Characters and Character Development: 9
Aesthetics and Style: 8
Overall Plot: 7
Audience Assumptions: Some familiarity with series (or my Preacher graphic novels reviews)
Episode Three: Damsels – ****
Part One: Man-Dog in the Basement
The opening credits have shown up again, this time tailored to events in this season, presumably. This happened in the third episode last time too, and I really have no idea why they waited so long in either case, but they do bring up a question almost immediately: What is with the man-dog? Keeping in line with the series’ penchant for surreal absurdity and furries, there’s this man in a Dalmatian suit sitting like a dog who appears near the end of the opening credits alongside shots referencing the main characters and setting.
The answer to the question comes almost immediately after the credits, when the characters arrive in New Orleans, to Tulip’s dismay, and start searching the jazz clubs in the French Quarter to see if anyone has seen or heard of God showing up. As it turns out, the very first place they search has God – or, more specifically, a man called “God” who wears a dog suit in the basement and whom they can pay thousands of dollars for dog toy-based sexual exploits (exploits that Cassidy is on board with paying thousands of dollars for, as it turns out).
Jesse pulls the crew away after their brief moment of hope and disappointment to ask the same question in the other bars, while Tulip and Cassidy go to find housing with an old friend of the latter. Tulip continues to fret over Viktor, worrying about the people who recognize her and eventually confiding in Cassidy (but not the audience) who Viktor is. Eventually she decides to face her fate and allows herself to be kidnapped at a laundromat at the end of the episode.
Jesse, meanwhile, gets progressively more drunk and frustrated as he comes up short in his search for God, at the worst of times being mistaken for a preacher looking to reclaim his faith (which is partly what he is, really, even if he doesn’t want to admit it), and at the best of times being re-directed by helpful drunk people to the man-dog in the basement. By the time he’s thoroughly inebriated, he stumbles upon a lead who seems to know what he’s really asking.
A bartender directs him to a singer, a seductress who grows paranoid upon hearing about his search for God, and before he can get any information out of her, she’s abducted by men in white suits around the back of the bar. Jesse rescues her using his Genesis voice, which gives her enough confidence to let him into her home and explain that a man came to her some months back talking about God going missing and men in white suits, before he turned up as a corpse in the Louisiana swamps. This woman immediately lands on my bad side by apparently playing another point in the fucking love tetrahedron subplot when she tries to seduce Jesse, and based on the opening credits, she seems like she’ll be a recurring character. Jesse reveals his ability to her, before leaving under the same concern as me about this new character’s role in the story.
His search for God eventually bears the fruitful information that the unpleasant jazz song the woman from the first season suggested God was interested in is about chaos and the end of the world.
Part Two: A Familiar Arseface
There are other interesting developments related to Jesse’s subplot in this episode, but I first want to address a familiar face who has finally returned to the plot. Actually, I should address that the face is somewhat new – Eugene has returned, in Hell as per the last season, reliving his worst memory. As one might imagine, that memory is the incident that put Tracy Loach in a coma and marred his face, which means we get to see him for the first time without the assly countenance.
This sequence is simultaneously jarring and fascinating, as it puts major events from the last season into perspective, and I have somewhat mixed feelings as a result. The most important point of this scene is that Eugene did not shoot Tracy himself and indeed isn’t really responsible for her state at all, except for perhaps ensuring that she ended up in a coma instead of dead. His guilt in this matter was a major point of his character complexity in the last season, and I’m not overly fond of the series stepping back on that point to put him in a more positive light.
I also don’t particularly like fictional plots that portray characters who threaten to or kill themselves over shallow complaints, which is how Tracy comes across. I realize there are people in real life who threaten to hurt themselves for attention or as an overreaction to superficial insults, but this is a very small portion of the population at risk for suicide, and I can’t help but feel that the common depiction of suicidal people in this way exacerbates stigmatism toward people with major depression or other illnesses that may push them to be suicidal. It’s kind of like writing a fictional character on social security disability pay who’s in perfect health and lying to get checks – while yes, a person like that would be scummy, they’re representative of a basically insignificant portion of people who actually receive social security disability, and portraying benefactors of the service as scammers does serious harm the people who legitimately need it.
In both cases, the depiction also does a disservice to more relevant issues pertaining to that situation – like how, in Tracy’s case, her response to being cheated on is to kill herself to get back at her boyfriend. This thought process speaks to an unstable person who’s been taught to internalize beauty over happiness and that being the love object of a hot guy is the most important thing she can ever achieve in her life – something she would have picked up from the culture she grew up in, including the people around her like her mother. If her drive toward suicide had been contextualized to better understand why she would go to such extreme measures, then Eugene kissing her could easily be seen as him trying to take advantage of her no longer having a boyfriend, and Tracy feeling betrayed because the one friend she can rely on only likes her in a superficial way as well.
I kind of feel like the show was going for this a bit, because the concept of “the friendzone” as a dehumanizing, sexist mindset is a minor theme of the series, through Cassidy’s interactions with Tulip. There’s opportunity to explore parallels in these similar situations, one clearly less devious than the other, but both still harmful in unpredictable ways.
However, that’s not what comes across. The show makes it blunt that Tracy was a shallow, vile person with no sense of the consequences of her actions, and who tried to kill herself because she couldn’t have everything that she wanted. She didn’t shoot herself because her friend tried to take advantage of her in a weak position, but because he was ugly, the implication being that if he had been hot, she would have been perfectly happy with him and stayed alive. The bottom line, then, is that the show really wants the audience to hate Tracy and feel bad for Eugene, who’s retroactively absolved of his crimes from the last season, but still feels responsible for her death because he was the one who pushed her over the edge.
