The CBS procedural takes a bold, weird step toward next week's season finale.

By Darren Franich
January 16, 2020 at 11:00 PM EST
Elizabeth Fisher/CBS
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The excellent penultimate episode of Evil‘s first season, “Justice x 2,” hits a new high for the spiritual procedural. There’s a thought-provoking and mindbending one-and-done mystery, with poor recovering David (Mike Colter) getting more bruises as witness to an unconventional vengeance. Meanwhile, three long-running story arcs boil over in a script credited to Dewayne Darian Jones. Kristen (Katja Herbers) tries to keep the show’s very first monster behind bars. Her heart-afflicted daughter Laura (Dalya Knapp) goes to the hospital. And Leland Townsend (Michael Emerson) reveals his unexpected past — and an even more unexpected friend.

It’s a riot. Creators Michelle and Robert King have found such a groove in this first season, somersaulting between the endearingly droll and outright surreal. And “Justice x 2” benefits from talented guest stars Gbenga Akinnagbe and Emayatzy Corinealdi. The former played a legendary figure on The Wire and had a dynamite role on The Deuce, a little-seen wonder show the Kings must love, since they gave it a hyper-specific shoutout on their own The Good Fight. Corinealdi was most recently seen elsewhere on CBS in a main role on The Red Line.

Both performers play characters who aren’t what they seem. We see Akinnagbe’s Lando onstage at a comedy club, making rimshot jokes about being an African with more children than he can count. Corinealdi plays Sonia, a woman who really enjoys the set. She’s wearing red, a stylistic nudge to worry Evil viewers. Equally worrisome: When Sonia brings Lando home for a drink, we find out he carries a gun. But Lando’s the one who should be scared. Sonia starts quoting some of his old routines — a dance to crush cockroaches — and then knocks him unconscious.

Lando — if that is his name — spends the rest of his life strapped to a chair in Sonia’s basement. His only company: David, arriving at what he thinks is just a typical existential Catholic check-up. Instead, he has to watch Sonia and Lando unfurl the long tail of historical atrocity. Sonia claims her captive is a war criminal named Jean, “the funnyman of Radio 2,” a Rwandan comedian whose malicious jokes about the Tutsi led right into a genocidal onslaught conducted against the group by the Hutu majority.

Did Lando/Jean’s violent comedy constitute an actual call to violence? And if so, what would be the appropriate moral response? There are two different philosophical inquisitions rumbling through this basement, impressive for a plotline that features both Chekhov’s Gun and Chekhov’s Machete. Lando tries to protest that he isn’t the man on the radio recording, that he was only following orders.

Sonia’s not buying it. And I don’t think David ever does, either. For them, the bigger question is: What sort of punishment would God demand? Sonia quotes Old Testament passages. David protests that, from a Christian perspective, the point of the Old Testament is that it’s old, predating the hippie-ish do-unto-others perspective of the Gospels.

There’s another factor here, terrifying and unknowable. Twice in the episode, Sonia stares at the basement’s brick wall. A dark, tiny-yet-cavernous hole almost forms a cross. Her expression is unreadable: Freaked out, receptive, seeking. Intense ominous whooshing layers onto the soundtrack. The Kings recently told my colleague Kristen Baldwin that they’re fans of Twin Peaks: The Return, and these moments edged Lynchian, suggesting a horror almost out of reach.

The last time we see that opening in the wall, a cockroach crawls out. And, in his comedy act, Lando/Jean called the Tutsi cockroaches. For Sonia, that humor was an act of terror. She recalls the violence of the Rwandan Genocide: “The most terrible sound was the laughing.” The rapists and murderers were parroting Radio 2 gags as they crushed skulls.

Akinnagbe spends the episode tied to a chair and bleeding from a slashed ear. So it’s a true feat of acting that he makes Lando/Jean oddly sympathetic. He’s clearly a man who spent a quarter century running from his own history, immigrating to New York, losing his accent. And one thing I love about Evil is that every character is smart enough to intelligently justify themselves. His jokes, he swears, always came from a comedy golden rule: Punching up, not punching down. “The Tutsis, they were wealthy, they had power,” he protests. “Every comedian makes fun of people, but you make fun of people in power. That doesn’t make people into killers.”

