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 Eight: The Tom/Brady- ***
Part One: Exploding Jesuses
All right, I give. As much as I enjoy this series for its strong points, it’s still fallible, and no episode has demonstrated that quite as much as this one. I imagine plenty of viewers would have reached the limits of their tolerance for absurdity already, maybe even as far back as Season One. Mine can apparently stand everything up until we get thickly-accented German scientists holding up syringes of green fluid that they intend to inject into an endless stream of inbred Jesus clones.
The three protagonists are separated again and dealing with their own simple subplots. Jesse has been kidnapped by Starr under the Allfather’s orders, Tulip is on a mission to rob a soul bank with Featherstone and Jody, and Cassidy is getting closer to Eccarius while Hoover tries to capture him. That’s the setup we’re given from the last episode, and each subplot goes more or less where you imagine it will.
On Jesse’s side of things, he starts by taking down an elevator full of Grail operatives and shooting the Allfather. This gets him nowhere. He still ends up captured and fastened to a gurney, and stays there for the rest of the episode. The Allfather wants him for Genesis, which seems obvious once you say it out loud. He intends to remove it from Jesse and put it in the ceaselessly unfortunate Humperdoo, which itself isn’t a bad twist. It’s amusing to know that A) it shouldn’t really work, and B) if it does, you’d have to be delusional to think Humperdoo with the ability to command people would be a good or useful thing. Luckily, despite access to genetic engineers, celebrity DNA, the world’s resources, and military-grade technology, the Allfather is very much delusional. When he removes Genesis and puts it in Humperdoo, the latter explodes, unsurprisingly. Apparently the Grail has plenty of Humperdoos to spare, though, thanks to cloning technology, so when one of them explodes, they just inject the next with an “evil/goodness” serum until it sticks. Okay, then.
Tulip, meanwhile, has arrived in Osaka ready to break into the Grail-owned soul vault with Featherstone and Jody. This involves a bit of infighting, obviously, but boils down to Tulip stealing a key card, Jody taking out some security guards, and Tulip and Featherstone hacking into the main vault (which contains nowhere near a million souls, Starr, you filthy liar). Like, that’s it. It takes until about three-quarters of the way through the episode for the heist to finish, and nothing goes wrong until Tulip tries to get Featherstone captured and loses the souls they’ve stolen in the process. I’d be callous to call this subplot the worst of the three; it’s easily the most grounded and lacks the potentially world-breaking elements of the other two, so flaws in its execution don’t have much in the way of consequences for the rest of the series. However, it is perhaps the most boring, which makes the sudden twist of Tulip grabbing the wrong suitcase more tedious than it might otherwise be. Featherstone’s going to Hell courtesy of the Angel of Death, so now Tulip has to take a side track to go retrieve her.
Cassidy, of course, is still doing bi shit with Eccarius, and okay, that part’s fine, but in the process they run into Hoover and Cassidy’s subplot for the episode becomes all about him and Les Infants turning Hoover into a vampire. So, okay, that happens. For completely unrelated reasons (namely that Eccarius is even worse at hiding murders than the last episode suggested), Cassidy finds out about him eating the other vampires and Eccarius accidentally kills him for it. Sort of.
This episode is not lacking in weirdness, that’s for sure. What it is lacking is stakes. There are really only two possible outcomes for Jesse’s subplot — either transferring Genesis works, which creates yet another macguffin the characters have to worry about retrieving, or it doesn’t, and the episode gets us basically nowhere. Tulip, likewise, is either going to retrieve the souls or isn’t. She’s going to find Featherstone, likely in Hell, fight demons or something for a bit, then either lose the souls or retrieve them. Both of these subplots rely heavily on macguffins as a narrative device, which is okay when there are a very limited number of macguffins and they have some significant value to the characters. Jesse trying to get his soul back works to progress the plot because it’s a reflection of his morals — he’s obsessed with it to a point where he’ll pursue it even when he learns it might be worthless. Genesis has been a macguffin throughout the series, but because it’s intrinsically linked to Jesse, other characters trying to obtain or destroy it are also trying to do the same to him. Uncoupling him from Genesis while keeping it an object of interest diminishes its value — the audience doesn’t care about Genesis, we care about Jesse and how he uses it. The souls in the suitcase are likewise unimportant — we want to see character interaction the suitcase and heist prompt, but if Tulip has to go fetch Featherstone, she can only interact with Featherstone. We’ve seen them exchange quips for the past two episodes, so unless something changes, there’s only so far their interactions can go.
