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 Nine: Schwankopf – **
Part One: You Ride That Shark. Give it Laser Eyes and Wings. Charge into Battle With Your Majestic Fish Army.
Okay, so this is another disappointing episode, and it comes right before the finale (I know the finale has already technically aired, but I haven’t seen it yet, so shush). There’s a noticeable discrepancy between these last few episodes and the ones at the start of the season in terms of overall quality and especially in terms of tone. My personal enjoyment of the episodes doesn’t fully reflect it, but it’s pretty stark once you look at the season as a whole. I’d like to save discussion of this phenomenon for the finale to see if it’s a fluke of the season’s structure or if some major change between the first and second half of the season has directly shifted the tone and direction of the series. Either way, this episode continues toward absurdist humor that lacks the high-stakes counterpart moments needed to make it impactful.
The plot, like in the last episode, involves the characters remaining separated. Actually, the characters have moved very little from their positions at the end of the last episode, physically or emotionally. Cassidy makes the dramatic shift from being put in mortal peril to being put in a different sort of mortal peril. Tulip goes from sitting in a pickup and making snarky comments to sitting in a bus and making snarky comments. Jesse goes from being strapped in an upright gurney to being on the floor (again). In fairness, Tulip and Jesse’s subplots actually involve a fair bit of character development, at least compared to the previous episode. The series makes the wise decision to finally cross Eugene’s subplot with the main protagonists, or at least Tulip, so they get some interaction with one another that provides an opening for a few new scenarios. Tulip also runs into the Saint of Killers again, and while I’m not entirely on-board with how this plays out, there’s potential in the idea of Tulip having to interact with him in a non-adversarial situation. Tulip especially has enough history with him that them having a conversation or needing to cooperate could be highly satisfying. Beyond talking with the other bus prisoners, Tulip gets a few moments to demonstrate her technical skills and quick thinking, even though her various escape attempts continually fail and erode her self-esteem.
Jesse gets the most character-influencing moments in the episode as he frees himself and finally retrieves the little fragment of his soul that he’s been so obsessed with this entire season. At least while with the Grail, Genesis works once more, granting Jesse total autonomy in contrast to the forced passivity he’s endured most of the season. Even with Allfather (I’ve been calling him “the Allfather” like it’s a title, but the show seems to dislike the article) dead and his magic power restored, though, Jesse has to confront his own limitations. Starr explains that Humperdoo is a loose end that needs to be tied up if Allfather’s faith-based plan for world-domination is to be replaced with a less bloody one. Starr intends to coerce Jesse into being his Messiah through lack of options, because Jesse can’t let him use Allfather’s plan with Humperdoo without putting the whole of humanity at risk, and he’s incapable of killing Humperdoo himself. The only way to prevent Armageddon is to act in Humperdoo’s place as Starr’s preferred Jesus sequel, sacrificing his own free will to save humanity.
Jesse doesn’t do that, of course, because why would he? He’s consistently been the sort of person who’s empathetic from a moral standpoint, but still fundamentally selfish for it. He doesn’t like to see others in pain, and he understands that killing people is wrong, but if he’s far enough removed from the harmful consequences of an action that he doesn’t feel bad about it, he’ll go through with it. He tried to brainwash an entire town because he thought it was his calling, and the body count he’s racked up indirectly is at least in the hundreds by now. Jesse’s much more concerned about people he’s killed directly than any innocent bystanders who’ve gotten hurt because of his actions. He saves Humperdoo in what is easily the best moment of the episode, and leaves with the burden of responsibility lifted from his shoulders as far as he’s concerned. I mean, sure Starr could pick another random person to replace him, including one of the Humperdoo clones, and they would probably lead to the destruction of the world anyway, but as long as Jesse feels like he found the best option, he’s good. With Genesis, he’s now ready to face his grandmother.
The biggest problem with this episode, as it has been with most of the others this season, is tone. The episode opens with a fight between Jesse and Allfather that results in the latter exploding, spewing guts all around the room as has been the standard for anyone who ends up with Genesis other than Jesse. It’s a ridiculous fight and it follows such standard beats that it’s hard to feel like any part of it is meaningful. It’s meant to be silly and not much else. The protagonist has been in fights plenty of times before and we’ve seen the negative consequences of him losing them — he gets captured, he gets hurt, he loses something dear to him, he’s incapacitated while something horrible happens, he ends up in the Coffin, etc. If a fight’s outcome is unclear, it’s tense. However, we know Jesse’s not going to lose this fight, because if he loses it, he dies. There aren’t any consequences other than death, and Jesse’s the main character in a series where dying means fairly little, so death is not a compelling consequence on its own. Even if the outcome is apparent, combat can still be engaging if it’s choreographed well and individual moments hold tension. Thinking back to the fight with Pat the torturer in Viktor, the fight was still engaging even though we knew implicitly that Jesse was going to win, and the reason was because of its execution. However, again, the fight with Allfather is meant to be silly. There are few moments that aren’t predictable, and even something like getting hurt lacks consequence. The highest the stakes ever get is, “Will Jesse find a way to kill Allfather now or a few seconds from now?”
