Every Sunday, we pick a new episode of the week. It could be good. It could be bad. It will always be interesting. You can read the archives here. The episode of the week for December 10 through 16 is “Unworthy,” the second season finale of Fox’s The Exorcist.
I watched “Unworthy,” the finale of The Exorcist’s terrific second season, with a gnawing pit of dread in my stomach.
The dread wasn’t due to my anxiety about what might happen. It seemed reasonable to assume the series’ central priests would live to exorcise another day, while season two’s “family of the season” would be written out in either a bloody or heartwarming way. Nor did the dread stem from my concern over the show’s depiction of how demons might stalk us through the subconscious. For as inventive as The Exorcist’s portrayal of demonic possession frequently is, it still hasn’t quite figured out how to capture the moment when somebody actually sees a demon.
No, my dread was instead due to my certainty that this genuinely eerie horror series, which creates very real tension within the confines of network television, isn’t long for this world.
I probably would have assumed as much anyway, given the show’s meager ratings, but earlier this year, it did gut out a season two renewal under similarly low-rated circumstances, and it’s the perfect type of show to binge-watch on a chilly winter weekend. I wouldn’t bet on another surprise renewal, but I could see where one might happen — or at least that would’ve been the case before Disney bought Fox, and The Exorcist show with it, consigning the show, along with nearly all of my other favorite Fox properties, to limbo.
The Exorcist, ironically, is an example of something its soon-to-be parent company excels at: extending franchises
When The Exorcist debuted as a TV series in the fall of 2016, fans of the classic film had every reason to be skeptical. After all, one of the most prevalent strategies in this era of Peak TV is to take an already existing property (usually a movie) and try, usually without much success, to adapt it into a TV series. The Fox network alone has tried this on everything from Minority Report to Lethal Weapon, with varying degrees of popular success and little critical recognition.
The Exorcist immediately hinted that it could stand out from the movie that inspired it by tapping into something that has been underexplored in subsequent Exorcist projects: family drama. William Peter Blatty’s original 1971 book and William Friedkin’s 1973 film both centered on a powerful connection between mother and daughter, one that is disrupted by the demon Pazuzu.
Even if you didn’t buy all the God-versus-Satan business, you could enjoy the story of their estrangement as a metaphorical retelling of what happens when daughters become adolescents and start viciously fighting with their mothers. (I wrote much more about this topic at the end of season one.)
Season one, like other successful movie-to-TV adaptations (see: Hannibal or Fargo), took these basic elements and remixed them. Now, the mother wasn’t single; the daughter was one of two sisters, instead of an only child; and the process of demonic possession was depicted as a long, inescapable seduction.
Around the season’s midpoint, it dropped its biggest twist: It was actually a sequel to the Exorcist story we knew and loved, and its central mother (played by Geena Davis) was Reagan MacNeil, her possession long behind her, all grown up, only to find one of her daughters carried off by the devil. Its extension of the existing Exorcist franchise — while remaining a compelling TV show — would have done the series’ new corporate parent (a certain big-eared mouse) proud.
Season two, then, had a lot to live up to, without the MacNeil family connected to it in any way, having been exorcised from the show at the end of season one. (Reagan and her kids are now presumed to be off somewhere else, living their lives.) But series creator Jeremy Slater and his writers smartly spun the story around to focus on a new kind of family, in this case a man named Andy (John Cho) who runs a group home for kids with troubled backgrounds, on an island out in Washington’s Puget Sound. (As far as places for bad supernatural shit to go down are concerned, an island in the Pacific Northwest has to be near the top of the list.) But Slater and his team also remembered that just as important to this story as the demons and the family dynamics is the idea that the possession is a metaphor for something.
And in this case, that something was grief.
Season two was best when its characters confronted the hole left in their lives by loss
When season two of The Exorcist begins, Andy and the kids in his home are all still trying to find a way to move past the suicide of Andy’s wife, Nicole (Alicia Witt). The series takes its time teasing out what, exactly, happened to Nicole, but once Andy starts tentatively developing a new relationship with an old college girlfriend — a social worker named Rose (Li Jun Li) — whatever’s going on in his home starts to kick up a ruckus. It’s as though the demon is his grief itself, unwilling to let his wounds heal enough to move on.
The smartest play here is that the target of season two’s demon isn’t any of the kids living in Andy’s house. It’s Andy himself, something the audience realizes at almost the same time as everybody else, thanks to the show’s incredibly deft deployment of some storytelling misdirection. (It’s usually very difficult for a TV show to surprise me with a twist, and The Exorcist’s second season managed the feat twice.)
By the time he’s disappearing into his own subconscious — and succumbing to the throes of his guilt over what role he might have played in his wife’s suicide, thus allowing the demon to take over — The Exorcist has hit a new high-water mark. The show skillfully balances the terror over what he might do to any of his kids or to Rose (all one-season characters who are instantly easy to sympathize with) with a surprisingly nuanced portrayal of how easy it is to become lost in grief. Even better, the series manages to tell a story about Nicole’s mental illness without blatantly conflating it with demonic possession, which might have made her suicide feel all the cheaper.
Truth be told, the season’s final handful of episodes can’t quite match up to its midsection, though the finale — which features Andy and tortured exorcist Father Tomas (Alfonso Herrera) finding a way to trick the demon just long enough to defeat it — comes close.
It wraps both the family story and the demonic story in satisfying fashion, then shifts to a lengthy coda that brings closure to all the one-season characters, while leaving Tomas and his fellow exorcist Father Marcus (Ben Daniels, giving a performance that is perfectly hammy) in a place that suggests new directions for the series, should Tomas and Marcus have to reunite to defeat evil again. The episode even finds a way to incorporate what’s very nearly a shot-for-shot homage to a terrific scare from the underrated Exorcist III.
But what’s most impressive about the second season of The Exorcist is how confidently it blends its many tones. In its early going, Tomas and Marcus’s struggles to save a possessed woman and their eventual visit to a seemingly possessed girl who turns out to be suffering a sort of demonic version of Munchausen by proxy (in that her mother so badly wants her to be possessed that she has convinced the girl she is possessed) blend beautifully with the eerier story unfolding at Andy’s house. And by the time all of the season’s threads converge, the show is firing on all cylinders.
If there’s one thing about season two that doesn’t quite work, it’s the more straightforward horror moments, when Andy is stalking characters during his possession or when he’s facing off with demons — who seem to be human beings made entirely of oily sludge — in his subconscious. But that’s almost no matter for the way The Exorcist keys in on what’s psychologically horrifying about demonic possession.
We’ve all experienced moments when we feel like there’s something in our head that’s not us, urging us down some darker path. And we’ve all had moments when we’ve indulged, just a little bit. The Exorcist offers just enough skepticism about the actual existence of demons to let you relax and believe that, no, what’s happening here isn’t just grief run amok. It’s some sort of force from hell. It’s a neat bit of sleight of hand that updates a seemingly exhausted story for a new era. A certain Mouse would be pleased.
The Exorcist’s two seasons are available on Hulu.