After a promising pilot episode, NBC’s new gritty magic series, Constantine, is on its way to a continent-crossing first season of Heaven vs. Hell. Although the second episode is focused primarily on introducing leading lady, Zed (Angélica Celeya), it also showcases more of Constantine’s power and gives us the sense that the series plans to cover a lot of geographical ground. Although it seems to be settling into a monster-of-the-week theme, they have plenty of time to rise about that and make this the new, groundbreaking show we’ve been waiting for from DC. Before I launch into the recap, we should take a moment to appreciate some of the finer points of this episode and the reasons I have real faith in head writer David S. Goyer.
If you’ve been following along, you know that long-time fans of the comic were outraged when NBC announced that title character John Constantine (Matt Ryan) would not be allowed to smoke “on-screen.” One of the things which set him apart from his wise-cracking, trench coat-wearing peers, is his really dangerous reliance on addictive substances of all kinds, most easily represented by the constant presence of a cigarette on his person. It’s pretty key character trait but it goes against NBC’s standards of decency to have a protagonist seen smoking even if it’s explicitly presented as a negative trait. Because audiences are filled with idiots incapable of making decisions for themselves and completely at the whim of whatever they see at face-value on TV and unable to read Surgeon General’s warnings.
Despite this, everyone involved in the show has insisted that this will remain a prominent part of his character. “You won’t see him smoking, but he will be a smoker,” they promise us. And we’ve been rightfully skeptical. What does that even mean? How could that ever work on a primarily visual medium?
But, oh boy, does it work. This is working-around-standards at its finest. It’s Joss Whedon –using-Mandarin-to-swear clever writing and I’m glad I gave this show a chance. We never see Constantine smoke on screen, as promised, but we do see a lit cigarette in an ashtray which he’s been using to scry the future in the rising smoke. And two scenes later he walks down a street, exhaling and letting out a long stream of… We’re not quite sure what. Cut away. Cut back and we see that it’s just chilly and his breath is fogging, but it’s okay because for a minute he definitely could have been smoking. It’s little cues and hints that may not be as effective a metaphor as having him openly smoking, but it’s really clever writing that works around standards we just don’t have a say in and it shows how seriously the shows production has taken both the source material and the long-time fans of the series. And I will take that until the day networks stop thinking they control the hearts and minds of their audiences.
Moving on. There’s plenty to criticize about this second episode, as with all second episodes. Mostly, that it feels like a lower-budget repeat of the pilot. How so? Well, let’s see. We re-establish that Constantine’s job is dangerous and alienates him from people. We spend the entire episode introducing a second brunette, magically gifted but less experienced, twenty-something leading lady. She follows Constantine around and they trade off teaching each other things. She is faced with all the same dilemmas and trials that the girl before her was. These are legitimate criticisms. But the only reason this happened is because, frankly, we demanded it.
Liv was routinely accused of being the weakest part of the pilot. When it premiered at San Diego Comic Con, Hellblazer fans largely loved it except for Liv. “Who’s Liv?” they asked. “Why not use a character already in the comics?” they asked. “She’s a weak link and poorly written.” They critiqued. And you know what? The producers listened.
Liv was written out, but someone had to take her place. They had to fill in the gaps Liv’s absence left in the story which means they needed someone very similar so they could use her in all the same ways and not have to reshoot too much. And you know what? It worked pretty well. They brought in a character from the comics and altered her to better suit what had already been done. Only time will tell how this series will play out but so far the writers have shown enormous respect for the work and for the characters they are dealing with as well as their built-in fans (which is more than can be said for Arrow, The Flash, or Gotham) and I give them huge amounts of credit for that.
In other news, an actual episode with a whole plot and everything happened during all of that so in case you missed it just want to brush up before the next one, here’s season one, episode two of Constantine:
The Darkness Beneath opens with an abusive, coal-miner husband coming home after a long day’s work informing the audience about the many workers who have quit in the last year because of mysterious noises in the mine. He calls them sissies and insists that nothing is going on, which is obvious since he’s followed into the shower by a mysterious shadow and then burned alive when fire comes out of his shower head instead of water. Looks like we know where our hero is going today.
