Penultimate episodes are tough.

Unless you abide by the Game of Thrones tradition of stockpiling your major plot developments in the second last episode, the penultimate episode is all about setting the stage. You need to get all of your characters into position, which usually results in a fair amount of table setting and, in some cases, delaying the action. After all, you’ve got to leave something for the grand finale.

“Ritual And Repetition” suffers from this issue. Despite a few great set pieces, there’s an undeniable sense of delay that permeates the action. Even with a special guest (re)appearance by season one regular Casey Rance (Hannah Kasulka), the “just in time” arrival of Mouse (Zuleikha Robinson) on the island and the near death of Rose (Li Jun Li), a lot of the 44 minute run time feels like The Exorcist spinning its wheels.

Some of this has to do with the uncomfortable nature of Andy (John Cho)’s possession, which on the island is tied to crimes against children. This second season has mined the idea of foster families as alternatives for traditional families and “Ritual And Repetition” leans into the concept repeatedly, even going so far as to incorporate Rose into its evolving definition. The problem is that it’s uncomfortable to showcase an adult man attacking and murdering pre-teen children (North American horror is particularly adverse to this). This means that although Andy has collected the kids in a dank murdershack, all he does is glower and threaten them.

 

Still of Hunter Dillon in The Exorcist season two, episode nine
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There’s a great moment that both reinforces this problem and finds a creative workaround: instead of showing Andy attacking Shelby (Alex Barima) and Harper (Beatrice Kitsos), director Elizabeth Allen Rosenbaum slowly pushes in on Caleb (Hunter Dillon)’s blind eyes as the sounds of a scuffle are heard on the soundtrack. It’s an effective technique that adheres to one of the horror genre’s favourite tropes – the helpless disabled child in peril – while simultaneously subverting it.

Even if the threat against the kids feels mildly muted, there are a number of visual flourishes and sequences that make the episode enjoyable. The sweeping bird’s eye crane shot of animals running by Marcus (Ben Daniels) in the dark woods is gorgeous; not one, not two, but three people are wire-fu tossed through the air; and Rose‘s plummet down the well (finally paying off Checkov’s Gun from the first episode) is appropriately tense.

Could I have done without all of the callbacks to earlier episodes that feel more like narrative padding than legitimately necessary reminders? Sure, but that’s a small gripe.

The stage is now set for one helluva showdown in next week’s finale. Bring on the exorcism!

 

Odds and Ends

  • Kudos to the makeup team for making Nikki (Alicia Witt) suitably disgusting and horrifying in the brief glimpses we see of her.
  • Mouse‘s action sequence with the Vatican hitmen at the Seattle ferry terminal feels slightly out of place with the rest of the episode. I suppose it’s important that we remember that there are other dark forces working against Marcus and Father Tomas (Alfonso Herrera), but this was more like a scene from a CBS procedural.
  • The decision to bring Casey back as the figure of temptation in TomasIt’s A Wonderful Life alternative future/hallucination is inspired. Kasulka was a standout in season one and her reappearance (which is accompanied by its own musical cue of doom) is a nice way to visually connect the seasons.
  • The spiderwebs in the woods are incredibly atmospheric and creepy, particularly when Verity (Brianna Hildebrand) is hiding from Andy with bugs all over her face. Narratively, however, they were a little distracting. In my notes I wrote “Did we just stumble into a lost scene from The Hobbit?”

The Exorcist airs its second season finale next Friday at 9pm EST on FOX. Check out the preview below.