Verdict: Preacher completes its ambitious prologue season with an appropriately crazy season finale, just about sticking the landing thanks to a strong handle on its absurdity and exciting set-up for season two despite some glaring narrative flaws.
This has been an uneven season of TV, to say the least. Season one of Preacher shot out of the gates with two very impressive and confident opening episodes that gradually unravelled the more unusual elements of its narrative onto a grounded and recognisable setting of a small Texas town, but it’s since been a deeply inconsistent run. It’s often been plagued by frustratingly lethargic pacing that only left the show’s weaknesses exposed for all to see, and the tactic of delaying the gratification of solid, concrete narrative progression as long as possible meant that the show failed to adequately make the most of its intriguingly weird tendencies in the early run. However, to say this has been a bad season of TV would be extremely harsh – the back half of the season has been far smoother and more consistent, and there’s typically one or two sequences in each episode that are as imaginative and thrilling as the very best genre shows out there. Scenes such as the motel fight with the Seraphim in episode six, anything with Jackie Earl Harley’s brilliantly bizarre villain Odin Quincannon and the concluding time loop montage last week that seamlessly incorporated the intriguing Cowboy story into the ongoing narrative all show that this is a show capable of amazing things, even if it’s just for five minutes at a time.
What’s most encouraging about the season finale, Call and Response, is that it channels that freewheeling spirit of those inspired sequences into a narrative that’s far more consistent and entertaining across the entire run-time instead of simply for a certain portion of the episode. Befitting of the very disparate nature of this season’s plots, there were quite a few different stories going on here, but these separate plotlines felt relatively balanced and coherent, tying together nicely in the episode’s second half with the big set-piece conversation with God. That extended Q & A was certainly the finale’s flashiest moment, but Call and Response spent more time in the run-up to the confrontation dealing with Jesse’s other lingering story in the form of his vendetta with his old partner in crime, Carlos. This was definitely a less immediately engaging storyline compared to the brazen fun of the episode’s wackier second half. Preacher has only seemed to be periodically interested in Jesse’s past throughout the season, with Tulip’s plot to track him down receiving relatively little screen-time and depth, and so the way in which Carlos suddenly became the finale’s biggest priority for a time couldn’t help but feel a little jarring and inorganic.
Nonetheless, in of itself, Jesse and Tulip’s revenge was actually a reasonably compelling and thematically interesting story. Back when Jesse was introduced in the pilot as a textbook male anti-hero struggling against his darkest impulses, I assumed that Preacher was going to take a while to put a stop to the push and pull between the angels and devils on his shoulder, so it was somewhat surprising to see Call and Response commit so wholeheartedly to its darkest portrayal of Jesse yet. His turn to darkness does feel earned, however, rooted satisfyingly in his existential crisis and struggle with the futility of bringing salvation to a rotten town that doesn’t want to listen, and the dynamic that’s been established here between him and Tulip is fittingly complex and hard to truly categorise. Jesse and Tulip have all the hallmarks of star-crossed lovers in how they’re shown to be almost magnetically drawn to each other even after years apart, but despite the seemingly clear-cut nature of their bond, it’s also a toxic and deeply harmful relationship in which both become the other’s enabler, encouraging the very worst in the name of ‘love’. If Preacher really leans into the complexity inherent in a relationship that’s filled to the brim with contradictions in season two, that’s a surefire way to ensure that the personal drama going forward will be a lot more compelling than the meagre gruel this season served up with Annville’s residents.
The other side of the coin for Call and Response, of course, is the big confrontation with ‘God’ in the church. The episode as a whole is fraught with anticipation before, mirroring the nervous hopes and deep uncertainty pervading throughout the residents of Annville, with the periodic countdown clock serving as a constant reminder that a huge turn for the town and Jesse himself was on the way. Thankfully, the centrepiece confrontation was worth the build-up, capturing the potent mix of knowing absurdity, melodrama and pathos that’s fuelled Preacher this season while sending the show’s narrative as a whole careering unpredictably in an entirely different direction. Fittingly for Preacher, a lot of the Q & A session with God was a smart send-up of the very traditional portrayals of God, adhering closely as possible to the textbook view of an old, white bearded man and then meticulously undermining it with increasingly noticeable indications that the entire encounter is a sham. The construction of the scene is watertight, beginning with a vague, abstract sense right off the bat that everything seems a little absurd (there’s a very Monty Python feel to this scene, which, intentional or not, helped as an early tip-off that this wasn’t the real deal). Preacher takes the natural viewer scepticism at the legitimacy of the conversation and runs with it – by the end, the hints have accrued to the point where Jesse’s piercing command feels like the natural next step in the confrontation and not a moment that the scene has been railroaded towards simply because it needed to get there. Most importantly, Call and Response builds to and earns the bombshell revelation that God is missing from Heaven – it’s the slow, methodical build-up and establishment of a seemingly orderly and predictable portrayal of God that makes the revelation of the chaos in Heaven such a potent moment of whiplash.
The key value of that major revelation beyond simply enabling Jesse, Tulip and Cassidy’s road trip is that it functions as a very, very cruel joke. Season one has been all about the minutiae, with the small town setting ensuring that a lot of the drama has been small-scale and intensely personal in nature. The contrast between the Annville drama and the bigger picture has always been there, but Call and Response makes sure that the revelation, its first real twist surrounding the drama being played out in Heaven and Hell, reduces Annville and its residents to the point of insignificance. Even Odin Quincannon, whose wealth and influence has made him a powerful and intimidating adversary for Jesse, becomes little more than a drop in the ocean after this revelation – why fear a bad guy whose rhetoric is now empty and whose resources mean nothing in the face of what’s going on in Heaven? Completely undermining the stories and characters that it’s spent ten episodes establishing is certainly an audacious gambit for Preacher, and there’s real merit in the argument that its decision to undermine most of the season’s events just undermines the show itself. Nonetheless, I think it’s a gamble that Preacher just about pulls off, mostly because of its canny and compelling portrayal of the collapse of Annville.
