Better! Not perfect and still not up to the gold standard of AMC’s best, but Preacher (opens in new tab) is righting itself. The Possibilities, its third episode, finally takes all the weird atmosphere, humor, violence, and heart briefly glimpsed in earlier episodes and marries the lot to characters with more than one dimension. There are even hints of a bona fide plot. I wouldn’t say that Jesse Custer and his Texas town of supernatural cowboys, vampires, freaks, and killers is riding full tilt towards a specific destination yet, but at least it feels like it’s moving. Most important, in episode three we get a Tulip that is more than just a caricature. If it weren’t for the fact that Jesse was still such a dud, this would be a great episode.
The Possibilities opens with Tulip meeting an old acquaintance with a hilariously wrought loathing for her husband in Houston. Our regularly furious heroine has brought her friend some kind of mysterious package she’s exchanging for an address. When Tulip’s friend cryptically refuses to discuss the package’s contents and delivers it to a faceless gentleman in a white suit at a movie theater, it looks like Preacher is making the same mistake it made in week two. The (opens in new tab)from last week, mistaking mystery and odd characters for substance, is just a feint here. While we don’t get to find out who Spooky McSpookerson in the movie theater is--fans of the comic will certainly get the hint--this whole sequence does finally start to flesh Tulip out. She’s not just the show’s version of Harley Quinn, some violent madwoman with the quips; she’s driven by revenge and is getting tangled up in dangerous business she can’t even perceive.
While the episode shifts to Jesse exploring his new powers after a successful test run getting a comatose girl to open her eyes last week, let’s stick with Tulip for just a moment longer. Later in The Possibilities as she’s driving back to Annville from Houston, she’s pulled over for driving some 80 miles per hour over the limit. What in previous episodes would have likely turned into another scene of her shooting someone and saying something only mildly amusing, Tulip’s encounter with the state trooper turns into one of Preacher’s very best scenes yet. She readies her gun, but she readies another piece of gear before she starts to try and charm her way out of an arrest. Ruth Negga’s performance in this scene plain rooted me to my seat, every motion and glance perfectly nailing a character so adept at blending lies and the truth that it’s impossible to tell what’s real. There’s no question that she’s playing the Texas trooper for a fool, but it’s not clear at all if she’s lying. Comic fans may still be miffed that this isn’t the Tulip from Preacher’s pages, but this new character becomes fascinating to watch right here.
Tulip immediately becomes less engaging when she’s around Jesse Custer, though. Part of it is that the character is written in a way where her identity fades when she’s around him; when Tulip’s near Jesse, all that matters is getting him to do what she wants for the poorly defined plot. She’s a gear in a machine, not his former partner and lover. Compounding that problem is the charisma black hole that is the preacher himself. Three episodes in and we still have no idea who Jesse is. Given, he’s not supposed to totally know who he is either. Is he still a badass beating up bullies like he does in the first episode, the milquetoast man of God he’s constantly committing to becoming on screen, or something else altogether thanks to his new power to command people to do anything?
That identity conflict would be fascinating if it were actually born out in Dominic Cooper’s performance. Right now, Cooper seems to just be playing Jesse as a guy who suffers from irritable bowel syndrome rather than a haunted, reformed thug with inexplicable super powers. When he starts testing his abilities on Cassidy, forcing him to sing Johnny Cash and even try flying, it should be intoxicating. Yes, it’s funny to see an Irish vampire throw himself into a wall with the comic conviction of some crossed clone between Johnny Knoxville and Buster Keaton, but it should also be terrifying. Cassidy carries the comedy, but Cooper’s performance is impenetrable. What looks like an attempt at intensity and being power drunk just looks like he’s about to lose his lunch.
This is true even when he hits the road with Tulip. The info she got in the cold open--thankfully weaving its way back into the actual show unlike last week--is actually the address of Jesse and Tulip’s old partner in crime. He apparently did something so heinous that Tulip’s whole purpose at the moment is to kill him in the most gruesome way possible. Even Jesse is swayed to go with her after Cassidy reminds him that he apparently has the ability to make anyone do anything.
Their journey doesn’t have the sheer character power of Tulip’s run in with the law, though. Rather than two people with a ruined past they can’t help but think of fondly despite how bad it was, Jesse and Tulip come off like partners in a new improv group, awkwardly going back and forth trying to keep the scene afloat. When Jesse almost tells her about his powers in the parking lot of a gas station, it just feels awkward, devoid of the chemistry this two seemed to be developing in the pilot. When Jesse goes inside the station and is confronted by a gun-toting Donnie, the trounced bully from episode 1, Cooper’s version of ass-kicker just comes off like jerkishness crossed with the intestinally distressed bit from the powers experiments earlier on.
Jesse’s big moment here should be the scene where he finally connects, where the character finally comes into view like Tulip did, but it just doesn’t happen. This isn’t Dominic Cooper’s fault entirely. As his performance in Agent Carter proves, he has a serious capacity for charm. Preacher’s show runners need to write this character something that actually takes advantage of what their actor can do. Right now, powers or not, he’s just not a preacher worth listening to.