I don’t need all of the characters in this series to be good or even sympathetic, and I don’t have as much of an issue with how Eugene’s backstory plays out as I sound like I do, but it’s still irksome. The way I see it, Eugene acted in his own self-interest, did technically push her over the edge, and then was unstable enough to take the shotgun and try to kill himself rather than face the consequences of explaining what happened to Mrs. Loach. That Tracy was so shallow speaks more to Eugene’s tastes and naivete for trying to comfort her as a friend under the belief that he could turn her into a more grounded person, instead of, for instance, talking her down, then trying to get her some professional help and distancing himself from an unstable person. Whether the show is interested in exploring these concepts, my main concern is that this development is just sort of uninteresting and diminishes rather than complicates Eugene’s backstory.
When comparing this series to it’s source material, I’ve generally tried to just address the way it incorporates references to the comics to its advantage. As an adaptation, the show usually takes concepts and characters from the comics and works them into its own world, layering references to add depth without clouding the experience for people who haven’t read the comics. Whether it handles something better or worse than the original is kind of irrelevant because the two versions of the story differ so much in how they use similar elements. You can’t really use the same plot points in the show as in comics or vice-versa because the events develop in their own way; they adopt enough of a similar tone that they feel like they spring from the same well, but the context loads the meaning of a scene. Eugene can’t have the same backstory as Arseface because the environment he grew up in was different.
That said, the circumstances are similar enough that I think it’s worth comparing the two backstories directly for a moment. The character’s friend is upset about something that isn’t really related to either of them, they kill themself, and then the Eugene/Arseface character follows suit by way of sorrow and confusion, but survives the ordeal – this is true for both of them. In the books, Arseface’s friend, Pube, loves Nirvana, only really has Arseface as a friend, and is mentally unstable in the first place. Pube killing himself over the death of Kurt Cobain is irrational, but it follows a sequence of events that enable the idea and makes sense from a character perspective. Arseface lives in an abusive household and Pube is his best and only friend, so while he’s not on-board with it initially, it also makes sense for him to want to follow suit from a character perspective.
Tracy, on the other hand, is entirely unknown to the audience except through her dialogue in the moment when she’s decided to kill herself. We’ve had no introduction to her as a person prior to her being comatose, and though we can pick up on a lot from what she says, it comes after we know what ends up happening. We don’t know if she’s been shallow all this time or if she’s breaking down for the first time here, we don’t know what her relationship with Eugene ultimately is, and we really don’t know why Eugene would try to kill himself.
Adaptations often come under fire when they deliver a story component more poorly than the source material because ideally they should have a ready-made blueprint of how an event “should play out.” I reject this philosophy of adaptation because it assumes the adaptation wants to be exactly like the original material, which is both futile and and boring; the movie’s never going to be better than the book if it tries to be exactly like the book.
I do find it frustrating when this particular series falters in subplots or scenes that the book proves can be delivered effectively, though. It’s not because I want those scenes to be the same or closer to the original — I think the show would have a harder time putting Pube in Tracy’s place narratively, as that would require re-writing either Pube’s character or much of the first season’s environment regarding Eugene so that the story makes sense. At that point, making a new character to fill the same role for this scene is easier and allows more flexibility. My frustration comes simply from the idea that even if the show wants to run in a completely different direction with the Arseface/Eugene backstory, I know it can deliver something better.
I almost feel like it’s trying to hard to meet the book in the middle — it wants to keep the major plot points of the Arseface backstory while also being different. Once the show decided that it wanted to depict the face-marring incident as a failed suicide pact between friends like in the book, it was limited by what else it could change. The things that it did change — making the friend a love interest, making the suicide kind of accidental, making the trigger for the suicide boyfriend troubles — feel poorly conceived and I can’t help but think the show’s strength lies in keeping its similarities to the books superficial or more general, rather than using them as a paint-by-numbers guide with altered colors.
Part Three: ERMAHGERD
Speaking of book references, after Jesse leaves the singer’s house, the episode throws a twist that delights me. The woman jumps into the same van that tried to capture her earlier, hands the crying baby to some random person and expresses that they should give her a dog next time, jumps into the driver’s seat, takes off her wig, and lo and behold, it’s Featherstone and Hoover. That means that the singer’s part in the love quadrangle is basically squashed, which is a relief, and also that the season is gearing up for the Grail subplot, which I’m also happy about.
Adding to this, we finally get to see Starr, and like the other two, he’s pretty much 3-D printed from the books, posture and everything. This actually isn’t the first time we’ve seen Starr – back in the second episode of the first season, he made a very brief appearance along with a reference to Grail Industries as the man in the white suit who indirectly hired Tulip to retrieve the stolen map. He was always viewed from behind or obscured, so this is the first time seeing his face or name – but not hearing his voice or seeing him do much, really (something that’s been crucial in building up the Angelville subplot, too).
Honestly, Starr’s cameo appearance in the first season was so brief and insubstantial that, being unfamiliar with the graphic novels at the time, I didn’t even remember he was in it. Given that experience, I have to wonder what Featherstone, Hoover, and Starr come across as to most viewers here. I somehow doubt they’ll find a men-in-white-suits conspiracy headed by a bald man with a star-shaped scar over one eye whose name is, get this, “Starr” convincing. That was my response when I saw the character for the first time out of context in the books. Really, he’s German too? Why not make him the bastard grandson of Hitler why you’re at it?
Like I said, the show tends to excel when it uses the source material as a very loose guideline, so such copy-pasted characters that I’m sure feel like they’re here just because they were in the comics might raise concern. However, all the audience really knows about these people, whether they’ve read the books or not, is that they know God is missing, they have resources, and somehow they know about Jesse and his power. This makes them both a potential threat and a potential source of information, but because we know nothing about their motives, the show could use them pretty much however it wants. Absolute freedom with its characters is one of the show’s strong points, and direct appearances don’t really affect the characters’ story roles.