Call and Response
Dominic Cooper as Jesse.
At the end of a wild season, Preacher finally sides with the sinners. It’s not that our heroes are evil. It’s that everyone — including God Himself — turns out to be less pure and noble than they appeared.
“Call and Response” is structured around the church service where Jesse promises to make God appear, a climax set up by a literal countdown that ticks through the episode. But before the Sunday church service, there’s one other piece of business to clear up: the fate of Carlos, the onetime ally who betrayed Jesse and Tulip during a bank robbery. We finally learn the reason why Tulip harbors so much rage at Carlos: She was pregnant during the robbery, and the shock of his deceit caused her to miscarry. When they ask him why he did it, his answer is as honest as it is unsatisfying: “You were happy.”
Will killing Carlos change anything? When Jesse pushes Tulip on the subject, she doesn’t particular care: “Eye for an eye. Someone’s gotta pay.” But after she convinces Jesse to murder Carlos, she walks away from the edge, deciding that Jesse’s willingness to kill him is satisfaction enough. And so, settling on a compromise, they pummel him with a tire iron. I’m not sure that beating Carlos within an inch of his life is much more merciful than killing him outright — even if Jesse did attempt to make it a fair fight by giving him a gun — but that’s the kind of moral murkiness that Preacher has embraced.
Of course, all of that feels like a sideshow to the main event. After dodging the cops, Jesse addresses the many, many attendees at the All Saints’ Congregational — far more than even his father ever attracted. It’s the closest he’ll ever come to his vow to save Annville, so he uses the opportunity to play the last card in his deck: He calls Heaven on DeBlanc and Fiore’s telephone, then orders God to come down and explain Himself.
When God Himself actually shows up — a bearded white dude straight out of the most white-bread version of Christianity imaginable — the town wants answers. Why do bad things happen to good people? Is every dead person I love in Heaven? Is there a divine plan for my life? And God gives exactly the answers you’d want to hear: an uncommonly satisfying set of replies that address the hypocrisies and contradictions of religion.
In fact, His answers are a little too satisfying. When God insists that Eugene Root is with him in Heaven, Jesse presses harder, because he already knows that Eugene is in Hell. And when God fumbles his response, Jesse finally finds the perfect use for the Voice: Asking the bearded white guy whether he’s really Him.
The answer, rather horrifyingly, turns out to be no. God has disappeared, and no one in Heaven knows where He went. In His absence, a group of buffoonish angels have merely been bluffing, playing God to maintain order while they figure out what happened. “MAYBE HE’S DOWN THERE!” the imposter hazards before the feed to Heaven cuts out.
In the wake of the revelation that God has abandoned Heaven, Annville descends into chaos. Donny is so distressed that he can’t bring himself to have sex with his wife, even after she puts on the Dorothy costume. A group of schoolchildren murder their pedophiliac bus driver. The warring mascots hang themselves at the same tree where the Cowboy once passed all those hanged corpses more than a century ago. Terri Loach smothers her comatose daughter Tracy. In a bizarre, tragicomic scene that no series does better than Preacher, Odin Quincannon cradles a ski suit filled up with ground beef, in a feeble effort to recapture the embrace of his dead daughter.
Thankfully, the finale offers some brief, hopeful signs that humankind can move forward without religion. The most humane response comes from Emily, who spent the season learning that Jesse may not have the answers she needs. “We are still gonna comb our hair, and brush our teeth, and do our best at school,” she says to her frightened kids. “Daddy’s still in heaven, like he’s always been. The good part of heaven, not that scary part. I know you’re scared. But we just need to stay strong. Be true to ourselves. We don’t need God. And I’ll let you guys in on a little secret, okay? We never did.”
There’s a powerful idea in that speech, the idea that Preacher is ultimately a story about people who learn they don’t need God. But fate has something even darker in store for Annville. In a return to the bizarre non-sequitur that closed last week’s episode (and the sinkhole that devoured Lacey in “Monster Swamp“), it turns out that Annville is built on a cavern … and that cavern is filled with methane gas, built up from the many, many cows owned by Quincannon Meat & Power. When the technician charged with venting the cavern dies on the job, all of Annville — including the All Saints’ Congregational — is obliterated in a single, massive cow fart. We don’t see the skin melting off anybody’s bones, but there’s no other way to read it: Everyone left in Annville is dead. The only survivors are Jesse, Tulip, and Cassidy, who already left town on a road trip to find God.
