You never have to worry about Danny McBride leaving you hanging.
In Sunday’s season 1 finale of The Righteous Gemstones, the HBO comedy mostly wrapped up the many mysteries and secrets set up during the freshman installment — and that’s exactly how McBride, the creator and star, likes it. A quick recap: Amber (Cassidy Freeman) kicks Jesse (McBride) out after he’s unsuccessful in his attempt to bring Gideon (Skyler Gisondo) home from Haiti; Judy (Edi Patterson) and BJ (Tim Baltz) get back together; Kelvin (Adam DeVine) saves Keefe (Tony Cavalero) from becoming the “Baby” again; and the Gemstones get the remaining stolen money back from Baby Billy (Walton Goggins), who, after being struck by lightning, is revived and starts spreading the word of what he saw in the afterlife (for a small cost, of course). And we end with Jesse returning to Gideon and Haiti in order to find some redemption.
To learn more about the finale, EW chatted with McBride about that wild opening scene, his aversion to cliffhangers, and why he couldn’t bring himself to kill off Baby Billy.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: Let’s start where the season finale started: Talk to me about the opening flashback with the bee. I didn’t know that I needed to see John Goodman wrapped up in a curtain until I actually saw it.
DANNY MCBRIDE: When we’re making the show, on the page, we’re obviously trying to keep the story unexpected and go into different areas that people wouldn’t think. So, a lot of times, being that I’m also acting in this, you’re showing up on set and you have no idea if what’s written is going to work or how everyone else is planning on playing it. For us in the writers’ room, that opening bee scene, we loved the idea in the room, but it was like, “How will this come out? How will we do this? What will that play like?” That was one of those scenes where we had no idea if it would land or if it would achieve that perfect balance of sadness and ridiculousness. The very first take, they rolled the cameras and I just saw what John and Edi and Adam were doing and it was this nice little organic moment where I really did feel for this family and these people, and then I was just trying to keep it together as John and Edi and Adam are getting absolutely f—ing nuts. It was a fun scene to shoot.
That is how the episode started, but it ended with Jesse going to Haiti, a.k.a. “AIDS country.” It reminded me of Kenny running off to Mexico for Eastbound & Down season 2. What did you like about this idea and the possibilities?
We started the whole series in China, so the Gemstones are an international organization. They’re a people of means and it’s not anything for them to go to a country on the drop of a dime and just show up and do something. In a way, bringing it to Haiti shows how this Gemstone world operates. I also liked that, as ridiculous as it was, that last moment is just this moment between a father and a son. Despite how bad and wild things were for this family, ultimately, the story kind of boils down to this simple father and son dynamic and how to find that right balance of how you coexist with each other.
Throughout this season, Jesse has been taken down a few pegs, and I think that’s definitely something you’ve done a lot with your shows. Your characters often think very highly of themselves, so do you enjoy humbling them a bit?
I just think it’s a human thing to examine. People know defeat probably more than they know victory, and defeat is easy to identify with. To me, it just seems like a natural arc of a character is not just to see them when they’re up and s— is going their way, but they almost become more interesting when things aren’t going their way. I think a lot of times in life that’s how things happen, so it’s fun to watch someone different than you react to the same kind of bulls— that you could find yourself in, but on their scale in a much different world.
You mostly tied up the story of season 1, but did you ever consider some big cliffhanger to carry you into the season, or do you like wrapping it up a bit?
I think it just goes into what I look for when I watch TV. I don’t just want to be teased all the time to keep tuning in; I like to see things have a completion. That is something we did with Vice Principals and shooting those two seasons back-to-back. When there’s so many things competing for our attention, I feel like I can invest in a story that you know will be seen to completion. And so that is how our plan is for these seasons. Obviously, you continue the Gemstone story, but I like the idea of each of these seasons standing alone as their own work and story, so that you’re not always baiting the audience with, “What next?” There is some level of giving people closure, and then starting again.
