Well, I can’t really say I’m surprised. Given the recent string of decent episodes and hard-hitting plot points, it was unlikely the show was going to keep up its momentum all the way through to the end. The accumulation of bad past decisions has caught up to the series, overtaking much of the good will it’s accrued and leaving the rest of the plot on uneven ground. What the show needs now more than ever is someone to come in and trim the excess, honing the remainder of the plot down to its bare essentials so that the merits of the series aren’t lost in the chaos. I think it unlikely this will happen, unfortunately. It doesn’t mean there isn’t some entertainment to be gleaned from the remainder, but from the look of things, it’s going to be meager pickings.
3P Reviews Series: Preacher
Audience Assumptions: I’m kind of assuming you’ve been following the show, but do what you like.
Episode Eight: Fear of God – *
Part One: Finally, Hillbilly Cannibals! Well, Ocker Cannibals, I Suppose. Posh Ocker Cannibals.
The Grail subplot is over. At least, it should be. Technically, it should have been a while ago.
The thing about the Grail is, functionally, it only really exists to further the plot. That, and it’s a funny concept. The show has plenty of antagonists already — the Saint and God, principally, but also the Angelville characters, Quincannon, Eccarius, and so on. The story, at its core, is based in its main characters and their personal journey, and the antagonists are there to provide minor obstacles and new scenarios for the characters to work around. They generally serve this role through the middle of the seasons, challenging the characters in physical and emotional ways, to greater or lesser effect depending on the episode.
The Grail is unique in being the only antagonistic group that regularly interacts with the protagonists through multiple seasons. Yes, the Saint and God are there in all of them, but these figures tend to only drop in on rare occasions.
The problem with the Grail is that they don’t really have much to do. This is a problem for the books as well. The books initiate the Grail subplot through an action-driven arc in Book Two that runs through several issues and ends with the Grail more or less destroyed. Starr comes back a few books later to antagonize the protagonists, but to be completely honest, the series could have dropped the Grail subplot entirely after the second book and kept to episodic antagonists, as it does for most of its run. Even it seems to realize Starr no longer has much of a role, as from the fourth book onward, it proceeds to run him through various absurd incidents in which he loses more and more valuable parts of his body, eventually dismantling his own organization by accident in his vendetta against Jesse.
I don’t imagine this went down well originally. The books end with less of an apocalypse than a bar fight, with two of the main characters fighting each other while the third is off dealing with Starr and his cronies. I prefer this route, to be completely honest. Personal stakes have always struck me as more compelling than anything to do with a nuclear apocalypse, and the silliness of the situation juxtaposed with small moments of intense drama land with the overall tone of the series.
The show is kind of doing the same thing, but it doesn’t quite have sufficient grounding for it. More than any of the other subplots lifted from the books, the Grail subplot has stuck to generally literal portrayals. It’s added material to keep the characters involved in the plot despite other substantial changes from the source material, but most of the major points remain consistent. Humperdoo, Allfather, Starr, Hoover, and Featherstone are all quite similar to their book counterparts. The thing is, many of these subplots probably should have been reworked with less of an eye toward fanservice and more of an understanding of how these characters would work best in the story. Because, for the most part, the Grail subplot is the reason the protagonists are so frequently isolated in the story.
This wouldn’t be an issue if the Grail characters had compelling arcs on their own, but, for the most, they really don’t. After the second season, the show needed to decide how it wanted to develop these figures, and it did not choose wisely. Hoover was relegated to vampire, before being murdered. Featherstone faffed around with Tulip for a bit (which could have worked if the two of them interacted more than once this season). Starr’s conflicts with Allfather worked until the latter actually showed up in the story, after which Starr assumed the role and the show set up its trajectory for this season.
In this season, Starr’s concerns are getting Armageddon on-track despite setbacks with Humperdoo, and coping with “not looking pretty.”
Yeah… see, the thing is, it’s not an entirely compelling narrative in the books either, Starr getting progressively mutilated. The books were never particularly good at dealing with characters who had disabilities or deformities, with the unfortunate Arseface ridiculed by the other characters to the point of only ever going by that name. I won’t defend the decisions the books made in portraying Arseface or Starr post-amputation and castration, or of Allfather as an overweight man with bulimia. I will say, however, that the series at least understood when to use a more sympathetic tone. Starr’s backstory of losing his eye as a child, as retold by his superior, is harsh, and a moment of vulnerability that points to his underlying motivation. Arseface’s backstory is tragic and isolating, showing a kid stuck living with a spur-of-the-moment decision he made that makes everyone shun him.
