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 Four: Viktor – ***
Part One: Suddenly, Hitler!
My god, we finally have an average episode. In fairness, this episode isn’t bad by the standards set in the series – that’s how my rating system assesses things, after all – but by simple comparison, it lacks the little details and nuances that make the other episodes good, and it has more tedious moments and frustrations than the good moments can surpass.
With that in mind, let’s talk about the big Nazi elephant in the room. I failed to mention during the last episode that Hitler appeared in the Eugene subplot when the doors to the cells in Hell opened up, partly because I imagined the figure would either be A) a Hitler impersonator, or B) there to demonstrate that Eugene’s ended up in the worst part of Hell. But no, as it turns out, that is really Hitler, and for some inexplicable reason, he is now a prominent character in this subplot. So that’s a bit weird.
I think it’s pretty obvious that the show is setting up some way in which Hitler is meant to be devious and conniving, a sort of Peter Baelish specific to this subplot, because the show’s version of what is essentially history’s biggest monster is a meek, oily person, pathetic in presence but helpful to Eugene. The framing around him, especially the music and angles the show provides when it shows his worst memory (which is uncannily mundane and all in English, for some reason), makes him seem like at any moment he could turn around and murder someone in cold blood. Aside from the framing, there’s also the fact that this is fucking Hitler, so you already know he’s going to be an asshole.
I can’t help but think it might have been more useful for the show to use a less wholly awful dictator for this subplot, like Napoleon or Richard III. There are many problems with depicting Hitler as a complex character, namely that the audience knows right off the bat that any semblance of a sympathetic Hitler is a ruse intended to trick Eugene. I seriously doubt the show’s trying to pander to the Neo-Nazis, especially considering that Hitler gets the crap beaten out of him later in this same episode, but that doesn’t make the Hitler flashback scene any more comfortable to watch. People have a knee-jerk reaction to Hitler, no matter how often Hitler parodies arise, and with good reason.
This is one of the more perplexing choices this series has made – I suppose it plays somewhat with expectations that Hitler would be in Hell, and thus Hell would be made a worse place for it, and it is kind of validating to see such a ridiculous depiction of a genocidal murderer, but I still feel like, especially in the U.S.’s current political environment, dropping a random Hitler into the show and trying to turn him into a nuanced character with hidden depths is pushing the limits of the joke. If there isn’t any payoff, then this whole subplot collapses in on itself, and as much as I kind of hope Hitler will not be as prominent a character in the rest of the subplot as he is here, the actor who plays him is given space in the opening credits, so I don’t have a lot of hope for that.
However, the series did well with the Saint of Killers subplot, and the Hitler-Eugene subplot is random and weird enough that it kind of fits tonally with the rest of the series. If anyone asked me to guess which show currently on-air had thrown a random Hitler into the mix for no particular reason, this would probably be the first show I would guess. That doesn’t make it good, but I’ll bite for now.
Part Two: Who Was It Saying Marriage Was Stupid, Again?
With that out of the way, we can get to the good stuff. Well there’s off-brand Game of Thrones music thrown in for a few seconds for no real reason other than as a jab at HBO, but the rest of the episode is tolerable to decent.
Jesse has given up going from bar to bar in search of God and has settled with watching infomercials with Cassidy and the latter’s friend, Denis, at whose apartment the main trio are freeloading. By sheer coincidence, they stumble upon God, or rather the fake God who played him during the teleconference in Annville. This prompts them to go find Fake God’s agent, and eventually leaves them with a video recording of the Fake God demo reel, much of which includes him practicing dialogue used in the teleconference. We learn several important things through this development: that Fake God was killed to get him into the afterlife, that someone with links to Heaven was hired to find a replacement for God, that God has been missing for several months now, and, perhaps most importantly, that Fake God’s beard and hair were apparently real, even though they looked extremely fake during the teleconference. In other words, the demo reel is basically useless in getting the main characters any closer to finding God, but the events leading up to them getting it, especially the Fake God agent, are quite funny, so it’s worth the sidetrack.
