“The Devil in Ohio” Annoyed the Hell Out Of Me But There’s a Cute Little Queer Storyline

The Devil in Ohio has everything: a Satanic cult, a dead pig on a stick in a cornfield, high-necked dresses, a P!nk concert t-shirt stolen for usage in a Lucifer-related shrine, a mysterious white van, a religious leader communicating telepathically with a crow, Dr. Temperance “Bones” Brennan, childhood trauma therapy, a teenager ditching her Movie Night tradition with her Lifelong Best Friend for a popular person’s party, groups of hooded figures in Plague Doctor masks, a child singing “Don’t Rain on My Parade” for a Thanksgiving Talent Show, a butchered deer, a renovated McMansion, white women in velvet cloaks, dueling “Carrie” costumes, a blonde chanting things in a white nightgown in the rain, an asthma attack and, of course, the reason we are all here today discussing this program — a slight wisp of a lesbian storyline.

Also, The Devil in Ohio is bad, although somehow still compulsively watchable and engaging enough. The gist of it is this: a doe-eyed blonde teenager named Mae (Madeline Arthur) with the personality of a very conniving paper plate arrives in the hospital unable or unwilling to communicate her origins but a Pentagram carved into her back indicates she hails from an abusive situation. Suzanne (Emily Deschenel), a psychiatrist at the hospital, ends up taking her in when other foster placements don’t pan out, inviting Mae into the home she shares with her erstwhile contractor husband Peter (Sam Jaeger) and her three daughters: teenage photographer Jules (Xania Dotson), high school queen bee Helen (Alisha Newton) and their youngest, the very animated scene-stealer Dani (Naomi Tan). Meanwhile, Detective Lopez (Geraldo Celasco) wants to get to the bottom of Mae’s abuse and expose the cult that’s taken over a nearby county, committing unspeakable evils under police protection. As Suzanne gets increasingly embroiled with Mae and wanting to uncover her past, Suzanne’s family battles their own overlooked demons as Suzanne’s abusive childhood informs her urge to make a series of objectively idiotic choices in order to protect this bizarre newcomer.

family posing together at the end of Devil in Ohio

DEVIL IN OHIO

The very minor queer storyline — featuring queer actor Djouliet Amara as Tatiana Nelson, paired with the aforementioned Helen, played by Canadian actress Alisha Newton, who came out as bisexual on Monday (we love to see it!) — is a sweet and authentic reprieve from the dull drone of the rest of the story, largely due to the actors’ nuanced and heartfelt performances that elevated often one-dimensional material. But their story also felt rushed, and could’ve used more time to breathe as well as a more concrete link to the central narrative. This was true of so many of the story’s side-plots, like the detective’s simmering romance with another detective and Jules being an asshole to her cute gay best friend. Meanwhile, we’re forced to endure endless minutes of Suzanne’s therapy sessions when her whole deal could’ve been easily summed up in a tight five.

Devil in Ohio. (L to R) Djouliet Amara as Tatiana Nelson, Alisha Newton as Helen Mathis in episode 101 of Devil in Ohio. Cr. Ricardo Hubbs/Netflix © 2022

Devil in Ohio. (L to R) Djouliet Amara as Tatiana Nelson, Alisha Newton as Helen Mathis in episode 101 of Devil in Ohio. Cr. Ricardo Hubbs/Netflix © 2022

I’d initially assumed The Devil in Ohio had been birthed out of a Netflix algorithm that determined the precise intersection of suburban family drama, tepid thriller and Cult Stuff necessary to entice an exhausted audience (myself included) into a six hour lull of one-dimensional characters, “Go Buckeyes” and Satanic abstractions. But it is in fact based on a novel that I am confident is better than the show although I have never read it.

There’s a lot wrong with The Devil in Ohio, but perhaps its most grating error is the titular Devil himself. Despite the alleged research that went into creating this fictional cult, the show often seems to get Satanism quite casually wrong, lazily misrepresenting the practice and its culture in favor of some kind of contemporary Satanic Panic narrative that ends up feeling oddly conservative.

The Devil in Ohio is obviously not attempting to represent the actual Church of Satan, a progressive organization built in late-’60s San Francisco and comprised of countercultural “cynics and pragmatists, atheists and libertarians” who crusaded against organized religion. The concept and practice of Satanism, and its symbolic employment by mainstream religion and government as a way of categorizing and punishing outcasts, has been around since the concept of Satan was introduced by Christian mythology a trillion or whatever years ago.

But one consistent element of Satanism has been its existence in opposition to the Christian Church and mainstream culture. In The Devil in Ohio, that element is basically stripped away, replaced with these Satanists simply existing in opposition to… people who think murder is bad? People who don’t worship Satan? What’s the point here? What’s behind this cult and what’s its endgame? What motivates its leaders and what enchants its followers?

Fresh-faced White Alpha Male midwesterners, their submissive brides, corn-husk-doll crafting home-schooled daughters and crooked cops in an insular rural community dressed up like religious fundamentalists are doing things religious fundamentalists do all in the name of … Satan? These are the dudes who burn the witches, these are not the witches!

Devil in Ohio. (L to R) Madeleine Arthur as Mae Dodd, Heather Feeney as Purple-Robed Nun in episode 103 of Devil in Ohio. Cr. Ricardo Hubbs/Netflix © 2022

Devil in Ohio. (L to R) Madeleine Arthur as Mae Dodd, Heather Feeney as Purple-Robed Nun in episode 103 of Devil in Ohio. Cr. Ricardo Hubbs/Netflix © 2022

While a quick google suggests The Devil in Ohio is based on a true story, it isn’t — the team studied actual cults to concoct its own, but there’s no indication why they chose to center theirs on Satan, rather than any number of more compelling choices. There was, allegedly, a Satanic group with Wiccan associations founded in mid-century Toledo, but like so many Satanic groups, there were no ritual sacrifices of human life.