If we count the murder pillow and broken lamp, even Cassidy’s subplot is propelled by random inanimate objects. It’s not much of a stretch after the last episode to imagine that Cassidy has to find out about Eccarius killing the other vampires, so, sure, that happens through contrived coincidences. But what consequence does it have for the plot or characters? Clearly Cassidy is upset, and his happy idyllic relationship isn’t going to stand, but we kind of knew that as soon as the show revealed that Eccarius eats vampires. Yeah, the audience kind of figured it would be a short-term affair. I guess Eccarius smashes Cassidy against a wall and knocks him dead or unconscious, but come on, show. You’ve got to try harder than that if you want us to think one of the protagonists is in actual peril. This is the one that gets better from dying. We know that. We have since Episode One. What are you trying to accomplish here?
The show also throws in a few irregular point-of-view scenes from Jesse’s grandmother, which isn’t unprecedented but it does clash with the established tone of the Angelville characters and serves little purpose other than to humanize Jesse’s grandmother a bit. Jesse’s grandmother sends the Angel of Death (by way of the Devil) to capture Tulip as part of some unclear deal. She’s figured out that Jesse has Genesis, and offers it in exchange for Tulip, though her reasoning for this seems counter-intuitive. She’s haunted by the idea that when she dies, she’s going to have to answer to the people she’s eaten, and clearly she wants the suitcase full of souls to delay that. Based on the developments in the last episode and her actions here, she seems indifferent to whether she gets the souls and much more invested in being with Jesse while she’s still alive. She wants Tulip gone and Jesse defenseless. However, the way her plan plays out, it just becomes an interruption for Tulip’s subplot and sets up some sort of Nazi takeover scheme or something. The consequences of this subplot are too vague to be of much interest yet, and it’s established on shaky grounds that call into question whether much can become of it at all.
Part Two: No Bees?
Just to give the episode credit before I nitpick, here are a few specific things I liked. First, the dialogue between Starr and Jesse is hilarious. By this point, they’ve built up quite the rapport, making the scene absurdly casual even within the already ridiculous confines of the plot. Starr’s bullshit attempt to explain his peace strategies is especially delightful. Likewise, Featherstone and Tulip’s continual jabs at one another work within their character dynamic, and I like that the show never tries to make it look like either of them is especially good at making comebacks to the other’s insults. They’re just sort of stuck in a perpetual loop of bad comebacks, but neither of them seems to realize it. Jody’s minor role in the break-in is a reminder of how violent he can be, and also builds on the suggestion that he’s far more dangerous that what we’ve seen of him so far. Cassidy’s dialogue is, as always, enjoyable, and I even kind of find the exploding Jesus montage amusing, as cliched as calming classical music playing over something destructive is.
The episode has good elements to it. But it lacks anything particularly groundbreaking, and there’s plenty to question about its storytelling decisions.
Overall, the structure of the episode is unremarkable. The characters aren’t given much to do and the emphasis is placed on their accomplishing discrete tasks individually. Within their constraints, they can’t interact with much. Because of this, the dialogue is fairly flat and the pacing of the scenes similarly struggles to build much tension. The episode isn’t short, but it feels like the middle of a longer sequence, as evidenced by cliffhangers that seem to guillotine the payoff the episode is building toward. This is something the series has done plenty of times before, as an ongoing long-form narrative in which episodes are really just isolated chunks of story, but this particular episode seems to fall on a rather uninteresting cul-de-sac of subplots. It reminds me a lot of the episodes like El Valero, Finish the Song, Viktor, Holes, and Puzzle Piece from previous seasons — none of them can really stand on their own and are continuations of the narrative built up over the course of the season. A few have complete narrative arcs for one or two subplots, but they don’t tend to hit key events in the story and a lot of them could be significantly pared down without much consequence for the sum narrative. All of these episodes fall in the dead space between the beginning and middle or middle and end of a season, and I don’t think it’s a coincidence that this episode falls in that range too.
