‘Preacher’ goes to Hell, with a hell of a ‘Breaking Bad’ homage along the way

A review of tonight's Preacher coming up just as soon as I'm an architect in Hell…

“What do you have to be sorry for?” -Cassidy
“Plenty.” -Jesse

Late in “Finish the Song,” we begin seeing the start of the Cowboy's story all over again, and as the sequence moved from beat to beat through his trip to Ratwater and failure to save his wife and daughter, I began wondering if there was some new perspective on it that we were about to see, or if the show for some reason didn't trust its viewers to remember notable story points that happened a few episodes (or, in the case of the massacre that gives the episode its title, earlier in the hour). But then the sequence started over again, and again, and again, going faster for our sake, but clearly not for the Cowboy's, the point became clear, even before DeBlanc and Fiore walked in(*): for the Cowboy, this is Hell: being forced to relive the worst time in his life, and part of the reason he was damned in the first place, over and over again, without variation, without break, for all eternity.

(*) Also, the earlier scenes effectively leave things ambiguous over why the angels want to go to Hell, leaving open the possibility that they are planning to rescue Eugene in hopes of trading him for Jesse's cooperation.

It's a remarkable sequence, one of several dazzling ones sprinkled throughout the hour. On a show that's struggled at times with its pacing and focus, it runs exactly the right length, makes clear why this is all relevant (not only is the Cowboy a nearly supernatural killer – who doesn't even seem to need to reload to kill all the people in the bar – but he has good reason to despise any man wearing a preacher's collar), and moves the story forward.

It also neatly sums up an hour that finds many characters trapped in their own personal Hells – the angels unable to go back to Heaven, Cassidy unable to heal properly, the Seraphim incapacitated and needing to die so she can be reborn in a non-mutilated body, Root not knowing where Eugene is – hoping someone will offer them a way out like the angels do for the Cowboy. But not all of those stories are presented quite as well as the endless Ratwater loop.

In particular, Emily setting up Miles to be fed to Cassidy didn't work at all, not even with the “We're all in our private traps” scene from Psycho to prime her. The show has established that Emily views Miles as a utility – for both sex and babysitting – and little more, but it's also portrayed her as a fundamentally good person who represents a moral opposite from Tulip (and from Jesse, for that matter). Yes, she has just been shaken to her core by discovering that vampires are real, and that there's a very hungry one in the next room. And, yes, Miles' attitude about Jesse and the church would have been a massive turn-off to Emily. But to go from that to tricking the guy into becoming vampire food is a huge moral and emotional leap, and one the show didn't properly build to in the slightest, and I don't know what can be done with Emily after that. (For that matter, Jesse's cavalier attitude about the death of Miles – not a great man, but not a horrible one, either – isn't the best of looks for our man with the mantra about having to be one of the good guys, because there are way too many of the bad.) Since Emily was wholly invented for the show, Catlin, Rogen, and Goldberg have even more room to do whatever they want with her, but groundwork for this character turn needed to start being laid weeks ago.

On the other hand, Root euthanizing the limbless Serpahim (not realizing how much of a service he was doing for her) was an incredibly powerful moment, not only for the pained look in W. Earl Brown's eyes as the sheriff choked this woman out, but for the way the season had established the complicated and painful relationship between father and son. As the Serpahim pleaded for him to kill her, you could see Root thinking that everyone – Eugene included – might have been better off if the shotgun had done its job in the botched murder-suicide plan. Also, his earlier monologue to Jesse about what happens to child murderers in prison was a reminder that Sheriff Hugo Root spends a lot of time thinking about horrible endings and appropriate punishments for monsters. He found what he thought was a woman facing a future she didn't deserve, and decided to help her avoid it. (That the Seraphim doesn't let him see her standing behind him after she's reappeared is a kindness, whether she intended it that way or not.)

A lot of the episode involves characters moving around the board to get in position for the season's endgame next week, with Jesse stealing the phone to Heaven, which he will presumably combine with the Genesis voice to summon God to Annville, Tulip splitting town to go after Carlos, and the angels deciding to recruit the Cowboy to rid themselves of this meddlesome preacher. This has been a very imperfect season, full of lots of trial and error as the creative team tries to wrestle the source material to the ground and find a version that works on television. Hopefully, the payoff will be worth a lot of the hemming and hawing along the way.

Some other thoughts:

* Though set in Texas, Preacher films in Albuquerque, and this week paid homage to the first AMC series to be shot there, as the angels wait for the shuttle bus to Hell in front of the Bear Canyon Arroyo Spillway Dam, which is where Ed on Breaking Bad picked up clients who needed to be disappeared. The same dog even walks across the street! (You could also perhaps look on the angels flipping a coin to decide what to do as an homage, since Walt and Jesse made important early decisions via coin flip, but BB certainly didn't invent coin-flipping. And, of course, Albuquerque is where Tulip catches and prepares to torture the infamous Carlos.)

* This is also the second episode directed by ace former Breaking Bad director of photography Michael Slovis, who had fun not only with the massacre sequence, but the harsh yellow and then red filters in the scene where the angels walk through a downpour to the travel agency from Hell.

* DeBlanc and Fiore are a couple! A professionally ineffective couple, but a couple nonetheless. Even if Fiore was willing to sleep with the travel agent to get the job done.

* Some people asked last week why Tulip would murder a dog rather than give Cassidy blood from the hospital or another source. Here, we get the explanation: Cassidy was so badly injured that blood bags weren't doing any good. In this show's version of the vampire rules, the fresher the blood – and the higher up the evolutionary ladder – the more effective it apparently is.

What did everybody else think?

Alan Sepinwall may be reached at sepinwall@hitfix.com