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 Four: The Tombs – *****
Part One: Murder Aside, That is a Marvelous Hat
Continuing from the last episode’s cliffhangers, this episode is, appropriately, all about the Tombs. Specifically, it’s about their influence on Jesse and the connection between his past spent at Angelville and his present situation.
We learned last time that the Tombs are a sort of underground gladiator pit, and that hasn’t changed much as of this episode. Jody, T.C., and Jesse all run them after hours at Angelville, Jesse serving the pivotal role as host while T.C. and Jody are on the sidelines to support him. It’s framed as a way for people indebted to Jesse’s grandmother to pay off their debts and potentially win their souls back, but the catch is they not only have to survive other fighters, but also Jody. The fights are therefore kind of rigged, and designed to lure people in. The point of the fights is entertainment, as onlookers bet on contestants, the mindset being that, in addition to the gambling revenue, onlookers driven into financial troubles make for potential new candidates in the fights.
The Tombs are horrifying in their own regard, perhaps a bit more so than I was expecting, but they’re not quite on the same level as the Coffin. They’re not supposed to be. The Tombs are an invention for the show, and therefore tailored to fit the show’s version of Angelville, which is a seedy place of business rather than a tortuous prison like it is in the books. The Tombs couldn’t exist in the books because in them, Jesse is mainly a victim of Angelville. Here, he’s a participant. He has free reign, at least to some extent, and the Tombs are the little niche he carved out for himself as a teenager. We don’t get any indication of whether he started the fights, but he’s certainly crucial to their success. As the host, he brings in the crowds and encourages betting, making the bloody ordeal entertainment for the masses. His grandmother’s accusations of him running away initiating Angelville’s downfall make sense when we see how popular the Tombs are. They’re Jesse’s contribution to the location’s revenue, and they contribute a lot.
Because of the Tombs’ direct ties to Jesse, they’re something of a character thesis for him. We see flashbacks throughout this episode of Jesse as a teenager at what’s presumably the peak of the Tombs’ productivity, with crowds packed in the basement of the former slave quarters and an assembly line of unfortunate participants. Jody and T.C. supply the weapons and handle the prisoners, but because Jesse’s the one running the show, he’s directly responsible for the bodies that inevitably pile up. He even ends up killing another boy in the Tombs himself. They terrify him, making him physically ill and wearing him down bit by bit. He retains the energy to put on a show for the crowd, but as soon as no one’s looking, Jesse has to take a moment to recover from the effort. There’s one particular moment I love at the end of the episode in the flashback where he chokes another boy to death where the actor for teenage Jesse has this look on his face of pure horror.
So often in films, I see fear conducted through screaming, crying, and otherwise predictable actions. I get that a lot of people respond that way to certain things, but it tends to come across to me as the fear people have when seeing, say, a spider running toward them in the shower. That’s shock. It might be one kind of fear, but there are others. The look on teenage Jesse’s face after he kills the boy conveys the arguably worse sort of fear that comes from seeing smoke in the direction of your house on the way home, or realizing an odd shape floating in the river is a human foot. He’s not in active danger, but he’s still visibly shaking, unable to fully process what’s just happened yet still aware of how awful it is, and that he’s the one who caused it.
As much as Jesse is afraid of the Tombs and the things they can make him do, though, there’s a give and take because of his connection to them. However much the Tombs have influenced him, Jesse’s the one who determines what the Tombs are. They expose his guilt and sincere humanity, showing him to be capable of seriously hurting people, but driven by fear — especially fear for other people. He’s the one who starts them up, and he can end them at a moment’s notice, but he doesn’t do this for his own benefit. As a teenager, there’s an implication that he runs the Tombs out of fear of what will happen to him if he stops, but as an adult, he only agrees to reopen them to save Cassidy. Jesse uses the Tombs as a facade on multiple occasions, donning them as a cover to sneak Cassidy out of Angelville, and to try and convince Tulip to do the same. The Tombs are a platform for him to work through his relationship with God, even allowing him to admit anger at God for abandoning him in contrast to his usual mantra.
At one point, Tulip accuses Jesse of pretending to be the same sort of awful as the other Angelville characters while harboring much more innocuous feelings. This is an optimistic viewpoint on Tulip’s behalf — Jesse has been violent plenty of times in the past, and however sorry he might be for hurting or killing people, he has still hurt and killed people — but the idea isn’t half-baked. Jesse doesn’t get satisfaction from sheer brutality, at least not in the same way Jody seems to. Sometimes he deludes himself into thinking he’s that sort of a person, but he’s shown consistently that he’s not. He’s willing to kill Carlos to please Tulip, and he wants to make Viktor suffer for “stealing” his girlfriend, but the only way he gets satisfaction in the end is by letting them both go (though of course not in full health). Jesse often acts on selfish impulses, especially when it comes to preserving his own morality. At his core, though, he still puts other people first, even though he’s not good at executing on it. He frequently hurts others by accident (especially Tulip and Cassidy) while trying to find a way to help them in the long run, but he’s not the same monster as the Angelville characters. He’s the sort of person who would accidentally kill something helpless in a blind rage and then do everything in his power to bring it back — not out of selfishness, but out of guilt and compassion.
