Constantine, Season 1, Episode 3: “The Devil’s Vinyl”
Written by David Goyer and Mark Verheiden
Directed by Romeo Tirone
Airs Fridays at 10 pm ET on NBC
The character of John Constantine is rooted in music as much as he is in magic or being a con artist. Before he was master of the dark arts, he was the frontman for Liverpool punk outfit Mucous Membrane. (Which gets a much needed shout out in this episode.) Even before he was fully fledged and named character, he was a guy in the background of Swamp Thing #25, who artist Stephen Bissette wanted to look like Sting. But enough of the origin story stuff. “The Devil’s Vinyl” is the strongest episode of Constantine to date as David Goyer and Mark Verheiden construct a plot filled with the trickery, double crosses, soul bartering, and exorcisms that were the Hellblazer comic’s stock and trade, especially during Garth Ennis’ run. The threat level is also upped thorough developing the show’s mythology by including voodoo priest and crime kingpin Papa Midnite (played with presence and a spot-on accent by Michael James Shaw) and hinting at a character that will make Hellblazer fans shake in their boots. With this threat escalation, Goyer and Verheiden start to dig beneath the surface of John Constantine (Matt Ryan), Zed (Angelica Celaya), and Chas (Charles Halford) while giving them active and pivotal roles in the plot.
After an eerie opening sequence from director Romeo Tirone involving an abandoned church and old, cursed acetate disk, “The Devil’s Vinyl” kicks right into character establishment and development with Constantine being covered in blood as Chas even-handedly shows Zed around the House of Mystery or Secrets or whatever cool name we’re going to call it. The splat of blood reoccurs throughout the episode as Tirone shows the extent that men like Constantine and Papa Midnite are willing to go in order to square their debts with Hell even if it means sending a few innocents or not so innocents there with them. The image of blood is at odds with the transactional language Constantine uses, like when he tells Zed that it took a “reverse mortgage” to get a special, charmed card. “The Devil’s Vinyl” also tightens the group dynamic between Constantine, Zed, and Chas. Halford continues to nail Chas’ laconic nature, and Goyer and Verheiden resist using him or Zed as damsels in distress, but give them a big part in Constantine’s final con. Zed continues to play the role of Constantine’s conscience by doing things like reassuring and protecting civilians while he faces down Papa Midnite or tries to con a “soul broker”. Goyer and Verheiden also dig into some of her rage from action and dialogue while giving Chas and Constantine a mini arc of being impressed by her magical abilities and starting to trust her while being wary of her true purpose.
But what sets apart “The Devil’s Vinyl” from the previous two episodes are the uniqueness of its plot and a tougher threat for Constantine. Instead of yet another demon as this week’s baddie, the malevolent monster is a vinyl record with the last recording of a Robert Johnson-type that sold his soul to be a great bluesman. Kind of sounds like Constantine back in Newcastle who summoned a greater demon to help exorcise his friend’s daughter. This type of dark dealing strikes close to home for him, and there’s immediately a personal stake in it for him when the first victim is the man, who produced Mucous Membrane’s only album. But the path to the conclusion of this episode is filled with twists and turns as well as a poetic exposition on the nature of souls from Constantine that will probably play a big role in this season’s arc. (Ryan’s tremendous acting range works well with Constantine who can go from mad mage to Liverpool punk or demonologist at the drop of a hat.) “The Devil’s Vinyl” embraces the moral murkiness of John Constantine and his journey as he starts to deal with forces beyond his control. Add some creepy imagery, a well-timed and plot relevant use of a Sex Pistols song, and “The Devil’s Vinyl” captures the core of what made the Hellblazer comics great (even the social commentary) in an hour of television.