In each of its first four episodes, Preacher was a different show. The pilot offered extreme sensory overload, with one delightful — and some might say incoherent — sequence after another, while Episode 2 coasted on good direction and that bonkers showdown between Cassidy (Joseph Gilgun) and Fiore (Tom Brooke) and DeBlanc (Anatol Yusef). The last couple of weeks, Preacher has dialed back the crazy pretty significantly, trying instead to establish characters, their relationships, and the larger world in which they live, to varying degrees of success (I preferred last week's "Monster Swamp"). By the end of Sunday's "South Will Rise Again," it's clear that Preacher will always be wrestling with all its interests, tonal swings, and voices, but this episode is the first that effectively meshed a mostly unified thematic story onto big, nutty moments.
Yet again, Preacher deserves credit for not over-explaining its plot. Even setting aside that extended opening sequence with the mysterious figure in the Wild West (that's the second time we've seen him, but there's no tangible connection to Jesse & Co. yet), the show continues to present significant events or changes without stopping to allow everyone to explain themselves. Nowhere is that better employed than with Jesse's (Dominic Cooper) power of persuasion. After using his abilities on Quincannon (Jackie Earle Haley) in church last week, Jesse was a sudden rock star in Annville. Word of his move on Quincannon spread so fast that teens were more interested in debating about their favorite gospel instead of using Snapchat; the Pope and his lame Twitter feed wishes he could be that cool.
Point is, "South Will Rise Again" was all about the spreading influence of Jesse and his powers, but that didn't require Preacher to describe what those powers were — instead, the episode smartly demonstrated the pros and deadly cons of Jesse using them so liberally. For Jesse himself, the character's more egocentric and misguided tendencies started to show as he basked in the glory of his small-town popularity.
While it's surely true that Jesse wants to help the people of Annville and believes that ordering them into solving problems is a good thing, the episode also illustrated how much he loved the attention from his new fans. At the beginning of the episode, he blew off an attentive and doting Emily to rap with the teens about gospels. By the end? He just made Tracy's mom forgive an increasingly sympathetic Eugene (Ian Colletti) and lazily told other people at the diner what to do, either to get them out of his hair or simply to flex his supernatural muscles. That's not especially helpful or healthy, but it sure was easy.
Easy is what Jesse wants. Amid his salooning with the locals at the diner, Jesse had yet another spat with a still-frustrated Tulip (Ruth Negga), where he imparted to her the possibilities of changing from bad to good. Sure, Jesse chose to use his abilities "for good," in that he's not convincing people to kill themselves or manipulating a bank teller into giving him stacks of cash, but what he's doing is taking shortcuts. He wants to be good only because being bad didn't really work out, and definitely doesn't want to do the labor to actually be good.
As the episode displayed this overconfidence in Jesse, it simultaneously presented some of the more dangerous effects of his abilities on other people. "South" was wonderfully structured in this regard, going hard on Jesse thinking he's doing the right thing while poor Donny (Derek Wilson) descended into a sad sack of mushy feelings in the aftermath of his showdown with the good preacher a few weeks ago. Donny is a tool for sure, so it was amusing to watch him flail around trying to figure out exactly how Jesse convinced him to stick a gun in his mouth. These scenes also allowed the show to have at least one character ask questions about Jesse's abilities without having to take those questions too seriously, at least in the moment.
Likewise, our pleasure in Donny's emotional distress was smartly used as a bit of a distraction for the episode's big reveal in the final moments. Fiore and DeBlanc finally confronted Jesse for not coming to do the exchange — of course, he didn't know about it thanks to Cassidy — and had to break the news to him: it's not the Word of God working its magic inside of him and on other people. Predictably, and gleefully given this show's tone, the thing inside Jesse is much more insidious and unstable than the Word of God.
And then Preacher immediately depicted just how insidious and unstable. Quincannon, who earlier in the episode demonstrated real change from Jesse's manipulation, suddenly flipped a switch back from good to VERY BAD, executing the four representatives from Green Acres, the eco-friendly company championed by the mayor, with a high-powered firearm. It was exactingly shocking, brutally violent, and perfectly, weirdly performed by Jackie Earle Haley. So, you know, the best kind of Preacher sequence.
But it was even more than that because it felt of apiece with the story being told in the episode, as opposed to just a "cool" moment that the show's creative team crafted in a production meeting. Being cool is fine; being cool with a purpose is great.
Whether Quincannon's actions mean that Jesse couldn't actually influence him long-term or that Jesse's powers have secretly dire consequences, is a bit unclear, but productively so. I'm assuming it's the latter, or something close to that, but either answer helps personify the trouble with Jesse's formulating god complex. Furthermore, it uses the lack of clarity surrounding Jesse's abilities as a legitimate cause for everything that's happened in the last few episodes. It turns out, for instance, that forcing people to change without exactly knowing how you're doing it is not an effective way to help them.
Preacher reached its halfway point this week and "South Will Rise Again" felt like a purposeful pivot toward something new. After a flashy opening few weeks and a whole bunch of setup in the following two episodes, it's probably time for Jesse to learn some truth about what inside him, and to deal with the backlash of some of his manipulating of the Annville locals. The good news is that Preacher has illustrated with episodes like this that it can give us "answers" without relying too heavily on exposition, or toothless scenes of characters talking at one another. Just imagine what the show will do when it actually wants to reveal the big information.
Preacher airs Sundays at 9/8c on AMC.