The first season of Preacher was a strange one, full of wild variations in tone, plot hiccups, and an often frustrating lack of focus. When it worked, it was thrilling, hilarious, and shocking in all the best ways. When it didn’t work, it was a sneering, overloaded mess. The second season wastes no time in showing things have changed. The first thing we see, in the series’ now familiar blaring white font, is “THE SEARCH FOR GOD.” Brief pause. “DAY ONE.” It’s silly, melodramatic, and entirely sincere, and it sets the tone for the episode that follows.

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“On the Road” isn’t perfect; the show still hasn’t completely nailed the surprisingly delicate balance of gonzo humor, unexpected moments of feeling, and gore. But it’s far more consistent than much of the previous season, and, better still, it has the sharp focus of a story with a point. The entire hour is spent either watching Jesse, Tulip, and Cassidy on their quest to find Jehovah, or showing glimpses of the Cowboy from Hell (finally given his true name, the Saint of Killers) hot on their trail. We watch our trio of leads squabble and joke with each other, and the sense that doom is on their heels lends events a momentum that makes the humor and bonding all the more meaningful.

Which is pretty basic storytelling stuff. Starting with a chase and a quest is a reliable way to generate good narrative; you can fuck it up (you can fuck anything up), but there’s a meat-and-potatoes vibe to the approach that helps to immediately ground a show that had been in danger of wandering off into the cornfield. At the same time, the opening sequence makes immediately clear that, while the focus may have narrowed a bit, we aren’t giving up the strangeness entirely. It’s a smart choice. One of the benefits of a reliable structure is that it gives writers the opportunity to goof around and experiment will still staying in reassuring confines of a familiar plot.

I wouldn’t say “On The Road” gets as bizarre as it could, but the balance is more solid than it had been. We pick up with our three leads on the road, Cassidy going off about foreskins, and then a cop tries to pull Tulip over for speeding. She’s planning to obey, but Jesse goads her into running for it, and we shift gears (heh) into a wild chase scene, complete with a film-scratched ‘70s exploitation look and Dexys Midnight Runners’ “Come On Eileen” blaring on the soundtrack. We know that our heroes won’t be spending the rest of the season in jail, but that’s the pleasure of it. Where other shows justify occasional bursts of crazy with character conflict, Preacher is perfectly content to stick its finger in the light socket from time to time just because it’s fun.

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Still, that doesn’t mean our heroes aren’t in danger. Things get interesting when the cops finally catch up with Tulip and the others, and Jesse gets indulgent with the Voice. Tulip doesn’t approve, which is a balance that could get tiresome; it was a relief that Jesse was the one to push her into breaking bad(der) in the car, because the model of “male anti-hero with a love interest who’s constantly trying to keep him from doing the evil shit the audience desperately wants him to do” is an old and dull one. Having Tulip be the plot mechanism that keeps Jesse from using Genesis could lead to some problems down the line.

Yet as it is right now, it works because Tulip is bothered by how Genesis works, but she isn’t that bothered by it. The whole thing is played more for laughs than anything else, especially in a later sequence where Jesse wants to use the Voice on a less-than-forthcoming strip club owner. The casual directness of their arguments feels like a much needed corrective to years of forced lectures. This isn’t a story about an anti-hero who keeps ignoring the better angels of his nature. This is a show about some fucked up likable people, one of whom thinks he needs to go on a quest to prove himself. His friends tag along because hey, why the hell not.

Then the Saint of Killers shows up and people start dying hard. Again, I’m not sure if the tone here is quite perfect, mostly because it’s a hodgepodge of black comedy and legitimate pathos that is very tricky to pull off; but it works. In between the slapstick of Cassidy trying to stay out of the sun and various police officers more or less exploding in clouds of gore, we see the cop Jesse ordered to recite “The Yellow Rose Of Texas” get a bullet in the head—and he keeps singing as he lies dying on the pavement. It’s not devastating, but it’s also not played for humor. It’s just a little bit haunting, even, and it’s a relief to see the show is able to find small moments like that in the midst of all the bombast.

