In Lucifer, We Find Sympathy for the Devil

How the popular Netflix show Lucifer offers perfect companionship to humans sitting in lockdown and thinking about the world gone awry

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In Lucifer, We Find Sympathy for the Devil
Tom Ellis as Lucifer Morningstar / John P. Flwwnor / Netflix

When Fox Entertainment Group launched a series in 2016 about Lucifer escaping hell, no one could have related to the devil in the way we can now, in our time of pestilence. Maybe the mayhem of the real world has contributed to the show’s growing popularity, making it among the most streamed on Netflix, which acquired it from Fox in 2018.

The series is based on Lucifer Samael Morningstar, a fictional character who appears in DC Comics, an American comic book publisher and subsidiary of Warner Brothers. Aside from its dualistic worldview of heaven and hell and a (generally) patriarchal order of all things celestial, Lucifer has less to do with the Biblical Satan and more with the human condition. It’s fanciful and funny and, at times, quite profound.

After spending a good chunk of lockdown watching Lucifer, I even found that the devil could teach us a thing or two about ourselves and the current state of affairs.

For starters, we rarely know what we truly desire, and we alone condemn ourselves to the bowels of hell, enduring a torturous loop of our illusions over and over again.

But we also possess qualities so redeemable that they can transform the devil himself. For example, it turns out that Lucifer doesn’t weaken us with temptation, but rather it is our capacity to love that makes him vulnerable to humanity, an idea that surprises even the devil.

Indeed, after becoming earthbound, the show’s Lucifer subjects himself to years of psychotherapy, wading through his narcissism and lack of self-knowledge in an attempt to understand the unfamiliar emotions he is beginning to feel.

Lucifer is a loquacious and powerful being, a fallen angel, yet he clips his wings and settles in Los Angeles, where he owns the nightclub Lux, because he is adamant not to return to hell. He is lighthearted and mischievous, always forthcoming about being “the actual devil,” but accepts that humans will ignore the truth if it gives them cognitive dissonance.

He tells “Dad jokes” and wit-plays on words, making sexual innuendo that rings familiar in the ears of any juvenile.

He grants favors for a price to be named later, but unlike our politicians’ Faustian dealings, this devil makes it a “point of pride” never to tell a lie.

“Who am I if not a devil of my word,” he asks rhetorically.

He jealously guards his reputation, setting the record straight about who’s to blame for all the evil in the world.

“Everyone says the devil made me do it,” he laments. “But it’s you, the humans, who make bad choices.”

Like most conversational topics that mark our daily lives as of late, it is no surprise that Lucifer also found himself an inadvertent agitator at the fault line of America’s culture wars.

The show initially created a bit of a kerfuffle and became the target of an unsuccessful campaign for boycott and cancellation, led by One Million Moms (OMM), an online division of the right-wing Christian fundamentalist organization American Family Association, which aims to fight what it calls the “homosexual agenda.”

(According to OMM’s website, the group currently targets, among others, Disney Junior’s Muppet Babies Gonzo for cross-dressing and a new Lego set for “glorifying gender inclusivity.”)

Lucifer is, of course, a hedonist. “Well, I’m hardly a schoolgirl,” he admits. And from him we learn that porn stars don’t go to hell, for example!

He is bisexual — though he’s much more forgiving with the ladies. His top demon Mazikeen, or Maze (whose persona is loosely inspired by the Hebrew mythological Shedim or its Arabic near-equivalent Jinn), followed him to Earth through the gates of hell. She is pansexual, which means she pursues all genders with equal fervor, all to the chagrin of America’s social conservatives who have been boycotting Netflix for years irrespective of Lucifer.

In his spirit of knavery, Lucifer’s character mentions “Million Moms” in the same breath as the yakuza during a scene where the devil is warned that he may be in imminent danger.

