Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Rescue Me, "Torch": A burning in his loins

Spoilers for tonight's outstanding episode of "Rescue Me" coming up just as soon as I polish my coin collection...
"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 dad
Damn, 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.

What did everybody else think?


UnwantedTouching said...

Strong, strong episode that was relatively light on the comedy. Speaking of comedy, first, the musical bits are starting to get a bit tired for me. I can't get enough of watching the Garrity brothers fight, but the song and dance numbers have worn out their welcome. Speaking of Sean's brother, played by Kevin Chapman - they really do look like they have a family resemblance, and Chapman's role as Garrity's brother is a nice departure from his strong work on "Brotherhood" as mobster "Freddie Cork." As Freddie, he did a great job as a menacing mob boss, and his role as Garrity's brother is a nice change of pace that shows his range.

You were dead on about the outstanding scenes in this episode. The way these scenes were shot really stood out from past episodes of Rescue Me in a good way.

Unlike you, Candy doesn't bother me. Lou's always been my favorite in the house, and him having a shot at happiness makes me very happy.

Anonymous said...

Yeah, I keep wondering when the other shoe's going to drop with Candy. But since she robbed him blind the first time around, there's not much more to take. I hope it works out...but I fear it won't.

Unknown said...

Did Leary utter a complete sentence at any time during the episode?

Shawn Anderson said...

I saw the final scene with Tommy as a kind of evidence of a breakthrough... I don't think the empty/unfeeling Tommy that was able to pick up the burnt kid could summon the compassion to 'put on a happy face' for the kids. Finding a way to feel again, even through such horror-filled methods, led to that moment.

And if he can make it there (the kids' cancer ward) he can make it anywhere (to pull Cat Power's re-imagined "New York" into context).

Of course, it won't last -- just like that coin collection and Civil War chess set... which begs the question, who's going to get burned more here, Tommy or Lou?

Brandon said...

I actually didn't think it was all that great. Not to say it was bad, but best of the season? I much prefer "Jimmy" or "Sheila," which opened with that apocalyptic dream, closed with the Sheila monologue, and featured Garrity learning he has cancer in one of the show's best long shots.

I take the point about the show feeling unified for a change, but I still can't get past the Tommy self-aggrandizement, as you put it. In the early part of the season, it wasn't so overwhelming, and many of the other characters got strong scenes to play.

Lately, we've returned to how it used to be: Tommy is a god--a volatile, destructive one, but a god nonetheless. I generally enjoy the closing montage that has become a staple of this show, but how much slo-mo Tommy admiration do we need? (Cat Power was a perfect fit, though.) Of course, he is the central character, and Leary is almost always up to the task, but Tommy getting drunk and talking to ghosts and violently lashing out? I've seen this twelve too many times.

Then there's the Lou-Candy subplot. For some reason, I actually believe the writers have something new to play. I hope I'm not just falling for it again.

Again, I liked the episode, but I'm not convinced it's a major break from the gradual downturn the season has taken these past few weeks.

Unknown said...

Wow, what a haunting episode. I kept waking up in the middle of the night thinking of Tommy using the blowtorch on himself, and the scene immediately after with Sheila ("Don't go doing S.I.D.'s on me...self-inflicted damage, I saw it on Intervention. What? It's a good show!") was effectively messed up. And the most haunting was Tommy putting on his "happy face" showing us just how strong he is / how badly he wants and needs to feel something again. I agree with you that this was the series' most effective "ghost" seen in a while, if not ever. Where the first episode this season felt very interesting but a little stilted and awkward (the ep where Tommy was talking to Jimmy, his dad, his brother and Conner at the bar), this one felt powerful and extremely relevent.

Dan said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Dan said...

Anyone know what the song at the end was?

Alan Sepinwall said...

The answer you seek is cleverly hidden somewhere inside the post you have just commented on.

Sonia said...

I kept thinking he was goingto "accidentally" burn the bar down, I couldn't believe (and I could barely watch) when he put that torch on his own leg...gross!!!! But great too, in terms of the ghosts leading up to it and what happened with Sheila, and then with the pediatric cancer ward afterwards.

And sorry, but I'm still rolloing my eyes at Lou and Candy...he can say goodbye to his coin collection (which she noted seemed valuable) and his civil war chess set...clearly, she has thoroughly cased the joint...LOL. But seriously, I find teh whole storyline distracting b/c I don't trust her and I keep waiting for her to screw Lou over again.

erin said...

It was good, but not my favorite of the season. Still, unified with strong moments. I kept waiting for Tommy to do the sign of the cross after he wrapped up that kid. And I definitely thought he was going to burn down the bar--I'm happy it didn't go that way.

Candy is a distraction to me as well, and I wish they hadn't gone in that direction.

I still feel like 22 episodes is too long for this season. They could've tightened up everything a lot more.

I liked what Sheila said about Tommy's leg wound being so gross and thinking it wouldn't be able to heal if they had sex together. It was so obviously a parallel to Tommy in general, and how being with Sheila just opens up his messy wounds without them healing properly every time they're together. They are incapable of anything healthy and at some point should realize they need to stay the hell away from each other.

