On ''Rescue Me,'' a tantalizing new conflict brings back the Tommy we know; meanwhile, Janet's downward spiral continues

By Ben Spier
July 26, 2007 at 04:00 AM EDT
Michael Wong / FX
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”Rescue Me”: Welcome back, Tommy

Tommy Gavin is reverting to his old self — and I say it’s about time. For much of this season, he had seemed thoroughly beaten-down, passively reactive, dare I say ”pussified.” This underplaying may have been a brave choice on Denis Leary’s part, allowing other actors to take center stage while still earning another deserved Emmy nod. Yet it also left Rescue Me adrift, with a hole at the center. Which is partly why last night it was a tonic to see his antihero come roaring back to bilious, combative life, albeit not without painful soul-searching. Equally refreshing, ”Balance” upped the energy quotient by brushing off stagnant plotlines and introducing tantalizingly messy new story threads.

And the spark to Tommy’s newfound fire? The uppity, non-probie probie (a coolly magnetic Larenz Tate) who brazenly appropriated Sean Garrity’s name, scorned scut work, and upended the established firehouse pecking order. And the staunchest defender of that order would, of course, be Tommy, who finally blazed forth in a sputtering peroration about the need for probies to earn the trust of their peers on the job. Sounds like the classic justification for hazing to my ear, but Leary gave it a ring of near-reasonableness. Less reasonably, Tommy responded to Black Sean’s extension of an olive branch of sorts not with a civil discussion about religious beliefs but an anti-Catholic rant likening the Church to the Mob. The Pope as the biggest gangster of them all? Even Sinéad O’Connor didn’t go quite that far. Then again, this outburst of irreligious fervor may have stemmed as much from Tommy’s pasting on the b-ball court, where his hockey-honed instinct for raw aggression was matched by his inability to drive to the basket. Pray that the contest of brawn and wills between Tommy and Black Sean continues to rage entertainingly on and off the court.

Also stoking Tommy’s ire: Sheila, who evidently traded in her Tommy-obsessed creepazoid boy-toy for a red Porsche to complement her nouveau riche hoochie-mama wardrobe. For all her flash and finery, though, she veered from manipulation to flirtation to desperation as she renewed her plea to adopt Janet’s as-yet-unnamed infant. (Callie Thorne’s manic scenery-chewing all but banishes the memory of her long-suffering Elena McNulty on The Wire.) Entrusting the tot to the borderline-schizoid Sheila might be ”morally insane,” in Tommy’s pungent phrasing, but as the next-episode preview hinted, it might be an alternative to the sad state of affairs chez Janet. A future Emmy watch is in order for Andrea Roth, who subtly imbued Janet with surprising pathos as she sank deeper into Johnny-induced catatonia and Tommy marched outside to his car and his AA booklet (so much for his antireligious apostasy).

Away from the drama of Tommy and Janet, supporting subplots festered, bubbled, and boiled over to invigorating effect. My favorite twist: The Church took an additional thumping from Lou’s pudgy cousin (Artie Lange), who blasphemously invoked Mother Teresa and made hash of Lou’s ill-considered vow of abstinence with his carnally inclined ex-nun. The reappearance on the scene of Franco’s daughter and Alicia may have driven a wedge between him and Natalie, but what wouldn’t I give for a showdown between her and Susan Sarandon. And finally (finally!), the saga of Mike, a.k.a. Stupid, acquired a promising new dimension as Sean clumsily pried into his closet and learned his family secret.

With all that to look forward to in future episodes, there are mysteries aplenty to chew on. What put Tommy in mind of Yankee great (and notorious alcoholic) Mickey Mantle? If Janet’s baby is unnamed, what did they put on his birth certificate? Why hasn’t Jerry’s son Peter turned up to collect his father’s ashes? Is Natalie resentful of Keela or Alicia? And am I missing something, or did Colleen’s rocker boyfriend look different? Savvy viewers that you are, fire away, please.

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