Though there is no gratuitous sex or violence, other aspects of the fantasy storyline may not translate well into some religious households. The embodiment in later episodes of God himself into the form of a man, for example, played with gravitas by none other than Dennis Haysbert, along with the “goddess of all creation … in the body of a disturbingly hot woman,” played by Tricia Janine Helfer, are cases in point.

But those who see the show for its entertainment value — a celestial family saga that blends the Abrahamic tradition with the animated spirits of ancient pantheons — will appreciate its take. Lucifer is rife with sibling rivalry, power struggles and the prodigal son who loves and protects his mother, even as she comes undone, posing imminent danger to the humans whom Lucifer has learned to hold dear.

Ultimately, all the devil and his top demon want is to make a meaningful human connection. They feel tormented at the possibility that they may be incapable of such a thing after having spent eons in hell. And who could blame them?

Earlier this summer, when we first ventured out of lockdown, just before the delta variant started raising the alarm, I found my fellow humans to be at a similar loss, wondering if all that time cooped up alone or with the same group of people might have changed us beyond recognition.

Did we still have our social graces? Our table manners and personal hygiene? Did we remember how to socialize? Or had we become like the pandas at the zoo, having spent so much time in captivity that we have forgotten even how to mate?

Could we still find meaning in a human connection?

Tom Ellis as Lucifer Morningstar / John P. Flwwnor / Netflix

Playing the grand piano in his penthouse, Lucifer brings home those woes with his memorable rendition of the song “Creep” by Radiohead. He is falling in love and finds himself at a loss as to what to do about it. The object of his affections is homicide detective Chloe Decker — played by American actor Lauren German — who, as a woman of science and reason, remains for a long time oblivious to Lucifer’s true nature while he helps her find the bad guys, fancying himself as her very own “crime-solving devil.”

“It makes sense. Don’t overthink it,” he serenades her at the police precinct, playing his guitar.

All sorts of workplace drama unfolds at the precinct, like Lucifer’s endless teasing of Chloe’s ex-husband “Detective Douche,” also known as detective Dan Espinoza — played by Kevin Alejandro — and the ever cheerful interactions with forensic scientist Ella Lopez — played by Aimee Garcia — who is the most religious character in the show and, as of the end of the fifth season, not yet aware of Lucifer’s true nature.

In later episodes, as Lucifer and Maze develop more nuance and dimensionality, their awareness of their own sense of alienation becomes that much more palpable.

Lucifer is so taken with his desire to love and be loved that he learns the virtues of self-sacrifice, both for the woman who stole his heart and for the greater good.

And Maze — played by the fierce South African actor Lesley-Ann Brandt — is a demon reared in the bowels of hell with the belief that she has no soul; that she must live each moment to its fullest because once she dies there would be nothing. But then she discovers love, and the grief that humans sometimes must pay as its price. Will she still want a soul after that? Would the average human?

All ponderings aside, make no mistake about it: When the devil’s state of mind wavers, chaos is unleashed, though not in the frightening ways that we endure in real life. There are no collapsing nation-states or mass exoduses in the show. Lucifer’s pandemonium is along the lines of a barehanded scuffle with his eldest brother, angel Amenadiel, God’s most glorious warrior — played by an even-keeled David Bryan Woodside — who wants to send the devil back to hell and loses his wings trying; or a bar fight, like when Lucifer feels abandoned and betrayed by “the detective,” as he refers to his flame, with no one but an already corrupted Eve, “the world’s first party girl,” played by Israeli actor Inbar Lavi, to keep him tethered to humanity. (The “world’s first murderer” Cain — played by Tom Welling — also makes an appearance, as does his brother Abel, played by Lauren Lapkus with amusing gender-bending flamboyance.)

Lucifer is much less interested in corrupting humans than in punishing evil, a visceral job to his persona. Sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll are all right, and he may go easy on thieves who are down on their luck. Even people who commit grand faux pas in interior decor will get off easy, despite the devil’s contempt for bad taste.

