This serial column revisits The Exorcist television series. Conceived by Jeremy Slater for FOX and starring Ben Daniels, Alfonso Herrera, Geena Davis, and Alan Ruck, the show ran 2016-17 and was generally well-received by critics and audiences. DIS/MEMBER returns to the show in the context of a new Exorcist franchise film, seeking insight on what made the show work and why it’s lesser-known than its film counterparts. All screencaps sourced from Kiss Them Goodbye.
After the flint and steel of the preceding episodes–after the camera’s voracious eye has shrunk from Chicago and Mexico City to a single residence–episode five of The Exorcist arrives like a sea change. “Through My Grievous Fault” is interested almost solely in the Rance family, and perhaps most especially their home. The establishing work of character has been done (but isn’t finished); the destabilizing labor of presenting a demon-wracked world has been delivered (but isn’t complete); and now the whirlwind is reaped.
With Casey at home for the duration of her “illness,” her family’s patterns adjust around her. Kat’s headphones are glued to her head while she sifts through boxes of warmer memories and simpler times. Angela dozes on the couch in front of a screen connected to a live feed from Casey’s bedroom. And Henry haunts the house, almost totally silent and absent his humor, his longing for his family. Moreover, the home has been invaded–not just by the demon inside Casey but by Fathers Tomas and Marcus.
For two weeks the exorcism has been waged, with little result but Casey’s continuing deterioration. The clergy should be a hopeful sign within the Rance house, but their very presence signals that something is deeply wrong. Pea soup and innuendos aside, one of the most troubling aspects of Catholicism depicted in The Exorcist is a sense of alienation. There’s little sense of who Casey is outside her relationships, even less a sense that religion is something a person engages in, rather than something done to them. Exorcism is a ritual inflicted on the possessed; even Mother Bernadette’s variety is offered in condescension, the intermediary absolutely necessary. Yet it’s clear that Casey’s demon, at least, desires violence. It responds with relish to Marcus’s attempts, toying with the priests. It beckons to Henry in a girlish voice, promising to tell him secrets. It pulls out every possession trick familiar to Marcus and franchise viewers: levitating, bodily torment, adapting the voices of the priests’ beloveds.
Tomas is not so sanguine. Chased from Casey’s room by–it seems–the voice of his grandmother, he’s less resilient to the demon’s ploys as his seasoned counterpart. The priests and the Rances enact a careful dance around each other, twined in orbit inside a girl’s nightmare. Arriving as the season’s midpoint, “Through My Grievous Fault” invites the audience into a fugue state, reminding them that an exorcism isn’t the moment a demon leaves a body, but every moment preceding.
The compounded world of The Exorcist series refracts Casey’s personal agony into a threat to thousands, even millions. Its encroaching demonic legion is widespread–possibly viral, as Henry’s scenes seem to intimate. After his encounter with Casey, he acts more oddly than ever. Moving silently around the house, he speaks only to ask strange questions. His plain black shirt takes on the visual cadence of the priests’ garb… or that of Hell. Is it possible that he, too, is now within the demon’s thrall? Prompted to ponder just how possession occurs, the viewer once more sees every character as suspect, the possessed or the devilish apparition. This notion of infection and recovery reaches its fever pitch after Henry finds a Bible in the closet, dried flowers and a single red feather within its pages.
The idea of asking your demon what it wants from you seems both obvious and laughable. Yet in any other context, chaining a girl inside her bedroom is child abuse. And given this world’s established tenets, Casey’s demon cannot be acting solo, possessing her mind and torturing her body just for funsies. And when it snarls bring her to me, bells might ring in the audience’s memory (tubular bells, even). There are two hers in Casey’s life, of course, but by now Kat and her bad-girl drama are an obvious red herring. Even Casey, the possessed, isn’t the true target. Even the appealing interrogation of the good-vs-bad-daughter dichotomy has been an introduction, the demonic force clearing its throat. The dried flowers inside the Bible call back to Henry’s memory of Casey picking wildflowers by the highway, a memory that ties her directly to the demon’s desired human: Angela.
There’s a heavy emphasis on memory in “Through My Grievous Fault,” a motif of palimpsests, recollections, stains that echoes the series’ mythic source text. Kat seeks comfort in memories of her lost best friend-maybe-lover. Angela goes full-bore scrubbing every surface in the house, haunted by her own reflection in spotless windows, only to be defeated by a seeping pool of black mold on the ceiling below Casey’s bedroom. Marcus sketches the forest of his raising into his Bible, layering a chaotic wild over black-and-white holy writ. The demon relies on Tomas and Marcus’s memories (both painful and cherished) to weaken them. When that tactic seems to work–when Tomas flees from the appearance of Jessica to her reality, when Marcus falters upon confrontation with his dead mother–it isn’t because the demon is lying. It’s because it knows what its listeners are afraid is true.
Humans love to believe the worst of themselves. Above all, perhaps, humanity relishes the fall. Scenes of Marcus working the exorcism intercut with Tomas and Jessica serve as yet another entry point for inklings of possession. Surrender can occur on the part of the human, as when Casey permits the demon control, or the part of the demon, as when it departs a human body. The sexually-charged nature of exorcism and the sexual antics performed by the demon mirror the real sex taking place between Tomas and Jessica. Each instance calls the others into question. Jessica, having had her voice and body aped by Casey’s demon, inhabits a place of uncertainty, even as Tomas is drawn to her.
That uncertainty, the instability of the demon-brushed, is revealed at last to have shaped Angela’s life.
The red feather inside the Bible came from a little bird, her imaginary friend who could make her do anything… who made her feel special. Her breakdown that wasn’t a breakdown foreshadowed the collapse of her family, decades into the future. Watching her daughter’s collapse has been, this whole time, a replay of her own childhood. Her new name, chosen to protect her, peels away to reveal her former self: Regan MacNeil. And when the police come to liberate Casey from her torture, when Casey liberates herself from an ambulance, the show’s stakes fall into place. When Father Bennett bails Marcus out of prison, when Chris MacNeil (Sharon Gless) comes to visit her long-lost daughter, it becomes clear that “Through My Grievous Fault” isn’t a fugue state but a fulcrum. The fight for Casey’s soul has been a proving ground, a tactical battle to bring down Marcus and cut off Tomas before he’s even begun. As above, so below: the personal torments Angela and Marcus have suffered are about to be writ large for the city of Chicago, and perhaps the world.