3P Reviews

Cowards – Preacher, Season Four, Episode Three

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Not all is well with this episode, but it’s much more of what I’d expect from this series: wacky and lightly offensive nonsense filmed beautifully, juxtaposed with moments of existential dread for both the characters and the audience. The season isn’t out of the woods by any means, with the characters all in fundamentally the same positions they were in Masada, and some new developments questionable. However, the cadence of this episode plays to the merits of the series as a whole and illuminates the way forward a bit. It’s also fun, yeah? Well, sort of.

 

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 Three: Deviant – *****

 

Part One: It’s Truly Astonishing That They’ve Managed to Make a Cowboy Look Completely Out of Place in TEXAS

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I went back and forth on this episode for some time, hence the lateness of this review (well, that and I was also busy and behind anyway). This one is much more to the level of quality I’ve come to expect of this series, with a few showcase moments juxtaposed against light comedy and a plot that seems uncannily simplistic at first but rapidly expands with the gentlest prodding. Its issues mainly lie in how it delivers its story.

Fundamentally, nothing has changed since the previous episode. In fact, so little has happened plot-wise that I’m surprised the show didn’t combine the first few episodes into just one or two. Cassidy is still imprisoned, Tulip is still trying to save him, and Jesse is still en route to Australia. This episode is a reflective one, with each of the characters getting some time to breathe and consider where they’re at in their lives. The series tends to do pretty well with this sort of episode.

Tulip is, as usual, the neglected protagonist. She has broken into the Grail in disguise, but before she can run off to search for Cassidy, she has to get the go-ahead from a Grail doctor, which includes a psychological evaluation. Even for this show, a character receiving a cartoonish psych eval for the duration of the episode is a bit strange. Functionally, I think this is meant to give Tulip something to do while other plot threads get into position for her to interact with them — namely Cassidy being transferred to another cell.

Narratively, Tulip’s evaluation is whatever you make of it, though it’s worth noting the relative shallowness of this development doesn’t lend favorably to its implications. Tulip initially seems to be dicking around with the doctor who insists upon the evaluation, describing the Rorschach ink blots* all as gruesome gore. As she starts to get into it, the doctor asks her a few questions and tells her she has a whole host of severe diagnoses. What is the audience to think about that?

It’s a bit condescending to think that Tulip needs some Fascist religious organization to tell her she’s got a whole laundry list of things wrong with her, especially considering that she’s arguably the most well-adjusted of the protagonists. However, I come away from the scene seeing it as a moment of rare openness for Tulip. Of the three, she’s the one whose issues are largely rooted in how others think of her as opposed to her own internal vices. As we’ve seen in previous seasons, Tulip’s problem is that she lacks emotional support. Throughout much of her life, her relationship to her friends and family has been unstable and frequently one-sided, with Tulip dependent on people who take her for granted. Jesse and Cassidy do this constantly, viewing Tulip as an object to be fought over. Meanwhile, when Tulip has a friend to confide in like Victor or Jenny, please who, to her knowledge, have no ulterior motives and will be there for her when she needs them, her tendency to revert to crime dissipates and she seems content to spend time on her actual hobbies, like mechanics and games.

In that sense, Tulip is almost a few regular therapy sessions away from being fine. Obviously a Grail doctor isn’t the best solution, but he seems more or less competent as far as the framing is concerned, so it’s plausible that Tulip would welcome a diagnosis, unrealistic as the scene otherwise is. It’s less about the show stating that something is wrong with Tulip specifically, and more about providing Tulip a safe space or at least letting her know they’re available outside of her fuckbois.

I think it’s also worth noting that the episode leaves it ambiguous as to whether Tulip escapes the medical wing or works up some agreement with the doctor. The validity of the doctor is ambiguous, to the point where the somewhat condescending tone of the scene may be attributed to him. What matters is what Tulip gets out of the experience.

Elsewhere in Masada, Cassidy enlightens the angel sharing his cell with some of his backstory. I’ve been thinking since the end of Season Three that this exact sequence was going to be inevitable, and while it roughly plays out as I would have predicted, I’m not entirely sure what to make of it.

The story goes as such: Cassidy grew up in a small cottage in Ireland with the requisite fifteen family members of any poor Catholic family, and when the Irish war for independence broke out in the 1910s, he went off to war with some guy named Billy. Though full of fire for the cause initially, his taste for war was quickly soured when his friend’s foot was blown off and Cassidy abandoned him to the British. He immediately deserted and got attacked by a swamp monster while hiding from some British officers. Guess what that swamp monster turned out to be?

