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 Five: The Coffin – *****
Part One: The Worst Place for a Time-Out
I’ve gone on record at least twice now describing the Coffin as one of if not the most frightening things in this series, so an episode just called “The Coffin” is naturally going to pique my interest.
We’ve seen the Coffin before and had it mentioned or alluded to several times in the series. It was built up all through the second season, and the first time we see it in flashbacks in Back Doors is also the first time we see any of Angelville itself. The sound of the clanking chains has been repeatedly associated with other reminders of Angelville, suggesting that Jesse associates it with the place before almost anything else. In fact, it’s a memory of his first time in the Coffin that coincides with him losing Genesis. In the books, the Coffin is the pinnacle of Jesse’s bad history with Angelville, and with good reason. His time spent in the torture chamber follows him losing many of the things he cares about, and it’s just a dreadful thing in general.
However, the Coffin comes with a problem, and that’s its simplicity. It’s highly effective in small doses and even just an image or a description of the thing conveys its horrors, but if it’s used too often or overextended, like any horror monster, it starts to lose its potency. After so much buildup and a demonstration of how the thing works in the previous season, the show has to be careful about bringing the Coffin in again because the audience already knows a lot about it, unlike the Tombs, for instance. The episode handles the Coffin aptly, though, giving the audience something new to contemplate while not really changing its functionality.
There are three things added to Coffin from the last time we saw it that enhance its horrors in small but significant increments. The most important new addition is that we get to see Jesse inside the Coffin for the first time, and as an adult no less. He wakes up inside it after passing out from a fight, which is about the worst way to end up in the Coffin I can think of, and he doesn’t take it very well. At first, he tries to use what sounds like an old coping mechanism to keep himself calm — reciting state capitals — but this is interspersed with him playing with the Fuck Communism lighter he stole from Jody and frantically pounding on the lid in a futile attempt to escape. He eventually retreats into a fantasy where he imagines himself as a star in a western, along with an imaginary version of John Wayne.
The second addition to the Coffin is writing inside the lid that he obviously scratched out there as a child. There’s a lot of it, including tick marks, numbers, and names, most of which the audience can’t quite make out, but the largest of which of course reads “Tulip.” It’s a small but effective way to show ownership of the Coffin; like the Tombs, Jesse has spent a lot of time here and knows the place with uncomfortable intimacy. The tick marks suggest he’s been here at least for weeks in total, probably on many occasions. He knows exactly where he is as soon as he wakes up, and it’s no easier now than it was any time before, even with the coping mechanisms.
The final addition is also a major change from the books, and that’s that the Coffin, like the rest of Angelville, is deteriorating. It’s old and in disuse, so when Jesse starts pounding on it, the wood starts to leak, slowly filling the Coffin with water and dripping on Jesse’s face all the while.
The Coffin is designed to torture, but not necessarily to kill. Jody describes the Coffin as “a time-out,” which may be the single best term to use when describing the Coffin, but as implied, it’s supposed to be a nasty form of punishment from which the participant can be retrieved. A large part of the horror of the thing is that it could kill its occupant easily at almost any time but never does, just keeping them alive indefinitely under the threat of death. The increased tension from the Coffin starting to leak changes its role in the story. Now, instead of just being something that Jesse has to survive psychologically, it becomes a physical threat to his life as well. Between that, his desperation to help Tulip, and a sardonic pep talk from his imaginary hero, Jesse collects himself sufficiently to try to break out of the Coffin.
I genuinely dislike the breakout, and it’s the one thing that keeps be teetering between giving this episode four or five stars compared to the rest of the series. The Coffin is a horror device, and like any monster, it loses its ability to frighten when it can be defeated. As soon as a character can destroy the Coffin, all of the time spent within it, their fear of it, and the sort of impenetrability the thing emanated dissipates. It just turns back into a box. And Jesse does get out of it at the end by blowing it up from the inside.
I kind of feel the same way about Jesse escaping from the Coffin as I did in the first book when he defeated the Angelville characters. The buildup is significant enough that the thing feels like it should linger and be a lasting threat, only conquered at the very end of the story because of the impact it could theoretically have. The Coffin remains undefeated in the books, mainly used as a device for flashbacks to demonstrate the horrors of Angelville. I understand why the show had to go a different direction — with Jesse locked in it as an adult, and with things to lose, he has motivation he lacked as a child, not to mention skills he’s accrued since his time as a criminal. The series also isn’t pure horror — it’s an action series, as are the books. The scene in his head arguing with John Wayne very much calls back to the moment in the books when he decides to take on Angelville and goes out to fight Jody. This isn’t the end of the season, and the Angelville characters don’t look to be going anywhere for a while, though, so I’m not going to lie, I’m still a bit salty about the Coffin blowing up.
