PREACHER Review: “On Your Knees” And Praying For Smarter Characters

Jesse Custer: preacher, saviour, gullible af.

As Preacher’s second season wears on, it’s becoming ever clearer that while the ideas are a-flowin’, an insufficient quantity pertain to the show’s title character. Jesse Custer has been alternating between mopey and enraged all season, with only precious hints of backstory or agency. In the latest few episodes, he’s become a stooge for chief baddie Herr Starr - a situation that doesn’t turn around in tonight’s episode, “On Your Knees.”

But first: to more interesting storylines. This week picks up where “Holes” left off, with Eugene and Hitler in Hell’s Hole. In Eugene’s custom-tailored simulation (which doesn’t seem to alter with Hitler’s presence, sadly), the poor guy is poked from all sides with memories and traumas designed to drive him to suicide, but at Hitler’s urging, Eugene manages to resist. Hitler-as-guidance-counselor is a weird development, but the scene works - and so does their plan, as the unlikely pair escape into Hell’s ventilation shafts. Of course this show’s Hell has ventilation shafts; of course they have grates looking into people's private Hells. Alas, we only get glimpses at the rich array of Hells on offer.

If the Saint of Killers is your jam, though, boy is “On Your Knees” your episode. Dude gets nested flashbacks - back to weeks of pounding the doors of his armoured-car prison (both underwater and in a Grail warehouse), and to his life before damnation. Scenes of the Saint just chilling with his family must have been a blessing for Graham McTavish, whose growling - while excellent - must grow tiresome as an acting exercise. Ultimately, it only serves to heighten his later self-hatred, but the sequence adds some extra texture to a character who so far has been exclusively coarse.

Back in the present, the Saint’s got one thing on his mind - vengeance upon Jesse Custer - and he’ll team up with anyone who helps him achieve it. In this case, that’s the Grail, which offers him the “next best thing” to Heaven, whatever that may be. A quick pep-talk and mysterious procedure later, he's got the confidence to attack Jesse again, in a nasty, drawn-out fight that forms the episode’s centrepiece. While his weapons have been mailed to Rio, the Saint has lost none of his ferocity, incapacitating Cassidy, Denis, and Tulip in short order.

And then he and Jesse talk! The Saint really has to improvise without his guns. His monologue on scalp removal, casually delivered while sharpening a blade, is all very Tarantino, much like the source material was back in the day. I find it hard to believe, though, that in all his years of ruining people’s days, the Saint never once experimented with peeling someone’s scalp off. Surely his alleged curiosity got the better of him at least once. Shame on him if it didn't, to be honest.

It’s all for nought, though, as Jesse gets unexpectedly saved by the Hell. Superintendent Mannering, specifically, arrives to take the Saint back to the underworld where he dang well belongs - presumably still bearing 1% of Jesse’s soul. The whole incident's just an act, orchestrated by the Grail, to convince Jesse to join them - not that he’d notice, virtually sleepwalking through the episode as he does.

Herr Starr’s manipulation doesn’t end there. He manages to convince Tulip and Cassidy that their friend considers them useless chaff - which in turn turns them against him. Alienating Jesse from his friends is a smart way to pull him into the Grail’s fold, certainly, but here's the problem: it’s hard to watch characters we’re meant to see as smart and relatable get manipulated this easily. Jesse might well have convinced himself he can be the leader the inbred Humperdoo can’t be - no doubt feeding his enormous ego, though he won’t admit it - but can’t he or his friends also see what Herr Starr is doing? Starr's pretty unambiguously evil, and his plot isn't exctly subtle. At the start of the season, Jesse was ready to distrust and even fight the Grail’s men in white suits, but now he credulously accedes to their every whim. C’mon, Jesse. Show a little of that skeptical side-eye you’re meant to be known for.

Elsewhere in the episode: Jesse confirms - at least in his own mind - the identity of God as Man-Dog, more or less shelving the whole search-for-God thing. The show’s other dog, little Banjo, may be in unspecified danger from young-old vampire Denis. Tulip may be in highly-specified danger from old-young vampire Cassidy, thanks to his son's insistence he turn her into one of them. The Pope announces publicly that God is gone, but that “a reasonable approximation” of Jesus is on his way - not exactly the kind of message one hopes for from the Holy Father. The Saint of Killers wants a word with Satan, which hopefully means we’ll see the Dark Lord onscreen at some point. And why in God’s name has nobody in that apartment noticed the Grail’s surveillance equipment yet?

Preacher closes out its season next week. Will it be energetic, irreverent, and imaginative, like its best moments? Or will it be like Jesse, glum and a little bit stupid? There’s room for both on God’s green earth, but I'm praying for a miracle.