So there’s a little bit to unpack, but admittedly my own uncertainty about this flashback comes down to how it compares to the source material. The scene is rushed and unclear even if you’re seeing it fresh, and short as it is, it’s still full of odd choices and cliches. For instance, when though we see Cassidy’s family and he has a quick exchange with his mother before leaving, they don’t feel like anything more than a stereotypical old-timey Irish family. His relationship with Billy is never really explored, and he does all of jack shit before deciding he’s not cut out for war. The dialogue isn’t particularly nuanced, and the scene with the swamp vampire is unusually chaotic for this series, with multiple instances of the creature dragging him into the water before actually biting him.

So I think I would have been disappointed regardless. What kind of ruins the scene for me, though, is that it’s simply outclassed by the book in this instance. The backstory chapter in the books follows many of the same beats, right down to the swamp monster, but where it’s situated and how it’s delivered matters. It opens up with no preamble, immediately establishing a new location that we can pretty quickly assume to be Cassidy’s backstory through context. However, it retains some ambiguity, showing on the title page two characters, the most prominent of which draws our attention because he vaguely looks like Cassidy and fits more of what we, the audience, would want the character’s backstory to be. Backstory chapters, when done well, complicate characters and provide context for their actions in the present. At this point in the books, we have only been given a vague idea of what Cassidy used to be like in the past few decades, and most of it seems more or less consistent — slovenly, drug-obsessed, and unreliable, but otherwise chill. However, that lackadaisical mindset doesn’t come about from nowhere, so seeing a version of Cassidy in the far past, before he became a vampire, that is competent, driven, and serious gives you a little bit of newfound respect for the character. He has depths after all.

Except, that character on the title page isn’t Cassidy. Not exactly. First, we learn that his given name isn’t even Cassidy at all — the chapter follows two brothers, Billy and Proinsias, whose share the surname Cassidy. It takes almost through the entirety of the issue to realize that the character we actually know as Cassidy is in fact Proinsias, the meek baby face who ran off to join the Irish separatists and had to be rescued by his older brother before he was sent to die on the front lines as a tragic symbol. Proinsias does not have the sort of backstory the audience has come to expect for this character. He is nervous, naive, gullible, and sincere, retaining very few of these traits into the present. By choosing this backstory over Billy’s, the books make the character extremely vulnerable, implying an intervening rough life that has either stripped away his gentler qualities or buried them deep, leaving a confrontational figure who is almost the exact opposite of what he used to be.

It’s also important to realize at this point that Cassidy is telling Jesse this story after the latter rescued him from Masada. It’s a genuinely intimate moment between the two men, and it’s what calcifies their friendship. In fact, it has lasting effects for both of them through the end of the series. Cassidy has decided to pay Jesse back in a small way by telling him a bit of who he really is and showing himself in a vulnerable way. He doesn’t use his given name because he’s embarrassed by it, and telling Jesse what it is requires a certain amount of trust. Through recounting these events, we also see one of the few moments in the books where Cassidy is genuinely competent. He rattles off an intricate take on the Easter Rising with reflection on his former position as someone involved in it, and subsequent cynicism toward the people who used it for personal gain. It seems to be the one subject he knows a lot about, even though he’s far removed from it at this point, and his attitude toward it speaks to further depths — that Cassidy isn’t as dim-witted or ignorant as he often seems.

The show was always going to struggle with this part of his backstory simply because of how its story is laid out and how its medium works. You can’t simply put an actor in younger makeup and fool the audience into thinking they’re someone else (well, I mean, it probably would have worked on me, but that’s not a high bar to pass). An illustrated medium is much more conducive to disguising character identity than a filmed one. The show is also structured so that a big rescue moment comes late in the overall narrative instead of early on. Jesse and Tulip do save Cassidy from his burning in the first season, but that’s not a particularly good place to throw in this backstory scene because, A) he’s rescued in the middle of a bunch of other subplots and we don’t have time to stop and listen about Cassidy’s adventures a hundred years ago on another continent, B) the season was designed to stand on its own and having an elongated origin story that sets up future character complexity wouldn’t really have contributed to that vision, and, C) Cassidy’s relationship to the other two protagonists is fundamentally different from what it is in the books, to the point where even if they did opt for a similar scene, it would need a much more substantial lead-in to get all of the characters in the appropriate mindset.

