3P Reviews

Humperdoo is on the Loose — 3P Reviews: Preacher, Season Four, Episode Two

Preacher S4 E2 X.png

A dip in quality from the previous episode, this one has a more tenuous grasp on the plot. It originally aired with the premiere, and I’m not entirely clear as to why. Little changes for the characters from their earlier state and the episode consists mostly of a series of disconnected vignettes aiming for some amount of comedy. However, the episode is not without its merits as well; for every amusing little scene that serves no purpose, the show provides a tantalizing glimpse at its potential. Jesse’s reality is untethered, Cassidy is making hollow threats, and Tulip has abandoned her beloved car in a last-ditch effort to save this sorry asshole who could have just walked out of the stronghold on his own twice now. I’m skeptical moving forward. If the series holds true to the lofty promises it’s making, it’ll go out with a bang. If this episode is any indication, though, its conclusion is more likely to be a whimper.

 

3P Reviews Series: Preacher

 

Spoilers: Yes

Audience Assumptions: I’m kind of assuming you’ve been following the show, but do what you like.

 

Season Four

Episode Two: Last Supper – ***

 

Part One: I Visited My Pharmacolologist Just This Morning

Preacher S4 E2 S.png

Let’s be positive and start with the good things. First, even though this is not a particularly interesting episode, it still holds to the series’ impressive visual style. The show has a habit of hunkering down in single locations for a long time, often to the detriment of the narrative, but if it had to pick anywhere, Australia was the place to film. The deserts are utterly gorgeous, and I’m impressed by how much the series manages to make the locations feel appropriate to what it’s depicting in the story.

Going into this season, I was nervous that the limited budget of the show would require cheap sets and only feel Middle Eastern through cringe-worthy stereotypes. This episode introduces the most stereotypical caricatures of the series so far, which I’ll talk about in the next section, but aside from a few gimmicks here and there, it mainly communicates its location through the color palate (good ol’ orange and teal for this season) and the set details. And can I say, the cinematography makes everything look crisp, colorful, and tonally appropriate. Subtle changes in the saturation make the highway Jesse walks along look foreboding, while the silly car fight is highly saturated to make the best of an intentionally dusty sequence and imply a heightened sort of reality. The choice to cast Jesse and Cassidy in scenes lit mostly by ominous gray or blue light as they go on respective quests of destructive self-discovery is also a nice touch.

Okay, I’ve delayed long enough. Story time! As per the previous episode, Cassidy is still stuck in Masada, Tulip is still trying to rescue him, and Jesse has wandered off because of his disturbing dream. After a single-handed escape attempt foiled by his own hand (though curiously not his inability to pull off an obvious pharmicologist’s disguise), Cassidy manages to make his torture simultaneously worse and more ironic by threatening his captor and telling him he’s already been through it all. So, while Cassidy’s getting continually circumcised, Tulip has teamed up with a local to storm the fortress without the help of her boys. Her one-time companion seems uncertain about her desire to declare war on a major historical site in Israel*, but he comes through for her in a bait-and-switch plot that lands her in the Grail infirmary in disguise.

Meanwhile, Jesse wanders the desert in search of an airport, driven by the desire to find a phallic-looking (I’m sensing a theme for this season…) rock formation in Australia. When he gets to the airport, he realizes he’s left his father’s lighter in a truck he hitchhiked with. With the unsolicited help of his pilot, he tracks down the name on the van and ends up in Jesus de Sade’s House of Entertainment. The pilot points out a trapped boy in one of the house’s windows, and Jesse, lighter retrieved, reluctantly goes to save him. Skipping through how he does that, Jesse ends up on his own private flight to Australia. I’m sure everything went fine.

A few small sequences stand out, notably Jesse’s, which are tinged with surreality. The repeated motif of the approaching plane, always just a bit too close, is an ominous hint of future events — another reference to the books, in which Jesse dies falling out of an airplane. Of course, the show’s reality looks to be much different than the circumstances leading up to the same event in the books, and if the flash forward at the start of the season is any indication, how ominous this plane is stands to be seen.

More striking is that of the child. While hitchhiking, Jesse sees a child on the side of the road huddled over its dog. He demands the truck stop, and it drops him off before driving on. The child holds Jesse up, having trained the dog to play dead as part of a grift. The plane passes, and after it does, we see the child has dropped the gun and the dog has been shot. Presumably the dog was hit by a stray bullet and Jesse was the one to tell the child to drop the gun, but the editing fumbles a bit and makes the execution of events somewhat unclear. This is intentional. The child repeats a line from earlier, adding to the confusion of the scene, and Jesse gives him his wallet and his fancy boots. This is the same child he later sees staring out the window of the Entertainment House.

