Review: ‘Preacher’ begins moving things forward with ‘He Gone’

A review of tonight's Preacher coming up just as soon as I think your favorite movie star is Ryan Phillippe…

“I didn't mean to. I said the words, and he was gone.” -Jesse

Now that was more like it.

Last week's episode, you may recall, left me frustrated with Jesse's stubborn refusal to move off his plan to save Annville, since the town and its people didn't seem worthy of the show's fuss. “He Gone,” though, turned its gaze largely on Jesse himself, filling in a lot of his backstory (and showing how far back he and Tulip go), demonstrating how he's always struggled to balance his good and bad impulses, and also showing just how the combination of his new power, his upbringing, and his general arrogance has made him unable to get off the current path, even after he banished Eugene to Hell.

It's a dark place to take our hero this early in the series, especially since the only other version we've seen of him so far is the bored and ineffectual preacher of the early episodes. But Jesse's megalomania, and everyone else's response to it, gives “He Gone” a tension and focus that the season has sorely lacked at other times. It's also brought unexpected new sides out of some of the supporting characters, whether Emily getting her spirit crushed by Jesse's cruelty, or Sheriff Root's vulnerability as the search for Eugene dragged on, or, especially, Cassidy turning out to be the unlikely conscience of this whole operation, pushing Jesse to not only acknowledge Eugene's disappearance, but do something about it. Their confrontation outside the church was the most memorable moment of the series so far to not involve massive amounts of ultra-violence, though it does climax with Cassidy letting his whole body light on fire as he waits to see if Jesse will save him. And it's a mark of the creative team's diabolical nature that Jesse's choice is left entirely a mystery for the rest of the episode.

But if Jesse refuses to verbally acknowledge what he did to Eugene, he's also clearly shaken by it. He doesn't use the Genesis power on the congregation the way it seemed he was going to, and his later encounter with Odin Quincannon suggests Genesis didn't work at all on old Odin. (Though it remains entirely possible that this is once again the literal interpretation of Jesse's command being different from his intention; Odin agreeing to serve God isn't the same as Odin agreeing to be a Christian.) His best friend (even if they've only known each other for a few weeks) is a vampire, he's just accidentally damned his most eager parishioner to Hell, and none of it is going right. It's him reliving his father's death – and the way he wished for it, just like he wished Eugene to Hell – all over again. It's a time of great doubt for the Reverend Jesse Custer, even as he knows he has inside of him the greatest power in the history of the universe. 

Those flashbacks were particularly helpful, not just because they filled us in on how far back Jesse and Tulip go, and how deep their bond was even as kids, but because they do a necessary job of contextualizing Jesse's stubbornness when it comes to Annville. This job may not be the right one for him, and the town may not be worth the amount of time the show is spending on it, but you can see in Jesse's guilt over his father's death why he might one day feel so compelled to fill his shoes and complete his mission, just as you can see the ways that John Custer's less admirable qualities – particularly his high-handed judgment of other people, even his son's best friend – have filtered into his son every bit as much as his wisdom about how important it is to be a good guy.

Plot-wise, significant things happened here: Jesse learned Cassidy's secret, and Odin sent his whole army (led by Donny in his Confederate battle costume) to the church to seize what he feels is now rightfully his. But the most important thing “He Gone” accomplished was to deepen our understanding of the title character, and why he and the show are on this current path.

Other installments have had bigger highs, thanks mainly to the action sequences, but this was easily the most satisfying one in terms of functioning as an episode of a television show that feels like it could run a while.

Some other thoughts:

* A telling moment from the flashbacks: while young Jesse is losing his mind at the thought of Tulip being taken away by social services, Tulip just stares straight ahead. She's already been through more than he has, and has been made tougher and colder by it.

* The explanation for how Eugene ended up looking and talking this way, and how Tracy Loach ended up in her condition, more or less fits what's been implied so far. But it doesn't get into how Eugene isn't locked up in either a juvenile facility, an adult jail, or a mental hospital after what he did to Tracy.

* Tulip doing barefoot parkour to rescue her uncle's pants felt mainly like an excuse to put an action sequence in an episode that was mainly conversational, but it was also a nice reminder not only of her skillset, but how much she feels those skills are being wasted folding chairs at the church.

* Cassidy's hatred of The Big Lebowski is a good running gag, but his complaints about the nonsensical plot just being lazy could also be read as a meta comment on a show that so far has often gotten by more on style than on narrative coherence.

* A small but telling detail from the Jesse/Tulip flashbacks: young Tulip once bit off Donny's nipple.

* The man who kills John Custer has the same tattoo on his arm that the adult Jesse has on his back.

What did everybody else think?

Alan Sepinwall may be reached at