The characters in the show are rarely that open with anyone, so whenever they share backstory with one another, even genuinely, it’s guarded or thrown in among a joke. The show characters do have quiet, intimate moments together, but these moments tend to happen when the stakes are high, not when they’re resolved and the characters are just bonding. These versions characters have to build more deliberately to that same level of trust, so it makes more sense for characters to reveal parts of themselves to each other later in the series. Even if the show had gone for six or more seasons, and was greenlit for them from the start, it probably wouldn’t have introduced Cassidy’s backstory until about this point in the series anyway.

The main problem, then, is simply that the show’s version sticks too closely to the specific plot beats for the backstory when its own narrative is not built to make the most of that. This backstory, then, isn’t really meant to be as significant as flashbacks have been in earlier seasons. From Cassidy’s ominous mention of Brooklyn, it sounds like they’re opting for this to be the preamble for a contrasting flashback later in the season. Again, I’m a bit nervous about the show putting things off when it’s rapidly running out of time to act on them, but I can see a few paths it could take that make this work.

I should also give credit where credit is due, because the flashback does offer a little bit to chew on. For one, it purposefully reverses the origin story of Billy and Proinsias a bit (and also makes Billy unrelated to him, presumably to play up the bisexual thing though their relationship is never indicated), giving our Cassidy responsibility for another person he ultimately fails. Instead of being the hapless victim whose brother has to live with the guilt of losing him, he’s now in a similar position himself. The scene falls a bit too fast to make moral judgments on the actions of the characters, but it’s worth noting that Cassidy abandons Billy when the soldiers come, knowing he won’t be able to run away. His failure and survivor’s guilt is ultimately tied into him being a vampire, as he gets attacked trying to hide from some officers while deserting. In this version, Cassidy runs away not because his brother comes to rescue him or because he realizes he’s about to be a part of a suicide mission, but because he doesn’t have the stomach for seeing people die. Funny, that.

So both Cassidy and Tulip’s subplots, while not nearly as solid in delivery as they could be, have at least something to offer in reflection. Future episodes could very easily chip away at any good will interpretations, but I come away mostly satisfied.

Before we get to Jesse’s portion of the episode, though, I want to give a shout-out to the Saint and Eugene, because the show has tapped into the best damn decision for what to do with these two characters. So, I can’t really call Eugene a proper cinnamon roll at this point because, you know, accidentally releasing Hitler and all that, but it’s endlessly charming that despite all of the shit that’s happened to him, he is effectively the one good character in all of this. He still believes in peace and forgiveness and all that for everyone, even Jesse and the Saint, and even though people continue to be garbage to him, his baseline is pure optimism, and it is radiant. And, you know what, he’s kind of right. He did just lose his parents horrifically, but now he’s got a new legal guardian, and it kind of works out for the Saint too, because now he has a son. And he takes him to a diner for pie.

I fucking love this subplot so much.

Part Two: Well Now You’re Just Showing Off

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One of the defining markers of the action genre is fight sequences, and this show has never failed to deliver. They’ve been there from the start, with the very first episode landing all three protagonists in absurd scenarios against multiple assailants, and introducing two of them through these fights. They’re gory, they’re exaggerated, and they’re often silly, but they’re also usually pretty well-choreographed and shot. Most of them take on subtly different characteristics to keep them from getting boring, which I would define as the marker of a good action sequence from a viewer’s perspective. In every season, there are usually one or two hand-to-hand fights that take the cake. The one in this episode goes all in and not only flexes the skill of the combat choreographers and actors, but also the camera work, the editing, and the writing in what is probably the best fight sequence of the series, period.

This scene single-handedly elevates the episode.

It starts with Jesse storming de Sade’s building as per the previous episode, and it appears to be some sort of playboy mansion. Its denizens are implied to cross the line from kink to abuse, as Jesse’s pilot friend spotted a young child in the window of one of the rooms previously. We know from past seasons that Jesse is well out of his element, being uncomfortable with kink and fetish, and he’s made even more unsure when he gets upstairs to free the kid and the kid tells him there’s nowhere for them to go; they don’t necessarily like it here, but it’s better than living on the streets.

As the various perverts, all dressed in costume, come up to remove Jesse, he does what he does best and starts punching away to classical music. All of this is done in a long take, and it lasts about three minutes.

