes like "Torch" are a reminder of how brilliant the show can be, and why it's worth suffering through the sloppy, self-aggrandizing moments.
Where even the better episodes of the series often appear to be a randomly-assembled series of vignettes, some stronger than others, nearly all of "Torch" (with the exception of the Garrity stuff, which was isolated comic relief, but fairly well-executed comic relief, so no biggie) felt very much of a piece, all of it tied to that amazing shot(*) of Tommy wrapping the little kid's corpse in a blanket. Every scene afterwards -- from Franco at the gym to Lou with Candy to Tommy burning himself after another round with the ghosts -- keyed off of the crew's response to seeing the burned child, and to Tommy's guilt over Connor.
(*) Major kudos to director John Fortenberry and anyone else in the crew involved with the decision to frame that as a static shot, with Denis Leary popping in and out of frame as he worked, occasionally looking directly at us in a way that didn't break the fourth wall, and the other firefighters looking on sheepishly, just out of focus. It lent an immediacy to what Tommy was doing at the same time it deliberately kept our eyes off the horror in the same way that Tommy was trying to hide it from the media and cameraphone gawkers.
"Rescue Me" is often guilty of deifying Tommy past all reason or dramatic interest, not just in the way that every attractive woman in the five boroughs throws herself at the guy, but in the way that he always seems to have the moral high ground on any subject that doesn't involve his personal life. With Leary a producer who has a hand in every script, it's easy to view the series as some kind of massive ego trip. And maybe some weeks it is. But here, Leary and Peter Tolan's script turned Tommy's super-competence and unassailable machismo on their heads.
Yes, he's the only guy from the truck who can bring himself to deal with the little corpse, and the one who can bring himself to enter the pediatric cancer ward and put on a happy face for the kids. But we see through the episode -- particularly when the ghosts come out again (in maybe the series' best use of that device since very early on, if not ever) -- that Tommy's armor comes with a cost, and in many ways is as un-admirable as his drinking, his inept parenting, his clumsy relationships and the rest of it.
Tommy may be as tough as his old man suggests, but so much of his pain in this episode comes from his realization that he's thought so little of Connor in the years since he died. Some of this seems self-corrective on Leary and Tolan's part -- the show killed off Connor at the end of season two, then ignored him as soon as it was convenient to do so -- but the end result of watching Tommy listen to his father, brother and best friend taunt him for being tougher than they are is still devastating, and wonderfully played by Leary.
Even the Sheila sex scene, ordinarily a cue to lunge for the remote or flee to the kitchen for a snack, fit. Though Sheila's concern about the burn being gross was superficial, overall Callie Thorne got to play her as an adult again, which she hasn't done since the 9/11 monologue near the start of the season. And the sex between the two of them was as raw and ugly as the wound on Tommy's leg.
Hell, the dead kid storyline even kept me from rolling my eyes at Lou and Candy for once, even though I suspect I'll be back to that pretty soon.
Strong, strong episode. Best of the season by a long stretch, I think, and that includes the more 9/11-intensive stuff.
A few other thoughts:
• Anyone with experience in makeup and/or special effects want to wager a guess on how they pulled off the thigh-burning effect? There's obviously a cut from a full-body shot of Tommy to a close-up of the thigh, but that still looks like someone's real leg.
• I don't begrudge Leary and Tolan wanting to showcase Steven Pasquale's song-and-dance skills, but these fantasy numbers are starting to feel a bit less special each time they do them. But at least this one ended with a funny payoff to the otherwise pointless storyline of Teddy playing Dr. Kevorkian at the VA hospital.
• That "New York, New York" cover at the end was by Cat Power.
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