In a world as fraught and deliciously problematic as AMC’s Preacher, it’s hard to pin down exactly who’s doing the most to be the least. In just 2 1/2 short seasons, we’ve been given meat-worshipping monsters, gargantuan, murderous cult leaders, soul sucking grannies, and even Hitler himself. Yet, after very careful scrutiny, the worst and most insidious villain of them all isn’t numbered among the series’ advertised antagonists. As it turns out, the biggest bad of Preacher has been along for the ride the entire time, looming in the back seat of Tulip O’Hare’s car and raving about the Big Lebowski. I am of course talking about vampire, addict, and hot-mess-extraordinaire: Cassidy.
I’m sure at this point I may have already lost a handful of you in throwing out such a wild accusation in the first place. The ones that are still hanging on tight probably have their fair share of objections — ones ranging from how Cassidy is nothing more than, or short of, the tortured comic relief, to how I’m 100% cuckoo bananas for plucking poor Cass out of a sea of miscreants and deeming him the worst of the bunch. Without any protest, I’ll more than agree that he is both purposefully tragic and hilarious, and that I am more than a little nuts even in the best of times. Still, believe it or not, none of that negates the conclusion I’ve come to, and I’m more than happy to explain why, bumpy though the road may be. So, by all means, buckle up and let’s dive in.
After quite literally crash landing into Jesse Custer’s fracturing existence, Cassidy was initially presented as a rakish foil to the series’ gruff anti-hero. He had wild, tangential opinions on everything, he could suffer endless, near-slapstick injuries and indulge in limitless illicit behaviors without consequence, and more than anything he was along for an unpredictably good time with some fast-made friends. Simple, easy, completely non-threatening to start with, right? Right.
As the show progressed, viewers were presented with another side of Cassidy. One that could love, both romantically and paternally, yet struggled with it as an immortal being often does, particularly when it came to choosing between allowing lives to run their course or preserving his attachments by supernatural means. Not necessarily the most innovative of developments, but certainly far from any kind of villainous revelation. That said, this initial characterization is fairly surface-level, and, on its own, the deeper emotions are only a fraction Cassidy’s entire persona, the rest of which can be brought up with a surprisingly minimal amount of digging. Peel away the rants on foreskins, the fleeting bursts of guilt wrapped up in the less than ideal coping mechanisms, and you have quite a few bright red flags that the story has been laying in the groundwork since the beginning.
Taken down to his studs, we can all agree that Cassidy is an addict of diversion in nearly all its flavors, and, when self-contained, this state of mind is hardly troubling. After all, the man can’t be killed by normal means, and after over a century of existence a need to remain occupied makes a world of sense. The problem is, Cassidy never seems able to keep his thirst for distraction under any kind of control, and the blast zones he leaves in the wake of this negligence are fairly extensive. What’s worse is that he has lived long enough to know all too well the destruction he is capable of and does very little to stop history from disastrously repeating itself. If anything, he’s more prone to accepting it as an inevitability and watching the world burn than trying to leave off setting the fires in the first place.
Sadly, as much as he has endeared himself to them in his own way, Jesse and Tulip are just another high he’s latched on to, and he is (by his own recent admission) going to use them up just as handily as he would anything else he snorts or shoots.
In the initial meetings of Preacher’s primary trio, Jesse and Tulip each presented entertainment that was easy enough for Cassidy to take up and indulge in. Here was a supernaturally commanding man of the cloth that dabbled in drinking and doling out compound fractures to his congregation, and a wild woman of equal measures of grit and tenderness, who just about guaranteed an illegally good time in every town she rolled into. Perhaps even more vital to Cassidy’s needs, their broken upbringing left them isolated from any kind of real family or friends beyond one another, and with an almost childlike need for someone to stand in their corner without question. Strictly speaking, Jesse and Tulip were low hanging fruit for a seasoned predator, and Cassidy is the perfect picture of an insidious man-eater if ever there was one. Though we have been given precious, and selective few stories from his past (and one has to wonder why that might be) every little tease of his prior experiences is at its heart a tale of some combination of using, taking, and abandonment. Gather up all the drug-induced mayhem. Recall his son, who was likely fun to create, then a weight around his neck, then a convenient sanctuary, and finally a guilt-drenched nuisance of his own making. Think of the jealous couples he described to TC mere episodes ago; the ones whose marriages he helped implode with deadly force for a few casual hookups he could have found anywhere else and had limitless amounts of time to vet.
