Brow Beat

How Preacher’s Tulip Is Shattering the Mold for Female Characters in Prestige Dramas

Ruth Negga as Tulip in Preacher.

Matthias Clamer/AMC - © AMC Networks Entertainment LLC and Sony Pictures Television Inc.

Preacher debuted on AMC as a critically lauded, decently well-rated television show—a pleasant surprise, given the series’ long incubation period and the many perils of adapting a TV series from a beloved comic book. Seth Rogen, Evan Goldberg, Sam Catlin, and the rest of the Preacher team have done a fantastic job applying the structures and strengths of prestige television to the contours of the comic, from the newly defanged, ambivalent version of preacher Jesse Custer to the less horrific, more relatable Eugene (aka “Arseface”). But nowhere has the show’s remarkable success in adaptation been clearer than in its treatment of Tulip O’Hare, Jesse’s on-again, off-again love interest.

The acting certainly helps: As Tulip, rising star Ruth Negga manages to be maternal and flinty, tough and sensitive, antagonistic and loving all at once, effortlessly capturing the complications of her relationship with Jesse. Her performance contains a forcefulness, a razor edge that helps anchor the show’s relentlessly pulpy, often ridiculous dialogue. And, more than maybe anyone else in the cast, Negga is clearly having fun with the material, tearing into each smirking monologue like it’s a rack of ribs from a Sunday cookout. But Negga is only part of the equation. Preacher has been careful to position Tulip as the show’s breakout character, because it gives her by far the best material.

This is no easy competition—nearly every role on Preacher is a meaty one. Jesse commands people with his voice and gets into bar fights. Cassidy is literally a vampire, cuts off a guy’s arm with a chainsaw, and runs over the same guy with a van. (This man returns from the dead, repeatedly.) But none of that comes anywhere close to Tulip building a bazooka out of coffee cans, engaging in a fistfight in a car careening through a corn field, or kidnapping Jesse, donning a gas mask, and pretending to be a terrifying monster set on interrogating him. In all of these endeavors, Tulip is consistently active, in sharp contrast to the trapped Cassidy and inert Jesse.

At the outset, Jesse is trying his best to be a good preacher and pillar of the community rather than actualizing his violent impulses. He takes action only when forced and would prefer peaceful, spiritual resolutions to problems over guns and fists. Tulip has none of this, trying to convince Jesse to go back to their old life. (We don’t know exactly what they did, but it seems like it was violent and well-paid.) In Sunday night’s episode, she almost tempts him into murdering an old acquaintance of theirs, apparently guilty of some serious crimes—only for Jesse to turn the other cheek once more and return to Annville without doing anything. “We leave him to God,” he proclaims, and Tulip responds by beating a gas pump with a squeegee.

Tulip’s confrontations with Jesse are consistently some of Preacher’s strongest moments, because they reverse the usual relationship dynamic of prestige TV. For years, the height of televised drama was a show where a man wanted to do something ethically suspect but extremely cool and a woman (usually his wife) tried to get him to stop. Carmela Soprano, Skyler White, Betty Draper—all variously hated by fans and defanged by writers, because their primary motivation was persuading their husbands to quit doing narratively interesting things. Instead, here, Jesse is the one trying to stay on the straight and narrow, while Tulip is trying to push a gun into his hand. As she puts it in last night’s episode, “You’re boring the shit out of me right now, so let’s talk about my stuff.”

TV has, blessedly, started to move past the middle-aged antihero trope in the past few years. Many of the best and most exciting shows have placed women in the most active, compelling roles, like Keri Russell’s brutally efficient ideologue Elizabeth Jennings on The Americans or Eva Green’s brooding, powerful Vanessa Ives on Penny Dreadful. And the reaction against antihero drama has only accelerated as writers increasingly draw, explicitly and unashamedly, on the feminine tradition of soap opera. (We have this creative trend to thank for, among other things, Jane the Virgin, Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, and the Shonda-verse.)

But navigating female protagonists through the still-rather-masculine space of prestige television continues to be a bit of a slog—think of Homeland, which has insisted on keeping Carrie Mathison a mess as the series has developed, and rendered her a deeply uninteresting character in the process. Even Kim Wexler on Better Call Saul, one of the best characters on TV, is occasionally reduced to telling Jimmy not to do something. (Not for nothing are most of the best female characters on TV in comedies.) In this light, it’s refreshing to see a hand-wringing, anxious man—embodying many traits coded as feminine—pressured toward the fun stuff by his ex-girlfriend, who possesses a level of personal (and narrative) clarity that Jesse lacks.

One of the worst parts of the Preacher comic is Jesse’s habit of “nobly” abandoning Tulip because he doesn’t feel comfortable letting a woman be in dangerous situations, or something. This vaguely chivalric idea is presented as a sort of emotional and ethical Teflon—Jesse knows he’s wrong and stupid for doing this, but he just cares so much that Tulip is left with little choice but take him back, over and over again. Beyond the frustration of watching a male character perpetually assert his need for moral superiority, this is just bad writing, over-relying on a limited understanding of relationships that flattens everyone involved.

It’s a testament to how good of a job the writers, directors, and Negga have done in bringing the character to life that it’s impossible to imagine such a flattening happening on the show, at least not in quite the same way. Negga’s Tulip takes her destiny into her own hands, with Jesse plodding off in the distance. If he ever abandons her, it’s hard to imagine him emerging with his balls fully intact. Tulip is driving the show, literally—in Sunday night’s episode, she uses her genuine love for Jesse to talk her way out of a speeding ticket, then tears off down the open road—in contrast to most of the women in similar situations on TV and her own source material. If Preacher continues to follow the comic, Jesse will be off hunting down God soon enough. In the meantime, we should all pray for our televisions to fill up with characters like Tulip O’Hare.