Solid episode. The horrific scene with the little girl was definitely one of the best directed on this show.

JanieJones said...

I felt this was a strong episode. The utilization of music in most Rescue Me episodes is representative and poignant. The music supervisor of the show gets A from me. I know that Steven Pasquale has a wonderful voice due to his recent release of his album but the scenes are getting tiresome.
Alan, you brought up the use of the static shot. I thought that it was brilliantly done. It lent to the pain and coldness Tommy himself feels. The torch scene was disturbing but Sheila was right on about self-injurious behavior. Those who feel that they cannot feel pain and need an outlet, often lean towards self mutilation in some way. The leg did look very real, kudos to the special effects department.
Sean's scenes were welcome in this episode which was mostly dark. His exchange with his brother, played by Kevin Chapman, are very funny. The Maggie and Teddy segments were of no use to me. I felt them to be completely out of place.
Tommy's continued destination to seek some type of relief for pain he has bottled up is at times, very real. He goes about things in such a matter of fact manner, most of the time, that it was nice to see him try and seek some relief besides drinking away his nightmares. However, this behavior is not condoned by me.
Lou and Candy, where is this going? I can only think that Lou is going to wind up hurt again but I champion him for trying to attempt some type of happiness. John Scurti is wonderful in this show. He deserves some type of recognition for his performance.
As far as the ending was concerned, I too, thought perhaps Tommy is making a breakthrough by going into pediatric cancer children's playroom and reaching out. But we all know that it won't last long. I thought the song more than fitting for the ending. It wasn't the best episode this season but it was up there in the top five.

Jincy said...

Striking that a 9/11-inspired series concludes a particularly powerful episode with the image of a firefighter (as opposed to the President of the U.S.)reading to a roomful of kids who actually need and respond to the attention. Don't know if this was done on purpose; if not, it's a happy accident.

dez said...

I liked the Garrity scenes more than others here, especially when he wanted Teddy to kill him rather than have to see Maggie again.

The scene with Tommy wrapping up the kid was incredibly powerful. I kept waiting for her to pop up in the shadows the way the other victims used to haunt him. She might yet.

Gern Blanston said...

Meh. I usually agree with you Alan, but with the exception of the scene of Tommy wrapping up the body of the dead child, I thought the episode was pretty weak. Almost at the "that's it for me" point with Rescue Me.

When the show started and Tommy would have the hallucinations of Jimmy, generally they were pretty tolerable -- they drove the story, were part of the central theme, and the writers played a lot with the tension of whether stuff was really happening, or was a hallucination. But now, a couple of seasons into its run, the show has relied on that device too heavily for my tastes. Instead of really working to give us quality scenes like the opener in this episode, where the actors' actions and body language convey all the emotion and tell a very powerful story with little if any dialogue, the hallucination scenes now seem like a cop-out of lazy writers. The ghosts show up ad nauseam and tell us what Tommy is supposed to be feeling and why. Might as well use voice-over or a narrator to tell us what the character is feeling instead. And there's no subtlety to it at all: hey, Tommy's alone and drinking, in a dimly lit room, so it must be time for a few ghosts to show up and berate him. The torch scene would have been a lot more powerful if we just watched Tommy toy with the idea, and then burn himself, knowing that he is driven by "inner demons" and guilt, rather than being told why he's doing it. IMHO.

Plus, I can't take another musical number for Sean... and have fast forwarded through the last two.

me said...

The scene with Lou and Candy in the apartment after she cleaned it made me jumpy. The camera kept ending up on Lou's back as he spoke to Candy, and I kept anticipating that she'd be gone with the coin collection and chess set by the time he turned around.

I wonder if it's going to be like that for a while. It's effective. Nobody trusts her, and I kind of hope the camera work continues like this until it's safe to trust her again.

Karen said...

Liked the Sean musical scene for its shout-out to Singin' in the Rain, but otherwise, agreed that enough is enough.

Otherwise... ehh. To me, it didn't seem much different from any other episode, other than the ghosts, whose tone seemed different, more sad. (I didn't see it as taunting Tommy, myself.) I can't take Uncle Teddy and Maggie anymore (not that I ever really could) and do wonder why I'm sticking to this show... and yet I am. Strange.

P.S. I think Lou's getting shafted again.

Anonymous said...

I get that Leary is the star/producer of the show. However, as many times the show's reminded us of the "brotherhod" of firefighters, Tommy as the super hero is just ridiculous. As for Lou, something is up with Candy. Last week she wants to sleep with Lou, this week-"let's take it slow." Terminal illness?

Anonymous said...

Dan said...
Anyone know what the song at the end was

Cat Power - New York

Toni said...

That opening scene with Tommy gathering the remains of the little girl was fantastic, and a terrific example of how it's not necessary (in scenes involving either sex or violence) to use special effects to add to the realism of a moment. Very powerful.

I think the actress playing Sheila does a terrific job - even that her character is annoying means she's effective. This episode allowed her to shine a bit.

The opening scene, for me, connected many dots: Tommy can't feel, and that's what he wants more than anything right now. It explains his narcissistic behavior in many ways.