After two action-packed episodes, Preacher slows things down to broaden the scope of season 2 and to introduce a major villain from the comics.
Preacher has spent the last two hours with its foot on the accelerator, peeling across the Texas blacktop with a renewed sense of focus that's made season 2 feel almost like an entirely new show. Despite the success of hours like 'On the Road' and last week's more manic 'Mumbai Sky Tower', it was inevitable that the series wouldn't be able nor really want to maintain the breakneck pace at which it had been traveling and that, sooner or later, a pit stop would be in order. It's a good thing, too, as the concern over the Saint of Killers stalking Jesse, Tulip, and Cassidy has been a welcome propellant to the still kinetic but less fretful search for the Almighty that is this season's storyline, but three weeks in a row of Terminator-like bloody shootouts might be a bit much – even for this show.
'Damsels' doesn't lose track of the central plot, in fact it doubles down on Jesse's quest to find God by tracking him to New Orleans based on the admittedly thin revelation that He likes to listen to jazz. But instead of tearing around the Big Easy with a dusty cowboy breathing down the characters' necks, the episode takes a minute to catch its breath and to build out the story somewhat, mostly by reminding viewers that Jesse sent Eugene to Hell last season, and by further introducing a clandestine group known as the Grail that's also interested in getting its hands on Genesis and is led by Herr Starr (Pip Torrens).
Both Starr and the Grail are major parts of Garth Ennis and Steve Dillon's Vertigo comic series, and their absence in season 1 was noticeable. (Starr did make a brief cameo appearance in which his face was never revealed, but that seems tied to an almost completely different TV series at this point.) Instead, season 1 focused on building out the town of Annville and its strange citizens, only to blow them all to Hell when time came to end the season. As much as season 1 felt like a proof of concept test, it's clear showrunner Sam Catlin learned a thing or two from that experience inasmuch as the people Jesse, Tulip, and Cassidy are bound to run into: They all need to be slightly weirder than the very weird trio at the center of the story. So, in the case of 'Damsels', a night spent wandering around New Orleans, looking for God in jazz clubs, becomes like a fever dream of strange encounters – each one suggesting, by the law of TV storytelling averages, Jesse could very well have found who he as looking for, but lacked the wherewithal to recognize Him at the time.
There's a sense that things just don't get weird enough, though, and although Jesse's first attempt to find God results in a funny moment when Cassidy earnestly pulls a wad of cash out of his pocket to pay the price of admission to witness a bizarre sex act between a woman and (presumably) a guy in a skin-tight dog outfit, Jesse's quest to find God is a surprisingly staid affair compared to what's transpired over the past two episodes. Preacher has managed to make even the most average situations seem wildly off kilter, so the decision to send Cassidy and Tulip off in search of the French-speaking Denis (played by Ronald Guttman, who was Megan Draper's father on Mad Men) while Jesse wanders a locale teeming with interesting possibilities, it presents a number of avenues the episode is forced to ignore in order to build out Tulip's increased anxiety over Viktor and Cassidy's almost repetitious desire to be seen as helpful, among other newly introduced story threads.
For all the gas it burns through introducing the lounge-singer-turned-Grail operative Lara Featherstone (Julie Ann Emery), as well as the brief, wordless introduction to the visually spot-on Herr Starr, it feels as though this hour of Preacher doesn't leave the viewer with much more than they came in with. This is admittedly due in part to how fulfilling and focused the first two hours were that the more leisurely pace and scattered developments of 'Damsels' feels like a step back in some ways, despite the narrative necessity of the characters that are introduced (or re-introduced).
There's always need for seasons of serialized television to take a step back and set the table, so to speak, so it's better that Preacher attend to its place settings before things get too out of control that such a digression like this might completely derail what had come before rather than simply slow things down. Besides, despite the shift in pacing, 'Damsels' still delivers a sure-to-be talked about opening sequence that puts Eugene in Hell and sees him relive the chain of events that left him disfigured and a young woman brain dead by her own hand.
It's a harrowing and deliberately frustrating sequence that taps into the same hopelessness as the Saint of Killer's own nightmarish loop from season 1, though here the series walks a fine line playing Eugene's panicked response for a horrifically bleak laugh. But after the grueling opening sequence ends, Preacher unexpectedly opens up to explore Hell as an surprisingly rigid prison-setting that also introduces Noah Taylor as a pot-bellied Hitler, further demonstrating the thread's intention to provoke uncomfortable laughs.
In all, 'Damsels' is actually a fine episode of Preacher that just has the misfortune of having to follow up two very good, vibrant, and funny episodes. There's a lot to like here, and even more that's going to likely pay off very soon. It makes sense to dial back on the relentless pace the series has enjoyed those first two hours; it's just too bad some of the more overtly weird and entertaining aspects wound up being dialed back too.
Preacher continues next Monday with 'Viktor' @9pm on AMC.
Photos: Michelle K. Short & Skip Bolen/AMC