This post contains plot details from “Book 27,” the final episode of Evil’s first season. If you aren’t caught up—and we suggest you do!—Evil is currently streaming on CBS.com. But until you see the spoiler tag, you are safe.
There’s a code, a little puzzle, embedded into Evil. One of the best network shows of the last several years, Robert and Michelle King’s satirical character-focused exorcism drama—let’s go with that description, which is accurate but still falls short—featured a number in the title of each episode in its excellent first season. (For your convenience: Genesis 1, 177 Minutes, 3 Stars, Rose390, October 31, Let x=9, Vatican III, 2 Fathers, Exorcism Part 2, 7 Swans a Singin’, Room 320, Justice x2, Book 27.) “It’s tied to the puzzle [you see] throughout the series,” Robert King told Paste on the eve of the show’s first season finale. “You need to combine [the numbers] with the puzzle. And it does make sense. It’s not something that you need to be the genius of the century [to solve].”
I am no genius, and I have not solved it. But the mere existence of the puzzle, and the way in which viewers are asked to interact with it, works as a metaphor for what makes Evil such a terrific, entertaining, and often challenging series. In a post-Lost world, a television show rolling out numbers like that sends viewers running for calculators and numerology books, but it is not possible to solve the puzzle without engaging with the story. You have to stay engaged through the end of the season. You have to watch the episodes, one at a time, week after week, and go in search of the missing pieces. And while the puzzle can be solved, it’s the pursuit itself that matters.
Evil’s puzzle is a lure, but so is the premise itself, as are its many twists and moments of absurdity. (John Glover sweating blood from the back of his neck while Carol Channing’s voice blasts from a possessed Alexa? Yes, please.) The wildness gets you through the door; the horror, the weirdness keeps you entertained, and all the while, the Kings slip in stuff that’s not so immediately arresting—stuff that, unlike the puzzle, cannot easily be solved or broken down. Could God create a nine-year-old psychopath? Can something be mundane and miraculous at once? What is evil to the believer, what is it to the non-believer, and how are they different? “Book 27” introduced a new one, which will, in turn, lead to many more: What’s the morality on murdering a serial killer who’s threatened to slice through the necks of your four children, who then enters your home and leaves a gift basket?
Those questions, for which there is no easy answer and perhaps no answer at all, are what you might call the reason for the season, and it goes hand in hand with Evil’s disinterest in providing comfortable answers to even its most binary questions. “There was always this urge, in the writers’ room and in us, to keep the audience from understanding knowing what the writers’ point-of-view was,” Robert King told Paste. “When you know that point-of-view, the mind tends to shut down and not enjoy the narrative, or at least intensely follow the narrative… We definitely want to keep things from being binary, because if you knew that we were definitely pointing [a religious explanation for something], I don’t think a third or even half the audience would be that open to it.”
“The writers were very vigilant about making sure we’re not tipping too far one way or the other [to secular or spiritual explanations],” Michelle King added. “And we like finding the gray. I mean, that’s our sweet spot anyway.”
It’s not just the big issues that dwell in the gray. The characters do, as well. Much of the wiggly ambiguity this season has stemmed from one of two things: The struggles of David (Mike Colter), a priest-in-training and recovering sex and drug addict whose devotion is linked in part to a promise he made to a dying fiancée and in part to his own fears about death, the latter addressed directly in one of the best scenes in “Book 27;” and in the mind of the supremely logical Kristen Bouchard (Katja Herbers, casually giving one of the best performances on TV), whose practical, decisive brain is often at war with her primal instincts (and own lapsed Catholicism) when it comes to all things demonic. But that struggle changed dramatically in the finale, as Kristen fully latched onto the belief that the cloven-hoofed demon she sees in a dream (voiced by Broadway legend Michael Cerveris) is also in some way Leland “Jake Perry from Iowa” Townsend (Michael Emerson).
Throughout the season, Kristen maintained some comfort with ambiguity and contradiction: A level-headed person who also demonstrated her willingness to strike decisively when her children are threatened. As things accelerate (her daughter seems to know what’s in Kristen’s nightmares, and that same daughter later begins bleeding from the mouth as she watches a pregnant woman suffer what seems to be infernal torment inside her womb, and the presence of that aforementioned serial killer [Darren Pettie] becomes more and more frequent) the practical, decisive mind, parental protectiveness, and bone-deep instincts snap together, and she acts. It’s a version of the events of an earlier episode, in which she sliced into Leland’s neck, gave him a towel to stop the bleeding, and told him precisely how long he had to get to the hospital. But on an operatic scale, and we don’t have to see the event (or a bloodied mountain-climbing axe) to know what happened. Paste asked the Kings about writing Kristen’s arc this season, what we’re meant to take from the episode’s final moments, and how worried we should be about her reliability as a narrator.
“Well, first of all, that’s Michelle, you just described Michelle,” Robert laughed, responding to the question of writing for the practical, decisive, but potentially lethal Kristen. “I think what we do is we have Michelle start acting and talking.”
“That may just be 20 years of childbearing,” Michelle added. “Though for me it’s one kid, not four.”
