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 Eleven: Back Doors – *****
Part One: No Really, Why Is this in English?
There’s a lot to get through with this episode, but I’d like to start with a brief discussion of the odd parts. The Hell subplot is back, and, oh joy, we get to witness an extended version of Hitler’s worst memory. It goes on to establish Hitler’s hatred of gay people based on his being turned down by a gay art gallery owner, and his hatred of Jewish people because of a Jewish person accidentally bumping into him, but in continuing the trend of this subplot growing weirder each time it resurfaces, we learn why Hitler started World War II and instigated one of the worst genocides of all time. It wasn’t because his art was turned down, or because Communists were rising to power, or or even because the girl he liked dismissed him; no, Hitler started World War II and the Holocaust over a plum cake. So that’s a thing. He’s still racist, though, so I guess that counts for something?
The escape plot is proceeding, and seems likely to involve Hitler stabbing the gullible Eugene in the back sooner rather than later, but assessment of whether this subplot is necessary to the story is debatable at best, and I’m not entirely confident it can redeem itself. I’ve already spoken at length about what I don’t particularly like about this subplot, but a lot of those issues could at least be overlooked if the subplot served a story purpose. As yet, it doesn’t link up with anything happening with any of the other characters, which was my main issue with Arseface’s role in the graphic novels in the first place.
Should Eugene (and presumably Hitler) escape from Hell, his storyline could interact in some ways with the other characters. I imagine he wouldn’t be super stoked to find out his entire town blew up, and or that the guy who sent him to Hell somehow survived. He probably also has some choice words to say to Jesse once he gets out, and when that happens, Jesse will be in the awkward situation of accepting that Hitler did the thing he himself promised to do for Eugene at the end of Season One. Alternatively, should the escape plot go wrong somehow and leave Eugene trapped in a worse part of Hell, the only way for him to interact with the rest of the plotlines would be for one of the other major characters to go to Hell themselves. Jesse is clearly not motivated enough to go there himself out of guilt, but if the Saint were to end up in Hell with that fraction of his soul, or if Tulip were to die as in the books and have to be retrieved in a literal sense, I imagine that would be motivation enough for Jesse to figure out a way into Hell. Perhaps at point he might even wonder, “I left something down here, didn’t I?”
Part Two: The Main Characters Are All Delusional Idiots
In the realm of plot developments I actually care about, we have the aftermath of Tulip confronting Jesse about his lie. Not only is she upset about him not sending the Saint to Hell, but we also find out that his foolproof solution of locking the Saint in an armored truck and dumping it in the swamp was about as good of an idea as it seemed. My initial thoughts when he did this was that it would set up another inevitability – the Saint escaping. Because of the location he dumped it at, and what I knew of the Angelville subplot from the books, it seemed reasonable this action would somehow link to the Angelville characters. The grandmother’s goons would find the armored truck, and she would use the fragment of Jesse’s soul to track him down.
Clearly, that’s not what happened, though how the Saint escaped is not the issue in this episode. The more pressing matter is that they’re all in danger. Jesse isn’t worried because he can use Genesis on the Saint now, but Tulip has been fretting about the mere memories of her encounter, and now he’s loose. One could say her confidence in Jesse’s ability to contain the situation is somewhat low.
Barring concerns about the Saint, Jesse is stuck in his God quest. The Grail is still trying to recruit him, and he’s recently reached the conclusion that the man-dog in the basement may quite possibly be the real God – not exactly anything he wants to deal with after meeting and being disappointed by the world’s closest living approximation to Jesus. He’s off in his own little world, one which he has difficulty rationalizing to his friends.
Tulip now has to get rid of the Saint’s weapons, which proves harder than it sounds, while also coming to terms with Jesse’s lie. Cassidy, in continuing his trend of making increasingly poor life choices, has bought Denis a dog – a cute dog, no less – and is trying desperately to ignore the neon signs that his elderly son is not a restrained vampire, and that he has no way of managing him. All of the characters are falling into their own individual pits of despair and need a scapegoat to take their minds off deeper issues. No one’s going to berate Tulip for feeling edgy, and Cassidy’s bad decisions are practically part of his character, but after leaving an immortal, vengeful cowboy in the swamp unattended, Jesse makes himself an easy target.
Naturally, Tulip and Cassidy start to gang up on him, the latter more in defense of Tulip than because he’s particularly angry. This isn’t the first time the trio has been separated into these groups; aside from Cassidy’s general tendency to support Tulip over Jesse in matters he doesn’t care about, Tulip and Cassidy have gotten far more bonding moments than Jesse has with either of them this season. This is partly because neither of them are religious, and by extension, they’re not strong invested in finding God. They’ve had plenty of time to form a relationship while Jesse has been off torturing Viktor, or finding souls, or taking DVDs to Best Buy, or meeting the Pope, or meeting Jesus, or looking for Man-Dog – and, for the most part, Tulip and Cassidy’s interactions have been platonic. In the few instances when they aren’t, Tulip doesn’t seem to notice, and certainly doesn’t reciprocate, edging them closer to the dynamic they have in the third book when the love triangle shows up.