Mostly, designating the cult as “Satanic” is the flattest possible choice in a story riddled with flat choices. What makes religious fundamentalism and its cultish offspring so intriguing is its dichotomy; how it exposes the violence and oppression lurking beneath so much popular and allegedly ethical religious texts. These groups promote brutality, misogyny, rape and dictatorship in the name of purity and godliness. Many other cults, including cults that maybe even use Satanic iconography, are often under the thrall of a charismatic leader creating their own theology and exerting power through a kind of internal brainwashing, a situation that is on its own simply psychologically fascinating.

But in The Devil in Ohio, Satan is bad and so these guys are bad and also quite boring and there’s nothing complex or interesting about it.

Despite all of these reservations, I binged the series rapidly while performing a series of basic household tasks, and I imagine perhaps that many of you will do the same.

In conclusion, I wonder how P!nk feels after her song appeared in an incoherent cringey scene in They/Them and now her concert tee appeared in The Devil in Ohio. Probably fine because she’s rich and a talented acrobat.


Before you go! Did you like what you just read? We keep Autostraddle majority free-to-read, but it isn't free to create! And yet most readers don't support this indie queer site. Will you be one of the people who do? A+ membership starts at just $4/month or $30/year and they literally keep us from closing. Will you join? Cancel anytime.

Join A+
Related:

Riese

Riese is the 40-year-old Co-Founder and CEO of Autostraddle.com as well as an award-winning writer, video-maker, LGBTQ+ Marketing consultant and aspiring cyber-performance artist who grew up in Michigan, lost her mind in New York and now lives in California. Her work has appeared in nine books including "The Bigger the Better The Tighter The Sweater: 21 Funny Women on Beauty, Body Image & Other Hazards Of Being Female," magazines including Marie Claire and Curve, and all over the web including Nylon, Queerty, Nerve, Bitch, Emily Books and Jezebel. She had a very popular personal blog once upon a time, and then she recapped The L Word, and then she had the idea to make this place, and now here we all are! In 2016, she was nominated for a GLAAD Award for Outstanding Digital Journalism. Follow her on twitter and instagram.

Riese has written 2975 articles for us.

11 Comments

  1. I will never understand why people overthink this stuff so much. It is entertainment. It is not supposed to be real life; we all get enough of that in…real life. I thought it was interesting and it kept me entertained. Also, if you can’t figure out why or how things were going on that says more about you than the script.

  2. Honestly, thus far this show is just. Fine. Not good, certainly, and the sheer number of times Suzanne has portentously said the words, “I just want to help,” as she gently ignores the rest of her family’s problems is slowly driving me up the wall but its good background noise.
    Gotta say though, as a pagan and student of historical folk-religions, even leaving aside the whole that’s-not-actually-how-satanism-works thing the inverted pentagram on her back felt pretty lazy. Especially when the actual sigils they scattered through so far are surprisingly well done. Fairly meaningless, but well designed. Just to disclaim – that’s not what that’s symbol is for. It never has been, not in wider pagan practice and not in “historical” or modern satanism either.
    The makers of this thing were clearly trying super hard to achieve Midwestern!Gothic vibes and they’ve hit the occasional good note but its mostly just eh…
    Thanks for this, it was a well-written piece that helped me pull together how I was feeling about this show.

    • Oh gods, it got worse. Not the pseudo-satanic nonsense, the teen subplot. Look man, I was a teenager in the early 2000’s, and even then, before the wonders of tumblr and its helpful tips on how not to get murder-knifed by some random dude, even before I realised oh wait, I don’t actually want to bang a dude, you know what I just. Did not freaking do?? Get in a car with some random guy. Give some random guy my address. Sit in the back seat of said car, where the kiddie-locks are!

      THERE ARE SO MANY RED FLAGS HERE.

      He doesn’t drop her at her house, he is generally creepy as hell and then he slams the brakes on and orders her to get out with no explanation whatsoever – he touches her – actually picks her up – without consent!! And still shes just going oh~! Star so pretteh :) I. What? Is this what straight girls are like??

      The whole scene I was expecting her to call him on his creepy bullshit but she just kept going along with it. Also, does she even know his NAME at this point? Up til now, I’d had her down as a relatively sensible person, if afflicted with a severe case of teenage insecurity, but this scene is flipping maddening.

      In the unlikely event that a teenage girl reads this – DONT COPY THIS TEENY MORON. YOU HAVE A MUCH GREATER CHANCE OF BEING MURDERED OR OTHERWISE HURT.

      Gah, Netflix, do better dammit. I could live with the cheesy “Satanic” crap but this is actively encouraging dangerous behaviour and I really thought as a society we’d all moved past romanticizing this crap.

      • Eh, not an expert – I’m still studying but waving around an upside down pentacle and wailing “Devil worship! Devil worship!” is the oldest and crappiest eighties trick in the book lol. Also every time they called a pentacle a pentagram was more than a little irritating.

  3. This is the dumbest review I’ve read so far and that’s saying something. The co-founder of this site fucking wrote this? The only thing dumber than the show itself is this review. Not once did I equate the cult in the show with actual satanism. Nobody did. Why bring it up? Also, her gay best friend was a little stereotypical and over the top at times yet this lgbtq+ consultant praises the character? Kind of insulting. Agreed the lesbian storyline should have connected more. Honestly, you could cut Helen’s character out and not miss anything. Ultimately, the show sucked, but not as bad as this pandering ass review. Jesus Christ

Contribute to the conversation...

Yay! You've decided to leave a comment. That's fantastic. Please keep in mind that comments are moderated by the guidelines laid out in our comment policy. Let's have a personal and meaningful conversation and thanks for stopping by!