Synopsis of 1×10: Jesse prepares to summon God to Annville and finds Heaven in crisis. A long-simmering disaster finally visits the city. Jesse, Tulip, and Cassidy hit the road looking for deific answers.
During and immediately after my graduation from college, I worked as a bartender at any hole in the wall refuge for day drunks, would be Billy Joel-s and stool-bound storyteller that would have me. The thing most people don’t expect about bartending is how much of the job is just listening, letting a regular spin a story of woe, playing off a loose-lipped drunk as you chase a big tip or just chatting with the occasional interesting patron. It’s something that I’ve always connected to in writer Garth Ennis’ work.
One of the thematic constants in his comics is the bar, the gathering place. Ennis is obsessed with the way people change or become themselves with a drink in front of them and someone listening. He’s fascinated by telling those stories, tales of lost love, moments of compromise and weakness, and finding a little connection in the moments you find in passing with a stranger.
One thing I’ve wondered since Evan Goldberg and Seth Rogen announced they were adapting Preacher for the screen was, quite simply, “Why?” What about Ennis’ most iconic comic, one of the most recognizable creator owned comics of all time, emblematic of Vertigo’s ‘90s renaissance, was irresistible to these two creators who are synonymous with improv-dominated comedy?
The thing about adapting Preacher is that it’s impossible to ignore the authorial voice of Ennis and the artistic flourishes of Steve Dillon. It’s, top to bottom, more than any of the pair’s other collaborations, a product of a lived-in vision.
You get the sense reading Preacher that despite the rapist vampires, angels of immortal vengeance, BDSM-obsessed detectives and castrated assassins of the faith, the two were creating comics about people they knew, experiences they’ve had. These are people they met over a pint, shared shots with and, more important than anything else, listened to.
I don’t get that sense from Goldberg and Rogen and I think the first season finale of Preacher, “Call and Response,” showcases that failing. More than anything, It’s a finale that exists only to move soulless, characterless chess pieces around an empty board. Saying it’s scene-setting would give too much credit. Claiming this is tying up loose ends is an insult to every ruined rug cluttering up a messy floor.
It’s an episode that exists solely to put the show on the course it should have been on in the first place and to do it, it kills everyone with a fart. For all the work sketching out a cast of masochistic lovers, bible-thumping single moms, morally tortured sheriffs, castrated meat processors, grieving fathers consumed with evil, and high school mascot obsessives, in the end they’re revealed as just that, sketches, ready to be crumpled up and thrown in the trash as soon as they’re unnecessary.
The final minutes of “Call and Response” don’t feel like a promise that everything’s changed, they feel like a middle finger to viewers who’ve sat through nine hours of subpar, would-be prestige TV to find themselves only just getting to the premise.
Maybe it didn’t have to be that way. There are flashes here of cleverness. Jesse fumbling with the angel’s box as he tries to contact God is a genuine laugh line and the implication that he and Tulip lost a child as a result of Carlos’ actions during the heist is an interesting twist on how the pair’s relationship crumbled.
There’s even some good stuff with Cassidy and Sheriff Root, as the vampire tortures and teases the officer with bits and pieces of the grand revelation. Those individual moments can’t delay the inevitable though.
The first season of Preacher was structured not unlike a Netflix hour-long drama. It’s clearly intended to be binge watched so it’s uneven pacing and dependence on big moments can be smoothed out over a couple of lazy days of viewing.
Hell, maybe it plays better that way. Maybe the subplot about the methane reactor feels a little more organic instead of being the only occasionally acknowledged deus ex machina that it is in the finale. Maybe it makes the death of everyone in Annville feel like the punch line it seems to be intended to be instead of a slap in the face.
It’s honestly hard to tell how exactly we’re supposed to feel as we get to the conclusion of the season. On the one hand, it mostly puts Jesse, Tulip, and Cassidy into the position they find themselves in the fourth issue of the comic, leaving a destroyed Annville in search of an absent God. For fans of the book, like myself, this should be a minor victory.
On the other, the show’s greatest strengths have been apparent only when forging its own path and identity. Jesse’s ambivalent relationship with faith and fate and big questions about the nature of God’s judgement weren’t the flashiest plot points but they were interesting questions, ones that weren’t confronted in the book. There’s real meat there, a chance to examine how a man with the power to speak for God decides whether or not he has the right to do so is fascinating and rarely trod territory. For much of the first 10 episodes, it seems like that’s the major question Goldberg and Rogen are interested in asking.
But here, in the finale, it’s abandoned, killed off just as Emily, Odin, Donny, Root, and so many others are and again, I’m left only with the question of “Why?” If Rogen and Goldberg were so fascinated with the questions of faith and free will, why abandon them here? If they spent so much time making us care about Emily, why have her lose her faith in God and then die with her children? If we’re finally supposed to sympathize with a newly saved Donny, why leave him questioning moments before his death? Why, only now, 10 hours after we started with this show, do Goldberg and Rogen finally take the comic as an influence and start moving that way?
There’s no real answer to be had but it all comes back to empathy, to finding a connection. There’s no sense as the season closes that the creators saw these characters and moments as anything other than means to an end, boxes to be drawn and crossed out as soon as they ceased being useful.
I don’t get the sense that Rogen or Goldberg care in the same way that I don’t get the sense that Jesse, Tulip or Cassidy really care about finding God and answers. There’s no sense that they really care so much as they’re following a script, doing what’s demanded of them and little more.
For a show based on a book so obsessed with listening, so obsessed with stories and the people who tell them, it’s a failure of the highest order.