PREACHER Review: Opening Up Everyone’s “Backdoors”

Opening and, er, filling.

Preacher has been teasing a reveal of its protagonist's backstory all season long. Until this week, it's been a dark cloud on the horizon; in “Backdoors,” that cloud gains some definition. Good thing, too, as Jesse Custer has thus far perplexingly been the least-developed character in the show's core cast.

Turns out, Jesse depositing the Saint of Killers in a dank Louisiana swamp was a deeply personal act. Seems poor Jesse spent a goodly part of his childhood being punished in just such a manner, submerged at the bottom of the swamp in a wooden box at his grandmother's bidding. A traumatic experience, especially given its purpose: to have Jesse renounce his father's name in favour of his mother's: L’Angell.

But while the Saint has spent a few weeks chillin’ in the bayou himself, he’s back out now, thanks to - who else? - the Grail. Jesse takes the Saint's carefully orchestrated escape weirdly in stride, given how dangerous he's proved in the past. While Tulip and Cassidy pack up to flee for Bimini like any sensible person, the increasingly insufferable Jesse insists he's still got a God to find. While he has a point - the creator of the Universe could presumably offer stimulating conversation - Jesse demonstrates stunning ignorance of his friends’ needs and wishes. He's kind of an asshole, actually, as this ep takes pains to point out, and even worse, he's a self-righteous asshole. And so, with a theory about God being the S&M sex slave they encountered early in their search, he's off. 

Of course, Bondage Dog God has vanished, once again throwing Jesse into despondency. But to Jesse's newfound confidant Herr Starr, God's just a loose cannon. And given that the Grail's "Messiah" suffers from generations of genetic abnormalities, Starr sees Jesse as a potentially powerful Grail figurehead - and one that can be manipulated.

And how better to manipulate Jesse than by playing on his personal insecurities, while also expositing those insecurities to the audience? Starr's Grail-procured library of Jesse’s prayers - endearingly, recorded onto ancient reel-to-reel tapes - grants him significant emotional leverage. The recordings range from inconsequential childhood apologies (not eating broccoli, being scared) to adolescent guilt (lying, thinking dirty thoughts) to adult self-loathing (having hate in his heart, talking down to Tulip) and full-blown crimes (stealing, fighting, killing).

Two notable consistent threads: doubting God’s existence, and what sounds like an incredibly fraught relationship with Jesse’s father. A father Jesse is later made to thank God for killing. There’s clearly a lot of abuse - religious abuse, especially - in Jesse’s past, but aside from his swamp-box torture, I fear we haven't seen much of it yet. It’s likely Grandma L’Angell will return, and we'll probably find out exactly what unpleasant fate befell Daddy Custer as well. That backstory will have to be depicted onscreen, though, because it sure isn't registering in Dominic Cooper's performance yet.

Tulip's subplot this week sees our girl finally getting proactive in banishing the spectre of the Saint. Tulip and "Jenny" (aka the Grail's greatest yes-woman Featherstone) take the Saint's weapons to be smelted down, but it turns out molten steel can't melt Saint-guns. Why Tulip's response is to simply mail them away somewhere is beyond me, but at least it gives the postal service something to do. Until they're inevitably slaughtered.

Meanwhile, in Hell: the Superintendent applies a Voigt-Kampff-esque test to her inmates, in order to identify just who doesn’t belong. While her attention's elsewhere, Eugene and new friend Tyler force Hitler to show them his personal Hell (accessed thanks to a key Hitler keeps up his butt). Why do they do that? It's clearly a lark for Tyler, but makes little sense for Eugene, or for Hell's internal logic. The true purpose, however, is obvious: it's an opportunity to finish showing the audience Hitler's Hell.

Honestly, there's not a huge amount more to learn from the ordeal. What starts as a scene of potential Hitler-triggers turns into a series of shamings: rejection by a gay gallery owner, an act of cowardice towards violent insurgents, a confession of infidelity from his girlfriend, and a Jewish man getting the last plum cake. Independently of the participants’ identities, each incident is relatable - who among us has not fumed at someone else getting the last slice of cake? - but they're remarkably shallow insights as far as monster-making goes.

But perhaps that's the point. In post-Hell conversation, Hitler cites the experience as the last moment he was ever a good person. His personal Hell is being forced to see the man he could have been - the man he could have remained. Noah Taylor brings surprising subtlety to a sledgehammer of a scene, playing something between contrition and resignation. Taylor doesn't humanise Hitler - as the saying goes, “everyone knows you can't trust Hitler” - but he does grant the specific character of Hitler-in-Hell more reflection than anyone would expect. As the Hell portion of the episode ends, Hitler and Eugene leap into "The Hole" together to locate Hell's back door and escape. This is the only time I'll ever write this sentence, but I'm intrigued to see what's inside Hitler's Hole.

With the Saint back on the loose, "Backdoors" returns, unexpectedly, to the status quo: Jesse's looking for God, and the Saint is after him. Jesse's Genesis ability may not be working properly, and Herr Starr is left cramming audio tape up his his own back door, but the forward momentum has a net backward effect. Sooner or later, all this business in Hell is going to have to link up to the main story. Will Hitler escape from Hell or just provide moral support to Eugene? And will Eugene's storyline immediately become less interesting when he goes topside? That's something we might have to wait until next season to see.

Oh! Cassidy got some screentime this week! But only a little: Denis wants him to turn Tulip into a vampire. That’s it, and it's pretty downplayed. I’m sure it’s nothing to worry about.

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