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There are other smart choices throughout. Jesse takes the others to meet with an old friend for some tips on the God Hunt, and the first thing we learn about Mike (Glenn Morshower, who usually plays military types and who I will always associate with his character on 24) is that he has a young woman in a cage in his garage. It’s a service he provides to help his parishioners break their addictions (in Ashleigh’s case, she uses the Internet too much), and the gag sets the tone for his character; he’s a hard ass, but of the kind you implicitly trust once you realize he’s not a serial killer.

Plus, his death is one of those satisfying, upsetting badass moments that a story like this so desperately needs. We’ve watched the Saint track Jesse and kill (or maim) everyone in his path, so it’s no surprise when the cowboy shows up on Mike’s doorstep. But watching the Saint slaughter relative innocents is a trick that’s going to get old soon, so Mike’s decision to stab himself in the chest before he’s forced to reveal Jesse’s whereabouts is a fine twist. It gives a clear sense of danger while avoiding repetition or getting bogged down in misery. Mike dies, but he goes out in a manner of his choosing, more or less. (Although we probably shouldn’t think too hard about whether or not Ashleigh is still in the cage.)

Something else that’s working well is the continued development of Cassidy’s infatuation with Tulip. He’s a charming guy, and he gets some of the episode’s biggest laughs, but he’s also a selfish asshole, and the writers and Joe Gilgun do an excellent job of making sure we don’t lose sight of either his entertainment value or his selfishness. The looks of longing he shoots Tulip, and his efforts to convince her that they need to “come clean” with Jesse about their night together, create a sense of unease running quietly in the background of all the big fun scenes they share as a group.

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Take, for instance, what happens at the strip club (of course it’s a strip club) where Jesse and Tulip interrogate Tammy about her time with God. Cassidy goes of on his own with one of the strippers, tries to touch her, and gets in a fight with the bouncer—all of which we see in the background on a security camera, and it makes for a goofy undercurrent for the main scene. But then, just Tulip finally gives Jesse the okay to use the Voice (and Tammy, understandably upset by their conversation, pulls a gun), the bouncer fighting Cassidy fires his gun, and the bullet goes wild, killing Tammy. Jesse’s able to get one last piece of information from her—God came to the club because he liked the jazz trio that plays there—and then she dies.

It’s the sort of darkly funny sequence that’s been a staple of the series from the start, and I don’t want to read too much into it. But it’s telling that Cassidy’s the one that causes the trouble, and for no better reason than he’s got terrible impulse control and wanted to stir up some shit. (His argument that “everyone knows” you can touch the stripper for three seconds doesn’t hold any water at all.) It plays like the behavior of a sullen child who acts out to get attention. I doubt Cassidy had any specific plan, but he didn’t really need one. He likes Jesse and he wants Tulip, and that’s not a combination that’s going to be comfortable for anyone in the long term.

Before “On The Road” ends with the most direct sort of cliffhanger imaginable (barring the presence of an actual cliff), we get one last scene between Tulip and Jesse. He’s stressed, and they’re both a little out of sorts, so she locks herself in the bathroom and tells him to break down the door (more or less). Then they have sex. It’s a surprisingly sweet moment, a reminder that buried under all the insanity are two people who are very much in love for all the right reasons. A quest, a monster, lots of yucks, and a reason to care what happens next? That’s all I wanted, show. Glad to have you back.

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Stray observations

  • One other possibility about Tammy’s death: maybe God, wherever He is, doesn’t like it when people tell stories about him.
  • “You, mace your balls.” Jesse does not really care for law enforcement.
  • Cassidy’s cure for getting the taste of guts out of your mouth: hot sauce plus Yoo Hoo.
  • Tulip using intestines to siphon gas didn’t quite work for me. Not exactly sure why, but it just felt like a “crazy gore!” moment for its own sake.
  • I think we get our first reference to Jesse’s mom’s family in this episode. The L’Angells are a bad bunch.
  • They still don’t know about what happened in Anville. Tulip comes close at least once, but then misses the name of the town. It’s a good gag, and I’m curious what the payoff will be, if there ever is one.
  • About that ending: I guess the Voice doesn’t work on the Saint, huh?

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