As with the previous episode, the merits of this one rely at least partly on the payoff of the next. Woven throughout are the escalating tensions of grieving characters; after the chaos of the previous episode, Tulip and Cassidy are off on their own again and driven to violence — a dirtier, crueler sort than we’ve seen of them before. They’re distraught, Tulip especially, and nothing, not guilt or death or fate, and certainly not God, is going to stand in their way.
3P Reviews Series: Preacher
Audience Assumptions: I’m kind of assuming you’ve been following the show, but do what you like.
Episode Seven: Messiahs – *****
Part One: Coffins, Tombs, and a Shallow Grave
So now all of the protagonists have properly died at least once. I don’t suppose it’s worth pointing out that this is the third time that one of them has fallen out of an airplane. And I’ve lost track of how many times Jesse ends up on his back on the ground. It’s at least in the double digits now. They’re a bit accident-prone, these protagonists.
I make light of it because this series, including the books, has never really drawn tension from the threat of deaths to its characters. God resurrects these three assholes at the drop of a pin in the books, and one of the characters is specifically designed to be able to withstand lethal injuries for the sake of gory humor. The characters are constantly besieged with physical dangers from all sides, but that’s just an ordinary day for them. When it wants you to fear for the characters, it hangs something over their heads far more subtle and sinister than injury.
Going into this episode, I had no worries that Jesse would be dropped as a character. This isn’t Breaking Bad, where dead means dead. This also isn’t the sort of show to leave major plot threads unresolved, and Jesse’s due for an actual face-off with God sooner or later. The episode doesn’t even leave his fate uncertain for long: he’s still a major player, as one would expect. That’s one of the merits of establishing an afterlife in your story.
I did not expect a body, though.
The opening scene gets to me, and it works precisely because of my assumption that Jesse would be fine. He will be fine, and even Tulip and Cassidy know it. People can come back, and the remainder of the trio don’t waste much time concocting a plan to do it. But before then, they have to bury the body, and it’s a loveless endeavor that leaves them both hollow, despite what they know.
They go through the rest of the episode like this. That’s what makes their response to Jesse’s death so captivating in this episode. They’ve just seen their friend die. They both have reason to feel sad and angry and guilty about it, and there is a nonzero chance that their attempts to bring him back will fail. But they don’t have the time or space to mourn, because the chance of bringing him back is also nonzero. They have to get on the road and get going because once Jesse’s back, they won’t have to mourn. That’s what they think, anyway. In reality, their very human feelings of watching someone they love fall to his death and then put him in the ground conflict viciously with their drive to get him alive again. They need outlets for their grief, and those outlets are grim.
This isn’t the first time, either. You might be noticing some patterns with this season, and this escapade is no exception. We have a direct parallel to Tulip’s untimely demise at the end of Season Two, which was arguably more uncertain because the characters held less sway with God and the other mystical entities at the time. Jesse and Cassidy didn’t handle that particularly well, you might recall. Cassidy especially.
The thing that’s different this time around is that the characters don’t go after each other. They blame themselves, and they blame God, but they react separately, and in very different ways.
Cassidy has recently been burned, so after they stop in a small town and Tulip goes off to figure things out for herself for a moment, Cassidy follows signs to a chicken farmer, who invites him into his house. This sequence squigs me out a bit, as it’s supposed to. The camerawork does some heavy lifting in making the scene unsettling, with dim yellow lighting, Cassidy moving slightly off-screen, close-ups that are just that bit too close, and angles that slightly distort the sizes of the characters. We don’t see anything gruesome, but it doesn’t take a genius to guess that he wasn’t there for the chickens.
Tulip, meanwhile, goes for the big man himself. Stopped in a small outback town, Tulip finds a church not dissimilar to the one Jesse used to run, and she throws the thing into chaos. She tips the pews, shouts for God to appear, as he has to her before, and when she gets no response, she burns down the church along with the letter.
The letter is a somewhat curious addition that may be clarified in later episodes, but doesn’t necessarily have to be. Jesse wrote this letter before abandoning Tulip, and we learned in the previous episode that she never actually read it. The voiceover of Jesse insulting her through it back in Episode Three was a fear that kept Tulip from opening it, so in fact it’s actually Cassidy who ends up reading it first to see if Jesse gives any hint of where he might be going. He looks through it, and says there’s nothing that will help them find him. Now, as per Jesse’s suggestion, Tulip reads the letter and cries over it. Then she destroys it. We can imagine it’s something to do with love and that sort of thing, but it’s a curious note that the audience gets not a lick of what’s inside it. For now, at least, it’s for the eyes of the main trio and no one else.
