Westerns celebrate heroic manly men with hats, on horses, squinting manfully, shooting rustlers, and saving damsels. More revisionist Westerns, like Unforgiven (1992) or The Wild Bunch (1969) keep the manliness, the hats and the horses but do away with the heroism more typical of early genre films.
Preacher, AMC’s adaptation of the Garth Ennis and Steve Dillon comic, is a Western, complete with a big Texas sky, some great country background music and a flashback sequence to 1800s gunplay. It’s also a revisionist Western: Heroic manly man Jesse Custer (Dominic Cooper) frequently engages in pointless and counter-productive violence. But Preacher goes one step further and suggests not just that cowboys are bloodthirsty and horrible, but that the more civilized folks are too.
Preacher is set before the beginning of the Ennis/Dillon comic—but after the end of most typical Westerns. Jesse has a no-good past in which he robbed, stole and frolicked with appealingly bad woman Tulip O'Hare (Ruth Negga). O'Hare can gut a man with her bare fists and make a bazooka out of tin cans and duct tape. After one of their heists goes catastrophically awry, Custer returned to his no-horse hometown of Annville to become a mediocre preacher at a tiny church. He’s just settling into his new, quiet, boring, ineffectual life when he is improbably possessed by a powerful divine force called Genesis, which gives him the power to make anyone do anything, just by telling them to.
His new super-power turns Jesse into a more complex version of the one-note Western heroic archetype. On the one hand, he’s a rebel cowboy. On the other, he’s the literal voice of God, commanding people to serve the lord, be patient and open their hearts. He’s the outlaw and the ultimate sheriff; the violent cowboy and the peaceful governor.
As a revisionist Western, Preacher doesn’t shy away from the damage Jesse causes with his old-school brand of action. Jesse tries to spread peace and love guided by good-girl church organist Emily (Lucy Griffiths). But his massive consumption of alcohol and penchant for righteous cowboy meddling keep getting the better of him. He decides to rescue a damsel in distress, only to discover that Betsy (Jamie Anne Allman) is not being beaten by her husband, but is topping from the bottom in a consensual kinky BDSM relationship. When she explains this to hardened tough guy Jesse, he looks like he has swallowed a particularly squirmy horny toad. Then he ends up roughing up her husband Donnie (Derek Wilson) anyway in a drunken fight and gratuitously humiliating him. Instead of saving folks, Jesse just provokes violence and makes everyone miserable. Stupid cowboys.
Preacher suggests that outlaw vigilantism and the civilization that’s supposed to curtail it are almost indistinguishable. In Preacher, literal angels wear cowboy hats and God has chosen to speak through a violent criminal. The cowboy making his own law on the range and the lawgiver commanding peaceable coexistence are both just telling other people what to do. They may do it at the point of a gun, or with a word backed up by less visible, but still present social and cultural force. Either way, the result is similar for the folks on the receiving end—they are, like the poor town of Annville, literally buried in cow shit.
The second season of Preacher puts its main characters on the road. Jesse embraces his inner cowboy rambler, and the civilizing preacher will, it looks like, be placed on the shelf. With virtually all the supporting cast dead, the second season, coming in June, may end up as a more traditional revisionist Western, focused on the violence of the outlaw rather than the violence of communities. Wherever Preacher goes from here, though, the first season will remain one of the oddest Westerns around—a show which sees God as a cowboy, and cordially hates him for it.