The Lonesome Crowded West

Both Billy the Kid and James A. Garfield were fatally shot in July of 1881. Kid died at the scene; it took 11 weeks and sepsis for Garfield to kick the bucket. Separated by untamed continental expanse, these shootings are twin signposts: A violent young country, still rebuilding after tearing itself to shreds, doubled-down. Realms and American narratives intertwined in dual acts of vicious passion and warped justice. To hear Die Hard with a Vengeance tell it, we’d reached the half-way point for the union.

Fast forward a hundred and change: In 1995, Sam Raimi’s The Quick and the Dead narrowed and conflated these strains in the hermetic of Redemption—crossing the dark heart of the American frontier with a spring-loaded cartoon logic with March Madness. Raimi (with a little help from Joss Whedon buried down deep) built an episodic clockwork narrative around showdowns-as-game theory. In the most poignant: “The Kid,” youthful, cocky fan-favorite, squared-off against his tyrannical father. It provides the film with its most tragic note amidst a semiotic sea of iconography pressure-heated and churned into taffy. The Quick and the Dead is set in the palindrome deathtrap of 1881.

Consider The Quick and the Dead, then take Preacher—a graphic novel published between 1995 and 2000, and now a cable program. You’ve got Russell Crowe’s Cort—former preeminent gunslinger badass turned holy-man to escape a chequered past—as direct connective tissue to Jesse Custer. Add in: a damn flashback structure fueling the protagonists’ resolve and cartoonish ultra-violence. Summed, you’ve got mule variations that test the mimetic elasticity of Western tropes against the grim thematics of the genre. They’re simpatico ‘tyranny of subgenre,’ postmodern collages that make Western structuralism more granular. In its opening moments, Preacher even totally delegitimizes the Western label by starting in “OUTER SPACE”—capitalization necessary to give the lovely, lively, and bold on-screen text due; and, the B-movie sci-fi veneer shouldn’t be forgotten. Preacher’s Annville, Texas setting should be indication enough of the Looney Tunes intentions.

The 1881 of Preacher (initially a remote, standalone flashback, as the rest of the show is roughly present day) is literally hell on earth—a recursive sentence where the scowling, hardened “Butcher of Gettysburg” lives out the day he lost his wife, daughter, horse, nobility, and sobriety for eternity. 1881 is a cosmic intersection where the sins of the past come home to roost. As brought to the small screen—after numerous aborted takes in various mediums and forms in the last decade-and-a-half—by Seth Rogen, Evan Goldberg, and showrunner Sam Catlin, Preacher is a curious document, one that revels in the “macho intensity” of the beta-male fantasia of the graphic novels—“if superhero comics fulfill, in their readers, a libidinal urge to become powerful, Preacher went even further by fulfilling virtually every other libidinal urge.” Still, it hits stride as a TV Western inverted—blending profane pieces with some oddly-compelling neo-genre theory juxtapositions.

Preacher mashes subgenres like a good post-Fargo program should: creating an acid-western combined with comedy-western combined with contemporary-western combined with fantasy-western (plus) Frankenstein. It’s flying the flag of the chunky stew that is modern cable storytelling, best exemplified at this current juncture on American Movie Classics. Once a distinguished peddler of uber-prestige dramas, now this outfit traffics in pseudo-prestige schlock, plus Better Call Saul. On the Chunky TV spectrum, Saul is piercingly precision-crafted—rectilinear, interlocking, clockwork, beatific sequences that develop to overwhelming proportions. Walking Dead and Preacher are at the opposite end of this narrow continuum—lumpy, curdled, indulgent storytelling that amps the asymmetrical style of modern cable TV. The Walking Dead employs this for faux-nihilism; Preacher does it for kicks.

