Series Breakdown Rating:
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 One: Angelville – ****
Part One: Packaged
Season Three has arrived and given that the last season ended with Jesse and Cassidy driving up to Angelville, we might as well answer the burning question. After two full seasons of gradual buildup to the eerie place and its inhabitants, the show never even revealing their faces, we would hope the payoff satisfies our expectations. Does the show stick the landing?
In a word, yes, but not perhaps the way you might imagine. The series has to make a choice about whether the Angelville characters are going to be outwardly intimidating or not. If you cover a painting with a cloth and hype someone up by saying it’s the best painting ever, the one thing it cannot be when you unveil it is merely adequate. It can be an incredible masterpiece instantly recognizable as such, or it can be a child’s finger painting that serves as a joke and a challenge to the audience. Something that is competent but unremarkable will fail to incite much of any response in the viewer. At least, that was my thinking going into this episode.
The revelation of the Angelville characters points out an unseen fourth option, where the painting is paradoxically both a child’s drawing and a masterpiece. To drop the metaphor, the Angelville characters all look like ordinary people, but just a little bit off. The same is true of their actions and words, even the framing of the camera around them. Everything is just slightly uncanny, like a box with the lid cracked. The audience knows these characters are not what they seem, but we don’t know how much of it is an act. There’s at least some semblance of honesty to their familial attitudes that throws you off-guard. When T.C. playfully hits Jesse on the shoulder, and especially when Jody gives him a hug, there’s a sincerity to their actions that makes them so much creepier than if they were entirely jovial or entirely malicious. It’s not the case that the characters are only mediocre bad guys; they smash Jesse’s mother’s head against a window and cut open her esophagus, and let’s not forget the Coffin or Jesse’s father being murdered. There’s a dissonance between the characters feeling very much like they genuinely love Jesse and feeling like they’re two tight strings away from snapping his neck. It’s like Jesse’s navigating a deadly maze only he can see; the audience has an impending sense of danger, but until Jesse makes a mistake, the proximity of that danger is unknown. Not being able to see inside that box, but knowing there’s something there, is about as anxiety-inducing as a box can get.
Focusing just on the family dynamic for the moment — because that’s all the concrete information we have — the Angelville characters make up a nontraditional but still hierarchical household. The grandmother, Marie L’Angelle, is the ultimate authority among the Angelville characters, the one who issues punishment while Jody and T.C. dish it out. She has an extensive knowledge of spells and magic, at least some of which her family apparently stole from enslaved voodoo practitioners. Her knowledge of the arcane makes her a force to be reckoned with, but more from a strategic angle than as a direct threat; physically, she’s frail, confined to a wheelchair and I.V. drip in the present day. Angelville itself reflects her decline in health, becoming overgrown and empty since its state in the flashbacks. The degradation of the plantation house and its owner don’t necessarily make them more or less intimidating — rather, Angelville has traded the intimidation that comes with influence for intimidation derived from desperation. The place is going downhill, and Jesse’s grandmother is especially motivated to stop that from happening.
As for her goons, T.C. isn’t really well-defined as a character in this episode and comes across as a hapless grunt who does dirty work for Jesse’s grandmother. Jody likewise serves the grandmother, acting as the muscle who gets into fights for her, but he’s the more interesting of the two, emphasized in some ways as important as the grandmother herself, at least for Jesse. He’s the last character to be given a name and the last to get a clear shot of his face. When Jesse runs into the characters in the preset day, Jody is separated from the other two and Jesse has to seek him out specifically. Notably, he seems resistant to the idea despite showing little restraint in making demands of the others. The reason soon becomes apparent: Jody’s the one who killed his father. More than that, though, he seems to have a much closer relationship to Jesse, serving as a sort of father figure himself. Jody’s actions reflect a darker version of what Jesse has done in the previous seasons, like the various times he’s gotten into fights against numerous opponents or when he made a deal with the Saint to find him a soul. Back in Season One when Cassidy asked Jesse who taught him how to fight, Jesse dodged the question. Now we know the answer: Jody taught him.
Jesse is also an Angelville character. The structure of the family is such that it’s incomplete without a fourth figure, formerly occupied by his mother and later Jesse himself. His grandmother, and to a lesser extent Jody, have been grooming him to take over. The grandmother associates the degeneration of the place with Jesse leaving, and his payment for her saving Tulip is giving her his blood. This doesn’t seem like an especially difficult thing to obtain given how violent Jody and T.C. can be, but there’s an air of obligation that goes along with it. The way the grandmother talks makes it seem like she’s not going to let Jesse leave willingly one way or another, and he’s well aware of this.
