CBS’s Evil has become one of this fall’s most pleasant surprises—if you can apply “pleasant” to a show that examines the very worst of humanity: serial killers, child murderers, racist doctors, people who produce fake “ghost hunter” TV shows, etc. But the worst of the worst prize goes to one character: Leland Townsend.
Tweedy and bespectacled, Leland (played by Michael Emerson, who is fantastic) is nondescript on purpose—a man you wouldn’t notice unless he specifically wanted you to. He’s been part of Evil since the pilot episode, and he got a hell of an introduction, pun intended. Initially presented as a professional foe for forensic psychologist Kristen Bouchard (Katja Herbers), it’s soon made very clear that Leland is way more than just a rival expert witness focused on undermining Kristen’s testimony.
He’s also known, and loathed, by priest-in-training David Acosta (Mike Colter), and makes it clear from the get-go that he’s somehow linked to the shadowy demonic conspiracy that’s been creepy-crawling around the edges of Evil’s primary plot all season. We’re still waiting to find out exactly what that’s going to amount to—and at this point, we still don’t quite understand if Leland is a man, a demon, or some freaky fresh combination of the two—but in the meantime, here are some other things Leland has done so far this season:
- Broke into the files of Kristen’s personal psychiatrist to steal her therapy session notes, shared their contents with a murderer, and taunted her with the subjects of her worst nightmares
- Steamrolled his way into Kristen’s old job as an on-call expert witness at the DA’s office, then promptly began systematically reversing as many of her cases as possible
- Made jokes about priests raping altar boys; gleefully anticipated that his work to undo one of Kristen’s cases involving a teenage defendant would mean the boy would be found guilty and then raped in prison
- Psychically barged into one of David’s talking-to-God visions and made crass boob jokes while David was earnestly trying to draw what he’d witnessed
- “Coincidentally” sat near Kristen’s good-hearted but flighty mother, Sheryl (Christine Lahti), at a restaurant while she was on a disastrous first date...then turned on the flirty charm until she made out with him
- Pretended he didn’t realize Sheryl was Kristen’s mother when he showed up to “dinner with mom’s new boyfriend” night at Kristen’s house
- Used his otherworldly powers of persuasion to seduce Sheryl after she told him they had to break up (she had a compelling reason: Kristen told her about the prison rape thing)
- Sleazed his way into meeting Kristen’s four young daughters and giving them journals, at least one of which was festooned with a demonic symbol
These are all gross and terrible things, and pretty much any time Leland—who carries himself with an infuriating air of snooty superiority—appears in a scene, you can expect him to do something hideous, like unleash some obscene verbal jab or threaten a small child. And while working his sinister love spell on Sheryl is just plain horrifying, and he’s no doubt going to be part of some big demonic showdown as the season escalates toward its climax, Leland’s most alarming contribution to Evil so far has been his wicked enthusiasm for cultivating and encouraging that most 21st century of terrors: “incels.”
We’ve seen Leland cheerfully overseeing a misogynistic message board filled with young men who are plotting violence against women; a big part of his demonic bag of tricks is that he’s tech-savvy and, while he’s not opposed to old-fashioned breaking and entering, he’s also very capable of computer hacking, as well as using social media and the internet in general to whip anyone with slightly rotten tendencies into a full-on hateful frenzy.
In a recent episode, his incel-grooming hobby took a face-to-face turn when he latched onto Sebastian (Noah Robbins), a nerdy kid who’d been rejected by a pretty barista after misinterpreting her friendly customer service for romantic interest. Though Sebastian’s content to put the embarrassment behind him, Leland pushes him to escalate his anger—first by pulling a mean prank on the café worker, and then by meeting other like-minded young men in Leland’s incel chat group.
Because Evil is ostensibly about investigating supposed cases of demonic possession, it deals with apparently supernatural elements on a regular basis. This subplot, however, is one of the reasons why the show is so unique—it reminds the viewer that while the demons on the show may be fiction, it’s also interested in poking into the kinds of horrors that really do exist, which makes it one of the scariest things on TV right now.
Last night’s episode, “Exorcism Part 2,” saw Leland encourage Sebastian to go to a women’s only fitness center and threaten the women there with finger guns, echoing a real-life 2009 mass shooting at a gym in Pittsburgh. Then he introduced Sebastian to a marksman, who took him to a real gun range. Then, once he was satisfied he’d trained the kid enough and built up his self-confidence, Leland informed Sebastian to forget women in workout wear, and offered up a new victim: David! Who is a dude, which made Sebastian balk, though Leland assured him that the prayer group that David leads is mostly women.
Fortunately, but still tragically, Sebastian accidentally shoots himself while he’s playing Taxi Driver in his bedroom mirror. How does Leland find out his pet project has perished? By reading an article on the internet, of course. He’s furious, but then he soothes himself by googling “Angry Incel Videos.” Dozens and dozens pop up, of course—and the implication is that that Leland will just find another Sebastian, prey on his internet-exacerbated fury, and use that as a cover to manipulate him into doing whatever Leland wants. This goes deep, and it isn’t over.
Evil airs Thursday nights on CBS.
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