The scene with the child evokes a few parallels, some of which only appear in the third episode. The most obvious comparison is to the scene from Season One where the Saint of Killers returned to Ratwater to save the settler’s family, which similarly ended badly for the Saint. Shots of Jesse’s feet call back to Jody and T.C., conspicuously without boots for much of the episode, and a deliberate shot of him on the plane, boots now retrieved adds to the unsavory air of his scenes.

 

Part Two: Jesse Tries a Very American Approach to Peace in the Middle East

Preacher S4 E2 E.png

Okay, so we should probably talk about how this season takes place largely in the Middle East and the show seems unsure of what to make of that. I’ve been reluctant to make much comment on how this show handles racial diversity because I am really not the person to make any calls, but I can at least describe what the show does in this area.

Being centered in the United States, specifically Texas, and heavily influenced by the aesthetic of classic westerns and Evangelical Christianity, it’s not especially surprising that the majority of the cast, including minor players, is pretty white. As the comics were created by two white men, it’s even more of a mayonnaise festival there. This has far less to do with actual demographics than it does biases in film and television and remnants of presumed audience expectations from past decades (that prestige television, which I guess this technically fits under, is aimed at a predominantly white, upper-class audience). The books have four notable black characters, but most are temporary players and relegated to minor roles. There are a few very minor Navajo characters, and some nondescript terrorists that I think are implied to be eastern European or northern Middle Eastern. Aside from that, though it’s mostly marshmallows as far as the eye can see.

The books are aware of race and make comment on it occasionally. Racist characters are always framed as villains, notably Sheriff Root, the Angelville characters, and Quincannon and his men, all of whom use the N-word and/or white supremacist iconography. While in the Southwest, a few characters make note of alcohol being illegal on a Navajo reservation, and the man who sells Jesse his peyote remarks briefly on his last name having dire connotations. The Saint of Killers’ subplot involves scalping, exclusively by white people, and the Saint briefly mentions his cynical worldview to his future wife, loosely recognizing the general brutality of westward expansion, including genocide of Native Americans. The series has plenty of caricatures, some of which are offensive, but these are mainly targeted toward white European and American subcultures, rather than minorities. They even move Masada to France so they can make fun of its inhabitants without wading into problematic territory.

That said, the books are not necessarily tactful in their delivery. The hostage-takers seen briefly in Starr’s backstory have distinctly Arabic-sounding names and attack an Israeli plane. The fight with Starr at monument valley leads Jesse to effectively destroy the entire Navajo reservation and kill thousands by accident. Aside from all of the black characters filling minor rolls and the dearth of other prominent non-white figures (including basically any major players), the amount of racist iconography and slurs is more than a little gratuitous. The story spends a lot more time beating on racists (which, I mean, fair) than it does elevating good representation of minority characters.

The show makes a few improvements on its source material, most notably in casting a black actor in the role of Tulip, who was white in the books, and by increasing Hoover’s role in the story. A few minor characters who crop up across the seasons are POC, and the show generally diversifies its extras as well. However, unlike the books, it’s reluctant to give much commentary on race. A few odd phrases or looks slip across every now and then, but for the first two seasons, the show doesn’t really bring it up. Hitler exists as a recurring character, but more as some slimy denizen of Hell than specifically the eugenic murderer he was. As for the minority characters it does have, I haven’t heard many thoughts on how they hold up. Tulip is something of a stereotypical sassy black woman, which I can completely understand viewers finding distasteful, especially given the book character is less confrontational and violent. I’ve always seen Tulip as a fairly well-rounded character who plays into the stereotype intentionally as a coping mechanism, and who gets scenes of emotional openness that paint her as a more nuanced figure. Admittedly, though, her portrayal is probably the least consistent of the three protagonists and the show frequently seems like it doesn’t quite know what to do with her, and I don’t begrudge anyone who finds the way she’s written to be problematic.

As of Season Three, the show starts to make more overt references to race-specific issues. Voodoo is a bit stereotypical of New Orleans and often framed in an “ooh, isn’t that thing scary?” sort of way, which isn’t great considering its origins lie in a blend of black American and African religions and cultural traditions, and it’s not meant to be inherently insidious as it’s often portrayed in film. In the books, the protagonists go to a black Voodoo practitioner for help, where in the show, the practitioner is Jesse’s grandmother. White people being well-versed in Voodoo is a iffy decision, but the show also implies that the version of Voodoo Jesse’s grandmother uses is something of a corruption of the actual thing. She used her position as a wealthy white land owner to steal spells and business from traditional Voodoo practitioners in the area, all of whom seem to be black. However, this season also reveals that Tulip’s father was unreliable and occasionally violent, and her mother was a white prostitute who resented her. The show has not explored this idea much further. The few named black characters that appear in this season also die violently, save for Tulip. The third season’s brief foray to Japan is a bit cringe, both in specifically associating sexual harassment with Japan while not bringing it up in the US at all, and in mangled attempts at Japanese. It’s brief, but it probably won’t play well in coming decades. All that said, Tulip fighting off Nazis and Trump supporters with Death and the Saint of Killers is still pretty fucking amazing.

