CBS' 'Evil' Explores Demonic Possession, Channels 'The Exorcist' in Halloween-Themed Episode

Wednesday, 23 October 2019 - 10:55AM
Wednesday, 23 October 2019 - 10:55AM
CBS' 'Evil' Explores Demonic Possession, Channels 'The Exorcist' in Halloween-Themed Episode
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Elizabeth Fisher/CBS ©2019 CBS Broadcasting, Inc. All Rights Reserved
CBS' Evil – freshly renewed for a second season – is likely the most unsettling show on network television, challenging audiences to examine the thresholds of faith and skepticism along the intersections of science and the supernatural: the psychological crossroads where the show's protagonists, played by Katja Herber (Westworld) and Mike Colter (Luke Cage), encounter each other.

Although the series raises questions about Judeo-Christian – particularly Catholic – narratives surrounding the origin of evil (including the literal existence of Satan exerting influence through demons or other malign, supernatural entities), the show's most disturbing sequences arrive when it confronts human fragility with human wickedness, selfishness, and cruelty: characteristics that, perhaps ironically, both science and religion agree originate from fragility. All of those aspects come into play in this season's fifth episode "October 31" which airs tomorrow night. 

The episode's core plot surrounds psychologist Kristen (Herber) being asked by Catholic assessor David (Colter) to offer her professional opinion on what David believes is a case of demonic possession in a woman previously diagnosed with, among other things, schizophrenia and bipolar illness. This is not, however, a normal house call. The woman, Caroline Hopkins (Karen Pittman), has been undergoing an exorcism under the care of a priest, Father Amara (Clark Johnson), for the past four days and seems to be getting worse. When Kristen enters the home, a screaming, bloodied Mrs. Hopkins is tied to a chair in a scene that looks like a surreal cross between a mob interrogation (everyone except the priest is required to wear sunglasses to avoid eye contact with "the demon") and heroin withdrawal. My first thoughts were to look up the elements of felony false imprisonment in the New York Penal Code and, unsurprisingly, Kristen seems inclined towards the same kind of reaction. 

My view of the possession plot, then, had less to do with whether or not Caroline was actually inhabited by a malevolent spirit and more to do with the absolutely batshit-crazy things people do in the name of religion, politics, or any other dogma – including those ostensibly informed by scientific or medical reasoning – that requires putting on blinders (as one might don sunglasses) and acting in accordance with some cognitive bias or another. Here we have a priest and a priest-in-training – community leaders assured of their position on the right side of the universal, zero-sum duality proposed by Christianity – that have tied a woman to a chair against her will. It doesn't take much effort to consider real-life scenarios involving people who, assured of their own goodness and rapport with God, do incredibly horrible things to others. Both David and Father Amara's insistence on the presence of "the demon" only seems to place them further outside the ethical boundaries of the church they purport to serve, despite their obliviousness.

From a purely visual standpoint, the scenes inside the house seem designed to literally skew the audience's view of David: half are shot at acute, anxiety-inducing angles while the rest are framed squarely, placing all involved within a visual metaphor created by a cinematographic box. The culpability  – whether intentional or not – of David and Father Amara in exacerbating Caroline's distress is further implied by the appearance of Kristen's therapist Dr. Kurt Boggs (Kurt Fuller), who arrives in a visual nod to the iconic scene in The Exorcist (1973) when Max von Sydow's Father Merrin arrives by cab at the MacNeil house, silhouetted by a streetlight and the light streaming from an upstairs window. Rather than faith coming to save the day, however, it's science, though Evil's writers are sharp enough to leave loose ends and frayed nerves on both sides. 

Rounding out the Halloween horrors is the perpetually creepy Dr. Leland Townsend (Lost's Michael Emerson) who oozes psychopathic dad-bod charm in an encounter with.... well, I won't spoil it. His blasé delivery of pseudo-Ayn Randisms like "kindness is hypocrisy" makes such Mephistophelian maxims more amusing than sinister. Outcreeping Townsend, however, is Brenda (Matilda Lawler), a masked little girl who arrives at Kristen's house and proceeds to double-down on last week's themes of both parricide and filicide, terrifying and fascinating her playmates while adding a healthy dose of urban myth to the show's Halloween theme. Brenda's backstory poignantly drives home the origins of evil in its most tragic, human context: that those who suffer immense cruelty often go on to inflict it. There's no devil needed to blame for that. 

"October 31" airs on Thursday, October 24th at 10pm eastern time on CBS.
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