For all its faults, when the Preacher source material was on, it was on, and the storyline the show is currently adapting is one of the comic’s highpoints; maybe the high point. It was a crucial moment in establishing Jesse’s character, in creating stakes going forward, and in showing us that for all its cynical wise-ass humor, the story was, at heart, a deeply romantic and sincere one. And in just a couple of episodes, the TV show has pretty much botched all of it. I’m reluctant to say we’ve passed a point of no return here, quality-wise, and series have certainly come back from worse. But this really not great, and what’s worse, the parts that are wrong with it are indicative of major problems with the show as a whole.

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For one thing, Jesse Custer is a moron. That’s not good. His big plan this week is to get the Grail to bring him back his soul so he can use Genesis again. He goes about this by… calling Starr and telling him what he wants to hear. That’s it. Oh, and he also has Tulip and Cassidy distract T.C. and Jody by stirring up a fight with the local voodoo gang. Given that T.C. and Jody still seem about as threatening as a frown in a thunderstorm, it’s not all that impressive, but hey, at least there’s some subterfuge involved. With Starr, it comes down to “If I promise him I’ll be the Messiah again, he’ll give me back that power I have to control everything with my voice!” As though the two had a long history built on mutual trust, or something.

It’s dumb. It’s bad enough that the show decided to put Jesse in this spot to begin with. Obviously they needed some reason why Jesse couldn’t just use Genesis to escape his grandmother and the others right away, and I sympathize with the narrative problem Genesis creates in terms of building tension; it’s hard to get too worked up about anything when you know Jesse can just open his mouth and resolve it. But super powers are a problem for just about every superhero story, and there had to be better solution than this. However you want to try and sell it, there’s no reason in the world why Starr would ever give Jesse his soul back. I don’t care how much he wants a convincing Messiah; everything we’ve seen about Starr shows him as a domineering control freak, and even if he wasn’t, there have to be easier ways to build a savior than “pissy redneck priest with the Voice Of Ultimate Authority.”

All of this would be easier to accept if the series hadn’t managed to muck up the threat of Madame Marie and her two henchmen. They should be terrifying, and the fact that our heroes are stuck with them should be the worst scrape they’ve been in yet, as dangerous in its way as the Saint of Killers but with the context of history and abuse behind it. The episodes have made stabs at building up Angelville as Hell on Earth, but while those have been decently foreboding, they’re no escalating tension in them, no growing horror at how a situation we thought was bad is actually so much worse. We get another flashback this week, with a teenage Jesse handling an asshole who’s having some problems after getting a handjob from a high school junior. Despite Jesse’s repeated warnings, the asshole fails to make his payments after Madame Marie works her magic, and he ends up getting strapped to a machine that does horrible things to him. According to Jody, it takes his soul.

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Which is bad, sure, but while it might be technically worse than what Marie did to Jesse’s parents (given what we see at the end), the emotional impact is too complicated to generate the necessary fear. We already know Madame Marie is willing to torture and murder to get what she wants (and I’m a little muddy beyond what she wants, apart from “keeping the band together”). Learning she turned a statutory rapist into a zombie doesn’t change much, apart from showing us that Jesse was a part of the grift. There’s no sense of escalation in the present, nothing beyond a slow, creeping impression that this is probably not a great place to be. It’s not that Angelville comes across as a happy fun time for all—although at times, it does. It’s that we’re missing that crucial step of Jesse trying to take Tulip away and Marie doing something to keep him from leaving. We almost get that near the end of the hour, when Madame uses some magic to choke Jesse after he nearly gets his soul back, but it’s too little, and too late.

The result is that, as mentioned, Jesse comes across as an idiot. The fact that he’d get in touch with the Grail again after learning that Featherstone shot Tulip is the sort of big, risky character choice that needs a lot riding on it to be effective. We need to believe that Jesse has exhausted all other avenues, that he’s scared about his and his friends’ lives, that he’ll do anything to get free. Instead, it plays like a matter of convenience; there are only so many characters on the show, and Starr needs to come back somehow, so let’s bring him in. Same with Tulip finding Featherstone and Hoover on the property. Instead of trying to building some distance and drama out of the whole “Featherstone shot and killed Tulip,” we get Tulip saying she wants to punch Featherstone in the face, and then a few scenes later, doing just that. Huzzah.

It’s still sort of entertaining, provided you keep your expectations low. Even the eye candy isn’t all that inspired, though; watching the Grail slaughter a group of religious folks to some cheery music is about as lazy as high concept gets, and the insistence on bringing back the Dog God (seen here in Tulip’s brief flashbacks) robs a decent gag of its power. There are pieces here which should be good. The cast is great (with the exception of Dominic Cooper, although given how much the show has managed to screw up Jesse’s character, it’s hard to blame him), and the production values aren’t bad. Episodes often look great regardless of whether or not they’re showing things that are worth watching.

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“Sonsabitches” ends with Jesse and the others in Madame Marie’s clutches (well, I guess Cassidy could probably leave at any time, but won’t because he’s in love with Tulip, which is another messy complication that isn’t doing anyone any favors—the schism in the group is way too early), after Tulip gets a message from God to go after the Grail, mucking up Jesse’s big plan. That final scene, which has Jesse cleaning up in a dark place and running into the handjob asshole, apparently no older but very much worse for wear, is a strong ending. I wish it made up for the rest of the episode.

Stray observations

  • Joseph Gilgun is great as Cassidy, but he’s so good it kind of unbalances the show? Like, he’s just so much more interesting than Jesse is. (Ruth Negga is also great, but Tulip still doesn’t make a lot of sense.)
  • The Big Lebowski joke is no longer funny.

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