The second-best thing I can say about Damien’s second episode is this: At least “Second Death” makes its stubborn staring into the void a pervasive motif. The episode starts with characters looking down into an open grave, ends in an underground chamber, and Damien spends a big chunk of time staring into the abyss of human misery. Unfortunately, thematic consistency isn’t enough to hold a show together.
Damien’s most glaring flaw comes to the forefront in this episode. The writers (“Second Death” is credited to Mark H. Kruger, also a co-executive producer) don’t know, or care, who any of these people are. Damien Thorn is the orphaned son of a prominent family, and he’s the Antichrist. But that’s all he is. Oh, sure, his editor tells us he’s a successful photojournalist—he’s in the running for a Pulitzer, remember?—and Amani drives home the point that he’s a swell guy, who takes time from his international travels and deadlines (and braves an ebola outbreak) to attend the funeral of a 10-year-old he barely knows. (“His name was Solomon,” Damien mutters. Yeah, we get it: You’re a great guy! You remember the fallen!) But he doesn’t have any personality, any individuality, any anything. He’s an empty shell.
This emptiness of character could be a symptom of Damien’s lifelong amnesia and his confusion over recent revelations, but that isn’t coming across. It would be easy to lay blame at Bradley James’ feet, and his switch between a vacant stare and a stupefied squint for most of his screen time doesn’t help. But no actor could do much with this blank slate.
The show does James no favors by introducing Damien this week paging through the Bible, highlighting text like a dim but diligent student. “This calls for wisdom,” begins the first passage, and that’s too bad, because there’s scant wisdom on display here. Damien’s study session is punctuated by the camera peering at him from a distance—through the ceiling grate above, behind the grimy panels of glass that block off portions of his dim loft—to no real effect. Later, when Damien wanders the poorest streets of New York taking photographs, the same voyeuristic framing hints at (and soon reveals) the man following him, but in the solitude of his apartment, these shots convey no meaning. They’re just an empty gesture of disorientation.
The emptiness of Damien goes deeper than a single vacuous portrayal or meaningless camera angle. It’s apparent in every character, because they aren’t really characters, just pegs to hang a story on. At Kelly’s funeral, her sister Simone (Megalyn E.K., familiar to viewers as Megalyn Echikunwoke of The Following, House Of Lies, and The 4400) unintentionally underlines the problem. “We all knew snippets of Kelly,” she says, “Phi Beta Kappa, humanitarian, crusading journalist out to save the world.” That isn’t a eulogy; it’s a résumé. Kelly wasn’t a person, just an assortment of idealized traits who dug up plot points, then died to deepen Damien’s despair. “She won a Courage In Journalism award,” Simone continues, “and it was then that I realized I do not have the slightest clue what my sister’s been through.” Or even who she is. Simone can’t be blamed for not knowing Kelly when the show doesn’t know her, either.
Damien shows his first flicker of energy at Simone’s apartment after Kelly’s funeral. When a priest counsels him to seek solace in faith, Damien lashes into him, at first diffidently, then with mounting confidence. “Given how Kelly died, I wouldn’t put my faith in any foundation,” he begins, but he ends his impromptu speech smirking as he snaps that God is a sadistic prick telling a cruel joke, as all the mourners stare. It’s easily James’ best performance in the two episodes so far, because the pleasure he takes in his venom is the only inkling of Damien’s inner life.
That leads to the best thing about “Second Death”: the glimmers of humor peeking through its gloom. When Damien bolts out of the church to vomit, Ann Rutledge follows, reassuring him that she, too, can’t bear funerals. “All that ‘there’s a reason for everything, it’s part of God’s plan,’” she says, leaning over the stone banister to peer at his barf. “It’s hard to stomach.” Barbara Hershey is the only person embracing the absurdity of the show, and consequently the most fun to watch.
As she leads Damien through the hidden entrance to her underground vault (doesn’t Ann Rutledge seem like exactly the kind of person who would have a secret bookcase door?), for the first time I was laughing with the show, not at it. Of course Ann Rutledge collects Damien’s bleak photographs; of course her devotion to the devil’s scion is made manifest in a clandestine Damien Thorn museum. Damien’s liberal use of clips from The Omen invites an unfortunate comparison, but that shiny red tricycle brings back memories—for the audience as well as Damien, because Damien itself is a kind of museum, dwelling on the minutiae of The Omen franchise.
Damien’s awakening is a conflict between the man he wants to be and the monster he’s preordained to become. But that epic struggle isn’t compelling when it’s presented as a battle between a darkly electric villain and a dim bulb. If Damien can develop that hint of self-awareness and humor, it might dig itself out of this hole.
- “No one really wants to look in the mirror,” Ann Rutledge tells Damien. Gosh, no! Because the abyss gazes back!
- The hellhounds are not terribly menacing. I’m a little skittish around big dogs and even I interpreted that Rottweiler’s patient panting outside the bathroom door as I’m a good doggie, yes, I am, not as the devil sent me to tear you apart.
- “Strike where the heart should be,” the priest instructs his soldier, handing over the last blade of Megiddo. Is this metaphorical, or has Damien Thorn lived to the age of 30 without any doctor, including the ones he must see routinely for his no-doubt exhaustive panel of vaccinations for his world travels, noticing he doesn’t have a heart?
- As a demonstration of the devil’s power to orchestrate seemingly random events, the death of Damien’s would-be assassin is far more effective than the sinkhole from the premiere, because it’s so mundane yet deadly. It’s also reminiscent of [spoiler alert for a 1978 film] Charles Warren’s (Nicholas Pryor) death by train hitch from The Omen II.
- Last week, I misidentified the cause of Kelly’s accident as (hilariously improbable) urban quicksand. I’ll note and correct that error in the original review, and I’m noting it here, too, because, hey, the show does display some consistent—even insistent—thematic unity. It’s one big sinkhole.