'Preacher': How the Premiere Defines Its Hard-Hitting Hero

Preacher - Season 1 -Dominic Cooper 2-H 2016
Coutesy of Lewis Jacobs/AMC

[Warning: This story contains spoilers from the series premiere of AMC's Preacher and the comics it is based on.]

"It was the time of the preacher," Willie Nelson sings shortly after AMC's Preacher begins. Jesse Custer (Dominic Cooper), still half-drunk from the night before, wearily rises from bed and walks outside to fix the sign in front of his church; local troublemakers have changed the words around again, spelling out obscenities not fit for such a holy place.

Perhaps Custer himself isn't fit for the place, either. He stands before his flock, reading a sermon about football and a man named Landry — and while it's not as bad as Jesse Custer describing Jesse Plemons' character from Friday Night Lights, it's still not exactly an appropriate speech to share ... or even his speech at all, really.

"Tom Landry was a very famous coach for the Dallas Cowboys in the '70s and the '80s," Preacher showrunner Sam Catlin tells The Hollywood Reporter about the sermon. "The idea here is that Jesse is basically so hung over that he's using his father's old sermons. He's using a dated reference, which is terrible for a sermon. His entire congregation doesn't know what he's talking about."

With his first few lines of dialogue, then, Jesse establishes himself as a man out of his depth. The hard-drinking man of god is at a crossroad with his faith, as evidenced throughout the premiere, starting right here with ripping off his own deceased father's decades-old sermon.

"It was important that we start by establishing that he's a man of faith and an active preacher," says Catlin. "He's a lousy, shitty, disillusioned preacher, but he is searching for answers from God and for himself and his flock. He has enormous burdens living up to his father's memory. He also has some serious sins, stretching all the way back to when he was a young boy, that he's there to atone for. In a nutshell, we wanted to establish that this is a guy who has been so bad for so long that he's here and he's trying to make up for past sins by being a good preacher."

If his bad side isn't established during the sermon, it's cemented toward the end of the premiere, when Jesse gets into a bar fight with Donnie (Derek Wilson), an arrogant and abusive Annville, Texas, man who throws the first punch at the drunken preacher. Jesse warns Donnie to quit the fight and his wife-abusing ways, which only riles the man up further. Donnie and his friends, dressed as Confederate soldiers due to their side gig as Civil War re-enactors, double down on their attack against Jesse … and subsequently get the ever-living snot beaten out of them. When he throws his first punch, Jesse can't help but crack a smile, as he feeds into his dark side for the first time in ages.

"I think it's a great moment to have in the pilot," says Garth Ennis, who co-created the Preacher comics alongside artist Steve Dillon. "At that point, Jesse's been having a bad time. He's not very good about being a preacher. His girlfriend's back in town and that means nothing but trouble. He has to mentor this arse-faced freak. There's obviously something in his own past. His flashbacks [to his father] are a portent of something unpleasant. All he wants is to sit and enjoy his beer — and now here's this horrible redneck who we've discovered is in an abusive relationship with his wife, and apparently she likes it. Jesse can't do anything about that, either. All that pent-up frustration comes out. When you see him thump the guy and that smile, there's this sense that he's thinking, 'I'm hurting people again. I'm home.'"

The brawl defines Jesse's character in another crucial way beyond the smiling punch, according to Ennis. It all comes down to his opponents: "It's smart, too, having Donnie and his cohorts as confederate Civil War re-enactors. It's kind of relevant at the minute. Yes, Jesse's from the South — but not that South. That's important nowadays."

After the fight, after he's arrested and after he's subsequently bailed out of jail, Jesse arrives at an epiphany: He's done preaching. He plans to quit during his next sermon, but first, he offers God one last chance to make himself known. God does not immediately reply, but within seconds, an otherworldly entity crashes into the church and into Jesse himself — the very same entity that earlier in the episode possessed and killed an African preacher, a Russian magister and even the world's most famous Scientologist, Tom Cruise.

"If the Cruiser can't handle it," says Ennis, "it's going to need something special."

Jesse wakes up three days later with the entity inside him and his final sermon upon him. Though he's still not entirely sure of his newfound power, Jesse decides that he can't abandon Annville yet. He can't turn his back on these people. He must continue his work as a preacher.

"He doubles down on it: 'I'm really going to try to be good. I'm going to try to put my past behind me. I'm going to try to save this town — and by doing that, I'm going to save my own soul,'" says Catlin. "Which he believes, and for reasons the audience will learn, is in serious jeopardy. He's done such horrible stuff that he's worried he's going to Hell, and not just in an abstract way. In a literal way. If he doesn't do his work as a preacher and save this town, then his own soul is going to roast for all of eternity."

Indeed, the Preacher premiere makes it clear that there are larger powers in play. For instance, an Irish vampire named Cassidy (Joe Gilgun) jumps out of an airplane, splatters on the earth below and fully recovers after devouring a cow. That's pretty explicitly strange.

The entity, too, suggests at heavenly ideas floating around Preacher, reinforced by the presence of two strange men searching for the entity. Readers of the comics know that when it comes to this twisted tale, Heaven is for real — just like the title of that Greg Kinnear movie, only a whole lot weirder and darker. Within the first few pages of Ennis and Dillon's comic, the action shifts to Heaven, but the show is keeping that physical kingdom out of sight for the time being.

"One of the things Garth does right off the bat is he shows you Heaven pretty quickly and he shows you Hell," says Catlin. "We felt with all the craziness in the show, we worried that if we started doing too much too soon, it would be just too weird and too out there."

But make no mistake — Heaven and Hell are more than just theoretical concepts in the Preacher show, even if they haven't fully arrived by the end of the premiere. Says Catlin: "We want to get to a place where the audience is like, 'Show us Heaven! Show us Hell! Show us what it's like!' They won't be disappointed, but we wanted to tease it out.

"We likened it to putting a frog in water and slowly boiling it," he adds. "We're trying to slowly expand what's possible in the world, so that by the time we get to the end of the first season, viewers will understand what's possible … and that's everything. Everything is possible."

What did you think of the Preacher premiere?