The show follows Starr’s subplot in particular somewhat closely, but its decision to opt for an entirely comedic tone really doesn’t work. The pageant idea got a laugh or two out of me, but it’s pretty cheap comedy, really. The opening scene is confused all around, filling in events and even shots from the books simply because they were in the books. As a result, what is conceptually a harrowing idea — children mutilating a man with an ironic scar, and him developing an obsession with appearance despite it — becomes just a joke, and not a particularly good one at that. Had Starr simply described his backstory to someone, I think it could have had a more profound effect. The problem is, that too would clash tonally with his arc for the series, because he’s no longer an important player in the story, and therefore his only role as a villain is to become less and less significant. Making him sympathetic doesn’t really jibe.
You could make an argument that the show’s goal here is to make Starr sympathetic then kick him while he’s down to show how much of a bastard God is. The problem there is that the series is taking far too long to get to the point, and it should probably just shit or get off the pot.
The Grail subplot isn’t the only one suffering from a reluctance to get going.
Part Two: What Are Characters and How Do They Work?
I could go on about how Hitler and Jesus are well past their sell-by date, and how comedies need to learn that projectile vomit is never a good enough joke to justify showing it on-screen, and how parts of this episode are glacially slow while others rocket past important scenes just to hit necessary plot points. What I’m more interested in discussing, though, is the characters.
The characters have had plenty of pitfalls throughout the series, but on the whole, their trajectories have been set since Season One. Tulip is good at heart but needs to learn how to ask for emotional support. Jesse means well but needs to accept his own failures instead of casting judgment on others. Cassidy needs to grow up.
Given we’re reaching the end of the series, what, then, are we to think of the characters’ arcs? The show certainly doesn’t have time to build anything new for them, so it needs to get to the conclusion of those arcs quickly. Changing their primary motivations and life positions two episodes from the end probably isn’t the way to go about it.
In this episode, Jesse is still in Hell and still rejecting the throne, prompting further torture of the more traditional trapped-in-rat-barrels and ants-up-asses sort. There’s a bit of psychological manipulation thrown in, but it’s otherwise standard fare. Not quite Bosch, but still clearly just there to test the limits of what the actors will put up with. (On a side note, I am genuinely astonished this series has retained as much of its cast as it has through its run. That’s dedication right there.)
The show initially seems to be playing with a clever new idea — Jesse is unfazed by reliving his worst memories, which is what prompts the more traditional tortures. As he puts it, he’s seen his father die in his head so many times, what’s a few more? This idea holds some merit, given Jesse’s fear of Hell throughout the rest of the series. The issue is, it doesn’t go anywhere. Jesse has no moment of clarity in which he realizes his fears were unfounded, nor any reflection on what his past meant to him. The show could use the idea to its advantage, giving him perspective on how the artificial punishments invented by God are nothing close to what he’s actually gone through in real life.
But, no. When he does get out, he acts like he’s been through Hell in exactly the way he feared. God saves him, prompting that confrontation the entire series has promised, and, unsurprisingly, it doesn’t go quite as Jesse imagined. The show almost gets at something cogent when Jesse breaks down in the presence of God. He loves his God, and he sees God coming to him, pulling him from Hell, as proof that everyone around him has lied, that he was right all along and God was just testing him and will now avert the apocalypse because he, Jesse Custer, did a good thing. Ever the optimist. Of course, Jesse’s dead wrong, and the passive-aggressive way God informs him finally seems to get through to him. When there is no higher power to defer your faith to, what then?
Well, apparently God eats your eyeball to teach you a lesson in humility. Yes, yes, I know it was in the books, and under similar circumstances, but it flat-out doesn’t work for this story. God ate his eyeball. Great. I guess we now know… what, that God is a weirdo? That God is violent? That God is cruel? It doesn’t give us new information, nor does it change Jesse’s circumstances any more than his God failing him otherwise might. Yes, it’s probably a more serious affirmation to Jesse that the literal manifestation of his faith is a prick using him for His own ends, but we get that from Jesse standing up to him. A little more subtlety could be exercised, no?
Also, no Johnny Lee Wombat? The only remotely Australian thing in the books? Show, if you’re so preoccupied with hitting story beats from the source material, what the hell?
I mean, if given the opportunity, I would have done the exact same thing just for the irony of it, but that doesn’t mean it’s a good idea.
Back in Masada, we have the remaining problem children. Oof. So, if there was one episode not to put abuse-adjacent content in, it was this one. And, to be fair, the show doesn’t do that. We finally come full-circle from the start of the season, at which point the show reveals it opted for Tulip and Cassidy hooking up to be a consensual affair, diverging rather starkly from the course of the graphic novels.
