Both Jesse Custer and Herr Starr are looking for something. They’re disillusioned with the world, cynical, and they’re each in their way searching for a cause to fight for. To Jesse, that cause is the Search for God. It’s a questionable quest, an effort to take the bizarre events of his life and put them to some better, higher use, but in a way that suggests more about his own assumptions than it does about any actual need. That’s what makes him more complicated than just a plain ordinary good guy. We’re supposed to root for Jesse, more or less, but part of that rooting is the hope he’ll get his shit together before it’s too late. When he rants to Cassidy about how he needs to find God because “There has to be someone in charge,” it’s easy to understand what he’s getting at, but hard not to wonder if he’s actually right. I mean, a God who’s willing to abandon his creation doesn’t seem like a God you’d want to hang around.
Still, at least Jesse’s need for meaning is driven by a desire to do the right thing. Starr might argue (and, given how this hour ends, probably will do so next week) that he’s operating under the same motivation, but after spending only two episodes with him, it’s evident that he’s an asshole. As such, his version of “the right thing” is going to be inevitably compromised by his contempt for others and fundamental arrogance. In “Puzzle Piece” we see him going about his business in the ways we’ve already come to expect: by being a miserable prick to everyone he meets. Even when he does something potentially bizarre, he does it without any joy or enthusiasm. He is the ultimate straight man, the Margaret Dumont to Jesse, Tulip, and Cassidy’s Marx brothers—albeit a far more selfish and miserable monster than Ms. Dumont ever was.
It’s a great dramatic device, to force these two characters together—both men obsessed enough with a Grand Purpose that they think they can use each other, but neither suited to the sort partnership that will result from their meeting. We’ll have to wait till next week to see how Starr makes his pitch to Jesse, however. The point of this week’s episode is to find a believable way to bring them into the same room—to justify Starr taking an interest, when his usual modus operandi is to simply murder anything that suggests even the hint of getting in his way. We also get a clearer sense of Jesse’s desperation, Tulip’s woes, and Cassidy’s parenting. And a fun action set-piece to boot.
The “puzzle piece” metaphor that gives this episode its title (delivered by the daughter of the governor of Louisiana who escapes a fate worse than death when Starr is called away mid-dinner) is the closest thing the hour has to a thematic through line. To the aforementioned daughter, the “piece” is that missing element in one’s life that can give everything else meaning. For Jesse, the piece is God, or at least God’s absence; if he can pin the aimlessness of his existence on the Almighty playing hooky, he at least has some reason to go forward. For Starr, it’s a little more complicated—something to do with the apocalypse and the descendant of Jesus Christ and saving the world, or ruling it, I’m sure all will become clear next week.
Do Cassidy and Tulip have puzzle pieces as well? I’m sure you could make an argument, but there’s no need to stretch the idea quite that far. While Tulip is still struggling, she doesn’t have Jesse’s quixotic need to for answers; as the most pragmatic member of the main trio, she’s just doing what she can to work through her problems, and if that means getting shot in the chest over and over while wearing a bulletproof vest, well, at least she can earn some money doing it. Jesse’s so worried he uses the Word on her to make her sleep, and when she calls him on it later, he talks her into helping him stand watch against the Grail’s next attack. At a time when a voice of reason could be really useful for everyone, Tulip is lost in her own problems; and while it shouldn’t fall on her to be the adult of the group, it would be nice if someone could step up.
Cassidy’s the oldest, and he has a certain fatherly pride/affection for Denis this hour, but given that this affection led him to going against his better judgement and turning his son into a vampire, it’s doubtful he’s going to be talking anyone down soon. Actually, that’s not fair—Cassidy does offer some balance to Jesse’s ravings. The problem is that he’s an empty suit. Turning Denis was a selfish act, done less for the dying man’s well-being than it was to assuage Cassidy’s guilt for being a shit father. He’s been around long enough that he can say smart enough things, but his essential weakness mean that those things are never going to have the necessary weight to invoke meaningful change.
All of which is super heavy and more than a little presumptive on my part—really, all I’m getting at here is the slow building but really well done tension the show is generating as it becomes more and more obvious that something is wrong for our heroes, and the longer this goes on, the more vulnerable they become to, well, everything. Jesse’s leaning more and more on the Word now; not only does he use it on Tulip, he forced one of the Grail soldiers to kill his “friends,” and then took on small cadre of police officers to stand watch while they wait for whatever comes next. The fact that he’s willing to use such incredible power so casually is not a good sign, because the more it works, the more often he’ll rely on it.
That’s not just an ethical concern either. After a Grail team tries and fails to kill Jesse and the others, Jesse goes on high alert, believing he can stop whatever’s coming by keeping up a guard around the house. He’s sorely mistaken. On Featherstone’s advice (delivered in a way that manages to save both her and Hoover’s life), Starr sends Brad in to finish the job—”Brad” being a missile fired by remote control. Jesse has no idea how powerful the Grail is, or just how far it’s willing to go to achieve its ends, which makes him vulnerable; the fact that he thinks his powers will protect him makes him even more vulnerable. It’s only a twist of fate that saves him this time—Hoover calls in some prostitutes to fulfill Starr’s rape fantasy but manages to get things confused, which ends with Starr getting buggered over his desk, giving him a chance to see something in Jesse’s name that changes his mind.)
That’s not really the sort of thing you can rely on to happen again. Unfortunately, Jesse hasn’t learned anything approaching a lesson, and things with the Grail are about to get even more complicated, so… lucky us.
- Felt like we finally got some good characterization on Hoover and Featherstone this week. Hoover’s “I love you” and Featherstone’s immediate “Shut up” was particularly choice. Featherstone is keen and willing to go to any lengths to get the job done; Hoover is kind of a putz. (I’m very happy to see Malcolm Barrett on my TV again.)
- “What kind of a world is it where a woman obeying a man is seen as some kind of super-power.” Starr is a lovely human being, isn’t he?
- The first Grail assault is very well done—great use of silence to create suspense and laughs.
- Speaking of, your mileage may vary, but as rape jokes go, this one worked for me. We spend a few scenes cringing at the ugliness that Starr is going to inflicted on some hookers, only to see his own words reflected back at him with him as the victim. And to his credit, he goes along with what happens next with the same resignation he applies to nearly every other situation. I think the real key to this show working as well as it does is how good the writers, directors, and cast have got at managing the tone. It’s black comedy with heart, which can be damnably tricky to do well.
- A “Do You Like Cats?” pop-up virus plagues both Starr and Featherstone. Which may be a goofy joke, or… hmm.
- When Starr decides not to kill Jesse, Featherstone redirects the missile to destroy Harry Connick Jr.’s house. Which seems like a joke that would’ve been funnier 10 years ago, but sure.
- Tulip is so tweaked out she shoots the cleaner the cops send in to take care of the mess left over from the first Grail attack. That’s not good.