However, you might have noticed that I did end up giving this episode five stars, and that’s because for all the escape attempt does to undermine the effectiveness of the Coffin, it’s really only one moment that I dislike. I think the thing actually blowing up and Jesse surviving and swimming out is a but much to swallow, but everything leading up to the actual escape is intense. Jesse forms a plan involving the air tubes and his cigarettes. He crafts a little plug by rolling up his collar and lights a cigarette with the hope that the tube will suck it up and it’ll catch part of the pump mechanism on fire. It’s a lofty plan, but he has a level head and is confident it’ll work. So confident, in fact, that he sacrifices one of the cigarettes to use as earplugs and scratches further into the Coffin’s rotting lid to expedite it filling with water as a buffer between him and the fire. The thing is, it doesn’t work the first time. Or the second. Or the third. Jesse’s overconfidence in his own ability to escape leads to an especially effective scene where he realizes how badly he’s fucked himself over and he can’t quite believe that he’s failed. There’s a long moment of panic as he goes through cigarette after cigarette with the water rising and he starts to lose his shit again. Even when it finally works, the desperation you feel for the character makes it almost satisfying, and the scenes preceding the success are profound enough that the exorbitance of the explosion doesn’t ruin them.
With the Coffin gone, the show loses one of its more effective horror set pieces. I have hope, however, that its effects can still linger. The Angelville characters continue to haunt Jesse in the books long after they’re gone, and I imagine that if the show decides to kill them off at the end of this season, they’ll have a similarly lasting effect. Regarding the Coffin in particular, we get a brief reference to Billy Bob, Jesse’s childhood friend in the books, by way of one of those carved names. If this character’s fate is anything similar in the show, this might not be the last we see of the Coffin.
Part Two: What’s Better than One Kidnapping? FOUR KIDNAPPINGS!
Jesse ending up in the Coffin, as with so many other things, can be blamed on Cassidy. More specifically, Tulip and Cassidy’s plot to free the latter via skin suit, which ended up with Cassidy back in New Orleans and the other two left at Angelville to explain why the Tombs’ latest attraction has gone missing. The opening produces a fun, energetic four-person fight that ends with Jesse in the Coffin and Tulip chained to a radiator. The first two-thirds of the episode, or at least the Angelville portions, cover the protagonists’ escape attempts, both of which eventually succeed. Madame L’Angelle, meanwhile, wants to punish Tulip further by eating her. More specifically, she wants Tulip’s soul — her declining health can only be remedied with the souls of her victims, and without the Tombs up and running, she’s desperate for souls.
Her desperation grows much more pressing by the end of the episode after Tulip chokes her to death and Jesse tries to revive her Pulp Fiction-style with an adrenaline needle to the heart. The bits of keratin she took from Tulip weren’t part of the resurrection; she took them surreptitiously to create a link between her and Tulip so that if Jesse tried to kill her, she’d bring Tulip down as well. Now that his grandmother’s in a critical condition, Jesse’s stuck trying to keep her alive for Tulip’s sake. Their subplot ends on a cliffhanger with the Angelville characters and Jesse and Tulip fighting once again, this time to either grab the nearest person to feed to the old lady or prevent themself from being said person.
The Angelville plot is pretty self-contained in this episode, but to counteract its higher stakes, we have comic relief subplots for the Grail and Cassidy. The Grail gets some pretty phenomenal moments, particularly the tap dancing Jesus and Starr’s futile attempt to look happy. After his failure to secure Jesse for his coup, Starr’s plans are in the shitter. To make things worse, the Apocalypse is about to start, with Humperdoo as the savior of humanity. Despite Starr’s efforts to convince his boss, a menacing man called the Allfather, that Humperdoo isn’t ready, the Allfather gives the go-ahead for the Grail’s long-standing plan, apparently with the aid of Hell itself. With Starr’s window of opportunity fast shrinking, Featherstone suggests kidnapping Cassidy to lure Jesse into the open.
Given how many times all three of the protagonists have been kidnapped in one form or another (for those who haven’t been keeping track, I assure you, it’s a lot), you might not expect this to be difficult. And you would be right; it’s so easy it happens twice.
After Tulip sends him away on a bus, Cassidy ends up back in New Orleans, wandering around looking for drugs and sex, and finding both quite easily. Specifically, he decides to look into a vampire-based sex cult that Denis was involved with in the previous season. This goes about as well as the audience might hope and expect, with Cassidy stumbling upon a club of gothic LARPers. The sex a failure, he turns to drugs and alcohol as he’s wont to do, which is where the Grail finds him. However, unbeknownst to the Grail, these LARPers are really into vampires and they’re not about to let a real one slip through their fingers. Waking up from being rescued by being kidnapped again, Cassidy finds himself at the hangout of Les Infants du Sang, apparently led by another actual vampire.
