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 Twelve: On Your Knees – ****
Part One: Mirrors
This series enjoys its parallels between characters. In this context, parallels are the frameworks within which foils operate. They’re the things that are similar between characters, but also the ways in which two characters differ despite their similarities. In order to be foils, characters must somehow parallel one another so that their qualities can be compared. In Preacher, both the graphic novels and show, especially this season of the show, paralleling occurs between many characters. Jesse parallels Tulip, Cassidy, Starr, the Saint, Eugene, Quincannon, his father, and Jody, Cassidy parallels Tulip, Denis, Eccarius, Jesse’s grandmother, and Jody, Tulip parallels Featherstone, Amy, and Emily, Starr parallels the Saint, the Grail trio parallel the main trio and to a lesser extent the Angelville trio, et cetera.
This particular episode emphasizes the parallels between Jesse and the Saint. Both have dark backgrounds shaped by the trauma of losing loved ones, both have tried and failed to redeem themselves, both are driven by their families, both are being manipulated by the Grail, both have a dark side that will readily violate any sense of morality if pushed too far, and the episode also presents a variety of other smaller ways in which the two characters are comparable. The episode’s title is even a nod to parallelism, referencing the words Jesse spoke to the Saint when he used Genesis to subdue him back in Episode Six, and the words the Saint uses when he returns and tries to scalp Jesse.
The series also likes its trios, and there are two particular instances where all three members of a trio parallel each other. The most obvious case is between the main character leads. Jesse and Cassidy are both male, both bad at making decisions, both super-powered, both vulnerable because of those powers, both romantically interested in Tulip, good at getting into bar fights, both hiding darker pasts, both presumptuous and more than a little arrogant, and routinely inept when the situation requires them to be capable adults. Jesse and Tulip have a shared history, mutual respect for one another but little trust, strong wills, skill with guns, anger management issues, undying devotion to one another, fondness for getting in trouble, and competence. Cassidy and Tulip are both argumentative and frequently petty, tend to enjoy the shallower joys in life, lack Jesse’s weird religious tendencies, are consciously (and often unconsciously) self-destructive, more open about their feelings than Jesse, vulnerable to their own addictions, have a more grounded sense of reality than Jesse, generally open-minded, and tend to know exactly what they want, despite being unable to obtain it. There are also some things that connect all three of the main trio, like that all three of them are shaped by past traumas, all three of them are immature (though in different ways), and all three of them will readily do cruel things under the right circumstances.
The other less obvious trio comes in the form of the main protagonist and two main antagonists: Jesse, the Saint, and Starr. Despite Jesse’s apparent moral high ground, all three of them are of somewhat dubious moral alignment. They’re all acting within the confines of how their characters are defined. Each of these characters is primarily defined by their attempt and failure to uphold moral and masculine ideals – Jesse grows up on John Wayne films and sees himself as the savior of humanity, but making what he thinks is the noble decision drives Tulip away from him; the Saint is basically a representation of unadulterated masculine violence, yet that same violence does nothing to get him back what he lost; Starr is both sexist and full of himself, but his inability to adapt to situations where his superiority is meaningless loses him his dignity and support on multiple occasions. The interconnection between these three characters is less strong than it is with the three main leads, but their roles in the story reflect their similarities.
Part Two: Hey… Why Is There a Vampire in This Series, Again?
Heady literary concepts out of the way, let’s move onto vampires.
For the moment, because of Jesse’s actions concerning the Grail, Tulip and Cassidy are on their own, which of course means the love triangle is back in the mix, as is the potential for their relationship to go wrong really quickly. I discussed that in the last episode, though, and nothing new has really developed on that front, save one important thing. Remember back some time in the first season where Tulip caught Cassidy pretending to be dying and she asked him a bunch of questions about being a vampire? The show established particular rules for its vampires in that scene – Cassidy does not have fangs, or turn into a bat, or crave human blood, can’t be burned by a cross, and doesn’t generally go around killing people, but he can drink blood to heal wounds, and does spontaneously combust in direct sunlight. At other points he also reveals he doesn’t age and doesn’t have vital signs (yet can still get it up and procreate, somehow). These rules are similar to those set up or implied in the graphic novels, though the graphic novels also add a thing about a vampire’s eyes aging that doesn’t seem to be part of the show. I bring this up because clearly Cassidy was lying about the blood thing, as emphasized when in this episode he starts wanting to eat Tulip. So that’s a thing now.