However, I don’t entirely think the love triangle is back in the show, at least not in full. The two of them ganging up on Jesse is a natural turn of events even without the romantic subtext, and at a later point when Cassidy is talking to Denis, he seems to be actively trying to ignore that same romantic subtext. The subtlety makes the setup just that much more uncanny, though, because the audience can see the pieces moving around the board.
It looks something like this: all three characters have platonic friendly relationships; one of them has a largely unreciprocated romantic interest in one of the others, and the other two are in a mutual romantic relationship. The odd one out and the one he has an romantic interest in develop a strong friendship. The third party makes decisions that isolate him from the other two, platonically and romantically, leaving the odd party and the romantic interest alone – exactly the situation the odd party wants. This leaves the romantic interest without any consenting connections to the other two. The third party chose to break the romantic and platonic connections, and the odd party chose to break the platonic connection with the romantic interest. The romantic interest is left in a vulnerable situation based on the actions of the other two, not her own.
The love triangle subplot develops in a similar way in the books, but skips the first few steps, meaning that when Cassidy starts coming on to Tulip, he automatically just becomes kind of a creep and Tulip has no particular reason to accept his advances. If a character is already a bit of a scumbag to begin with, them becoming more detestable is uninteresting. That’s not to say that Cassidy in the graphic novels was entirely unlikable from the start – the audience liked him, but Tulip never really did, so her reaction is in response to some vague acquaintance becoming suddenly obsessed with her.
In the show, though, they have a history. They get along well, they enjoy each other’s company, they support each other, and they open up to one another about deep personal issues, at least some of the time. It’s far more disturbing when a close friend turns into some sort of obsessed stalker than when it comes from someone unknown – that’s a large part of why the “friendzone” concept is so detested by women who’ve been in that situation. Removing one’s emotional barriers for a friend makes a person vulnerable, and applies trust to that same friend, thereby giving them things they can take away should they be inclined to betray that same person. Random creeps are unpleasant; creeps who know deep personal things about you, like how you think and how you can be manipulated, are terrifying. That this version of Cassidy is even more sympathetic from the audience’s perspective than his counterpart in the books means that when his character starts to degrade, provided the show has the tenacity to go through with it, it’s likely to be even more unsettling.
Part Three: The Coffin
Speaking of unsettling, we need to talk about the Coffin.
The Coffin is the most horrifying single thing in this entire series, book or show. It’s been hinted at a few times through allusion and voiceover, but it isn’t until this episode that the Coffin gets its first proper introduction.
The episode opens with stylized footage of a pump system on a dock somewhere in the swamp. The pump feeds into a tube that runs alongside a chain, both of which disappear under the vegetated water. Two men are turning a crank that hoists the chain. Based on their tattoos, they’re the two men who killed Jesse’s father, and as before, we can’t see their faces. Eventually the chain is coiled up sufficiently to reveal what’s on the other end of it – a large rectangular wooden box fed with two tubes. The show doesn’t specify, but one’s for air, and one’s for food and water. The lid’s opened to reveal a boy – young Jesse Custer – and the footage becomes washed out to simulate how one’s eyes get bleached when exposed to sunlight after a long time in a dark room. His shirt is soiled, his voice faint, and what little struggle he makes is easily overpowered by the two men.
This scene is also the first introduction to Jesse’s grandmother, who like Jody and T.C. is obscured, but unlike them, speaks. All we know of her so far is that she’s a lady in a sun dress and a flower hat. She asks him a simple question: “What is your name, boy?” He defiantly gives the correct answer, to which the unimpressed lady sighs, and then says, almost lazily, to the grunts, “Put him back.” And Jesse goes back in the box. The time spent there is never specified, but every indication suggests it’s not a short amount time, as though any length of time effectively being buried alive is a short amount. It’s long enough that by the time Jesse is once again removed from the box and asked his name, he uses his mother’s family name, and the woman reveals herself to the audience as his grandmother – the first of the three Angelville characters to have a title as well as a voice, denoting her as the ringleader and mastermind.
We also learn a few other things we didn’t know before – that the people who killed Jesse’s father also kidnapped him, and the person who orchestrated the murder-kidnapping was his grandmother, whom Jesse indicated in the first episode of this season his parents didn’t like. We can imagine why. Later in the episode, Starr plays over recordings of Jesse’s prayers, one of which he made after his second time out of the Coffin at his grandmother’s behest.
The memory is clearly unpleasant and the influence of the Angelville characters on his childhood an intriguing mystery. More interesting from my perspective, though, is that remembering the Coffin, and presumably other things that happened to him while he was in Angelville, suddenly makes Genesis falter. That tape recording sets off a little chain reaction that weakens his ability, giving him doubt, and, presumably, escalating from there. It means, of course, that when push comes to shove, he’s not going to be able to use it on anyone, including the Angelville characters if they show up. Given how dependent Jesse’s been on the ability since discovering it, this new development should be a lot of fun.