Curiously, alongside the underlying sense of dread that comes with the place and Jesse’s obvious discomfort in being there, there’s also a sort of morbid familiarity on his part. Not only does he demonstrate his knowledge of his grandmother’s and Jody’s work, he slips back into his role in the house very easily. He’s been gone from Angelville for at least five years, remember. It feels a lot more like the sort of place he would have grown up than Annville or his father’s house, even though he couldn’t have spent that much more of his life here. Like Jody suggests in this episode, Jesse wants and pretends to be like his father but it’s his mother’s side of the family he takes after.
Part Two: Who Knew Lights Could Be So Terrifying?
This episode also gives us a glimpse at which side of Tulip’s family she takes after. Dead, but not quite so dead she can’t be revived, Tulip spends most of the episode stuck in Purgatory, which in this series appears as a sitcom-styled reenactment of a person’s memories. We see her parents for the first time, her mother a nod to Tulip’s appearance in the books, and her father the apparent source of this negative O’Hare reputation that has come up in the past seasons. Tulip’s mother was indifferent to her daughter’s childhood, often away working as a prostitute, and her father spent most of his time in prison. After being released and eking out a job as a dishwasher, he got into a fight with his boss and presumably killed him, leading the police to pursue him and gun him down in his own house.
That’s how the reenactment tells it, anyway. This sequence isn’t a flashback; it’s clearly based on real events in some capacity, with adult Tulip talking to her parents and referencing the events as though they’re entities of her mind, but the format of the events is strange. The sequence is done through a sitcom-styled set with a single room, laugh track, overacting, and scene transitions where the set lighting cuts out, leaving adult Tulip, who is awkwardly standing in the middle of the set the whole time, disoriented. The child who played her character in the flashbacks is the same so presumably the parent actors would fill those roles in true flashbacks as well, but because we’ve never seen them before, we have no frame of reference for them. Were they actually like this, saying these lines in this way, or is that just Tulip’s impression of them — an uncaring mother and a father who was affectionate but unrestrained? Beyond the set format, there are other things that don’t seem to make much sense, like young Tulip participating in the shootout or the police taking her away to “the orphanage” afterward. We know Tulip ended up in the foster care system because of Jesse’s father, by which point her own father would presumably have been dead or else he would have taken her. At least some of the events in the reenactment must be true to life, but enough of them seem tinged with the imagination of a child that whether they’re one sequence that played out like this or a Frankenstein’s monster of stitched-together memories stands to be seen.
Beyond its plot and character utilities, the sitcom set is a succinct demonstration of the tonal juxtaposition common throughout this series. The acting and makeup of the set is like any ordinary sitcom, with a single room, multiple doors, characters dressed in cartoonish clothing to highlight their roles, and dialogue straight out of Moulin Rouge. It’s all painted uniform gray, though, with few decorations and little color. The set floats in the middle of a dark void, and when characters switch from scene to scene, they disappear altogether along with the harsh lights before returning moments later. Tulip is caught in the middle of it, able to interact partway, at least with her younger self, but unable to change or even influence the action. The front of the scene, that is, the set and the actors, are played as goofy, even jovial at times, but the subject matter and especially the cinematography underpin a grim reality that the lighter tone tries to mask. It’s not dissimilar to the creeping dread the Angelville characters invite.
A large part of what makes the Angelville characters uncanny is also the lighting. The opening of the episode is a flashback not directly connected to the main characters and takes on an undersaturated appearance at times bordering on grayscale. In the present day, many of the scenes involving the Angelvile characters use high contrast lighting and a yellowish tinge, the former used to extenuate the features of Jesse’s grandmother while obscuring the background. There’s at least one shot where the contrast of her skin against her dark hair and the dark background gives her a close resemblance to the bald, skeletal book figure. The yellow lighting gives the indoor shots a simultaneous homely and eerie feel, and it exacerbates the already high contrast produced by the half-drawn curtains and dusty clutter of the place.
This is far from the first time the show has used yellowish lighting; Season One often used various hues of yellow to light the inside of the church and the desert surrounding it, especially in Jesse’s flashbacks. The Saint of Killers’ backstory had an almost sepiatone filter to give it an aged look, and it likewise emphasizes the warm, sickly nature of the desert and half-lit indoor spaces. Yellow is a warm color that as a pigment has more character than plain white but a neutrality that more solid colors often lack. Used carefully, yellow lighting can replace natural and artificial lights without the audience noticing, but it can also make things slightly unnerving. A room with a faintly yellowish tint looks friendly; a room with more yellow than is natural looks unhealthy.
Part Three: So. Now’s the Best Time to Involve Jesse in this Subplot, is it? Okay, I’ll Take Your Word For It…
Adept as I would consider the Angelville and Purgatory portions of the episode, that doesn’t mean everything in the episode is solid. I would probably give this episode five stars if it weren’t for a few small issues that keep bothering me.
