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Preacher’s second season found its voice and became one of the best shows of the summer

AMC’s drama is building a good TV show from the outside in. It’s fascinating.

Jesse Custer threatens his girlfriend’s husband. Preacher is one of those kinds of shows, yeah.
Emily St. James was a senior correspondent for Vox, covering American identities. Before she joined Vox in 2014, she was the first TV editor of the A.V. Club.

Every Sunday, we pick a new episode of the week. It could be good. It could be bad. It will always be interesting. You can read the archives here. The episode of the week for July 16 through 22 is “Dallas,” the fifth episode of the second season of AMC’s Preacher.

Preacher is a curious beast of a show. I wrote in its first season that the AMC series sometimes seemed to be composed entirely of cool moments, as opposed to stories. But it was able to get a surprising amount of mileage out of that, only really running out of gas late in its first season.

It’s adapted from an acclaimed series of comics, but it makes changes to them all over the place, sometimes seemingly for little to no reason. In season two, it’s adapted a travelogue structure that has it winding its way across the southern half of the United States, seeking an absent God, who turns out to be a big fan of jazz. (Right now the characters are camped in New Orleans, because if you’re looking for a jazz fan...)

Oh, and there’s an entire parallel storyline set in hell, which in the Preacher universe is an overcrowded prison crossed with an ’80s high school movie (in that there are bullies and sweet, misunderstood nerds and so on).

But what’s most exciting about Preacher in season two is that it seems to have realized, abruptly, that it can’t just coast off the reputation of its source material. It’s trying to retrofit character dynamics into its already existing structure — like building a car from the outside in. I have no idea if it will end up working, but I’m thrilled watching it try. It’s unexpectedly become one of my favorite shows of the summer.

“Dallas” digs into the show’s central trio with often terrific results

Tulip can never seem to stop getting into terrible situations.

In its first season, Preacher’s central three players weren’t so much characters as they were attitudes. Jesse Custer, the show’s titular preacher, played by Dominic Cooper, was troubled but trying to do good. His ex-girlfriend Tulip (Ruth Negga) was a badass. And his new vampire pal Cassidy (Joseph Gilgun) was all snark and strut, more of a cool walk than a full-fledged character.

This wasn’t the fault of any of the actors, who were all good. It was that the show was asking them, often, to play figures who were at the mercy of a plot that always signaled it was heading somewhere without actually doing so. In particular, the series needed Tulip and Cassidy to spin their wheels before it could send them on the road alongside Jesse.

The first season finale ended up feeling like a cruel joke, killing off almost all of the series’ supporting characters while the central three hit the road. It was as if the show, which had struggled to establish most of those supporting players in the first place, was thumbing its nose at any viewers who’d dared to become invested in any of them.

But it also gave the series a clean slate. For as many changes, big and small, as Preacher has made to the comics, it couldn’t escape that the books are, fundamentally, a road trip story about examining America and Christianity at the heights of decadence for both. Thus, the simple act of sending the show on the road has snapped much of what wasn’t working about Preacher into place.

It’s also given the central three characters actual people to play, instead of blanks to be filled in later. Jesse’s quest to find God might seem slightly inexplicable at times, but the show is careful to always give it just enough justification, like it’s laying the tracks exactly as the train is barreling down over it. And because Tulip’s in the car, the show has to justify why she and Jesse are so drawn to each other. And because Cassidy’s in the car, he has to become something other than the snarky one-liner guy, which has given him more of a soul.

This has rarely been more apparent than in “Dallas,” which is in some ways the best episode the show has done yet. It’s mostly a three-character piece among the central trio. Other characters pop in and out, sure, but the episode is careful to examine each leg of the main triangle with a close, clear eye. Jesse, having learned Tulip got married in the three years the two were broken up, strings up her mobster husband, Viktor, in a harness hanging from the ceiling, with the implication that he might just get around to killing the guy. Meanwhile, Tulip tries to save the life of a husband she doesn’t love anymore, while Cassidy tries to manipulate the situation to his advantage (since he, too, is a little in love with Tulip — but who wouldn’t be?).

This breaks the episode, in essence, into three stories, one focused on the Jesse-Tulip relationship, one on the Jesse-Cassidy relationship, and one on the Tulip-Cassidy relationship. It’s darkly funny, as the show always is, but it also went a long way toward convincing me these characters had actual feelings and emotions and stuff.

“Dallas” is a breakup story couched in something darker

The best genre stories are almost always some recognizably universal human story in a glossier costume. Star Wars is about wanting to get away from home, for instance, while Lord of the Rings is about wanting to get back to it. Frankenstein is about the desire to leave a legacy via one’s children. And so on.

Now, of course, you don’t look at any of those stories and think about that side of them first. You think of the spaceships or reanimated corpses, and maybe then you get into the emotional content. But a genre story without that emotional content is often a big, empty shell. It might be fun to look at, but you tire of it after a while.

That, I think, is why Preacher’s first-season approach eventually drove me away. The smart thing season two has done is subtly reconfigure itself as a story about a busted love triangle among friends. Even the search for God (which is theoretically relatable) has taken a back seat to the pining that exists in that car, where Jesse and Tulip can never quite be sure of each other, while Cassidy is always looking for his way in.

Earlier versions of Jesse and Tulip find their relationship slowly fraying.

The first few episodes of season two kept this a little buried beneath big, showy action sequences and that depiction of hell as a bureaucratic nightmare. But the show kept turning to scenes of Jesse and Tulip alone together in a hotel room at night, having to deal with the fact that they’d somehow found their way back to each other and were living in the “now what?”.

In particular, “Dallas” reconfigures the idea that Tulip and Jesse broke up because she suffered a miscarriage during a criminal job carried out in the titular city, refining that into the idea that the two broke up because they didn’t quite know where to place their sadness in the wake of that miscarriage. Jesse sank into drinking and general lethargy, while Tulip tried to go straight before drifting back to criminality. He left to become a preacher; she left to sink back into her old life. The miscarriage didn’t break them up — it just made it easier for them to see the fissures already there, which having a baby might have forced them to ignore.

The series accomplishes this via a number of flashbacks to the two’s time in the wake of the miscarriage, along with several montages of the monotony of Jesse’s life in that time: more beer, more sex with Tulip, more failed pregnancy tests. The couple’s job became staying together, until both realized they didn’t much enjoy that particular job anymore.

Now that they’re back together, things have changed. For one, Jesse’s been granted the superpower of being able to, godlike, command people to do his will, thanks to the fact that he possesses a supernatural being known as Genesis. Tulip asks him not to, but when he learns about Viktor, he uses that power everywhere — even on her eventually. Yes, “Dallas” ends with the two of them back together, but it’s also constantly planting the seeds of their destruction.

Any good relationship will have a tough period, somewhere where it seemed like things might fall apart, or where they actually did. To love someone after that happens is an act of faith on the part of both partners, a hope that things will be okay, even if there’s ample evidence to the contrary.

When trying to get Jesse to kill Viktor (and thus break up him and Tulip), Cassidy suggests that there’s nothing that could keep Jesse and Tulip apart, that they’ll always find their way back to each other. That Jesse doesn’t kill Viktor indicates that he’s not so sure, that he, on some level, knows better. There are sins even she can’t forgive.

Preacher airs Mondays at 9 pm Eastern on AMC. Previous episodes are available on Hulu and the AMC website.

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