Joseph Gilgun as Cassidy, Ruth Negga as Tulip, Dominic Cooper as Jesse.
At long last, Preacher’s second season has given us an update on Eugene Root, but he looks quite a bit different these days. Okay, I’ll be more specific: Eugene lacks the massive, gaping facial wound that earned him the derisive nickname “Arseface.” Instead, he looks like a happy-go-lucky teenager.
You can imagine a mirror-image version of Preacher that would set this up as a kind of heaven: Eugene, in the past, getting the chance to revisit and change the horrible day when a pair of shotgun blasts put Tracey Loach into a coma and gave him his distinctive disfigurement. But if you paid attention during the first season, alarm bells should already be going off. We’ve seen Preacher’s version of Hell: a place where a person is doomed to eternally repeat the worst day they ever lived, without any ability to set things right. The Saint of Killers managed to escape, but Eugene is still down there — and despite Jesse’s best efforts, no one has figured out how to bring him back.
So, we see it all as it happened before. Tracy, sobbing over a cheating boyfriend, announces that she plans to kill herself and gives Eugene a suicide note to pass along to the rest of Annville. Eugene talks her out of it — burning the note in the process — and takes the opportunity to kiss her. Tracy is disgusted; she grabs the gun and pulls the trigger after all. Eugene tries to pull it away, but he’s too late. As Tracy’s mother attempts to break through the locked bedroom door, Eugene realizes he is trapped, and shoots himself.
This is an awful day to be forced to repeat, over and over again, forever — but it’s not quite the version we were told before. In season one, Jesse told Cassidy that Eugene intentionally shot Tracy after she rejected him. It’s a plausible mistake — and Eugene burned the suicide note that could have absolved him — but I’m still a little puzzled why Eugene carries so much guilt over a suicide he desperately tried to prevent, and why he doesn’t defend himself more forcefully against the people who hold him solely accountable.
I also wonder whether this more sympathetic origin story was always the plan. Three episodes into Preacher’s second season, we’re still getting the ripple effects from the soft reboot that came in the wake of Annville’s total destruction at the end of season one. I like this version of Preacher a lot — taking the story on the road has given the narrative a tremendous jolt of energy. But I also worry that the series will back away from the deeper, trickier questions about faith and forgiveness that were posed throughout the first season — like, say, whether a teenager who intentionally shoots a girl who rejects him can be forgiven, let alone if he deserves it. This new version of the Arseface origin story makes Eugene Root more likable, but only because it lets him off the hook.
Here’s the good news: If you prefer your Preacher to be witty and bloody and stylish, “Damsels” is a banger of an episode. The main arc follows Jesse, Cassidy, and Tulip into New Orleans, where they split up almost immediately. While Cassidy drops in on an old friend (who actually seems to hate him) and Tulip keeps a low profile to avoid the mysterious Viktor, Jesse goes on a one-man tour of New Orleans’s 187 jazz bars, looking for a show that God might have attended.
It quickly becomes clear that this is not a very good plan. “A preacher walks into a bar and asks for God” sounds like the setup to a bad joke, and that’s exactly how Jesse is treated. After too many drinks at too many bars, with no God in sight, Jesse finally gets a lead from a bartender, who suggests that he check out a lounge singer named Lara Featherstone.
Lara seems to have stepped straight out of a Raymond Chandler novel: a beautiful blonde with a husky alto, toying with an obnoxious moron who hits on her before rejecting him flat. Jesse, who nearly married Tulip just an episode ago, is mostly immune to Lara’s charms — but when he sees her getting kidnapped by a bunch of weirdos in all-white suits with red ties and ski masks, he intervenes, using Genesis to stop their van and take her to safety. (Preacher really doesn’t put a button on this, but since Jesse used Genesis, the Saint of Killers presumably has confirmation that the gang is still in New Orleans.)
Lara takes Jesse to her apartment, where she checks on her baby and warns him about her kidnappers: a “super-secret, crypto-religious fascist organization with designs on total world domination.” Of course, Genesis is a secret weapon they don’t have, which should give Jesse a leg up on the whole “finding God” thing. Lara announces her plan to leave town with her baby and bids Jesse good-bye.
And then comes the twist. As soon as she’s alone, Lara sheds both the blonde wig and the baby, which were part of an elaborate cover story to help her get close to Jesse. The entire “kidnapping” was an elaborate ruse to confirm that Jesse’s superpowers are legit. Now that she knows that his powers are legit, she and the “super-secret crypto-religious fascist organization with designs on total world domination” — of which she’s actually a member, under the tutelage of a Dr. Evil–looking dude named Herr Starr — can figure out what to do about it. Jesse’s list of rivals and adversaries just keeps getting longer.
• Tulip doesn’t get a lot to do in “Damsels,” but the episode does end on one hell of a cliffhanger: At least a dozen goons confront Tulip and call Viktor to report that they’ve finally found her.
• “Damsels” was helmed by Michael Slovis, an acclaimed director and cinematographer with credits on everything from Breaking Bad to Game of Thrones. I particularly liked the way he shot Jesse’s long, fruitless barhopping search for God, as the neon signs, laughing patrons, and glasses of whiskey dissolved into a nauseating blur.
• Jesse’s album 14 Best Songs No One’s Ever Heard Of seems to be fake, but “A Walk to the Peak” is a real song. If you want to judge whether it really sounds “like cats screwing at the airport under an ice cream truck,” you can listen to the Gaspare Di Lieto Quintet’s 1993 version here.
• Near the end of the episode, one jazz enthusiast gives Jesse an ominous theory about “A Walk to the Peak”: It’s a musical representation of “the end of the world.” Now why would God be interested in a thing like that?
• You might recognize Julie Ann Emery, who plays Lara Featherstone, from Preacher’s fellow AMC series Better Call Saul, in which she plays the scheming Betsy Kettleman.
• The song covered by Lara Featherstone in the jazz club is “Almost Blue,” from Elvis Costello’s 1982 album Imperial Bedroom. You can listen to the original here, or a Diana Krall version that sounds a little closer to the version in Preacher.
• Tulip bumps into an old friend in New Orleans who offers to have her over for a lemon doberge cake — a local speciality you should definitely try.
• Graffitied on the “You Are Leaving Texas” sign that the gang passes as they cross the state border: “YOUR LOSS DIPSHIT.”
• One of the adjacent cells near Eugene’s room in Hell contains none other than Adolf Hitler.
• Jesse sees a poster for a place called Angelville, which mysteriously sends him into a daze. If you don’t want to be spoiled on what’s likely coming in future episodes, I’d advise against Googling it.
• We get a brief glimpse of Herr Starr’s files, which include a manila folder labeled “PIG.” No idea what it means, but since an upcoming episode is titled “Pig,” I’m sure we haven’t heard the last of it.
• Cassidy, always doling out great advice: “You know, I’m a big proponent of running away from your problems.”
• What’s the deal with the weird sex show starring a dude in a dalmatian costume? The quick, sinister shot of the dog’s eyes seem to indicate that it’s more than a one-off joke.