Last week, I started writing a post about theology in AMC’s Preacher, but as you can imagine, it got a little wordy, so I decided to split it into three parts to cover the six topics I’d loosely defined in the first post. (Part one of this series, if you missed it.) Today’s post is gonna cover two more: Grace and mercy, and Calvinism, Unfortunately.
Trigger warning in the discussion below for suicide, and pedophilia. As before, spoilers for the entire season behind the jump.
Grace (and mercy), too
Ever since the season ended, I have been wanting to talk about the Schencks. We get introduced to them right away in episode one, when Chris Schenck, the son, brings Jesse a beer and asks him to fuck his dad up for being an asshole.
Jesse tries to talk to Chris’ mom, Betsy, about the abuse, when she tells him it’s actually a consensual kink thing, adding another notch in Jesse’s sad/angry belt about how much he sucks at doing this pastoral thing. Chris’ dad, Donnie, hears about it though and (tries to) beat Jesse up, but Jesse fights back, beating up Donnie’s goons and breaking his arm, ostensibly in reaction to Donnie’s threat to whup his son for tattling.
We get a little deeper into the Schenck family dynamics when Jesse nearly forces Donnie to kill himself using Genesis, sending Donnie – rather understandably – into a deep depression, which is only heightened when he realizes that Jesse’s used the voice on his boss, Odin Quincannon. This is the point where we can see Jesse’s descent into becoming not only a Bad Dude, but one that was potentially worse than whoever he was before he came to Annville. He killed people (and a komodo dragon) then, but at least it was within the bounds of being physically and psychically fair. Genesis punctures that tiny remnant of humanity by offering him unlimited power to invade people’s minds and force them to do things against their will. Up to the point where he threatens Donnie, Jesse is at least either using Genesis unwittingly, or using it to try and help. I know in “See”, there’s the incident with the bus driver, but I want to cover that in a little bit.
It’s no surprise really that Donnie takes such drastic measures to deafen himself to confront Jesse in “El Valero”. He bursts his eardrums so he’s immune to Genesis. It’s a clever plan from someone we assume is a “squirrel murdering redneck” for most of the season, and a humanising one. He gets the jump on Jesse and ends the standoff between Quincannon and the church, but only knocks Jesse out, completing the grace/mercy cycle between the Schencks and Jesse.
There’s a podcast that covers Preacher over on Patheos, and they covered a lot of the same themes I was interested in exploring but the hosts found the Schenck arc to be incomplete/confusing where I didn’t (and my mother, who had never heard of the show or the comics before, seemed to follow it fine, too). I tend to operate using the definition my chaplain gave while I was in school for grace and mercy:
Grace is getting something you don’t deserve, and mercy is not getting what you do deserve.
Arguably, both Jesse and Donnie experience this by the time we get to the explanation in “Call and Response” for why Jesse is hiding out from the law at the Schenck’s house. I would argue that Jesse got the better ‘deal’, even, given that he did pretty serious violence not just once, but twice, to Donnie’s body and mind. Donnie covers it pretty well himself:
He could’ve killed me that night, but he didn’t do it. Preacher was merciful. Yeah, so I was merciful, too. So then when I heard he was on the run, I told him he could hide out here. ‘Cause Preacher saved me. He showed me that I…I’m not a murderer. He showed me that I’m not the bad guy. (Episode 10, “Call and Response”)
Donnie shows mercy to Jesse by not killing him in the church, and grace through his genuine conversion of the heart. He realizes that what he’s done in the past doesn’t mean he has to keep on going the way he has been, and he shows more hospitality to Jesse when the church turns on him, despite being one of the folks in town, besides Sheriff Root, who has the most cause to hate him.
(Speaking of Root, we get sort of a dark mirror version of grace and mercy when he tortures Cassidy in the jail cell. He does it because he’s upset about Eugene, and probably the ‘woman’ he killed in the hotel, despite that also being an act of mercy, or so he thought. His argument, of course, is because Cassidy has a long list of crimes, dating back decades. So Cassidy gets what he doesn’t deserve, because in the case of Eugene, he’s actually innocent – but for the stuff in Root’s folder, he’s far from it.)
Also, as an aside, I want to point out how absolutely hilarious it is that Betsy, one of Quincannon’s assistants, manages to set up a video-conferencing call to Heaven on an angel phone. I don’t know if it’s a deliberate shout-out to the admin assistants of the world as troubleshooting heroes, but A+ on that small scene. Or Donnie bringing Betsy frozen berries for her tender butt the morning after some spanking activity, or reading Gorillas in the Mist in bed. The little scenes in the show that tell you a whole lot about who the characters are, even the minor ones, is what brings it from “good way to pass the time” to “great”.