Back at headquarters, Chas comes home with the day’s lottery money and Constantine complains that reading the future in smoke is a hard trick. In doing so the writers have successfully informed us how Constantine makes his living and made me want magic, smoke-reading powers of my own no matter how hard it is. You may recall that although Liv is not returning for the season, she did leave behind one token for us to remember her by: a map of the US which she scryed before leaving, telling John where to look for trouble. The blood spot over a small town in Pennsylvania has become wet and Constantine takes this as his queue to hit the road. Chas can’t come with because of a mysterious encounter on a train with a succubus that leaves the PA police force with a warrant for his arrest, but that’s okay because John prefers working alone, right?
Of course, as long as he’s also followed by the pretty girl who’s been obsessively drawing his picture since we saw her last week. Who also happens to live in the town he’s headed into. They quite literally bump into each other and she’s just as surprised as he is. Apparently, she suspected he might not even have been real and he’s pretty sure she’s a con-artist trying to prey on a newcomer to the town. Her inability to express herself in a crisis doesn’t help the situation and with a fancy trick of either magic or misdirection, Constantine literally disappears from the scene. But not before she swipes his wallet and learns his name, height, and eye color. And probably that he’s a master of the dark arts, if he hasn’t had new business cards made yet.
Leaving her behind, he follows the miner’s funeral procession to a bar where some surprisingly chatty small town folks inform John that the miner was not a popular guy but that the mine has been shut down for the day out of respect. Constantine also learns that nine other people have been killed in the mine in the last year and that the locals suspect they’ve woken something in the deep of the earth, as there’s a mysterious knocking coming from the tunnel. John apparently didn’t know this coming into the town because he doesn’t know how to Google and that thing about nine dead miners would totally not have been publicly available information.
John heads to the mine alone to investigate the claims. After distracting the guard, he finds a light-hard hat and immediately turns the beam on directly into his own eyes. He then proceeds to use it as a flashlight instead of just putting it on his head. Our hero may not be the smartest guy on the block, but at least he has great hair. Delving farther into the tunnel, and followed by a silent force moving in the ground behind him, Constantine eventually pauses to literally knock on the wall and wait for a response.
That response comes in the form of a huge, booming knock from the other side of the wall and a sudden shaking in the earth. As the walls start to collapse, Constantine books it out of the tunnel, just barely making it out.
Changing tactics, John goes to the wake at the miner’s home. He follows the rest of the town with their homemade food, bringing along a frozen dinner. He begins poking around the bathroom where the miner was killed, unfortunately he is discovered by the miner’s wife who has been hiding from the town in the back of the house. He claims to be a reporter but the distraught wife is a little less than helpful. She tells half the story of a Romani girl who was wooed by a wealthy coal mining kingpin. Except she makes a move on him before she finishes the story and when he rejects her advances, she chases him out of the house, drawing the attention of the town and the owner of the mining company who kicks John out but seems to know more about the knocking than he lets on.
John retreats to a hotel, where he intends to recoup but the dark-haired sketch artist is waiting for him in his room. We learn that her name is Zed and she’s been having visions she can’t control for as long as she can remember, but most recently they’ve been about him. He’s interested by her, but still distrustful until she grabs hold of him and reads his emotions. Realizing she’s the real deal, he takes a chance on her. He induces a vision of the fire and a tall, wooden cross, which cause her pain. Once she tells him the details of her vision he pretends to move into a different room to change his clothes and then ditches her.
He finds the cross in front of a local church. Inside are two teenagers, doing the sorts of things teenagers do in an empty church. As they quickly get their clothes on, the boy helpfully tells Constantine about a local legend. The faceless outline of a man follows people home and then kills them, which is pretty unoriginal as local legends go, but at least the writers have the decency to hang a lamp on it. Once they’re safely out of the building, Constantine summons a vision of the faceless man and tense music amps up in the background. Apparently, it’s time for him to go to work.
