“Pig” is almost a great episode. Having (temporarily, at least) resolved the Saint Lf Killers threat, Jesse is back at work looking for God. Only he isn’t having much luck, and neither he, nor Cassidy, nor Tulip is exactly at their best. Things start well enough, with a fun night out that has the trio conning a bar full of trigger-happy doofuses, but the longer we spend watching our heroes wallow in their respective miseries, the more obvious it gets that about a third of this hour is just killing time. The show has to shift gears, which means some throat-clearing is in order, and that means minutes spent on character work that doesn’t always successfully pan out.
But I said this was almost a great episode, right? The reason why is simple enough: We finally get a full-blown introduction to Helmut Starr, bastard of bastards, a point man for the Grail and a future thorn in Jesse’s side.
It’s hard to create an entertaining asshole. Harder than you’d think, really. Oh sure, you can whip up some son of a bitch who shouts racial invective and “says what everyone’s really thinking,” ha ha, and call it a day; the trick is to write them in a way that makes them worth following without inadvertently endorsing their behavior. The odds that someone will look at a Walter White or a Rorschach and make the mistake of thinking that their rage and inflexible world views make them somehow worth idolizing are painfully high; and while it’s misguided to blame Breaking Bad or Watchmen (the comic) for the “bad fan” phenomenon, I do appreciate when a writer manages to create a monster who is fascinating to watch but also impossible to root for.
There might be people cheering for Herr Starr, but it will require substantial mental gymnastics to do so. He’s a murdering, arrogant twerp with no real social skills and an open contempt for anyone who isn’t him. All of those things make him compelling in his way, and watching him audition for the Grail is tremendous fun, but you’d be hard-pressed to mistake anything he does as “cool.” The character we see here (brought expertly to life by Pip Torrens) remains consistently fascinating while never coming anywhere close to likable. He’s humorless and even manages to turn a weird streak of sexual deviancy into something mechanical and routine.
It’s the humorlessness that’s essential. Jesse and Tulip aren’t really good people, at least not by traditional definitions, but they exist in a world where their behavior is, if not commendable, then at least understandable. The show doesn’t let them off for their occasionally selfish behavior, but this also isn’t a series that wants you to think its main characters are villains. The heightened, gonzo-reality of Preacher allows for violent and/or larcenous behavior without condemnation, and while it’s certainly possible to sit around cataloging the leads’ sins, viewing them in strict, real-world terms would be to miss the point. We know we like them because their hearts are more or less in the right place, and because they know when to laugh about everything.
Starr is just as determined as Jesse to do what he sees as “right,” and he’s just as willing as Tulip to take care of anyone who gets in his way. What sets him apart is his pissy contempt for everyone else, the tired “Oh fuck, I guess I’ll do it” expression of the world’s true asshole. Oh sure, he’s also a monster, slaughtering a whole village of Vietnamese people to keep word about a floating pig from spreading (as head of the Grail’s Samson unit, it’s Starr’s job to eliminate false prophets so that the true heir of Christ can step forward after the world ends), which makes him a bad guy regardless. But the character manages the neat trick of being enjoyable without ever being someone you can really root for or admire, and I find that impressive.
So the parts of “Pig” that focus on Jesse’s new nemesis are excellent. What holds the hour back from greatness is the rest of it, a collection of time-killing scenarios, which, while often interesting in and of themselves, never entirely shake the impression that we’re just in a holding pattern until Starr arrives in New Orleans and the next phase begins. Honestly, “Pig” might’ve been better if it had just stayed with him and the Grail throughout, but that’s not the episode we got.
The worst of these sub-subplots is Tulip struggling to get over some PTSD after her encounter with the Saint. The concept is decent; the Saint is such an indelible monster that it makes sense that even a non-fatal encounter with him would leave scars. But it’s also an idea that doesn’t seem as directly connected to the character as it could be—it doesn’t precisely contradict what we know about Tulip, but I’m not sure it builds off anything either. The result is some well-shot, one-note sequences that wear out their welcome quickly, especially a needlessly drawn out dream-within-a-dream set piece. The tension between Tulip and Jesse is good (especially as Tulip seems to be leaning more on Cassidy, which may cause problems), and the ending, with Tulip going back to the Hurt Locker to deal with her tension, isn’t bad. But there’s just not a lot of “there” there.
We get confirmation that Denis (sorry about the repeated misspelling) really is Cassidy’s son; that he’s dying of heart disease; and that he wants his father to turn him into a vampire. Which Cassidy refuses to do. This feels more like a tease than anything else, some brief setup that will be important later—it clues us in that Cassidy isn’t exactly huge on being an immortal bloodsucker, even as he doesn’t actually want to see his son die before him. There’s a gag of Cassidy getting carted off on a Dead cart and locked in the morgue overnight, and that’s pretty much it.
It’s a structuring problem at heart, I think; the show struggled considerably in its first season trying to find a way to balance serialization and character beats, and while it’s gotten a lot (a lot) better, “Pig” is split between the necessary job of introducing Starr and the Grail, and checking in on Jesse and the others, and never settles on an elegant solution. Jesse chatting with a street preacher about the end of the world is a small moment, but one that works. Slowing down a little to spend some quality time with the main trio is a good idea, and something that’ll be critical (I think) to the long-term effectiveness of the show, but the split focus here, between a new and immediately fascinating character and some half-realized footnotes, ends up being less than the sum of its parts.
- So, it’s possible that selling even just one percent of your soul is a bad idea. Who knew?
- Starr’s two career-enhancing murders are really obvious gags, but the obviousness might actually make them funnier. Matter of taste, really.
- Very curious as to how this “one percent of Jesse’s soul gone” thing plays out.
- “Like a 10-inch dick, I’d need to see it to believe it.” —Starr (It’s impressive how not-funny he manages to make this.)
- “He said, then, he will die hating you.” “Yeah, most people do.”
- “Give me the microfilm, you bitch, or I’ll kill you and your entire family.” —Starr
- The Grail had Belushi killed as a potential distraction from Christ.
- It’d be funny if that street preacher was actually God.
- Oh, right—I suppose the fact that the Grail has an ancestor of Jesus lying around is a pretty big deal.
- “The world on its knees begging for direction like an ugly girl at a gang bang.” —Starr