Quicksand: Review of Damien’s “Seven Curses”

“Should I kiss the viper’s fang or herald loud the death of Man? I’m sinking in the quicksand of my thought. And I ain’t got the power anymore. Don’t believe in yourself. Don’t deceive with belief. Knowledge comes with death’s release…” -David Bowie, “Quicksand”

*This post contains major spoilers. Read at your own risk.*

“Seven Curses,” the fifth episode of A&E’s Damien, continued the show’s streak of providing harrowing, thought-provoking entertainment. To this point, Damien has been more of a supernatural thriller with bits of horror and strong character development. We’ve seen Damien (Bradley James) continue to struggle with his true nature and clash with Ann Rutledge (Barbara Hershey) as she continues to act on his behalf for purposes still not entirely known to Damien or to the audience. Each episode has moved Damien further into darkness as he tries desperately to hold on to his sense of humanity. Damien knows that he is really the Antichrist, but he doesn’t want to be and wants everything to stop. He wants to lead a normal life, but he knows deep down that it isn’t possible. “Seven Curses” focuses on his struggle to accept that he is, in a sense, powerless to control his destiny and pushes him to try to escape it.

Unlike the other episodes, the first of two episodes written by K.C. Perry, “Seven Deaths” focuses more on Damien and less on characters like Ann Rutledge, though there were still some large developments with the other characters. We learn, for example, that the blonde woman Veronica (Melanie Scrofano) in previous episodes is Ann’s daughter when Ann asks her if she’s been a good mother. Veronica appears jealous of the attention the “prodigal son” Damien receives and is getting involved with Amani (Omid Abtahi) for reasons still unclear. Meanwhile, Mommy Dearest is none too pleased with Damien’s resistance to her and sends out some mysterious men for “housekeeping,” resulting in Damien’s apartment being trashed when he’s not there. His late ex-girlfriend’s sister Simone (Megalyn E.K.) is growing more suspicious of Damien, even breaking into his apartment to look for answers. (Incidentally, she’s there while the men are trashing it but remains unseen by them.) There’s plenty of development of these characters, but the episode is really about Damien.

While there have been complaints that Damien is too slow, it’s important not to rush the development, as it is set up for a multi-season arc. “Seven Curses” appears to be the start of a change in tone and in Damien. Through each episode, Damien has gradually gotten darker, even threatening a suspicious, obsessed detective who asked a few too many accusatory questions. Although some may still complain that the show is slow, “Seven Deaths” was noticeably darker – and scarier – than the others. It was even more based in reality, as Damien spent the episode photographing and even connecting with a war veteran called Alex (Jose Pablo Cantillo), whose son Damien saved on the subway tracks in the third episode.

Damien and Alex bond quickly over the things they saw at war and the PTSD that resulted. While previous episodes hinted at the Beast in Damien, “Seven Curses” shows the human side of Damien. As Alex tells him that he is planning to end his life and asks Damien to photograph it, Damien tries to talk him out of it, reminding him that he has a wife and son who need him. It’s difficult to make a realistic episode about veteran without crossing the line into cheesy, mushy, or preachy, but “Seven Curses” defies cliché. By showing us the pain and hardships Alex faces every day as he is cared for in the hospital, viewers are better able to understand why Alex is so determined to die. It even gets political when Alex talks about the VA not giving him the help he needs. “People think they can get by with a, ‘Thank you for your service.'” Damien vows to make Alex’s story heard, so he can get more help, but Alex appears determined to end his life. Alex’s problems are real ones that are faced every day by veterans. Damien manages to address important issues without losing sight of what the show is about or being insensitive to the real veterans. Many shows ignore the true effects of war, but Damien brings them to light in a realistic way without an overpowering political agenda.

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“I’ve seen too much death. I’ve had it all around me.”

That’s not to say that the episode is all heart and no horror. It is called “Seven Curses,” after all. The most terrifying scene of the series (so far) is the stuff of nightmares for those of us who aren’t as into horror. Damien goes to look for Alex and sees things that lead him to the creepy basement of the hospital, which is essentially Hell. In the basement, he sees two men playing dominoes with a pool of blood around one’s feet, employees with drugs (Alex warned him about a black market in the hospital), an orgy with doctors and patients, and a surgeon cutting into Simone’s head, followed by Simone looking over at Damien. Damien is concerned, as shown in a phone call to Simone later, but that’s only the beginning of the horror.

The way it’s filmed is enough to make these bizarre images surreal and disturbing, but the scariest part is when Damien gets locked into a room with seven injured veterans in a circle. As soon as the door closes, the veterans start speaking in tongues as Damien moves to the center of them. The veterans are possessed by a demon, representing the seven-headed dragon. At least some of the things they say about the Beast are from the book of Revelation, and they sometimes speak all at once. Multiple people being possessed by one demon has apparently not been seen on TV before, and it was very well done on Damien. Even as they are saying things like, “Your name is Death” and “His number is six hundred threescore and six,” the most frightening part is when they start laughing maniacally. The whole basement sequence feels like a hallucination or nightmare, and it’s difficult to tell if it’s real in Damien’s world or not. It’s enough to leave us questioning if Damien’s going insane or if we are. The scene, particularly the part with the seven veterans/curses, certainly served its purpose to scare those viewers who have been craving more horror. Maybe (probably) I’m just a big chicken, but I could only watch the scene with the sound on once before needing a spot in Ann Rutledge’s “panic room” she mentioned in the fourth episode.