First, the fucking love triangle’s popped up again, surprise surprise. It takes up maybe three short scenes, so I’ll give it credit that it’s mostly unobtrusive, and the season starts up with a sudden shift in the subplot’s direction when Cassidy just up and tells Jesse that he slept with Tulip. So yeah, that’s a thing. At this point, I’m not sure if this is a good move for the show or not. It’s definitely an odd move, but part of me appreciates that they’re not going to drag the uninteresting plot thread of “when will Jesse find out?” any longer. All cards are on the table and Jesse’s finally in the loop of what his friends have been up to without him. Funny enough, there’s basically no discussion of it at all; Cassidy spills the beans, he and Jesse get into a fight, as you do, then Jesse’s grandmother interrupts and they go back to being friends, I guess. Jesse is naturally starting to grow suspicious and possessive of Tulip, and I imagine the show will continue that trend, but it’s hard to tell what direction the series wants to go with this. With the grandmother aware of the love triangle and Jesse preoccupied with trying to get away from Angelville, Jesse is inevitably going to become more isolated from the other two and probably not going to be too happy about that. It’s not like he parted from Tulip and Cassidy on the best terms in the last season anyway.
However, it feels too early in the series for his friendship with Cassidy to be up in flames, and it seems likely that they’re going to make up at some point in the near future, even if only to keep the characters on speaking terms so the show can throw in more jokes. In the books, Jesse learning about the love triangle and talking about it came after Cassidy started abusing Tulip, so it pretty firmly ended their relationship. If the show is going to eventually follow the abuse subplot (and based on the grandmother’s conversation with Cassidy, I’m fairly sure they are), I think there’s going to have to be some significant event that more fully isolates Tulip and Cassidy from Jesse, other than just them being at Angelville. The suggestion that Jesse and Cassidy will at least briefly make up makes me curious about what the series intends to do with this subplot between now and that foreshadowed worse falling out. Fingers crossed for an awkward threesome?
To be completely honest, my main issue with the love triangle subplot’s reappearance here is that the dialogue leading up to it sounds so damn awkward. Tulip’s interaction with God at the end of the episode has a similarly delivery. While on her way back from being dead, she runs into Man-Dog who gives her an ominous instruction that gets cut off at the end. He apparently wants her to get something or someone, presumably Jesse, so it looks like she’s being set up as a sort of rogue agent. I don’t have a problem with that, but the conversation is just stilted more than the series’ dialogue often tends to be. We haven’t heard God speak before, so His intonations sounding overly formal might be par for the course, but Tulip’s response to seeing God feels out of character. I have trouble believing she would see him in the Dalmatian costume and not call him “Man-Dog” or being angrier with Him. She was pretty pissed off at Fake God for dicking people around, and granted a lot has changed since Season One, but surely Tulip would at least want to yell at God for some reason, right? The delivery of God’s request is also unpolished — it’s not just cut off mid-sentence, it’s cut off mid-word, which leaves the audience very disoriented and unaware of what the character has said but under the impression that they should have picked it up.
Several small elements of this episode feel a bit imprecise like that, actually. The pacing is at times a bit stiff, particularly in the fight sequences and certain brief dialogue exchanges. The fight between Jody and Jesse isn’t bad, but it’s far from the series’ best choreography. The action has an energy to it, certainly, and there’s a nice shot at the end when Jody drops the car he’s lifted up and you can practically feel the impact it has as it shakes the camera. The fight is easy to follow, but much of it relies on rapid cuts that mean you rarely see a punch follow through from start to finish in one clean motion. It has the distinct look of stage fighting, much like the bar fight in Episode One of the first season, and it’s not a stylistic choice I find especially appealing.
That said, I can imagine why they cut the fight this way. The earlier fight between Jesse and Cassidy has very few cuts and takes place mostly in the background, suggesting the Jody versus Jesse fight’s editing is deliberate. The similarity to the first episode bar fight invites further comparison between Jesse and Jody, demonstrating that the techniques used there link back to Jesse’s history at Angelville, and also places Jody in a position of authority. However good at fighting Jesse is compared to other people, Jody is the same degree better at fighting than him.
A lot of the odd junk that clutters up this episode, like the Man-Dog encounter and love triangle revelation, feel like setup for later episodes. Maybe looking back on them I’ll have some renewed appreciation for what they do here, but in an otherwise mostly standalone episode, they feel out of place. You could easily argue that the Purgatory scenes are awkward and off-kilter in the same way, with the sitcom aesthetic’s quirky dialogue and overacting, but at least within the context of the show, the Purgatory scene has readily apparent depth if you think about it beyond just initial impressions. Even if the delivery doesn’t seem fluid at first glance, it still serves a purpose. The Man-Dog encounter doesn’t give enough information to elicit further discussion regarding its jarring choices. I hope the next episode will elaborate on the out-of-place topics brought up, but it might take a while for them to payoff even if they are buildup to something else in the first place.