The sound design of this series is often fairly middling — it’s a little overt for my liking, but it’s competent enough where it counts. Oddly, it’s actually pretty sharp in this episode out of all of them, but as if to counterbalance the slight improvement in sound, the cinematogrpahy and editing are somewhat lacking compared to the series’ norm. The shots are still well-framed and interesting to look at, and they hold for enough time to delegate the pacing of a scene, but some of the shots feel unnecessarily derivative or almost distorted at times. In particular, there are several closeups and medium closeups that are framed in such a way they make the characters feel very stiff, almost in a Wes Anderson style. In these, the backgrounds are flat or uniform and the character is often directly in the center of the frame or in the left or right third, which gives the frame a mathematical sense of order that doesn’t really fit the tone of the series. This might be remedied if it were a stylistic choice particular to a given character, the same way the lighting and sound are adjusted around the Saint of Killers to make him more menacing. It works for the Angel of Death, who’s written to act robotic, but then the show uses similar framing for a dream sequence involving Jesse’s grandmother, and later in exchanges between the Allfather and Jesse. It feels like a deliberate choice, but the message it’s communicating is muddled. I suppose it’s uncanny, but the specific context varies on when and with which character it’s being used. One of the direct consequences is that the dialogue in these scenes is called to attention because the speaking character is framed so oddly, which creates the illusion that the dialogue itself is off-kilter. Except that, again, much of the dialogue accompanying these shots isn’t really that different from the dialogue in the rest of the scene. It’s a perplexing choice, to be sure.
I’d like to claim that most of my qualms are technical, but a lot of the smaller details contribute to the off-balance tone. There are a lot of oddball moments in this episode, perhaps not more than usual, but the stylistic choices and the lack of much else to gravitate toward make the sillier material stand out. I mentioned a lot of the absurd plot points in Part One, but there are also smaller moments like the Allfather surviving a bullet to the chest because of his girth and later pulling it out with chopsticks, a sexual harassment training skit, a confusing Japan montage, hostage negotiation via text-message, and a somewhat lengthy conversation about bees that unfortunately does not lead to the release of any actual bees. The bank vault that Tulip’s team spend so much of their time infiltrating is easy to break into and not especially impressive. And, of course, the German scientist who comes up with the serums for Humperdoo is a caricature right on the border of too silly to fit in even this series.
The vampire subplots are by far and away the most absurd in the episode, both in terms of Cassidy turning Hoover into a vampire, and especially Cassidy finding Eccarius killed the person he turned previously. Hoover being a vampire is an odd plot point for many reasons, namely that it doesn’t really have any obvious benefits for the series other than to make Hoover’s life even more miserable, and it creates several problems that could easily divert further time from plots the audience cares about. For instance, we don’t care about Hoover having to deal with the day-to-day of being a vampire. We already have a character for that. We also don’t care about how it makes Hoover’s life within the Grail complicated. Starr and Featherstone certainly won’t be sympathetic, and given that Hoover’s work mainly seems to entail human resources and odd jobs, most of which he does at night, there’s a good chance that him being a vampire wouldn’t really affect his role within the series anyway. And on the off-chance that the series decides to ret-con Hoover being a vampire through some sort of Grail shenanigans, well, we’re going to have to follow that rabbit hole all the way down because you can bet Cassidy would at least be mildly interested, right? So, what’s the goddamn point?
