“The body ultimately betrays and reveals the lies we tell ourselves.”
* This review contains spoilers for season two.
Towards the end of the first season of CBS’ Evil (2019-present), forensic psychologist Dr. Kristen Bouchard (Katja Herbers) presses a rosary on her palm, only to recoil in horror as it begins burning her skin—an indication of demonic possession, as priest-in-training David Acosta (Mike Colter) tells her earlier in the episode. Kristen is a lapsed Catholic who has committed murder—of a serial killer who was threatening the lives of her children—and wants to be punished for it by a God she does not even believe in.
But who else would actually believe that Kristen has killed a man? Certainly not her friends from the police, who are more than happy to let her off simply because she is the perfect embodiment of white, middle-class suburban femininity. Furthermore, this occurs in the same episode where her colleagues Ben Shakir (Aasif Mandvi) and David are pulled over in traffic because of who they are.
Maybe God has to exist, even for an atheist—not because of faith— because a world so broken deserves some explanation for why it is so. It could come from God or the denial of God. We all want the punishment to fit the crime, but as the show reveals, everything in this world is thrown off balance because of the insidious moral rot at the center of society and politics. As Kristen, Ben and David continue their work for the Vatican to determine whether an exorcism is in order, they slowly realize that the demonic might actually be uncannily human and social. What if there is no running away from who you are?
In the second season of Evil, the guilt that Kristen has no recourse for manifests through a good dose of the supernatural, body horror, and kissing a priest who is also her colleague (let us thank Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s Fleabag for this sexy legacy). At the same time, show-runners Robert King and Michelle King (creators of The Good Wife and The Good Fight) also offer us a scathing criticism of Amazon, the prison industrial complex, and the institutional misogyny within the Vatican. In a show where exorcisms are the daily business, and demons maybe do exist, we could take demonic possession as a neat answer for Kristen’s actions. After all, our charismatic priest-in-training David has a spiritual vision in which Kristen quite literally meets Satan, and dances around with their evil nemesis, Dr. Leland Townsend (Michael Emerson). Yet the second season of Evil highlights how guilt, redemption, and of course, evil, cannot be resolved by going to the authorities or a confession box—the body ultimately betrays and reveals the lies we tell ourselves.
Towards the end of the second season, Kristen writhes in pain as she attends Leland’s exorcism, and following in the steps of Ridley Scott’s Alien, she horrifically gives birth to a demon baby. It is bloody and painful to watch, but necessary because Kristen finally accepts that she has done a horrible thing despite having morally sound precepts for it (or so she tells herself). We want to believe that Kristen is a good person, but her body refuses to lie, and the show refuses to deal in essentializing notions of goodness and evil. In turn, her self-disgust and guilt materialize at the level of body horror. Interestingly enough, a huge part of her guilt has to do with the failures of motherhood—the demon baby that literally rips apart her womb exposes her deep-seated fear that the world is too unjust for her to ever be a mother who is good enough. The failures of motherhood are not intrinsic, but created within a cruel system which lets Kristen go away scot-free for murder at the expense of criminalizing other people like Ben and David. She feels that something is deeply wrong about the way she has been let off the hook, and her body confronts that gruesome truth by responding in kind.
In contrast, Leland, the actual subject of the exorcism, who has been faking demonic possession just to annoy his religious friends (mostly David) at the church, surprisingly begins suffering the effects of God’s wrath. By the end of the exorcism, he is crying, sweating and shaking in terror. Maybe buried somewhere in Leland’s depraved psyche is someone who feels truly guilty for his actions and is crying out for a punishment that neither the court, his own warped mind, nor God can give. It was briefly cathartic to see Leland finally getting his due, but he somehow emerges even more convinced that he is built evil, and sets on a much darker path by the end of this season and possibly the next.
Refusing to place all its hopes in both state and religion as god-given arbiters of justice, season two of Evil reinvents the crime procedural by suggesting that ideas of good and bad are not given, but made, remade, and brutally scapegoated onto people. While the crime procedural in American television have worked to promote the necessity of police brutality—so long as it is for some nebulous greater good—Evil dares to expose the moral rot in our justice system. Kristen, Ben and David are not detectives, but fallible people with fallible ideas of what justice and retribution means, and they are constantly questioning their verdicts because of it. And the show’s refusal to provide any sort of closure to their cases leaves just enough room for doubt in both God and in the state. In many ways, the state has played God for far too long. Our bodies, however, revolt against such discipline, and perhaps always silently cries out to do good—whether we listen to it or not is our prerogative.
Directed By: Various
Executive Producers: Liz Glotzer, Robert King, Michelle King, Rockne S. O’ Bannon, Benedict Fitzgerald
Produced By: Robyn-Alain Feldman, Aurin Squire, Patricia Ione Lloyd, Thomas J. Whelan
Cast: Katja Herbers, Mike Colter, Assif Mandvi, Kurt Fuller, Michael Emerson, Christine Lahti, Marti Matulis, Brooklyn Shuck, Syklar Grey, Maddy Crocco, Dalya Knapp
Available On: CBS (Season 1), CBS Paramount Plus (Season 2)