Preacher doesn’t hesitate to remind us that Annville, Texas, is a wretched, miserable place, but the limits of its depravity remain an open question. “Monster Swamp” begins with a cold open that offers a clever bait-and-switch, as a scantily clad young woman named Lacey flees from a gaggle of whooping dudes carrying guns. Just when it seems like things might be going all Most Dangerous Game, a guy named Clive shoots Lacey — and the guns turn out to be paintball guns, as the first phase in an elaborate sex game organized by Mosie’s brothel. No harm, no foul, right? Sure, until the ground opens up beneath Lacey and she falls into a feces-filled pit, dying instantly.
Due to the fundamental nature of the series, every tragedy in Preacher is underpinned by the same inherent question: What kind of God would let something like this happen?
It’s a question that feels rooted in the utter bleakness of Annville, which Jesse has vowed to save — but if the show’s endgame comes down to the present, the real key to “Monster Swamp” lies in the past. In a series of flashbacks, we spend a little more time with Jesse’s father, John, the previous preacher at the All Saints’ Congregation. In his heyday, the pews were full. By the end of the episode, Jesse has accomplished the same thing, but only by bribing Annville’s residents with a promise to raffle off a 55-inch flat-screen TV.
The flashbacks to John Custer’s time as preacher show that Jesse isn’t pioneering anything. He’s merely seeking a return to a world in which the preacher was a pillar of the community, and people treated Christianity with sincere reverence. But as always, Jesse’s “good guys vs. bad guys” interview — which he inherited from his father — turns out to be a little reductive. When John catches the young Jesse smoking, he insists on the importance of being a role model for the community, then immediately strips off his belt and beats his son in front of the other children. Being a role model works both ways, of course. Is it any accident that Tulip — who witnessed John Custer beating Jesse with a belt as a child — instinctively resorts to the same kind of violence when she seeks payback on Clive for Lacey’s death?
The world of Preacher is a world of cause and effect, where consequences for every choice you make are never too far behind you. In the episode’s final flashback, Jesse watches as John Custer gives up on converting Odin Quincannon. “Some people just can’t be saved,” he tells Jesse as they leave Odin’s office.
As it turns out, the reckoning for John Custer’s unsuccessful quest to make a good man out of Odin Quincannon wouldn’t arrive until decades later, when Jesse tries to pick up where his father left off by goading Odin into attending Sunday service. It’s a deal with the devil that requires a bribe: If Odin isn’t converted by what hears, Jesse promises to give his father’s valuable plot of land to Quincannon Meat & Power for free.
Of course, Jesse is playing with a rigged deck. He may prefer to persuade people by the power of argument, but his new superpowers ensure that no one can ultimately resist him unless he allows it. That Sunday, Jesse gives a blistering sermon designed to shame his greedy, guilty congregants into genuine faith. “The world is turning to shit. And you know what? It’s all your fault,” he says. “You are sinners. You have strayed. You have forgotten the power of the Lord. But it’s not too late. I’m here to remind you that starting today — no, starting right now — I’m gonna bring you back to God, one by one.”
The metaphorical implications of this sermon become very different once you consider that Jesse, by using the Voice, can make every person in All Saints do exactly what he says. If someone won’t accept God by force of persuasion, can you simply make them accept God by force? It’s an uncomfortable question with massive moral and theological implications, but Jesse never quite grapples with it like he should. With minimal hand-wringing, Jesse simply uses the Voice in the middle of the service, compelling Odin Quincannon to serve God.
Although this should be a powerful, awe-inspiring climax, it doesn’t quite land. Jesse is still too straightforward and less interesting than the characters surrounding him; Odin is still too ill-defined for this about-face to feel like a big deal. Given the shock on the other parishioners’ faces, it’s clear that this represents a massive shift in the political structure of Annville — and given the Monkey’s Paw-esque consequences we’ve already seen when Jesse has used the Voice, it’s safe to suspect that Odin will interpret “serve God” in a manner that’s less than saintly.
- One of the episode’s queasier subplots centers on Emily, a woman who helps Jesse with the church (and harbors a barely concealed crush on him). When Mayor Miles Person volunteers to babysit her children on a Saturday night, he insists that he requires no payment. But it isn’t long before he coaxes her into having a drink, and then into having sex — and not for the first time. (“I’m never gonna be with you. You know that, Miles,” she warns the lovestruck mayor.) It’s a bitter reminder that those who don’t have the power to speak with the Voice of God can still subtly pressure people who will have a hard time saying no.
- This week’s Bible verse is Proverbs 14:3, as read at Lacey’s brothel memorial: “In the mouth of the foolish is a rod for his back, but the lips of the wise will protect them.”
- Tulip, like Jesse, had a difficult childhood. In a conversation with Mosie at the brothel, she recalls her mother being too busy upstairs with johns to spend much time on her.
- For the first time in the series, Preacher makes an effort to distinguish between the two angels, Fiore and DeBlanc. Fiore, the taller and more impatient one, has developed a taste for Cheetos. And despite the power they’ve shown, their mission doesn’t seem to be as official as they claimed; by the end of this episode, they’re nervously avoiding a phone call from their superiors in heaven.
- Cassidy, being Cassidy, uses his beating and being thrown out of a window to coax Tulip into a kiss — which has all the makings of a bizarre love triangle as soon as they realize they’re mutually connected through Jesse.
- Once again, Preacher finds room to slip a dirty joke into the margins of the narrative. “Fit your mouth around this!” is the tagline for a commercial about the Big as Texas Burger.
- Say what you will about Odin Quincannon, but when it comes to taste in retro video games, it doesn’t get much better than Q*bert.
- Next week: Jesse basks in the newfound adoration of his parishioners, while Cassidy and Tulip get to know each other beyond brothels and emergency rooms.