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God shows his hand in the penultimate Preacher

Photo: Sarah Enticknap (AMC/Sony Pictures)
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I’ve been too hard on Preacher this season, I think. Well, maybe “too hard” isn’t quite the right way to put it, but I can easily imagine someone watching the show, reading my rants, and having no easy way of connecting the two. Reviewing an on-going series is a constant run of readjusting one’s expectations, of questioning one’s assumptions—of trying to nail down a critical point, and only occasionally managing it. “Overture” isn’t a great episode of television, but it is a pretty good one; it doesn’t reframe the season as a whole into a classic (nothing good), but it does what it needs to do as we move into the finale. Character motivations make sense, performances are strong, and there are some legitimately powerful dramatic moments as well as a lot of good laughs.

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I think what gets me is that Preacher is always capable of something like this. It has the talent on hand and the confidence to make everything look cool. But there are so many small problems that drag the whole thing down that I struggle to appreciate it when the show gets most of it right. And the longer it goes on, the more frustrated I become. At the start of each new season, you convince yourself the show you’re writing about is going to learn from its mistakes; that it’s going to double down on what makes it distinct, it’s going to refine itself, it’s not going to fall into the same trap. Sometimes show’s get markedly better, sometimes they get markedly worse, but most times, they just sort of slowly dwindle. There’s a peak that you don’t even notice until you’re long past it, and everything else is a downhill slide.

I have no idea where Preacher’s peak was, although I remember being really excited at the start of the second season. But ultimately, the show is what it’s always been: some strong production values and performances and ideas, marred by mediocre to outright bad structure. Season four has improved on some of this because the show has a clear end date—shows almost always get a bit better if they know they’re coming to a conclusion. And God has turned out to be a terrific villain, which is not something I would’ve predicted at all.

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In “Overture,” the Lord is in fine form, punishing anyone who so much as harms a hair on Humperdoo’s head; convincing Cass to betray his friends; baiting Tulip; and trapping Jesse in a chapel with his most dangerous foe. And, clearly, having a blast doing it. Preacher’s God is an asshole, but Mark Harelik is so charming in the role that I’m having a hard time completely despising him. He brings an authority that Starr, who’s been humiliated and defanged so many times he barely registers as more than comic relief, can’t manage anymore. If there are any stakes going into the finale, it’s not “will the world end,” it’s “will Jesse et al finally give God what’s coming to him.” And while I’m pretty sure they will, the answer is in enough doubt that it’s still interesting.

There are scenes in this episode which speak to the best of what Preacher can do. Like, a disgraced Jesus attempting to win his father back by proving he can breakdance—it’s a ludicrous combination of words, but in context, it makes sense, and the way it plays out is hilarious and weirdly disarming. You feel bad for Jesus. God’s perfectly timed “That was good” before he turns his back on his son is brutal and funny as hell. (That’s not the exact line, but close enough.) Keeping Jesus around this long seemed like a weird choice, but it’s doing great work in pointing out just how much of judgemental prick God is—and there’s still that empty throne up in Heaven, so who knows who’s going to be sitting there when everything shakes out.

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There’s also God pulling Tulip aside and getting her to punch him. I’m not completely sure why God needed Tulip to punch him—it might be a story thing, or it might just be him taking an opportunity to be a jerk, which he seems to enjoy. Whatever the reason, him waiting until the late second (literally) to mention the child she lost, and then saying he doesn’t remember why he let the baby die, is absolutely poisonous and cruel and well-written. It doesn’t make up for the fact that Tulip is underwritten, or explain just what the plan was when she and Jesse and Cass came to Masada to stop the end of the world (apart from “killing Humperdoo”), but as a stand alone moment, it’s excellent.

Hell, even Starr gets some laughs this week. Overflowing with confidence now that he has his precious looks back, he gropes Featherstone (grabbing her breasts with no preamble like a man checking a haunch of meat) and goes to bed with her, blissful in the certainty that everything is working out as planned. The scene of a stunned post-coital Featherstone is funny, as is the reveal that she’s lying under the covers fully dressed, as is the later reveal that she’s wearing a giant fist dildo strap-on. It’s absurd, but at least no one is getting their nipples torn off, and Starr learning that his updated apocalypse plans—ie, the ones that will let him survive the end of the world in comfort—never actually got sent out is a fun twist.

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But this is also a show that thinks it’s hilarious to have him talking with customer service while he’s trying to send out faxes. Or has someone saying “Anything for ratings” after seeing a couple of glib morning show hosts get shot on camera. Or has Eugene get released from prison and try singing on street corner, only to get immediately run over by a taxi. Preacher’s willingness to go for cheap shots lost whatever marginal appeal it ever had. Not all of these jokes are bad (the fax thing is pretty good), but they are lazy and smug, and they undercut whatever actual narrative stakes are being built. If this turns into a Strangelove-ian black comedy about the end of the world, that’s one thing, but that’s a movie that doesn’t really expect you to be emotionally invested in anyone. Here, there are a few people we’re supposed to care about, everyone else is nonsense, and it feels weird.

“Overture” ends with Cass watching over Humperdoo; Featherstone (a true believer who has suddenly realized just how thoroughly Starr has played her) letting Tulip out of her “cell;” and Jesse coming face to face with the Saint of Killers. I’m not sure why the Saint is still invested in taking Jesse down, but I have a little more faith we’ll get an explanation next week. (We did, after all, get Jesse explaining why he didn’t use his powers against God.) If I had to guess, I’d say the finale will be one part greatness and two parts bullshit. But at least the bullshit will continue to look great.

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Stray observations

  • Tulip confessing to Jesse that she and Cass slept together again is awkward in all the wrong ways. It tries to cut through the strangeness of Jesse having been dead for three months in a way that mostly just underlines how fast all of this is happening. (It’s also really difficult to get invested in Jesse and Tulip’s relationship at this point, which is kind of a bummer.)
  • Jesus finally turns on Hitler this week, will wonders never cease.
  • Oh, and we got confirmation that the angel and the demon from before are Genesis’s parents.
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