[Editor’s Note: The following review contains spoilers for “Evil” Episode 4, “Rose390.”]
A title like “Evil” comes with expectations. Just a handful of weeks into the CBS drama’s run, this week’s episode showed that Michelle and Robert King’s latest TV creation intends to follow its name to grisly places.
Episode 4 of “Evil” — “Rose390” — sees the show’s central sleuths trying to determine whether one boy’s increasingly alarming actions are the result of innate sociopathy or a symptom of an environmental explanation. Psychologist Kristen Bouchard (Katja Herbers) and Church investigator David Acosta (Mike Colter) take their respective approaches in reasoning with young Eric (Luke Judy), trying to understand and counteract his mounting disturbed behavior. Meanwhile, perpetual pragmatist Ben Shakir (Aasif Mandvi) searches for answers in the more unexciting explanations (like water pollutants).
The trio’s services are enlisted by worried parents who have turned Eric’s bedroom into a de facto holding cell. The boy’s actions toward the family’s new baby have gone from “acting out” to something far more sinister, and the parents believe it might be caused by something that lies beyond parental intuition.
Kristen and David’s methods in interacting with Eric are a solid microcosm of the show’s approach to potentially malicious forces: proceed with an appreciation of the broad capability of human behavior, but search for common ground where empathy can start to work as a salve. Though Kristen and David each have different foundations for both their work and their personal beliefs, there’s narrative and emotional value in the show making the argument that, where empathy is concerned, the two have more in common than they might realize.
It’s what makes this episode’s turn that much more shattering, as their shared optimism curdles in the episode’s final moments. After Eric attempts to drown the baby to stake his claim as the favored child, the trio come to the house to check on him. When they arrive, they find that Eric has gone missing and that the police are questioning the parents. A few knowing glances lead to the realization that the parents killed Eric to protect the health of the new baby. Kristen, David, and Ben slowly leave the house, mortified and dejected in equal measure.
The idea that “Evil” would go from “Hey, this guy might be possessed by a demon” to “These suburban parents murdered their son” by Episode 4 isn’t completely unthinkable, giving the growing need for shows to prove their narrative bona fides to an audience that has plenty of options elsewhere. Still, even with the existence of “ripped from the headlines” terror fueling the plots of series on other networks, it’s hard to imagine another series on broadcast TV getting the leeway to present something so unsettling with this much candor.
Yes, throwing an imperiled child into the story can be a quick and easy way to raise the stakes. But there’s a connection that the show draws between the dangers faced — and caused — by Eric and Kristen’s daughters. Left home with Kristen’s mother as she spends the night on the Eric case, the girls experiment with a new VR headset and go beyond parental controls. Within minutes, they go from the light, cheery playful kid’s game to a “Shining” and ouija-inspired one.
Through moments like this one, “Evil” makes the subtle distinction between a worldview where everyone is evil and one where evil can manifest itself in any corner. The former option creates something more bland and monotonous, while the latter is one that’s much more fruitful.
When the girls’ VR game gives way to an outside, unnamed predator (who goes by that “Rose390” handle), they don’t realize that the horrific undead skeleton in the corner of their bedroom is the least of their worries. Technology hasn’t been the show’s strongest suit in the early going, but the idea that a more interconnected world has allowed malignant forces to seep into the more basic parts of our lives is one that hits home when the show gets it right.
Perhaps that last moment at the parents’ house, with a desperate mother trying to nonverbally rationalize her own actions, would have a little more power if the show let the audience piece together what happened without David spelling it out. And with less clumsy staging, the “baby in the pool” sequence might have been the true stuff of nightmares.
But the episode’s parting image, with Kristen sobbing in her kitchen over her inability to protect her clients and her own children, also shows that “Evil” isn’t blind to the effect that occupying this headspace can have. Despite its procedural bent, there’s still an effort being made to show the cumulative effect that being immersed in fundamental questions of good and evil can have on someone’s well-being. In some ways, it’s jarring to see these ideas broached this early on — credit “Evil” for not being afraid to go this dark, this soon.
“Evil” airs Thursday nights at 10 p.m. ET on CBS.