Synopsis of 1×7: Jesse reckons with his guilt and power after sending Eugene to hell. Cassidy questions Tulip and Jesse’s futures as the two settle into roles in Annville. Quincannon makes good on his threat to take the Custer property.
During bible-study rehearsal for a dramatization of the fall of the city of Sodom, Jesse’s unhappy with the jovial, comedic performance. Feeling guilt over what he’s damned Eugene to and wrestling with the nature of his own soul, he offers direction, saying, “They should be scared. The world’s ending. They’re terrified. Otherwise, who gives a shit?”
It’s a scene meant to show Jesse’s moral ambivalence, his reckoning with both the guilt over the damnation he’s wrought as we see his feelings that he’s finally capable of dispensing God’s justice on Annville. The scene requires a larger reading of its past however, both the knowledge of what Jesse’s wished on those closest to him, as well as context of the Old Testament God who would damn a city of thousands for its sins.
“He’s Gone” is an episode mostly consumed with its characters trying to gain a better view of their futures by wrestling with their pasts. Cassidy can’t help but dwell on his one-sided attraction with his best-friend’s girl, Tulip’s stuck reckoning with her familial obligations and how much longer she can stay in an old role and relationship without fulfillment, and Jesse’s consumed by memories of his father and his childhood with the woman who wants to save him.
Are we supposed to like John Custer? It’s a complicated question. Within the show’s universe, John’s been characterized solely as a harsh disciplinarian, a overwhelming force attempting to present a front of wisdom, control, and piousness in a community that denies the same forces. As it stands, it’s a fair point of comparison for Jesse, making both individuals more driven than appearances than action, desperate to present an image rather than keep up one. Contextually though, it’s less successful.
I don’t love to compare the show to the book, particularly because Preacher holds off on the revelations about Jesse’s upbringing until the third story arc, but there, John’s presented as an individual defined both by guilt and a refusal to accept the fate chosen for him. He’s desperate to escape the life his family has been forced into, unwilling to bend to the expectations that have been placed on him and resolute in his refusal to compromise his morals for someone else.
Garth Ennis and Steve Dillon present John as an aspirational figure but also a profoundly flawed, even pitiful one. He’s the man who sets Jesse on the path that will make him a killer and criminal but he’s also the one who installs a set of morals in the boy whose life is all but set in servitude. He’s a complex figure that we only really get a full picture of in the last few issues of the series.
Now, it’s clear that the show is building to revelations about John’s true motives. The foreshadowing of his death and last words all but confirms the dark forces he’s attempting to hold back but it’s less intriguing than grating to see the way he’s presented here. Even the expanded version of his death we see in this episode’s finale only hints at his motives and characterization, what would lead him to become the man he is.
This incremental dripping presentation of Jesse’s backstory has made the flashbacks feel, well, a little bit unnecessary, soaking up time in a show that barely devotes the minutes to establish its core characters. It’s nice to have an episode that spends so much time establishing Jesse and Tulip’s past as well as the beginning of their relationship but it’s hard to view it as an unqualified success when the script is clearly designed to hold its cards extremely close to the chest.
Preacher has always been a show that’s withheld the juiciest, most compelling bits of its characters and stories though. See this week’s Quincannon story. Again, we get plenty of hints of Odin’s depravity, between his continued fascination with doom in his model of the Battle of Alamo and his fascination with what seems to be audio of sex and death.
This episode does finally get around to explaining his motives for murdering the developers way back in “South Will Rise Again” but it’s still keeping the nature of his character a secret. He makes big allusions to disastrous choices and moral failings in his past but little beyond whispers and hints. At this point, viewers have sunk damn near six hours into this show but it’s not devoting any time to spelling out answers or offering any sort of dramatic resolution.
“He’s Gone” is an episode that trades on short term character development and thrills. It lives and dies by its big moments, like Cassidy’s immolation, an army descending on an unguarded chapel, Jesse’s boiling rage, and Emily’s heartfelt almost admission of love for the man who’s increasingly defined her life.
There’s nothing wrong with this in the short term and, hell, The Walking Dead often felt like it built whole stories off little else, but for this show to really work, it’s going to need to build its characters at a steadier pace.