Unsurprisingly, they can’t bring themselves to kill Humperdoo, so they look after him like their very strange son and start to grow attached. After some months, they settle into a routine after a while, training him to get into a fridge rigged with explosives that they can set off when the time comes. It never will, of course; Tulip in particular has come to the realization that God won’t show up for her to punish, and she doesn’t have the guts to murder someone innocent in cold blood.
This bunny trail is a bit questionable already given how much time the episode spends on it, but once the Grail shows up, it gets weird. For one, Tulip does in fact press the button to blow up the fridge, she just hesitates. While you could easily interpret this as a conscious decision on her part, making a show to save face while also knowing when the signal would be out of range, it doesn’t read as ambiguous; it reads as a mistake on Tulip’s part.
Then we get to that scene from the start of the season. I said in my Masada review that there were three routes the series could take in adapting this subplot — the positive, asshat, and horror outcomes. By this point, it’s definitively in the positive corner, setting up Tulip and Cassidy’s hook-up as one with tragic but tender roots. Which, sure, that makes sense given their histories and relationship up to this point.
Except… it kind of comes out of nowhere for Tulip. Because the episode spends so much time with Humperdoo, it’s difficult to assess Tulip’s feelings toward Cassidy throughout this time frame, to the point where we really need at least one or two scenes with Tulip on her own, not just sad glances off-camera. What the hell is going through her head?
It matters because it determines the credibility of the scene. Tulip has gone off and done things she’s regretted when stressed before. Coincidentally, one of those times also involved her sleeping with Cassidy. That scene in season one was also jarring and somewhat out-of-character, but at least the show had set up the necessary preceding scenes to offer and insight into Tulip’s motivation. We have a scene with Cassidy asking for drugs and suggesting she dump her terrible boyfriend. We have Tulip going to Jesse to give him one last chance to cut the bullshit and come with her. And we have a scene with Tulip deciding whether she wants to play the criminal and rob the pharmacy. All of this gives us a sense that Tulip wants to do something rash and impulsive to get back at Jesse, to re-assert her own identity, and, we later learn, because that’s her coping mechanism for when she’s stressed-out.
On that basis, it wouldn’t be difficult to read Tulip’s advances in this episode as a similar reaction. Tulip tends to play into other people’s perceptions of her when she feels insecure, because that gives her at least some sort of grounding. Okay, then, if Jesse thinks she’s sleeping around, or that she loves Cassidy, then she’ll lean into it. It’s not like she’s got much else going for her, anyway, plus, hey, a woman has needs.
I still don’t really buy it, though. We need that context, and, more importantly, we need more opportunity for characterization from Tulip.
(On another side note, a large number of sex scenes in this show end with all parties involved lying in bed fully clothed. I’m not admonishing the series for it, it’s just a strange creative choice given the series is not at all averse to nudity. Ant-butt or circumcision torture? Sure, strip ’em. But sex? No, for some reason.)
Cassidy, meanwhile, gets to walk away mostly golden, if only because he plays the hapless dumbfuck throughout the episode. By making the decision to fork consensual and Tulip’s, this idiot just gets what he wants without having to put in any effort, which might also be a bit of why the sex scene reads false to me. There are a few tiny — minuscule — hints at deeper characterization, like how it takes him a while to actually believe Tulip’s going for this, but to say Cassidy gets really much of anything to do in this episode would be giving it benefit of a doubt it doesn’t merit.
The episode ends on a familiar and, by this point, tired note. Guess who steps through the door moments after the scoodly-poop? Yep, we’re back to love triangle bullshit. God damnit, show.
Just put them in a mutually polyamorous relationship after a thoughtful discussion about their shared history. You know that’s the natural progression of the positive route of this subplot, right?
Part Three: Let’s Salvage
I will be the first to admit that my enjoyment of Preacher is probably not shared by most who watch it. I don’t generally like to recommend this show wholeheartedly, even though I talk about it quite a lot. It is ridiculous, and its pacing, its humor, its perpetually conflicting tones, its content, and its pedigree are each individually more than enough to put a lot of people off the show entirely. Even more than I think it realizes, and it definitely realizes. It revels in seeing how much it can get away with — not in terms of racist, sexist, or homophobic content, or even really gross material. Well, okay, maybe a bit of the gross material. It does have an unusual fascination with butts and dicks. Mainly, though, it’s silly. Obscenely silly. So silly that I exhausted my friends the other day recounting barley a fraction of the more absurd plot points of the series. This show is a lot to take in, and I don’t think they could have made it more fucking bananas even if it had been an animated series.