Critics have opined, still stuck in prestige mode as it existed half-a-decade ago—for one: “The opening momentum slows with every subsequent installment…one moment, the show acts like a procedural; the next, it’s basking in Cassidy doing his best Evil Dead impression; in another, it sidebars into a mini-bottle-episode focused on Tulip.” Point being: It builds factions of viewing—those in-the-know are steered diagonally; the newly-converted are fed a steady diet of Swiss cheese. Preacher’s pilot accommodates splatter and winking-reflexivity galore: A half-assed Friday Night Lights-inspired sermon, a menacing Carly Simon a capella, and an exploding Tom Cruise all live in this episode; the pilot even has the balls to question the Almighty—The Big Lebowski, that is. By Episode 6, “Sundowner,” the show’s confident enough in its universe to showcase an Edgar Wright-by-way-of-Rick and Morty corpse-dump to kick off the hour. By Episode 9, “Finish the Song,” the universe, and the genre striations, fold-over to infinity and accelerate until it threatens to buckle. Preacher bifurcates itself at first, then it charts a chaotic path toward liquefying past and present, classical and postmodern, grim and facetious, archetypal and contemporary. In the end, the “Butcher”’s world and Custer’s puncture each other, filling out an idiosyncratic, seemingly-irreconcilable worldview—an incoherent jumble of signification, symbolism, blood, viscera, and meat that may or may not have meaning. Such is Preacher’s piety.

At various points, the Western has been declared dead, only to be harvested for its rich symbolism. Now’s another juncture, one where, given the right inclination or a glorious lack of discipline, we can shoot for some post-neo-classical-modernist-faux-hybrid-non-oater Western ideal, a post-Firefly exercise that pulls in strains from vampire-westerns like From Dusk till Dawn and Near Dark without batting an eye. The Western is a genre that thrives on signifiers and iconography and repetition and binaries. Preacher funks it up, building a series on a rickety frame of constant cold-opens and hollow idolatry. It’s a genre blender set on “crushed ice”: There’s Shane in the relationship with beloved, tragic “Arseface” Eugene; a Rio Bravo ambush shootout at the church; Laurel and Hardy fallen angels; dollops of The Searchers in “He’s Gone”’s lengthy death-of-father flashback, complete with a headshot of John Wayne on the mantel; dashes of Giant in the land-grab subplot and Custer’s ever-present quaff and propensity for iconic reclined-pose tableaus; Unforgiven in the family-man-dragged-back-to-killing 1881 classical graft; and even a High Noon clock watch in the finale, “Call and Response.”

Lest we forget: Westerns have a rich history on the tube, dating back to the early going. In 1959, 26 westerns were airing during primetime. Is it sad that modern TV has this disconnect from its past? The patchwork was always built in, though: in the heyday of the late 1940s through the 1950s, a number of movie cowboys had their own TV shows, and re-broadcasts of existing films were spliced in. In post-war America, viewers couldn’t get enough of the dulcet manifest destiny era. Then things got complicated in the ’60s; “some Kennedys got shot while you were screwing San Francisco,” and Peckinpah ripped out the genre’s heart with his teeth, glomming slow-mo, splatter effects, nihilism, and Vietnam allegory. Westerns always do make the most sense when tethered to a war—or its interminable asymptote. Westerns are ideal for crisply folding the American past over itself. Now, given the tenor of our times, where a balance between unplugging and oversaturating is near impossible to strike, the genre’s been folded over so many times it’s more a wrinkled, morphing Mobius. Fitting then that Preacher’s “Alpha and Omega” is a white guy in a bargain-bin God-outfit forced to spout platitudes by unseen assailants and breaking the fourth wall. Back we go, into the meat grinder of antiquity.

Oh, and credit Preacher with confirming in my mind one of the great and soon-to-be-explicated tropes of modern film and television: The Giant Dildo Reveal Sight-Gag. There’s no more inspiring motif in modern media that displays so gracefully how far we’ve come as a profane civilization. At some point, in a post-Giant Dildo Reveal Sight-Gag world, we’ll all expect that every lockbox, ergonomic chair, drawer, handbag, and expensive suitcase harbors some veinglorious behemoth. For now, we are living in a utopia where the dildo is still unexpected when it’s whipped out, and where each iteration is more ludicrous, impressive, and mind-bending than the last.

This article was written by Oliver O’Sullivan, a writer for dusk magazine. 

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