One of the things that highlighted what I most loved about the show in its early days was the way that the firehouse scenes would become rich, bantering scenes, where the guys would bust each other's balls and toss jokes back and forth in hilarious fashion. There would be a dramatic monologue or two in there—or a few scenes that were filled with long, eventful silence—but for the most part, it was a show about the richness of conversation between these people, whether they were joking or screaming at each other. It was a show that built a world, filled it with people, then let them bounce off of each other in often amusing fashion.
In the later seasons of the show, that feeling has gradually seeped out. The show has become, more and more, all about the monologues, delivered by different characters, sure, but dominating the scripts and scenes, until we reach the natural apex of this: "344," which was almost entirely monologue, save for a few brief moments. And yet it's by far the best episode of the season, one that refocuses its vision on the aftermath of Sept. 11 and says that these characters are, for all intents and purposes, the walking dead. There were 343 firemen who died in the Twin Towers on that fateful day, but Lou, in a monologue that should feel self-serving and cringe-inducing but somehow doesn't, argues that every firefighter who was there and saw the towers fall and didn't die has become number 344. They've wrecked their lives, hurt their marriages, and fallen apart. And while it's a little silly to retcon Lou's eating issues as stemming from the attacks, there's a real poignancy to the scene and what Lou's saying. Those attacks screwed these men up, and no matter how much the world moves on, they'll always be stuck right there.
So long as these last two seasons have hung close to that idea, they've been pretty good. And "344" is no exception. By grounding so many of its developments in the aftermath of Sept. 11, the show finally begins to deal with some of the conflicts it's been working on for seven years. Granted, I hadn't cared whether Tommy took a drink again or not for a good long while, and the set-up for the vodka bottle he's been hauling around was pretty stupid. But that moment when he lifts the bottle to his lips and a man in a suit comes running out of the subway, giving him pause, is a great one. What's going to happen? What the hell is going on? And then floods of people start running out of the subway, and ash begins to rain, and a man lands from the sky on the hood of Tommy's truck. He's right back there. He never left.
Unless he did, of course. After that vivid dream/hallucination, Tommy hands off the bottle to a bum who happens to be in the right place at the right time and drives off. This really feels like the show trying to say that Tommy's ready to move on with his life, that after 10 years of dealing with the anguish of that day, he's ready to head off toward something new and unexpected. The show does it in mostly understated fashion, too, which is nice. It's easy to forget that this was also once a show that used silences as well as any show on TV, and the scene where Tommy wanders around his house at night, just checking on all of the people he loves, is equally good.
One of the things I love about Rescue Me at its best is that it truly embodies the idea that the only thing harder than throwing your life on the line to save someone else is having to go on living. When Lou describes Tommy and himself as the walking dead, he's vaguely accurate, but I think the scene gets at something even deeper and harder to deal with. Lou says that Tommy's acting like a man who's about to die. But he's not. He's a man who, from all accounts, will live a long life, unless his job gets him. He has to go on living with all of his guilt and self-loathing and anger and suffering. And even though those things have occasionally made him an insufferable TV character, this is a moment that makes us realize just how much that must suck from the inside. Tommy will never escape the life he's built for himself or the memories of that day. He'll eternally be trapped inside both of them.
There are some other great moments in the episode, like when Sheila rips Tommy apart for finding the secret letter Jimmy wrote to her in case he died, or the opening scene where Feinberg talks about how the best way to memorialize the dead isn't to build them a giant edifice but to keep talking about them. In so doing, he brings up another American wound that's never properly healed for too many—the Vietnam War—and all of the friends and fellow fighters he lost in the midst of that bloody conflict. And yet he's a man who's moved on, given time. Maybe that's all Tommy needs, too: time to sort out everything that's happened and step forward.
But as Lou says, maybe there's no way forward. Maybe the only way out is through all the darkness, through the guts of this post-traumatic whatever these guys share. There are signs of hope on the horizon—Colleen and Black Shawn will soon be married, and Janet carries the promise of a new life inside of her—but the best thing that can happen to a trauma is simply that it goes away for a little bit before you remember it again. Time may dull the pain, and it might find a way to help you realize that you're not alone in feeling that pain. But there's also no guarantee that it won't leave you hollow, a shadow of a person constantly marking everything that happens with a "Before" and "After."