Despite everything, I like that about the show. It makes weird choices, and it gives me things I haven’t seen before. Not all of those things are good, but they are different, and I value that more than repetitive blandness. The show actually puts its ideology to words in the first season, with Cassidy stating at one point, “I think the worst thing you can be is boring.” Granted, this isn’t good advice for people to take, and comes from a dubious source at best, but the show likewise seems to stick to it, and I appreciate it for that. Yes, Chernobyl, Bloodline, Lodge 49, Barry, Glow, Rome, and about half a million other shows are more grounded and probably better in an objective sense, and I like those shows (some of them, anyway). But I also notice how many of them follow similar basic story structures and use the same cliches when it comes to dramatic delivery.
Genre fiction, and comedies in particular, is a good place for writers and creators to test unconventional ideas too outlandish for typical dramas. Most genre fiction limits itself to either a limited number of strange choices or strange choices that have proven effective in the past. I think there’s a niche for series that want to throw everything at the wall and see what sticks, too, though. We’ve seen more of this sort of thing in recent years, mainly in animation with shows like Bojack Horseman, Rick and Morty, Adventure Time, and Steven Universe. We’re seeing it more in films as well, if the upcoming CATS! film turns out to be exactly the sort of what-the-fuckery it looks to be.
At the end of the day, what works for one person won’t work for another. This show is my guilty pleasure, and its bizarre decisions give me equal amounts of frustration and joy.
Given my disappointed in the direction of this episode, then, is there anything worthwhile in it?
Well, yes. Like I said, it does get a good joke or two every now and then. The misdirection of the German boy beauty pageant is silly in the exact way I can tolerate. The framing suggests the boy singing in the flashback is a young Starr, only for the camera to later pan to a very out-of place Pip Torrens with a bad wig as the actual winner of the pageant. Might I have preferred the scene be more serious? Yeah, probably. But it was kind of worth it for that joke.
I also like how the fast pace makes the cannibals somehow more ridiculous than they already are. They come in out of nowhere, eat Starr’s leg, and then they’re gone. Making them the ones to fit Starr with a prostethic urethra is a fun twist of irony, and while I don’t think any of this was essential to import from the books, it does make me look forward to the day when I can finally convince one of my friends to watch this series. I can imagine the conversation already. “Yeah, so, after the dingo bites his dick off, some cave people put a faucet in its place and we get a full view of him peeing, then they eat his fucking leg. What the hell, Hat?” “What can I say? It was in the books.”
On a related note, I can also say the episode forgoes the part in the books where Starr has to wipe another man’s ass to escape. The show has class. Its ass-related humor is only for sticking things up.
Getting into the more serious things now, the bit with the Saint is a nice reprieve. It ends up being a hallucination, but the effect still stands. At one point, Jesse is rescued (fittingly like a princess) by the Saint, who presumably still wants him to kill God. They hang out for a short while in which the Saint tells him a story about a captain and a general in the Civil War. In it, the captain realizes the general is making a terrible call and is torn between following orders and getting his men killed. He obeys the general’s instructions, and as predicted, it’s a blood bath. Jesse picks up that the story is supposed to convince him that orders, even from on-high, aren’t something to follow obliviously. He assumes that the Saint knows this from personal experience as the captain in the story, and aims to make a different decision this time around. The Saint reveals he was in fact the general.
It doesn’t change the story or circumstances much, but it indicates a turn of character for the Saint. He’s come far enough since his army days to know not only which decision the captain should make, but also with some intimacy what sort of a person that general is, whether we’re talking about the literal scenario or something more representational. But he’s still not the captain in this metaphor. The Saint knows better than most why God needs to go down, and he can impart that wisdom to Jesse, but at the end of the day, it’s Jesse’s call. Even if the Saint isn’t that general anymore, nothing changes his past. He’s too close to the matter, and he’s not one for obeying, so he likewise can’t choose to disobey.
It’s just another little anecdote about the duality of free will, and I quite like the various ways the series manages to present it. Jesse is paradoxically following somebody’s orders no matter what he does, and by extension, choosing to disobey those of someone else. Are these decisions his own because he chooses to affiliate himself with one of them, or is the very nature of falling in line with someone else sacrificing one’s own identity? And, if so, is that even a bad thing?
Series Breakdown Rating:
Characters and Character Development: 9
Aesthetics and Style: 8
Overall Plot: 7