PREACHER Review: “Damsels” Reveals A New Big Bad

“Now you’re diggin’ it, Daddy-O. It’s the end of the world.”

Eugene was always going to come back.

The boy also known as Arseface was introduced in Preacher’s first season in a much more significant role than he played in the graphic novel. Sent to literal hell by antihero Jesse Custer, he quickly became the series' very own Dexter’s Dad, supplying an internal monologue for Jesse.

This week's “Damsels” opens with a flashback to a pre-Arseface Eugene Root: a baby-faced, clean-cut kid steering his friend Tracy (another Season 1 semi-regular, seen only in catatonia) away from suicide. After Eugene takes all the wrong cues from her cries for sympathy, Tracy goes ahead and shoots herself, failing to die but blowing out most of her brains (which Eugene tries to push back into her skull). Terrified at the potential fallout, Eugene turns the gun on himself, and kerblam - an Arseface is born; a more dramatically satisfying one than the Cobain copycat of the graphic novel.

Fittingly, this episode in Eugene’s life - one that left his friend brain-damaged, his face disfigured, and his soul eternally damned - is the one he’s sentenced to relive over and over again in Preacher’s vision of Hell. Trapped in prisons of their own making, Hell's residents suffer personally-tailored eternities of suffering - except Eugene, for some reason, who in the episode's later scenes is let out into the metaphorical cellblock corridor. Why? It's unclear, but it has something to do with Adolf Hitler (the great Noah Taylor), and presumably with Jesse Custer as well.

Meanwhile, on Earth, Jesse, Tulip, and Cassidy continue their trip to New Orleans in search of God: a trip that takes them beneath a New Orleans jazz club, and to the home of Cassidy’s friend Dennis. What they find is a dog-themed bondage dungeon and, well, Cassidy’s friend Dennis. Dennis likes the Three Stooges and only speaks French. The man in the dog gimp-suit likes spiky dildos and doesn’t speak at all. Probably most significantly, Dennis lives in a neighbourhood with which Tulip has some familiarity, and that sparks in her more than a little apprehension.

Following clues, Jesse is sent to yet another bar to meet a contact: an as-yet unnamed (except it's totally Featherstone from the books) jazz singer and US state capitols enthusiast who immediately takes a shine to our preacher-man. Foiling her attempted kidnapping at the hands of white-suited, balaclava-clad goons, Jesse returns to the singer's apartment for some quality exposition-dumping. She reveals that the Men In White are part of a “super-secret, crypto-religious fascist organisation with designs on world domination," and they’re killing people to further their shadowy aims. Jesse’s new singer friend isn’t much of a character, all hidden backstory and romantic advances of questionable sincerity. It’s all very cliched - but, as it turns out, consciously so.

For most of the hour, “Damsels” appears to play its title fairly straight. Jesse’s new jazz-singer friend is a textbook damsel in distress, from her occupation to her on-the-run sense of endangerment. Even Tulip, constantly peeking over her shoulder in her old stomping ground, seems more rattled than usual. But true to form, Preacher has some tricks up its sleeve. The episode’s final moments see Tulip seemingly allowing herself to be cornered by a group of imposing-looking dudes. As anyone who saw a blockbuster movie between 2008 and 2013 knows, nobody allows themselves to be captured without a plan of reversal.

More substantial is the reversal of Featherstone’s subplot. Late in the episode, she’s revealed to be an agent of the very gang that tried to abduct her. Suddenly, Jesse’s perfunctory beatdown of several heavy goons seems less triumphant and more staged, as does Featherstone’s canny playing on Jesse’s somewhat old-fashioned sense of heroism. It’s a satisfying subversion of the damsel-in-distress trope, using the trope itself as a means to get under Jesse’s skin - and to force him to reveal his newfound power. 

Going forward, it’s clear God is not just a tangible character in Preacher: now that multiple parties are looking for him, he’s a MacGuffin as well. “Damsels” leaves us with a bunch of little mysteries to complement the show's larger one. Fans of the comic will know all about the mysterious, monocular Herr Starr (striking a more slender figure here than on paper) and his secret society, but the show’s treatment of The Grail could yet diverge significantly from the source material. Elsewhere, Jesse’s discomfort at seeing a poster for something called “Angelville” seems to portend events to come, as does a chaotic jazz performance that an old-timer calls “the end of the world.” We also continue to receive hints about Jesse’s family, so they’ll likely play a role in upcoming episodes.

All in all, “Damsels” is a solid hour of introductions and backstory, rather than incident, setting up the new principal antagonist* after last week’s sensational two-part season opener. The show’s new flavour - road-trippy banter, basement-dwelling weirdness, gleeful blasphemy, and darkly funny gore effects - is beginning to coalesce, as are the characters. Dominic Cooper’s Jesse Custer, in particular, suffered in Season One next to his more colourful co-stars, but his characteristics are beginning to become clearer, and Cooper’s performance more comfortable. The signposts are all there, and it's exciting to see this show moving at last.

* Antagonist...s? How big a role is Hitler going to play in this thing? Why do I feel intensely uncomfortable asking that question in 2017?

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