Modern TV shows usually approach penultimate episodes in one of two ways. On one hand, there's the method popularized by HBO dramas where all the significant action occurs in the second-to-last episode of the season, leaving the finale to address the fallout from that big climax. On the other hand, you have a more traditional build-up strategy, with the penultimate episode methodically moving the necessary pieces in place for a huge finale. Both techniques have their strengths and weaknesses, but Preacher just demonstrated that you can take the second track and still deliver a satisfying episode.

Without question, "Finish The Song" is a hour about positioning characters for the season finale. After three wonderful episodes in a row, this one might have felt a little slow or low-key, at least for the first three-quarters. Things in Annville seemed relatively subdued in the aftermath of Quincannon's (Jackie Earl Haley) assault on Jesse (Dominic Cooper) and the church, with both sides preparing for the upcoming Sunday showcase--where Jesse is reportedly going to renounce God--in their own ways. But that didn't prevent Preacher from handling some needed character business.

Tom Brooke as Fiore, Anatol Yusef as DeBlanc, <em>Preacher</em>Tom Brooke as Fiore, Anatol Yusef as DeBlanc, Preacher

Amid sending desperate teenagers to hell and being shot at by a meat man's personal army, Jesse also managed to lose everyone close to him. His burgeoning sense of self-worth and inability to apologize or be honest alienated Cassidy (Joe Gilgun), Tulip (Ruth Nega) and Emily (Lucy Griffith) all at once, and unintentionally strengthened the bonds between the three of them. As bad of preacher Jesse appears to be, he's even worse of a friend. Somehow.

Dominic Cooper as Jesse Custer, Ramona King as Jackie, Richard Levi as Nate, <em>Preacher</em>Dominic Cooper as Jesse Custer, Ramona King as Jackie, Richard Levi as Nate, Preacher

Given that he's essentially lost everything but Genesis, Jesse only has one way to go, and that's upward. "Finish The Song" was the start of his personal redemption and apology tour. He made things right with his BFF Cassidy, finally acknowledging that okay yeah, he probably shouldn't have let Cassidy sauté in the hot Texas summer sun out of spite. Meanwhile, Jesse dialed up the groveling with Tulip, sinking so low that he was willing to leave a voicemail to tell her "to the end of the world," yada yada.

If only it were that easy, however. Preacher did a great job illustrating the dysfunction in each of Jesse's relationships with these people, so it's only fair that some heartfelt-but-still-very-late apologies didn't suddenly fix everything. Cassidy's back, sure. But Tulip's frustration with Jesse spurred her to finally get revenge on Carlos on her own, a decision she's surely going to regret. Even if the trio is back on the same page in the finale, they're going to encounter some serious supernatural stuff; things are probably still going to get worse.

And Emily. Poor Emily. In an episode where the Annville scenes were otherwise just fine, Emily and Lucy Griffiths scored the standout moment. Emily, like Eugene (Ian Colletti), is a kind of sad normal person stuck in the middle of all these criminals, weirdos, and degenerates. At least Eugene got to go to hell! Finally fed up with Jesse, Tulip, Miles (Ricky Mabe) and the surreal reality of her life somehow involving feeding innocent pets to a recovering Cassidy, Emily lashed out in extreme fashion--tricking Miles into entering Cassidy's recovery/murder dungeon, killing the frumpy mayor in the process.

Emily's choice was exceptionally dark, particularly for a character who didn't ask for any of this vampire or Word of God stuff. On one hand, it suggests that Preacher is equal parts cynical and depressing in how it views the human condition. Even the selfless among us are eventually pushed to a breaking point, but leading a generally okay dude to murder is bleak.

On the other hand, it shows the impact of these bizarre events on normal people. Even "normal" characters like Jesse and Tulip seem to leave in a heightened version of reality, and as such, things like vampires or bounty hunters from heaven don't appear that insane to them. Emily is a woman of faith, a single mom with two jobs, who is just trying to make it through her admittedly cruddy life. Now all this odd stuff is happening on top of it? Nah. Enough is enough.

Lucy Griffiths as Emily, <em>Preacher</em>Lucy Griffiths as Emily, Preacher

If there's one thing Preacher has displayed in this first season, it's that no character is safe from terrible decision-making. All shows need characters to do bad or uncharacteristic things, but on Preacher those misguided choices quickly balloon into something especially ugly. For Jesse, it took a season's worth of poor calls and horrid consequences before he finally tried to shake out of it. Tulip is in the midst of a bad choice as we speak. It's only fair that Emily gets in on the action, and the show will surely put her through the ringer as a result.

The death of a tertiary character like Miles doesn't exactly match the thrills of recent weeks, but it was a noteworthy event that should mean big things for Emily, as soon as next week. It's exactly the kind of thing good shows do in a penultimate episode to suggest even more important events are coming right around the bend. For Preacher specifically, it's also a signal that the show is getting closer to moving beyond Annville--and lining up with its source material.

Speaking of the source material, the episode's most notable sequence brought Preacher a little closer to its comic origins. "Finish The Song" was bookended by another stop in Ratwater with The Cowboy, who finally dispatched of the mouthy, abusive ex-soldier from the saloon, and murdered the rest of the patrons for good measure.

But that was just the opening teaser. In what was yet another piece of evidence that proves Preacher is one of the most formally ambitious shows on TV, the final segment of the hour replayed the entire season's worth of Cowboy scenes--over and over, slower then faster, remixed ad nauseum until The Cowboy's tremendous despair and subsequent act of violence reached apex levels of discomfort.

W. Earl Brown as Hugo Root, <em>Preacher</em>W. Earl Brown as Hugo Root, Preacher

This wasn't just stylistic flash for flash's sake, however. Oh no. Instead, Preacher employed this strategy to visually signify The Cowboy's emotional and literal hell. He's been stuck in hell, replaying this moment over and over for only Lucifer knows how long. Now though, he has a new job: helping DeBlanc (Anatol Yusef) and Fiore (Tom Brooke) kill Jesse and, presumably, dispatching of Genesis.

For fans of the comic, seeing The Cowboy's pursuit of Jesse is probably a long time coming, even though it's still just episode nine. The book introduces The Cowboy in slightly different fashion, with him setting his sights on Jesse far earlier in the story. Cross-media comparisons are never especially helpful, but the show's introduction worked a little better for me, if only because of the fantastic sequence at the end of "Finish The Song." This show isn't that interested in explaining most things, but watching The Cowboy's cycle of hell throughout the season and then again in this episode definitely helped build his resume. I want to see him track Jesse, and you do too.

Still: The Cowboy's mini origin story was still a big set up for later. Darn good set up, but set up nonetheless. While Jesse and company are still trying to get it all together in Annville, this hulking murder machine is on his way out of hell to do what he does best: kill. Reuniting with friends is nice, but hell is literally breaking loose and coming for Jesse Custer. That's not good for him, but should make for a great season finale.

Preacher airs Sundays at 9/8c on AMC.