‘Preacher’ Heads Out ‘On The Road’ For An Action-Packed Season Two Premiere

Preacher is back for its second season. I published my overall thoughts on the early episodes on Thursday, and I have a review of the premiere coming up just as soon as I put you in a covered cage to cure you of the internet…

The instant “Come On Eileen” came on Tulip’s car radio early in “On the Road,” I knew some kind of ironically-scored action sequence was coming up — it’s part of both Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg’s directorial aesthetic for this show (remember the “You’re So Vain” car chase through the cornfield in the pilot?) and for a lot of filmed action post-Tarantino — and that it was likely to be fun. And, indeed, we very quickly got into a car chase between Tulip and the cops, shot through a grindhouse-y filter meant to evoke old film stock, complete with our three heroes all singing along lustily to Dexy’s Midnight Runners. But that chase scene is really just the set-up to the premiere’s real action centerpiece, as the Cowboy — who will be revealed later in the episode to be known as the Saint of Killers — finally catches up with his target and slaughters a bunch of cops trying to gun him down. It is, like the best action moments from season one, simultaneously thrilling and ridiculous, with a kind of Rube Goldberg quality to the way the carnage keeps on going and going — Cassidy using a corpse as a wheel stop to avoid being burned to death by direct sunlight, or Tulip having to (off-camera, thankfully) use another corpse’s bloody intestine to siphon gas for their getaway — and gets season two off to a very promising start.

But then, season one opened in similar fashion, also with visual games involving film stock and that trademark mix of comedy and gore (RIP, Tom Cruise). It wasn’t until we had settled in for a spell in Annville that the first season started to run aground creatively. So perhaps what’s most exciting about “On the Road” isn’t the big shootout, nor even the way Cassidy’s brawl with the strip club bouncer takes place mainly on the monitors while Jesse and Tulip are interviewing the manager(*), so that it becomes a background gag until the bouncer’s stray bullet flies through the wall and kills her.

(*) It’s a smaller-scale version of the pilot leaving the cellar door closed so we don’t actually see Tulip shoot down the helicopter with her improvised bazooka. Much less money was likely saved in this instance, but it’s another example of the show being smart in how it can approach violent scenes from very oblique angles.

No, what’s most exciting about “On the Road” is how confident and focused the episode seems even when bullets aren’t flying and tongues aren’t being ripped out of the mouths of poor bewitched witnesses.

As big a problem as Annville itself was in parts of season one, nearly as big was the fact that Jesse, Tulip, and Cassidy were so often separate, and/or working at cross purposes. The chemistry between the three stars is one of the show’s best assets, and as with a lot of recent TV dramas that did a lot of narrative throat-clearing early on, things are almost always more interesting once the protagonists start working together. They’re not all entirely on the same page here — Tulip still seems skeptical about the search for God, even though she believes in, and doesn’t like, Jesse’s ability to use the Word of God on people(*), and Cassidy is just along for the ride with his mates — but they’re traveling together, with the same rough goal in mind, and at the moment the show feels much more of a piece than when the three of them were scattered around Annville, each pursuing a separate agenda.

(*) Tulip’s request for Jesse not to use the Word so much has some plot utility — at the moment, the show is a mystery about God’s whereabouts, and imagine how much less interesting a traditional mystery would be if the detective could compel every witness to do whatever he asked — but also acknowledges, as her response to their forced kiss last season did, that the Word is kind of an awful power for anyone to have, even someone as relatively well-meaning as Jesse Custer. Look at what happens to the poor gas station clerk when he couldn’t tell the Saint about Jesse, all because the Word had made him pretend the trio were never there.

As they’re preparing to say goodbye to Jesse’s preacher mentor Mike, Jesse even comments that their search for God is beginning to seem too easy. Things get complicated once their strip club visit turns deadly, but the pace overall also feels brisker, as if Sam Catlin and everyone involved recognized that they had three fun characters played by terribly charming actors, and best to let them interact as much as possible, while moving forward as quickly as possible with the story already, up to and including the Saint catching up with Jesse pretty quickly while Jesse is enjoying a post-coital smoke outside his hotel room.

It’s a very welcome pivot from last season — an entire hour where I felt like I was enjoying Preacher more for what it was than for my hopes of what it could be, with occasional bits of realized potential sprinkled throughout. A good start, and I liked tomorrow night’s episode (the show’s first in its new Monday at 9 timeslot) even more.

Some other thoughts:

* The episode ends with a title card paying homage to Preacher comics artist and co-creator Steve Dillon, who died in October from complications of a ruptured appendix. The shootout between the Saint and the cops featured a very clear and disgusting homage to one of Dillon’s visual signatures, as one of the Saint’s bullets blew the top of a cop’s head clean off, as often happened to characters on the page. For example:

* With Jesse and Tulip a couple again, we get some more enlightenment about the nature of their relationship, including the fact that both enjoy a bit of violent foreplay, as she invites him to literally punch his way into the bathroom so they can start fooling around. As we saw with Donnie and Betsy Schenk last season, this show is in favor of rough play before and during sex, so long as it’s consensual.

* Hey, it’s Glenn Morshower — aka Aaron Pierce from 24, Landry’s dad on Friday Night Lights, and so many more (including a recurring role at the moment on Showtime’s I’m Dying Up Here — as Mike). Morshower tends to play intensely-serious men, but his delivery also works well for dry humor, which “On the Road” took advantage of as we learned that Mike isn’t a kidnapper or serial killer, but someone who uses extreme methods to help his parishioners break their addictions.

* Note how Jesse’s face darkens when the subject arises of his mother’s place of origin. We’ve heard an awful lot about his father so far, including several flashbacks, but nothing much on her til now.

Finally, I’m going to try something new this year. For the most part, my goal is to treat Preacher as the TV show it is, rather than a never-ending list of deviations from the comics. That said, when it’s applicable, I may put a bullet point or two at the end of a recap noting a difference I found interesting. If you don’t care about the comics, you can just stop reading now; think of it like the notes for veterans at the end of my The Wire rewinds.

* So there are two significant changes here with the Saint, one of which giveth, the other of which taketh away. In the comics, his guns are enchanted so that his bullets never miss, even if they have to go through walls, tank armor, etc., in order to hit their target, where in the shootout with the cops and Jesse, he misses a few times. This takes away one of the cooler aspects of the Saint on the page, but he’s still extremely formidable, and it gives the shootouts a slightly more chaotic feel that suits Rogen and Goldberg’s style. And as if to compensate for watering down one of his powers, Catlin’s script in turn makes him seemingly immune to the Word of God, when this is how Jesse is able to stop the Saint when they first meet in the comics. It probably evens out in the end, but we’ll see how things go.

* Also, the comic didn’t tend to have Tulip or anyone else question Jesse’s use of the Word quite as much, even though he occasionally used it to do monstrous things. I think the show is smart to do it, because it just feels grosser when a flesh-and-blood person is doing it than when a comic book character is.

What did everybody else think?

Alan Sepinwall may be reached at sepinwall@uproxx.com