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Damien sees the light at the end of the tunnel and, yup, it’s a train

(Bradley James) (Jan Thijs/A&E)
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Early in “The Deliverer,” Damien stares at the shiny red tricycle in Ann Rutledge’s secret shrine and muses, “This is a murder weapon.” As Damien’s heavy reliance on clips from The Omen showed last week, little Damien rode that trike into Katherine Thorn (Lee Remick) and knocked her from a second-floor landing, sending her (and her newly conceived pregnancy) to her death. Ann reassures him he didn’t murder his mother; she died of “complications.”

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Three episodes in, Damien is dying of complications, and paradoxically also of oversimplification. It’s ponderously self-serious and over-elaborate, but also tediously superficial. Torn between the dark camp of Barbara Hershey’s scenes and the false gravity of everything else, it tries—and fails—to deliver both. A few bright performances light up some scenes, but that just illuminates how dreary the rest is.

Damien is sloppy with its characters, introducing them without context, under- and over-explaining them by turns, sometimes not even naming them until after their horrific deaths. Damien’s assassin was anonymous until after his death, just a nameless man instructed by a priest. But now Herman Saroyan’s background has been spelled out twice, once by the police and once by the blond conspirator introduced at Ann’s home, who also goes unidentified.

And worst of all, it’s boring. “The Deliverer” does the audience the favor of introducing Troy, Ann’s replacement to groom Damien Thorn for his rightful position as deliverer of the apocalypse, before sending him haring down a busy Manhattan street and toward his own destiny (chewed up by a subway escalator’s merciless teeth), but there’s no suspense in this chase scene. It’s not just that a lean young war correspondent dressed for action and displaying decent runner’s form will predictably outstrip a middle-aged executive lumbering down the street in a suit, or even that there’s no contest between the protagonist of the show and the usurper Ann calls “a moron.” Somehow, Ann’s plotting sets the devil’s Rube Goldbergian machination into motion, dooming Troy to be reduced to a bloody sludge and destining Damien for offhand heroism… again. (Did anyone else chant “Subway hero! When I say ‘subway,’ you say ‘hero’” during this scene?)

The dialogue is full of quips that have no content. When Ann describes her induction into his service, telling Damien she “raised you from afar,” he retorts, “I raised myself.” It’s a snappy comeback (and a missed opportunity for a “raised by wolves” joke—wolves, jackals, whatever), but it’s meaningless. This episode details how young Damien was surrounded by guardians, protectors, and authority figures, taken in by the President and First Lady, and looked after by a staff so extensive that Ann Rutledge was just a face in the crowd.

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He even found a mentor in John Lyons (Scott Wilson), the First Lady’s Chief Of Staff, who spoiled him so thoroughly that the two can laugh comfortably about Damien’s troubling past. “Remember that time you were 6 and you trashed all the crystal vases in the East Wing?,” John asks, chuckling. It’s a rare instance of subtlety for Damien. The FLOTUS’ Chief Of Staff making light of a wanton, costly, and potentially highly public act of destruction rings a false note until it’s revealed that he’s not just Damien’s mentor, but a high-ranking member of the hierarchy guiding the Antichrist toward his destiny.

Even when it finds an apt metaphor, Damien labors under the weight of its dialogue. John Lyons is introduced raising a ship in a bottle, saying, “There always comes a moment when all your work might just fall apart.” It’s an image of a specific kind of man—precise, patient, and agile, but also old-fashioned, affluent, and with the luxury of long hours devoted to painstaking work—that only grows more eloquent when John’s true role is revealed. Wilson manages to breathe a hint of life into his creaky, improbable lines. But any whiff of naturalism in their scene vanishes with Bradley James’ stilted rumination on those ships: “These always looked so intricate and complicated, an inscrutable puzzle.” The ungainly writing makes every episode sound as stiff as a table reading.

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(Barbara Hershey, Bradley James) (Ben Mark Holzberg/A&E)

Hershey plays up her character’s uncomfortable contrasts, making Ann Rutledge maternal, seductive, and commanding all at once. Damien describes her preoccupation with him as “an unnatural interest,” and it really, really is. Her unwavering confidence—in herself, in her cause, and in her surrogate son—lights up every scene she’s in. Carving into the 666 scarring her thigh, she’s rivetingly intense, and her collapse into ecstasy as she leaves is absurd. I can’t decide whether it’s hilarious or chilling, which is a testament to Hershey’s ability to chew up dreck and spit it out as camp.

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The script (credited to Ryan C. Coleman) tries for resonance, but falls short. Throughout “The Deliverer,” characters talk about answers without reaching for any. John Lyons tells Ann, “Your coddling may have been the answer in the past,” but those days are over. Ann snaps at Troy, “Don’t pretend you have all the answers!” When Ann arrives at Damien’s loft, bearing sushi and reassurances, he confronts her: “This morning, you had all the answers! Now, you don’t!” She corrects him. “I said no one has all the answers. I didn’t say there aren’t any.” “The Deliverer” blathers about answers without delivering many, or even posing meaningful questions—about Damien’s origin, his essential character, his role in bringing about the apocalypse, the possibility of free will, or even his own wavering belief in recent revelations.

In the opening scene, when Damien wisecracks that Ann has all the answers (which, to be fair, is what you’d expect from someone with her own Damien Thorn exhibition), she tells him, “No one has all the answers.” Tonelessly, Damien says, “Then this is a waste of time.” For once, Damien and I are in complete agreement.

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Stray observations

  • Troy really is a moron. Who else would trustingly follow Ann out of Armitage Global—where they both have offices—to speak privately?
  • Finally, an explanation for those jerks who run smack into other commuters on the sidewalk or subway platform. It’s a demonic conspirator, every time.
  • “We’ve been thinking it’s time for a change.” This phrase is only slightly more menacing coming from a collaborator in a decades-long apocalyptic conspiracy than from a regular ol’ upper exec at a transnational corporation with its own private army.
  • Tonight’s review marks the end of my regular coverage of Damien. It’s all for you, The A.V. Club! [jumps off assignment]
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