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Star Michael Emerson dishes on playing evil incarnate and previews a boundary-pushing third season of this religious thriller
Since launching their supernatural drama Evil, The Good Wife creators Michelle and Robert King have been investigating the meaning of their procedural’s title, exploring if there indeed is such a thing as a dark side or if events that can’t be explained always have roots in science and psychology. The cases the Kings have presented have, to date, managed to shake the convictions of previously unwavering psychologist Kristen Bouchard (Katja Herbers), church investigator-turned-newly ordained minister David Acosta (Mike Colter) and tech expert Ben Shakir (Aasif Mandvi), who since the beginning have been tasked with assessing and debunking events like miracles and demon possessions.
Paramount+For the duration of the series, one of the greatest ponderings of natural born evil has been one of the show’s main characters. Dr. Leland Townsend, portrayed by Lost Emmy-winner Michael Emerson, was introduced as a forensic psychologist, providing therapy for victims, assessing mental competency and providing evidence based on his expertise. But as the episodes rolled along, Leland’s talents—or manipulations—have appeared much deeper and more insidious than skills taught at any university.
So deep are these doubts that in the show’s third season Emerson is still getting to understand the character that these days has his sights almost exclusively on Kristen and her family. “I don’t know what his uber-agenda is,” admits Emerson, whose character’s foundation supposedly stems from selling his soul to the devil as a teenager. “But what did that really mean? And how did he get started, and who does he answer to? All of those things are just wide open, which is fine with me. I’m happy to perform this character against the mysterious landscape. He exists, and he is a puzzle himself.”
Paramount+If there is a way to simply personify evil, that is what Emerson is attempting to achieve. Unlike characters whose pasts or agendas drive the narrative, Leland is an agent of chaos. “The things I need from episode to episode don’t end up being stories I tell myself about the character’s past or motivations,” he says. “I just assume a blanket darkness and malevolence and take it from there.” What is unmistakable is that Leland commits horrible acts and has no qualms about his techniques. “Those are puzzling, but they’re also often funny,” says Emerson.
In the third season, having all but recruited Kristen’s mother Sheryl (Christine Lahti) to the dark side, Leland continues to strike at Kristen through her daughters and her husband Andy (Patrick Brammall). “He is trying to bring ruin,” says Emerson. “He’s trying to ruin Kristen and her family, and corrupt her children, if he can. At the same time, I think he finds her really attractive on some level. I don’t even know what kind of attraction I’m talking about, but he digs her. I feel like he works against her so that he has contact with her. He just can’t resist somehow.” Paramount+
His attempts to destroy Kristen’s home life may have gotten some help from the lead character herself, as Kristen and David in the closing minutes of last season shared a passionate kiss, fuelled by Kristen’s confession that it was she who had killed serial killer Orson LeRoux (Darren Pettie). “She’s in a tough place. She’s got, if I can use the phrase, demons to wrestle with now, and David does too. This is going to get complicated,” teases Emerson. “One of the big themes of season three is how they are going to negotiate this thing that they feel for one another. It’s going to get really interesting, and sometimes pretty hot.”
What Emerson guarantees is that the conclusion to Kristen’s moral quandaries, along with the other dilemmas this team are about to face, will come as a surprise to the viewers. “What I depend on the Kings for is their curiosity, their intellectual interest and hunger and their sophistication,” says Emerson. “A lot of people read the paper and have thoughts about what they’ve read but can’t always turn it into something that is worth an hour of our time to watch. They think about it deeply, and from an interesting angle. The topics of the day become more interesting when the Kings get a hold of them.”
Paramount+Thematically, says Emerson, Evil will continue to play with absolutes in its latest instalment. “I have three words that I say about season three: No clear boundaries,” he says. “What was better defined—good and evil, right and wrong, honest and manipulative—all of that gets a little fuzzier, and a little grayer in season three.” It’s a conversation that continues to fascinate even the viewers whose own beliefs seem steadfast. “People who are serious about their religion, or their ethical lives, are keen to watch the show because at least the show is addressing it,” says Emerson. “The show is willing to have a conversation about those issues, [one] that’s interesting, entertaining and mature.”
Evil airs Sundays on Paramount+ (Stream)