Jesse Custer is not a good man. At least, he’s not the kind of “good man” he thinks he is. In “South Will Rise Again,” Tulip makes another pitch to her ex-boyfriend, telling a story about their shared past to try and convince him to return to the error of his ways. It’s a fun story (Jesse shot a Komodo dragon in the head because a dude was leering at Tulip), but Jesse remains unconvinced. He believes he’s bringing the word of God to the people of Annville, and that the bad times are behind him. Only you just have to watch how he goes about his business to see how wrong he is.

Even before the final scene, where the newly righteous Odin goes on a murder spree, it’s clear that Jesse’s heading in the wrong direction. It’s not just that he’s using the Voice—it’s that he’s using it without any seeming understanding or even interest in the potential consequences. He’s trying to shortcut real healing and progress by forcing people to do what he thinks is best, and the more he does it, the creepier it gets. The scene where he forces Tracy’s mom to forgive Eugene (we still don’t know exactly what went down, but Eugene bears some responsibility for Tracy’s coma, which is presumably why he shot himself, and also why the locals keep harassing him) is creepy as hell in its implications, and what’s worse, Jesse seems to have no doubt whatsoever about his behavior.

To him, the power of the Voice comes directly from God, which gives him carte blanche to use it however he sees fit; he is, after all, a man of the cloth, and if God chose to give him this gift, why not use it? Which only serves to underline Tulip’s point, really. Jesse is who is he is. The same man who shot a lizard to prove a point so many years ago is using a different sort of brute force to similar ends now. He hasn’t changed, he’s just found a better way to lie to himself, and the people of the town are the ones to suffer for it.

This is a good arc. I’ve been criticizing the show for its semi-randomness, but “South Will Rise Again” (why no “The”?) manages to pull together some threads in ways that help make sense of the past. It builds to a double blast of a reveal—the angels telling Jesse the power inside him isn’t “God,” and Odin shooting all those nice people from away—that feels like a major shift in intentions. We’ll have to wait until next week to see how things play out, but at least there’s a chance that Jesse’s ill-advised faith in his own infallibility might finally start to crumble. And then who knows what will happen.

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Still, it wouldn’t be an episode of Preacher without a good many detours and side-trips. To the good, at least most of these side-trips feel connected, if not by plot than at least by some vague notion of theme. The cold open has us going back in time again to see a bit more of the Cowboy’s story, and boy, it’s a happy tale: he makes it into town to get the medicine for his child, only to get waylaid by an attack of conscience, beaten half to death for his troubles (and losing his horse), and finally arriving back home to find both his wife and his daughter dead.

All of which is nasty and almost comically brutal (at one point, the Cowboy sees a nice family in a store; minutes later, the dad is dead, and the mom is being raped while the boy is forced to watch. This isn’t funny, exactly, but the over-the-top cruelty is hard to take completely seriously even as you’re wincing.), but also fits in with the lesson Jesse is slowly trying to learn: the intention to do good isn’t the same as actually doing good. And, given that the Cowboy was apparently something of a monster in his old life (everybody remembers Unforgiven, right?), there’s another connection—in the end, you are who (and what) you are.

Meanwhile in the present, Donny’s story is actually becoming relevant, as he’s apparently the only person outside of Jesse, Cassidy, and those angels, who realizes what Jesse can do. Seeing Odin’s change of heart tips him off, and his outraged terror at the idea is funny to watch. It’s still hard to get a fix on the guy. He was introduced as a potential wife beater, but the more we see of him and his wife, the more obvious it becomes that they weren’t lying about her being into S&M. (Although that still doesn’t explain why he threatened to beat the shit out of his kid in the pilot.) But at least now he’s more than just a curious outlier; it’s doubtful he’ll be able to do any real damage to Jesse, but his knowledge of what Jesse can do at least means there’s a reason to keep him around.

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Then there’s Tulip and Cassidy, who together get maybe the best scene of the episode, and also the worst. For the best: the two have a chat about Cassidy’s vampire powers. It’s a simple enough conversation, and it’s been done a hundred times before in other movies and shows, but I’m always a sucker for any scene that can take an absurd supernatural premise and treat it like casual fact. Cassidy’s nonchalance is entirely in character, as is Tulip’s pragmatism, and the result is one of the most natural, down-to-earth interactions the show has produced yet. Plus, it feels like useful information; not necessarily because we need all the “rules” of being a vampire pinned down, but because it pushes character relationships forward. Now at least one person in Annville apart from Cassidy knows he’s a vampire.

I’m not sure she needed to fuck him, though. I mean, it’s not impossible to pin down the reasoning here. Tulip’s upset at being rejected yet again by Jesse, and, given the story she tells about how jealous Jesse gets when someone else even looks at her, this must be her plan to get his attention again. But it feels profoundly wrong, and not just in a “This character is making bad choices” kind of way. The relationships between Jesse, Tulip, and Cassidy are too tenuous at this point for this kind of betrayal (if you could really call it that) to have much impact. The timing is off, and the result is a turn that feels cheap without adding much to anything.

Right now Preacher’s biggest problem is also one of its main appeals: it’s throwing whatever it can think of against the wall to see what sticks. There’s enough that works to make the failures worth ignoring, and “South Will Rise Again” gives a clear enough sense of rising action that it’s possible to have faith that the writers do know what they’re doing, more or less. It could all fall apart tomorrow, but isn’t that part of the fun?

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Stray observations

  • Root snapping at his son is something that’s been building for a while now. The slow reveal of Eugene’s past is probably the best background storytelling the show’s accomplished.
  • Tulip catches Lucy on the toilet. I’m not sure the battle between these two for Jesse’s soul is something I’m all that interested in (in large part because there’s no way in hell Lucy is going to win), but hey, those were some convincing peeing sound effects, huh.
  • Sign at the brothel where Tulip finds Cassidy: “Thousands Of Beautiful Girls And Three Fat Ones”
  • Jackie Earle Haley is great; his post-Voice Odin is just different enough from his former self to be convincing. (His former self seemed depressed and indifferent. This new and improved Odin is chipper and driven and, it turns out, terrifying.)

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