AMC’s Preacher wouldn’t have been possible without Hannibal and True Blood before it — it’s an orgiastic, perplexing, sometimes confusing celebration of violence and mayhem. Trying to sum up a single episode is akin to attempting to capture a fish with an unabridged dictionary, and explaining the series as a whole is well-nigh impossible. This level of artful horror would likely be difficult to pass off on a network, so it’s fortunate that Preacher is on cable, where the full flower of its violence can flourish — but even for cable, it’s not for the faint of heart, and it owes much to trailblazers that already broke ground when it comes to television and violence. That’s particularly true when it comes to female violence, which has historically been a highly taboo subject in any medium.
Tulip O’Hare (Ruth Negga) is a highly distinctive character, and she may be paving the way for a new generation of unapologetically violent women on television. Like True Blood’s Pam (Kristin Bauer van Straten), O’Hare reflects a new generation of female characters who aren’t playing at being one of the boys, a la the dreaded ‘strong female character,’ but are rather being their most vivid, colourful selves, uncovering a different aspect of femininity and pushing at the boundaries of stereotypes about women.
Preacher is difficult to categorise by genre. Yes, it’s based on a series under the Vertigo imprint, but it’s unlike any other comic-based film and television you’ve seen. The amount of blood and gore that drenches the screen makes it horror, but it’s also highly surrealistic, and it integrates elements of heaven and hell, mythology and belief — it’s fantasy, but it’s also very rooted in reality. Preacher skips merrily all over a huge range of genres, clearly not caring one bit about the distress this may evoke in the viewer. It possesses the art and ultraviolence of Hannibal with absolutely breathtaking cinematography, incredibly thoughtful design and lighting choices, and oddly poetic and beautiful sequences of violence and horror. Both shows, of course, built on True Blood, which also focused on tight, achingly beautiful cinematography and scene setting, intercut with gruesome casual violence.
Yet Preacher is about violence against men. On Hannibal, much of the ultraviolence and gore involved female bodies, dehumanised and objectified in the eponymous character’s pursuit of art and understanding. On True Blood, people of all genders were subjected to horrific acts. But Preacher is rooted deeply in violence targeting men, and that includes the violence committed by women, with O’Hare at the front of the pack.
That makes it a more complex exploration of society, violence, and social attitudes than it might appear to be at first glance — some viewers may be so put off by the violence that they’re uncomfortable engaging with the larger framework of the show, while others may miss some of the important subtlety of Preacher. For others, though, Preacher represents a fascinating mythology of violence, one that pushes at the boundaries in a way that challenges not just genre, but society.
We are so used to seeing the female body objectified in horror, turning into a graphic representation not just of physical but also sexual violence, that it’s deeply gratifying to see violence against men at the heart of a series that is about viciousness at its most fundamental. And to see a woman taking up arms is striking, especially because O’Hare is violent for her own reasons — she’s not mimicking the men around her or engaging in horrific murderous acts because she wants to impress men. She’s doing it because she has her own agenda and she’s focusing on accomplishing it.
Some might mistake her for the archetype of the worst kind of ‘strong female character’ because of her violence, but it would be a mistake. O’Hare is an incredibly capable, confident, powerful woman, and she’s powerful not because she can commit atrocities like one of the boys, but because she is independent, knowing what she wants and how to accomplish it. O’Hare could fade into the background as a girl who’s trying to blend in with the men around her, but she doesn’t: She stands out, because she wants to. She commits violence because she feels like it. She pushes the buttons of the men because she can, and woe betide the man who underestimates her.
As she and Jesse dance around each other, she keeps her own goals and desires in mind, and she’s ferociously disinterested in being manipulated. His attempts at control repeatedly backfire, as she asserts her autonomy through both words and deeds. She’s a striking departure from traditional depictions of women linked to violent, angry men (coping with possession or not) — while her relationship patterns may superficially resemble those of women tied to the men around them by unimaginative creators who don’t bother to depict the authentic lives of women, a closer look reveals something quite different.
For people with very narrow interpretations of women and their role in society, O’Hare is deeply unsettling. She doesn’t do what she’s supposed to. She commits violence because it suits her, not because she’s trying to satisfy the men around her. She resists characters who attempt to dictate her life to her, throwing them off in a defiant way that centres her autonomy instead of their desires. She may be devastatingly attractive, but she’s not presented as eye candy, or a sex object, or a woman included in the drama to fulfill male fantasies about beautiful women and big guns.
She’s a character built not just upon the comic that grounds the show, but also those who have gone before her, and she’s a new iteration of violent female characters that represents an interesting turn, especially if she becomes the first of many rather than the last refinement of a few. O’Hare is violent because she wants to be, because it suits her, and she is strikingly and deliciously indifferent to the men around her. For her alone, Preacher is worth watching, because it’s breaking boundaries not just of genre, but femininity and what it means to be a woman in film and television. While ultraviolence isn’t (and shouldn’t be) a grand aspirational goal for every female character, in a programme grounded in violence and brutality, it’s a pleasant change to see a woman holding her own, instead of being subservient to the men around her.