As I’ve mentioned before, a lighthearted, low-stakes tone isn’t a bad thing on its own. This series has maneuvered the same gratuitous humor based in gore and cartoonish behavior to powerful effect. The chainsaw fight in the episode See and the motel fight in Sundowner are as gory and excessive as any other bloody confrontation, but they also incorporate other elements of the narrative. The confrontation in See builds up Cassidy as an unreliable, violent character who’s nonetheless concerned for Jesse’s safety and willing to take responsibility for his own messes. The scenario sets up a precedent for the characters’ relationship, creates a baseline for other plot points, and demonstrates the overall tone of the series. Tolerance for bodies and blood are a prerequisite for getting to the meat of this series (pun very much intended), not necessarily because the absurd, grotesque elements can’t be separated from the rest of the piece, but because the show creators decided to use them as part of the series’ aesthetic. It’s gross, and sometimes that’s mildly amusing. Often it isn’t, but when it’s firing on all cylinders, the series uses everything it has to its advantage. Intestines as a siphon? Yeah, let’s use it as a joke, a boding moment, and for visual and conceptual paralleling.
I just don’t think this episode is making full use of its ridiculousness like that.
Okay, so since I’m a nitpicker and an asshole, let’s just run down a quick (haha, no, it’s actually stupidly long) list of the little things in the episode I thought failed in their delivery:
- The Allfather-Jesse fight at the start of the episode is tired and not very well-paced or shot. Conceptually it leaves a lot to be desired. We’ve only seen this character in about five other episodes and while his buildup is appropriately proportional to his time on screen, his role within the story is not. Why is Starr afraid of him? Especially if he’s this gullible and apparently delusional. While he certainly delivers on the idea of being all-powerful and influential by way of his servants and effect on Starr, his end is inharmonious with that image. He’s defeated easily and without much buildup.
- Speaking of Allfather — and this isn’t unique to this episode or even the show, but it doesn’t look like the series is going to explore it further, so I might as well bring it up now — his character design is kind of morally repugnant, and not in the way the series wants it to be. I can get behind him being an imposing figure and I think his expressions and speech mannerisms are sufficient to convey his presence, but his character is also tied up in him being obese, which the audience is supposed to think is both funny and disgusting. Obese characters, especially villains, are often designed to be overweight because of stereotypes coding them as greedy, filthy, unrestrained, single-minded, privileged, and lazy, even though most characters portrayed in films and television are notably thin by default. Fatness is portrayed as an ugly, shameful thing, which is derisive because by this point we are well aware of the complex genetics, economics, politics, and medical systems that affect obesity. On top of that, Allfather is implied to be bulimic, and this is also coded as a disgusting, morally repugnant thing. Bulimia is an eating disorder and about as morally repugnant as the flu. You don’t treat flu by shaming it out of people. The books do this too, and it bothers me there as well.
- Since when have Eugene and Tulip ever had a conversation with one another? How does he even know her name? They were definitely in the same general vicinity back in Annville once or twice, but Tulip only started to become involved in the church’s affairs around the time Jesse sent Eugene to Hell. Jesse never talked to Eugene about Tulip that we know of, nor does it seem likely he ever would have off-screen. While it’s nice that Eugene and Tulip get some bonding time, and they could hypothetically discuss Annville, Eugene declaring anything concrete about her feels disingenuous, and with good reason.
- Surely Eccarius has seen a James Bond film before, right? Yes, we’ve established that his capacity for logic is pretty damn low based on his bloody garbage pillow and ash bodies, but tying someone up to die some hours later while a deadly light beam slowly crosses the room, and then leaving with all of your minions? Come on, that’s Failed Villain Plots 101.
- Crucifixion in a story with Christian religious imagery. Subtle.
