Constantine Season 1, Episode 2: “The Darkness Beneath”
Written by Rockne S. O’Bannon
Directed by Steve Shill
Airs Fridays at 10 pm ET on NBC
With all the exposition and origin story trappings out of the way in last week’s pilot, “The Darkness Beneath” show readers what exactly John Constantine (Matt Ryan) does, other than con people, go to pubs, and chat with Chas (Charles Halford). This could be a typical case of the week type of episode, but writer Rockne S. O’Bannon manages to connect the monster to John’s past life, as well as some of the socioeconomic critiques that characterized early Hellblazer issues. He also introduces a new, improved female lead in Zed Martin (Angelica Celaya), who has an almost sultry chemistry with Constantine, and shows she can handle herself in a fight with the supernatural and then some. O’Bannon also doesn’t reveal his entire hand when it comes to her character, and the mysterious nature of her powers and connection to Constantine will be a intriguing mystery to follow throughout the season. “The Darkness Beneath” showcases Constantine as more of a con man than a pure spell caster, as well as someone who uses others to further his ends, even though they are positive in this case. He’s no hero. A few criticisms of this episode are that the citizens of the town exist as ciphers to move the plot, including a skeptical preacher (James Le Gros) who has some substantial screen time, and the director’s focus on pyrotechnics instead of terrifying imagery and chills.
In “The Darkness Beneath”, O’Bannon digs deeper (no pun intended) to make the characters and themes tie in together with the monster of the episode, who may look like a generic, creepy demon, but gets little twist by the end of the episode. O’Bannon also understands that humans are the real monsters in these stories, and makes sure the inhabitants of the Welsh mining town that Constantine visits don’t come across as innocent or naive. He even invokes a little of the conflict between the haves and have nots that came up in Jamie Delano’s late 1980s run on Hellblazer, but plays it a little more subtly, with the class tension between the mine bosses and workers happening in the background on Constantine and Zed’s interactions and investigations. Director Steve Shill might pack on the explosions a little too heavily in the third act, but he continues the blue collar tone of Constantine by shooting scenes in low-lit pubs and including clever bits of editing, like juxtaposing a shot of Constantine bringing a microwave meal to a wake in contrast with the home-cooked pies and casseroles of the townsfolk. This scene adds just as much to his con man reputation as him and Zed stealing each other’s personal effects.
Constantine and Zed make quite the pair in “The Darkness Beneath”, and it starts with Shill’s close up shots of them. However, instead of the usual long lingering shot and then a kiss, Shill and O’Bannon find some excuse for them to go apart. This closeness between Zed and Constantine (whose shirtless scenes have more significance beyond mere fanservice, like the possibility of him actually being vulnerable around her) which leads to the latter shrinking away, shows Constantine’s own issues with trust, based on the idea that the people he gets close to end up dead. He spends the entire episode rebuffing Zed’s offers of help, until the pragmatist in him comes out when she is the only way to the defeat the monster. By then, Zed has organically become part of his demon exorcising, supernatural battling team. O’Bannon makes sure Zed plays a key role in Constantine’s investigation and battle against the monster of the week, while still showing how Constantine uses and manipulates the people around him, like the deck of cards present in the first shot he appears in.
For all its visual flourishes, layered work with theme and plot, and the chemistry between Matt Ryan and Angelica Celaya, “The Darkness Beneath” isn’t a perfect episode. The inhabitants of the rural Pennsylvania town are pretty one-note. They show up when Constantine needs to chase down a lead, learn a fact about the area, or attempt to add a little more thematic bite. The other letdown is Le Gros, who disappoints as ex-preacher Ellis. He could have acted as more down to earth version of Manny from last episode, and possibly help Constantine ground himself in something bigger than himself, but Ellis ends up shifting from skeptic to believer depending on the demands on the plot. The theme of trust is explored more effectively through Zed and Constantine’s interactions. There is also the matter of Shill focusing on explosions instead of scares. Constantine is still in its early stages, and it may end up becoming an urban fantasy show about the battle between Heaven and Hell, with Constantine and his allies caught in between, rather than a horror procedural. And the pyrotechnics did have a role in the plot, so viewers won’t be confusing Constantine with a superhero show. “The Darkness Beneath” is a thematically rich monster of the week episode that successfully establishes Zed as the female lead, even if it has some shortcomings with regards to its minor characters.