Devil’s Whisper: Review of A&E’s “Damien”

“You better run, run from the devil. You better hide…” -Raury, “Devil’s Whisper”

The Antichrist is pure evil. He’s going to bring about destruction and the end of the world. He must be stopped at all costs. Right?

Not in Damien, A&E’s new series based on the 1976 classic The Omen. Created by former The Walking Dead and The Shield showrunner Glen Mazzara, Damien takes place 25 years after the first film – on Damien’s 30th birthday – and essentially ignores the sequels, though there are apparently some subtle homages paid to them. (Full disclosure that I’ve only seen the first film once and have never seen the others.) In the first episode “The Beast Rises,” we don’t see Evil Damien. Instead, we see a very human Damien. He’s shown as being rather amiable, though distant to those he cares about most. As we all know, however, he has a good reason for pushing others away, as people around him seem to die horrible deaths.

Damien’s story parallels that of Jesus Christ, who started his ministry when he was 30. Obviously, their stories have them going completely different directions – one “good” and one “evil” – but this show isn’t about the end of the story. Damien is about filling in the blanks between The Omen and the end of the story to show how Damien got to where he did. It’s a very character-driven show from the first episode, and it causes viewers to question things about themselves. We all like to pretend we know how we would react in certain situations (say, finding out you’re the Antichrist), but if viewers are honest with themselves, I think they’ll find that it’s not always an easy to know. As Damien learns, it can be difficult to understand how certain events are connected or what they really mean.

Damien (brilliantly portrayed by Bradley James) is a war photographer, who uses the pain and destruction of the war to block out the noise and the “dark cloud” from his own life. He does not remember his childhood and is unable to articulate exactly what causes bad things to happen around him, but he knows he’s not like other people. He becomes determined to find out why these things things happen when an old woman in Syria grabs his face and says, “Damien, I love you. It’s all for you.” When she starts speaking in Latin, it triggers flashbacks to his childhood, complete with original footage from The Omen. Throughout the episode, Damien sees various things – Rottweilers, certain things in a church – that help him remember his past, but he spends the majority of the episode trying to find the old woman who knew these things about him and working with his ill-fated ex-girlfriend, Kelly (Tiffany Hines), to piece everything together.

pilotflashback

“Damien, I love you. It’s all for you.”

Damien meets several people along the way, but no one actually says to him, “You’re the Antichrist.” Though he has always known that there’s something different about him, but even when he meets the menacing, mysterious Ann Rutledge (Barbara Hershey) or the scared Professor Reneus (Sam Anderson), he doesn’t understand their connections to him or why they are so fascinated by him. The professor talks about “The Beast” mentioned in the book of Revelations, but the closest he gets to telling Damien the truth is asking whether 666 – the alleged mark of The Beast – means anything to Damien. The last five minutes are downright powerful, as we see Damien crying in a church over the first death he knows he’s directly responsible for. He then sees the old woman again, who suddenly doesn’t look so happy to see him, and forcefully pulls his hair out without giving Damien any answers about what she knows.

When Damien returns home, he looks through his photographs again and finds the old woman in all of them, even in one of him as a child, a nice nod to the original film. When he goes to check his bloody head, he finds the “666” where the woman ripped his hair out, and he gets sick at the realisation. It’s difficult not to feel for him as everything finally hits him and he realises that he is The Beast. It’s an interesting, important choice for the show to have Damien figure it out on his own, rather than someone else telling him. It makes the vital moment where he learns the truth more intense and is important for his character development. It will be interesting to see how he’ll act in the next episode now that he knows who he really is.

While some people just want to be scared and don’t want a sympathetic Antichrist, it’s an interesting choice when we’ve seen how Damien started when he was young and essentially know how the story is supposed to end. It’s refreshing to see a conflicted Damien, and that’s what the show is really about. Damien, like the rest of us, is not just evil or just good. He has shades of grey and is a complex character from the very first episode. Who wants to see an Antichrist with no depth? That would be painfully boring. As someone who doesn’t watch a lot of horror or thrillers, good characterisation is crucial. Some may think the pilot was slow (as pilots often are because they are meant to set up the story), but it’s important to show where Damien started in order to appreciate the Antichrist we know he will become. I have no doubt that the Damien in “The Beast Rises” will be very different than the Damien we will see in the finale and through each episode as he comes to terms with his destiny as the Antichrist.

damienendofpilot.gif

Don’t get used to this Damien. He won’t be like this for long.

Horror series are often held to a different standard than other series, especially when they are sequels to classic films. Viewers of Damien are likely to have extremely high and specific expectations, based on their own experiences with the films, horror, or the cast/crew. Whether it lives up to those expectations is up to the individual. I’ve seen many compare it to Lucifer, the new series about Satan. Both shows may be devil-related and feature British leads, but the similarities end there, nulling any comparisons people may try to make. It may also be important to note that Damien was originally meant to air on Lifetime and was moved to A&E after several episodes were already completed. I would anticipate a tonal shift when the change was made and expect it to be much darker and potentially more gruesome.

Other than its different take on the Antichrist and good/evil, Damien is sure to draw viewers with its excellent cast. Bradley James is phenomenal as Damien. He has one of the most expressive faces in entertainment, and he needs no words to show exactly what his character is feeling. The last five minutes proved that he is more than capable of handling Damien and doing justice to the role. Barbara Hershey was only in one scene in “The Beast Rises” but created a memorable character in only a few minutes. Scott Wilson was not present in the first episode, but I’m looking forward to seeing his character in upcoming episodes. It will be interesting to see how some of the side characters, such as Omid Abtahi’s Amani, react to the changes in Damien.

How much do I already like this show? Enough that I’m planning to go to Wonder Con in Los Angeles at the end of March to see the Damien panel. If you like shows with great casts, haunting music, excellent character development, and ones that actually make you think about how you would react to learning you’re going to bring about the end of the world, be sure to watch Damien on Mondays at 10/9c on A&E.