The first few episodes of the final season of "Rescue Me" are strong, maybe the show's strongest since Season 1. Why? The fact that series co-creators Peter Tolan and Denis Leary have a firm end date probably has something to do with it; there's nothing like a final deadline to raise the stakes for a show. But another factor -- maybe coincidental, maybe not -- is the deft way that "Rescue Me" is integrating the firefighters' work and home worlds.
Throughout the run of the show, these worlds were in opposition to one another even when there was overlap; the firefighters went to the firehouse and did their thing, and after hours they'd deal with their wives, girlfriends, kids, aging parents, etc. The struggle of balancing it all created stress fractures in the characters' minds. A lot of the plotlines in this final season -- including Black Shawn's engagement to Tommy's daughter Colleen, and the business with the news crew doing the piece on Jimmy in this episode -- can't be easily pigeonholed into "Work" or "Home" categories. They suggest that the two worlds have merged, or are merging, and that Tommy and the rest of the firefighters just have to deal with it. That came through strongly in last night's episode, the appropriately titled "Menses."
"He was a fireman, not a goddamn first baseman," snarls Tommy Gavin to a news crew that's come to the firehouse to do a profile of his brother, Jimmy Keefe, who died on 9/11. "They're gonna talk about Damian, too -- the baby that he saved," says Black Shawn, who five minutes earlier had gotten in a scuffle with Tommy after telling him that his daughter -- Shawn's fiancée -- fell off the wagon because of Tommy's alkie DNA. "Hero blood," Shawn says, "not booze-hound blood."
Storming home, Tommy confronts Sheila and Janet, now best friends, over giving the news crew the green light to do the piece. Apparently it was Janet's idea, and Sheila signed off on it; Janet tells him -- correctly -- that because Sheila is Jimmy's widow, permission was hers to give or refuse. The issue, she says, had "nothing to do with you." This leads to a rude, marvelous scene in which Tommy stupidly describes Janet, hugely pregnant with Tommy's child, as "fat"; over the next couple of minutes, the kitchen gradually fills up with women, including Colleen and her younger sister Katy, who tearfully tells her father, "Mom's not fat, she's pregnant!" Tommy realizes that every female in the house is having her period at the same time. "It's called cycling, OK?" Katy cries. "I am not going to the vagina aisle," Tommy announces. Cut to Tommy in the drugstore, staring at feminine hygiene products in befuddlement.
That's a great cut -- and not just because it puts Tommy in the same space with returning character Kelly McPhee (Maura Tierney), who plays guru to the lost alpha male and regales Tommy with stories of her cancer treatment. (Tierney is a real-life cancer survivor, which gives her scenes with Leary an extra-dramatic kick.) It's great because it collapses the firefighting and domestic worlds and makes them indistinguishable, and because it plays to the show's strength: its knack for down-and-dirty slapstick and on-the-edge-of-ludicrous verbal exchanges. ("What are you doing here?" Tommy asks her. "Buying shampoo," she deadpans, a scarf wrapped around her bald head.)
The business with Lou enlisting the other guys to help him fake his way through a possibly career-killing medical exam was just as sharp, and much more broad, in the best knockabout "Rescue Me" tradition. And the payoff, with Lou receiving a clean bill of health and then immediately returning to his doughnut-scarfing, sedentary ways -- was uncomfortable because it rang so true. The scene with Sean working his way through several urine sample cups and then unloading in the doctor's sink rang false; people give urine samples in bathrooms, not doctor's offices, even if it's a drug test situation and they're being supervised. But these and other miscalculations were pretty minor. There was nothing tonally jarring or just plain dumb, like the business with Tommy clinging to the hood of Janet's car after an argument in last week's episode. Everything this time was perfectly calibrated.
And in an unusually subtle way -- for "Rescue Me" -- everything seemed to dovetail. The title of the episode, "Menses," announces that this installment is about cycles -- cycles of fertility and barrenness, of life and death. Kelly, who's fighting a potentially deadly disease, jokes with Tommy about having the hots for her doctor. Tommy returns to his pregnant ex-wife, his two teenage daughters and his girlfriend, all of whom are having their periods simultaneously. There's a marvelous shot of all the women clustered around a table, Tommy sitting in the background, looking as defeated and bewildered as can be. Estrogen has triumphed; testosterone is in exile for now. In many scenes -- particularly the coffee-shop conversation between Tommy and Kelly and the argument/reconciliation between Shawn and Colleen ("You're scary, baby, but not as scary as the prospect of being married to a drunk") -- the hour had an unusually relaxed, even settled quality, as if the entire world is making peace with itself. Are the characters figuring out that whatever dramas they're experiencing are not at the center of the known universe, but variations on experiences that everyone eventually has? Even the climactic return of major fires to New York City is presented with a rueful affection, with shots of firefighters charging into burning buildings while Frank Sinatra croons "I've Got the World on a String."