Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

“Time to give the people what they want” on The Exorcist

Illustration for article titled “Time to give the people what they want” on The Exorcist

While The Exorcist has shown several failed and successful exorcisms so far—probably more than all of the films combined—tonight feels like the first one we’ve seen in earnest. Alright, technically, it’s the conclusion of the same exorcism we’ve been witnessing for the back half of the season, but you see what I’m getting at. It’s long, it seemingly ends with good prevailing over evil, and It’s the first time the practice feels like it has legitimate weight.

Maybe that last trait has to do with its late placement in the season. Or maybe it has to do with both the Rance clan and the two priests having to overcome their own personal demons to save Casey. But who am I kidding? The main reason this particular exorcism feels important is because it delivers the visual goods we’ve come to expect. There’s levitation. There are the deeply contacted irises. There’s Pazuzu repeatedly slamming Casey’s body up and down on the bed. Most important of all, there’s the famous 360-degree head turn…almost.

“Time to give the people what they want,” says Pazuzu’s lower register right before the demon begins twisting Casey’s neck. It’s a not-so-subtle wink to the iconic status of the original film. Regan MacNeil spinning her head around until she’s looking over the back of her own neck is one of the most famous images from the movie, and the show recognizes this. “The people” are the audience, of course, many of them horror fans. And as horror fans, they want to see violence made effective by pathos. As much as they desire complex characters, they desire surface-level creepiness, too.

But it’s worth noting that show deliberately disrupts the pattern. Pazuzu doesn’t manage to turn Casey’s head all the way around. It doesn’t cause her to snap her own neck like the boy Father Marcus previously tried to save. Instead, through a mixture of professed love from the Rances and spiritual fervor from the priests, Pazuzu gets driven out of Casey’s body before the head-spin can complete itself. For a good portion of “The Griefbearers,” it seems that the possession cycle has been broken. By the end of the exorcism, the head-spin isn’t just an interrupted visual cue—it’s symbolic of the demon losing its grip on the Rance/MacNeil family.

Or so you would think. After the dust settles—after Casey is brought to the hospital and they all start to consider what’s next—Angela fatally snaps Chris’ neck and shoves her down the stairs. As her mother’s turned-around, dead face stares up at her, it becomes clear that the head-spin is complete, although not in the way anyone originally thought. We’re now back in an even more nightmarish version of the cycle. Casey may be safe (for now), but Angela has been sucked back into her own hellish childhood, once again suffocated by the evil that started all of this back in 1973; once again murdering someone older than her by throwing them down a staircase.

That changes an earlier scene in the episode, where Angela revisits the basement site of her childhood home in Washington, D.C. Initially, it almost reads like a daydream—a hallucination where Angela relives the moment where she first got possessed as an 11-year-old girl. The Exorcist has always succeeded when showing possession from the POV of the person being possessed, and the memory’s a testament to that. Here, Pazuzu/Captain Howdy is no longer an unseen entity, but the reptilian form of The Salesman, who it’s revealed first appeared to Regan as a photographer at the zoo.


But after the episode’s shocking ending, the scene takes on a double meaning. This isn’t merely Regan remembering her being possessed the first time around; it could also be her being possessed again, this time in the present moment. Although this is before Pazuzu gets expelled from Casey, it makes sense that the antagonist would infect the consciousness of his original host—“the one that got away”—as a contingency plan beforehand.

For as well as this all works from an entertainment standpoint, Regangela getting possessed again does go against some of the thematic implications that I’ve been praising. The cycle isn’t exactly broken if she’s once again bound to Pazuzu. But I expect the series will still be a far cry from the original film, if only because Angela already finds herself surrounded by a much different story. Now that the show has moved on from the salvation of Casey, it will likely focus more on the greater evil hanging over Chicago. We’ve seen how a possessed Regan acts when confined to her bedroom as a little girl, but not when she’s free as an adult to roam the city and influence/assist with a papal conspiracy that reveals itself by the end of the episode. Something tells me Fathers Marcus, Tomas, and others will have to contend with a lot more than one demon from here on out, especially when considering that Tomas’ affair with Jessica is about to get exposed.


Chris’ death is also a blessing purely in terms of plot mechanics. The series never really figured out what to do with her, or how to make her relationship with Angela substantial in a way that didn’t just rely on the audience’s knowledge of the film. Removing her from the picture frees up the show to focus on its stronger elements. It’s a bitter and perhaps unfair end for such a memorable character from horror cinema, sure. Yet at the same time, the show never gave Sharon Gless enough strong material for Chris to live up to her classic status. In that way, the killing comes out of mercy—something that will likely be in short order as a middle-aged Regan contends (or ends up siding) with the malicious force that’s caused so much pain throughout her life.

Stray observations

  • I just realized that all the episode titles are preceded by a chapter number. I’ll go back to the other reviews and adjust the titles accordingly.
  • Similar to the death of Chris, I have no problem with the show revisiting Tomas and Jessica’s relationship as long as it’s to put an end to it. Also, Jim’s threat to go public with their affair automatically gives it some tangible consequences that go beyond Tomas’ mopery. That’s something that storyline has needed for a while now.
  • Father Bennett solved the organ-harvesting mystery pretty quickly, huh? Also, he better not be dead. He’s one of the few people in the church who has his head screwed on straight.
  • Speaking of heads, a question for all you religious scholars/horror fans: Pazuzu was trying to fully rotate Casey’s head so it could kill her, right? If so, then how come that act (completed and repeated several times in the original film) didn’t kill Regan? It’s not necessarily a criticism—more of a curiosity. Is there a difference between the movie’s demon head-spin and the show’s demon head-spin that I’m missing?
  • Poor Father Marcus. Right when it looks like he’ll break his vows for a quickie, he once again gets pulled away by the church.
  • “It worms its way in and lays its little eggs.”
  • “It’s mother.”