One of the strongest elements of the original Exorcist (novel and film) is the maternal devotion of Chris MacNeil. Despite a possessed Regan murdering one of her closest friends, repeatedly causing her physical abuse, and generally putting her through the psychological ringer, Chris stays at her side. She never believes that her daughter can’t be saved. Like any good parent, she tries every method imaginable until her child is out of the woods, even if it means withering from a radiant actress to a strung-out husk of her former self.

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Apparently though, all of that changed shortly after Pazuzu was (seemingly) banished into the ether and Chris and Regan left Washington D.C. As revealed early on in “Star of the Morning,” Chris had a hard time getting work, money started to run out, and she resorted to exploiting her daughter’s ordeal for media attention.

Had Fox’s The Exorcist taken a few episodes to establish Chris’ changed personality, this may have been a believable outcome. But instead, the show literally dropped her on the Rances’ doorstep just one episode ago, and tonight, covers her shift in character over a single TV flashback and a short monologue from the adult Regan. There’s not enough time spent with Chris to realistically present her fall from grace. Once again, the original film is largely about how loyal she is to her child. The show would have to put in a hell of a lot of time and legwork to convince us otherwise. Instead, it’s all done through hasty exposition.

So for the rest of Chris’ time in “Star of the Morning,” we’re stuck with a character who doesn’t adhere to what we know about her, and yet hasn’t been woven into the current story in any kind of meaningful way. She shows up, quickly shares an airing of grievances with Regan, and meets the rest of the family before they all return to searching for Casey.

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The manhunt gives the episode a much-needed shot in the arm after Chris’ extended introduction, rendered even limper by yet another scene of Father Tomas stewing over what to do about his relationship with Jessica. Father Marcus is right; there are far more important things at hand, and his pursuit of Casey thankfully restores urgency to the show. His search brings him to the bowels of the city, where a jaunt through a tunnel becomes the obligatory creepy centerpiece of Episode 6. Casey’s presence has clearly inspired some disturbing behavior (that, or the passage is full of more possessed folks), its vagrants feasting on pigeons and mobbing Marcus until Casey bursts from a pile of cardboard and blankets. In another callback to the first film, she crawls on the tunnel wall, then leaps to the ground and crab-walks to the exit.

Where so many of the other Exorcist films (and possession films in general) tend to relegate their macabre imagery to confined places (bedrooms, hospitals, etc.), the show continues to ratchet up the horror by letting a demon loose in the urban wild. Every week, it finds new ways to take advantage of its Chicago environment, and the tunnel sequence is no exception. Soon after, Marcus finds Casey in the shallows of Lake Michigan, feasting on a (much larger) dead bird of her own. With the Drake Hotel glowing in the background, the scene builds terror by contrasting the visceral with the pristine. The Chicago skyline is gorgeous (especially this week), and it’s chilling to think that, beneath the calmly twinkling lights, there’s a rabid supernatural force tearing its way through flesh, bone, and feathers.

Of course, the darkness extends to some of the most prominent figures inside those sparkling buildings—something The Exorcist has been hinting at since the first episode. While the perpetrators’ exact goals are still murky, we finally get a better idea of what all those harvested organs are for. After getting methodically crisped to ash, they’re placed in the middle of a banquet table occupied by several members of the city’s elite. When the lid comes off and the ashes swirl overhead in a cloud, everyone—Maria Walters, police Superintendent Jaffey (Tim Hopper), and others—is eager to inhale them. The remnants choose Jaffey.

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The way his throat bulges recalls Regan’s initial intrusion from Pazuzu, and there’s no denying how demonic his now multi-irised eye looks. But viewing the ash inhalation as merely an act of demonic possession raises some interesting questions. As insidious as everyone attending the ritual likely is, they may be viewing the act and the Englewood murders that preceded it as holy, or at least beneficial to humanity. As explained earlier on by Dr. Rexroth (an eerily straightforward Michael Patrick Thornton), all demons were once angels, and, in a way, maybe they still are. More importantly, angels aren’t the light-filled, physically beautiful beings we’ve made them out to be. Their power is also capable of inspiring great fear in human beings. Likewise, perhaps demons aren’t the wholly evil monstrosities depicted by films and TV shows like the very one we’re watching. After all, it was the snake that gave Adam and Eve knowledge, and the term “demon” derives from the Greek word for “nature spirit.”

I’m not saying Dr. Rexroth or anyone else at the table are actually good people. We’ve already seen many of them commit an unspeakable crime on Chicago’s South Side, and the show goes out of its way to make one of their members almost as outwardly grotesque as The Salesman. But the shadow group does add some intriguing complexity to how we traditionally view angels and demons. Even the episode’s title phrase, “Star Of The Morning,” is biblically used to refer to both Jesus and Satan. In the world of The Exorcist, why wouldn’t there be people who think demons are just as holy as their mirror twins?

And if we’re going by that logic, wouldn’t angels have the potential to be just as frightening? Even when combined with Marcus’ hunt for Casey, none of it’s quite enough to bring Episode 6 to the thrilling heights of a chapter like “Let ‘Em In.” But it’s enough to show that The Exorcist is still concerned with horror spectacle and the complications of religious faith. It’s enough to show that, despite the rushed nature of the Chris storyline, the first season still knows how to pull off some unnerving surprises.

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Stray observations

  • So the tunnel where Marcus finds Casey isn’t actually that frightening at all. Located off of North Avenue (right near Second City), it’s a fairly small and clean passageway that leads to the Lakefront Trail. It does have that creepy green light though.
  • Unless there are any strong objections from you readers, I’ll be referring to Angela as Regan from here on out.
  • When all of the homeless people suddenly got quiet and backed away from Marcus upon sensing Casey, did it remind anyone else of orcs cowering in the presence of a Balrog?
  • I love that the show got the word “legion” into the ash ceremony. Does anyone know if that was a biblical passage? I know the ritual itself is likely fictional, but maybe the text is rooted in reality.
  • 500 misprinted pages doesn’t seem like that much.
  • “Colin Firth? No, he’s more like a scruffy Alec Guinness.”
  • “Pick me, pick me, pick me…”

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