The Kings are pop culture polymaths who, especially on The Good Fight, have lately focused their work on the big questions that define modern media. They do this in modest, familiar genre surroundings (legal procedural/demented Touched by an Angel riff) and yet the questions they raise aren’t easily answered. That dialogue points toward larger controversies in the whole evolving notion of comedy. Do jokes have to be, like, moral? What happens if some lunatic takes comedy too seriously? Is there a line that should not be crossed? The gags we hear from Radio 2 are horrific — but did Lando/Jean understand the context? Conversely: did he invent the context?

Complex questions. In this case, Sonia’s the final arbiter. And it’s interesting how Evil gives her act of killing some ethical grounding. She waits for her prisoner to apologize. She tells him his soul is clean. And then she shoots him — not for revenge, she explains, but for justice. In the haze of moral relativity, I think you could find a way to agree with her: The man clearly had a guilty conscience, no matter his aesthetic protests. But where in God’s teachings does it say you should take justice into your own ear-hacking hands? David is left crumpled on the floor, waiting for the police to come and mop up the mess. Does he see the cockroach? Would he consider it a symbol, calling back to a dead man’s jokes? Or should we take that final appearance as a dark joke against humanity: In the end, only the insects will be left alive.

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In the two previous episodes, David was stabbed half-to-death by a maniac, then overmedicated 3/4-to-death by a murder-nurse. Falling down a stairway to an hours-long bleed session counts as an improvement. Midway through this episode I thought to myself “Gee, he’s really a Job figure for the series.”

Job actually gets a shoutout this week, but it’s in Kristen’s subplot. She’s trying to keep Orson LeRoux (Darren Pettie) in prison. LeRoux was last seen in the Evil premiere condemned to life behind bars. New evidence has come to light. Another murderer that David’s team brought to justice has taken the blame for LeRoux’s crimes.

We can guess that this is the result of Leland’s network-of-terror, connecting horrorshow perpetrators together. Good luck explaining that to a judge, though. LeRoux walks free. Leland himself shows up at the trial, and taunts Kristen in the corridor. “I’m gonna do for you what God did for Job,” he declares. Her daughters will die; her house will burn. It’s an apex bad guy speech, filmed by episode director Rob Hardy in stark scary-funny close-up.

“God, you talk too much,” Kristen interrupts. And then cuts him down to size. She can use the internet, too, and she’s well doxxed him. Like Lando, Leland Townsen has hidden an old identity. He’s plain old Jake Perry, a twice-divorced insurance adjuster from Des Moines. One marriage ended when he had trouble getting it up. And one of his wives is quite chatty, apparently, and told Kristen all about little Jake’s origin story as a third chair tuba player.

It’s an amusing twist. I love Emerson as a performer, but Leland has been the most overtly melodramatic piece of Evil‘s puzzle. The surprise revelation that he’s barely worthy of a surprise revelation sharpens Evil‘s point without dulling its purpose. He’s a regular guy who decided to turn himself into a villain. Even that name, “Leland Townsend,” is a meta-goof, a bad-guy-ish handle grasped by a desperate Iowan seeking new life as a well-heeled New Yorker.

Except: Is that all he is? Evil has done a good job this season of weaving together supernatural possibilities with earthly explanations. I’m always waiting for the balance to shift too far in either direction. But the Kings have embraced the most playfully strange possibilities of this storytelling, crafting anything-goes twists and rooting them in character’s particular psychologies.

So, like: Is Leland actually talking to the Devil in his office at the end of the episode? Or is that just a manifestation of his madness? It works both ways. And on Evil, the maybe-imaginary Devil is an inquisitive horn-hoofed psychologist asking questions about dream theory when he isn’t promising to dine on human hearts.

Speaking of which! Little Laura has quite a scare — and then experiences a medical miracle. Her heart has healed, all on its own. Credit her youth, maybe, since child bodies are always changing. Or, maybe, it’s a higher power. Kristen’s husband, Andy (Patrick Brammall), has taken up Buddhism, it turns out. It’s not a big deal, he swears: Not a religion, a practice. Hardly strange for a well-traveled American to explore some new spiritual opportunities as he approaches middle age. And still, Kristen has reason to worry. Andy was chanting in the hospital, asking for Laura to be healed. Part of the chant was offering his own life in exchange.

It’s just a mantra, of course. Andy’s place in this world could be perilous, though. He’s setting off on a trip to Denver, taking Kristen’s place in the latest mountaineering adventure. He won’t be gone long, he swears. He’s unquestionably a nice man, and unquestionably the third wheel in the show’s prominent will-they-won’t-they arc. When a blessed miracle occurs in the second-to-last episode of a season, it’s probably a bad sign for the finale.

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