Yet it’s unlikely that anyone in the King household is currently worried about whether or not Michelle King is possessed. In Kristen’s case, that’s precisely what the end of “Book 27” positions is to worry about. “At the beginning of the episode, David puts the crucifix in the pregnant woman’s hand to see if she’s possessed because it would burn her if she was, and it did not. That was all setup for [the final scene]. You have Kristen, who’s worrying about the actions she’s taken over the course of the season, and if it’s pushed her in the direction of evil. I hope we’re not talking too much, because I do think there’s still ambiguity… earlier in the season we talked about stigmata and people who get stigmata, and that was meant to allow for ambiguity, so we’re not [definitively saying] it’s supernatural. We’d say there’s a psychological component to it.”
“The question is,” Michelle said, “has Kristen veered toward something evil, or is she just worried that she’s veering toward something evil?”
Is that something we should be worried about as well? Can we trust what we see through Kristen’s eyes? “Oh, I think you should be as worried as David is,” Robert said.
And David is pretty worried. While the appearance of Cerveris’ goat-demon therapist (goat-demon therapist, please watch this show) was the high watermark for what-the-hell, holy-shit reveals this season, the finale also puts David smack in the middle of vision that he, at least, believes comes from God, one that evokes both the dream ballet of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Oklahoma! and the Andrew Wyeth painting Christina’s World. In it, Kristen walks, smiling peacefully, toward the goat-demon (goat! demon!), threshing wheat. To this agnostic-wobbling-atheist viewer, it was one of several points in both the finale and the season that I found myself believing that, at least within the world of the show, there was some sort of supernatural force at work—a good one reaching out to David, and an evil one reaching out to, or at least preying upon, Kristen. The show never makes such things explicit, but instead leaves such decisions up to the viewer, a tactic intended, Michelle King told Paste, to push viewers out of their comfort zones.
“For those that fall in the way that you’re describing your belief system, [the intention is] to make you teeter, or at least question, and I think that’s half the fun.” “And there’s always an element of skepticism,” Robert added, “and that means that even in the most scientific minds there’s an element of superstition. One of the funniest things for me is when Kristen has been told by the prophet to avoid the color red, and then she just won’t let her daughter wear red out the door because yeah, we’re not going to take that chance! It’s funny when people undercut their own beliefs.”
All this from a show that centered its mid-season finale on a little earworm of a tune that drove people to poke at their own eardrums with scissors. It’s a hell of a trick—hook people in with the outrageous, the absurd, the seemingly familiar (it’s not a procedural, but it’s got some of the trappings), and the comfortably appealing (we salute another of TV’s hot priests); once you’ve got them, ask them to contemplate their most deeply-held beliefs, their feelings about death, and so on. The trick even works within individual episodes. The earworm episode was also about social media influencers and the susceptibility of young minds to great harm; maybe it’s not diet pills (the pregnant woman in “Book 27” keeps insisting that something is very wrong), but no one, not even Kristen, believes her. “Just because you have a name for something doesn’t mean it’s not insane,” the woman tells her doctor, on hearing the medical term for precisely what she’s been telling people was happening inside her, but which no one believed.
Every episode deals with an issue like those above, but one was returned to repeatedly over the course of the season: racism, both institutional and targeted. A young woman’s “miraculous” return from the dead reveals that a hospital spends considerably more time trying to revive its white patients than its black patients. Leland coaches a disgruntled young man in the ways of the incel world, until his protege accidentally shoots himself in the head while preparing for a massacre. A seemingly possessed woman confesses to the serial murders of multiple young Hispanic kids, who she claims to have targeted because no one would notice they were gone. (The parents noticed. The cops, by and large, did not, or at least didn’t care.) While in another hospital, a drug-induced fever dream of David’s leads him to believe his white nurse is an agent of Satan; whether she is or not remains unclear, but she was definitely targeting and murdering the black men in her care. Those are but a few examples.
“When you have a show that’s titled Evil, it’s right there for the telling, Michelle King said of the recurring focus on racism. “I mean, we’d be idiots to ignore it.”
The Kings didn’t manage to sneak in everything they wanted. We don’t see much of the story through Ben’s eyes (Aasif Mandvi), something Robert King mentioned as a specific shortcoming. “Next year we’ll make up for it. What we really want to do with point of view is [underline that] whether it’s Ben, David, or Kristen, the person we’re seeing things through impacts what they’re seeing. Ben would call it quantum mechanics. In the modern view of quantum mechanics, the observer changes the observed. We were trying to make that point of view throughout, and I think we’ll do a better job with Ben next year.”
“Do you want me to say I never saw blood on your leg?” Ben asks Kristen late in “Book 27,” having just informed her that was, in fact, blood on her leg. “I want you to see that there isn’t blood on my leg,” she replies, holding up a still-damp calf, a faintly red wet paper towel clutched in one hand. “See?” There was, and now is not, and since there is not—an empirical fact—perhaps there never was. It’s a moment that is, on one level, one friend laying out what she needs to happen next to another. On another, it’s yet another question of perspective and reality, truth and what seems like truth, morality, and ethics. It’s another gray area, in a series intentionally laced through with gray. That’s the Kings’ sweet spot.
Evil has been renewed for Season 2 on CBS.
Allison Shoemaker is a TV and film critic whose work has appeared in The A.V. Club, Vulture, RogerEbert.com, and other publications. She is also the co-host of the podcasts Hall Of Faces and Podlander Drunkcast: An Outlander Podcast, the latter of which is exactly what it sounds like.
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