[This is a review of Preacher season 1, episode 2. There will be SPOILERS.]
Two episodes in and one of the more admirable things about Preacher is how uninterested the series is in holding the hand of those watching. It's a risky move for a new series that's as flat-out bonkers as this one; there were several points during the pilot episode where it seemed as though Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg were content to throw the audience into the deep end and leave them there. The pilot, then, was marked as much for all that went unsaid as for its willingness to simply trust the audience (those who haven't read Garth Ennis and Steve Dillion's comics, anyway) to be patient and just enjoy the ride, because, well, it was entertaining enough without everything being spelled out.
Being that sort of show that requires viewers to learn a new kind of aesthetic vocabulary, AMC was wise in re-running the pilot in its new timeslot (formerly filled by Fear the Walking Dead) instead of jumping straight into 'See,' which is kind of like being dropped into a third-year foreign language program after having attended a single introductory class. Case in point: 'See' begins with an engaging but nonetheless head-scratching cold open that whisks the audience far from the modern-day Annville, TX and the ramshackle church run by Jesse Custer to 1881, where a laconic cowboy (credited as The Cowboy, but most viewers will know him as the Saint of Killers) played by Outlander's Graham McTavish heads out from a dust-strewn plot of land in search of medicine for his sick daughter.
The sequence has an Unforgiven, dreamlike quality to it, owing to how little the Cowboy speaks and how few shots there are of his face. Rogen and Goldberg's direction focuses instead on the barren landscape, the chatty St. Louis expatriate who welcomes the Cowboy to share a meal and one-sided conversation, and then on the unsettling image of several Native Americans hanged in a tree outside a place called Ratwater. Readers of the comic know who this cowboy is and his importance to the overall narrative, but his arrival here in the second episode is another excellent example of just how viewers can expect the show to work in the weeks ahead.
To the series' credit, Preacher remains unconcerned with exposition; but with the introduction of McTavish's mysterious cowboy, it's also unconcerned in all the pomp and circumstance normally associated with the introduction of an important character from the source material. There's a level of restraint in the cold open uncommon to shows like this that insist on highlighting and emphasizing the significance of something like this. Instead, you get the sense that it could go either way; it could just be a one-off thing intended to demonstrate the unforgiving nature of the geographic location, as Ratwater and Annville share a certain desolate aesthetic. Then again, the series being what it is, there's enough ominous portend in the Cowboy's presence and that warning outside Ratwater to have the audience filing his appearance away for later.
Having worked on Breaking Bad, writer and executive producer Sam Catlin has experience dealing this sort of opening sequence: the kind that hints at greater things to come, while at the same time having such a distinct and distant vibe it wouldn't be hard to envision this thread spawning a new series on its own. But Catlin's script also delivers a strong follow-up to the pilot that sees Jesse, Tulip, and especially Cassidy settling into their roles for the time being, as the series aims to explore how recent changes to the main characters and the population of Annville – Genesis being just one of them – has an effect on their surroundings. In just two episodes, Preacher has managed to make Annville the kind of miserable location a viewer might like to spend some time, as no doubt budgetary concerns of what will hopefully be a multi-season television series require the story to take place in the same location, at least for a little while. It may be filled with abusive rednecks deserving of a throttling, but there's more to the sunbaked town than the disreputable elements just waiting to come in conflict with Jesse and his temporarily disinclined companions – Tulip and Cassidy. There's an undercurrent of mystery that makes the isolated town a hub of attention-grabbing characters who more than make up for the fact that, in two hours, Preacher is still doling out its plot and the larger threads of its narrative in bite-sized, bloody fragments.
For the most part, 'See' acts as an intersection for these fragments, bringing them together in a satisfying if not entirely elucidating manner. Like McTavish's Cowboy, Jackie Earle Haley makes an appearance as Odin Quincannon with a cryptic introduction that has his company buying up plots of land and displacing the former residents there for reasons unknown. Again, comic devotees will know who Quincannon is and mark his presence here as noteworthy, but the series uses it to deepen the series' plot beyond Jesse's newfound abilities and the strange men trying to capture him.
But Preacher demonstrates its willingness to solve its mysteries in time. Last week, Anatol Yusef (Boardwalk Empire) and Tom Brooke made a short, quizzical appearance as DeBlanc and Fiore that pays off in extreme bloody fashion once they run afoul of Cassidy while attempting to dismember Jesse, who is otherwise indisposed on account of the concoction cooked up by the Irish Vampire that sounds akin to something Joaquin Phoenix might have crafted in The Master. The gory fight between the three once again demonstrates Cassidy's supernatural abilities, but it also establishes the bond between him and Jesse. So far, Cassidy being a vampire and Jesse being imbued with the power of an otherworldly entity is but one in a long list of things that makes them fun to watch. To see Cassidy put his (otherwise eternal) life on the line for his drinking buddy – despite Jesse being a fan of The Big Lebowski – says more about the character than any need to drink blood or avoid sunlight does.
The same goes for Jesse, who begins the episode by tending to his growing flock by performing a series of baptisms. This serve as a way to bring Eugene "Arseface" Root back into the story – which works much better than in the pilot – but it also ties into the idea that Jesse, Cassidy, and even Tulip are characters whose conflict is greater than the external forces acting against them. Jesse is compelled to act against the would-be pedophile seeking absolution for his sins through an act of attrition by using his newfound ability to make the man forget about the girl he was obsessed with. It may stop the man from acting out, but it's just a bandage on a much larger wound – the same with Jesse commanding the girl with a catastrophic brain injury to open her eyes. He's providing a surface-level solution to a much more serious problem. Jesse's actions are like the baptism that even Eugene questions the efficacy of, or his hiding out in Annville, trying to be a preacher when he knows he was happiest as an outlaw with Tulip.
It's a surprising and insightful second hour of a series that has shown a remarkable ability to decompress the comic on which it is based and make these first two installments rich in character, humor, and outlandish violence that somehow adds up to a very satisfying whole.
Preacher continues next Sunday with 'The Possibilities' @9pm on AMC.
Photos: Lewis Jacobs/Sony Pictures Television/AMC