I’ve never read Preacher, Garth Ennis’ acclaimed comic book from which Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg’s tv show is adapted, so I cannot speak to its fidelity to the source material. Ennis’ work must be extremely dark and trippy, though, to have inspired such an odd, distinctive and fearless production. In terms of religious content, it’s fair to say that Preacher is the most iconoclastic series currently on the air. Consider the following: technology exists that can extract bits of a person’s soul; the lead character wields a power so great that he once, by accident, banished a friend, literally, to hell; the Christ child exists among us, and is a profoundly developmentally disabled young man, protected by heavily armed, white-suited zealots; God has taken an indefinite leave of absence, rides a Harley and wears a skintight Dalmatian bondage costume; Adolph Hitler has escaped hell and is back among the living; witches lynch vampires; angels are some mean and petty civil servants, whose violent fisticuffs can leave a body count resembling that of The Prestige.
But Preacher manages to sustain its chief conceit – a criminal endowed with a supernatural gift travels across America in search of God, who has gone missing, so he can kick the Almighty’s ass – not by outdoing itself with outrageous ideas, but by keeping its three leads compelling and embroiling them in bizarre situations that not only challenge their resolve but reveal new and fascinating layers about them. And Season Three places pseudo clergyman Jesse Custer (Dominick West), his fierce, ass-kicking girlfriend Tulip O’Hare (Ruth Negga) and his BFF, drug-addled vampire Cassidy (Joseph Gilgun) in a particularly tight spot that tests their relationship and reveals Jesse in a fresh and vulnerable light.
We first met Jesse posing as a minister in the tiny town of Annville, Texas. His choice of costume, we learn, serves not only as deception, but also as a roundabout tribute to his late father, an actual minister, who made him promise to always be one of the good guys regardless of how rough the world got. Jesse’s entire world changed when he and his body became the vessel for a supernatural entity called Genesis. Alleged to be half-angel and half-demon (and fully dangerous), the being enables Jesse to, when he wishes, make others do precisely as he says.
Two seasons and several bizarre encounters later (see above), Jesse and his companions, in a desperate bid to save a mortally wounded Tulip, find themselves trapped in the Louisiana backwoods home of his Gran’ma (Betty Buckley), a grim, conniving witch. Through flashbacks, we get a clear picture of Jesse’s childhood after his parents’ passing, and the grifting and acts of deception he had to commit in order to stay alive and sane. We also see the bond between the three travelers sorely tested as Gran’ma manipulates the fact that Cassidy has always been in love with Tulip and now loathes Jesse for allowing harm to befall her. Meanwhile Jesse tries desperately to get his friends to save themselves and leave him behind, something neither will do, because Tulip loves him too much and Cassidy (whose vampirism Jesse is trying to keep hidden from a Gran’ma and her “boys”) wants to see him suffer.
As far as anti-heroes go, Jesse fits the bill – a career criminal who finds himself getting deeper in trouble over the need to do right by people – but man, he is hard to love. Cooper plays him with a slick surliness that tests the patience at times. The willingness to sacrifice himself for those he loves, while admirable, is a tired trope. Thankfully, the show realizes this, and Tulip exists to remind us exactly how foolish his “martyrdom” can be. Negga is the show’s clear MVP, because her portrayal of the whip-smart, fearless, take-no-shit Tulip is downright iconic. She is a classic badass who will take on, literally, anyone (I mean anyone). She is the action hero our world needs now; I would openly rejoice and dance in the street at the announcement of a Tulip O’Hare film franchise, she’s that good.
As for this season’s setting, Angelville – Gran’ma’s estate – is overflowing with haunted gothic ambience. By far this is the creepiest milieu Preacher has seen. The witchcraft and voodoo on display here is grounded in earthy, almost Appalachian levels of rural life. Gran’ma’s henchmen are skeevy, modern analogues to the villains of Deliverance. And Gran’ma herself, in all her wickedness and manipulation, proves to be Jesse’s most intimidating foe, due largely to her having trained him in the ways of thievin’ and deception, and therefore knowing how he thinks.
Will our heroes escape the clutches of Angelville? Will Cassidy ever find true love? Will Jesse ever, truly, do right by Tulip, before she decides to blast him to smithereens? And just where the &$#%@ is God anyhow? Preacher manages to keep us invested in this dark odyssey with humor, ingenuity and a fearless drive to be as weird and unpredictable as possible.