Since the show’s getting into one of the more cliched realms of vampire lore in modern fiction, it’s worth asking a question that I wondered several times when I first watched Season One, and for some reason just accepted after that: Why the fuck is there a vampire in this show?
Vampires in television are far from a new thing, and they’re practically standard in any sort of paranormal-horror series with ghosts, demons, werewolves, and the like. They might even be important, recurring, or main characters in this genre of show. The thing is, Preacher does not have ghosts, or werewolves, or any of the normal things that go with vampires; it has God and angels and religiousy stuff, and while I’m not exactly an expert on the Bible, I feel like I’d be aware if there were a passage in which Jesus and his disciples went vampire hunting. The series doesn’t preclude the existence of things beyond Christian mythology, and at one point Cassidy even uses the vampire thing to debunk the idea that the religious entities are all that special. We have flying pigs and voodoo, and in this very episode, a claim that unicorns are real too (though considering the source, the truth of that claim is pretty fucking debatable).
But that still doesn’t answer the question: why vampires? Why not elves, or zombies, or heck, if Cassidy’s Irish, why not some Irish mythological creature? (And before someone goes off and says, “Um, actually, based on the appearance of the creature in the flashback story in Book Two, he’s not a vampire, he’s a cyfliwg,” or some shit like that, shut up, I don’t care, they use the word vampire and don’t even really suggest anything else, so vampire is what we’re going with.) There are surely creatures that are either weirder than vampires, or more thematically relevant to the series, so vampires seem like an odd choice at best. The audience is going to accept anything, so why jump on the vampire bandwagon?
Part of the reason vampires are so common in films, and especially television, is that it’s cheap to make them effective. Alter the eyes with contacts and teeth with prosthetics, and you have a potentially terrifying vampire, no CGI needed. Blood and gore special effects are fairly easy to produce and already common in any graphic horror series, so adding vampires to a show with other mythological creatures is relatively easy, certainly compared to the more creative monsters out there. That’s also part of why vampire films have been popping up all over the place practically since film began — the 1990s and 2000s had their fair share of vampire fatigue with Interview with a Vampire and Twilight, but rest assured, your grandparents probably had to deal with Dracula and his son, daughter, brides, granddaughter, dog, house, blood, scars, return, curse, and so on. I mean, not to drag this out, but there are at least three different Batman versus Dracula films. Pop culture’s obsession with vampires far predates the young hot guys in frilly collars trend.
Obviously vampires have particular symbology associated with them that is occasionally brought up in the books as thematic, or else subverted. For one, vampires are immortal; they’re supposed to be ageless creatures, portrayed as wise and mature, often retaining the costuming and speech patterns the audience would associate with past centuries. They’re alluring, enigmatic, and as monsters that look like humans, often wealthy aristocratic humans, they command respect. Aside from “ageless” and “immortal,” Cassidy is precisely none of those things. If anything, he’s the exact opposite of most of them, using his inability to die or age as an excuse to permanently act like an impulse youth. Vampires are also supposed to be seductive, using their apparent beauty and imposing presence to win over the hearts of the people and young maidens so that they always have a willing supply of blood, until a Van Helsing-type wises up and stakes them. Again, this is not quite the bill we’re fitting. Cassidy’s character gives a few nods to the vampires being charismatic lore, not because he’s sexy (unless your thing is heroin addicts with thick Irish accents, I guess), but because he’s fun, and specifically unintimidating for most of the series. And forget vampires being graceful or unable to be injured except by certain things that turn them to dust – vampires in Preacher bleed, explode, lose limbs, get shot, and so forth. Aside from the blood obsession, they could practically just be special amoebas or something.
The series is unconcerned about holding to vampire lore much at all — it uses the name to make a few jokes about sleeping in coffins, but what’s more important about Cassidy in particular being a vampire is the comparison between his humanity and his monstrosity. Being immortal and not having any reason to grow up, it takes a lot for him to learn from his mistakes, and he keeps making the same ones repeatedly, meaning he carries a lot of baggage with him that he doesn’t know how to deal with. He’s become good at manipulating people into liking him but also ends up destroying those people’s lives accidentally. Most of the aspects of him being a vampire are seen as perks or generally dismissed early in the series. Once the nastier parts of his personality start to show, though he reveals himself as a lying, weak-willed, backstabbing monster in the metaphorical sense, and a literal monster on top of that.
