Yeah, I’m back on the subject. This latest episode of Rescue Me, entitled “Torch,” was just too good to pass unremarked. It was a sterling example of everything that’s right about this show, of which there is plenty (at the risk of repeating myself dangerously often.)
The only thing I could criticize about “Torch” is that it’s not the most friendly episode to the new viewer, at least in the early going. It begins with yet another Garrity musical dream sequence (the third such scene in as many episodes!), where Sean pursues a lovely blonde to a lovely tune – and is interrupted by Uncle Teddy attempting to euthanize him with a pillow. There’s no scene too fruity that Rescue Me can’t quickly usurp with delirious cynicism.
After the opening credits, the main thrust of the episode happens fairly quickly – the crew comes across a wreck on the freeway which manages to shock even them. It’s truly affecting to see, five seasons in, how veteran characters such as Lou and Franco can still be staggered by a civilian death, and it was kind of touching how Needles tried to protect the still-young Mike, even if he’s becoming a little prick over the course of this season. Naturally, it was Tommy who went in to cover up the body and carry it out, and the way that Leary plays the scene in one long unbroken take is fascinating. He seems to play it with his heart burnt out, clinical and remote, but of course he’s deeply affected. To the point that later in the episode, he burns his own leg with a blowtorch just to make himself feel it. Nice assist, whiskey and vodka.
Understandably, the raw hurt the guys experience in that scene sends them to their respective lady friends – Franco to his badass boxer friend, Lou to Candy the porno hooker, and Tommy to…not Janet but… Sheila. Nice assist again, whiskey and vodka. (In a satellite scene, Maggie returns to torment Sean, which provided some desperately-needed comedy relief.)
What was most perceptive on the part of the show-makers here was the fact that at heart, what this episode was really about was Connor, Tommy’s only son, who died all the way back in Season Two. What the body made Tommy think of was Connor. Why he took to the booze and took a torch to his own body was am extreme attempt to bring a visit from the ghosts – which he got in this episode in the form of Johnny, etc., and the adult version of Connor we’ve seen a couple times already this season. This is how grief works. It has lasting effects, and what may not as visibly shatter the toughest of men at the time, can bring them to their knees down the road. This isn’t life; this is a TV show, but it’s a TV show that at its best can suggest life as I personally (and many of my nearest and dearest) have experienced it:
The loss of a loved one, or of many in Tommy Gavin’s case, is a deeply affecting experience that just plain doesn’t resolve itself neatly by the end of the length of a TV episode. It’s an ongoing process, one that can never truly be resolved in some cases. What makes Rescue Me so valuable is its ability to get at this emotional truth. Sometimes when someone dies, you have to keep up your strong face, but eventually, that’s going to drop and you’re going to have to feel it. Probably few people go through this as regularly as firemen, which is why they are heroes. But civilians have similar experiences, and how we each of us deal with it is the question.
Anyway, the episode ended with the guys making another visit to Sean in the hospital. They never get in the room, but what they do get is an encounter with the terminal cancer ward, where once again they are faced with life’s cruelest truth, that even kids live under the shadow of death. This is exactly the expression on the guys’ faces, so a nurse kicks them out unless they can muster up a smile for the kids. Tommy’s the only one who can, and the episode ends with him soldiering up and heading in to read to some of the kids. The cover version of Sinatra’s “New York New York” by Cat Power from her album Jukebox (my personal favorite from last year) closes out the episode, which has to be a series-best.
“Torch” will be up on www.hulu.com on Wednesday for a limited time. I couldn’t recommend any higher for you to check it out.