Spoilers for the series finale of Rescue Me below:
The easy shorthand for Rescue Me has always been that it was a show about the aftermath of 9/11. It was and it wasn’t. In a way, the question for the guys of 62 Truck is a question you could ask about America: what did 9/11 change? Would things have been much different but for the events of that day?
Again, the answer would be: they would and they wouldn’t. I can’t begin to go into the complex details of answering that question for the U.S.: there was national trauma and a couple of wars—but on the other hand, last night we saw a Republican debate in which Afghanistan came up very late in the discussion and which largely debated issues (taxes, climate change, jobs) that you’d expect to come up had the hijackers failed on that 2001 morning.
Likewise for the guys of Rescue Me. Certainly 9/11 was a catastrophe for the FDNY. 343 firefighters died, the city bore a scar on its skyline (captured in the opening credits) and the survivors have never been able to forget. And yet: you have to imagine that much of the turmoil (and comedy) Rescue Me has dealt with would have existed anyway. Tommy’s self-destructiveness didn’t start on 9/11; the personal and bureaucratic conflicts would have still been there. Gavins would still drink too much, and guys would still die in fires. Ordinary warehouse and apartment fires without global repercussions, maybe. But they would still be just as dead.
And the Rescue Me finale was fitting—if characteristically uneven—in saluting its post-9/11 origins without being overcome by them. Instead, it left us with one more crew member dead in a fire: Lou, the wisecracking heart and head of the crew, sent off with a couple of fantastic opening and closing performances by John Scurti. The first was one more Rescue Me dream-sequence fakeout, but one that gave his dream-ghost a chance to express how much the crew he spent risked his life and busted balls with meant to him.
The second was part of an end sequence that brought the series full circle to its opening without slavishly repeating it. As in the pilot, we again got Denis Leary as Tommy giving a tough-love speech to a class of new probies, reminding them of what was lost on 9/11 and challenging them to live up to it. And one more time Tommy climbed into his truck and saw a ghost: not his cousin this time but Lou, with whom he shared one more laugh. Does it mean Tommy’s finally gotten past his survivor’s guilt? Maybe, a little. Or maybe it means that he just has one more ghost with him now, that he’s learned to live with them a little better, and that he only has room for one in the passenger seat at a time.
The middle of the episode was not perfect: in particular, the whole business of getting Tommy to stay with the FDNY seemed contrived, especially just after the season had contrived a way to get him out of the FDNY. And as is typical of Rescue Me, there was a set piece—Tommy’s showdown with the other parents at the playground—that was well-executed, but did not necessarily need to be in this episode as opposed to any other.
On the other hand, there was another set piece that was at one hilarious and moving: the “vortex” explosion of Lou’s ashes inside the car, which ended in the guys substituting his missing cremains with Duncan Hines red velvet cake mix. (“There was no gray food in the store. I don’t think they make gray food!”)
This kind of dark comedy, simultaneously gross-out and achingly poignant, is the sort of thing that I’ll remember when I think of Rescue Me at its best. I wouldn’t expect this seat-of-the-pants series to deliver finely crafted perfection in its finale, but it went out true to form, with an episode about how life goes on, even when it doesn’t.