It’s no surprise the arrival of Walton Goggins to the world of The Righteous Gemstones completely changes the tenor of the young comedy; as Baby Billy Freeman, Goggins’ committed performance leans hard into the absurdist elements, while also building out the more melancholic emotional foundation of the series. There are times his magnetic presence threatens to swallow the entire series whole, but the balance “They Are Weak, But He Is Strong” ultimately finds with Billy’s arrival is impressive, in a strong display of The Righteous Gemstones‘ burgeoning versatility.
Though “They Are Weak, But He Is Strong” will be rightly remembered for Goggins’ powerhouse introduction to The Righteous Gemstones‘ world, it should also be recognized for what a powerful half hour of character work it is.
“Your world is about to get a whole lot larger,” Billy tells his wife Valyn Hall at the onset of “They Are Weak, But He Is Strong,” an ominous phrase immediately catalyzed when Billy is revealed as Aimee Leigh’s younger brother – and therefore, brother-in-law to an increasingly agitated Eli. As often is the case in Danny McBride’s work, the outlandish gives way to devastating: Billy is both cartoonish and well-defined, a presence whose comedic value only enhances his emotional presence, as “They Are Weak, But He Is Strong” builds out its story of hard truths and difficult reconciliations.
Smartly, there’s a neat parallel drawn between Billy and Gideon, characters who are polar opposites only on the surface. As Billy prepares to open a new megachurch inside a mall (inhabiting an old Sears location, to be specific), Gideon tries to figure out how he’s going to get the money Scotty’s demanding from him. In the almighty name of the holy dollar, both Billy and Gideon prepare to sacrifice their personal pride for financial gain – though Billy doesn’t go around writing down the value of every item in the Gemstone household, he’s similarly looking to cash in as quickly and effortlessly as possible.
It all goes about as well as expected; Jesse blames Gideon for Pontius’ increasingly volatile behavior, and Eli admonishes Billy as a heartless con man trying to cash in on his familial connections. These are played to comedic effect, of course, but they also take time to explore the show’s unexpected heart, finding emotional resonance in the complicated personas of its awful protagonists. It would be easy for The Righteous Gemstones to just laugh at the vulgar behavior of Pontius, or self-righteously revel in Eli’s thunderous anger – instead, “They Are Weak” offers a more complicated, nuanced take on its collection of schemers and self-indulgers, in a way that’s neither judgmental or forgiving – a difficult balance for a black comedy such as Gemstones to find so early in its life.
Threading a needle between acerbic comedy and ruminative drama is a tall task, but the Eli/Billy conflict displays a rather effortless integration of both – and as “They Are Weak, He Is Strong” expands the shared self delusions to every main character, examining the strengths (and weaknesses) of absolute conviction, holy or otherwise, it only gets more potent. Belief is a rather powerful thing, after all – and as Gideon convinces himself he can be a false prophet, and Billy pontificates about his own relevance (with his dick out in the morning sun, no less), The Righteous Gemstones‘ third episode finds its voice as both a damning examination of evangelical hypocrisy, and as a satisfying family drama of Biblical proportions.
Though “They Are Weak, He Is Strong” isn’t exactly a propulsive episode of the series – it really just re-contextualizes each running story, with Billy as a new added element – it is rather effective at completing that task, using his presence as a catalyst for its deeper ruminations on loss, family, and power. And it smartly does so in a way that separates it from network counterpart Succession; it’s a bit less brutal and sharp than the tale of the Roy family, which ultimately makes it all feel a bit more flexible and thematically fluid, at least in the early going.
That distinction is important: it’s why Jesse’s frustrations with Gideon don’t feel completely self-righteous, and why someone like Baby Billy can feel compelling, and not completely asinine. Succession is great at what it does, but The Righteous Gemstones, at least in its early days, feels deeper, less operatic but arguably more emotionally potent – just look at Eli’s face when he first arrives at the mall to reconcile with Billy, to see the nimble, unexpected depth that can be found in its characters. Though “They Are Weak, But He Is Strong” will be rightly remembered for Goggins’ powerhouse introduction to the Gemstone world, it should also be recognized for what a powerful half hour of character work it is, as reflective as it is hilarious, peeling back unseen layers of its world to reveal a particularly compelling (if grim) core I can’t wait to see explored further.