Serialization can do wonders for TV shows. It can pay off emotional investment in characters, allow writers to tell more complex, nuanced stories, and, when done effectively, can create something incredibly powerful over time. But it can also create problems, and the one we’re stuck in now with Preacher is probably the most obvious one: once you put yourself in the hole, there’s no easy way to get out. Unlike a show built on standalones, a bad episode doesn’t exist in isolation; every hour of the series is essentially building a small part of the foundation that every future hour is going to build on, and when those hours start to rot, the effect is long-term and increasingly widespread. This can happen on non-serialized shows, of course, but it can be especially painful on a series like this one, which keeps moving forward even though the ground its standing isn’t able to support it.
What we have in “The Tombs” is an attempt to do good work over bad. While the episode has its problems even on its own merits, it at least tries to tell a coherent story about the ways Jesse’s childhood has shaped his adult life, reinforcing the idea that Angelville is a toxic place that made it difficult for him to build any lasting relationships. There’s some potentially interesting stuff between him and Cass, and him and Tulip, and there’s even a self-contained story that gives us a better understanding about his younger efforts to push people he cared about away backfired horribly. Plus, we check in on the Saint of Killers, and get some gnarly special effects in Hell.
If nothing else, the show still looks great. The cold open, which has the Saint meeting with Satan and getting flogged for his earlier escape, is stylish and absurd, revealing Satan to be a kind of business bro in “big red demon” garb. The rest of the episode never really tops this, but it also never stops looking neat, even if the story beats don’t make much sense. The Tombs has an appealingly ugly dankness, Tulip’s seemingly endless journey back to Angelville feels like a small slice of a nightmare, and Jesse’s ludicrous efforts to save Cassidy, leading to a serious betrayal of packing store protocol, are appropriately gory and fun. There are plenty of moments in “The Tombs” when all I really wanted to do was turn off my brain and just soak up the atmosphere.
And you can clearly see the writers pushing towards something. There’s an arc of sorts, with Jesse sinking into the Tombs again and trying to save Cassidy’s life; of Tulip finding out about Jesse’s past from an old enemy/ex-girlfriend, but deciding to stick with him no matter what stories she hears; hell, of Cassidy being faced with a huge moral decision and, sort of shockingly, actually making the right call. If these arcs had been the culmination of more solid story building, they’d would’ve been effective. As it is, it’s like reading a rough draft by a talented but inexperienced novelist—you can see the pieces of something that works, but those pieces are all hidden underneath a lot of confused structure and sloppy ideas.
Take Jesse’s big plan for getting Cassidy out of the Tombs. After Cass wins his first fight, Jesse cuts the vampire into pieces, puts the pieces into a trash bag, and then tries to mail everything back to New Orleans. On the surface, that’s very funny and a clever way to use Cass’s immortality; with some blood and a way to avoid the sunshine, the vampire will be just fine. Hell, he’s even arguing as Jesse’s sealing him up in in the box. But in practice, it doesn’t make any sense. Even putting aside the fact that the supposedly deadly dangerous Jody has no idea he’s got vampire bits in a trash bag in the back of his truck (did they really leave him alone long enough to slice, dice, and transport?), why bother mailing Cass anywhere? Why not just dump him in an alley with the blood and tell him to amscray? If the intent was to make sure Cassidy stayed gone, it’s some bad planning on Jesse’s part; the Irish bastard is up and out of the box seemingly seconds after Jesse seals him, strolling back to the Tombs for round 2. Which makes for a nifty dramatic moment as he comes down the stairs with a paper-cutter blade taped to one arm, but only in isolation.
Really, that’s where the bad foundation problem comes in—the way it’s possible to have big dramatic story beats fall almost completely flat simply because they lack the proper setting to show them to their best advantage. The feud between Cass and Jesse has been going on for a while, but it’s never really sunk in, in part because the stakes are so hard to pin down. At this point, I’m not even sure what they’re still fighting about, apart from the fact that Cass wants Tulip. It’s not illogical that they’d come to blows, but it’s just so much less interesting than it should be. In good storytelling, especially good genre storytelling, everything should feel like there’s a reason it’s happening, like each moment comes from the moment before it, even if the reason is “boy, life is some random bullshit, isn’t it?” At this point, Preacher still has basic narrative coherence, but far too much of it is things happening because you’d expect them to happen in this sort of story, not because we’ve been convinced they need to happen.
There are things here that work. The stuff with the Saint is fine because it’s more or less its own thing; given that the two souls the Devil orders him to bring back are almost certainly Hitler and Eugene, I don’t have a lot of hopes for the future, but it was still a coherent plot with clear cause and effect. Tulip driving Cassidy to the bus stop and telling him definitively that she doesn’t love him was good, as was his decision not to use the love potion. Tulip calling Jesse on his bullshit worked pretty well, and her learning that she’s going to have to kill Grandma to break the blood compact at least gives us a goal in future weeks.
But the flashback to Jesse’s past, where we learn that he once had a relationship with Madame Boyd, isn’t so great. The fact that Boyd thinks Jesse murdered her brother, when it turns out that, uh, Jesse murdered her brother but it was in self-defense… that’s not a great twist. Maybe we’ll find out later that the brother survived and he’s one of the Tombs’s walking dead, but for now, it strives to make a point about what the place does to your soul without making Jesse into a monster, and it doesn’t really go far enough either way. The fact that he puts on a top hat and turns into a mildly cutting shock jock isn’t anywhere near as horrifying as it’s supposed to be, just like everything else at Angelville, and that simple fact is slowly but surely wrecking everything else that’s good around it.
- Little Jesse saw Gladiator and likes saying “Are you entertained?” in the Tombs a lot. Which is cute, but also kind of annoying.
- Featherstone is on the bus with Cassidy at the end, which doesn’t make much sense but sure.