- Again, this isn’t the first time the idea is brought up, but vampires drinking blood being likened to drug addiction is an established cliche. The series already treats drug abuse with a comedic tone because Cassidy can’t overdose (or at least can’t die from it), and it has yet to demonstrate whether it can handle the heavier subject matter that comes up with the effects drug abuse has on a person. The series has tried to push into that realm with nudges here and there, like Cassidy blacking out drunk and smoking crack in isolated locations, but those scenes can be somewhat hit-or-miss. Adding a fantasy element of a fake drug on top of that clouds the point the series is trying to get at with its use of drugs and alcohol. Because Cassidy is the only notable addict character in the series (Jesse is implied to have a drinking problem in Season One, but this has been largely ignored since then), his use of drugs reflects on him as a character. Drug addiction in this series is depicted as something that’s initially enjoyable and seems mostly harmless, prompting the characters and audience to dismiss it despite their full awareness of the potential dangers, presumably leading to a demonstration at some point of how hazardous it really is. It’s no coincidence that Cassidy’s interactions with the other characters parallel this same trend. Linking this concept to him being a vampire isn’t a wholly bad idea, but it can waver between being too far separated from the real-world parallel and too overt to be meaningful.
- Tulip finds the bus stop immediately. How? More importantly, she ends up on the bus because of yet more plot contrivances that lead Death to recognize her as she’s walking away with the briefcase. Again, how does Eugene know her name? I get her feeling sorry for almost sending someone to Hell (it’s arguably more than Jesse’s done), but how much nonsense has to fall into place for Jody to get the case of souls while Tulip still ends up on the bus?
- Did Jody’s car hit some writer’s block and that’s why it broke down conveniently so that he’d arrive at Angelville at the same time as Jesse? Because it just sort of seemed to stop. I’m not convinced it hit anything physical.
- Why did Eccarius even bother putting Cassidy in the coffin and letting him find his way out? The only way he gets Les Infants to agree to murder him is by lying to them with absolutely no evidence or anything, and they seem perfectly happy to go along with it. Why not tie him up while he’s unconscious? Also, the scene where Eccarius lies to the vampire nerds is one of the most needlessly cringe-inducing scenes in the entire series. It’s not that I doubt the minions would believe their faithful leader regardless of what he says (though I still don’t buy that none of them have found a bloody pillow lying around and wondered about it). I just don’t need any more of that sort of false equivalency and baseless rhetoric. I get enough of it whenever a certain tangelo open its mouth, thank you very much.
- The sound design has gone back to being silly, and it’s dragged the cinematography along for the ride. Admittedly, the screen I was watching on may have played a small role (dear god I despise motion interpolation — 24 frames per second is fine! Who on earth decided everything needs to look like a sitcom now?). Even so, the blocking is often unclear, especially relative to other episodes in the series, the camera is occasionally wobbly for unclear reasons, and the frames often feel cluttered or almost empty. Cuts are also more noticeable, especially where props like Death’s whip are involved. All around, it looks like this episode was on a much smaller budget than the others.
- Which doesn’t help when the episode insists on using far more overt CGI than most of the rest of the series. Why does the bus need to go into fog? It certainly doesn’t seem to be stuck in the fog for very long given the Nazi tank that blows it up seems to be on an ordinary country road. I assume the episode uses fog because the scenes inside the bus were filmed in a studio and a fog background is easier to create than a realistic road, but it can’t be so much cheaper that creating a fog for the bus to go into is covered in that cost, right? And why do we need people with skull faces and halos in a montage that could be described without visuals of any sort to the same effect? Why do we need illustrations detailing a plan that is really pretty simple and also could have been described verbally to the same effect? I understand that these visuals take time and I don’t like shitting on a person for doing their job. It’s not that they look particularly bad — some of them look kind of cheap, but they could easily work if they were incorporated early-on when the show was developing its aesthetic. Only, the show has an established aesthetic, and these effects are being used for the ninth episode of the third season. Why???
- Out of the new effects, the sound-wave wobble when Jesse uses Genesis clashes the most. There’s no story-based explanation for why Genesis would work differently now other than perhaps reflecting Jesse’s subconscious. He’s got his power back, he’s feeling confident, and he’s motivated. I can get that. But it doesn’t work consistently in this new way — on at least one occasion, the echoing voice effect is used while the sound wobble is not. So, is he just directing it more pointedly at Starr, then? Maybe. But he also uses it later when he’s trying to get a ride (also, can we appreciate for a moment that he’s enough of a dick to divert a fire engine for his own non-time-sensitive issues?). The effect isn’t subtle and it distracts quite a bit, calling attention to the shot while also distorting it. It might be a suitable way to signal that Jesse’s getting more familiar and capable with the ability, but I don’t know if that works within the story. Genesis is designed to be overpowered, the sort of thing a supervillain would normally have, and Jesse’s already pretty damn familiar with it. I suppose the effect also makes it more apparent to deaf viewers when he’s using Genesis, which I can’t knock, but again, it’s not consistent. Show, what are you doing?
