Constantine Season 1, Episode 1: “Non Est Asylum”
Written by David Goyer and Daniel Cerone
Directed by Neil Marshall
Airs Fridays at 10 pm ET on NBC
The opening shot of Constantine is quite rich. It’s a medium shot, straight ahead, of the Ravenscar Secure Facility, the mental asylum that John Constantine (Matt Ryan) admits himself in to when he inadvertently damns the soul of his friend’s daughter, Astra, to Hell in the Hellblazer comic. Immediately, there is a nod to the source material, as well as establishing that our protagonist isn’t right in the head or the ethical department, but there’s a tiny chance he could change. “Non Est Asylum” is all about how Constantine isn’t at home in Heaven or Hell, but somewhere in between (Even though he is currently damned). He, his best friend and driver Chas (a laconic Charles Halford), and another friend’s daughter Liv (Lucy Griffiths) are constantly on the move, as they try to take on the demon Furcifer, who controls electricity and lightning, and wants to damn Liv because her father angered him a while back. Along with this mobile exorcism plot, writers David Goyer and Daniel Cerone build the world of Constantine, where demonic activity and magic are everywhere. They also dig into Constantine’s sordid backstory. Unfortunately, most of this backstory is spilled out through exposition at the most random times, and it seems like the character of Liv only exists to be told stories about Constantine’s past. However, she won’t be appearing after this episode, and Constantine more than makes up for it with a charismatic performance by Matt Ryan, who has the bearings of the working class mage, and delivers the snarky dialogue that Constantine is famous for in the comics.
Matt Ryan is John Constantine. He wears the trenchcoat well, has impeccable timing with his one-liners, and gives off the air of incredible apathy through little things, like pretending to sleep in the back of a car, leaning back in his chair during a therapy session, or reaching over the bar for a drink instead of getting the barman. However, he can easily snap back to chanting Latin phrases and passionately trying to bargain for souls with powerful demons. Ryan nails the rage, apathy, and most of all, the wit that the character uses to deflect hard questions. (Liv’s best moment as a character is when she picks up on this.) Cerone and Goyer also give Constantine a nice arc that includes him deciding to protect Liv’s life instead of using her power in his fight against evil, which is the exact opposite of what he did with Astra at Newcastle. However, he isn’t completely on the side of the angels, because he uses Liv, and even a few innocent bystanders, as bait to trap Furcifer. This is a man who, at his core, doesn’t care about saving the universe, but righting his own personal wrongs. This philosophy leads to more wrongs, and Constantine occupies a grey area in a universe which seems to be “angel good” and “demon evil” for now. However, Constantine’s moral ambiguity and habit of blackmailing or sacrificing people, even when he is trying to stop evil, makes him an intriguing character. It will be interesting to see if the writers choose to make him more like the soul selling, demon swindling con man of Garth Ennis’ run on Hellblazer, or the occult superhero in Justice League Dark and the current Constantine series.
If Matt Ryan’s performance is the highlight of “Non Est Asylum”, the oodles of exposition and the relegation of the characters Liv and the angel Manny (Harold Perrineau) are the low points. Something big, like the revelation of the circumstances of Constantine’s birth, shouldn’t be relegated to a throwaway conversation with a character who will appear in the show once. Also, the story behind Astra and Newcastle is revealed in a conversation between a couple of minor characters. Hopefully, getting the backstory out of the way will allow the writers to develop Constantine’s character, and his relationships with his allies and enemies. And hopefully they will flesh Manny out, and make him more than an angelic body swapping Jiminy Cricket. He kills the momentum in some of the scarier scenes by showing up and talking about how Constantine is damned, demons are everywhere etc. Fortunately, his screen time is minimal, and the Castiel-esque CGI wings are ditched pretty early.
With the exception of the aforementioned wings, “Non Est Asylum” is a stylish show. Director Neil Marshall throws in some genuinely creepy images (including one from Hellblazer #1) and uses gradual camera pans to show the lights turning off. He juxtaposes shots of demonic looking graffiti with an offscreen killing of a minor character that shows the threat of Hell much more than an angel spouting a monologue. In a similar vein, the Social Distortion cover of “Ring of Fire” playing on Chas’ stereo is better homage to Constantine’s punk roots than an awkward conversation about whether the Sex Pistols or Ramones were the better band. In conclusion, “Non Est Asylum” does a great job fleshing out the character of John Constantine, thanks to a great performance from Matt Ryan, and is well-shot, with some eye popping visuals. It also has many characters, situations, and tonal elements of the Hellblazer comics, sans the post-Thatcherian social commentary. Constantine could be even better if it showed more than told, but all in all, the series has great potential, and there’s a literal road map for the season’s arc.