One of the great weapons that The Righteous Gemstones team has at its disposal is a mastery of tone. Danny McBride’s HBO show about a family of megachurch preachers at a crossroads has heart, hilarity, vulgarity, and sometimes gnarly violence—all of it blended together seamlessly.
Perhaps the biggest tonal flex in the entire series arrives in the cold open of the finale, though, when a somber moment instantly pivots into one of the best slapstick comedy scenes in years.
The scene revolves around a death, but since the deceased is someone who perished before the events of the series begin, giving away who died is in no way a spoiler. We open on the hospital bed of Aimee-Leigh Gemstone (Jennifer Nettles), the matriarch who has just succumbed to an unnamed (to us) disease. If nothing else, the Gemstones are a family that knows the power of prayer, and so they begin to mourn by joining hands. No sooner has Eli Gemstone (John Goodman) started praying for his wife, however, that we hear a buzzing sound. A bee has gotten loose in the hospital, possibly smuggling itself in through some of the many roses brought for Aimee-Leigh. At first, everyone tries to ignore the bee. Then they attempt to shoo it away gently. When these feeble efforts fail to fix the problem, a switch flips. Their anger at this interruption, and their inability to stop it, gets cross wired with their grief, and all hell breaks loose. Their rapidly crescendoing misplaced ire results in a destroyed hospital room, and one still-intact bee.
This scene distills the irresolvable nature of grief down to its essence with a vision of primal panic that’s every bit as poignant as it is hilarious. Each of the family members reacts to the situation in a way that reflects what we know about their characters. Jesse Gemstone (McBride) is impulsive and excessively destructive. Kelvin (Adam Devine) is more bark than bite. Judy (Edi Patterson) waits for Jesse to make the first move but becomes equally unhinged. Eli is the one who remains closest to poised.
Even though the bee comes back later in the episode for an encore appearance (well, probably a different bee but in a similar situation), this scene is a stand-alone unit that traces the unfillable void Aimee-Leigh left within this family, and the impact it has had on them.
Fast Company talked with the team behind the show about how it came together.
A buzz is born
Jeff Fradley, writer and executive producer: We always play with what the cold open can be, and for the finale, we landed on opening at the moment of Aimee-Leigh’s death with all the Gemstones broken up.
John Carcieri, writer and executive producer: Danny [McBride] had the idea of a bee wreaking havoc at such a sad moment for all the characters. The ridiculousness of it all made us laugh as he explained it.
Edi Patterson, writer and star: We were talking before we wrote it about ways that loved ones who have passed “come back” to check in or say hello or wherever, and it made us think about the fact that many people feel like their loved ones visit them through some sort of nature, specifically animals. That got us thinking about the bee, and then the idea of thinking about such crushing grief coupled with the annoyance of something like a bee really was intriguing to us.
Danny McBride, creator and star: The passing of Aimee-Leigh explains so much of who these characters are in the first season. To see when that moment began. That beat where life suddenly changes forever. We all experience that on some level or another. The Gemstones react to it the way we wish we could. By trying to kick the world’s fucking ass.
Flight of the bumblebee
Jody Hill, director: At the beginning, it was very planned out, with Eli swatting the bee and Jesse smashing the first monitor. This sort of set the tone. After that, it was up to the actors. They really deserve the credit for bringing that level of detail to the performance. By this time in the shooting process, they had been living as these characters for quite a while. It seemed they all knew specifically how each of them would respond. The overall direction of the scene was in the script, so everybody kind of knew the dramatic arc, but a lot of the things they were saying when the bee comes into it just came from the actors in the moment. We created a sort of playground for the actors to do whatever they felt right doing. My job was to capture it and encourage them. I was sort of in there just giving them direction as to where the bee was at different times. We didn’t have a real bee there, so I talked them through that. But the actors were so dialed in with the story and the arc of the characters by that point, they all sort of got it. All of the actors really understood how much Aimee-Leigh meant to them and the story, so it really felt easy to bring that out of them. They always brought more to scenes like this than I could imagine. The performances were always the easiest part of the process.
Patterson: There’s something about a bee that I think can elicit a fairly violent response, maybe because they’re capable of hurting you. If I’m eating lunch outside somewhere or something and a bee starts circling, the mix of fear and anger can cause a very “GET THE FUCK OUT OF HERE!” vibe very quickly, you know? That coupled with obliterating sadness and loss is an interesting and hopefully hilariously real mix. It just felt to me that Judy would be so raw in that moment and so just emotionally exhausted. She would be so furious at this dumb bee for intruding into this sacred and horribly sad moment. I think she idolized her Mom somewhat, and for a stupid bee to invade her death? NOT COOL, MAN.
What the bee truly means
McBride: That’s a secret.
Patterson: I think as is often the case with stuff like this, the bee becomes a symbol, a message from beyond. Something to grasp onto to make her mom a tangible thing after she’s gone.
Carcieri: What’s great about the bee is that it can mean different things to different people. Maybe it’s some divine sign, or perhaps it’s just a bee and that’s it.
Fradley: For me it enflames my imagination, and I like to think that maybe there’s something bigger going on. But I could be wrong. Maybe it’s just a bee.