We talked about the bee scene earlier, but maybe the weirdest thing you’ve ever done on one of your shows is Keefe’s “Baby” transition. It was out of like a sci-fi movie. While you had been setting up the “Baby” thing all season, what was going through your mind with this?
That is one of those things that started as a joke in the writers’ room and everyone kept pushing it down the road, and then it ended up in a script and we sent it to production and, before you know it, we’re on the set watching that. I think we were like playing chicken with ourselves a little bit. One of our writers, Grant DeKernion, wrote that scene with Keefe and his cohorts at Club Sinister in episode 4; he wrote in the line, “Become the baby again, Keefe,” and after we read that we were all just laughing, like, “What the f— was being the baby? What are they asking him to do?” So I think we were always just kidding around about that and it manifested where we were like, this is what the Baby is — it’s like you’re waking up in f—ing Twelve Monkeys, submerged in human milk [laughs].
Sticking with Keefe and Kelvin, their relationship is an interesting one. A lot of people think they’re maybe more than friends. What’s your take, or what can you say about where you see that relationship going?
It’s hard to say where they’re at. Kelvin is someone who has been stunted growing up in this really rich family and not having the same responsibilities other people do. Right now, I can’t tell if Keefe is someone he loves or if Keefe is like his immature way of having a friend spend the night — and I don’t think Kelvin really knows that either. In some ways, I think in their relationship Kelvin sees himself as some messiah or leader, so he expects his apostles to love him like Jesus’ apostles, some sort of undying affection and gratitude. That’s what he expects from Keefe in some weird way.
Ahead of the season, we talked about how great an actor Walton is, and he kills it again with this monologue in the rain, and then almost gets killed when Baby Billy is struck by lightning. I feel like I know the answer to this because you clearly love Walton so much, but did you ever consider killing Baby Billy in that instance? Or did you always have the idea of the bee coming back around?
From the very beginning, we thought that Baby Billy would get killed. We had everything from like being drowned in the f—ing swamp to being put into cement in the basement of Locust Grove. So all these insane ideas, but then you start to write these characters as the season gets going and it’s easy to tell what stuff doesn’t add up anymore. As we wrote Baby Billy, we started to understand what was more interesting about him is that if you do see his side then you do understand where his pain and hurt comes from, even if he doesn’t do the things to address it that are right. The more he became a fully functional and three-dimensional character the more you knew that some sort of murder of him wasn’t what that story needed. So then it just presented itself that they’d end up praying for his salvation, and then him having a second chance.
And in pure Baby Billy fashion, he’s now making money off of it.
He’s got his con now [laughs].
Walton has his own new show with The Unicorn, but do you hope to keep using him and Baby Billy moving forward as much as possible?
We look at this show in a much different light that we looked at all our other shows, which all had definitive endings to them. I do have ideas of what I want to work towards with the ending, but, to me, I love the idea of using this family as a way to introduce a whole world with a lot of different characters. The idea of creating all the secondary characters, like Walton’s, and introducing new ones, and before this show is done you’ve met cousins and great aunts and grandparents, and you just have this crazy portrait of this insanely successful Southern-fried family. We just started writing season 2, but we’re just excited to be able to dig deeper into this world and introduce you to some new characters
There was a lot of discussion ahead of the show’s premiere about religion and if you were mocking it, but now that it’s been out there, what’s the reaction you’ve been getting from people in this sphere? Are they maybe even giving you more information?
You know, I’ve got to say, that’s one section of people we’ve gotten; they’re all people with similar experiences to what mine were with religion, like it was a part of my life growing up and it’s still kind of a part of my life with my close loved ones belonging to a church. I don’t know, there’s like a deeper understanding of who these people are and not presenting them as some cartoon cliché, and just give them a little bit of depth and not being so vile with what people believe in; just letting it be a character piece that takes place in this world. I think it allows someone who still goes to church to watch this show and not feel like they’re the butt of the joke.
The Righteous Gemstones returns to HBO in 2020.