This episode neatly rounds out Jesse’s arc from the last episode, revealing the duality of his character and the main takeaway he gets from Angelville: he’s utterly afraid of it.
Part Two: I Guess There’s a Reason They’re Called the Tombs
Tulip’s confrontation with Madame Sabina Boyd comes to a head as well, her apparent predicament in the last episode resolved with a chaotic kidnapping that leads to one of the more awkward car conversations of the series. The Boyds have been built up to have a long-standing rivalry with Angelville with Jesse at its center, and the details of that relationship are worked out here. Like something out of a Shakespearean soap opera, Jesse was Sabina Boyd’s boyfriend in high school and dumped her when he started to get fully invested in the Tombs out of fear that she might end up there if his grandmother found out about her. He neglected to let her down gently by explaining the predicament, opting instead to insult and enrage her, which of course lead her brother to chase him down. Jesse ended up choking Sabina’s brother to death, thereby inciting the feud that’s lasted until today.
The Boyd portion of the episode is easily its weakest part, mainly because of the predictability of the plot points and their relative lack of of buildup. You can see where each part is going, sometimes even down to the lines of dialogue, and there are problems with the subplot’s execution. For instance, the idea that Sabina was romantically involved with Jesse and the implication that this is what set off the whole grudge in the first place. That’s an irritating plot point on its own, but it’s especially irritating when it plays into the woman scorned trope. Obviously the falling out goes deeper than a simple misunderstanding, but her brother fighting to the death to uphold Sabina’s honor over a boy is likewise kind of frustrating. We see two versions of this event play out, one told by Sabina and the second told by Jesse, the latter of which we’re supposed to take as the true version of events. It’s not as clunky as the Last Jedi repeated flashbacks, but the main thing changed between the two iterations of events is which of the two people is begging for mercy. In Jesse’s version, it’s himself. The boy still dies, and as I mentioned above, that’s a significant event, but the idea that it’s really more of the other guy’s fault strikes a sour note with me.
If it were that bad, though, I wouldn’t be giving this episode five stars. Sabina and Tulip’s interactions outside of the backstory work and Tulip’s contribution to the plot, although brief, is impactful. She gets a few spot-on character moments that are delightful, including one at the beginning where she escapes with Madame Boyd by machine gunning a hole in the floor, and another near the end where she demands that Jesse stop dicking her around. She reconciles with her role in accidentally trapping him at Angelville by finding a way to potentially get him out of his blood compact, namely by killing Jesse’s grandmother — a solution that naturally appeals to Tulip, but also comes with appropriate risks.
At this point, it’s worth mentioning a few things I missed the first time through the previous episodes. Jesse’s grandmother has occasionally shown a curious interest in Tulip, remarking about her appearance and youth. In the first episode, she took and consumed samples of Tulip’s hair, nails, and skin, presumably as part of the process to bring her back to life, but which notably required her to send Jesse and Cassidy away first. They have no idea she’s done this, and the audience doesn’t know the context, but as the episodes go on, we’re starting to suspect that she’s done something to Tulip. She even dares Jesse to kill her in the first episode to see what happens, which cannot possibly bode well. Her own health is failing, possibly in relation to the reduction in souls she’s acquired since Jesse left, but she insists that she’s working to remedy the situation and there’s a good chance Tulip’s involved.
Part Three: I Would Make a Joke About Shipping, But the Show Beat Me to It
I’ve been waiting to use that stupid pun since the trailers aired.
Anyway, the real star of this episode is the details. Almost every moment is an opportunity for setting up some new story, character, or comedic element, especially small objects strewn throughout the episode. I love the way the hat Jesse wears in the modern day scenes has little frays and worn patches that it doesn’t have in the flashbacks. I love how Jesse twirls the hat when he keeps taking it on and off, signalling his apparent indecision about running the Tombs is all an act. I love the shot that merges the past of the Tombs with the present. I love how Cassidy uses the packing tape and the paper cutter as a makeshift weapon. I love the skin suit discussions and the argument over what Luke Skywalker did with the Tauntaun. I love the frozen yogurt and the beer being used as a diversion. I love that Jesse gets a swirl frozen yogurt like Jody, except his has rainbow sprinkles. I love that part very much.
