Preacher’s first season consisted of just ten episodes. For season two, AMC upped the order to 13. Three more hours of Preacher! What could go wrong?
Well, let’s look at what Preacher has done with those extra hours. The longer season two has made room for a few detours, like the standoff with Tulip’s ex-husband, Viktor, and Eugene’s stand-alone saga in Hell. But it’s also led to more wheel-spinning, as is the case in “Puzzle Piece,” which is so frustratingly inessential that I’m pretty sure you could skip the whole episode and watch next week with minimal confusion.
That might have been fine, if “Puzzle Piece” were still a good Preacher episode in its own right. But this is also as dour and unenlightening as the show gets. If this is what happens when Preacher parks itself in the same place for too long, well, maybe it’s time to get the gang back out on the road.
Here are the good things about “Puzzle Piece.” The idea that Jesse is desperate enough to look for God on YouTube — and ends up finding a dude who claims he saw God on a piece of toast — is pretty funny. There’s a long action sequence shot from the perspective of a Grail operative’s night-vision helmet camera, which is inventive and cool-looking. And the final few minutes of the episode, in which Herr Starr finally confronts Jesse in person and offers to help him find God, promises to kickstart an increasingly draggy narrative.
But other than that, the episode is basically just an ugly, unpleasant time-waster. As it begins, unspoken tensions are still poisoning the air around our three heroes. Cassidy passive-aggressively dismisses Jesse’s latest chatter about finding God. Tulip mocks Jesse’s discomfort with her new “getting shot in the chest for money” hobby. And despite Tulip’s repeated, emphatic criticism of Jesse using Genesis to cut corners, Jesse uses it to cure her PTSD-induced insomnia by sending her into a dreamless sleep.
All of this is being watched by the Grail. Lara Featherstone believes Jesse is a big deal, but Herr Starr isn’t convinced. “I have a date. Kill them all,” he says.
So let’s talk about Herr Starr. Preacher needs formidable, well-drawn enemies — especially with the Saint of Killers trapped at the bottom of a swamp until the plot requires him again — and Starr definitely fits the bill. His weird, unpredictable sadism can be funny, like when he started masturbating to throw off a wrestling opponent. Or chilling, like when he poisoned an entire village to cover up a floating pig. Or fascinatingly Machiavellian, like when he tossed his new Grail boss off a balcony and took his job instead.
But Starr’s date with the daughter of Louisiana’s governor — which culminates in him making her stand silent and topless with a stick of butter tucked under her chin — is a long, weird, sadistic exchange with no purpose. What do we learn here that wasn’t already better demonstrated by the long, throat-clearing preambles that already put Herr Starr in Jesse’s path? Did we really need a random, degraded female character — whom we’ve never met before, and will presumably never meet again — to wax rhapsodic about the missing “puzzle piece” she found to give her life meaning, which somehow makes Starr rethink his decision on Jesse?
In any case, Starr’s glib “kill them all” order turns out to underestimate Jesse and his friends. Tulip is asleep when a small platoon of Grail soldiers bust into the building, but Jesse (using Genesis), Cassidy, and Denis — now a vampire, as implied by last week’s ending — make short work of their attackers.
And so begins a lengthy standoff between Jesse and the Grail. Our heroes hole up in the apartment, waiting for the next strike. Jesse uses Genesis to amass a small army of cops to guard the building. On the advice of Lara Featherstone, Herr Starr deploys a drone missile called B.R.A.D. to blow up the apartment building and kill them all in one shot.
It doesn’t happen, of course. The show wouldn’t work very well if Jesse, Tulip, and Cassidy died. In this particular case, Herr Starr winds up having an epiphany about Jesse while he’s getting raped by a trio of male prostitutes.
Yeah. That’s the other thing we need to talk about. Early in the episode, Herr Starr tasks Lara Featherstone with tracking down a prostitute for a rape fantasy. (“Puzzle Piece” probably has the dubious honor of being the episode with more instances of the phrase “no means yes” than any TV show in history.) Lara, always eager to make an impression on her ruthless boss, volunteers herself sexually — he declines — before suggesting that she track down a whole group of prostitutes instead. Starr agrees, but wires get crossed. Lara hires three male prostitutes, assuming that Starr’s “rape fantasy” is being raped. As the prostitutes rape Starr in his office, Starr’s eyes focus on the Jesse Custer file on his desk, somehow sparking an epiphany that Jesse is the missing “puzzle piece” in his own life.
Is this supposed to be funny? Disturbing? I honestly can’t tell, and it’s clear that the show didn’t put much thought into what it is actually doing here. Starr protests when the prostitutes enter, but doesn’t make any expression during the actual rape, so we can only guess about how he’s feeling, or why this experience triggers a total reappraisal of Jesse Custer.
I try to treat Preacher the TV series as a totally different entity than Preacher the comics — after all, a sizable portion of the audience will experience the former with no knowledge of the latter. But given the extremity of this material, it’s probably worth noting Starr’s sexual proclivities in the comics, where Hoover makes a similar error. After the incident, Starr discovers he can only get pleasure from receiving anal sex, and spends the rest of the series actively pursuing it. I assume that’s also where the TV series is going, but with so many deviations from the source material, was it really necessary to preserve a gang rape? I’m not convinced the answer needed to be “no,” but if it was “yes,” it needed to be handled much, much more deftly and clear-headed than this.
On the whole, I think Preacher has had an impressive sophomore season. When people who stopped watching in season one ask me if they should give Preacher another shot, I say yes. Preacher is a series with the pedigree and audacity to juggle a wide array of tones, while wandering into subjects most TV shows wouldn’t dream of tackling. That also means a higher likelihood of screwing up, so I guess we’ll call this one a mulligan.
• The rerouted missile ends up striking the New Orleans home of singer, actor, and talk-show host Harry Connick Jr., killing him instantly. (The attack is eventually blamed on Armenians.) It’s a decent gag, but Preacher did the whole “random celebrity killed offscreen” thing much better in its very first episode, when Tom Cruise exploded after a brief stint as an unworthy Genesis host.
• Jesse’s reliance on Genesis is getting creepy, huh? Pour one out for the 20 cops who spent weeks guarding Denis’s apartment building, only to be sent away with a strict directive to forget everything that happened. Good luck explaining that to your families!
• Starr’s file on Jesse includes a pamphlet from Angelville — yet another nod to a location that will play a very important role in the story whenever we get there.
• A couple more inconsistencies that bugged me: Why doesn’t Jesse use Genesis to be sure the cleaning guy is, you know, a cleaning guy? Even if Tulip wants a gun badly enough to take it from someone who might need it, why doesn’t she warn her new “friend” in Apartment 14 about the very high chance that armed killers will be storming the building? And while we’re on the subject, why doesn’t Tulip question why her new friend is so unfazed by the stack of corpses that came out of the building a couple of weeks ago?
• In case you missed it, B.R.A.D. stands for Battle-ready Remote-operated Aerial Drone.
• Denis celebrates his newfound vampirism by dancing to Edith Piaf’s 1959 recording of “Non, je ne regrette rien,” which gained renewed fame in the United States for its prominent role in Christopher Nolan’s Inception.
• Do you like cats?