With all of the discussion of a change in tone and style to reflect ridiculous plot elements, it might be tempting to ask whether the show has jumped the proverbial shark.
The answer is yes, of course it has. Many times. The show jumped the shark partway through the pilot at least twice, and has been doing so in various ways ever since. The concept behind introducing increasingly bizarre or artificially tense story elements in a series is often to defibrillate a dying show that has lost its initial charm. While Preacher is sliding away from its dramatic and horror roots, the odd elements in this episode aren’t anything unusual for the series. It’s not adding more weird elements, and it might be ramping some of them up, but by this point oddity is par for the course. Nazi tanks? Well, yeah, sure. They’ll fit right between our Hitler and evil German Bond villain. If this series makes it to four or five seasons without somehow introducing sharks, dinosaurs, and/or dragons, I’m going to be a little disappointed to be honest.
The issue here is not that silly, stupid, or just plain strange elements are cropping up in the show. The issue is that these elements aren’t what the audience is here to see. The character relationships, their vulnerabilities and the slow drive to open up to one another — and the failure to do so — that is what keeps the audience coming back. Without anything for the characters to do, all we’re left with is intestines and flying pigs.
Part Two: RELEASE THE INBRED JESUS CLONES!
In its defense, while the series still has yet to release the bees, we’ve gotten the second best thing: releasing the Jesuses. As much as I’m disappointed in the direction and delivery of the episode, there are fleeting shots and crumbs of dialogue that form stepping stones between the quality content the series has set up and the potential it could deliver.
Jesse’s solution to the poorly-defined problem of how to incapacitate Humperdoo hits every necessary beat and gives us two excellent scenes. First, shortly after regaining and testing Genesis, Jesse moves in to assassinate Humperdoo. No one can stop him, but he can’t bring himself to do it. Humperdoo is an innocent person, and Jesse’s morality interferes, guilt tripping him into finding an alternative solution where no one has to die. The idea is simple, the camera shot is simple, and it’s just as deep and shallow as it needs to be to suit the character. As I mentioned earlier, Jesse isn’t really a nice person, he just wants to be. Doing things he knows are universally reviled often gnaw at him, but only when he has time to reflect on them. It’s perfectly possible that Jesse struggles to kill Humperdoo not just because he’s innocent, but also because he’s related to Jesus and Jesse still very much believes in at least the idea of an omnipotent God. His resolution is beautifully timed and executed, with thousands of identical Humperdoos walking out into the street, more or less indistinguishable from the real deal. If you’re going to make use of your clone army, you might as well do it with a laugh.
Jesse also gets a few good lines here and there, grounding the episode in text where visuals frequently fail. Much as it pains me to know that we’re not going to see an array of increasingly silly hats from Starr, Jesse’s Genesis-fueled order of, “No more hats,” is up there as one of the more succinct comic lines of the series. The scene that follows is a reminder of how the show can incorporate past episodes (through Featherstone’s abundance of wigs), the books (frames of the episode directly call back to some of the book’s paneling, which is one of the experimental features in the episode that actually works), and the characters’ interrelationships to deliver rich comedy in mere seconds. I’d been missing that.
As much as I’ve harped on the Eccarius scenes, which are truly mismatched for the most part, some of his dialogue with Cassidy is far better than it has any right to be. He makes it abundantly clear that his still cares very much for Cassidy and sees eating the other vampires as an addiction — specifically one he embraces and excuses because he doesn’t want to stop. When he realizes he can’t convince Cassidy to see things his way, he admits to it being a flaw, begging for acceptance or at least some small amount of sympathy. If there’s anyone in the world who should know where he’s coming from, it’s Cassidy, right? If only.
The episode never verifies blood as addictive nor directly addresses what Cassidy’s bounds on forgiveness for addicts are, but he clearly has intimate familiarity with both. The show depicts him as self-conscious about his addiction and implies that however bad it may be now, it was far worse in the past. He knows this, he feels guilty about it, and he tries to avoid things that send him down that path, but he lacks the support to commit to it. He doesn’t seem to like being an addict, but boredom, isolation, and social conventions keep him from even admitting that he’d rather be sober and spend time with people he cares about. Now he has one of those people coming to him for help on the same issue he’s struggling with, and he has no sympathy whatsoever.
