It’s about eleven minutes (maybe twelve) before the opening titles hit in “Sundowner.” This isn’t unusual for the show. The segments on the Cowboy have always been pre-credits, and those tend to run long. But this time feels important. For once, we’re following Jesse all the way through, as he first learns the truth about what’s inside of him, and then finds out that there are forces a lot more competently violent aligned against him than the two idiot angels. It’s not all a single scene, but it is a sustained sequence that uses the inventive visuals we’ve come to expect (check out that shot through the hole in the wall!) to tell a clear story that will have lasting implications for our hero.
A vibe runs throughout the episode, a feeling that all the pieces that have been shifting around for weeks now are finally sliding together to form something like a whole. The rest of the hour doesn’t have anything to really compete with the sustained action set-piece at the Sundowner Motel (which is surely in competition for one of the best action set-pieces of the year), but it does have a handful of plotlines which all add up to more than themselves, building to the most shocking thing we’ve seen yet—a moment so unexpected, and so brutally awful, that its lack of obvious violence just makes it worse. When Jesse uses the Voice (ie, the power of Genesis) to send Eugene to Hell, there’s nothing. There’s just an absence. And that absence is more disturbing than all the gore that came before it.
There’s plenty to unpack before we get to that moment, though, and wonder of wonders, most of what we see here is stuff that makes that betrayal really count. The worst part about shows that depend more on moments than storytelling (*cough*RyanMurphy*cough*) is that sudden twists or shocks rarely have enough context. When everything is a twist, it’s hard to care about any specific moment. Drama needs the build to work; it needs the slow (and, when badly done, potentially tedious) effort of establishing relationships, situations, and deepening our understanding of the characters involved. Preacher hasn’t been a complete mess, but at its worst, the creative team’s infatuation with “Oh, why the fuck not?” threatened to drown the story in a whole lot of stuff. But “Sundowner” is cohesive, and smartly put together; it doesn’t entirely alleviate my concerns, but it does enough to fix them (and to reassure me that people know where they’re going) to make me optimistic about the future.
Jesse learns from DeBlanc and Fiore that the power inside of him is actually a living entity, the result of an affair between an angel and a demon in the middle of the eternal battle between Heaven and Hell. The result of their coupling, a baby named Genesis, is apparently the most powerful force in the universe (“More powerful than God?” Jesse doesn’t ask), and now it’s inside Jesse, and, after a long fight with a Seraphim, he decides he’s going to go ahead with his plans anyway. The battle at the Sundowner is a terrific slapstick horrorshow, as the three men try again and again to restrain the Angel of the First Order, and again and again end up killing her allowing her to respawn. All the while, she’s killing DeBlanc and Fiore, and they’re respawning, and the room is littered with duplicate corpses even before Cassidy shows up.
The playfulness of the direction here, which keeps finding new ways to show us the increasingly absurd carnage, is absolutely beautiful. This is where over-the-top style and pulpiness pays off, and the fact that Jesse goes through all of this and still decides it’s a good idea to keep using the Voice almost feels like the punchline to a joke. When even Cassidy is preaching caution, you know something’s fucked up. “Sundowner” goes a long way towards making it clear that Jesse’s need to do what he thinks of as “good” is an obsession that clouds his judgment. By the time he’s shouting at Eugene in the church for even daring to question his choices, it’s clear he’s gone astray.
But Jesse isn’t the only story, even if he is the main one. We also spend some time with Emily and Tulip; they start off as enemies, but end up as something like friends. Thank god for the latter, because Tulip going after Emily (who is a perfectly nice, perfectly decent sort who is never going to end up with Jesse no matter how many sad looks she throws at him) is basically bullshit, and the scene where she barges into Emily’s house and threatens her with a child’s art project doesn’t make a whole lot of sense. While Tulip’s frustrations with her ex are understandable, having her take after Emily with those frustrations is ridiculous, and turns her into a bully in the least interesting way imaginable. But to have the scene go on, and have Tulip ultimately soften and realize she’s being an idiot, helps to set things right. Tulip vs. Emily is the sort of cliche that tells us nothing about anyone. Tulip and Emily working together, though, makes them both more interesting.
