Constantine, Season 1, Episodes 11 to 13
Airs Friday at 8 PM ET on NBC
Just in time for its first season finale, Constantine develops both its side characters, like Manny the once annoying angel (Harold Perrineau), who is the real star of the penultimate episode “Angels and Ministers of Grace”, and Jim Corrigan (Emmet Scanlan), who plays a big role in the finale and main cast. The writers finally get to show John Constantine’s (Matt Ryan) smoking habit, and continue to look into his mix of passive and active responses to the Rising Darkness, and have Zed (Angelica Celaya) struggle with her visions in a physical and spiritual way while building friendships with Corrigan and Manny.
However, for all its character growth and exploration, Constantine is pretty content with being a case of the week supernatural show, with minimal connective tissue between the episodes, even if the finale does pull a couple of twists involving the main cast and the identity of the Big Bad. The cases are the best when they are grounded in John’s past, involve some kind of an interesting setting, or are just plain creepy. For example, the finale “Waiting for the Man” involves two of these three elements, with director David Boyd turning the Cajun and voodoo elements to eleven, while making the monster of the week a Creole man who is angry that his wife wasn’t a virgin and is into Satan blood rituals. In contrast, Episode 11, “A Whole World Out There”, turns Ritchie Simpson (Jeremy Davies), a member of the Newcastle Crew and basically a technomage, into some kind of omnipotent reality warper for plot purposes. But even this heavy handed metaphor, with its poorly realized CGI, shows that Ritchie is one of the few people who can see the guilt and pain that Constantine hides beneath his snarky swagger.
The final episodes of Constantine show that it’s a series at war with itself. For every ingenious idea, like Constantine tricking Manny into being human to help him solve a case in “Angels and Ministers of Grace”, or him being familiar with drug overdoses in the same episode, there are moments where Constantine knows a bit of random arcane lore and turns into exposition man. Also, the plots (with the exception of the finale) continue to press the “reset” button towards the end. For example, Ritchie wants to remain in the reality that he has created to defeat the foe of the week in “In a Whole World Out There”, and Constantine even leaves without him. But Ritchie ends up safe and sound at the college he teaches at, with maybe a little more willpower. This is minutes after he says he’s tired of living with the guilt of his dead friends at Newcastle. It’s like every episode has to have some kind of closure, even if Constantine‘s whole magic system is based around all power having a cost, and some (mostly minor) characters get off scot-free.
Luckily, the last few episodes of Constantine don’t do this with its lead character. Sure, he has his share of contrived, last minute escapes (like using a “magical glamour” on a random dead guy to avoid a head shot from Papa Midnite), but these kind of tricks work with his characterization as a spell-casting con man who has a lot of ability but no real “schooling” in magic. He doesn’t have any kind of personal epiphany at the end of the season, but continues to fight demons and agents of the Rising Darkness, which have been a little too human lately. The last few episodes have also started to openly show his addiction to cigarette smoking. This is a big part of John Constantine’s character in the Hellblazer comics, and was missing from the early episodes where he carried a lighter, but no smokes. The writers don’t merely play aesthetic lip-service to Constantine’s smoking, but subtly integrate it with his character arc. Basically, he smokes as a coping mechanism, telling Zed that after spending fifteen minutes thinking about everyone he loves being dead, he “fries an egg and smokes a ciggy” in a masterful bit of writing from Christine Boylan. The biggest highlight of Constantine as a TV show, along with its moments of pure atmosphere, is how well-realized and complex its protagonist is. Sure, he’s a little more “heroic” than Constantine was in the Hellblazer comics, but he is still a man who would rather help out complete strangers than comfort a friend before surgery, because he knows that sooner or later he will lose them.
Constantine can be a visually striking or banal show. Any time CGI effects are involved (except angel wings for some reason), the show looks like the actors are superimposed on a video game background. (A cardinal sin of “A Whole World Out There”.) However, Constantine’s directors for these final three episodes have a nice knack for putting characters into concealed spaces and creating maximum horror by lingering on a shot of a throat getting cut, or a woman having an “overdose” on some mysterious heroin, to show how dark and twisted its world is. This idea of cramped spaces even works for “Angels and Ministers of Grace”, which is mostly set at a nondescript hospital that turns scary with a helping of dark closets and operating rooms where the doctors crowd the patient for some reason.
Even though it is riddled with plot inconsistencies and even some slasher film/supernatural show clichés, Constantine starts to find itself as a show in its final three episodes, as it embraces being an episodic mythology-light show, with a few season finale reveals and plot threads that could expand its universe and heighten the threat level of the Rising Darkness from being a silly name to something that occasionally almost does something bad every other episode. But its biggest strength going forward is its small, morally ambiguous ensemble cast, which has really benefited from showcase episodes like “Quid Pro Quo” (for Chas) and “Angels and Ministers of Grace” (for Zed and Manny) down the stretch. If it continues (either on NBC or as SyFy’s Hellblazer), with these characters and actors, along with a sense of atmosphere and setting in most episodes, Constantine has a solid foundation.