The Exorcist creator Jeremy Slater was smart to blow open the world created by William Peter Blatty. Keeping a large chunk of a horror narrative confined to a single house in Washington D.C. works well for a novel or a film, but a TV show—a medium with an indefinite end—requires expansion. The format requires justification. Why continue such a well-known story on the small screen? Why change up the structure with week-to-week serialization?
For the most part, The Exorcist has proved itself in its first season, rationalizing the rejiggering with a tale that’s bigger and more complex than what came before it. By unleashing demonic forces on a crowded metropolis, it shows how far the reach of Pazuzu (and thus Satan) really is. By unveiling both the good and the evil within the Catholic church, it shows how scripture can be interpreted in radically different ways. And from a more primitive standpoint, the wide number of urban locations makes for a more diverse kind of terror. While, there have been moments of profoundness and complicated character development, there have also been show-stopping moments of gross-out horror.
At the same time, it’s still a first season, and even the best first seasons have their fair share of speed bumps. For The Exorcist, it’s the pacing that’s suffered the most. Because Slater and co. have expanded Blatty’s world to include several more circles of Hell, there’s been a lot to cover. Some of it has been paced effectively, and some of it has been sluggish or rushed. In an episode like “Father Of Lies,” where all the tiny moving parts start galloping in preparation for the finale in December, the uneven pacing becomes more apparent than ever. The strengths become that much stronger, just as the weaknesses become more glaring.
It’s the more satellite storylines that have the biggest risk of flatlining. From no fault of the actors, I’m just not invested in Father Tomas’ should-I-or-shouldn’t-I dilemma with Jessica. The show actually does itself a disservice when Chris compares him with Father Karras. While both men have experienced a crisis of faith, Karras struggled with being haunted by the demise of his mother, among other things. Because there was death involved, it fit more easily into the horror framework and automatically upped the stakes. Maybe it comes down to personal preference, but from a horror-fan standpoint, it’s much more unnerving to see a man tormented by the loved one he couldn’t save than the woman he shouldn’t be sleeping with. Any time the show hones in on Tomas’ inner romantic struggle, it’s easy to check out. And there’s quite a bit of it in “Father Of Lies.”
Although that once again concedes the Most Interesting Priest Award to Father Marcus, Tomas’ storyline does become slightly more compelling when he gets bitten by Casey. Is it the bite or his own inner turmoil that makes him Hulk out at the pharmacy? And in the rules of the show, does a demon (or demon-possessed) bite function like a vampire bite? Can Pazuzu transmit itself to someone else while still remaining inside its initial vehicle? Once again, the spiritual questions and body-horror scenarios overshadow the romantic travail. At the very least, Tomas’ steadily building weaknesses make him a prime target for Maria Walters and the rest of her cult. If his vulnerability leads to more creepy ash-and-eyeball rituals down the line, maybe the Jessica business will have been worth it.
The other arc that continues to suffer is the relationship between Angela and Chris, which is meant to be at the show’s core, but still feels satellite because of how undercooked it is. The show tries to make up for lost time by having them further outline their tense mother-daughter relationship, and yet—like everything else involving the MacNeils so far—it zips by far too quickly. While I can envision Angela as a grown-up Regan, Chris still seems like a completely different person from the original film, more plot device than character as she continues to do little but apologize for being such a shitty mother in the wake of the first possession. “You did the best you could,” Angela assures her, adding even more narrative inconsistency. Is she forgiving her this quickly and easily?
Maybe that means the show’s done unconvincingly building tension between the two, which is a plus. Simply put, I think the series would work better if they’re getting along, even if their dynamic does add some mildly interesting thematic color to the episode. Chris feels like she failed her daughter, and now Angela feels like she’s failing hers. This helps her realize that perhaps it’s her that Pazuzu is trying to get to. Perhaps it’s her—not a priest—that needs to confront the demon head-on. When she gets greeted with the deepened word of “sow,” it’s a chilling moment that transforms her back into the frightened little girl she once was. But once again, that resonates just by virtue of her being Regan MacNeil—not because the show has explored her past and current relationship with her mother in a meaningful way.
As usual, The Exorcist has a better grip on the traditional horror-movie elements, continuing to find new ways to show the ongoing exorcism itself. Here, it’s depicted with fatigue, shot in slow motion as the camera drunkenly swoops over the nuns and priests who have been trying for nine days to save Casey. Although it doesn’t have the same gut punch as a rotating head or a stream of green vomit, it’s a different kind of horror; one that pummels the viewer with exhaustion.
It also helps that it’s the direct opposite of the macabre findings of Father Bennett. As he investigates Maria and everyone else, it unfolds like a fast-paced thriller, hinging more on ominous detective work and jump scares. On its own, it might be cliche, but when coupled with the wooziness of the exorcism, it builds a wide-ranging sense of unease. Some of the best genre shows have a hard time achieving that kind of effect even after their first season. It’s a reminder that, for its handful of faults, The Exorcist could very well go from good to great when things wrap up next week.
- After reading your comments, I’ve decided to forgo using Regan (for the most part) and refer to Geena Davis’ character as Angela. Thanks for the feedback!
- Speaking of comments, it’s been a crazy week for obvious reasons, and I haven’t yet been able to engage with you all about last week’s episode. Keep ‘em coming though. I’m listening, and love hearing your thoughts. I’ll dive into last week’s comments section and this one on Monday.
- So about that demon bite…is there any writing anywhere that describes it as possibly being infectious? It doesn’t have to come from a religious text, necessarily. I’m just wondering if this is something the show’s introducing or if it got it from somewhere else.
- Apologies for the not-so-clear picture used for this week’s review. Fox isn’t always the best about providing hi-res press photos.
- “God is in me. Yeah, lie.” Hell yeah, Father Marcus, who continues to be the persistent voice of reason (and aggravation) to Father Tomas.
- “God is not some big fluffy border collie that comes running every time you snap your fingers. He does what he pleases. It’s not our job to understand why.”
- Correction: A previously published version of this review stated that the finale is next week, when there are actually three more episodes left in the season. Apologies for the error, and—as always—thanks to those who pointed it out.