Meanwhile, Zed has gone on a search for Constantine through the town. Fortunately, she stumbles on the bar where John left an ex-priest with his bar tab. As he tells her the story of his dead son. She head back to her apartment, where Constantine now lays in her. He finally explains who he is to her (exorcist, demonist, and occasional dabbler in the dark arts) and demands to know who she is. She’s only been in town a few weeks and has obviously been looking for him so he warns her about the dangers of stepping into his world, just like he warned Liv. Only this time, she takes the challenge.
A siren breaks up their conversation, announcing a collapse in the mine. They race to the scene where a miner informs them that knocking preceded the total collapse of the mine. He climbs in the car with one of the mine owner’s assistants, who finally admits that the original mine had gone dry years ago and that they were now digging in unauthorized zones. As their conversation ends, the doors lock and the cab begins to fill with muddy water coming up from under the seats. They look for ways to break the window but it’s Zed who finally breaks Constantine out, unfortunately it’s too late to save the other man.
Unlike Liv, when Zed is faced with the death and destruction that follows Constantine around, she chooses to stick around, proving she’s the more powerful single-syllable leading lady. The murdering, mystery spirit is finally given a name. It’s a cobilinai, a rock spirit which normally doesn’t rise above ground, leading John to suspect someone is calling it up on purpose. They come to the bar, where the miners have gathered to discuss the problem of the collapsed mine, led by the former pastor. Zed suspects he might want revenge for his son’s death in the illegal mines. Zed calls up a vision at the pastor’s normal booth which leads them to a river in a local park.
They find the pastor, but it quickly becomes clear that although he’s abandoned his faith, he’s not raising demons. He does point out the obvious, however, which is that only managers and administrators in the mine have been killed, not the laborers. Someone is obviously trying to make them pay for doing illegal work.
The owner of the mining company decides to check the mine himself along with an assistant, but as they head into the shaft, the cobalinai attacks. In seconds, Constantine and Zed appear and before it can finish off both men, John reminds the creature that it’s meant to be a protector of the earth and not a murderer. The spirit retreats back into the ground. Although the mine owner is dead, the assistant is alive and they leave the shaft. Constantine and Zed allow the former priest to blow up the mine in his son’s honor. But things aren’t settled yet, because Constantine knows who’s been killing miners all over town.
Surprising no one, it’s the wife of the dead man from the very beginning of the episode. John realized it when he sees a coal mark on the arm of the dead mine owner which he saw on the wife’s arm back in her bathroom. She meets him at the door of her house along with the spirits of the dead miners, who she’s been using to kill. Constantine gives her a chance to let the captive spirits go, but she is furious and confident in her family’s Romani magic. She attacks him but John calls on her husband, whose restless spirit has remained in the house where he was murdered and the vengeful spirit pulls her away, ending the battle.
John, tired and bruised, returns to his hotel where he finds Zed lying in wait for him, casually drawing his confrontation with the spirits in charcoal on his bed. She tries to remain aloof, but Constantine knows she doesn’t want to be left behind again. Although he’s still unsure of her motives, Zed’s proven her usefulness several time over the course of the episode and he’s too tired to argue with her any more so he falls asleep, implicitly allowing her to continue following him around.
Faced with the same choice as Liv before her, Zed seems to have stood the episode’s test. For a guy who claims not to have many friends, Constantine sure keeps an interesting menagerie. A man who can’t be killed, a suspicious angel of the Lord, and a girl with visions of the future all seem like good allies to have in a fight to save the world. And now that we’ve got the team set, I’m sure Manny is due back any day now, to give our hero a purpose and kick off this season’s arch. We’re headed for a cross-country confrontation between good and evil and I must say I’m excited. The Supernatural crowd might feel a sense of déjà vu about now but I’m hopeful Constantine can find its own ground soon. This is the source material the entire genre is spun from, they’ve got a rich history of characters good and bad from which to draw and if the writers can make good use of it, I think we’re settling in for a fine ride.
What do you think? Are we headed in bright, new directions or has TV done all it can with the angels vs. demons world battle? Let me know your thoughts in the comments!
New episodes of Constantine air Fridays at 10/9CT on NBC.
Photos by: Tina Rowden/NBC