I really love the Schenck’s arc because it’s probably the best story about becoming Christian you can see on modern TV right now – we’re all fuck-ups and assholes, but we can all do better whenever we choose to. Of course, for Donnie it ends tragically, because he’s been saved for all of a week or so before getting the news, straight from Heaven, that God is dead or missing, which is kind of a boner-kill (literally).
Okay, so before moving on, we gotta talk about the bus driver. Jesse uses Genesis on the driver to get him to forget a little girl he’s obsessed with sexually and it backfires because a) he also scalded him badly in hot water, and is still there, so the driver still knows he did something to him and b) it doesn’t solve the root problem, which is the pedophilia, does it? Jesse uses these short sighted solutions over and over again, something which I’m not sure he’s learned even after everything that happened in Annville. “Forget her,” he tells the guy. Which he does! The next day, when the girl boards the bus, the driver has no idea who she is. “Aw, Janie, looks like Mr. Creepy forgot allllll about you,” the girl’s friend says, which again, is one of those small scenes that tells us a lot.
Furthermore, we get confirmation in the final episode that the bus driver was never really fixed, or was so awful before Jesse used Genesis, that he gets his comeuppance in a (frankly amazing; see video below) montage of the people of Annville dealing with the news of God’s disappearance. A bunch of school girls run off the bus, holding bloody weapons, and the camera pans the interior to show us the driver, mutilated and dead. The driver never truly repented, and in the end, got exactly what he deserved, at the hands of the people who had the most cause to hate him for it.
(The cover of “No Rain” that plays during the final montage in Episode 10)
Which is maybe not a bad lead into
Okay, don’t get me wrong. I don’t have a problem, personally, with Calvinists, per se. I do have a problem with the doctrine of determinism that is at the route of Calvinism. But I also don’t think it’s possible to discuss Preacher, without talking about Calvinist roots that is has, so here we are.
About halfway through the season, Chris pointed out that the five main points of Calvinism are known by its acroynym:
Total Depravity (also known as Total Inability and Original Sin)
Limited Atonement (also known as Particular Atonement)
Perseverance of the Saints (also known as Once Saved Always Saved)
Hmm, interesting. There isn’t much out there on Garth Ennis’ intentions about Tulip the character, and Tulip the doctrine, but a few other reviewers and writers out there have mentioned the same connection, and this post on the comic’s “accidental theology” delves into some of the same questions, albeit related mostly to the comic (so spoilers abound there also).
If we’re looking at TULIP as a proto-arc for the seasons, we can see how Season 1 encompasses Total Depravity; Jesse succumbs to the power of Genesis, choosing paternalistically what he thinks is best for the town, rather than leading them to God and letting them choose to drink or not. (I’d apologize for the mixed metaphors but at this point, I expect you’re used to them.) Tulip struggles with the constant question she’s asked over the season which is “Why can’t you be good? Just choose to change.” Each time Jesse asks that question, she ends up going further into ‘badness’ out of spite – something I personally can identify with, falling short of perhaps robbing drug stores and banging vampires (at least as far as I’m aware). Cassidy is dragged into a kind of depravity-for-Cassidy, which is in spite of being a “lazy, lying, self-
This would lead season two into Unconditional Election, and we’re getting a bit of that sense anyway, aren’t we? It’s evident in the comics, and some hints in the show, that there are some things that are set in motion so viscerally that they can’t just be reversed. For example, when Jesse uses Genesis to command Quincannon to “serve God”, he’s really only reinforcing what Quincannon already believed – it just spurs him into action stemming from that belief, rather than grief-laden inertia. The Saint of Killers backstory is that he couldn’t have ever not done what he did – he knew he had to return to his wife and daughter, but he also knew he couldn’t let a small child be sucked into Ratwater, or see his mother abused. He couldn’t have chosen to not slaughter the whole town. The comics explains in no uncertain terms that it was divinely ordained, and the show makes it seem likely it will pursue the same route.
Similarly, we don’t know why Genesis chose Jesse. We know that it tried other pastors, priests and evangelists, and they weren’t sufficient in some manner or another. We know Jesse had doubts where the others, either from their scenes or in context, had conviction, and perhaps that is what Genesis was seeking – an escape from determinism. We know that events in Annville couldn’t have unfolded any differently than they did, even if some characters had chosen differently. God was always missing, from before the show started. Annville was going to decline, whether from inaction or from fundamentalist God of Meat/Cafeterians. The only difference is that Jesse came around to his fallibilities early enough to change his fate, and that of Cassidy and Tulip. If season two of Preacher is about unconditional election, I doubt it will be a ringing endorsement of the doctrine.
Okay, so one more post to go! We’re going to talk about Agony and Ecstasy (or “Gay Angel-Demon Baby Daddies and Why I love them”) and The Bad Stuff – the racism, in particular, as well as the homophobia that plagued an otherwise excellent show.
See you then!