Pop Psych: AMC’s ‘Preacher’ Hides Its True Message in the Shadows

Dominic Cooper as Jesse Custer.

Dominic Cooper as Jesse Custer. Lewis Jacobs/Sony PIctures Televsion/AMC

Pop Psych: Where we ask a real psychotherapist to delve into the mindsets of our favorite shows and TV characters.

Early in the third episode of AMC’s new adaptation of the classic Garth Ennis schlock-comic Preacher, the sheriff of the small town of Annville, Texas, Hugo Root, finds himself chatting with a couple of mysterious assassins about an awful monster they’ve come to town to slay. The subtext of this scene is that the assassins are of course hiding the real truth from the sheriff, and in order to protect this hidden truth they’ve employed a bit of intimidation. They see this small-town lawman and assume if they just craft a monster horrible enough, he’ll walk away. The scene ends, though, on a different note. Sheriff Root, on his way out the door, tells them a bloodcurdling story about a real life monster, a man who hid a violence so deeply that he passed himself off as gentle for 30 years before revealing the horror inside of himself. The point of the story is clear: He’s not intimidated. Yet he leaves quietly anyways. Here’s a plot with a message in it.

Preacher is drenched in violence, adorns itself in blood and gore the same way a crust punk wears a jean jacket. Which is to say, this isn’t just for fun: Preacher thinks it has something to prove. And four episodes in, it just might! The show takes on a lot of big topics—redemption, religion, the perils of staying friends with your exes. But what we talk about explicitly usually isn’t what we mean, and I think Preacher’s message may run a bit deeper than the kind of sophomoric tests of faith that the script so frequently trades in. This is a show about hometown violence, and the ways we engage with it without even realizing we’re doing so; this is a show about the shadow.

Ruth Negga as Tulip O'Hare.

Ruth Negga as Tulip O’Hare. Lewis Jacobs/Sony Pictures Television/AMC

The shadow is perhaps the central concept of Jungian psychoanalysis and probably the most confusing one. Ironically enough, the best layman’s terms explanation for what the shadow is was provided by the serial radio and movie hero the Shadow, whose tagline was, “Who knows what evil lurks in the hearts of men? The Shadow knows!” This is the point—the concept of the shadow is the concept of the horrifying within all of us, and the most horrifying piece of this is that we remain completely unaware of this part. Each person’s shadow lies in a state of total repression and not the fun sort of repression that turns into a fun and only moderately socially unacceptable kink. The repression of the shadow is a totally unbreakable seal—until it very suddenly isn’t.

The shadow isn’t all bad, but bad is always a part of it. In people with low self-esteem, for example, the shadow often contains powerful feelings of self-efficacy and self-acceptance. Really, the shadow is whatever piece of ourselves is utterly anathema to the rest of our personality. Of course, as we are lawless animals living in a lawful and cooperative society, essentially all of us have repressed our violent urges. Which, being creatures of imperfect will, doesn’t work very well. Jung believed that the goal of psychoanalysis was to bring someone, through effort and courage, to see their shadow, allowing for the transmutation of those urges into the fuel for truly meaningful individuation.

In the case of Preacher, we get two different examples of people working with their own shadow in the pursuit of individuation: the preacher himself, Jesse Custer, and his ex girlfriend and fellow mercenary, Tulip O’Hare. These two are on character arcs that appear quite similar but diverge in important ways. By the end of episode 4, we know that Jesse ran from home, while Tulip simply left. And we get the sense that Jesse ran back home, whereas Tulip returned. Why do these differences matter? To put it simply, it’s the difference between running a Hail Mary play and actually repenting; your psyche knows when you’re making a choice rather than letting your choices get made for you.

Let’s take a look at Jesse, who runs away from home hoping to escape violence and runs back home hoping to escape violence. When you really look at his behavior, it just doesn’t make any sense. And of course, what he finds on his return is…more violence, primarily wrought by his hand. Why does this happen? Well, let’s keep in mind that he came back home after leaving, which must mean the idea of this place has remained his psychic safe haven through all his really violent years, which means we need to understand more about Jesse Custer’s hometown.

Dominic Cooper as Jesse Custer.

Dominic Cooper as Jesse Custer. Lewis Jacobs/Sony PIctures Televsion/AMC

While we don’t know the history of Annville, Texas, we know enough. First things first, the primary industry in this little burg is a double-decker Meat Slaughterhouse/Oil Refinery. There’s blood above the ground and blood below it. We also know that the town’s no stranger to violence—and even makes a home for it—as evidenced by the sheriff who’s utterly unfazed by violence so long as no one makes a fuss, as well as the many, many beatings and murders we witness throughout these first few episodes. We know that Jesse’s able to physically brutalize some of the less desirable townspeople without having to pay more penance than a night in the clink. This is a place utterly accustomed not only to the ways of violence but also to the ways of ignoring it.

That he is able to run home and slide right back in, to return home the same as he left it, is quite telling here. Remember the section above about individuation—this is the process of leaving family and home in order to become something new. The process of getting away from the rules that made up the air you breathed, to breathe a different air and to exhale who you really are. Ultimately, to return different and no longer be accepted in quite the same way as when you were a child. You leave the home that asked you to hide yourself to fit in, and suddenly you can see your shadow. And in the light of day, the monster inside turns out to actually be quite a bit more palatable than you ever thought. This is why you can come home for Christmas and talk to your grandfather about politics without wanting to set the house on fire because these relationships just don’t mean the same thing as they used to: You don’t have to lie your way to freedom anymore—you already live there.

Jesse seems to have missed this because he learned the lessons of his home too well. In the fourth episode, we see a flashback of his father disciplining him publicly for smoking as a boy, admonishing him to set a positive example. The message is animal and clear: conform or be exiled. Unable to live with conforming as a child, he chooses exile as an adult—which of course is another attempt to conform. This creates a paradoxical system for him, in that his life on the road is an extension of his life at home. He brings his lessons with him and never has the chance to live by ones he makes himself.

Tulip, on the other hand, seems to have a wholly different relationship to the violence that she shares with Jesse. Whereas he hates his violence at the same time that he glories in losing himself to it, Tulip loves her violence when she chooses it. It’s not that Tulip uses violence rarely—she doesn’t—it’s that she’s very careful in choosing when and how to use it. And when she does she never makes the mistake of hating it. We know less about her than we do about Jesse, but from the bits of her history we’ve seen we can speculate that rules and tacit expectations were significantly less of a theme in her young life than in his. She took less with her when she left Annville and found her shadow well exposed to the new air of the open road. So it’s no surprise that when she comes home individuated and ready to expose the secrets she sees all around her she’s able to ring that town like a hammer on steel.

James Cole Abrams, MA, is a psychotherapist living and working in Boulder and Denver, Colorado. His work can also be found at jamescoleabrams.com where he blogs every Sunday. Pop Psych: AMC’s ‘Preacher’ Hides Its True Message in the Shadows