Part Two: The Unknowing Absurdity of the Universe
This episode reminds me a lot of the episode El Valero from the first season. The main thing is in how it varies the series’ two main tones so closely that they seem to blend together. The show tells a grim joke, and it’s funny, but you’re only half-sure it wants you to laugh. There’s something sinister behind it, but not in the way you get from “dark” comedians who try to pass off racist diatribes as humor. The sort of joke this episode banks on is based in innocence, like when Humperdoo decides that he wants to go with his kidnappers and leads the way. The man knows what he wants.
Of course, where he’s going is to Tulip’s car so she and Cassidy can hold him random for Jesse, knowing that Humperdoo is God’s favorite child. The joke is not that Humperdoo is an idiot, it’s that he’s innocent. He’s fine with being kidnapped because it means he gets to go for a road trip (the second or third Jesus-based road trip of the season, I might add), and why wouldn’t he be? Look at how happy he is! He loves road trips. As has happened more than a few other times in the series, I end up sympathizing with Humperdoo because he’s stuck in this situation through no fault of his own. His problems are the direct result of the Grail, and he’s just caught in the crossfire between them and the main characters. That’s where the morbid humor comes from, because we know that Humperdoo’s excitement to go with Tulip and Cassidy is ironic in a way that will spell disaster for him in the subsequent episode. Funny as it is to have a character leading his captors to his own imminent death, the situation becomes pretty messed up once you remember it also means the protagonists luring an innocent out to his death just so they can send a message.
They’ve probably done worse for less, though, right?
It’s hard seeing these characters stripped of motivation. Sure, Cassidy and Tulip know that they want to get Jesse back, and Jesse knows he wants to meet God, but their actions go no deeper. The characters are a bit dead inside (also on the outside, in Jesse’s case). They move toward what they want, but there’s little passion behind it, little meaning. They all tend to blend together. Even Jesse’s continual insistence that there need to be a God and it can’t be him rings hollow. They’re just words, the last vestige of the character’s humanity trying to hold onto something. Hell isn’t the eternal punishment he feared it was — it’s tedious, boring even. It’s not much different from life, really.
Likewise, Tulip and Cassidy give in to the things they’ve been holding back from over the course of the series — blood, murder, mayhem — to no consequence. It’s not frightening, or dramatic, or fun. It’s just effort. It’s something to do.
You get the sense over the course of the episode that this is going to eventually break both of them. That Tulip might have a similar block to Jesse in the previous season and be unable to kill Humperdoo. That was her reaction to Carlos, after all, once she had Jesse holding a gun to his head. Tulip’s propensity for violence is not an absent thing. She likes to mess with people, certainly, and she isn’t really averse to violence except in extreme situations, but she likewise doesn’t murder people just for the fun of it. She also tends to have the most regret of all of the protagonists after she hurts someone by accident. Her boundaries are well-defined, like Jesse’s, but unlike him, she responds strongly to overstepping them. Jesse seems to have less regret at killing people accidentally than he claims, and Cassidy’s done it so often he’s become numb to it. So Tulip is likely to have some regrets in the morning, regardless of what happens to Humperdoo.
That’s the tragedy of this episode, I think. Cassidy even puts it to words in a rare monologue where he goes off on the synagogue members who have been hiding Humperdoo. He describes a woman he knew back in Ireland who lost her entire family in World War 1 and clung on to her faith, and how in the end, she just died too. Religions are there to assure you of a life after death or second chances or that the story isn’t that simple, but the cruel reality is, for anyone else looking in, that’s all there is. Cassidy and Tulip have been through enough that, as far as they’re concerned, God or not, life’s a chaotic, meaningless mess. At this juncture, they’ve lost sight of any of the banal joys it can offer to pass the time, but they’re planning on getting at least one of them back. It’s not an especially optimistic outlook.
Jesse has been through enough that by all accounts, he should be in the same boat.
Part Three: On Fate
If choice is one of the major themes in this series, then the space that defines it is fate. Coincidentally, fate and the free will to choose are rather important themes in many religions, too. Christianity has had a hell of a run with it, for one.
I’ve talked about it a couple of times before, but I’m not sure I’ve ever dug into why the series is so fascinated with this particular theme. Usually, a theme is a concept that orbits the thesis of a work. Television series and other long-form narratives have to punctuate their thesis at some critical point, often the beginning, to get it to stick. Themes, therefore, serve as reminders of the thesis and allow the piece to explore it more fully. Assuming, of course, the series holds to the same thesis throughout. *cough* Game of Thrones *cough*
The simplest Preacher‘s thesis ever gets is probably when Emily sums it up to her children at the end of Season One: We don’t need God, and I’ll tell you a secret: we never did. This line draws attention to how, as far as the show is concerned, the literal interpretation of the Bible and other religious works is second to learning the moral lessons contained within. By making its lore real within its world, and detaching it from the moral lessons of the religious works (and then throwing flying pigs and vampires on the same level), the series forces its characters to choose between following the physical entities and making judgment calls on them.
