In 2004, Rescue Me premiered to an audience that just three years earlier has suffered one of the biggest tragedies of its lifetime. Since then, the show has gone on to be critically praised for its very real portrayal of life for those closest to (and sometimes far from) the tragedy of 9/11.
From its dealings with PTSD in firefighters, the loss of relatives (both in blood and in spirit), and general themes about family, Rescue Me has never pulled any punches in the way it delivers its drama, and it all finally come to an end in the series finale.
Since the beginning, it’s been a fairly safe assumption that things weren’t going to end completely peacefully for the boys of 62 Truck. It was simple to conclude that Tommy was the one that was going to be walking into the light for good. But instead of taking the easy way out, the writers instead took away one of the few characters that we all thought was safe (or at least, as safe as one can get on Rescue Me), Lou.
Lou was always the counterweight to Tommy throughout the series. Tommy is a risk taker, Lou plays it safe (which is why he’s a lieutenant). Tommy’s vice is drinking, Lou’s is eating. Tommy is skinny, Lou is fat. The two are a clear cut example of the rule that “opposites attract.” So at the ending of the penultimate episode, when it’s made as clear as can be without giving anything away that someone wasn’t going to be walking out, you’re almost positive it’ll be Tommy, and the next episode will be spent dealing with that loss. That suspicion is made only more valid by the fact that all of Tommy’s story lines are resolved in that episode.
So jump to the series finale “Ashes.”
We start at a funeral. But the funeral is for more than just Tommy. The implication is that everyone who was in the fire died except for Lou. But almost immediately we learn that that’s all just another one of Tommy’s dreams, and the truth is that Lou was the only one who didn’t make it out alive.
This decision opened the door to something we’ve never gotten to see from the series, the crew dealing with the loss of a brother. When we entered the series, the crew was done mourning their brothers who had died on 9/11, and in seven years, we’ve never seen them suffer a loss like this.
It was amazing to watch all the of boys go through their own grief – by coming to acceptance so quickly they don’t leave themselves any room to pity the loss of their friend. Instead, they skip that and go right to remembering the good moments with their friend. These guys have been around death and destruction so much in the last seven years that they’ve become desensitized to sadness. Instead, they would rather remember the fun times, and the fun times alone.
The loss of Lou early on also allowed for us the opportunity to spend the episode seeing where things would go from here for Tommy. And by the end, we realize why it wasn’t he who died. It turns out, he had too much to live for. A new baby, a loving wife, a family that finally accepts him. It’s the first time that he is finally living without all his ghosts haunting him; he had finally tasted happiness and wasn’t about to give it up so easily.
Just so make sure the series didn’t lose its edge, the final act turns the comedy up to eleven. Between the ashes mishap, the the letter that Tommy reads at Lou’s funeral and the song played by the bagpipers, it’s made very clear that the series chooses to balance it’s laughs and tears just as it always has.
In the final scene, we come full circle. We’re back in the same field overlooking the Manhattan sky line that we were first introduced to in the beginning of episode one. Tommy is lecturing the new recruits, and he’s giving one of them shit. But the difference this time (besides the color pallet) is that he isn’t alone.
In the first episode, Tommy was the only one there, giving his lecture. This time, he’s being watched over by the boys of 62 Truck. Tommy, in the final scene, realizes what it was all for, because now he knows that he’ll never be alone again. And that belief is reaffirmed by the ghost of Lou that isn’t there to haunt him, but to comfort him in the final dialogue exchange of the series.
The series ends saying that Tommy will always be fucked up, but from now on he won’t have to go it alone, and that’s exactly where it should of ended.
Goodbye, Rescue Me, you were one of a kind and you came when we needed you. Thanks for sticking around until the end. You will be missed.
To listen to the latest episode of Merrill’s TV Podcast, The Idiot Boxers with Kevin Carr, head over to Fat Guys at the Movies.