Netflix’s latest bubblegum thriller based on the book of the same name by Daria Polatin is a quick binge. The series, which begins as a potential “bad seed” tale, morphs into something weirder. I’m not entirely sure all the elements work, and some moments require you to suspend reality, but for late summer entertainment, it isn’t bad. The Devil In Ohio illuminates the devastation that cults can have on individuals, families, and in some cases, whole communities.
The series opens with a wide-eyed Mae, played by Madeleine Arthur(Color Out Of Space), channeling a cross between Nell from The Last Exorcism and Esther from Orphan. She has just escaped a dangerous cult and is scared and alone. After narrowly avoiding a sacrificial ceremony, Mae meets Suzanne, Bones’ Emily Deschanel, in the ER. She is a doctor who has a history of her own with abuse and a habit of taking home strays. She is a kind-hearted mother of three with more empathy than sense. Suzanne invites her to live with her family when no suitable foster home can be found for the fragile girl. Mae is no ordinary girl, though; she comes with more baggage than Suzanne can imagine.
Mae has escaped from a satanic cult that has existed in a small town in Ohio for decades. The cult has people in high places all over the state and is nearly unstoppable. Right away, the trauma that Mae is carrying manifests in strange ways. She seems overly eager to please her new family, particularly Suzanne and her daughter Jules. Mae acts strangely and pits the family against each other, sometimes purposely. Eventually, we learn that Mae has been programmed by her father and the rest of the cult to believe that her purpose is to die a gruesome death for the cult to continue to thrive. Creepy phrases and invented religious verses run wild in this place where women are devalued, and men stand in power. It’s pretty standard cult stuff.
As time goes on, Mae’s erratic behavior and the cult’s ever closer pull erodes the once close-knit family. Peter and Suzanne argue over Mae, Suzanne’s job, and Peter’s business. Mae pits the siblings against each other and ruins Jules’ friendships. She even goes so far as to date both Jules’ and Helen’s boyfriends, although since Helen is gay, that isn’t that important. Finally, shortly before Mae is set to go to a children’s home for teens who have experienced severe trauma, she attends a dance and is triggered by white roses. This prompts her to return to the cult and willingly continue with the sacrifice.
The ending of The Devil In Ohio
In the series’ final episode, Mae returns to the cult and is prepared for the ceremony again. Mae’s father Malachi(Dollhouse and BSG’s Tahmoh Penikett), the leader of the cult and dying of some unnamed illness, needs to complete the ritual to save himself, although he doesn’t appear to believe his own hype. Suzanne, who followed Mae to Amontown to rescue her, gets run off the road by Mae’s brother and then hikes her way through the woods to their compound. She finds Mae about to be burned alive and accidentally sets fire to their church in a scuffle with Sherrif Wilkins. She and Mae share a moment of understanding over their shared abuse, and after beating Noah, they run away, leaving Mae’s mother to take her place in the ritual. Malachi spins the new sacrifice as a good thing, and everything continues as usual.
The Devil In Ohio concludes with the family living apart. Suzanne’s husband Peter lives in an apartment complex with their daughters, and Suzanne lives in their house with Mae. Although Suzanne rescued Mae, everything isn’t rosy and perfect. All of the family’s lies that threatened to destroy them still must be dealt with. Suzanne is in therapy, and Detective Lopez, who got a raise, is trying to investigate the cult, but when he issues a search warrant, he finds Amontown deserted. The entire town and the cult have disappeared. Likely Noah and Malachi are rebuilding in another small village.
It seemed like Mae was just an innocent bystander manipulated by the cult. Everything that happens to Suzanne’s family seemed like the cult orchestrated it. Malachi burned Peter’s house down, harassed Jules, and almost killed Dani. Mae’s behavior was strange, but Suzanne is more than willing to brush that off as expected behavior from a traumatized girl. But, in the closing moments, it appears that wasn’t entirely true.
Mae set up the white rose trigger herself at the dance and almost got Suzanne killed. She risked her own firey death to ensure that Suzanne would remain her mother. It’s a pretty extreme response that shocks Suzanne probably more than it should. After all, she has been warned by numerous people not to become entangled, and she literally lost her family to allow Mae to live with her. Mae might not have been evil, but she definitely is manipulative and dangerous. In the closing seconds of the series, we see Mae’s shrine fully realized with a picture of Suzanne on one side and Mae on the other. Detective Lopez knows what Mae is capable of, and now so does Suzanne. How far will Mae go to keep her surrogate mother?
The true story
Series creator and writer of the novel The Devil In Ohio has said this book was inspired by a story she was told about a doctor whose family had been torn apart in similar circumstances. The names have never been divulged to protect the family, but the similarities are eerie. The show’s producer Rachel Miller also heard stories of a cult in Ohio that killed an entire family in 1989. The Xenos Christain Fellowship, led by Jeffrey Lundgren, killed the Averys in a blood sacrifice. Lundgren was convicted and executed in 2006. The cult lives on, however, renamed the Dwell Community Church. Unfortunately, cults will always be a part of society. Whenever there is a power imbalance, they thrive. Charismatic, narcissistic leaders and vulnerable members make for bad bedfellows.
The Devil In Ohio isn’t ever sure exactly what it wants to be. It begins as a Single White Female kind of story, shifts into spookier supernatural territory, and concludes as a cult cautionary tale. Interlaced in all that, though, is a weird young adult drama that feels out of place. Thankfully there are only moments of that odd sentimentality, and it does little to hinder the story. The limited series isn’t perfect, but it is an easy watch for a long weekend and some time to kill. It is available on Netflix right now.
As the Managing Editor for Signal Horizon, I love watching and writing about genre entertainment. I grew up with old-school slashers, but my real passion is television and all things weird and ambiguous. My work can be found here and Travel Weird, where I am the Editor in Chief.