Implicitly, we know Cassidy has eaten people for fun. We’ve gotten enough hints from him trying to dismiss the idea that vampires like blood or that he himself has killed people, even though we’ve seen that both are true. Him yelling at Eccarius for eating others is him yelling at himself for it. Like with Denis, Eccarius brings up too many bad memories (that exact line reveals a similar concern in the books concerning Eccarius), and to Cassidy, a person like him is beyond redemption. He’s stuck with himself and unable to face his own guilt, but he can project that onto others and punish them for it. That he opts to take away Eccarius’ future victims is a signifier of Cassidy’s core character — he is empathetic and doesn’t like to see other people get hurt, especially when he feels somehow responsible. However, he’s willing to turn on Eccarius far before the latter turns on him, not out of some sense of justice, but because he sees Eccarius as a reflection of himself, and he doesn’t like what he sees. He knows what comes of forgiving Eccarius or giving him the benefit of the doubt because he’s been on the other end of this conversation.
As a last aside to interesting character moments, we have Tulip interacting with the Saint for the first time since On Your Knees. Her anxiety about the Saint and her harmful attempts to deal with him nearly killing her was a prominent part of the previous season. However, that subplot seemed to be resolved when the Tulip confronted him directly and later in the same episode when he was sent back to Hell. She even proclaims in this episode that she’s no longer afraid of him and uses him as a tool to break out of the bus by continually insulting him. The visuals convey something very different, though. The Saint no longer has a beef with her because he’s outsourced his vengeance on Jesse, and he never really had a problem with Tulip herself in the first place. She has little power over him and is a pesky nuisance if anything. Tulip’s body language whenever she’s near or interacting with the Saint reads as nervous, even when she’s in control of the situation and using her nervousness to goad him. It’s greatly reduced from how her interactions with the Saint were framed in the previous season, and seems more akin to caution and awareness. Tulip knows how the Saint works now, understands his motivations and his limits. He wouldn’t kill her over some pretty insults, but he’s not going to let her get away with it either. She knows he relies on his presence to keep people in line, so she can steer him into doing what she wants — unlike Death, whom she tries to goad first, despite knowing she’ll ultimately have to incite the Saint. When the bus crashes, he’s the first thing Tulip locates — she’s more afraid of him than any of the other characters on the bus, but it’s a practical, controlled fear. There’s a limit to how much he can hurt her, and she knows it.
With the end of the season approaching, the show still has much to resolve. Ignoring long-term character arcs and backstories for Tulip and Cassidy that are likely to continue up in future seasons, we still have Jesse’s foreshadowed fight with Jody, his relationship with his grandmother, and his and Tulip’s voodoo ties to Angelville to be resolved. Jesse’s relatives, or at least a few of them, need to be defeated so that he and the other protagonists can move on with their lives and the A plot of the series. With the flashbacks cut off after the fourth episode, much about Jesse’s childhood at Angelville is left ambiguous, like at what point he got that tattoo, and what prompted him to run away. How his character is written suggests these would both be pretty important moments. That lighter seemed like it was pretty damn important, too. The characters also really need to move on from New Orleans. We’ve been in it for two seasons now, which is a pity given that the show and the books set themselves up at least partially as a road trip narrative (read this as Hat just wants them to get to New York already). It would be nice to know whether Genesis works properly now or if its failure is tied to Angelville as the last season indicated (the trailer kind of shows its hand, but I can dream, can’t I?). Plot-wise, Starr needs to inherit Allfather’s spot and figure out what to do about the escaped Humperdoos, Jody needs to deliver the souls, Tulip needs to escape the Nazis, Cassidy needs to deal with Eccarius, the Saint needs his weapons back, and, oh yeah, the three protagonists haven’t been in the same room since The Tombs. That might be part of the problem with these last few episodes. Jesse and Cassidy haven’t had more than three heartfelt conversations with one another for the whole season, and the last time they interacted it involved stabbing one another, so yeah, they have some things to work through.
This isn’t a good episode, and the status of things leaves me concerned for the next one, but we’ll see how it goes. Mostly I’m irritated about these last few episodes squandering their potential and leaving so many subplots to be resolved in a single episode or abandoned until the next season. That’s a risky move at this point, even with the success of the previous seasons. It’s something the series has handled well in the past, though, and with Jesse back in Angelville, and the soul and Allfather subplots resolved, I have some hope for this next episode.
