We’re three seasons into what some Ars Technica staffers consider the best TV show based on a DC Comics series: Preacher. The sacred and profane collide on a regular basis in this violent, cartoony adaptation of comics created by Garth Ennis and Steve Dillon in 1995.
Whether you’ve kept up with the series or are oblivious to its existence, Sunday night’s Season 3 finale had all the elements we’ve come to expect from this singular series: rollicking road trips, black humor, and lots of operatic, over-the-top violence in the form of gory slow-motion action sequences set to music. We got personal closure for our main protagonist and a few breadcrumbs to hint at a possible fourth season, despite that familiar mix of low ratings, critical accolades, and a fervent fandom.
(This article reveals major plot points of the first three seasons of Preacher, but it is mindful of spoilers in general, should you be interested in a recap but still want to preserve some surprises.)
If you haven’t been watching, here’s a brief summation. Based on the DC comic series created by Ennis and Dillon, Preacher follows the madcap adventures of Jesse Custer (Dominic Cooper of Mamma Mia and Captain America), the titular preacher (and former con artist) who inexplicably becomes the chosen host for Genesis, aka, the embodiment of the Word of God. This grants him the power to force people to do whatever he wants, including accidentally sending poor Eugene Root (Ian Colletti)—nicknamed “Arseface” because of a failed shotgun-suicide left him with a badly puckered maw—to Hell.
Jesse is joined in his misadventures by his childhood sweetheart and partner in crime, Tulip (Ruth Negga, Loving, Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.), and a hard-partying, sweetly profane Scottish vampire named Cassidy (Joseph Gilgun, Misfits).
In the first season, Jesse teamed up with Tulip and Cassidy against a pair of bumbling angelic agents—members of an organization called The Grail—sent to retrieve Genesis and bring it back to Heaven. When Jesse discovers that the actual God isn’t so much dead as missing, he hits the road with his crew to find Him. There’s nothing left for him anyway in Annville, Texas, since the town and all its inhabitants got blown to smithereens in the season finale.
Preacher and his gang end up in New Orleans for season 2, stalked by more Grail agents and a soul-less assassin dubbed the Saint of Killers (Graham McTavish, Outlander). God (Mark Harelik, Breaking Bad) is lurking in the basement of a disreputable jazz bar in the French Quarter, dressed in a dog costume. Word around the campfire is that He is on offer for the sexual pleasure of the bar’s more dubious clientele. A major loss in the season 2 finale drives Jesse back to his mother’s childhood home, Angelville, in season 3. He hopes his Gran’ma, Marie L’Angelle (a deliciously wicked Betty Buckley, Carrie, Split), can use her voodoo powers to remedy the situation—at a steep price.
Cassidy falls in with the Children of Blood, led by a charismatic bisexual vampire.
Preacher has always been a bit unfocused, with its quirky subplots and eccentric side characters. That’s part of its undeniable charm. Watching Adolf Hitler (Noah Taylor, Game of Thrones) help Eugene/Arseface escape from Hell, briefly work in a sandwich shop, and end up running Hell itself is entertaining, but it’s hardly central to the main story. The tight knit trio of Jesse, Tulip, and Cassidy was the glue that held the first two seasons together, but season 3 shows the bond fracturing, with each taking their own separate journey. That might be good for individual character development, but it weakens this season’s cohesiveness.
Cassidy has the most entertaining storyline. He finds his way back to New Orleans and falls in with a group called the Children of Blood, led by a charismatic bisexual vampire in the southern Gothic/Anne Rice vein called Eccarius (Adam Croasdell, Supernatural). Tulip’s thread is the weakest: she just seems to run off on tangents the entire season, a frustrating waste of Ruth Negga’s considerable talents. But watching Jesse confront his abusive past—the murders of his parents and being forced to run an underground Fight Club in the tombs for his grandmother’s many hapless victims—gives season 3 its emotional resonance. Defeating his father’s killer, Jody (Jeremy Childs, Nashville), in those very tombs is the best kind of poetic justice. (“Proud of you, boy,” a mortally wounded Jody mutters before dropping dead.) So is killing Gran’ma with her own soul-devouring machine, even if it might mean his eternal damnation, thanks to a last-minute deal she made with the Devil. Hitler’s now running things down there, though. So maybe Jesse can find a loophole.
Perhaps that’s why the final scene revealing The Grail’s big plan to take down Jesse once and for all feels like a bit of a letdown. The leader, Herr Starr (Pip Torrens, The Crown), has kidnapped Cassidy as bait—knowing Jesse and Tulip will try to rescue him—and he has amassed an army at Masada to greet them. But what’s an army compared to exorcising your personal demons by exacting revenge on the people who wronged you? That final scene is surprisingly restrained, given the explosive climaxes of the two prior seasons.
At least we finally get an explanation for why a deeply flawed small-town preacher like Jesse Custer got to be the chosen vessel for Genesis when so many other holy men exploded into bits when Genesis entered them. It turns out that Genesis is not purely divine, but a mix of good and evil that requires a vessel with precisely the same mix. Anything else and you’ve got a bloody mess on your hands.
Preacher has yet to be officially renewed by AMC for a fourth season, and ratings have declined compared to prior seasons. So perhaps that mix of closure for Jesse and set-up of a new story line was a way of covering the bases lest the series is cancelled. We hope it survives, because there’s nothing else quite like it on television. The show has its flaws, but Preacher leans into the crazy without apology, achieving a perfect tonal mix of horror, humor, and pathos. Long may Team Jesse ride.