For the moment, though, I’m not wholly opposed to Hoover Dracula. The Eccarius subplot is much more predictable and, in my mind, the more egregiously dead-ended of the two. Just based on the logic of non-essential characters typically dying before the end of a season, and Eccarius separating Cassidy from the rest of the main trio, maliciously or otherwise, it’s not much of a stretch to say that Eccarius might not be coming back for Season Four on account of death-related reasons. That wouldn’t really be surprising given Annville, Viktor, Denis, and the host of unlucky side characters in this series.That’s just what happens to people who fraternize with these protagonists, Cassidy especially. To top it off, we’ve known Eccarius to be a sketchy individual pretty much since we’ve met him. But, I mean, couldn’t the show have been a little more original as it goes about delivering the inevitable? Eccarius is turning people into vampires so he can eat them and gain mystical powers, but there’s setting up a dark secret another character will stumble upon because of storytelling conventions, and then there’s throwing away the evidence for your gruesome murders in your own trash can. Really? REALLY? Clearly Eccarius was shit at hiding the bodies, but at least he seemed to be dumping them in a different location, even if he left them in conspicuous body-shaped, fully-clothed ash piles. The trash can doesn’t even have a liner or anything, and the bloody murder pillow’s just sitting there. Like, anyone throwing anything away should have found it. It’s not like it’s at the bottom of the can or hidden or anything. Kevin’s memaw’s (that’s the old lady whose basement Les Infants uses as a hideout) trash collector would have figured out that there’s a murderer living at this house. And we also find out that he kills them AT THAT SAME HOUSE. How stupid do people have to be to figure this out? You can’t tell me this is the first time anyone’s stumbled upon Eccarius’ poorly-hidden evidence or interrupted his vampire murdering. Come on, it’s Cassidy who figured him out. We know it can’t possibly be that fucking difficult of a nut to crack.
The tone ends up going for humor above all else, which admittedly works, even in the goofier scenes. Tonal dissonance becomes a problem however when the episode tries to be serious or accidentally infringes upon serious material that either previous episodes or it itself have set up. The possibility of Jesse losing Genesis, Tulip screwing up again, and Cassidy being betrayed in the one decent relationship he has going for him all carry weighty subject matter, even if they might also be comedic. The episode’s absurdist tone is unable to focus on the significance of these events, so they end up looking more melodramatic and exaggerated than similar events have been in the past.
Part Three: Tipping the Balance
I do like this episode, despite my misgivings about it. It’s still competent for the most part, it’s still very funny, and, as with most of this series, I’ve come to appreciate it more on subsequent viewings. However, it’s still problematic, especially in light of the issues addressed elsewhere in this season. It makes a lot of the same mistakes but deigns to give the audience anything especially rich to chew on. There is no intense phone call or well-choreographed fight sequence (well, okay there sort of is, but it’s not exceptional), and the character development is limited. It’s not necessarily that I consider any particular element in this episode irredeemable. I’ve let this series get away with worse dialogue and weirder subjects and more predictable plot points than seen here, and the episode isn’t exceptionally bad within the grand scheme of the show. It’s not an outlier like that one episode of Stranger Things everyone dislikes because it’s so much worse in quality than the rest of the series.
I could almost forgive this episode if it were just stand-alone awful like that. More than anything, I found this episode to just be disappointing. After the show’s demonstrated its skill at balancing the weird with deeper narrative ideas, and following up an all-around solid episode, I can’t help but feel this one squandered its setup. It took the most predictable route in its plot where it could, which is uninspired, and when it had elements it could add, it handled them poorly.
I might be able to forgive some of the episode’s problems if they were isolated missteps, but they’re not. Its issues reflect on the negative aspects of the entire series — when the show gets too goofy, when the aesthetics are obscene or cliched, when the plot becomes too predictable, and when the characters accomplish tasks just because something arbitrarily needs to be done. This episode doesn’t build the deeper content I like to focus my critical efforts toward, so instead I have to look directly at its flaws, which also means acknowledging that these flaws are present in some amount throughout the series. And they seem to be growing more prominent.