Part Three: Let’s Talk About Tulip
I promised it back in Episode Three and with the next season already set up for multiple discussion points whether it wants them or not, now’s as good of a time as any to discuss a feminist reading of this series. Tulip’s role in this episode isn’t especially important in the grand scheme of things, but it does a good job of summarizing her relationships with femininity and being a female character in an action series. Mostly, though, I just want to briefly look back on the show and books and discuss how they treat female characters, femininity, and the concept of feminism in general.
Okay, like with the discussion of queer subtext, I’m going to start with the books, so spoilers and all that. As though you really care at this point.
The Preacher book series features a golden trio of protagonists, which here I’m defining as a protagonist with a male and female side character each connected to them. Many things in writing come in threes (just look at the title of this review series), and characters are well suited to it. If you have just two main characters, you can only get three types of scenarios out of them (A alone, B alone, A and B together). With one more character, you get seven scenarios (A, B, C, AB, AC, BC, and ABC). That’s not so many that juggling the characters becomes unruly, but it’s enough that you can introduce new content simply by having two characters alone together. Often, this involves romantic tension, especially when one character is male and another female.
In a mixed-sex trio (most of which involve binary genders in major franchises), the protagonist is rarely a different gender from both of the others in the trio. Usually they share a gender and assumed gender stereotypes with one of the others, and this person becomes the best friend. The one who’s a different gender is usually the love interest to either the protagonist or the best friend (usually the protagonist, sometimes both). This plays into cultural concepts about gender roles defining the sorts of interactions people have, and in stories where adhering to gender roles is important to the protagonist, the love interest is usually isolated as a character but highly desirable as an object — more so in stories where the protagonist is male. It’s not a good thing, but it’s a thing nonetheless.
Okay, so clearly Preacher follows this mold in its setup, both for the books and the show. Tulip is a bit player in the first few books, there mainly to serve as motivation for Jesse and later Cassidy. She’s introduced almost immediately as an object for Jesse to acquire, which he feels entitled to and eventually gets. She dies at the end of the first book to motivate him after they’re both kidnapped, and over the course of the rest of the series, Jesse abandons her against her will twice, and Cassidy hits on her, assaults her, and holds her captive. She serves as a love interest to both of the male characters and ends up in a bad shape from both relationships. The two male characters end the story having supposedly grown, while Tulip, who clearly needs to move on from both of them, fails to grow in a similar way. The male protagonists are arguably more central to the story and get more complete arcs. This is even sewn into their character designs, as they each have very distinct costumes and supernatural powers that reflect on their personalities. Tulip only gets guns.
It would be so easy to call Tulip a sexy lamp character, only there to motivate any character with a dick, but crucially, despite what I’ve just laid out, she is not. Even in Book One, which is the sloppiest as far as her character is concerned, she still has a personality with a good deal of depth. I’ve gone over it before, but just from what we learn in the first book, Tulip is wry, serious, uncertain, a vegetarian, a recovered alcoholic, capable, forgiving, moral, empathetic, unyielding, determined, and occasionally gullible. She has enough generally positive traits to make her likable, enough realistic traits to make her sympathetic, and enough flaws to make her relatable and give her character some conflict. Other well-written characters in the series have a similar breakdown of traits, though different ones. She develops as the series progresses, becoming more self-reliant and aware than the two male protagonists, and far less passive within the plot. The last two books especially allow Tulip to shine, showing off not only what she adds to the team, but why it’s important that she’s the third protagonist in the series. She survives a traumatic event and comes to terms with it in a way neither of the male protagonists ever approach for their own problems. She takes out Starr single-handedly while the other two protagonists are fighting each other over her.
Tulip is treated like a sexy lamp by characters in the story, but she demonstrates time and again that this is their misconception of her. She calls people out when they treat her like one. Her entire relationship with Jesse is predicated on the notion that he thinks of her as a delicate flower that needs protecting, and Cassidy pulls manipulative friendzone rhetoric the first time they’re in a room alone together. She rejects the things these and other men assume about her and pushes back against them when they think of her as an object. Men can’t get what they want from Tulip unless she’s on board with it. The only exceptions are when she’s physically vulnerable, a state Jesse and Cassidy both use for their own means explicitly against her will. She takes their infringement on her person very seriously, only forgiving Jesse because of her attraction to him, which she admits is a personal flaw. Tulip ends up as a well-rounded character mistreated by those around her, sometimes including, intentionally or otherwise, the creators of the series.
