Mid-season plot twists seem to have become standard operating procedure for horror and suspense-based television lately. The Walking Dead did it with the infamous fake-out involving Glenn in season 6. American Horror Story recently did it with the launch of the second half of its Roanoke story. Now Fox’s The Exorcist has gone and done in a way that completely changes what we thought this series was.
The Exorcist series is based on William Friedkin’s 1973 film of the same title, based on the novel by William Peter Blatty. The original film should need no introduction to horror fans. The tale of young Regan MacNeil and her horrific possession by the mighty demon Pazuzu became the blueprint for decades’ worth of demon and occult-themed horror films. Fox’s modern update has followed the original film’s structure where a young, inexperienced priest and an older, more world-weary one, (Alfonso Herrera and Ben Daniels, respectively) battle a demon for the soul of a troubled teenager (Hannah Kasulka). Aside from that, all the names and places are different. It swaps the film’s Washington D.C. setting for Chicago, the film’s Regan is the only child of a single mother whereas Casey of the series has both her parents and a sister, and while the series’ demonic Salesman (Robert Emmet Lunney) is grotesque, salacious, and horrific, he’s clearly a different demonic personality than the film’s Pazuzu. The series manages an occasional nod to its source material, such as Father Marcus Keanes’ (Daniels) many resemblances to Max Von Sydow’s Father Merrin and Casey urinating on the floor following a demonic episode. Other than that, it has forged its own path and opened up the universe. The Salesman, as it turns out, is just part of a larger demonic epidemic and in episode 5, Through My Most Grievous Fault, he hints at his larger agenda, repeatedly ordering his host to bring “her” to him.
The Exorcist has struggled in the sense of seeming to not know what to do with one of its biggest stars, Geena Davis. As Casey’s mother Angela she frets, fusses, and makes unrealistic demands of everyone. Her leaps to supernatural conclusions may be correct, but that doesn’t make her seem any less irrational or a nuisance to those who can actually help her daughter. The Exorcist has largely ignored the question of why she is the way she is, content to let Angela fester as an irritant in the background.
With Through My Most Grievous Fault all that changed.
By the end of the episode everything has gone wrong. Thanks to the foolish good intentions of Casey’s sister, the exorcism has been aborted at its most critical moment, Father Ortega (Herrera) has broken his vow of chastity at the demon’s urging, and Father Marcus is in jail. Worst of all, a fully-possessed Casey is now running amok in the city, leaving carnage in her wake. A distraught Angela sits down with a repentant Father Ortega.
It is at this point that everything changes and everything we know becomes wrong.
In a brilliant performance by Davis, she casually begins relating her own life story. Her rough childhood and broken home could have belonged to anyone. But then she mentions living in Washington D.C. and having “an imaginary friend.”
Wait a minute…
Then she finally says the words we’ve come to know were coming, but they still hit just as hard:
“My name is Regan MacNeil.”
Just like that, all is clear. The reason that the series is not following the movie’s storyline is because it not a retelling or reboot, it’s a sequel! We are still very much within the original film’s universe: a fact which it further hammers home by the surprise appearance of Regan’s mother, Chris (Sharon Gless).
This revelation casts all the events of the series – and all of Angela/Regan’s actions – in a new light, and gives the brewing demonic war a new sense of mystery, especially if Regan is the “her” that Salesman is referring to. There’s also the question of whether the events of the film’s two sequels and two prequels will be addressed or considered to have even happened. Will Von Sydow’s iconic Father Merrin be mentioned? And will the equally-iconic Pazuzu be revealed as the leader of the demonic forces?
No matter what happened, this deserves to be remembered as one of the more jaw-dropping horror show twists of the current era. It stands as a terrific example of how to take a show we were comfortable with and completely twist up all of the audience’s assumptions and expectations.