Synopsis of 1×1&2: Jesse Custer tries to inspire a flagging congregation in Annville, Texas when he’s visited by his ex, career criminal Tulip, who wants to call him back for one last job. Irish vampire Cassidy flees to Texas after escaping a pack of holy slayers who continue to hunt him. After a final prayer, Jesse discovers he can command people with the Voice of God and begins to ponder whether he can finally impact real, divine change.
It’s impossible to overstate how important Garth Ennis is in comics’ evolution from the Bronze Age of the mid-to-late-‘80s to the modern age in 2001. Blending the violence, maturity, sexual frankness, and deliberate imagery of the Reagan years with a Tarantino-esque eye on action cinema and an irreverence all his own, Ennis redefined comics as a monthly blockbuster delivery system, aiming for a generation of readers weaned on Schwarzenegger flicks, GI Joe action figures and arcades wreaking with cigarette smoke.
The thing about Ennis though is he’s such a writer defined by the decade he came to prominence. His best comics, Hitman, Punisher and Hellblazer, not only depend on the era’s aesthetics but are built on the fears, attitudes and zeitgeist of those years in the United States and the UK. The comic Preacher, written by Ennis with art by Steve Dillon, is no different.
It’s a comic about the new culture war, about Y2K and churches coming under siege by a seemingly omniscient government. It’s both a condemnation of the so-called conservative “silent majority” as well as a celebration of the cowboy politics of the Cold War operators. It’s a comic about American exceptionalism and about the shattered image of traditional masculinity from the eyes of the children of Vietnam. Just by the nature of the year in which it exists, the TV adaptation of Preacher can’t be those things.
And that’s not a bad thing. Arguably, it’s something the show addresses from its first moments. Here, Jesse Custer isn’t the dead man walking, destroyed by his inability to save a sinful flock. He’s an incompetent and a drunk, barely keeping his most self-destructive impulses in check and unwilling to make the changes that could save Annville. It’s a fundamental change to the character but not necessarily a bad one.
In the first two episodes, “Preacher” and “See,” the show reorients itself around a flawed but headstrong man rather than a destroyed one. The show revels in the idea of Jesse as a man divided. He wants to save his city but he feels that his own sins hold him back, creating a self-prophetic cycle of self-loathing and failure.
Into that world enters Tulip. Like Jesse, she’s fundamentally different than the character she is in the comics, here a career criminal on a mission rather than a spurned ex with a bullet and bone-to-pick with a man that left her high and dry. The only problem here is that without that desire for revenge, she’s sort of lacking some motivation here.
Ruth Negga portrays Tulip primarily as a temptress, trying to recruit Jesse into one last job in the pilot before attempting to seduce him in “See.” It’s not entirely unsuccessful but it flattens a character whose arc works best when it reinforces her relationship with Jesse as one of mutual desire.
Cassidy is the closest to his original incarnation. Portrayed by Joseph Gilgun, Cassidy retains the hyper-literate, borderline inscrutable Irish accent and live-wire lust for life, sex, consumption, and violence that makes the character work in the comic. His arrival into the series is where the show starts to dramatically alter his identity.
Here, he’s on the run from a group of seemingly immortal vampire hunters instead of being the mostly incidental hanger-on he starts as in the comic.
Cassidy’s introduction in the comic is part of the series overall aesthetic in that a certain flatness to the world and its violence is designed to highlight the supernatural and divine insanity of vampirism, demons, and the Voice of God.
The show takes a different approach. The violence is stylized with an inch of its life. Tulip is introduced in an over the top car-crash turned shooting turned fatal stabbing turned helicopter attack and Jesse’s balletic bar fight in the pilot feels more like the John Wick ripoff that it is than the bare-knuckle brawling that the comic was built on. This is going to be one of those things that’s going to bother hardcore fans of the comics more than viewers of the show but it stands out oddly.
The portrayal of the Voice of God is much the same way. It’s a power that works best when it doesn’t have to be too heavily explained. Here in the show, we actually have to hear it and it mostly works. The scene in the pilot where Jesse convinces a parishioner to confront his controlling mother is a little silly but him bellowing “quiet” and torturing a pedophile in “See” works much better. It’s appropriately commanding and it’ll be interesting to see how and if the show uses it in some of the most iconic scenes from the book. I, personally, am excited for “Miss.”
The scenes with the Voice of God show a little about the show’s approach to Jesse’s ability. The comic portrays the voice as something vaguely horrific. Jesse often underestimates what exactly he’s capable of when speaking for the almighty and has to live with the repercussions.
The show, however, uses it like a superpower. Both of the first two episodes treat Jesse’s use of the Voice as experimentation. He’s slowly learning what he’s capable of in a way that feels as familiar as Spider-Man trying to climb up a wall or shoot a webbing. For me, it’s a power that’s too potent to be treated so casually but the cliffhanger of “See” shows Jesse exercising his power with messianic imagery.
That scene, Jesse leaning over a comatose girl, drawing visual reference to the resurrection of Lazarus, is the scene in the first two episodes that best seems to point to the show Preacher is aiming to become. Preacher, as a comic, is a story primarily about the changing values of masculinity in the ‘90s as well as vulnerability and agency. It’s defined by Jesse’s gradual, incremental, frequently faltering ability to see the woman he loves as someone who doesn’t have to depend on him.
As it stands so far, Preacher, the show, is about one’s capability to inspire, redeem, and save his fellow man when he himself is defined by sin. It’s about temptation, self-loathing, anger, and male privilege and whether it’s possible to channel feelings of inadequacy to a more positive result. It’s a compelling base to build a show from, one that feels achingly relevant and essential in our media environment.