Part Three: Saving the World with the Power of Tap Dance
At this point, I think I’m just going to have to accept occasional weirdness and questionable scene choices as a part of this series’ style. While most of the scenes connect together and flow naturally with a sense of purpose, even since the first episode, the show has always had moments here and there that strike off-key. The sound design often contributes, like the times when an overt “ding” is associated with a character realizing something. Most of these design choices become benign or even kind of work in their own way after a second viewing, and by the time you get invested in the story and characters, you mostly forget that they’re even there. However, the few people I know personally who’ve watched any part of this series tend have a hard time getting into it, and that was my experience too the first time I watched it. The show doesn’t exactly conceal its better qualities at any point, but it occasionally throws distractions at the audience as though to see what they can handle without losing interest in the series. The entire Hitler-Hell subplot was one of the more draining instances of this, but the same effect can be seen elsewhere.
All series require some sort of entry fee in mental costs, whether that’s the ability to tolerate disturbing subject matter, open-mindedness regarding a series’ visual choices, or something else. It’s part of how they determine their target audience. Preacher‘s entry fee, beyond just general interest in the subject matter, requires the audience to give its oddness the benefit of the doubt. If you can’t handle body humor, furries, or a disregard for physics, you’re going to struggle to appreciate the character moments and the way the series builds up its plot points.
I wanted to talk a little bit about this now, because, especially on the first viewing of any episode, these sorts of weird moments that don’t seem to have much redeeming quality stick out like a sore thumb. However, I think this episode is a good demonstration of why they’re necessary and what the series is sometimes trying to do with them. There are plenty of moments like that in this episode, but most of them precede a joke or reflect on a character in some way. I wouldn’t defend their execution, but as which anything in a good series, they’re intentional and they have reason for existing.
The first of these (I’m just going to call them oddball moments because I want some sort of grounding) comes in the opening. Mid-fight, T.C. and Tulip end up in a bathroom where Tulip grabs a bottle of hair remover to blast in T.C.’s face, which leads him to pause and grab objects to create and makeshift flamethrower. This would work fine on its own, but T.C. taking the time to say, “improvised bathroom weaponry” before trying to find just that is like something out of an anime. It’s fucking silly. But, it leads to the single best moment of the fight when Tulip decides to play the game and grabs a toothbrush and eyelash curlers, then kicks T.C. in the face while he’s trying to figure out what she intends to make with them.
There are a few similar moments when the camera holds on a bit longer than necessary after a character finishes talking, and these also follow jokes, though often with a weird kind of jump scare mixed in. I’m not really sure how to describe them other than that. The oddball moments also include Jesse’s western fantasy, the Allfather’s laughter, Tarantino references, Jesse’s grandmother yelling at T.C., and the perplexing Angelville Civil War roleplay. All of that is just kind of… weird. Even beyond the normal weirdness of the show. Re-watching the episode, though, it’s still part of the style of the series, and a lot of these moments still work. Humperdoo being surprisingly adept at tap dancing, for instance, while it makes no goddamn sense, is a lot of fun and has a bittersweetness to it once you get past the idea that Humperdoo can somehow tap dance.
The humor doesn’t always derive from oddball moments like this. There are two types of humor in this series the same way there are two types of horror — there’s a serious kind and a lighthearted kind. Just as there’s the Coffin and vampire stuff on the horror side of things, the humor of the series has an angel eating a tea bag but also some razor-sharp wordplay. Tulip’s interactions with the Angelville characters once she’s been captured are simultaneously tense and brimming with character. Featherstone saying, “Vlad has been impaled” as a code to indicate Cassidy has passed out drunk might be the third or fourth funniest line in the series, and I’ve already mentioned Jody calling the Coffin “a time-out.”
The attention to detail and the propensity to jump at any opportunity to layer context into the series is one of its best features. Sometimes I think it gets a little bit too ambitious, like when something goes by too quickly and you miss a few steps in its setup, but that’s also what makes this series improve when you watch it more than once. It’s the little juicy details that make it worth getting through the oddball moments — like how Jody and T.C. are only filmed from the legs down at the start of the episode, just like when they kidnapped Jesse in the Season One flashback. I have high hopes for this series continuing its trend of building upon past seasons and sowing seeds it can use later. It knows what it’s doing, even if it doesn’t always seem that way. That’s a rare feeling to get from most series, especially ones that plant so many anastamosing plot threads at every turn.