Obviously, being a hand-to-hand fight, it’s dynamic, but what makes this shot unique is how frequently it varies the camera angle and position, using different techniques to capture different aspects of the fight all without overtly breaking the shot. There are several dynamic shots where a cameraperson uses a hand-held device to record to the actors while walking around them and turning to capture incoming figures. The actors, hallway, and position of the camera create the framing of the shot, and it’s all very impressive, especially since it involves far more figures than the show has ever used in a dynamic long-take before.

This would make for a decently impressive shot on its own, but then the camera starts to shake things up a bit, growing bolder and darting closer to the action. It holds steady as the actors move around it in what I think it quite spectacular choreography on its own, playing around with a large number of weapons and props, including a nod to the double-ended fisting toy from the bank flashback in the first season. The show employs some zoom effects to focus on certain figures and weapons, then it zooms out to show a cutaway of the entire hallway that makes the shot look quite a bit like a comic book panel.

By this point, it’s starting to get a bit silly because the camerawork and choreography are clearly trying to impress and go all-in with what they’re capable of, in a way that makes Sherlock look downright subtle. The artifice of the scene isn’t especially well-hidden because you physically could not film this scene all in one shot and its not even trying particularly hard to hide the moments where it can cut. But they’re not done yet — not by a long shot.

A figure bursts in with a gun and we’re now in a perspective shot (you’ll recognize this technique where the camera is fixed to a character or object from earlier in the episode, and also for its frequent use in Breaking Bad). Jesse and the other figure grapple with the gun and we watch him in slow motion fire at and down half a dozen figures, then dodge a knife (also in slow-motion).

The length of the preceding shot is important in setting the mood because it’s impressive and delightful in the way any well-choreographed fight scene in an action film is, but as it gets more absurd and more artificial and more violent, it starts to make the viewer uneasy. Yeah, this sort of thing is fun in short bursts, and it’s kind of what we root for in this show, but that’s a lot of people getting hurt in pretty nasty ways. Simply by being here, they’re complicit or at least tolerant of child pornography, so they’re not really deserving of compassion, but this shot is not about punishing bad people for the bad things they’ve done. Like most action scenes of its kind, it’s about the joy of artificial violence. And while the shot starts out aiming just to entertain, as it goes on, it grabs the audience and locks them in against their will. It is designed to be too much in every way, and toward the end, you start to get a little nauseated. Something is wrong.

Finally, the shot ends with Jesse standing above a pile of corpses in a dimly-lit hallway looking suddenly less heroic. The bloody costumes make the dead assailants look unimposing, and you remember that it was very much within Jesse’s power to deal with them peacefully. This carnage was a choice. And Jesse almost looks pleased with himself for it. The framing of the scene calls back to several earlier fights in the other seasons, but the one that’s relevant for the aftermath is Jesse’s final confrontation with the Angelville characters — a similarly gruesome episode involving guilty parties meeting unnecessarily gruesome fates.

You can probably guess where this is heading. As Jesse looks around at the carnage, he notices a stray bullet from earlier went through the wall behind him, and discovers it hit the kid he was trying to rescue, killing them.

 

Part Three: Oh

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Like many of the better episodes of this show, this one takes a little bit of time to settle and requires a rewatch or two to pick up on everything. The episode makes sense on its own, at least as much as any of this ridiculous show ever does, but it’s gotten back to the interconnectivity that I love so much about earlier seasons. Scenes parallel each other, calling back and drawing direct comparisons to content as far back as Season One. In order to get the full context of the subplots addressed here, you not only need to have watched the rest of the series, but also remember with some specificity how those scenes played out. Even the best shows don’t expect audience members to keep hold of everything, especially minor scenes that seem inconsequential in the moment. This show likewise doesn’t expect its connections to come immediately, and therefore makes many of the more direct ones redundant; they’re almost Easter eggs, showing up as inconsequential rewards for anyone crazy enough to, for instance, rewatch the series way too many times and write tens of thousands of words on them for no particular reason.

My particular enjoyment of this series is probably a bit simplistic on that fundamental level. I can completely imagine someone watching it the normal way (i.e., not watching the first season multiple times, then the third book in the series, then the rest of the book series, then the rest of the show while writing needlessly in-depth discussions of every episode) might get a different experience. As I’ve said before, this is not a series I actively recommend to most people. It requires a really weird palate to enjoy.

However, this episode tickles that palate quite delightfully. The revelation that Jesse murdered a child, unintentionally but still rightfully bearing that burden, is not the most original plot point. Action characters witnessing the human cost of their own violent acts is practically a subgenre. In Bruges did the same thing years ago in fewer words, and even Tony Stark has the same moment of revelation. As impactful as the punch that follows the extended action scene in this episode is, it’s the context around it that I find truly chilling.