After spending an entire season getting to know the residents of Annville, this is as a big a game-changer as Preacher could introduce. Yet it falls strangely flat when it happens, because no one outside of Annville seems to notice — most notably, Jesse, Tulip, and Cassidy, who have no reaction whatsoever to the news. If they don’t care, it’s a serious indictment of characters who already flirt with being completely unlikable; if they don’t know, it’s weird that the show would unleash such a huge twist without giving our heroes the space to respond to it.
Preacher mixes a truly offbeat range of tones and themes, but in this case, I don’t think the show gets to have it both ways. The sudden, pointless death of everyone in Annville is an almost unfathomable tragedy, or it’s nasty joke, a deck-clearing whoopee cushion engineered to remind the audience that we shouldn’t take any of this seriously.
After ten episodes, though, it was definitely time to leave Annville behind. I don’t think Preacher required the nuclear option to pull that off, and I don’t like the tone it sets for the future of the series, but if this ultimately puts the series on the right track, I can live with it.
In the end, this hard reset reeks of two things: cow farts and compromise. Perhaps AMC asked Preacher’s creative team to work in a single location before giving them the greenlight to take the show on the road. This first season was uneven, but it was also uncommonly daring. Few other shows are capable of genuine profundity, pitch-black comedy, and gonzo violence within a single episode — and, occasionally, within a single scene. Now that the groundwork has been laid for this truly one-of-a-kind series, I can’t wait to see where it does with a whole country of saints and sinners to explore.
- In a coda to Jesse & Co. hitting the open road, the Cowboy finally arrives in modern-day Annville, killing the blonde angel who squared off against Jesse, DeBlanc, and Fiore at the Sundowner Motel. She doesn’t regenerate this time, so it looks like anyone the Cowboy kills is dead for good — including, sadly, DeBlanc, whom the Cowboy shot at the end of last week’s episode.
- The finale opens by reprising Willie Nelson’s “Time of the Preacher” — last heard in the series premiere as we met Jesse for the first time, waking up for a whiskey and a cigarette.
- Several other terrific song choices are strewn throughout the episode: Johnny Cash’s cover of “Personal Jesus” (as Jesse and Tulip decide what to do with Carlos), Blood, Sweat and Tears’ “Go Down Gamblin’” (as everyone gets the church in shape for the Sunday service) and Question Mark and the Mysterians’ “96 Tears” (over the montage of Annville residents reacting to the grim news at the service).
- Per the Welcome to Annville sign, the town was founded in 1882 — one year after the Cowboy killed everyone in Ratwater, which presumably cleared the landscape for a brand-new town of sinners.
- I couldn’t tell if the graffiti on the beauty shop read Revelation 10:3 or Revelation 18:3, but the contents of 10:3 certainly makes more sense in the context of the episode: “And he gave a loud shout like the roar of a lion. When he shouted, the voices of the seven thunders spoke.”
- Sheriff Root is the latest person to be weirdly blasé about the existence of vampires, having concluded that Cassidy must be one after tracing his arrest records back to 1922. “This is medicine to you. At least, that’s what I read on the internet,” he says as he pour Cassidy a small cup of blood out of a thermos. I know this show takes place in a heightened reality, but come on! Nobody think it’s weird that a vampire is running around Texas?
- Did you notice that Donny was reading Gorillas in the Mist? Right up to the end, he kept revealing unexpected and offbeat new layers. I’ll miss that guy.
- Carlos is played by Desmin Borges, whom you might recognize as Edgar on FX’s superlative You’re the Worst.
- The finale also puts a button on the Tom Cruise side gag, which originated when Genesis blew him up in the pilot. Turns out his ashes have been launched into space. L. Ron would be proud.
- Cassidy also gets in one last dig at The Big Lebowski, which could double as a self-critique of the show’s cavalier destruction of Annville: “That’s it, that’s the ending. Steve Buscemi dies of a heart attack. They scatter his ashes, go back to bowling. What’s the bloody point?”
- But as he fantasizes about the road trip ahead, Cassidy also makes a compelling pitch for season two: “Drugs, sex, guns, and shady characters dressed in bikinis.”
- Tulip’s admirable life philosophy: “No matter what, we’re getting French fries after.”
- Thanks for joining me on this strange journey! I’ll see you back in Texas — or wherever Jesse, Tulip, and Cassidy end up next — when Preacher returns.