[WARNING: This story contains spoilers from the Season 6 finale of Rescue Me.]
"You did this to me, Tommy."
The final words of Rescue Me's Season 6 finale — spoken by a vision of Damien (Michael Zegen), the newly paralyzed and brain-damaged godson of Tommy Gavin (Denis Leary) — came as a creepy shock at the end of an hour that dwelled on Damien's life-altering injuries. But even though Tommy is no stranger to being haunted by his past, Damien won't be joining the rogues' gallery of Gavin-family "ghosts."
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"Tommy's usually been drinking when the ghosts have appeared, and once he stops drinking, he doesn't see anything," co-creator and executive producer Peter Tolan tells TVGuide.com. "This [vision] is just a manifestation of overwhelming guilt. We thought the shock of that moment would be a great way out of the season, but we never thought we would run with it. An idea like that —but certainly not that extreme — may appear in another episode in the last season, but we don't run with [Damien]."
But Tommy's guilt isn't going anywhere, and neither is his inability to divide his time equally between Janet (Andrea Roth) and Sheila (Callie Thorne). Tolan says the show's creative team decided against killing Damien outright for that very reason.
"It didn't help us from a story standpoint because we want Tommy to have to split his focus," Tolan says. "As opposed to saying, 'I'm 100 percent focused on my wife and my kids,' we wanted to put him in a situation where, out of guilt or out of loyalty to his cousin or to Sheila, he has to split his focus again between two families. As long as we can keep him from being true to his word, we're sort of in a good place dramatically. People are going to change because of it ... and everybody is going to sort of get pushed into allegiances that are very, very different from what we've seen in years before."
That dilemma will be exacerbated by Janet's pregnancy, which Tolan says is a final chance for Tommy and Janet to start over. But Tolan admits the pregnancy may never come to term. "I think she's thinking about maybe not carrying that child," he says. "She's seen how this has gone, so I think she is really weighing her options."
As for Sheila, who has begun a misguided quest to heal Damien by sinking money into specialists and experimental drugs, Tolan says she will ultimately be forced to accept her son's fate — and her own. "When Damien went into the fire service, [Sheila] didn't have her baby anymore," Tolan says. "And there's something perverse in what we did when we kept Damien alive because, as heartbroken as Sheila is, she has a purpose again. She's a caregiver and she latches on to it like crazy, to the point that she's become totally fixated on the fact that he's going to walk again, which is foolish. Eventually in the last season she accepts who she is and what her life is going to be unless she makes some changes."
More fortunate than Damien is Lou (John Scurti), who escaped the penultimate episode's cliff-hanger without any serious injuries. But Lou's heart condition — and his unwillingness to walk away from the job because of it — will continue to hang over the show's final season.
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"Lou has the idea that, 'If I don't do this job, I'll die; so, I might as well do the job.' Yes, it's selfish of Lou because he's putting the other guys at risk, but I don't think he thinks that way," Tolan says. "I think he has an irrational idea that he somehow is going to be able to overcome this and die peacefully out on the sidewalk and not involve anybody. It's completely irrational, but it's so fear-based that he's just not thinking correctly. I think he's in denial.
"There's a lot of self-loathing in Lou," Tolan continues. "So, while there is an intention there to take care of himself, he just lacks the willpower. I think ultimately his self-loathing pushes him to somewhat of a downward spiral."
Yet Tolan suggests the final nine episodes of Rescue Me are lighter and more life-affirming. "Everyone gets what they deserve, but there is a touch of small happiness no matter where they end up," he says.
"It's just a very human message that in spite of tragedy — whether it's a tragedy on the scale of 9/11 or a kid who is permanently changed by an accident on the job — families come together, they adjust," Tolan says. "Human beings are amazingly adaptable, and there's something hopeful in that. You don't want to watch seven seasons of Rescue Me and not see Tommy Gavin come out the other side of this thing in a better place. So the message is that people adapt. There's no choice but to live at a certain point in the face of tragedy."