f you look closely at the program for Jesse Custer's latest church service, you'll see a verse from the Book of Matthew: "With God, all things are possible."
That same idea seems to be the guiding philosophy behind Preacher, a series that uses its high-concept premise to explore possibilities rarely seen on TV: a hybrid mythology that blends angels and demons with at least one vampire, a throwaway gag that invokes the image of Tom Cruise exploding into a puddle of bloody goo, and a series of Cormac McCarthy-esque flashbacks to the Old West that have yet to connect to the show's present-day narrative in any meaningful way.
At best, this kind of storytelling can be thrillingly unpredictable; at worst, it can be exhausting, as we watch the show turn down cul-de-sac after cul-de-sac without any sense that the roads are connected. Preacher's pilot was a master class in the former, but every episode since has felt like a step backward — a series of potentially fascinating ideas without a grand design to bring them all together.
The most frustrating thing about Preacher's ongoing muddle is that it clearly doesn't need to be like this. Last week's "South Will Rise Again" ended with Odin Quincannon murdering the businesspeople from the Green Acre Group — a cliffhanger that could easily have accelerated the show's increasingly ponderous pace, and served as a uniting force for its many disparate plot threads. Despite setting up that row of dominoes, Preacher is oddly content to leave them standing: Mayor Miles Person spends "Sundowner" hemming and hawing over whether he should tell anybody about the murders he witnessed, and Quincannon doesn't appear at all.
Instead, the episode begins at the diner, as Jesse grills the angels Fiore and DeBlanc over the nature of his superpower. In a dizzying exposition dump, DeBlanc briefly lays out the whole story: The Voice is something called Genesis, the result of a forbidden hookup between an angel and a demon. Fiore and DeBlanc were appointed Genesis' custodians, but through some unexplained screw-up, it escaped and fled into Jesse. Now they want it back.
The solution to a mystery is rarely as satisfying as the mystery itself, but you can sense the opportunity that was missed by handling the series-defining explanation for Jesse's superpower in such a tossed-off, blasé manner. Given Preacher's penchant for hopping around genre and tone, this Paradise Lost-esque story about an "endless war" between Heaven and Hell — and the Romeo and Juliet story of the angel and demon who broke rank to be together — feels like it deserves an episode of its own, or at least an extended flashback. "Sundowner" rattles it off in a single, convoluted monologue before the trio are interrupted by an angry seraph, sent from Heaven in the form of a blonde woman, to attack Fiore and DeBlanc.
The appearance of the seraph leads to the episode's best sequence, the kind of gonzo, go-for-broke action set-piece in which Preacher continually excels. Like Fiore and DeBlanc, the seraph can't truly be killed; if you actually manage to murder her, she simply regenerates and comes after you again. When Fiore, DeBlanc, and Jesse retreat to the Sundowner Motel, she attacks them again, and the angels begin a fight in which each side's goal is to incapacitate the victim without actually killing them, which has the welcome side effect of preventing the regenerative cycle. (Jesse only has the one life to lose, of course, so he plays things cautiously as the angels' duplicate bodies stack up.)
Once again, Preacher seems to pivot toward something narratively daring: a bottle episode set entirely within the confines of the Sundowner Motel, as Fiore, DeBlanc, and Jesse engage in a bloody slapstick battle with the seraph as they debate what to do about Genesis. Instead, the battle is resolved within a matter of minutes, and Jesse — using the Voice — orders the angels to stay away so he can continue his obsessive quest to save Annville.
The rest of "Sundowner" plays out much like the previous episodes. Jesse plays God to an ever-increasing flock of followers, flirting with all-out villainy as he leans harder and harder on the Voice to ensure that people will do whatever he wants. After Jesse installs a megaphone in the steeple to ensure even more congregants can hear his sermon, even Cassidy thinks he's taking things too far. "There's asking for trouble, and there's bloody begging for it," he warns Jesse. "God may not make mistakes, but people are bloody famous for it."
You'd think that being questioned by a drug-addicted, gleefully amoral vampire might make a man of the cloth reconsider his approach to his flock, but Jesse remains fanatically committed to his vision for Annville's future — and frankly, it's threatening to derail the series altogether. I'm totally up for watching a TV show with an idiotic or unlikable protagonist, but Jesse's black-and-white worldview makes him Preacher's least interesting character, which is a huge problem for a series with so many promising and underutilized characters. At this point, I'd rather be watching a series centered on Tulip, or Cassidy, or even Donny, each of whom has shown much more complexity than the titular preacher.
One solution would be to turn Jesse into the series' central villain — and while there's basically no chance Preacher would pull that kind of about-face, the end of "Sundowner" walks Jesse awfully close to the edge of evil. Just minutes away from his latest service, Jesse is confronted by Eugene, who has had a change of heart about the Loach family.
Eugene doesn't know about the Voice, but he's sharp enough to intuit that Jesse did something unnatural when he told Mrs. Loach to forgive Eugene for the role he played in her daughter's coma. After spending the day with Mrs. Loach's son, Eugene recognizes the inauthenticity of Jesse's quick-fix approach to forgiveness, and asks him to take it back so he can earn it the hard way. "It's cheating," he says. "You can't make people see the light, preacher. People need to choose. That's the whole point."
Jesse, as hard-headed as ever, refuses to listen. Instead, he rants like a James Bond supervillain: "Well, I'll choose for them, and unlike you, they won't complain." And when Eugene protests further, Jesse angrily snaps that he should go to hell — using the Voice. Eugene instantly disappears, presumably doomed to an eternity spent being tormented by demons in a nightmare world of fire and brimstone.
Will inadvertently dooming the show's gentlest, wisest character to eternal damnation be enough to show Jesse that his absurdly dogmatic approach to religion is doomed to fail? For the sake of both the character and the series, I'll be praying.
- In case you missed it: On Wednesday, AMC renewed Preacher for a second season of 13 episodes. Despite my disappointment with this particular installment, I'm thrilled that such an eccentric series will come back for a longer run next year.
- In a B-plot that barely moves the needle for either character, Tulip and Emily — representing the devil and angel on Jesse's shoulders, respectively — kind of figure out how to love the same man without hating each other. In what promises to be an even messier love triangle, Cassidy finally discovers that Jesse and Tulip have their own romantic history, and looks pretty bent out of shape about it.
- One revelation that hints at a greater story to come: Tulip had a child.
- As a waitress in Los Angeles, Tulip once slashed Elizabeth Taylor's tire with a corkscrew. "Pretty nice lady, actually," she tells Emily. "Just a super shitty tipper."
- This week's marquee at the All Saints' Congregation: "You don't have to go home, but you can't pray here."
- Great little character detail: Miles Person in his underwear, carefully choosing between three pairs of identical khaki pants.