In particular, the montage in which Annville succumbs to total despair after the church, with suicides, murders and senseless violence marking the town’s total reversion to animalistic impulses, is one of the best sequences Preacher has served up thus far. It’s a montage that works as a genuinely chilling portrayal of a society with no reason to continue and nothing to believe in – the senselessness of the violence powerfully portraying what happens to humanity when the true nature of its cosmic insignificance is laid bare and cannot be avoided. The music plays a key role in this, with the cover of ‘No Rain’ providing a haunting backdrop that underscores the violence with an appropriate mix of tragedy and irony, while allowing the powerful and brutal visuals to really do the scene’s dramatic legwork. Despite the dramatic value of the scene, however, it’s a scene that’s shot through with pitch-black humour; full of absurd visuals such as Odin Quincannon cradling a parka filled with ground meat in an attempt to replicate his daughter, and the ignominious death of the Anville mascots by hanging that carefully walks the line between mockery and tragedy. It’s almost ridiculously nihilistic in its total disregard for the humanity of these individuals, but that’s really just in keeping with Preacher’s consistent refusal to truly portray Annville as anything other than a manifestation of all the worst stereotypes of a rural, Christian small town. It’s always been a town that’s fuelled by its own prejudice and hate masquerading as pure-hearted Christianity, and the montage does an excellent job of communicating that Annville simply can’t hold up that façade any longer – the only natural next step from the God revelation was that the town would finally consume itself with all of that thinly veiled rage and amorality bubbling to the surface. In that sense, the nihilism was somewhat justified in this particular case, because it’s hard not to feel a bit of catharsis in the societal collapse of the place that’s acted as a literal inhibitor to Preacher’s narrative progress, holding it back from fully embracing the comics’ catchy road trip premise.
Because this is Preacher, Annville’s social collapse soon led to a real collapse thanks to a methane explosion – and this is a narrative twist that’s somewhat harder to praise. While the idea of the explosive substances lurking beneath Annville had been set up to some degree in previous episodes with mysterious shots of the vents and the pressure room, the town’s total destruction feels like a bit too much of a swerve for a finale that certainly wasn’t lacking for audacious plot turns. Perhaps the main reason why Annville’s destruction is a little disappointing is because it feels weightless – a very significant chunk of the season’s regular cast have presumably been wiped out including the handful of genuinely likeable characters with major ties to Jesse and his personal struggle, but the episode never really acknowledges the fact that they’ve died at all. In particular, the choice to cut to Jesse and co happily talking about The Big Lebowski and outlining their roadtrip plans before missing the news entirely robs the moment of any emotional power it could have. The montage works because it focuses on unnamed characters who could easily be lumped in with the mostly negative depiction of the town as a whole, making it far easier for the show to play the moment as a mix between black comedy and tragedy, but it’s somewhat strange that the death of the characters the show has been trying to make us care about are given equally little weight. Perhaps season two will delve into how Annville’s destruction affects Jesse a bit more, but for the time being, a hugely significant turn in events comes across like it occurs in a complete vacuum.
While Call and Response’s clearing away of season one’s loose ends is clumsy and lacks impact, the way in which it tees up season two is a great deal stronger. Preacher, from the start, was a hard show to really sum up in a traditional premise like most shows, indicative of its slightly unfocused splintered narrative which melded together a lot of different genres in unusual ways, but there’s already an easy way to sum up the basic pitch for season two: a road trip to find God. That’s a simple and exciting premise to build upon because it leans far more into the more interesting supernatural/religious parts of the narrative and allows for a wider collection of colourful characters and locations to be visited, and keeps the focus cleanly on the dynamic central trio of characters. If season one felt like it was holding back and saving itself for something vague on the horizon, then season two looks as if it’ll simply be charging head on into the biggest parts of the mythos, and that’s definitely a reason for considerable optimism for when the show returns. Season one may have been an uneven and inconsistent ride, but it did work effectively in its function as the prologue season, establishing the personal stakes and sketching out the central narrative going forward. Now it’s done that, hopefully Preacher can really reach the heights it’s shown, both in this finale and before, that it’s certainly capable of.
Odds & Ends
- The Cowboy/the Saint of Killers has made it to the modern day, and he does not seem happy. It’ll be interesting to see if he’ll just be a background Terminator figure stalking Jesse for a while or an outright villain aggressively going after him for season two – the former is probably more likely, given how the Saint is one of the comics’ biggest long-term antagonists.
- I’m still not sure why the show has devoted this much time to explaining Cassidy’s hatred of The Big Lebowski, but hey, he seems to be done with the film criticism for the time being (it is a good movie, Cassidy).
- It’ll be a real shame if Odin Quincannon is gone, because Jackie Earl Haley made him into such a memorably weird villain that whoever follows as the next Big Bad will have a lot to live up to. What exactly was the God of Meat, anyway?
- This week in sad deaths: the Annville mascot is no more. His commitment to the costume will be remembered.
- 13 episodes next year – let’s hope the show uses them wisely, because 10 episodes this time around already felt like a stretch given the sparse amount of story around.