Tulip’s brief scene with Cassidy also helps to partially make up for their backseat fuckery of last week. In general, as great as Ruth Negga is, I think the writers are struggling to know what to do with her. Cassidy is firmly in bastardly sidekick mode, but Tulip is out on the fringes—normally the character who’s desperate to get back together with an old lover is either the protagonist or a joke, and she’s neither. So she’s hanging around, and while the show has done a decent job establishing who she is (determined, smart, bit of a temper), her actions still feel unmoored. Hell, the scene with her and Cassidy only really works because it puts Cassidy at the bottom of a love triangle; with just a few quick shots (and some nice use of a convenient door) we see that he actually has something like feelings that can be hurt. But we learn nothing new about Tulip, and I suspect she’ll continue to float on the breeze until her situation with Jesse changes.
There’s also a running plot about Mayor Miles trying to decide what to do about Odin’s kill spree, but let’s be honest; while that’s interesting, the degradation of that particular soul isn’t what we’re here to see. (To be honest, I should probably ding the episode a few points for that subplot; it was fine, but it still felt like padding. But I love everything else so much that I’m feeling generous.) What’s more important is Eugene, and how a casual offer of friendship from some peers leads him to decide that what Jesse is doing with the Voice is wrong.
It’s simplistic, but beautifully done, and the whole time I kept waiting for some horrible other shoe to drop; for Eugene’s new “friends” to be setting him up for some new kind of abuse. Given the moral character of everyone else on the show, it’s maybe not saying much to say that Eugene is Preacher’s heart. But his enthusiasm and eagerness to please (along with his facial injuries) could’ve set him up as a butt for jokes, walking evidence of the pitfalls of positive thinking. Instead, he’s the one person around who seems to be thinking clearly, and it inspires a certain protectiveness on the part of the audience. Eugene has been through a lot, but if he can still manage a positive attitude, you want to hope things won’t completely turn out bad for him. You want to believe he can have some kind of life, even as you know the odds are against it, which is what his story this week exploits. The suspense of waiting for things to turn horrible makes the fireworks reveal all the more special. It was a rare moment of unironic beauty.
Then the kicker finally does hit, and it comes from the guy who we’re supposed to be trusting, the guy who’s arguably been Eugene’s biggest supporter till now. Jesse turning on Eugene makes him more than just an anti-hero; he’s a borderline villain at this point. That’s a bold turn to make, but it’s one that’s earned. Jesse’s obsession with “goodness,” with living up to the promise he made to his father (he even says that once he uses the Voice on all the people of Annville, he’ll be “free”), has combined with his inherent personality and newfound abilities to make something very fucking dark indeed.
The question now is, will Eugene’s sudden disappearance be enough to wake Jesse up? And is Eugene gone for good? That last question haunts me. I’m relatively sure this isn’t going to be a series about a megalomaniacal preacher destroying a small town with his hubris, so I believe Jesse is going to see the light at some point. But there are no promises with Eugene, and not knowing what’s next for him has me nervous in the best possible way. A bravura set-piece and a devastating turn in a single episode? Praise the Lord.
- There’s a lot of mythology to take in during the opening. Is there a specific reason why Jesse never uses the voice on the attacking angel? I know it comes up, but all I can remember is DeBlanc and Fiore yelling at him not to use the power, which isn’t really something he seemed to pay much attention to.
- “Do you know what this reminds me of?” “Shut up, Cassidy.”
- “Hey Eugene.” “Sorry.”
- Tulip once punctured one of Elizabeth Taylor’s tires because the lady was a lousy tipper.
- The sight that bullhorn was very, very creepy.
- Tulip had a kid once! That’s new.
- “It’s cheating.” -Eugene