The first episode of The Righteous Gemstones opened with a mass baptism wave pool fiasco in China and closed with a blackmail payoff gone awry in a strip mall parking lot. The second episode featured a twist that turned the whole series on its very young head. There was already a lot going on in the show. And then, at the very beginning of the third episode, they went and introduced Walton Goggins as a slick, white-haired, 70-year-old preacher named Baby Billy Freeman. This last thing illustrated two universal truths: One, Danny McBride is pretty good at making television; two, and most importantly, television is better when Walton Goggins is involved somehow.
The second thing has been true for almost two full decades now, dating back at least to 2002, when The Shield premiered on FX. (Three decades if you want to include his one-off 1993 appearance as Mike Muchin on 90210, which you are welcome to do.) Goggins played Shane Vendrell, a dirty cop who worked in a unit of dirty cops led by all-time-great-dirty-cop-name-haver Vic Mackey (Michael Chiklis). The show was one of the first to kick down the door of this era of great television. It debuted a few years after The Sopranos and a few years before Mad Men, Deadwood, The Wire, and Breaking Bad. It’s kind of forgotten in that crew, which is unfair, because The Shield was awesome. A big part of that was Goggins, who leaned into the slimy Shane with such force that I thought I hated him, the man, instead of just the character he was playing.
The Shield ended in 2008. In 2010, Goggins appeared in Justified and set the world on fire. My world, at least. And the worlds of the decision-makers on the show, who had famously written a death scene for his character, Boyd Crowder, in the premiere, only to do an about-face and have him survive a close-range gun shot blast to the chest because he was so good that they didn’t want to lose him. It was a good decision. Over the show’s six seasons, Boyd Crowder was the following: the leader of a Kentucky neo-Nazi group, a jailhouse preacher, a cult leader, a meth kingpin, a bazooka-toting maniac, a well-read wordsmith, and more. It was one of the most complex and entertaining villain roles on television in a time when television was lousy with complex and entertaining villains. The fact that Goggins only got one Emmy nomination over the show’s run is as good a sign as any that the ceremony should be held in a toilet. I’m sorry. I don’t mean that. I’m just still a little mad. I mean, how would everyone even fit? It would never work.
Let’s keep talking about Boyd Crowder. Do you remember Boyd’s big plan to go straight? I do. I’ll never forget it. He was going to do one last big score and marry his sweetheart Ava (the person who killed his brother and pulled a shotgun in the premiere, because Justified was a great show), and once he was done, he wanted to open a Dairy Queen franchise. A Dairy Queen franchise! This is just tremendous on its own but you really need to see the delivery Goggins put on the line.
Goggins does this kind of thing a lot, taking a line or a scene or a look and turning it into a whole moment. His first collaboration with Danny McBride, in HBO’s Vice Principals (his follow-up to Justified), provided another good example. Vice Principals was less for me, personally, than the previous shows Goggins appeared in. It was a little darker and meaner and its edges were a little too sharp for my tastes. It did have at least one moment that stuck with me, though. His character, Lee Russell, a dandy sociopath who was the nemesis and wingman for McBride’s all-time-great-impotent-vice-principal-name-haver Neal Gamby, used various forms of trickery to get an enemy in trouble and then sang this song.
Good luck getting that out of your head today. Or tomorrow. Or any day going forward.
That’s what he does. He shows up in things and makes them better. Sometimes it’s not even a regular, full-series role. He popped up every now and then in Sons of Anarchy as a trans character named Venus Van Dam, a role he specifically asked showrunner Kurt Sutter to create for him and that he researched extensively to be sure he got right. Sometimes it’s little things within a role, like the long-speculated but never confirmed Boyd Crowder Hair Theory, which held that the crazier the character’s hair looked at the beginning of any scene, the more likely it was that he was going to something crazy by the end of it.