Oh, and I love how they introduced the Fuck Communism lighter. We have no idea why this thing’s important. It gets all of about four shots, but the camera lingers on it and Jesse’s expression when he sees it tells the audience it’s significant. It’s apparently significant enough that Jesse steals it from Jody off-camera, calling back to a sequence in the first season when he stole an ashtray from Quincannon as a child. At the moment, it’s just an odd knick-knack, but in the books, the weight it carries easily justifies this sort of scene. The lighter is a memento Jesse’s father got in Vietnam from John Wayne as a piece of throwaway propaganda. Jesse’s father, who shared a first name with the actor and was a big fan of his movies (much like Jesse) lost the lighter when Jody killed him. Throughout the comics, Jesse carries it around as a reminder of his various father figures, and it becomes a symbol of their shared masculine ideals — a symbol tied up in a object with a questionable physical worth and words largely meaningless to any of the characters.
The attention to detail and the overall pace of the episode are what makes it worth five stars. It doesn’t have a single especially spectacular scene (well, okay, the fro-yo shipping scene is kind of amazing), but it’s saturated with small, significant moments that have been otherwise subdued in the past few episodes. Considerable care is taken with the lighting, and the sound design is also up a notch from normal. The result is a deeply atmospheric episode where the events tell a basic story but the cinematography and editing layer additional context between simpler actions. This episode does a fair job of nailing the mood of the series, hitting that sweet spot of quality in all of the major areas — character, dialogue, humor, pacing, plot, aesthetics. It’s certainly one of the funnier episodes in this season, but, befitting a familiar trend, it also contains some pretty harrowing content.
Like the other characters, Cassidy gets a resolution for his subplot established in the last episode — namely, being found out as a vampire and imprisoned in the Tombs. Escaping the Tombs turns out to be a somewhat simple affair, and Cassidy even goes back to them after escaping once. If they have an effect on him, it doesn’t show much. His relationship with Jesse is taut on account of mutilation and dismemberment, though Jesse remains concerned with his well-being and continually tries to keep him safe (keyword: tries). Cassidy doesn’t seem that much more upset with him than before, though. He returns to fight Jesse in the Tombs after the latter tries to sneak him out through the mail against his will, but Cassidy’s not there for revenge or because he secretly likes the Tombs. In an earlier fight, he lost this little love potion vial and most of his motivation for returning seems to be to retrieve it.
Okay, so about the love potion. This is a sort of macguffin that was set up in the first episode when Jesse’s grandmother told Cassidy about a time she created a spell to brainwash a man into loving her unconditionally. The story ended with her killing him, presumably in response to the spell or its effects, but she offered it to Cassidy all the same. In the last episode, he took her up on that offer and has since gone around with it in his pocket, unbeknownst to the other protagonists. Presumably, like Jesse’s grandmother implied, he intends to use it on Tulip. Even if that weren’t his intent, he cares more about this loosely disguised roofie than he does about the safety or sanity of his friends for some reason.
At the end of this episode, having retrieved the vial from the Tombs and escaped a second time, Cassidy is disheartened to find Tulip driving him to a bus stop and sending him to New Orleans. He’s perfectly content to leave Jesse at Angelville as long as Tulip goes with him, and he’s said as much on several occasions. Tulip, like Jesse, recognizes that Cassidy is just going to keep getting hurt if he stays and knows he doesn’t want to be there anyway, but she’s very much intent on staying to help Jesse. Cassidy does eventually agree to go, but he seriously contemplates using the love spell on her before he decides against it.
The mere fact that he got the potion in the first place is discomforting. The idea that he’d use it, especially on one of the other protagonists, is outright disturbing. Tulip is unaware of any of this, and you fear for her safety as soon as Cassidy starts to get out the vial. It’s different from any of the horrible things the characters have done or nearly done to each other until now — Cassidy’s acting on impulse, but it’s pre-meditated, against the other’s wishes, guaranteed to ruin Tulip’s life, not to mention completely fuck up Jesse and Cassidy himself eventually, and it’s just viscerally horrifying. What’s more, it’s not out of character. It fits Cassidy’s pattern of behavior, even if it’s on a level of disregard for others we haven’t seen from him before.
All three protagonists have the veils pulled from their faces, at least briefly, by the end of this episode. Jesse is deeply fearful and unable to control how much he hurts people, even though his intentions are good. Tulip is a steadfast, no-nonsense optimist who’s willing to delude herself about the intentions of others to give them the benefit of the doubt. The scene in the car tells us this about Cassidy: he knows what’s morally vapid, he knows when his actions will hurt people, and he cares more about Tulip and Jesse than perhaps any other two people on the planet, but he will ignore all that if it stands between him and what he wants.