Photo: Skip Bolen/AMC/Sony Pictures Television

Eugene is still in hell, which sucks for him. In the source material, Eugene was a depressed teen who tried to kill himself after Kurt Cobain committed suicide. The same scenario wouldn’t work for the TV show, if only because the timelines wouldn’t match up; all the same, I’m not sure the changes made to the character’s origins have been for the better. The opening scene of “Damsels” shows us Eugene stuck in a loop similar to the Saint Of Killers—a constant rerun of the worst time in his life, which coincidentally also happens to be a piece of relevant backstory. Last season we heard that Eugene had a crush on a girl and shot her when she turned him down. Turns out, things are a little more complicated than that: She was planning on killing herself, but he manages to talk her out of it right up until the moment he tries to kiss her.

To the good, this makes Eugene out to be a lot less of an asshole. He doesn’t kill Tracy; his decision to try and take advantage of her in her distress is a bad move, but the way it plays out, he’s hapless and dumb, not evil, which is a relief. To the bad, Tracy doesn’t make much sense as a character, in a way that feels like overcompensation. Not only is she silly enough to want to off herself because she caught her dick boyfriend cheating (and her grief is played largely for laughs, which would be fine if it weren’t for the whole dead thing), her decision to go ahead with the suicide attempt after Eugene kisses her doesn’t make a whole lot of sense. Instead of underlining the stupidity of Eugene’s behavior, it makes him seem like a victim of a cartoon; and while “victim” is a better look for his character than “attempted murderer,” it still doesn’t work as well as it could.

Thankfully, Tracy (and so many others) are gone now, which means we can focus on the more important aspects of Eugene’s story: that he is in hell thanks to Jesse Custer and that this is not a good place to be. “Damsels” doesn’t spend a lot of time on his story; we see him stuck in the loop for a while, and then hell’s machinery apparently malfunctions, leaving him free to wander through a grim gray hall and meet someone who looks an awful lot like Hitler. It’s simultaneously creepy and funny (“Oh, you’re in hell? Heeeeeeeeere’s HITLER!”), and if the details of Eugene’s Worst Day Ever don’t exactly click, the concept as a whole is effective.

The bulk of the episode follows Jesse, Tulip, and Cassidy as they arrive in New Orleans. Jesse continues his quest for God, but after a great slow-burn gag (obviously “God” was going to be some sort of bizarre sex act, but the joke works because the payoff manages to deliver on expectations; I especially liked the threatening close-up on the dog-man’s eye), Tulip decides she’s had enough and bails. She’s worried she’s going to be spotted by someone who will report her arrival in town to Victor, and Cassidy takes the opportunity to get some alone time with his unrequited. They end up at Dennis’ house, a Frenchman who knows Cassidy somehow, even though he doesn’t appear to like him much.

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There are lots of mysteries in “Damsels,” and exactly what’s going on with Eugene in hell is easily the smallest. Who is Dennis, and why is Cassidy comfortable crashing at his house when, as Tulip observes, Dennis seems to hate him? Who is Victor, what’s Tulip’s relationship with him, and what does she hope to accomplish by turning herself over at the end of the hour? And what is this mysterious “crypto-fascist religious organization” that cons Jesse into revealing the Word to a complete stranger?

All of these questions matter (the last one will probably have the biggest ramifications for the series going forward, including a brief introduction of a very important dickhead), but it’s a mark in the show’s favor that the lack of information is always more intriguing than overwhelming. We know why Jesse, Tulip, and Cassidy are doing what they do even if we don’t know the details of how they’re doing it, or what exactly they plan to accomplish. The characters are well-drawn enough at this point that the mystery pulls us forward instead of confusing us; and so long as the show has Jesse’s quest to come back to, there’s an organizing structure that will keep the chaos around it from spiraling out of control.

I continue to be impressed with the handling of Cassidy. Joe Gilgun is walking a fine line between ingratiating and sycophantic, but he does it well, and it’s still possible to understand why Tulip is willing to trust him even when there’s so much about him that’s not worth trusting. Her relationship with Jesse is solid, but with the sort of external complications that make her reluctant to be completely honest; and while that can be a tired dramatic trope, the way it’s playing out here has worked so far for me, largely because it continues to justify her treating Cassidy as a confidant. Despite a few worrying signs, she needs a sympathetic ear, and Cassidy is nothing but sympathy. The trio’s current dynamic has the appearance of stability, but with just enough plausible uncertainty at the heart of things to make it potentially explosive. I especially like how good the show is at making Cassidy both a bit slimy and also very charming. It’s a nice mix.

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Last season Jesse himself was probably the weakest link of the three leads; Dominic Cooper is a strong, non-conventional pick for the role, but he was hampered by a character who didn’t have a purpose beyond vague idealism. Now that he has his quest, he’s come into better focus, and while it would be easy for him to fall into a generic hero type, it’s already clear that he’s got more of a past than we’ve been allowed to see. The moment in the bar where he snaps and flings a glass at a stranger for making fun of him is both a reminder of how quick his reflexes are and a not-so-subtle suggestion that his God-hunt is not as saintly as he’d clearly like to believe. The boy has issues, I’m saying, and it’ll be fun seeing those come to the surface as things get worse for everyone.

The organization that tricks him into revealing himself doesn’t get a name this week, but I’ll give you a spoiler: They are, at least in the comics, a pretty big deal, and their introduction here is well handled, a ruse that plays on Jesse’s ego and gallantry as well as our own presumptions about mysterious and beautiful lounge singers in the Big Easy. After a night of dead ends, a bartender sends him after a singer who may know where God is; Jesse makes contact, watches her fend off a pickup artist, and then saves her from a group of white-suited, white-masked thugs. The singer feeds him a line about a man who knew something but wound up dead, which Jesse buys completely, but we see later she’s on the job, a reveal that turns the corniness of the scene into an asset.

All of which ultimately leads to Jesse’s file crossing Herr K. Starr’s desk—and the direction (by Michael Slovis) does a fine job of suggesting that this matters, even if we don’t exactly know why yet. Slovis’ direction throughout the episode is terrific, and I especially liked the final moments of the hour: Tulip at the laundromat in close-up as a horde of men appear behind her. She’s apparently decided to steer into the skid of her own past. We’ll have to see if that works out for her, but one thing’s for sure: None of this is going to be easy.

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Stray observations

  • Well, Jesse’s used the Word twice now, so the Saint should be along soon.
  • Jesse gets a bad vibe off a poster for “Angelville.” Hmm.
  • “It’s just like what Mary Poppins says in The Sound Of Music.” —Eugene
  • “It was just anal, so I’ll still get into heaven.” —Tracy
  • My biggest problem with the opening scene is that there’s no real sympathy for Tracy at all in it. The scene would’ve been stronger if it had managed to make both her and Eugene both kind of fucked up and sad; that would’ve been harder to write, especially to make sure it ended the way it needed to, but as is, Eugene just comes across as a complete victim of horrible, horrible luck (even the kiss he gives her, while badly timed and invasive, is pretty chaste and quick), while Tracy seems to have stepped out of Heathers. The combination doesn’t work. Still, she’s gone now, and at least Eugene isn’t a monster anymore.
  • “We’re looking for God.” “All three of you?”

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