The character’s arc trajectory is fully realized in the books, but with the show only in its second season, I’m not entirely sure what it wants to do with its vampire lore. We know the show’s starting to reveal more about Cassidy’s past and we know that past is dark, but it doesn’t necessary require him to like drinking blood. He’s enough of a train wreck without being a vampire, so I’m a little confused about why the typical vampire bloodlust is suddenly being introduced in the show. I don’t especially like the trend in vampire-based fiction where blood is like a vampire-specific drug and you can tell good vampires from bad vampires because good vampires don’t drink blood, or at least they try not to (I mean, even fucking Twilight did this, so it’s not exactly a trend to emulate). That said, if there’s vampire character for which blood as a drug-like substance makes sense as a source of temptation, a character that’s already well into, like, all of the drugs is the one to go for. So, it could at least fit Cassidy’s character, if nothing else. We’ll have to see how it develops.
Part Three: Fight Club (and More Foreskins)
As suggested in the previous episode, Jesse becomes more isolated from the other two of the golden trio and eventually abandons them entirely to go become Jesus. Given that the one thing Starr’s banking on him using to sell the Jesus gambit is currently broken, I have my doubts he’ll remain with the Grail for long, but accepting the position speaks to his ultimate drive.
These last few episodes have been somewhat slow, but I think this one not only picks up the pace in developing certain plots, it also gives us something that was missing around Episode Eight or so: the characters get some time to chill and talk about stupid things. Foreskins come up in conversation for about the fourth time this season, as do other topics ranging from ice cream-eating unicorns to Man-Dog to how Tyler Durden is somehow real in Fight Club. These are the important topical issues I want the main characters hotly debating. The conversations are well-timed and comedic, and more importantly, they allow the characters to interact and express themselves beyond the chaos of each new plot development.
This is possibly the first time since their conversation in Viktor’s bedroom that Cassidy and Jesse have had a conversation together without another character involved. Mind you, this is after Jesse has been isolated from Tulip, and later in this same episode Cassidy again teams up with Tulip in pushing Jesse out of their group. Despite that, their conversation here is amiable and Cassidy even tries (key word: tries) to save Jesse when the Saint attacks the apartment. It would seem, then, that he’s not acting entirely out of malice quite yet, and that for at least some of what he’s doing to get alone with Tulip, he’s not even aware he’s doing.
The scenes of the characters casually chatting are also important in that, like in the first season, they ultimately get down to discussing some of the core elements of who they are and what on earth they’re doing, mainly by questioning Jesse. Tulip and Cassidy find out about the Grail, Starr’s plan for Jesse, and Man-Dog, which leads to a heated conversation among the three of them in which Tulip participates mainly by throwing Jesse worried, angry looks. The scene is amusing at times, but it touches on the characters interrelationships and thoughts about one another. It shows that the others perceive Cassidy as stupid, that he knows this and resents it a little, but ultimately doesn’t seem to mind living up to that reputation. He also knows Jesse’s lying to himself about being pious. The conversation shows that Tulip feels Jesse has no need for her and Cassidy, that she thinks he likes himself more than her, and that she feels he’s making the same mistake he’s made several times before regarding this supposed greater purpose in life. She wishes he’d just give up on the God nonsense altogether, and she’s worried that if he doesn’t, he’s not coming back from it this time. The conversation shows that Jesse takes his friends for granted; he understands they don’t sympathize with him on religious matters, but he feels insistent on trying to justify his actions to them all the same, assuming that they’ll support him no matter what. When they don’t, it’s a sort of shock to his system.
The characters work very naturally off one another. Even when Tulip only contributes a few lines, her actions speak as loudly as anything else in the room. Though isolated by the end of the conversation, and the target for the others’ beratements, Jesse still gets time to say his piece, and it never feels like a monologue. Cassidy talks the most in almost all of the conversations he’s involved in in this series, but even though he’s usually the one to bring a topic up, his contribution always feels essentially equivalent to what the other characters say. They all feel like real people – they have specific histories that shape their person, and their interactions with one another are unique. A given line of dialogue can’t come out of just anyone’s mouth, and the audience could probably pick out which character said something if given it out of context.
Moments like this conversation are what solidify characters, and I think they’re especially important for who the characters are outside of the driving plot. Most of what’s said in this episode isn’t necessary to further the quest for God. Tulip and Cassidy could have easily said something about the Grail as soon as they came back to the apartment, and Jesse could have explained that he was going to go with Starr and wanted them to stick around. The diner conversation adds another seven minutes to what could have been a short exchange, but it reasserts where the characters stand in relation to one another, and delivers the news wrapped up in just enough humor and personality that the conversation becomes more substantial than the words it contains. That’s what good dialogue is supposed to do.