Photo: AMC

“Holes” finds Preacher still in setup mode, as Jesse, Cassidy, Tulip, and Eugene struggle to find ways to move forward with limited information. Unlike “Pig,” there’s no origin story to tie everything together, but in a way, the lack of a clear, strong narrative makes the whole hour feel more cohesive. Starr was such a standout last week that it was hard to stay interested whenever we cut to Tulip dealing with PTSD or Jesse chatting with a street preacher. This week, everyone’s trapped in their own private hells (literally in one case), and the result, while not the most gripping entry of the season, gets back the sense of rising action that was lost when Jesse managed to derail the Saint.

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We start with Eugene, who’s still in hell, waiting for the things in charge to fix their busted systems and put him back in an endlessly repeating re-enactment of his worst memory. Eugene’s trying to pretend he’s hardcore (when the hell did he get that tattoo?), but despite the beatdown he gave Hitler a few weeks back, he’s really just as soft as he ever was. Working on his own schemes, Hitler tricks Eugene into revealing his basically decent self for the security cameras, which earns the kid a trip to the Hole, wherein his worst memory is made even more painful: now, instead of reliving Tracy’s suicide, he has to watch her give Jesse Custer a handjob.

It’s a bit odd—I hadn’t realized Jesse had that sort of importance in Eugene’s life—but any representation of someone’s nightmares is bound to be weird. The trick of having Eugene briefly think he’ll finally get to be happy with Tracy (which in turn fools the audience into believing that hell’s machinery has somehow been thwarted by his presence) makes the reveal even funnier, and it also helps to justify the next step in Eugene’s storyline: teaming up with Hitler to escape. The show’s handling of Hitler has been one of the more under-the-radar fascinating elements of the season, and part of the suspense of Eugene’s story (which, as far as I remember, isn’t from the source material at all) is seeing how all of this will play out.

At the very least, it doesn’t look like Jesse is going to be lending a hand any time soon. He’s hit a roadblock in his quest for God, and his latest desperate effort has him hitting up the tech geeks at the local Best Buy knockoff to try and get a clue off “God”’s audition tape. This is by far the goofiest plotline of the hour, with Jesse apparently so muddle-headed as to miss the very obvious “Property Of Grail Industries” written on the side of the disc, but his efforts, fruitless though they ultimately are, do serve as a decent thematic summary of the hour as a whole. At one point, he prays to a god he knows isn’t there for help. That’s more or less where everyone is.

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Tulip’s problems are the vaguest on the show right now—it’s clear she’s still dealing with her encounter with the Saint, and while it’s refreshing to see someone actually traumatized after dealing with a terrifying monster, it feels like we’re missing some piece of the puzzle as to why this trauma is specific to her. There could be additional backstory waiting, or it could just be that the writers decided they needed to give Tulip something to do to make sure the show’s main trio would be drifting apart in the season’s second half, but the result is drama that, while well acted and directed, doesn’t feel like it has a lot of places it can go.

Thankfully “Holes” gives Tulip more to do than just suffer bad dreams. She decides to get proactive, buying a new fridge to replace the one the Saint’s bullet broke through and then going to each room on the same floor as Denis’ apartment to repair the bullet hole left by the Saint’s gun. Having her take action helps prevent a potentially sluggish storyline from wallowing too long, and it also gives Tulip a chance to make friends with “Jenny,” a lady who lives down the hall who claims to be on the run from an abusive ex. The fact that Jenny is actually a Grail agent in disguise—the same one who tricked Jesse with the lounge singer act back in “Damsels,” and part of a two-person team monitoring Jesse and the others in New Orleans—means that things are going to get complicated in a hurry.

Surprisingly, Cassidy provides the hour with its greatest emotional depth. Denis is still dying, and Cassidy still refuses to turn him. But as his son’s body slowly eats itself alive, the vampire is having second thoughts. The episode doesn’t provide much in the way of backstory; we see Cassidy standing over what must be baby Denis back in 1946 (Cassidy looks the same, though the fact that it’s a sunny room means he probably hadn’t become a vampire yet), and late in the episode, he calls someone on to talk over his son’s situation, but these are all hints, not a concrete narrative. At some point, we’ll almost certainly be getting a longer look at Cassidy’s past, but for right now, his scenes stay more or less in the present.

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Which works very well, largely because it’s a chance to see Cassidy as more than just a goofball or a self-serving dick who wants to get into Tulip’s pants again. In the brief flashback, he sings to baby Denis before taking a swig from a flask, promising the kid he’ll be a good father to him; given how things have turned out, it’s not hard to guess he broke his promise. But what makes this compelling is that Cassidy is clearly trying to make the right choice. He doesn’t want to turn Denis because it turns out living forever and never seeing the sun is kind of terrible. But he also can’t stand watching his son die in horrible pain.

As cool as Tulip is (thanks in large part to Ruth Negga’s terrific performance), and as fun as it is to watch Jesse fight to be a good man, Cassidy might be Preacher’s most fascinating central character—a supernatural goofball who is also a manipulative liar and deeply weak but also smart enough to recognize his weakness and hate himself for them. There’s surprising nuance in the writing and in Joe Gilgun’s work, and that final shot of him coming into Denis’ bedroom, singing the song he sang to his son as a baby, gave me chills. Even at its best, the show is a conglomeration of wild ideas just moments away from spinning out of control. The second season has wisely chosen to pin its focus on the main trio and head outward from there, and it’s moments like the end of “Holes” that demonstrate why that works so well.

Stray observations

  • Every candy bar in hell’s vending machine is a Zagnut. At least Beetlejuice would enjoy himself.
  • Tulip’s new friend is played by Julie Ann Emery, who I mostly remember from the first season of Better Call Saul. Good to see her in a role that will presumably have a little more staying power.
  • Hell’s equipment is malfunctioning because someone doesn’t belong there. Mostly likely that person is Eugene. This raises some questions about how hell is run, which I honestly hope the show never bothers to answer. (I prefer the “This is just the shitty way things are” approach.)
  • “You have to trust me, Eugene.” —Hitler
  • I think I’ve been writing about too many 10-episode season shows; I thought Preacher was only a few hours away from the season finale, but it turns out we’re barely past the halfway point. Huzzah!

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