Photo: Alfonso Bresciani (AMC/Sony Pictures)

If Preacher’s third season (what little there is of it so far) is struggling to convey the real menace of Angelville, you can consider “Gonna Hurt” as something of a corrective. Last week, Jesse made his big play to get out. It was, and I’m being kind here, a stupid mess. (Jesse’s plan, I mean. The episode wasn’t great, but I’m not feeling quite that mean about it yet.) But on a macro level, it at least indicated that Jesse knew he needed to get himself and his friends out of Grandma’s clutches before shit got real. With the quest for God temporarily on hold, the show needs some new reason to push forward. It needs a Big Bad, so to speak, and Madame Marie and her henchmen are presumably intended to fit the bill. That they haven’t seemed all that bad yet (outside of flashbacks) is frustrating, but at least tonight’s episode makes some efforts towards establishing just why Jesse was so desperate to leave.

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In concept, I like the idea of a slow build, and in its best moments, “Gonna Hurt” does a decent job in showing how both Cassidy and Tulip have been suckered in by Angelville despite Jesse’s best intentions, even as the trap closes in around them. Jesse’s panic when he realizes that TC and Jody are going to figure out that Cassidy is a vampire leads to a good scene between him and his “best friend,” as he desperately tries to convince a sullen and doped up Cassidy that he needs to leave before things get out of hand. The idea that Cassidy, more than a little arrogant about his survival skills, would ignore the warning makes sense, and for once the fact that Marie and the others seem so inept works in the show’s favor. Why would anyone be afraid of an old woman an in a wheelchair and a couple of hicks? Hell, T.C. has even been friendly, doctoring up Cassidy in his time of need and offering him a variety of drugs.

I’m a big fan of threats that trick us into thinking we’re safe before pulling out the rug from under us (I mean, I’m a fan of this in fiction; in real life, not so much), and if this worked, it would be a fascinating twist on the source material, a way to drag out the Angelville story a little longer and also say some things about the insidious nature of abuse. Monsters aren’t always obvious, and having Cassidy and Tulip sink into a routine without realizing just how difficult it was going to be to escape that routine could’ve made for some powerful tension as the season ran on. It makes sense that the show would want spend more time on the plantation, as it’s an evocative location and it should have a major impact on how we view Jesse for the rest of the run. And having Madame Marie come right out and start murdering people would’ve spoiled the game too soon. Season two had the terrifying-unstoppable-murder threat, so why not trying something a little new?

So it would’ve been nice if this worked. But everything is still too casual, still too “eh, let’s go over here for a bit;” a story like this one needs to have a series of escalating pressures that both push our heroes forward and limit their options, and while that’s technically present here, those pressures never seem all that immediate. Even Tulip’s run in with God is a let down. God, unsurprisingly, turns out to be a condescending jerk (who, when he takes off his mask, turns out to look exactly like the fake god from season one; maybe there’s a twist coming?); Tulip stands up to him, he zaps her, and… that’s pretty much it.

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It’s visually stylish and fairly amusing, and Ruth Negga appears to be enjoying herself. But it also doesn’t make a lot of sense. Why is God contacting her now? The Genesis power isn’t working anymore, so Jesse is no longer a threat. The only concrete reason I can think of is that it gives Tulip a chance to realize God is going through a sort of midlife crisis (sex games, a motorcycle, a hot blond), and it also gives God a chance to tell her that everything she did is according to his plan. Given that the whole series is supposedly driven by a search for God, you’d assume personal appearances by the Lord would need more motivation behind them than this. More than anything, it plays like the idea of God in a fetish costume is so funny that we need to keep bringing it back.

Which, really, is my problem with the show as a whole right now. The folks behind it have decided to rest on attitude without bothering to back it up with an actual understanding of narrative, and it’s frustrating as hell to watch even when it’s entertaining. There’s a bit in tonight’s episode when Jesse and Jody go trolling support groups for people who might be susceptible to Madame Marie’s magic, and it’s a good idea; giving us an idea of just what kind of bottom-feeders the folks of Angelville really are, and also letting us know that Madame Boyd (whom Tulip visits late in the hour) has pretty much taken over the operation. But we also pause for a few minutes so we can laugh at a guy confessing his addiction to huffing glue, which… okay? Look, I’m not saying there are topics you shouldn’t touch, and even if there are, “glue sniffing” isn’t exactly sacred ground. But there’s something lazy about mocking the addicts Marie preys on for her livelihood. And it makes Jesse’s efforts seem less like a man compromising his soul to protect himself and the people he loves, and more like a lark, taking advantage of weak idiots for your own benefit.

The show’s snotty sense of humor can be great fun, but it has the unfortunate effect of undermining an already laid back approach to storytelling. After all, we’re not supposed to have contempt for Jesse and Tulip and Cassidy; we’re supposed to care about what happens to them, and root for them to succeed. But the bratty sarcasm is so much more convincing than the occasional sincerity that there’s no suspense or momentum at all, and ultimately the jokes get old because there’s nothing particularly inspired or interesting behind them.

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The episode builds to a final revelation, with Jesse doing the one thing he swore he’d never do: going back to the Tombs, this time to save Cassidy’s life. That’s some classic narrative structure right there, forcing a main character to make a difficult choice to protect someone (someone who was set on betraying him, no less), and the Tombs reveal is certainly stylish enough. But after all that build up, it turns out to be an underground fighting arena, where Cassidy faces off against a pedophile in a battle to the death. It’s a bit of a deflating reveal even with the top hat, and it’s impossible to know how seriously we’re supposed to take any of this. Right now Preacher is working okay on a scene-by-scene basis, and every so often it threatens to get more than interesting. So far this season, it has yet to make good on that threat.

Stray observations

  • Is the pedophile Cassidy’s fighting the same guy who approached Jesse in flashback last week?
  • Tuliip finds out about the “blood compact” arrangement, which at least means she understands why Jesse is reluctant to leave. She gets this information by letting T.C. show her his “dingle,” which is as upsetting as you’d expect. It would be nice if Jody and T.C. could occasionally be a little scary, y’know? As it is, it’s embarrassing that our heroes are being run around by this buffoons.
  • Jesse calls Cassidy his “best friend,” which says more about Jesse’s lack of a social life than their actual relationship. (Cassidy also talks to Madame Marie about getting a love potion for Tulip, because Cassidy is an asshole.)
  • I like watching Tulip beat people up, but it would be nice if we didn’t have have the soundtrack kick in every damn time.
  • The fact that T.C. gets the drop on Cassidy is fairly embarrassing for the latter. But really, it’s just another symptom of the show’s inability to make any of these villains convincing threats; it just means that on those rare occasions when they do pull something off, the heroes look like idiots.
  • Side note: the fact that Jesse made the choice to come back and get his grandmother’s help in bring Tulip back from the dead makes his efforts to escape a little sleazier than they ought to be. She really did do him a service, and he’s trying to back out of a deal; if the show was better at convincing us of her monstrousness, this would be more effective, but as is, it’s murky in a way I don’t think anyone working behind the scenes realizes.

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