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An old threat returns and Jesse makes his choice on Preacher

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So it turns out Herr Starr is not a complete idiot after all. While certain details remain obscure, his plan to bring Jesse around to his side seems to have succeeded. By the end of “On Your Knees,” Starr is kneeling to the preacher, but it’s clear enough where the real power lies. Having seen the current descendant of Christ, Jesse knows that Jesus isn’t going to save us. He also knows that he has the Word, and he’s convinced himself that there’s a reason why God (or whatever) gave him that power. Besides, his mistake with the Saint nearly got him scalped, and it was only Starr’s last minute intervention that saved him. He turns to the Grail because it looks like the only option left.

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Which is more or less what Starr intended. This is a messy season—it’s less messy than last year, in part because the number of major characters has been narrowed down, but it’s still full of fits and starts, with a structure that spends too much time repeating a few handful of ideas while it gets everything else into place for the big finale. But at least now the arc of the back half is clear. Jesse’s search for God, which was never all that well thought out to begin with, has hit a roadblock. Enter Starr, who’s more than willing to give a man in need of a purpose something to do.

And man, this doesn’t make Jesse look good at all, does it? Most of the time, his need to do the right thing has at least justified, if not excused, his pigheadedness. He’s aspiring to be part of something greater than himself. Unfortunately, those aspirations are still driven by the arrogant presumption that he really does know what’s best. That scene near the end with him, Tulip, and Cassidy is maybe the worst he’s come off since the beginning, and there’s no violence in it at all; just the dawning discovery that he actually thinks he’s qualified to be the savior of the human race. And thanks to Starr, he may get his chance—albeit without Tulip and Cassidy around to keep him grounded.

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“On Your Knees” tries to tie in a bunch of plots at once, with fair bit of success. It’s good to have the Saint back, although his impact here is muted; the flashbacks to a happier time in his life remind us of his motivation, but I’m not sure that reminder was really needed. We’ve had ample opportunity to understand the Saint, and he’s the sort of threat that works best when he exists in a realm beyond complete understanding. It takes him a surprisingly long time to subdue Jesse and the others, and his decision to indulge in some villain monologing before scalping his prey is a step down from the merciless killing machine that waged war on life through the first half of this season. I guess the loss of his weapons hit him harder than I would’ve assumed.

There isn’t much payoff to Tulip’s whole deal. After all those nightmares, she finally bumps into the Saint in the flesh and does her best to face him, only to get beaten down twice. While it would’ve been a cheat to have her kick his ass, it just throws into further relief how much time the show has spent on a character bit that has no significant use. That Tulip was scared of the Saint doesn’t tell us anything new about her, doesn’t give us much insight into the Saint; all it really did was drive a wedge between her and Jesse, and the simple fact that Jesse lied about what he did with the Saint would’ve been enough to accomplish that on its own.

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Denis is still around, trying to find (and eat) his puppy. His and Cassidy’s scenes at least have the benefit of character conflict to drive them, but it still seems like the sort of back-and-forth that would’ve been better served in a single episode, instead of having it play out in the background a little piece at a time. It’s that problem of structure again, really. The individual episodes have more distinct personality than some shows, but the biggest weaknesses come from a writer’s room that’s too focused on the big picture to figure out the pacing and balance of the smaller stuff.

Spreading out, say, Eugene’s time in Hell, over the course of multiple episodes is useful as a way to fill time, but it also robs those sequences of cumulative impact. The cold open this week has Eugene finally transcending his personal Hell, giving him and Hitler a chance to escape through the air ducts. (Why Hell has air ducts, I’m sure I don’t know.) As a scene, it’s well built, using what we know about the character to build suspense and comedy out of a pretty good slow burn. But it has practically nothing to do with the rest of the hour, and the fact that it’s taken Eugene this long and he still isn’t officially out of Hell keeps this from being suspenseful or tense.

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That’s my biggest issue with “On Your Knees.” It features the return of a major threat, has our trio of heroes apparently breaking up, and ends with Jesse in the clutches of a complete asshole. And yet while some of the moments are suspenseful or tense, on the whole it’s more or less just… fine. Again, we’re at that tricky spot between “good” and “great” (or, if you’re worried about inflation, “decent” and “good.”). When it works, it seems petty to complain. But when it doesn’t work—when concepts float around each other and just missing the essential connections that make a series of events into more than just “and then this happened”—it’s a bummer.

Stray observations

  • What, exactly, did the Grail offer the Saint? A chance for revenge? Something more? Regardless, I doubt he’ll want to work with them again in the future.
  • Apparently Hell does have a Satan, and the Saint wants to talk to him. Should be fun.
  • I really hope we don’t have to spend any more time in Eugene’s Hell. Also, the reveal that he was molested by his Boy Scout troop leader was a bit much.
  • I don’t need a list or anything, but it would be nice if the Saint’s powers were more clearly defined.
  • The Pope tells the faithful to expect “Jesus or a reasonable approximation thereof.”
  • The idea that the bureaucrats of Hell could pull people (presumably) out of Heaven is pretty unsettling. It’s almost as if the whole system was fundamentally corrupt.
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