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It’s too creepy for me to watch with the sound on, even while making this gif.

While a show about the Antichrist naturally has supernatural elements, the thing that makes Damien truly scary is that the show feels like it could take place in our world. There has been at least one death in every episode, most of which were gruesome and more or less supernatural. In the first four episodes, Damien indirectly caused deaths by Rottweiler attacks, quicksand (or sinkhole?), an escalator, a taxi that swerved because of the Rottweiler and hit Damien’s assailant, and a man who stabbed himself because “The Beast” was near. “Seven Curses” is a welcome change from what we’ve seen on the show so far. Alex wants to commit suicide on his own volition. He knows his body is shutting down, and he thinks his death is the best thing for his family. There are no supernatural elements obviously at play in his scenes, only the real, gutting loss of hope he feels that viewers also feel for him in return.

It is not until the end of the episode that we learn whether Alex goes through with his plan. After ensuring that Simone was okay and trying to contact Amani (who is about to feel really bad for not picking up), Damien returns to Alex’s room to find him ready to kill himself. With Bear McCreary’s beautiful score, Damien photographs Alex injecting the pain meds he has saved for this moment. Both men are in tears, but not a single word is spoken, making the scene all the more powerful. Every emotion is conveyed through looks. I said in my review of the first episode that Bradley James has one of the most expressive faces, and nowhere is this more evident than in the last ten minutes of “Seven Curses.” Damien doesn’t do anything to try to stop Alex, nor to assist him. The fact that it’s a more or less “normal” death (without the grotesque elements like the other deaths) makes it incredibly moving. The cinematography on this show is absolutely gorgeous in every episode, and the close shots and lighting in this scene make it even more magnificent. Both Bradley James and Jose Pablo Cantillo deserve awards for their brilliant performances in this episode.

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Words would be superfluous, especially as the scene continues.

A friend told me he couldn’t respect a show that would show a veteran committing suicide, but Damien would be doing a disservice by not portraying the real effects of war. People go to war and get injured and/or come back with PTSD. Bills pile up, and they rarely get the mental, physical, or financial help they need. Many veterans do commit suicide. It’s an important issue, and shows like this can only help to bring awareness to the problem. Without empathy, nothing will ever change to help veterans. Damien handled it in a respectful way that neither shames nor glorifies suicide.

Above all else, “Seven Curses” is a significant episode for the character of Damien. Between the things he saw in the basement and yet another death of someone he cared about, he finally reaches his breaking point. Damien leaves the hospital and drives to his old family home, stopping to look at a portrait of the Thorns before he goes out to the garage, alcohol in hand. Damien gets into the car and turns on the radio. As Mildred Anderson’s “Everybody’s Got Somebody But Me” (a surprisingly eerie but appropriate musical selection) plays, Damien gets drunk. Last week, Damien was shaving and clearly contemplating slitting his own throat but hesitates. In this scene, however, he is much more determined to go through with it. He tapes up the sides of the garage, then turns the car on and pulls out a syringe and the same pain medicine Alex used. The cinematography is, again, stunning and perfect for the scene. Like Alex’s suicide scene, there is no dialogue, only the sound of Bear McCreary’s score and the sounds of the car. By this point, it’s difficult to not feel sorry for Damien, as he is trying avoid being the one who ends the world. To make it worse, the poor guy can’t even die on his own terms because some magical force causes the tape to come off, the garage door opens, and the Rottweilers pull the all but dead Damien to safety.

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I just love the cinematography. This doesn’t do it justice.

While we don’t know what happens in episode six, it is easy to imagine that Damien’s failed suicide attempt will be a catalyst for his change. We’ve seen some of his sinister side before, but the lack of power over his situation is likely to push him to the brink. He’s sinking further and further into darkness, and no matter how hard he tries, he can’t escape it. After this compelling episode, it will be even more interesting to see how he reacts. If the events of “Seven Curses” aren’t enough to set things in motion for Damien (or to make people watch the show), I’m not sure what else could do it.

Every week, Damien leaves me wanting more, caring more about these characters, and wanting to see Damien’s growth into the Beast he is meant to become. I’m ready for his descent into darkness to happen, so I can be terrified by Damien and not just the things that happen to him. If “Seven Curses” is any indication of where the show is going, I’m looking forward to being scared, questioning what I think I know and feel, and longing to see more of these fascinating, well-written and well-acted characters for the next five weeks and hopefully more seasons to come.

Watch Damien on A&E, Mondays at 10/9C. Previous episodes can be viewed on AETV.com.