It’s a sign of Preacher’s ever-increasing scope that, outside of a brief flashback, we don’t even see Jesse Custer until nearly 17 minutes into the episode. Instead, “On Your Knees” begins with Eugene and Adolf Hitler’s attempt to escape Hell. But before they can break free, they need to endure — and escape — the hole, which takes the worst memory of your life and twists it into something even more horrifying.
The last time Eugene was here, he saw his high-school crush Tracey hooking up with Jesse before he finally shot himself. But that’s just one of apparently infinite variations, and this week’s episode gives us four more as Eugene scrambles to escape. Tracey shoots herself because Eugene rejects her; Tracey shoots herself because she’s so grossed out by Eugene’s erection; Eugene shoots the troop leader who molested him when he was a kid; and Eugene confronts a doppelgänger of his dad (played by W. Earl Brown, reprising his role from season one).
That last confrontation doesn’t go how you might expect. Eugene’s dad, Hugo Root, was a gruff and difficult man; you got the sense that there wasn’t a lot of hugging around the Root household when Eugene was growing up, and that things got even icier when Eugene shot himself and earned the derisive nickname “arseface.” But in Hell, it’s Hugo whose mouth looks like a puckered butt. When Eugene rejects Hugo’s exhortations to “finish the job” by shooting himself again, Hugo switches from anger to tenderness. “I love you. I should’ve always said that,” he says.
Preacher hints at an intriguing idea here: That Hell, in the end, might be a place you choose. If a person couldn’t be goaded into self-flagellation by cruelty, could they be baited into staying by the kindness they always wanted, but never got in life? In rapid succession, Eugene gets closure with Tracey (who he says is responsible for her own suicide), Troop Leader Pedro (whom he shoots in the chest), and makes amends with his dad (whom he says he loves too). Hell may not be a pleasant place, but Eugene just saved himself years of therapy in about five minutes.
As far as I can tell, this wasn’t a trap after all. Once Eugene achieves closure with his dad, the window to the fake Tracey’s bedroom opens, and he and Hitler are able to mount their escape. I guess Sartre was right when he said Hell was other people; as soon as Eugene rejects the influence of these toxic figures from his past, escaping from Hell turns out to be surprisingly easy. (I suppose there’s a chance this “escape” is just another cruel punishment engineered by Hell, but I’m not holding my breath.)
Eugene’s arc for season two remains almost entirely stand-alone, but the themes of reconciliation echo in the episode’s other big story driver: the Saint of Killers. After stalking Jesse & Co. Terminator-style for the first half of the season, Jesse subdued the Saint and left him at the bottom of a swamp. Now that the Grail has rescued the Saint, he can get back to his big mission: stalking and killing Jesse Custer.
Back in season one, the Saint gave us our first glimpse of Preacher’s version of Hell, as he was forced to infinitely relive the day when he endured a nightmarish day in Ratwater, Texas, and returned home to find his wife and daughter dead. This week, in flashback, we see a little more of that story — the Saint’s baptism, and a pleasant picnic with his family — as well as a repeat of the massacre in Ratwater.
On one level, I like Preacher’s obsession with the past. As the characters ruminate on their worst sins, the show itself doubles back, showing us the moments they can’t stop reliving in their heads. On the other hand … well, Preacher is just reusing footage, right? Do we learn anything new by revisiting the Saint’s tragic past yet again, as we did four times in season one?
Back in the present, the Saint doesn’t waste any time, stomping right back to Denis’s apartment and cornering Jesse and the gang (and presumably adding to Tulip’s PTSD in the process). Genesis isn’t working, so Jesse has no way to stop the Saint, who plans to scalp him. Seriously, don’t mess with an ageless psychotic cowboy.
But just in the nick of time, the Hell plotline finally crashes into New Orleans, as Superintendent Mannering arrives at Denis’s apartment to escort the Saint back to his cell in Hell. When the Saint resists, Mannering threatens him with one of the few things Jesse can’t do with Genesis: Pulling his wife and daughter from Heaven and sending them to Hell in the Saint’s place.
So in the end, the Saint goes quietly, and Mannering reveals that Herr Starr has been watching Jesse’s back all along. Starr hasn’t given up on unseating Humperdoo and crowning Jesse as messiah, and his latest tactic is trying to convince Tulip and Cassidy that they’re getting in Jesse’s way. And it pretty much works! When the gang reconvenes at a diner, Jesse launches into his own obsession from the past: the promise he made to his father that he would always be one of the good guys. This time, Cassidy mercifully cuts the story off: “We remember.”
When Jesse reveals he’s been thinking about agreeing to ally with Starr as the false messiah, Cassidy rattles off the reasons it doesn’t make sense: He drinks, and he fights, and he likes it. Tulip raises a simpler question: “What do you need us for?” And neither one of them has any interest in bowing to him.
Why does Jesse need his friends? Because they’ll say things like that. Instead, Jesse casts his lot with Herr Starr, a simpering psychopath who promptly kneels to his would-be messiah just as the episode ends. Now, next week’s season finale is set to answer whether Jesse will really declare himself God’s rightful heir.
But this is a character-driven show, so let’s go back to that final conversation that sees Jesse break away from Tulip and Cassidy. At this point, I’d argue that the real question is: Why do Tulip and Cassidy need Jesse? He’s an obsessive, self-absorbed liar who routinely puts their lives in danger. Something tells me being crowned the messiah wouldn’t exactly quash his egomania. And Bimini sounds awfully nice.
• I assume we’ll find out next week that Hitler is just using Eugene as a convenient dupe to facilitate his own escape from Hell. Preacher is definitely willing to push some boundaries, but a redemptive Hitler arc feels like a bridge too far.
• As Eugene and Hitler crawl out of Hell, we hear brief audio snippets of several other punishments — including one prisoner (presumably the ’50s-style woman with the cat-eye glasses and the pearls) burning her children alive.
• I guess Herr Starr had the Saint of Killers released just so he could swoop in and save Jesse at the last second, thereby giving him another reason to ally with the Grail? The whole thing is a little fuzzy.
• We also learn that the Saint of Killers’ real name is William. Maybe a winking reference to William Munny, the character Clint Eastwood played in Unforgiven, whose arc bears a conspicuous resemblance to the Saint’s?
• After returning to Hell, the Saint of Killers makes an appointment with Satan, who is apparently just as eager to talk to him.
• Director Michael Slovis does a particularly nice job illustrating Cassidy’s none-too-subtle desire for Tulip, with a series of intimate, extreme close-ups on her lips and neck as she talks about the two of them leaving Jesse behind.
• If Tulip is the world’s worst amateur cook, Cassidy must be the world’s worst amateur mixologist. When Jesse balks at the cocktail Cassidy serves him, he frets that he might have poured in too much Neosporin.
• While we’re on the subject: When you have every indication that the Saint of Killers has escaped, maybe it’s not the best idea to get drunk in the very apartment where he tried to kill you last time.
• Cassidy is still obsessed with his conspiracy theory about everybody sneaking foreskins into everything. Frankly, I liked it better when he was obsessed with talking shit on The Big Lebowski.
• Cassidy also claimed he once saw a unicorn in the forest. Given that this is a world that includes angels, demons, and vampires, why not?
• In the wake of the battle with the Saint, the secret camera installed by the Grail in Denis’s apartment falls to the floor, where it could easily be discovered. Will learning that they’ve been monitored the whole time be enough to make Jesse turn on his new allies?