Most importantly, remember that in all of this he isn’t inexperienced, young, or anywhere close to unaware of just how many consequences his actions may visit upon all parties involved. He knows what he does hurts and does it anyway, largely because that is who he has decided he is: a miserable asshole who has to find some way to keep busy throughout the eternity he’d been cursed with. Even now, his relationship with his latest batch of mortal companions is warping into more of the same. The fascination with Jesse that initially sparked their friendship has waned down to an apathetic disinterest that barely stretches beyond what he thinks he can wrestle away from him, namely Tulip, whose own connection with the vampire bears the unfortunate burden of gradually becoming the clearest reflection of his darker nature.
All judgement very briefly aside, there is no denying that Tulip and Cassidy love one another in varied definitions of the word. Love is a many-splendored blah, blah, blah, and it takes on too many different shapes for me to put it into a box, even in fiction or for argument’s sake. What isn’t up for debate is what loving someone healthily and respectfully means, and that’s where the beast in good old Proinsias Cassidy truly begins to rear its ugly head. With her seemingly undying romance with Jesse Custer unshakably in place, Tulip’s love for the vampire seems to come from somewhere almost familial, misguided and honestly depressing one night stands aside. To her, he is a friend she can depend on in a way she never could with her convict father, her verbally abusive mother, or even her troubled and wayward lover. From his side, Cassidy is unquestionably in L.O.V. E. love with Tulip, and has no idea how to properly handle the notion of not being able to find satisfaction in the kind of reciprocation the object of his desire is willing to offer. Had circumstances remained this way, a tongue-in-cheek story of unrequited emotion, a case could have been made for Cassidy’s characterization as more of a downtrodden and lovable parasite over anything else more troubling. Only, he seems determined not to let things lie.
Over the course of Preacher’s third season and Jesse’s various spirals, an increasingly possessive Cassidy has taken center stage, one who has decided he is entitled to his intended’s affections, entirely unbeknownst to Tulip herself. Entrenched in these feelings, almost nothing of the fun-loving demeanor he employed to win over character and viewer alike is visible beneath his suddenly desperate need to find a way to take hold of the love he wants, and mainline it like so many of his other vices. When offered a magical means to bend Tulip and her affections to his will, this Cassidy jumped at the chance, and even in faltering beneath her rejection hasn’t entirely let the possibility slip from his grasp or mind. Sure, he didn’t end up pepper-spraying Tulip with Grandma L’Angell’s Love Potion #9, because even deep down Cassidy knows that to cross such a line would be a miserable, disgusting thing to do, but the part of him that knows this also kept the bottle, and Tulip’s number, all in the spirit of proclaiming selfishness as the core of his truth from his very first appearance. All the more frightening, at no point in any of this internal gnashing and scheming did he ever allow Tulip or even Jesse a chance to become aware of how they are more prey than equal to him.
In media, it is very hard to construct a villain without turning them into a caricature, someone obviously bad or evil for the sake of mass appeal and understanding. Real and lasting villains are often subtler; it’s what allows them to slip into people’s lives and destroy them, time and time again without anything to stop them until it’s too late. Real villains are people that come to you as friends, cloak themselves in smiles and quick allegiance as they position themselves to tear everything down for their own selfish motivations. Real villains ride off to adventure with you, a wary eye on the people they can snatch you from and a love tincture in their pocket to see it all through. Of course, this doesn’t erase or change the fact that the more obvious monsters are still monsters. Odin Quincannon was still a terrible, odious man; Marie L’Angell and her pair of goons are still some of the most overtly toxic people Preacher may present, but they’re the kind of bad guys that aren’t thoughtful or cunning enough to hide behind any sort of protective artifice. When these types of people strike out at them, heroes like Jesse and Tulip see it coming from miles away. But when their closest friend stabs them in the back, they won’t know what hit them or how long it’s been brewing right under their noses.
Even without the foreknowledge of the source material’s nasty little twist, there is no doubt in my mind that Cassidy is going to slide back into their good graces long enough to take what he wants, loyalty be damned. Maybe he won’t grab the first chance he gets, or even the second, but eventually the chickens are going to come home to roost, likely in the form of a little bottle of liquid manipulation, and when the air clears he’ll have destroyed two lives for the sole purpose of the temporary high it brings him. What’s more? Given the right opportunity, and barring a massive deus-ex-wake-up call, he’ll do it as many times as immortality allows, and that is what makes Cassidy the worst of them all.
New episodes of Preacher air Sundays at 10pm EST on AMC.