Nobody Is Doing Acting Like Walton Goggins On ‘The Righteous Gemstones’ Right Now

In the latest episode of HBO’s The Righteous Gemstones, Uncle Baby Billy Freeman stands in front of a backdrop of a forest with a cascading waterfall. The bright green leaves are almost as bright as his shiny white hair and teeth, the green leaves a perfect contrast to his burnt orange, fake-tanned skin. Uncle Baby Billy, desperate for money after abandoning his pregnant wife (the second time he has abandoned a woman and his child), is recording an ad for his new health elixir with a biblical formula based on scripture that is allegedly guaranteed to cure every disease with ease, including “Covas.” When Baby Billy leaves the studio, he lights a cigarette as he walks – pigeon-toed and frantic – to his vehicle, which has a branded truck full of elixirs attached to it. When his wife Tiffany, niece Judy and her husband BJ surprise him, he hides behind the truck with his own name and face on it, pretending he’s not the most unmissable person on the planet. He ultimately gives in and spanks BJ in the parking lot while calling him a bad boy. The fight concludes with Uncle Baby Billy giving the finger and weeping with his massive white teeth smiling before he drives off.

The wig and the teeth and the skin and the tinted aviator glasses and the stuck-in-the-late-80s suits would be a challenge – albeit a fun one – for any actor. Walton Goggins makes playing Uncle Baby Billy seem about as effortless as using your blinker, entering your PIN number, or opening social media every five minutes despite your best interests. Goggins is so absorbed in Baby Billy – despite being about twenty years younger than the character in most episodes – that it feels more like muscle memory than a performance. As Uncle Baby Billy Freeman on The Righteous Gemstones, Walton Goggins is giving one of the most fully committed performances film or television has ever seen. Meryl Streep wishes she could, but she could not.

Ten or so years ago, a regular in Danny McBride productions was not the career track anyone would have predicted for Goggins. The slender, smooth character actor with sparkling eyes that pulls you in like a black hole first came into prominence in prestige television in the early 2000s when he joined The Shield as Detective Shane Vendrell. Later, he would star as the terrible but – like Uncle Baby Billy – sympathetic against our wishes Boyd Crowder on the FX series Justified, and he played off his stirring, slightly-sexual chemistry with co-star Timothy Olyphant. Goggins was nominated for an Emmy for his performance as Boyd Crowder in 2011. In the 2010s, Goggins became a regular player in Quentin Tarrantino films including Django Unchained, The Hateful Eight, and Once Upon a Time in Hollywood.

It was a surprise then when Goggins, primarily known for his dramatic work which was just gaining steam, joined as the co-lead on the underappreciated Danny McBride series Vice Principals, which aired two seasons on HBO from 2016-2018. But Goggins assimilated to McBride’s tone and improvisational atmosphere as well as he did on FX dramas in the aughts. While The Righteous Gemstones is a riotously funny comedy that makes me laugh so hard that I almost fall off my couch and roll on the floor nearly every week, it is, at its heart, a family drama. The Christian, southern but equally vulgar equivalent of Succession. Uncle Baby Billy is, perhaps, the Connor Roy (Alan Ruck) equivalent. Although in comparison, Connor might be more level-headed and generous.


Goggins uses his body (from walking pigeon-toed to singing with his legs weirdly close together), a drawn-out southern accent, and creative word pronunciation of words like “now” (only rivaled with Adam Driver’s pronunciation skills) as Uncle Baby Billy. The original song “Misbehavin’” from the first season, which includes the line Goggins sings, “runnin’ through the house…with a pickle in my mouth,” instantly had people wondering if running around a house with a pickle in your mouth was a thing. I still don’t know the answer to that. The line on its own is funny but Goggins, in clogging shoes and a crisp but billowing white 1980s suit sold it even more. In the show’s second season, Goggins has not appeared in as many episodes, but he has made the most out of his limited screen time by doing the absolute most, down to every second he is on screen from selling his elixirs, wearing a red Marlboro Miles sweater, or singing a weird Christian Christmas song in a red and green suit opposite Jennifer Nettles, who plays his sister, Aimee-Leigh Gemstone.

Goggins also uses his relentless and intoxicating charm in his performance. Uncle Baby Billy is a terrible, manipulative person with a tendency to abandon his family at difficult times, only to swoop back into their lives at his own convenience. He, like most of the characters on Gemstones, is materialistic and uses religion to gain wealth and fame, while relying on his faith as an excuse for his bad behavior. Goggins is acutely aware of Baby Billy’s flaws, but also of his own magnetism, which gives the character a smidge of humanity. There’s a little bit of pain inside him, buried deep behind selfishness and cowardice. No matter how far Uncle Baby Billy goes – for example, selling an elixir that promises to cure “Covas” – there’s always a voice in the back of your head rooting for him to do the right thing you know he absolutely will not do, which is all a testament

Despite limited screen time, outrageous costumes, and even more outrageous storylines and dialogue, Uncle Baby Billy is even more omnipresent than God on The Righteous Gemstones. Standing out among a cast of scene-stealing comedy performers including McBride and living legend John Goodman, Walton Goggins has proved he’s something of a legend himself, a character actor with leading man energy.