‘Evil’ Season Finale: Michael Emerson on What Drives Leland Townsend – and That Sheryl Twist

Plus, he gives his hot take on that shocking final scene

Warning: This post contains spoilers for Thursday’s season finale of CBS’ “Evil.”

Michael Emerson is known for playing baddies — Benjamin Linus on “Lost” and William Hinks on “The Practice,” to name a few. But his character on “Evil,” an occult expert named Dr. Leland Townsend whose greatest joy in life is encouraging others to do bad things, just may be his most evil character to date.

“He feels that way to me, because it’s so intentional,” Emerson told TheWrap about Townsend’s evildoings, which reached a fever-pitch in Thursday’s Season 1 finale. “Each of his individual wickednesses seem to be part of a huge agenda that he’s working on.”

Emerson weighed in on his character’s big twist in the season finale episode, titled “Book 27,” in which he asks protagonist Kristen Bouchard’s (Katja Herbers) mother, Sheryl (Christine Lahti), to marry him — which will cause all kinds of problems for our leading lady.

“Oh, God. It’s so crazy,” he groaned. “[Sheryl] will be banished from her family. But let’s think as if it’s recruitment. Any woman that would fall for his kind of pitch is vulnerable in some way. She has such a desperate need to feel young and sexy, and have the nightlife she feels that maybe she was denied when she was a mother,” he said. “So maybe he’ll just turn her into one of his minions, and she may not even realize it. The audience will, which will be kind of delicious.”

Although Sheryl seems like a good person — she’s a doting grandmother with a genuine love for her daughter, despite her disconcerting willingness to risk her relationship with her family in the name of her newfound love for Townsend — Emerson pointed out some “signs and symbols” that may suggest otherwise about Sheryl’s true intentions.

“After [Leland and Sheryl] made love, she got up and went to her closet — a closet full of black dresse — and she pulled out the red one,” he noted. “Kristen had already been warned about the color red. Now, we’re getting down into the symbolic minutiae of things, but her wearing that red dress, and wearing it a lot after that, sort of suggested her donning herself in the garb of the other side. That red dress is maybe a uniform, and she doesn’t realize it.” 

Emerson also gave us his hot take on that shocking final scene in the season finale, in which Kristen’s hand gets burned when she picks up a rosary– suggesting that she herself may be possessed by a demon.

Leland has never treated [Kristen] as any kind of comrade, she was just someone that was getting in the way of his plans,” he said. “I don’t know what we’re to make of her hand getting burned by the rosary. I guess we’re to question whether she could unwittingly be one of the 60,” he said, referring to the show’s map of 60 demonic figures that supposedly inhabit the earth.

“Do all would-be demons recognize their community, or their links to one another, or their special powers? I don’t know. But I guess this is a springboard into a more complex narrative for Season 2,” he continued. “‘Cause we’ve got so used to her being the intrepid, go-getter, good human girl who does battle and tells the truth to evil powers. So, what if she is imperfect in some way?”

As for what drives the Townsend to do the horrible things he does — like presiding over an online community of incels who fantasize about hurting women to feel big — Emerson says his character’s motivations are the same urges that drive any other misguided person.

“I think he’s just a psychological case. As far as supernatural connections, the jury’s out on that, in my book. The 60 demons and his… well, you’ve seen my shrink,” he laughed. (In the penultimate episode of Season 1, Townsend goes to see his therapist, who turns out to be a goat-headed demon-man).

The same things that drive any people to do evil. Neglect, humiliation, under-appreciation, anger, a lust for vengeance of some sort, to take it out on individuals or the whole world.”

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