The series emphasizes the theme of masculinity, often deconstructed as propagator of the violence and narrow-mindedness that leads to so much turmoil for the characters. The male protagonists only grow by rejecting the toxic masculinity they’ve come to embody, and feminism is brought up as a direct talking point on multiple occasions. Jesse proclaims himself a feminist and at least tries to talk to Tulip on equal terms, but his upbringing in a society that heavily stratifies gender roles shapes his actions in ways he often seems unable to resist. His idolization of his father and John Wayne makes him view Tulip as a thing to be protected. By getting more in touch with his femininity at the end of the series, he gets closer to being in a stable, egalitarian lifestyle with Tulip, but the things he holds on to suggests that he’s not fully there yet. Tulip, pushed by her hope in Jesse’s self-driven efforts to become a better person, and by her own vices in falling for him, decides to give him another chance. The series ends on a bittersweet note with the potential for the characters to obtain happiness, but reminders that they still have a ways to go.
The other female characters in the books are notably less important than most of the male characters. Of the six major recurring characters, Tulip is the only woman. Featherstone, Amy, and Jesse’s mother are the only other significant female characters who feature in more than one book, and Jesse’s mother has a fairly small role in the larger story. Most of the female characters are love interests to another character and many of them are mothers, each with varying degrees of utility within the plot. However, nearly all of the named female characters have some initiative of their own and all have distinct personalities. I appreciate the series trying to make them feel like human beings. It’s not something that deserves praise, but it serves as an effective lock to create a new minimum of effort for female characters. If a story can’t reach even this level of basic respect for its characters, it’s not a story I’d find worth reading.
On to the show.
The show makes several important changes to Tulip’s character. The most significant of these is the choice to have Tulip assimilate many of Jesse’s traits from the books, so now she’s the one who’s trying to jump-start their relationship, and the one who’s quick to violence, and the one who’s concerned about her masculinity. Of the three protagonists in the show, Tulip is by far the most stereotypically masculine, and she’s well aware of it. She uses bitch and girl as insults, questions the masculinity of others, likes cars and big guns, and is sexually promiscuous. She embodies toxic masculinity just as much if not more so than the male protagonists, and it causes a litany of problems for her. She’s prone to violence and criminal activity as an assertion of her domination over those around her, and struggles to open up about her feelings with others or even herself. She’d rather suppress a problem than talk it out, and she’s especially touchy about anything that reveals her feminine side. Physical vulnerability cuts to her core, and she’s unlikely to express much outside of anger, irritation, or some form of arrogance.
As in the books, Tulip is a complicated character with interests and motivations far beyond her role within the story. She’s more notably clever than her book counterpart, capable of rigging complex or even dangerous contraptions and knowledgeable about anything involving bank robbery. Her passion for automobiles is a new addition from the books, as are her attitudes toward children and families. A major change in her dynamic with Jesse is that in the show they were stable enough prior to the opening of the series as a couple to be planning a family, but after the miscarriage, they fell apart of their own accord. Jesse being kidnapped and Tulip having to forgive him for it doesn’t come into their relationship at all. When Tulip arrives at Annville at the start of Season One, she’s not even necessarily trying to get back together with him — she wants revenge on the person responsible for her miscarriage, and she feels she owes it to Jesse to give him the same satisfaction.
We see in Season Two that Jesse’s end of the relationship is still misogynistic, but in a somewhat atypical way. He’s content to be a house husband and doesn’t embody the same protective obsessions as book Jesse, but he still views Tulip as a woman who’s main role is to be a good passive wife and produce children. He can’t wrap his head around why she wouldn’t want to become pregnant a second time and give up the dangerous job she loves for something mundane. The masculinity the show adopts, particularly where Jesse is concerned, is a quieter sort of masculinity rooted in religion, but it still produces hazards for the characters. Jesse’s insistence that he’s always right and his inability to empathize when it means admitting his own mistakes often causes him to disregard or outright bully Tulip for standing in his way. He uses Genesis on her multiple times, something he never once did in the books, and something she outright asks him not to do after the first time. He also remains wholly ungrateful for Emily despite the lengths she goes to help him around the church (I mean, she fed her boyfriend to his vampire and the last direct interaction they got was a conversation about guinea pigs. Not even a thanks).
Tulip’s role within the love triangle subplot is also worth mentioning, since she makes a clear decision to instigate it and has a platonic relationship with Cassidy throughout the series. Her role in the story is much more involved than just as an object of affection for the male protagonists; she is that, but she doesn’t see herself in that role. She plays a direct part in the search for God and has her own personal problems that periodically crop up. The non-romantic aspects of her relationships with the male characters holds the trio together, and after the first season, she becomes a much more cohesive element between Jesse and Cassidy, the latter of which are not nearly as close of friends as either of their book counterparts nor as close as Tulip and Cassidy in the show. This dynamic sets them all on more equal footing from the start.