So after all of that, we end up with Season Four set in the Middle East, Masada in particular. Going into this season, I was concerned it would spend too long with Jesse and Tulip playing tourist before even arriving at the mountain fortress, but it skipped through pretty much all of the logistics of getting there. I don’t mind this, and it’s honestly a little funny how the show suggests it needs no explanation for how Tulip’s car got from Louisiana to Masada. The visuals might as well suggest they just drove. The architecture and set decorations, along with the way the show films the desert, implies a broadly Middle Eastern aesthetic, with only one distinctly non-white new character (the bar owner).

While Jesse and Tulip take over the Grail operatives visiting the bar, they leave the bar owner out of it and he comes back in this episode to worry over Tulip. With Jesse gone, the man continues to remark that Tulip should wait for her husband and shouldn’t act so rashly. Eventually, he calls the Grail on her, then gives her a heads-up. This turns out to be a bait-and-switch, mainly for the benefit of the audience; Tulip, after fiddling with her car a bit, leads the Grail on a merry chase and a goofy little car-based fight sequence, only to reveal that it was the bartender driving her car all along as part of the plan to sneak Tulip in among the casualties. The ending of this whole sequence is kind of cute, with the worried bartender not being nearly as misogynistic as implied by his dialogue, and his call to the Grail presumably agreed upon with Tulip.

Jesse’s Middle Eastern companions in this episode are a bit less nuanced. After the incident with the kid (whom the white woman Jesse’s hitchhiking with remarks racistly “is probably a terrorist or something”), Jesse gets a ride from a man on a camel. This man sees his neighbor, who of course he hates because the other man is a Muslim. Jesse, confused, asks if the man he’s with isn’t also a Muslim, to which the man replies, “I am Coptic.”

There is something deeply satisfying in the show pointing out to its protagonist, Yeah, where did you think your own religion came from, asshat? Italy? It never ceases to amaze me how many Americans are woefully unaware that Islam has the same religious basis as Judaism and Christianity, and this scene is kind of trying to call attention to that. However, it does so in perhaps the most ham-fisted way, with both men yelling at each other and nearly coming to blows until Jesse uses Genesis to declare that they must be friends. The Muslim man attacks anyway, killing Jesse’s companion before being crushed by his own camel. *S~y*m~b*o~l*i~s*m~. Yeah, so two Middle Eastern men brutally dying over petty infighting and ineptitude is probably the most cartoonishly offensive this show has gotten so far, and I really don’t look forward to more of it. I’m not especially surprised, but it seems like there could have been many smarter ways to present the situation, if it needed to be here at all. Which it didn’t.

I do genuinely like that Jesse is forced to face the fact that he cannot personally solve decades of turmoil in the Middle East simply by forcing people to be friends, because of course he fucking can’t, he doesn’t even speak the language or bother to see what language that might be. Jesse has consistently sought simple solutions to complex problems, and even after all he’s been through with Annville, New Orleans, and Angelville, he’s ill-equipped to actually handle anything with delicacy. His solutions to issues tend to be direct, and they tend to be less of solutions to the issue at hand than ways to make the issue stop bothering him personally. I get what the show was going for, but I heavily question the delivery. There’s a bit of positivity and nuance to the few Middle Eastern characters in this season so far, but they also play heavily into stereotypes to the point where I question what the main takeaway of most audience members would be. Cringe, I would imagine.

 

Part Three: Do We Have Time for Jurassic Car? Apparently We Do.

Preacher S4 E2 M

To be honest, though, there aren’t a lot of cringeworthy moments, nor are there many highlights. The least of this episode is far from the least of the series, ridiculous and off-putting as some of the material may be. It’s biggest crime is being bland; there isn’t a lot to dig into because even the few nuanced scenes or ideas the episode toys around with remain superficial. Perhaps the season will twist future events in a way that gives these new context in retrospect. The show has done that plenty of times in the past and been better for it.

The big difference here is that I’m having difficulty seeing it. When the series was more tightly written and had an open future, any little action could lead in multiple directions. Denis, for instance, could be a play on the Eccarius plot, an exploration of Cassidy’s history, a lead-in to Les Infants, a reference to a brief aside in the books, a MacGuffin, a ticking clock, character motivation, and a danger element. The character ended up being all of these things to one degree or another, and the Denis subplot has had echoes in later subplots.

