The second season of Preacher has been building up to a confrontation between The Grail, as led by Herr Starr, and the good-guy trio of Jesse, Tulip, and Cassidy. “Puzzle Piece” both delivers that confrontation and subverts it. It’s an episode filled with rug-pulls on both the audience and the characters, spending most of its time in active anticipation - then intentionally fizzling.
“Puzzle Piece” opens with the Grail attacking the apartment where Jesse, Tulip, and Cassidy are holed up. It’s a night of quiet desperation: Jesse’s resorted to searching for God on YouTube, Tulip returns again from the Hurt Locker bruised and sleep-deprived, and Cassidy warms up frozen blood for his newly-turned vampire son Denis. It would be a peaceful night, with the Grail merely surveilling the apartment, were it not for Herr Starr’s impatience at Grail HQ: “I have a date. Kill them all.”
The attack itself takes place in the dead of night, with Grail troopers filing into the apartment building in rather impractical shiny white combat armour. I mean, I get that white is the Grail’s whole aesthetic, but surely that could be jettisoned for night operations like this. Points for commitment to a bit, I suppose. Their attack is short-lived, of course, as they meet with one super-powered preacher and two literal vampires - neither of which the troopers likely expected. Shot entirely in night vision, and sound-mixed as if recorded through headset mics, it’s a pretty effective scene dramatically, even if Denis’ thirst for blood robs Jesse of an opportunity for interrogation.
Thus begins a long, tense inverse-stakeout, wherein Jesse uses the Word to make every cop on the scene keep watch for him. Using himself as bait, the idea is that Jesse will lure the Grail into a trap so that he can capture one of them alive. Dominic Cooper sells Jesse’s paranoia effectively, all panicked glances out the window and hushed check-ins on his police radio. But the plan also puts the apartment’s inhabitants in something of a pressure cooker, with Cassidy recuperating from wounds sustained in the attack, Denis still learning how to be a vampire, and Tulip reeling with betrayal at Jesse having used the Word to help her sleep. It’s a weird-ass father-son bonding sequence pitted against some difficult relationship talk, and the impending return of the Grail doesn’t make anything easier.
Meanwhile, Herr Starr couldn’t give a flying fuck about Jesse Custer for the majority of the episode. Pip Torrens’ bored disdain for the world is a delightful take on his character’s villainy, whether it’s listening to a date’s story or attempting to execute an underperforming subordinate. It’s made even more delightful to watch in combination with his weird, sadistic brand of hedonism. (I don’t know what his plan was in making the Louisiana governor’s daughter strip and hold butter under her chin.) A surprisingly large portion of the episode is devoted to the organisation of a “professional rape fantasy” for Starr, the punchline of which is that instead of getting three women, he gets three men, in an inversion of the fantasy he asked for. There are so many layers to this joke that I’m not entirely sure how to parse it: Agent Hoover's back-and-forth over specifics, somehow missing the central request; the buildup of sick tension over what we’ll end up watching; Starr’s bored willingness to go along with what he gets anyway, for the hell of it; the fact that he continues pondering Jesse’s file at the same time.
Agent Featherstone has a particularly strong week this week, her character becoming cemented as a true believer, an acolyte willing to do anything for her cause. She’s willing to die to witness the Grail taking out Jesse; she’s willing to submit to Starr for his rape fantasy. There’s no humanity in this character, no matter how much she pretends when in disguise - to Tulip, for example. Her immediate blaming of colleague Hoover for the failed attack - as he simultaneously blames himself - is a lovely moment that shows just how cold she can be for the advancement of her career in evil. She's probably even more devout than Starr himself.
The Grail also has a secret weapon, “Brad,” for whose attack on Jesse we spend half the episode waiting. The anticipation is wonderfully orchestrated by director Craig Rosenberg, piling stressor after stressor onto Jesse as he freaks out with paranoia. The arrival of the police “cleaner,” Denis’ blaring Edith Piaf record, Tulip’s shooting of the cleaner, and the attack on the police by a hulking monster-man (who we are meant to think is Brad, but is just some muscular drunk) create a back-and-forth where it’s all too possible to miss a crucial piece of danger.
It turns out, of course, that Brad is actually B.R.A.D., a Grail missile drone, and that Starr’s anal sex epiphany, whatever it is, pushes him to call off the strike. So Jesse doesn’t get the Grail attack he expects, which throws him into a surprisingly comprehensive state of defeatism given that he waited for it all of one day. Drowning his sorrows at a nearby pub, the Grail comes for Jesse not in force but in the form of Herr Starr, on his own. Starr makes Jesse an offer to help in his search for God, for reasons unknown, and it’s on that note that the episode cuts to credits.
“Puzzle Piece” contains a flashback, early on, of Jesse’s father pleading with his son to be one of the good guys. That may well be Starr’s missing puzzle piece: after all, Starr thinks he’s doing the right thing, in his own way, and if he can convince Jesse they’re on the same team (at least in the search for God, and hence order), that’s a big win for him. Jesse’s acceptance or rejection of Starr’s offer will loom large next week. Narratively, he kind of has to accept it for the story to move forward. Shit’s gettin’ good.
(As a side note, I thought we were looking at a ten-episode season on Preacher, but it turns out it’s going to thirteen. That’s exciting, and given this episode’s climactic twist, takes a little bit of the pressure off the narrative to wrap itself up quickly.)