That isn’t to say that Tulip’s character or the other female characters within the show are without problem. Tulip remains largely motivated by the men in her life, as evidenced by her constant attempts to free Jesse from his grandmother in this season. She still has daddy issues, she’s still sexualized by male characters in a way none of the male characters are by other characters, and her traditionally masculine traits often take on a different context because of societal double-standards. The male characters treat her promiscuity as a point of shame even though she clearly doesn’t see it that way, and her rashness is punished by the series more often than similar or even less well-considered actions by the male characters. While she’s often more grounded in reality and rational than Jesse and Cassidy (and even at this point has killed far fewer people than either of them), the events in the series are much more likely to frame a bad situation as being caused or exacerbated by Tulip because she’s hot-headed, regardless of the circumstance.
The show features certain female characters in recurring roles throughout a season (like Emily and Jesse’s grandmother), but Featherstone is the only other major recurring female character in the series. Her interactions with Tulip provide a unique dynamic that isn’t explored in the books, something very similar to the relationship Jesse has with Starr in the show, albeit with more venom. Their conversations allow Tulip to occasionally express her vulnerability, though this is usually in the form of embarrassing comebacks and unacknowledged sympathy that provides little catharsis for either character. It’s still meaningful, though, partly because it lacks catharsis.
To get to the point of all of this, whether in the books, show, or both, is Tulip a positive female character portrayal?
Well, not really. There are pretty sizable problems with how she’s written into the story in both media, and at the end of the day, she’s still a sexualized woman in a series that encourages the audience to care more about the male characters, at least at the start. Her character could be better written, as could most of the other female characters in the series. Much of the time, she just feels kind of uninvolved and her subplots are frequently less character-developing than those the male protagonists end up involved with.
That said, the moments that hit home with Tulip’s character are worth twice as much as they are for almost any other character in this series. We’ve seen the archetypes Jesse and Cassidy fill before done about half a hundred times, and as much as I like the strong man who admits he has feelings or the snarky comic relief who ends up very sad, even these days, it’s so rare that I see a character like Tulip done as well as she is.
A few years back, I got into a conversation with a friend where we ended up ranting about how almost every major female character in fiction, especially genre fiction, was either a Damsel in Distress or a Badass Bitch. The Damsel in Distress is archetypically a kindhearted cinnamon roll who’s job in the story is to be a daughter, a lover, and then a mother to the various men in her life; the Badass Bitch is an equally two-dimensional response to the Damsel in Distress who’s all about being sexy and loose and hard-to-get, until she’s inevitably tamed by the right man. I despise these two archetypes to their core — not because they’re always awful, but because they’re everywhere in some form or another. Princess Leia? Damsel. Katniss Everdeen? Bitch. Arwen? Damsel. Black Widow? Bitch. Even supposedly well-written female characters are often just a mix of these two archetypes (*cough*Game of Thrones*cough*), one growing into the other or the story unable to decide which it wanted its love interest character to be.
Obviously, my teenage self was oblivious and inexperienced. There are plenty of interesting female archetypes beyond these two, and even the characters I listed don’t necessarily fill those shoes completely. However, I think there’s still something to learn from my earlier self’s basic observation. Female characters are frequently shoved into love triangles and defined by their romantic relationships to men. I’ve had more than a few comments on my own writing pieces questioning why my female characters aren’t in romantic relationships, even though I’ve never heard the same question come up concerning my many single male characters (I just don’t like writing romance, you guys). A cursory glance at the variety of female characters in fiction for younger audiences gives you a sense of how limiting sexualization overshadowing all other aspects of a character can be — compare Hermione, Chihiro, Moana, and Dory to almost any female superhero. We’re getting better as a culture at equalizing the playing field, but we’re still a long way from satisfaction.
Characters like Tulip who are dynamic and well-rounded despite their story constraints are far from perfect, but I’d gladly take a thousand of them over the likes of last-minute girlfriends. Look, if you insist on writing in a love interest but are still baffled by people with engorged sweat glands (yes, children, that’s what breasts are), then just grow a pair and make your male characters gay. It’s not like you’re low on options — at this point, you kind of have to put in effort to make a female character as poorly written as the likes of Mary-Jane from the Sam Raimi Spider-Man films. Tulip isn’t really a solution, but she’s a step in the right direction. That means a lot to me.