Jesse, in particular, is not very good at this. He is the character through which the show explores its thesis; not only is he torn between wanting to believe in a literal God but not liking what he sees, pretty much everything about him is split along similar lines. Like many fictional pastors, he has human desires that contradict his religious principles, which can map to both free will and fate. The influence his rough upbringing had on shaping how violent he turned out was nothing to do with Jesse himself, much as he worries about it. In cases like that, his desire to pursue a peaceful religious lifestyle is a choice. However, he was also raised under that same religious lifestyle during the early part of his life, and it had an even hand in cementing his views of what a religious leader should look like. His tendency to control, to convert, to pursue God even when it would be in his best interest to do otherwise is also somewhat fatalistic of him. He accepts an ineffable plan, and it takes more will to break away from it than to follow along placidly.
Throughout his portion of the episode, Fiore, here in the form of an angelic hallucination on probation, tries to convince Jesse to fill in for God. Jesse is not fond of this. He just managed to stop getting the Grail to try to make him the new Jesus (which I’d imagine has to sting for the actual Jesus, being not second but third fiddle for his own job). Who looked at this man’s work at his church and said, “Okay, one boy sent to hell, a few murdered, and the rest blown up along with the surrounding town. Perfect. Let’s get this guy running the universe”?
Jesse’s complaint here is twofold. First, he doesn’t like being tempted by power. Being all-powerful has not, historically speaking, gone well for him, and he knows it. That’s the choice component; despite multiple people trying to get him in a particular position, Jesse resists. It’s not morally right, and it’s not his spot to take. He’s human, and what’s more, he’s a bit of a prick. He at least has the self-awareness to know this.
However, even if he wanted it, he still probably wouldn’t take Fiore up on the offer. Jesse uses Genesis for mostly arbitrary reasons — for fun, to make his own life easier, because it comes naturally to him. Even when he believes it was given to him by God to help the citizens of Annville, Jesse is still keen to use it to solve problems simply and immediately. Not a Christian like Jesse thinks you ought to be? No worry, you’ll just believe in God anyhow. It may be a deranged meat-god borne of your latent trauma from losing your entire family, which Jesse is certainly not qualified to help you with, but as long as the only casualties are some ground beef and a few rival business partners, what’s the harm, right? Jesse is not the sort for running things. Not only is he objectively bad at it (unless, I suppose, you want Heaven to be run like the Tombs), but he also doesn’t seem to like it very much. Jesse wants to be middle management. That’s where he’s happiest.
Actually, he’s happiest when he feels like he’s making a difference on his own terms. Technically speaking, Jesse has not been especially happy through the run of this series. The closest he comes is when relaxing with Tulip and Cassidy. That tends to be what he gravitates toward, for better or worse, in part because they’re willing to let him voice his opinions while also challenging him on them. Jesse gets to feel like he’s making them better people, while knowing he is not. He may not go anywhere with it, but this sort of dynamic stasis is ideal for someone who wants to exert his will on others without going so far as to hurt them. The only other times Jesse seems to be genuinely enjoying himself are fleeting, because they tend to lead to him overstepping his bounds and hurting people, like when he uses his powers on his parishioners.
So what is Jesse to do? Mainly, prolong the chase. He wants to get to God, sure, but even if he is the sort of naive that believes all of this is somehow going to have a straightforward explanation, Jesse doesn’t really want answers. He’s gotten answers before — back with Mark Harelik telling him at the end of the first season to be a good Christian and do well. Jesse rejects that answer because it’s incomplete. He could take it and live happily, but it’s not what he wants. Truth be told, Jesse probably doesn’t really know what he wants. No answer seems to satisfy him, yet he claims to pursue and serve some sort of answer. He’s always searching, first for meaning, then for God, then for why God is dressed like a dalmatian, and now for why God is really dressed like a dalmatian.
At the core of Jesse’s search is a genuine attempt at self-actualization. He wants to be a better person, and he wants to be happy, but he doesn’t know how to relate the two, and he’s also not entirely sure what either entails yet. That sort of journey is an internal one, one which he has been taking alongside the physical one. At the moment, the two are still linked together. For him to reach that self-actualization, Jesse needs to detach his literal journey from his metaphorical one, and stop fixating so much on the former. A lot of us would do well to do the same.
Series Breakdown Rating:
Characters and Character Development: 9
Aesthetics and Style: 8
Overall Plot: 7