First, you should know that this does not happen in the books. I feel like I’m bringing up the books a lot in my reviews of this season (because I definitely didn’t do that at all in the previous ones), but the reason is because the show has a running dialogue with the books. It doesn’t need to come across when viewing the show on its own, as the show stands up regardless, but this is a unique series in that a substantial portion of the narrative context is derived from the books, despite that context not existing in the books on their own. Plenty of series do this with certain important scenes, but I haven’t seen many series outside of Preacher that do it continuously.

One of the runners is the sunglasses. In the show, Cassidy is the first to wear sunglasses, but they are purposefully not affiliated with him alone. All three protagonists wear sunglasses at the end of the first season to signal a common link between all of them (a representation of hiding one’s identity), and also to link them more firmly to the book version of Cassidy, who rather distinctly wears sunglasses. Scenes where Jesse is wearing sunglasses in this episode, then, indicate a thematic connection between him and specifically the book version of Cassidy, which holds up the grimmer direction the show is taking with Jesse’s character, setting him up to be abusive in a way comparable to book Cassidy, even though as far as the audience knows at this point, the show’s version of the character isn’t nearly as bad.

So, in the books, Jesse encounters a child at de Sade’s mansion and punches some people in a rage. Some of this is tied to him being abused as a child himself, albeit presumably in a different way, and it likewise comes with collateral damage. However, Jesse doesn’t kill anyone, accidentally or otherwise; instead, by spending so much time beating up de Sade, Jesse isn’t there to help the others when the Grail arrives, and his friends end up getting kidnapped in his place. The Jesus de Sade subplot is about as redundant as they come in the books, and the kid Jesse rescues is inconsequential. We don’t know his story, and we don’t know what happens to him after that. However, it’s an early indication of Jesse’s ultimately good intentions driven by violent acts. The books question the morality of Jesse’s methods, but they rarely do so directly and they don’t really end on a clear judgment of them either.

To bring up this subplot in the show, then, especially in the final season, is curious, but the show warrants it. Up to this point, we’ve been okay with Jesse’s violence because this is an action series and we expect it through societal norms. It’s just the sort of thing that happens in a series like this. But there are certain boundaries we set up unconsciously, and Jesse has now properly crossed over from antihero to kind of an antivillain of a sort. He’s still a sympathetic character at times, but we not only don’t condone his actions anymore, we want him to be stopped and get his comeuppance. His letter to Tulip basically dumping her is also unexpectedly cruel (and lends quite a bit more validity to Tulip’s fervor to free Cassidy, Cassidy being literally the only friend on earth she has now). Jesse has now shown his hand as someone who is responsible for the deaths of children, not just incidentally as with Annville, but directly. More than that, at least at the moment, he also seems to be the sort of person who is out of fucks to give, even about dead children.

So with all of this, it might be worth asking, why is the series trying to turn Jesse into the asshole? I mean, it’s been doing that since the moment go, so it’s hardly surprising even if the degree of escalation is arguably steep. I think Dominic Cooper sells it, as the character still displays lingering discomfort with his actions that make for a more nuanced performance than simply “Jesse is an asshole and always was.” If he has had two consistent character traits all throughout this series, it’s an inability to take responsibility for morally complex situations, and unfailing faith in a higher power. When he’s watching news footage of de Sade’s place, the look on his face is one of someone trying very hard not to break down. He’s worried. The question then becomes, does he feel guilty for doing something horrible, or is he simply afraid of punishment by a higher power. The answer to that question will define Jesse, as a religious man and also just as a human being.

 

 

*Fun fact, the Rorschach ink blots are not just any random patterns, but a specific set of ink blots with rated regular answers. The ones you see on television and in films are usually invented for the story, and they’re not used in quite the same way as the actual images either. Several of the originals are also quite colorful, and only a few of them are the well-known black-and-white. And yes, Rorschach ink blots are still used under certain situations. As an old easily influenced by cultural biases and interviewer input, it’s pretty hotly disputed for its scientific and clinical validity, and the blots are rarely used on their own to diagnose any specific disorder anymore. To some extent, the test is more of a pop culture shorthand for psychological diagnosis, hence its use in this show, though I was surprised to learn that many psychologists still use it as a general assessment of well-being.

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