However, starting with Season Three, I’m afraid the series has lost some of the interconnectedness that made earlier subplots compelling. The show continues to make promises, and likewise calls back to previous seasons, but now that its time is limited, the excess seems especially unwarranted. As much as it’s in-character for Starr to execute an unfortunate Kiwi with the slightest provocation, I struggle to see the purpose of this scene. We know Starr’s a bastard, we know he wields ultimate power, and we know his motivations are extremely petty. What does this scene do that others so far this season have not?

This year is something of a graveyard of television series, long-running and otherwise. While none of them have landed with quite the same thud as Game of Thrones, a lot of them are having difficulty wrapping up their narratives. The problem generally comes down to many shows knowing that they want a final season but not but not having anything to do with it, or knowing what they want to do and not having the time or budget. I kind of get the sense that Preacher may be both simultaneously. It all comes back to the show’s first season, and the uncertainty about the show’s direction from there. I’m not sure what would have happened if it have been greenlit for a set number of seasons ahead of time, but at the very least, the show creators would have had more time to refine the script so they could make better use of the time they had. I get a strong sense that the scenes that feel like filler probably are just that.

To my knowledge, the final season wasn’t greenlit until early this year, meaning to get the season out at its usual time, the production would have had about seven months to get pre-production, script writing, shooting, editing, special effects, and anything else needed done. That is really not a long time, even for a well-established series with a stable cast and crew. A ten-hour action series with a lot of varied camera angles and stunts takes a lot of work and pre-planning, especially if it’s going to be filmed internationally with more locations and special effects than previous seasons.

If something’s going to suffer in that crunch, it’s likely to be the writing. Episodes of a television show are often filmed more or less simultaneously, meaning it’s useful to keep major characters in separate scenes so the actors can do all of the shots they need for a particular location across the season in a short span of time. Characters stuck on their own tend to struggle to tell compelling stories, especially when the appeal of the series is character interaction. But it’s a lot easier to do when you have a limited timeframe for filming (this is part of why that strange fourth season of Arrested Development is so oddly structured — busy actors with tight schedules). When you need to get to filming as soon as possible, it’s also a lot more difficult for the showrunners to keep the project focused, as they’ll have less time to set up a framework for the season as a cohesive whole. Writers have less time in the writer’s room to nail down scripts before they’re sent out for each episode, meaning they’re more likely to contain rough ideas and less likely to fit together effectively. If the production is rushed enough, filling out individual episodes can also be a challenge, as the audience expects episodes to be a particular length but some story beats may be irregularly spaced together.

I think that’s what’s happening here, as the show has had difficulty since Season Two spacing out its story effectively. The show tends to hit certain story beats at certain times throughout the season, meaning intense episodes are exceptionally intense, but lighter episodes have a lot of filler, even if the season is short. The previous season was a major casualty of the show’s struggle to keep up compelling narrative drives in all of the subplots at the same time, with one character often having something to do while the others just sort of dawdled while waiting their turn for their narrative moment.

So, optimistically, this episode may just be a dud where the show needs to have a transition into later events, but wasn’t able to come up with anything particularly deep to fill that transition. If the show is doing what I suspect and running the Masada subplot for the first half of the season before having Tulip and Cassidy go off on the run and later reunite with Jesse, this is about where I would expect the season to be weakest. Of course, previous seasons have generally been weakest in their second and fourth fifths, with peaks in the opening, middle, and ending. And it still stands to be seen whether the show will continue its general downward slide, or whether it can make good on its promises.

I’m less easy about the rest of the final season after this episode, but you know what? Making shows is fucking hard, and I commend this series for getting as far as it has. It’s having a bit of fun, and that it’s maintained the levels of quality it has over the whole course of its run, especially in its visuals, is genuinely impressive. Like with the first episode, I tried to watch this one with a cynical eye, but despite plenty of material worth criticizing, the episode didn’t make me angry or repulsed or like I was wasting my time. I’m sure it might for some people. It’s that kind of show, and it has been for a while. I’m not fond of all of the decisions it’s making, but I’m more than willing to ride this wave to its end.

 

*I should preface this by saying I am woefully unqualified to make any substantial comments on the inner workings of Israel, Palestine, and the surrounding countries, but as the site of Masada is currently located in the region claimed by Israel and not the region claimed by the State of Palestine, I’m going to say that it’s in Israel. It is worth noting that the region containing Masada was historically called Palestine, though is not, to my knowledge, currently disputed by the State of Palestine. I’m also referring to anywhere in the show outside of Masada (but still in the desert) as vaguely “the Middle East,” in part because it’s not clear what country Jesse is in when he’s trying to get to the airport.

Advertisements

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s