Is Preacher’s second season casting too wide of a net? Last week’s episode introduced us to a fascinating new roster of villains — a self-described “super-secret crypto-religious fascist organization with designs on total world domination,” led by the femme fatale-ish Lara Featherstone and a bald dude with a crazy scar over his eye — but this week’s Preacher ignores them altogether. Instead, it pivots to a couple of dangling subplots: Tulip’s confrontation with the mysterious Viktor, and Eugene’s adventures in Hell.
Both of those stories are indirectly tied to Jesse, who dragged Tulip to New Orleans and damned Eugene to Hell — but the preacher himself spends much of the episode stuck in his own little bubble, chasing down clues that could help him on his mission to find God. Just when it finally looks like Jesse has hit a dead end, Cassidy’s couch-potato tendencies turn up an unlikely lead: an infomercial that includes a performance by Mark Harelik, the bearded actor who played God in last year’s season finale after the real God left heaven.
Jesse and Cassidy track down Harelik’s agent, who hands over the audition tape that landed Harelik the gig in the first place. When our heroes actually sit down to watch it, they discover what it takes to land a role as big as God Almighty. Harelik’s reward for the successful audition? Being shot and killed — all so he could come down from heaven as convincingly as God would have. Hey, nobody said method acting was easy.
Despite this break in the case, the quest for God ends up taking a backseat to a more immediate problem: The disappearance of Tulip, which is met with deep concern by Cassidy and shrugging indifference by Jesse. Cassidy spends much of the episode bugging Jesse to call Tulip, but it isn’t until the very end that Jesse realizes she might actually be in trouble.
But how much trouble? Tulip, for her part, spends the entire episode at the mysterious Viktor’s lavish mansion. It’s the kind of generically evil lair that’s packed with armed goons and a sociopathically casual torturer, so Tulip winds up spending the whole episode trying to find a path that won’t get her killed. Apologizing to Viktor doesn’t work. Crying doesn’t work. Appealing to her former allies in his entourage doesn’t work (including Viktor’s adolescent daughter, who spits in Tulip’s face and says she hopes her dad ends up killing Tulip.) Not even threatening Viktor with a gun works.
And then — totally separate from all of that, in another story that’s essentially self-contained — Eugene discovers that he’ll need to change if he wants to survive Hell. In last week’s “Damsels,” a weird security error resulted in Eugene’s entire cellblock breaking loose, including his new neighbor … Adolf Hitler.
So let’s talk about Hitler. To my mind, the sudden appearance of Hitler at the end of last week’s episode was a goofy sight gag: a cheeky reminder, with all the subtlety of a sledgehammer to the forehead, that Hell is the worst place for the worst people. But it also seemed a one-off meant to underline Eugene’s dire situation, so I was a little surprised when Hitler emerged as an actual character in this week’s episode.
Preacher is best when it’s gleefully crushing taboos, and I’m curious to see where this is going, but I’m not convinced this relatively sympathetic arc for Adolf Hitler is the best use of the show’s anarchic sensibilities. We get a brief glimpse into Hitler’s vision of Hell — a pre-WWII dessert date at which Hitler calmly shrugs off a potentially volatile encounter with a Jewish man, and seems poised to get his drawings rejected by a prominent gallery owner — before he and Eugene return to the cellblock.
Hitler is easily the nicest person Eugene meets in Hell. He’s so nice that Eugene actually tells Hitler that he doesn’t seem so bad anymore. There’s a theoretically interesting idea Preacher could be exploring here: Is it possible that eternal damnation could also serve as a kind of belated rehabilitation for one of the most awful monsters in human history? Would that kind of change, coming too late, be the worst punishment of all?
But you have to work pretty hard to give the show that much credit. For now, Preacher’s primary motivation for including Hitler as a major character seems to be “whoa, isn’t it crazy we made Hitler a major character?” And unfortunately for Hitler — as the wardens of Hell warn Eugene — being nice is a liability that won’t be tolerated. Eugene takes this lesson to heart: When Hitler defends him against a rival inmate, Eugene turns on him, joining a rival gang who beats Hitler into a bloody mess. It’s basically a Preacher-fied version of that dumb scene that shows up in every single prison drama, when the timid new guy beats up the toughest dude he can find to ensure that no one else will mess with him. Except this time, it’s Hitler. We’ll see if it works.
Fortunately, there’s one aspect of Preacher that rarely disappoints: the action. And “Viktor” ends with one of the show’s all-time great action sequences to date. Back on Earth, Cassidy reveals where Tulip has actually gone and Jesse snaps into action, using Genesis to rapidly disarm the guards and storm his way through Viktor’s mansion. The sheer, unquestionable force of the Voice of God makes for reliably entertaining action sequences, as Jesse stomps around ordering baffled guards not to draw their weapons.
Until Jesse encounters his greatest weakness yet: an iPod. Pat, the aforementioned sociopathic torturer, slips in some earbuds to blast “Uptown Girl,” which neuters Jesse’s ability to influence him with Genesis. The ensuing fight finds the two men swapping increasingly ludicrous weapons — a sledgehammer, a firehose, a severed arm, a bar from a foosball table — until Jesse finally gets the upper hand and takes Pat down.
Jesse races upstairs, where he finds Tulip and Viktor holed up in a bedroom. It turns out that Tulip may have found the right way to deal with Viktor after all: honesty. “Jesse, you can’t kill him,” she says, stopping Jesse just as he verges on strangling Viktor to death. “He’s my husband.” I guess that explains the whole runaway bride thing back at the casino.
• Lack of focus aside, I can’t be too hard on an episode that gives us a sequence as delightful as Cassidy improvising a negotiation for a nonexistent role on Game of Thrones (and pointlessly drawing the line at first-class airline tickets, which “even Dinklage” doesn’t get).
• Hats off to a very weird Frankie Muniz cameo, playing himself (and peeing in a urinal trough with a homeless dude sleeping under it) in an elaborate infomercial seeking donations for Hurricane Katrina victims.
• Jesse says he has 137 more jazz clubs to go, which means he went to 50 — 50! — on his very first night in New Orleans. And it certainly looked like he ordered a whiskey at each of them.
• I hope we’ll find out what’s going on with Cassidy’s “friend” Denis, who clearly hates him.
• Apart from Hitler, this particular cellblock in Hell doesn’t include any particularly recognizable sinners — but the roster does include a caveman and a gypsy.
• Why is Hitler speaking English?
• The Saint of Killers is, indeed, headed to New Orleans. Sure would be a convenient time for him to show up at Viktor’s mansion!