Jesse Custer sees his past put on display as he makes an enemy of Herr Starr and the Grail in a stuffed but satisfying Preacher.
The question of how much backstory an audience needs is an interesting one that comes into focus during in ‘Backdoors’. Preacher has teased out the histories of its main trio often enough, without going too deep into any one character’s past. In addition to revealing Tulip married a gangster named Viktor while she and Jesse were on a break – and extended break, but still – the show has mostly chosen to hang around the fringes of her past, revealing little tidbits here and there, such as her lonely childhood that connected her to Jesse and his father and made her really good at video games. The same is true for Cassidy, though because he doesn’t share as long a history with Jesse or Tulip, there’s been little occasion to add to his backstory outside of a recent flashback in which he greeted the newborn Denis before presumably vanishing for the next seventy or so years.
These flashbacks and disclosures have helped color Tulip and Cassidy’s characters to a certain degree, but none that have really moved the story forward or had much of an effect on it outside of providing an excuse to play ‘Dirty Little Secret‘ and extend a joke about the difficulties of communicating effectively with your children well past the point of it being funny or particularly useful for an actor who is as willing to go all in as Joseph Gilgun is when playing the series’ resident Irish vampire. As the ostensible lead of Preacher, then, it stands to reason that diving into Jesse’s backstory would provide some fascinating depth to the character and provide a little insight into his motivation for finding God, often at the expense of his relationships with the people closest to him. And while there is certainly something interesting in the question of how Jesse was raised following the execution of his father, and what, exactly, his relationship with God is, considering he’s a preacher with a penchant for extreme violence he doesn’t seem to feel too bad about, focusing on his past at this point in the season raises some interesting questions about pacing that have dogged this season after a thrilling one-two punch with the first episodes.
The look back seems to be underlining an accepted truth about the series’ lead character: Jesse Custer is a bad person. That’s not entirely his fault; after all his character was written long before the antihero was a tired cliché in television (though opinions may vary when it comes to comic books). And it’s not entirely his fault within the context of the story, either. Sure, every character is defined by their choices, and when push comes to shove, Jesse tends to make some pretty bad ones, but in the nature versus nurture debate, the scenes from his childhood provided by ‘Backdoor’ suggest his development isn’t entirely the fault of his DNA, but rather those who share it with him.
The episode does a nice job of mirroring Jesse’s experience with his grandmother, and her particular punishment for refusing to renounce the name Custer, with the murky prison he sentenced the Saint of Killers to earlier in the season. The callback to the elder Custer being murdered and reminding his son that “Custers don’t cry; we fight” is a expedient way of re-establishing the finer points of Jesse’s personality, but it’s hard to say just how effective it is here aside from giving those who didn’t watch season 1 some information everyone else already had. Jesse’s interaction with his grandmother, however, invites questions into his chosen method of dealing with the Saint, and raises questions as to whether or not submerging the killer cowboy in a swamp was the result of right place, right time, or if Jesse was instead (and perhaps even inadvertently) exorcising some old demons.
The question remains, however, what any of this has to do with the task at hand. The task that’s been put off for the better part of two months now after the first concrete lead Jesse got on the whereabouts of the Almighty put him and his friends smack dab in the middle of the Big Easy. If Preacher was a show that driven mostly by the inner workings of its main characters, then and episode like ‘Backdoor’ may have been more successful in its deep dive into Jesse’s past and the hints that it offers with regard to why he’s so hell bent on tracking down an absent God.
As it stands, the episode pulls away from those questions just as they’re seemingly on the verge of a breakthrough. Herr Starr’s efforts to convince Jesse to take God’s place by replaying all his past prayers backfires badly, resulting in a perfectly literal punishment for the head of the Grail just as Jesse realizes he’d seen God at the very beginning and inadvertently rejected him. At the same time, ‘Backdoors’ raises even more questions, by putting the Word on the fritz, seemingly having Jesse on the outs with Tulip and Cassidy (though that one was a long time coming), and putting another powerful being on the lam as it’s revealed the Saint of Killers is no longer where Jesse left him.
Preacher seems to be winding up before it heads into the final stretch of season 2. With this much on its characters’ plates, the series might find itself reinvested in the kind of kinetic storytelling that kicked the season off. If so, all episodes like ‘Backdoors’ will likely prove worthwhile.
The Eugene in Hell storyline is so far removed from anything else going on in Preacher it’s almost like another show altogether. The prison break sequence could have been more exciting, but for whatever reason, everything that happens in Hell seems to have roughly half the energy of the rest of the series. It’s surprisingly lethargic considering the location and the cast of characters at the series’s disposal. Again, Preacher reiterates a characters backstory, this time retelling Hitler’s worst day as Tyler and Eugene look on. It feels like stalling to a certain degree, so now that Hitler and Eugene are fugitives from Hell, hopefully it will give the thread the energy it needs.
Preacher continues next Monday with ‘On Your Knees’ @9pm on AMC.
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