How the Preacher protagonist fails at being a Byronic hero.
Jesse Custer is many things: criminal, preacher, host of the God-like power known as Genesis. He is also boyfriend to one Tulip O’Hare, and incredibly bad at it.
Considering Jesse is the double whammy of childhood first love and Byronic-type hero, Tulip O’Hare is definitely in a ride-or-die situation, as mandated by the laws of narrative tropes that have existed since the 19th century (thanks for that, Wuthering Heights).
Now, to be clear, Tulip O’Hare is not a perfect human being. Like all the characters on Preacher, she is a deeply flawed, morally grey individual. She often shoots first and thinks later, and is therefore constantly digging herself into holes—although admittedly she is also adept at getting out of them. However, for better or for worse, her decisions are almost always made with Jesse in mind, even when they backfire spectacularly.
Does Jesse return the same courtesy? Not even a little.
Let’s take a quick refresher stroll through their relationship.
As children, Tulip and Jesse go around Annville, Texas causing trouble until Jesse’s father calls Child Protective Services, resulting in Tulip being taken away and put into the foster system. At some unspecified point in time, they reunite and begin both a relationship and a crime spree. Their Bonnie and Clyde act comes to a traumatic end after they are betrayed by a criminal colleague on a bank robbing job, causing the pregnant Tulip to miscarry. The two then decide to go straight, Jesse works as a bartender and Tulip as a realtor’s assistant, all while trying for another baby.
However, since neither one of them is particularly adept at talking about feelings and the like, things quickly start to go sour as they drift apart, Jesse looking for answers at the bottom of an endless series of pint glasses while Tulip secretly reverts to a life of crime and birth control, motivated by deep-seated insecurity and feelings of inadequacy. To be fair, considering Jesse’s devolved state one can hardly fault her course of action regarding the birth control; two humans unable to properly address their own emotional needs are hardly ideal parenting material.
Eventually, Jesse stumbles upon evidence of Tulip’s deceptions and confronts her, conveniently ignoring his own considerable shortcomings as a significant other in an act of hypocrisy befitting the absolute worst stereotype of a preacher. And so Jesse rides off on his high horse back to Annville to fill his father’s God-fearing footsteps, leaving Tulip behind.
Tulip makes her way to New Orleans, where she ends up marrying mob boss Viktor because he’s nice to her and actually treats her well. But when she hears news of Carlos, the associate who screwed her and Jesse over on that bank job all that time ago, Tulip leaves behind her new life and attentive husband without a second glance to find Jesse and seek revenge. It takes her all of season 1 to accomplish this.
Relationship renewed and Carlos beat to a bloody pulp, Tulip joins Jesse on his mission to find God, who’s gone AWOL, and the two come close to marrying before Tulip backs out—not only is she already married, but Viktor is looking for her, although she can’t tell Jesse because of his serious jealousy issues. Of course, Jesse finds out eventually anyway, nearly killing Viktor in spite of Tulip’s pleading. He ultimately restrains himself to merely torturing the other man for a while and then having him sign divorce papers.
Fast forward a bit, and Tulip is nearly killed by the Saint of Killers because of Jesse running late after making a deal with him. Fast forward a little bit more, and Tulip is actually shot and killed, once again thanks to her association with Jesse.
Instead of comforting her while she dies, or calling an ambulance, or being useful in any way, Jesse gets into a possessive fistfight with vampire friend Cassidy, who wants to turn Tulip in order to save her. So Tulip gets to die alone on a dirty floor to the soundtrack of her one true love telling their best friend to “let her die.”
Because you see, Jesse has a plan. Instead of letting Cassidy turn Tulip into a vampire, he’s going to bank her life on help from the diabolical soul-eating grandmother he hasn’t seen in over a decade. While he technically manages to pull it off and Tulip is resurrected as a normal, mortal, sun-safe human being, she is also then stuck in a Southern-fried version of Get Out where hypnosis is replaced by batshit crazy voodoo while Jesse runs around and does God stuff.
Meanwhile, his crazy grandmother, “Miss Marie,” makes a deal with literal Satan to get Tulip dragged to Hell. And her plan would have worked, too, if not for the neo-Nazis who blow the Hell-bound bus off the road because Tulip happens to be sharing her ride with none other than actual Hitler, which brings us to the present.
The thing about Jesse Custer is that he looks the part of the Byronic hero—tall, dark, and handsome (well, tall-ish). He’s got good hair, an impeccable physique, and he can brood like nobody’s business. He’s possessive, short-tempered, and indulges in alcohol to a concerning degree. But he fails at the thing that turns the Byronic hero from a nightmare with a pretty face to problematic favorite.
Basically, the appeal of the Byronic hero comes from the framing of all his considerable flaws—the suffocating possessiveness, the mercurial temper, and so on—as linked to an overabundance of feelings. With so many feelings, so much passion, how could one man not be overwhelmed by them? Also, when not backfiring into destructive tendencies, this passion usually manifests into grand romantic gestures and delightfully melodramatic declarations of love.
Jesse Custer aces looking like a Byronic hero and embodying the archetype’s flaws, but when it comes to the fundamental thing that makes this character type addictive he falls flat on his face. A Byronic hero usually makes his decisions thinking first and foremost of the person he loves, even when these decisions are spectacularly misguided. Jesse’s actions rarely follow this pattern. While capable of being affectionate when not distracted by other things, Jesse is quick to put Tulip on the back burner in the name of his “higher calling,” with a sort of out-of-sight-out-of-mind mentality. And even when he does things “for” Tulip, they frequently come across as fundamentally selfish—i.e. the exact opposite of swoon-worthy.
For example, let’s return to the time that Tulip died. There are circumstances in which making a deal with the Devil that is his grandmother would qualify as a grand gesture worthy of a true Byronic hero, but those are not the circumstances depicted in the show. In the show, Cassidy wants to turn Tulip into a vampire, which inspires Jesse to physically attack him. If Jesse was truly thinking first and foremost of Tulip, would he have done this? Probably not. While vampirism might have drawbacks, being indebted to Cassidy would have been a far less hellish situation than dealing with his grandmother and all her craziness. Also, on the subject of Hell, Cassidy’s solution wouldn’t have snowballed into Tulip sharing a one-way trip to Satan with Hitler. So then why did Jesse handle the situation the way he did? Because he was already jealous of Cassidy and Tulip’s close friendship—a relationship made that much stronger by being the two founding members of the “Why Do We Put Up With Jesse Anyway” club—and, as he loudly protests, he doesn’t want Cassidy to touch her. Because Tulip’s continued existence is worth risking in the name of protecting his fragile male ego.
Jesse Custer is not a true Byronic hero, he’s a toddler who doesn’t want to share a toy, even when he frequently abandons said toy on the ground in favor of a coloring book. Even when this toy isn’t a toy at all, but an actual person with feelings. This analogy gains special pertinence when you consider that, much like many a small child, Jesse is egocentric to the point of delusions of god-like grandeur.
With all of this in mind, there’s really only one thing left to say:
Good luck, Tulip O’Hare. You’re gonna need it.