In the fourth and final season of AMC’s comic book adaptation Preacher, tough female lead Tulip O’Hare (Ruth Negga) is subjected to a Rorschach test psych evaluation. She tries her best to pass it, looking at each image and eagerly describing the grisly murders she sees in every inkblot. After she’s done, her kind doctor nervously explains, “The test results indicate that you’re an uninhibited deviant with a personality disorder prone to psychopathic outbursts. And a gun fetish. And unresolved abandonment issues.”
Tulip, who was painfully hopeful when talking about disembowelments and headshots a moment earlier, sinks into herself and acknowledges that the diagnosis fits. When the doctor tries to comfort her, she just gives him a sad little smile, like she’s trying to cheer him up. “It’s okay. Some people can’t be helped.”
The scene feels like a Monty Python skit with a heart, a lovely encapsulation of why Preacher has been such a wonderful show. It may also explain why the series has been largely ignored by critics and gradually abandoned by viewers. The setup for this scene — Tulip’s preposterous, hyperbolic blood-and-brains reactions to a simple association test — is an absurdist sketch comedy gag. But Negga is so fully committed to the bit that it doesn’t feel like a cheap punchline. It’s more like she’s coming to terms with the joke that is her life. Her combination of cynicism and sincerity, of ironically fantastic narrative and natural, nuanced acting, seems almost designed to alienate every potential audience.
Preacher is based on the famously profane Garth Ennis / Steve Dillon Vertigo comic about small-town Texas preacher Jesse Custer (Dominic Cooper) who’s inhabited by Genesis, the most powerful entity in the universe. Genesis gives Jesse the power of command, meaning he can make anyone who’s listening to his voice do whatever he says. Angry about how messed-up the world is, Jesse sets off on a quest with his girlfriend Tulip to find God and make him explain himself.
The comic was an exercise in blasphemous nastiness, and over four seasons, the television show has taken that foul baton and gleefully run with it. The first season ends with virtually every character dying in a giant fecal explosion when the safety systems malfunction at a pig shit management facility. One person who escapes is named Arseface (Ian Colletti) because his face, badly disfigured after a botched suicide attempt, looks like a giant anus. Meanwhile, God (Mark Harelik) has come to earth to listen to jazz and participate in unspecified sex acts while wearing a full-body dog fetish suit. In the fourth season, the gross-out humor doesn’t let up. Jesse’s vampire friend Cassidy (Joseph Gilgun) is captured and tortured by having his foreskin repeatedly removed. (Vampires regenerate.) The foreskin is then processed, packaged, and sold as a high-end anti-aging cream.
Preacher stages these kinds of nasty setpieces with a joyfully mean-spirited inventiveness. A recent episode opens with a pitch-perfect ad for that Cassidy-foreskin cream, complete with fashion-shoot gowns and a cutesy tagline. Asked what the secret for young skin is, the model whispers, “I’ll never tell.” Cut to Cassidy screaming as a machine like a grocery meat cutter circumcises him over and over. (Yes, there’s a shot of the bloody bits getting bagged up.)
In the comic, Jesse is a fairly typical tough guy with a code; he’s a sympathetic cowboy hero. In the television show, though, he’s a religious megalomaniac who is convinced of his divine destiny. He’s also a jealous, controlling boyfriend. He’s not very sympathetic. And that means that the main focus of identification in the series shifts to Cass and Tulip, who ends up trying to come to Cassidy’s rescue as Jesse, characteristically, skips out to pursue his own quest.
Gilgun is wonderful as Cassidy. He doesn’t play the vampire as a lovable rogue, but as someone pretending to be a lovable rogue. His true self-periodically shows through, with flashes of sadness, confusion, and murderous self-loathing. But Negga really steals the series. Strong female characters are generally unflappable badasses. Alternately, they go the Buffy the Vampire Slayer route, showing their vulnerability by agonizing about whether their strength makes them abnormal or unfeminine.
Tulip is different, though. She loves to fight and break things. She’s confident in her ability to beat the tar out of any antagonist. But at the same time, she’s deeply insecure about her own judgment and lovability. Her uncertainty and self-mistrust are subtly tied to racism. Jesse’s family despised Tulip’s, and that rejection still rankles. Also, Tulip’s father was killed by the police. She’s the product of a society that has sent her the lifelong message that she’s no good and that all her projects and dreams will end in failure.
Tulip has internalized that message, and she could easily succumb to despair. Negga lets the audience see her thinking about it. When Jesse leaves her, she’s not angry at him (as she should be), but at herself for failing him. Her anger and sadness are turned inward; she thinks she’s gotten what she deserves. But her reaction to despair, inevitably, is to pick herself up and do whatever she thinks is right anyway. She may be useless and unlovable, but she can still love, and she can still be a hero.
Of course, her plans don’t work as they’re supposed to. Cassidy is also a messed-up mass of insecurity, and when Tulip tries to rescue him, he kneecaps every attempt. But that doesn’t mean Tulip’s goals are misguided or wrong. In season 3, God himself (wearing that dog costume) tells her she’s a fuck-up. She thinks about it for a moment and responds that he better get out of her face or she’ll kick his ass. It’s false bravado, perhaps, but God does look nervous. After all, the world is just absurd enough that maybe she could do it.
Preacher’s absurdity is deliberate and philosophical. Jesse, Tulip, and Cass fight and drink their way through a world that isn’t just indifferent, but actually malevolent. In season 4, God gratuitously arranges the unlikely death of everyone Jesse tries to help, including cute dogs and children. It’s funny the way Kafka is funny, albeit with more car chases and explosions. Like Sisyphus, the characters go on because they don’t have any choice, but also, perhaps, because they’ve decided that a stone isn’t going to beat them.
In the same way, Preacher the series has made it to a fourth and last season, even though no one seems to be watching it or writing much about it anymore. It’s unclear how the series will wrap, though it’s already obvious that the end will be significantly different from the comic’s conclusion. Will Tulip find happiness, hopefully with someone other than that asshole Jesse? Probably not; this is an unhappy, God-damned world, and it doesn’t hold out much hope or help for anyone. Few television shows acknowledge the bitter things in life with such imaginative humor, and few characters face this kind of cynicism with the two-fisted grace of Tulip O’Hare.