Tulip, meanwhile, has been kidnapped by Viktor’s men and taken to the gangster’s house, where she’s treated oddly well. She’s clearly upset about her circumstances and looks around briefly for a weapon, even fighting a guy who threatens to restrain her, but otherwise she seems to just feel guilty. Viktor himself is an intimidating person, someone able to bring Tulip to tears – which has only happened once so far that I can remember in this entire series. We see fairly little of Viktor or his conversations with Tulip, but the relationship there seems more of a power play than anything else, and he doesn’t really threaten her directly. In fact, he lets her wander the house while she’s held captive, and as she goes around and talks to Viktor’s men, the Viktor sequence turns from one in which she’s a failed agent who shirked her job duties into one where she used to be a part of his extended family and abandoned them. In fact, the family angle becomes especially apparent when she talks to Viktor’s daughter with a friendly presence, treating her like she were several years younger, and the daughter turns on her. We see little else in this episode, but it ends on the somewhat startling revelation that Viktor is not Tulip’s boss, but her husband.
Part Three: Killer Foosball
The former two paragraphs detail most of the events in the episode save the last few minutes, but I wanted to spend some time to talk about the one set piece moment of the episode. Although it’s not long or substantial enough to warrant boosting the episode’s rating from three to four stars, it is worth exploring in detail.
There have been a few fights in this season so far, most of them with some sort of creative framing device – seeing Cassidy’s fight with the security guard on tape while the other characters were involved in a conversation in the first episode, or the silly pink plastic marriage pager used as a lethal weapon in Tulip’s fight with Gary in the second episode. This one is filmed all in one take, or to look like it is, in a small room, with various obstacles and weapons.
Jesse eventually finds out that Tulip has been kidnapped and gets her location from Cassidy, leading him to freeze Viktor’s men in place and come upstairs to face the man himself. However, next to Viktor’s room is a small lab used by his “information extractor,” Pat, whom we saw earlier in the episode use a spray bottle filled with acid against a torture victim tied-up offscreen. This scene was important in setting up the room in the upcoming fight, and also demonstrating why there needs to be a fight in the first place: Pat wears headphones while he works. He ambushes Jesse, beating him briefly unconscious so that he has an excuse to put on his headphones while he prepares to hook Jesse up in the dangling torture harness, meaning that Jesse’s Genesis powers don’t work, and the two guys have to go at it in melee combat.
The room is filled with random torture implements and blunt instruments, and hanging in the middle of it is the dead body tied to the wall by two ropes, which makes for an interesting close-quarters combat environment. The setup for the fight and its progression are clear and creative. This is good use of a shaky camera style of cinematography – the edges of the camera are constantly moving, but the characters are always in frame and always easy to see, so they can be contextualized within the small room and even someone only half paying attention can follow the action. And the action itself isn’t half bad – the props in the room are used to their full advantage, and the two ropes holding the dangling body are cut individually as Jesse tries to use it as a shield (cutting the ropes also allows the film crew to follow Jesse around the room). It’s a short sequence, and it ends with Pat getting stabbed through the chest via the dead body with a foosball table stick, keeping to the absurdist comedic tone of the other prominent fight sequences.
I haven’t given the cinematography and editing in this series the attention it deserves; it really is top notch, especially for a television series. Every shot contributes story information of some sort, lasts exactly as long as necessary to convey that information, and takes advantage of any interesting shots it can produce, all without being distracting. The series makes use of a lot of long takes and mobile camera shots, often originating from odd angles or using interesting ways to frame the environment, but rarely distorting the focus of the scene. It’s hard to find a shot that looks unappealing. It’s likewise difficult to catch interesting shots and camera techniques unless you’re actively looking for them, because while they’re varied and clear, few of them are there just for the sake of looking pretty. The torture room fight sequence in this episode is filmed in one shot to capture the energy and tension of the scuffle. Another long take in the first season is used to establish tension and dread. I didn’t even realize that this fight was filmed as a single uncut sequence the first time I watched it, and when I went back to look at the cinematography of the first season, I noticed more long takes and dynamic shots that had easily slipped by before.
This series is almost shot like a graphic novel, even though it often looks nothing like the graphic novel source material. You could take certain frames of an episode and re-create them in comic form to deliver a comparable story. However, the dynamic and auditory contributions of film heighten the visual aspects and make the series’ aesthetics about as perfectly suited to the medium as they could possibly be. Having just recently watched plenty of films and at least two television series with unfocused framing and awkward cuts, it’s refreshing to see shots that feel like someone invested a lot of time and effort into them, and all the more so that they prioritized the story over the importance of the shots themselves. It’s what any cinematography is ideally supposed to do, but walking the line between subtle and interesting is a big ask, and this series pulls it off consistently.