The Preacher comic series, notoriously difficult to adapt, has flummoxed screenwriters and directors for over a decade. AMC’s latest effort puts page to screen once again, this time in the hands of Sam Catlin, Evan Goldberg, and Seth Rogen. The results may not satisfy the most die-hard comics purists, but the rest of us are in for a bloody good time.
*This review contains spoilers for episode 1×01.*
AMC’s Preacher has a lot going for it, from an immensely talented cast, to expert writing, to masterful cinematography. However, the main draw of Preacher will undoubtedly be its spectacular, blood-drenched action sequences. The ultra-violence of the show is beautifully choreographed and brilliantly filmed, blowing what could be gut-wrenching sequences of mutilation and death up to comic proportions, making them instead spectacularly entertaining. Fans of extreme violence are sure to be satisfied, and furthermore, those with more squeamish sensibilities might just find the exaggerated style of Preacher’s bloodbaths far enough removed from realism to be surprisingly enjoyable. The wild, no-holds-barred action is likely to become the central pillar of the show moving forward, but it is by no means the show’s only strength.
While Preacher’s pacing may seem unnecessarily slow to devotees of the comics, and impossibly breakneck to new fans, in fact, this episode is very deliberate in how it measures out its story. The introductions of Tulip (Ruth Negga) and Cassidy (Joseph Gilgun) provide exactly enough information about them to secure the viewer’s interest, while leaving much to be discovered in time. The unknown force possessing leaders of faith with disastrous results is entirely set-up for what would seem to be a promising pay-off down the line. And our central character, Jesse Custer (Dominic Cooper), is doled out to us gradually in small, very effective, spoonfuls.
When we first encounter Jesse, he is stammering out an under-rehearsed and fairly rote sermon to a small and uninterested congregation. For a preacher, he seems very out of place in the church. He is not teaching, he is not inspiring, and he seems to have no connection with the faith he is espousing. In short, he appears to be going through the motions, performing a clumsy imitation of what he believes a preacher should be. We quickly learn that he has come to this community to leave behind a past of violence and brutality. He seems to genuinely want to help people, and to find peaceful solutions to messy problems. But his drive to act as a force for good in the community is hampered by his ineffectual attitude. He has the will and the understanding to provide real help, but declines to extend himself to intervene in people’s lives. Instead, he stands by and offers himself as a sort of intermediary or sounding board and nothing more. He is “there” for people, but his weak attempts to help them are fruitless. There is mystery building here. Why did he feel called to become a preacher when he has no faith? Why has he dedicated himself to a non-violent life when he seems to have so little to offer as a man of peace? And slowly, deliberately, the pieces fall into place. We learn that Jesse has roots in this community, having grown up here with his father, who was a preacher before him. We come to understand that his father’s last request, before being murdered in front of him, was for Jesse to do good. His father, then, serves as his moral compass. The identity he presents as a preacher is not his own choice, but rather a tribute to a man he wants to honor. The picture of Jesse begins to resolve.
The final stage of our journey into the truth of Jesse Custer begins when his impotent efforts to save a woman and her child from her violent husband lead to a bar fight, in which Jesse’s attempts to turn the other cheek only exacerbate the situation. He snaps, and finally takes action, unleashing his darker nature on the man and his cronies, proving that despite his efforts, the only power he truly has is as a weapon. And what’s more: He loves it. For all he appears to be seeking salvation, he’ll never be able to leave his violent past behind. How can his desire to do good possibly compete with the rush of doling out Old Testament-style vengeance to the deserving?
The re-emergence of Jesse’s dark side makes his efforts to play the preacher unbearably hollow. If he can’t reject violence and find salvation himself, how can he possibly offer it to others? However, in his time of crisis he is visited by the same enigmatic force that has possessed and destroyed religious leaders all over the world, and rather than killing him, it instead gives him power: seemingly, the superhuman power of persuasion.
Jesse’s central conflict is established moving forward: He wants to do good, but he excels at being bad. Now that he has this enormous power, how will he use it? Will his father’s guidance be enough to keep him on the side of the angels, or will power corrupt?
This episode puts all its characters in place for the story to come, and has a hell of a lot of fun doing it. It reveals just enough about these people to get us hooked, but lays out of lot of mystery in the process. Who does Tulip do these jobs for? What exactly was Jesse and Tulip’s line of work before he gave it up? Who wants Cassidy dead badly enough to go to such elaborate lengths, and why? What is the force that has empowered Jesse? Where did that power come from, and why was he chosen? And if it was “God,” as the African preacher assumed before exploding, then what does it say that He selected someone with so much darkness and conflict within him to wield this power?
The series is not just a triumph of brutal action and fight choreography; it is set to tell a complex and fascinating story alongside the frequent bloodbaths. This is a show that is in complete control of the story it means to tell, despite its unusual pacing. With so many successful elements working together, it is well worth taking the journey with Preacher, wherever it may lead.