[This is a review of Preacher season 1, episode 8: El Valero. There will be SPOILERS.]
So far in its first season, Preacher has established its comfort with ambiguity. The show has demonstrated time and again what appears to be a tacit but nonetheless firm stance on withholding its hand from the audience. This has proven to be both good and bad for the series, as it was several weeks before the name of the entity residing in Jesse was properly introduced as Genesis, which could have been cleared up much sooner and put the series on a path with greater forward momentum. On the other hand, though, the show's wild deviation from the comics has meant that even devoted readers of Garth Ennis and Steve Dillon's work have almost no clue as to what's going to happen next. Case in point: the disappearance of Eugene and Cassidy's self-immolation to prove a point to his BFF that was left unresolved as of the end of last week's slower and sometimes vexing 'He Gone.'
The hour ended with the promise of a conflict to come, as Odin Quincannon and his goon squad marched their way to Jesse's church like it was the Alamo. There's been a hint of confrontation brewing since one of the first flashbacks showed John Custer failing to make much of his appeal to Quincannon and even before that, when the meat man purchased and bulldozed the home of a not-entirely thrilled couple. At this point, seeing Jackie Earle Haley riding construction equipment while his men – Donnie included – trudged toward combat retroactively makes up for the incongruity of their earlier introduction. But at the same time, this late-game clarification reads like a justification that might not have been entirely necessary.
At any rate, Quincannon's army is but one of many elements that 'El Valero' and the remaining two episodes of season 1 have left to resolve. Chief among them is the aforementioned disappearance of Eugene and Cassidy's physical state after revealing his true self, but there is also the matter of the men with tattoos who executed John Custer in front of his son and how that ties in to Jesse's quest to save Annville.
Preacher's season 1 To Do List is something of a tall order, and 'El Valero' responds by, well, partially addressing it. That's par for the course for the series, as it has made its intentions regarding the larger narrative and its particular storytelling strokes within that narrative well known at this point. With the tremendous potential entertainment value of watching Jesse square off against Odin Quincannon and his boys having presented itself late last week, there's just no way the show and its love of big moments wouldn't take advantage of a big, wild moment like that. The thing is though: by narrowing the focus down to Jesse, the church, and Quincannon (mostly), the hour flirts with becoming one of the tightest the series has produced, and it ends up giving Dominic Cooper more to do than he's had in quite a while.
'El Valero' is perhaps the deepest dive into the mind of Jesse Custer that the series has presented so far. The hour helps explain how his mind pushes him to deal with the consequences of his actions and the lengths he's willing to go (or not go) in order to see reparations be made. Sure, he's a killer; he can a shoot man's… well, you know, off from a fair distance, and he can whoop a goon squad foolish enough to enter his church and try to take it from him by force. Those are fairly typical qualities to find in the protagonist of a story like this. But, to its credit, the episode attempts to move beyond the sheer entertainment value of Jesse's comic-book hero qualities to explore certain aspects of his psyche.
The first act of the episode is maybe one of the flat-out funniest segments Preacher has delivered in season 1. The initial storming of the church and the men's retreat to Donnie and Quincannon, followed by the shooting of the… well, you know, makes great use of off-screen action. This puts the emphasis on character reactions instead of one character's actions, and it effectively shifts the point of view from Jesse to Quincannon – or at least to the growing crowd of onlookers eager to see a shootout – which, in turn, helps reinforce the idea that Annville is a place in need of saving and that by fending off the attacks on his church, Jesse is making a larger stand against what Quincannon represents.
Perhaps the only hiccup the hour has is when it chooses to adopt the cliché of the imagined talking entity as a way of expressing the guilt of one character in particular. Preacher kind of painted itself into a corner last week when Jesse alienated all his friends, leaving him with no one to interact with, so the writer essentially had no choice but to make the Eugene hallucination the manifestation of Jesse's guilt. It could have been anyone, and the hour might have been better served with the interaction being an actual flesh-and-blood character, as opposed to a drunken vision Jesse later realizes isn't real and yet still doesn't go away. It feels like a shortcut, or, to use Eugene's words, "it's cheating" to pull the "you're not really there" card as a way to underline Jesse's nagging conscience.
Despite some of the issues that come up, the interplay between Jesse and imaginary Eugene does go to an interesting place, which essentially affords the audience some insight into the preacher's concern over matters regarding heaven and hell (more hell, though) and that, along with plain old narrative necessity, does help assuage concerns over the convenience of using a device like a hallucination. The same goes for the arrival of Fiore and DeBlanc, as they use what sounds like a Decemberists' song to coax Genesis out of Jesse and into the celestial coffee can for about a minute. The purpose of the angels is remarkably similar to Eugene's, as they primarily facilitate a new line of thinking for the main character, one that has him planning to use the most powerful entity in the universe to coax God into making a very special guest appearance during next Sunday's service.
In the end, 'El Valero' winds up being a good hour of TV in spite of some of its more obvious shortcomings. The episode demonstrates just how funny Preacher is, and how an injection of broad humor can make a standoff in the Texas heat feel like the place to be.
Preacher continues next Sunday with 'Finish the Song' @9pm on AMC. Check out a preview below:
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