The title of Preacher’s second-season premiere tells you everything you need to know: After a first season that centered the narrative almost entirely in the small town of Annville, Texas, the AMC show has finally kicked the dust off its boots and taken its story on the road. Jesse, Tulip, and Cassidy are on a mission to track down God Himself and ask him why the world is such a shitty place.
Timely, right? If Preacher’s first season was a look at an economically depressed, literally godforsaken town in rural Texas, the second season is a story about what happens when all that pent-up rage starts ping-ponging around the rest of America. That’s an ambitious roadmap for a TV series, which might be why “On the Road” aims a little more modestly. The episode finds our three protagonists engaged in some very Preacher-y chatter — foreskins, “Come on Eileen,” etc., etc. — before the cops end up on their tail. As Jesse presses Tulip to indulge in a high-speed car chase, they speed off, and the scene is suddenly overlaid with a scratchy, grindhouse-style filter.
This is a stylistic tipoff, a signal that we shouldn’t take anything on this bloody and banter-y series too seriously. That hunch is quickly borne out by the firefight that ensues when our heroes run out of gas. As Jesse casually uses Genesis to make the arresting officers stand down — and in one case, sing “The Yellow Rose of Texas” — a mysterious assailant opens fire, killing all the cops and sending our heroes scrambling for cover.
And this is where Preacher lost me a little bit. As heads explode, blood spatters everywhere, and bodies pile up, our heroes are basically just goofing around, cracking jokes and grousing about how gross it is to be surrounded by so much death. After they finally do escape, they basically shrug the whole thing off as a weird little blip.
Preacher has always taken place in a heightened reality, and I’m all for a good, gory time, but it also needs to feel like there are actual stakes to all this carnage. This is a particularly tricky needle to thread — just ask the dozens of directors who tried and failed to cop Tarantino’s style in the late ’90s — and Preacher doesn’t thread it here. The show presents this trio as charming assholes, but their quippy indifference to the bloody deaths of a bunch of innocent people makes them seem like … well, just assholes. If the gang is on a quest to find God and make Him answer for the state of the world, they could at least express a modicum of concern for the half-dozen dudes who ended up as collateral damage.
Jesse still hasn’t formally met the shooter yet, but we certainly recognize the character who just tore through the better part of a Texas sheriff’s department: the Saint of Killers, who spent Preacher’s first season in a Western-themed purgatory. Now, he’s been tasked with killing Jesse before Genesis can do anymore damage. (This mission, it is kind of weird that he managed to murder everyone except Jesse and his pals, but I guess I won’t begrudge the show its reluctance to kill off its own main characters.)
After escaping the Saint of Killers, Jesse & Co. hook up with Mike, a no-nonsense fellow preacher whose method for breaking sinners is locking them in a tarp-covered cage until they stop sinning. Mike is quirky. Everyone in “On the Road” is quirky. It makes me miss Emily Woodrow, the soft-spoken single mother and church assistant who died in the big cow fart that swallowed up Annville at the end of season one. (We do, at least, get confirmation on that lingering question from the finale: Jesse, Tulip, and Cassidy have no idea that the town, and all the people they knew in it, have been obliterated.)
Mike is an old family friend, and Jesse thinks he might know something about God’s whereabouts. It’s not really clear why Jesse thinks this — I guess a preacher is as logical a place to start as any — but a woman named Tammy, who was previously subjected to Mike’s particular brand of spiritual cleansing, claims to have seen God rather recently. Jesse, Tulip, and Cassidy leave just in time to dodge the Saint of Killers again, who settles for confronting Mike instead. Mike is smart enough to kill himself before the Saint of Killers gets the chance to practice his particular brand of spiritual cleansing.
Jesse, Tulip, and Cassidy head to Tammy’s office at She She’s strip club. Cassidy, being Cassidy, quickly drops the mission so he can get a lap dance; Jesse and Tulip confront Tammy, who confirms that she saw God, but won’t reveal anything about Him, apart from His penchant for jazz and a stare so terrifying you’ll “shit yourself.”
It’s here that Preacher pauses to acknowledge its own cheat code: Genesis. Jesse’s special voice means he can make anyone do anything he wants. It’s a talent that he has repeatedly indulged over the course of the episode, to Tulip’s increasing displeasure. There’s an interesting moral question Preacher could play with here: What, exactly, is an acceptable use of this superpower? Do the ends (confronting God) justify the means (getting information from a hostile witness)? We’ve seen Preacher approach this topic with varying degrees of depth and lucidity before, most notably when he forced the mother of a comatose gunshot victim to forgive the shooter. But Tulip’s objections to Genesis are a little cruder: Ordering someone to tell you something isn’t as much fun as beating the information out of them.
In the end, a ticking clock solves the problem. Cassidy gropes a stripper and the ensuing fracas with a bouncer ends with an accidental gunshot that goes right through the wall and hits Tammy. (In a neat bit of filmmaking, we witness the whole thing on a security camera in Tammy’s office before the stray bullet propels the action into the room.) Jesse uses Genesis on Tammy before she bleeds out, but she reveals nothing of any practical help.
Dejected, Jesse & Co. return to their crappy hotel. (“On the Road” elides over how they managed to escape the strip club after all that carnage, so let’s just say they Genesised their way out.) Jesse and Tulip hook up, unwittingly tormenting Cassidy with the sound of their headboard slamming into the shared wall between their hotel rooms. After Jesse steps outside for a postcoital cigarette, though, he gets a jarring reminder that relying on Genesis to solve all his problems creates a different kind of problem: If Jesse uses his superpower to get out of every jam, what will he do if it stops working?
As you might have guessed, this question isn’t entirely hypothetical. The Saint of Killers emerges and levels his gun at Jesse, who repeatedly orders him to stop. This time, it doesn’t work.
• The episode’s dedication, “For Steve,” is in honor of Steve Dillon, co-creator of the original Preacher comics, who died as a result of complications from a ruptured appendix in October.
• Though Preacher’s second season feels like a soft reboot, there is one piece of lingering baggage that threatens to change everything: Tulip and Cassidy’s one-night stand, which happened before either of them realized they had a mutual connection to Jesse. Jesse still doesn’t know about it and Tulip has no intention of telling him, but the motormouthed Cassidy — who clearly has deeper feelings that Tulip doesn’t share — will undoubtedly let it slip at some point.
• When Jesse makes it clear his mom is dead, the water in the fish tank behind him begins to boil. Something tells me there’s a little more to that story.
• We don’t get a full glimpse of his face, but it’s obvious that Fiore — the surviving angel from Preacher’s first season — is moonlighting as a performer called the Amazing Ganesh.
• I like the Saint of Killers, but I miss the prickly weirdness of Preacher’s various human adversaries, particularly Odin Quincannon. Jackie Earle Haley is a tough actor to replace.
• Similarly, we didn’t see Eugene “Arseface” Root, who’s cooling his heels in Hell. Ian Colletti is still credited as a series regular, so I’m sure he’ll pop up before long.
• Cassidy’s home remedy for getting the taste of blood out of your mouth: Chug hot sauce, then chug Yoo-hoo. It looks pretty gross, but then, Cassidy would be the absolute expert at getting the taste of blood out of his mouth.
• Cassidy was previously and repeatedly wrong about The Big Lebowski, and now he’s also wrong about “Come on Eileen,” which he dismisses as “shite.”
• “The internet is a soul killer. Stay away from it if you can.” Preach, Preacher.