“J’accuse,” Lucifer tells a gaudy casino owner who is a murder suspect. “First of all, of mixing Corinthian and Doric columns in your McMansion. I mean, c’mon!”

Humor notwithstanding, don’t anyone dare slaughter an innocent lest they truly endure the wrath of the devil. Loath to getting his hands (and three-piece suits) dirty, all Lucifer needs to do is reveal his devil face, which is a frightening scene for any human and somehow makes the scum of the earth crumble under the weight of their own conscience — a refreshing idea that we can only wish for in the real world.

Indeed, we are told, hell is filled with those tormented by their own guilt, which is a lesson to be heeded by sensitive souls who carry the weight of the world on their shoulders. And what about the psychopaths who feel no guilt over their transgressions? I don’t know, though Lucifer gives us a hint in passing when addressing a flustered person trying to speak.

“Was that German?” Lucifer asks. “If it was, then it’s awful. Trust me, I should know. Hitler was a talker. Well, a screamer actually.”

Lucifer is played by heart throb Welsh actor Tom Ellis, who himself grew up in the church. He hails from a family of Baptist ministers (and has said during numerous public interviews that his religious family has found nothing objectionable about the show).

Ellis trained as a stage actor at the Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Drama in Glasgow. Leave it to a pastor’s son to inhabit the devil with such flair and a diabolical innocence that can make the lord of darkness so loveable, though it helps that he speaks with a British accent and wears kohl around those brown eyes.

And yes: In the interest of full disclosure, I am a full-fledged Lucifan, which is the official term in nerdy circles for Lucifer fans.

The show gained a loyal following from its inception. Its cast had become regulars on the Comic-Con circuit when Fox inexplicably canceled it after the third season. (It is not clear if culture wars weighed in on the decision.)

Ellis learned the news from a phone call while riding in a van at a fan convention in Rome. “I was gutted,” he recalled when asked about it during many of his online interviews. But soon after he tweeted the bad news, fans worldwide began to mobilize on social media, acquiring tens of thousands of signatures in a petition that demanded a Lucifer comeback. That was when Netflix picked it up for a fourth and fifth season, before viewers once again lobbied for more time with the devil. The snowballing effect of these fan campaigns — fanpaigns — appears to be setting a new trend in directly influencing programming decisions. Shortly before the pandemic, as Lucifer was wrapping up filming the supposed final fifth season, Netflix announced it would extend it to season six, which drops on Sept. 10.

Netflix does not release international viewership data, but the streaming giant now offers Lucifer dubbed into several languages, including Turkish, Japanese and German, giving the devil a whole new gestalt. Polyglot Lucifans will especially appreciate hearing el diablo deliver some of his more absurd lines in Spanish. And when Ellis answers fan questions on the IMDb YouTube channel, they come from corners as far away as Brazil, Morocco and Romania. Anecdotal reporting by Newlines also found Lucifans lurking in such unlikely places as Pakistan and Saudi Arabia, where Arabic subtitles translate the words of the devil!

Thanks to his time in therapy with Dr. Linda Martin, who is played by American actor and comedian Rachael Elaine Harris, Lucifer begins to differentiate between his impulse “to punish evil” and the much more grand pursuit of seeking justice for those who have been wronged. Perhaps it is there that a seed is planted for his slow but steady evolution, a move away from being the lord of hell and toward someone deserving of the throne in heaven.

But what happens when the devil becomes God?

Filmed entirely during the COVID-19 lockdown with crew and cast members in protective gear, the sixth season alludes to some apocalyptic signs. Again, they are nothing like our real-life drought-fueled wildfires and flash floods. The previews show a fury brewing in hell and Tzefardeia — frogs — unleashed on Earth, or at least at the police precinct, in the forensics lab.

However things end in the final season, Lucifer has already delivered the ultimate redemption story. As the devil puts it: “Everybody deserves a second chance. Even me.” And that, indeed, is good news for us all.

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