I’ve mentioned before that this series strikes a few different sorts of tones. It has its serious moments, its lighthearted moments, and its horror and humor. The horror doesn’t necessarily line up directly with the more serious tone — often it’s exaggerated and overly gory in the way pulpy Hammer horror and the like tend to be. I see the episode’s tone working on more of a sliding scale with its stakes on one axis and its sobriety on the other. At its extremes, the tone can be high-stakes/high-sobriety, low-stakes/high-sobriety, high-stakes/low-sobriety, and low-stakes/low-sobriety. Respectively, each tonal extreme correlates to genuine horror, sincerely heartfelt moments, comedic gore and action, and bonkers humor. The series has been stuck in those last two tonal extremes for quite some time, and while bits of the others are sprinkled throughout, there’s just not been enough sincerity in recent episodes to offset the absurdism and relative lack of stakes that accompany it. The start of the season was somewhat front-loaded with heavier material, which might be part of why this latter half of the season seems so lackadaisical, but that’s an incomplete explanation. The first season of this series was especially good at juxtaposing very different tonal extremes such that each remained intact and enhanced the other, but I think either the series’ capacity to do that is slipping or it’s losing interest in even trying to play around with a shifting tone. That’s unfortunate. Not many series try this, and even fewer are good at it.
I can see problems developing in the areas that the show has until this point been balancing delicately. Humor, references, and interplay between an adaptation and its source material can go wrong in half a hundred ways. It’s easy to find a tired comedy, or a film that doesn’t understand the difference between name-dropping Mario and incorporating a character’s love of the Mario franchise into their personality. Adaptations are often caught between angry old fans who don’t want their precious property sullied and angry new fans who want a product that doesn’t just indulge people already familiar with the franchise. I’d be lying if I said Preacher handled these tricky elements of its style adeptly in all instances, but one of its hallmark features is its ability to use them more effectively than most other series in its genre. The humor is all over the place, characters are constantly making pop-culture references, and it seems determined to satisfy no fan fully by frequently using extraneous allusions to the comics while also throwing significant portions of the comics out the window so it can add incongruous nonsense of its own. But it works.
The show understands what its doing and turns what would in most other series be the worst possible decision into something new and innovative. It demonstrates why you should never disregard a concept as inherently bad or good — context matters, and it can take one of the most rote story ideas and ring out every ounce of quality the idea has. This is a series about angels and demons and an action hero priest who fights cartoon villains alongside all sorts of cliched bullshit, like vampires, secret conspiracy cults, evil swamp people, and cowboys. There are so many ways this series could have turned into any other Supernatural, Priest, or Constantine, but it’s notably distinct from all of those. It stands out among the crowd of Christian-themed supernatural action television series because it simultaneously doesn’t take its premise seriously at all and utilizes opportunities to augment its carefree attitude with self-reflection on the genre, its history, and storytelling in general. It takes everything that makes those other series irritating and wears them as a hat.
The drawback to this approach, however, is that it only works as long as the series can find a way to control those tedious elements. Once it starts to lose focus of why it’s got the Grail or Hitler or pop culture references in there to begin with, the series starts to become more and more like the things it’s trying to parody.
I’ve been in several writing groups where someone has proposed to make a story about an intentionally ironic Mary Sue-type character, where the protagonist is overpowered the villain is Evil Incarnate, and plot points arise as though TV Tropes wrote them up — all to reflect on the inherent badness of cliche itself. While I can’t say this is a wholly bad idea, I’ve never seen it go well. It’s an idea that’s marred by the carcasses of stories that have tried to do it justice and utterly failed, and even if it’s hypothetically workable, it’s a lot easier to fuck up than it is to use to your advantage. You have to be familiar with all of the pitfalls and you need to find ways around them in order to deliver on the potential intrigue of the concept. Avatar: The Last Airbender, Malcolm in the Middle, Psycho, Mad Max: Fury Road, No Country for Old Men, The LEGO Movie, and Ratatouille, among many others, take concepts that overdone or outright stupid and do something new to make them interesting. You don’t need a great concept to turn out a great story. But you do need to know what you’re doing with that concept and you need to be able to identify its potential.
Preacher has proved itself capable in the past, and it constantly reflects awareness of what its limitations are and how it can push them. This episode isn’t game-breaking. There’s a good chance that the next two episodes will easily make up for the failures of this one and even put it into a different perspective, much like the series has done before. I’m not worried about the series crashing down all at once — not by a long shot — but I am worried that the precarious balance it’s maintained is starting to wobble. Unless it invests in some minor course-correction now, we’re going to be in for more disappointment later on down the line.