Review: 'Preacher' confronts God in the uneven end to an uneven first season
A review of the Preacher season finale coming up just as the prairie dog drops the charges...
"What's the bloody point?" -Cassidy
Cassidy in that moment is going on another one of his diatribes against The Big Lebowski, but it's hard not to hear that phrase and think about how it does and doesn't apply to this first season of Preacher.
Ultimately, was there enough of a bloody point to Annville and its people to devote 10 episodes, and this entire first season, to it? I spent a lot of the season asking myself that, carried along by the show's energy and visual style, and by many of the performances, but waiting for some kind of late storytelling pivot that would make me think, "Yeah, Catlin and Rogen and Goldberg were smart to delay Jesse's road trip to find God for as long as possible, and I understand why now."
Instead, the conclusion to "Call and Response" had the opposite effect: by killing off everyone in town but the three leads(*), it made our extended stay in Annville feel like even more of a waste of time than before. The creative team wasn't always successful in the work they did with the townsfolk — as discussed last week, Emily's decision to feed Miles to Cassidy came out of nowhere from what we knew of her to that point — but there was clearly an effort being made to get us to care about Jesse's flock, and to understand why he was working so hard to save them when he was so clearly miserable in this town, and this job. To just up and kill them all so abruptly made me feel foolish for even bothering to care even about the characters I ultimately found interesting, like Betsy Schenck or Odin. And though Jesse walks out of the diner before he hears the news report about the town, the fact that he'll go on to have crazy adventures while all the men, women, and children of Annville whom we saw died in a methane explosion (victims of a more literal type of bulls--t than what the God impersonator tried flinging at them in church) doesn't sit particularly right(**).
(*) The news report was vague enough that I suppose one or more of Odin, Root, or Emily could have survived, perhaps to return in more mutilated fashion later in the series. But the version of the story we were presented was one where all of Annville and its citizens were wiped off the map.
(**) Not to dive in too deep with the comics comparisons, but Jesse's parishioners there died the moment he got the Genesis power, and most of them barely appeared, if at all, before that happened. It's still a tragedy, but one that happened so early on, and involved people the comic treated as not worth getting to know for the purposes of the story being told, that it made Jesse seem like less of an ass for so quickly moving on with his life.
But "Call and Response" as a whole was illustrative of a season of TV that never entirely figured out what story it was telling, what its focus should be, or how best to spend its time in this particular time and place of the main characters' lives.
Devoting so much of the finale, for instance, to detailing the nature of the rift between Tulip, Jesse, and Carlos (Desmond Borges from You're the Worst) may have told us a bit more about Jesse and Tulip's relationship — specifically, that they were going to have a baby together before Carlos' jealousy ruined everything — but that whole sequence derailed whatever momentum there was about the town's anticipation for Jesse's final sermon. Or look at Sheriff Root's bullet-riddled interrogation of Cassidy. Root's smarter than he might have seemed at times,so the idea that he could figure out what Cassidy is and use it to his advantage to try to find out what happened to Eugene was interesting, and W. Earl Brown played the hell out of it (as he did all season, in a performance I'll miss if Root really died in the explosion), but to have him give up right at the moment when Cassidy was on the verge of confessing didn't work at all, even if Cassidy had cut the sheriff deeply by suggesting he might be glad to be rid of his disfigured son. Like Miles' murder last week, it ultimately felt like the show going for a colorful sequence without thinking through what would actually be motivating the characters involved.
All of this ultimately built to Jesse's big moment before his flock, where he used the angel phone and the Genesis voice to get answers from "God" — who turned out to be an impostor placed on the throne to cover for Heaven's absentee landlord. This was as weird and well-shot a sequence as any the show's done so far (I particularly enjoyed the reflection of the fake deity on the glasses of Odin the atheist), as you would want from the climax of the season, but as some shows can't pull off. Yet the way Jesse just shrugs off the crowd's despair so he can go get fries with Tulip and Cassidy felt like his indifference to Miles' death last week: Jesse ignoring a terrible thing that's in front of him because it's an inconvenience. He's not a pure good guy, for sure, as we got a reminder of with the glimpse of the bank guard he killed during the robbery. But for him to devote so much of his time and energy to the townspeople, even as Tulip and others were convincing him he couldn't or shouldn't do it, and then for him to just casually stroll out after his stunt made every one of their emotional and spiritual lives vastly worse, to the point where the town will go on an ugly spree of murders and suicides in its aftermath? That's a very, very bad look for our hero.
You could view that, of course, as Preacher the series finally coming to grips with the realization that staying in Annville this long probably wasn't the best idea, and that the quicker Jesse got out of town to start pursuing God (and maybe save Eugene in the process), the better. That search, coupled with the Cowboy's own hunt for Jesse, seems a more concrete and propulsive direction for the series, even if it will be logistically harder to pull off than parking him in a small Texas town for a season.
I can look at the imperfections of this batch of episodes in one of two ways: as a sign that the show is destined to be uneven for however long it runs, or as a sign that the decision to set the whole season in Annville — which I imagine was a way to hedge everyone's bets with such a strange and (once it becomes a road trip series rather than one with regular sets) expensive concept — was fundamentally flawed, even as the show demonstrated frequent signs of life in and around those flaws. If it's the latter, it could be that hitting the road is just what Catlin and company need just as much as Jesse, and we can look back on this as yet another trial-and-error debut season for a show that was destined for greater things. (Catlin already worked on one of those.) Parts of this season thrilled me. Others frustrated me. But whether or not the show's heart was into some of the parts that annoyed me, Jesse's clearly wasn't. Just look at the smile on his face as he and Tulip prepare to beat the snot out of Carlos; that is a man recognizing who he is, what he is good at, and what the world could probably use more of him doing.
With any luck, Preacher will be the same way when it returns next year.
Some other thoughts:
* Catlin, who wrote and directed the finale, is on vacation at the moment, and wasn't available to do season post-mortem interviews. Depending on scheduling, maybe we'll talk later this summer.
* Between Fiore returning from Hell alone and the Seraph not reappearing after being shot, it would seem the Cowboy's bullets have the ability to kill angels for good. How will they work on a vampire or someone with the Genesis power, though?
* I really did enjoy all the glimpses of Donny and Betsy's weird but ultimately functional marriage, including the way she takes all the craziness with Jesse in stride, and also the fact that he enjoys reading Gorillas in the Mist at bedtime.
* Also very glad to have Tulip punch Jesse in the nose after he uses the Genesis voice to make her kiss him. In a post-Jessica Jones world, supernaturally seducing women against their will is not a thing that will play as a grand romantic gesture.
* Continuing with the idea that Heaven and Hell both run on outdated technology, the phone to Heaven's throne sounds like an old dial-up modem with occasional dot matrix printer crunchiness.
* The comics also feature Odin making a person out of meat, but for a very different purpose. His meat puppet version of his late daughter was as poignant as it was creepy, and fit the more tragic spin on the character offered by Jackie Earle Haley and the writers.
* Among this week's songs: a reprise of "Time of the Preacher" by Willie Nelson, Johnny Cash's cover of "Personal Jesus," "Go Down Gamblin'" by Blood, Sweat & Tears, "96 Tears" by Question Mark & The Mysterians, "Your Kind of Love" by Lloyd Conger, a cover of Blind Melon's "No Rain," "Will You Love Me Tomorrow?" by Linda Ronstadt, and "Let It Bleed" by the Rolling Stones.
What did everybody else think?
Alan Sepinwall may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org