Just when it seemed like The Righteous Gemstones couldn’t get any more hilariously absurd, Macaulay Culkin shows up and punches Walton Goggins in the face.
“He’s a national treasure, man,” says Goggins, who plays Baby Billy Freeman, the show’s singing, grifting, white-haired preacher. Until they filmed together, he had no clue Culkin had been cast as his character’s estranged child. “When I found out,” Goggins adds, “I was like, ‘Are you fucking kidding me right now?’”
The reunion of Baby Billy and Harmon, the son he walked out on almost 30 years prior, is patently and purposefully outrageous—you don’t cast the star of Home Alone for a run-of-the-mill role. But the scene is also a microcosm of the incredible balance between hilarity and heart that Gemstones pulls off. “I’ve played a father and I’ve played a son in a number of things,” Goggins says. “I’ve never read a scene between a father and a son that’s more honest, ever. That’s more ridiculous.”
Ever since the fourth episode of Gemstones’ second season opened with Billy dropping his son at a mall pet store and disappearing into a sea of people, the show has been exploring Billy’s past as an absentee father. With his third wife, Tiffany, very pregnant, Baby Billy has been racked with guilt and fear of repeating the same mistakes. Of course, his ego and stubbornness guarantee the latter: By the end of that fourth episode, he’s abandoning Tiffany, running out to buy Funyuns with no intention to return. It isn’t until he’s visited by his sister Aimee-Leigh’s ghost that he fully realizes he needs to at least try to reconcile with his son. In Sunday’s “The Prayer of a Righteous Man,” he heads to Harmon’s house unannounced, leaves an old Christmas card that he intended to give him years ago on his doorstep, rings the doorbell, and hides behind a tree. When Harmon answers the door, Baby Billy comes out of the shadows.
It’s fitting that the guy who peddles bogus “health elixirs” and freely talks about how his much-younger wife was “a toilet baby” is wrapped up in something so ridiculous. But at no point in Season 2 has Baby Billy devolved into a caricature. In the careful hands of Goggins, he’s become one of the most distinct yet enjoyably imitable characters on television.
“Everyone can do Baby Billy in the writers’ room,” says Righteous Gemstones creator Danny McBride. “He’s the one character that when you pitch a joke, everyone always does it in the Baby Billy voice. I feel like he just makes sense, and Walton is so good at bringing him out.”
Before filming the reunion, Goggins purposely didn’t say much to his scene partner. “I remember seeing him kind of beforehand and just kind of gave a little nod,” Goggins says. “I don’t know if he wanted to talk more or not. I didn’t really give him a chance.” Familiarity would’ve felt wrong—Harmon and Baby Billy hadn’t seen each other in decades. “We rehearsed it really kind of once, just kind of without even really reading through it,” Goggins says. “Just kind of throwing things out.”
In flashbacks, Harmon never speaks. In the present he seems just as reserved, even as Baby Billy starts apologizing to him. The way Culkin looks off into the distance while staying silent is agonizing to watch. “I remember just staring at him for a very long time and [him] not saying a word,” Goggins says. “And it was very tense, actually.” It even briefly feels like Baby Billy’s worst fear may be true: His absence irreparably harmed his son.
But when Harmon begins talking, it quickly becomes clear that he’s done just fine without Baby Billy. The fact that his father left him and his mother, Gloria, was traumatizing, but it didn’t ruin his life. That day, Harmon ended up with a cat named Apples that lived 17 years. (His mom told him that the new pet was Baby Billy, reincarnated.) He grew up, started a family of his own, and moved on from his dad.
David Gordon Green, the director of the episode, had one piece of direction for Goggins. “He said, ‘I think you want to get closer to him sooner,’” Goggins says. “And he was right.” As his son is speaking, Baby Billy gets up from the couch he’s sitting on, kneels in front of Harmon, and asks him if they can make peace, “So we ain’t got to be stuck in that day in the mall for the rest of our lives.”
To Baby Billy’s surprise, Harmon says he’s not stuck there with him. “You don’t think about me all the time?” Baby Billy asks. When his son replies “not really,” it throws him off. “Well damn,” Baby Billy says, “I wasn’t expecting that.”
Baby Billy’s approach to the reconciliation makes Goggins laugh and shake his head. “This narcissistic apology …” he says. “Literally, ‘What do you mean you don’t think about me all the time?’ Think about that. Who says that, dude?”
When Harmon claims that he’s “fine,” Baby Billy flat-out asks for forgiveness, which his tearful son grants him. Sensing that he hasn’t earned that mercy, Baby Billy says that to move forward, he needs to make amends, “for real.” But that’s not possible. “You can’t,” Harmon says, “all you can do is just not make the same mistake again.”
Baby Billy is relieved, but even a man that self-centered has the good sense to ask his son if there’s anything he can do for him. Harmon ponders it—Culkin looks at the ceiling in thought, crinkles his face slightly, then stares straight at Goggins—and realizes there’s only one thing on his wish list. “Can I hit you with a closed fist as hard as I can?” he says. “One time, just right in the face?”
“Every son who’s ever had an abusive father, if they haven’t said it out loud, they’ve certainly thought it, ‘I’d like to punch this motherfucker, man,’” Goggins says. “And that’s what happens.”
The vicious right hand breaks Baby Billy’s glasses and causes his nose to bleed. But as Harmon helps him up from the floor, they both smile. “On the other side of that is this great release,” Goggins says. “And it brings them together.” For Baby Billy, it’s a true breakthrough. A ridiculous breakthrough, but one nonetheless.
Only The Righteous Gemstones could make a son hitting his father as hard as he can in the face with a closed fist poignant. For the minds behind the show, dropping Goggins into situations like that is one of the best perks of their job. “It’s a blend of what Walton’s magnetism inspires the writers to create and then also what would torture our buddy, Walt,” Green says. “And so there’s that balance of those two levels of inspiration that are really fun to play with.”
There’s only one episode left this season, but there still may be a few ridiculous Baby Billy moments to come. “He’s involved in probably one of the most ridiculous things we’ve ever written before,” McBride said late last year. “He completely lands it in such a way that it almost makes it heavenly.”
Whether Culkin, who declined an interview request, will return as Harmon in Season 3 is uncertain. “His preference here is to let the work speak for itself,” his publicist said in an email. “Judging by your own enthusiasm as well as the overall press and audience reactions, that strategy is working.” But Goggins will always treasure the scene that they shared. As soon as filming ended, they got to know each other. “I said, ‘Motherfucking Macaulay Culkin, come on!’” Goggins says. “And we just talked about his life and his experiences and my life.”
Last December, Culkin even sent him a Christmas card.