Constantine: Season One review

I come not to praise Constantine, but to bury him.

Well, okay. A little of both.

In a fairly short amount of time from when this is posted, season four of DC's Legends of Tomorrow will premiere, featuring Matt Ryan as a regular cast member playing our favorite bisexual petty dabbler in the mystic arts; John Constantine. This makes it a great time to mention two things. First, if you weren't aware, Doux Reviews has a regular reviewer of Legends of Tomorrow who's both insightful and terribly sexy, so you should definitely check that out. Second, Constantine's one and only season as an independent property is ripe for a fresh look, now that we know we have more trenchcoated goodness coming our way.

So, let's take a look at Constantine's thirteen episode run, in light of what we've learned about the character since, shall we?

The series is now available on demand, so let's go episode by episode, while we count down to his next appearance.



'Non Est Asylum':

Re-watching this episode – and for the record, I re-watched it three times while trying to sort out how I felt about it – two things become very clear. Almost everything in the episode is brilliant, and they absolutely should have thrown away all but the last two minutes and started from scratch there, even if it meant only getting twelve episodes on air.

The issue, as most of you who care will remember, comes down to studio interference. 'Non Est Asylum' exists to establish two characters, John Constantine, and Liv. Liv is the daughter of a friend of John's who mysteriously died recently, has a mysterious magical cabin which is not at all like the TARDIS as owned by John Dee, will serve as the show's home set, and has all sorts of mysterious hints about why he abandoned his daughter and what his story was. All of this is clearly meant to set up Liv's character arc as 'female Neo who fights demons instead of robots'. That's her character brief, and it couldn't be clearer that it was meant to carry the season.

But at some point the studio clearly insisted that they cut Liv's character and replace her with a different type of female lead that they thought would fit the vibe of the show they wanted better. This isn't an inherently terrible thing and is totally within the studio's rights. The exact same thing happened with Big Bang Theory, and if you've ever watched the abandoned pilot of that show with Not-Penny, you know that it was a change for the better. But they absolutely needed to cut this episode loose as a result of that decision, because the scars of Liv's removal really, really show.

You can identify without effort the one single scene that was changed. In the original plan, John has Chas drive Liv past the place she scryed about earlier to see that something terrible had indeed happened there. Obviously this was meant to affirm her commitment to helping people despite her fear of the magical world. Instead, they inserted a scene to follow it wherein other characters discuss how she was so scared by the realization that she left the area, moved to the other side of the country, and would never be mentioned again. Good thing that she left the keys to her dad's cabin, so we still have a home base, huh? It's a sloppy edit that leaves the whole episode feeling wasted, and they absolutely should have scrapped the whole thing, starting the new pilot with John's encounter in the alleyway where he ignites his hands, because that's an amazingly strong image, segueing into the introduction of Zed drawing that same image, which should have, and would have, been a strong intro to her character if it didn't feel so much like a back pedal away from Liv.

It's all a shame, because like I said, the rest of the episode has a lot of wonderful stuff. The dialogue is absolutely cracking, specifically lines like, 'Where do you come from, John?' 'Oh, the sordid passions of my parents.' The effects are beyond first rate, specifically all the flashes to skulls and zombie/demon makeup, which is really tricky to not overdo and they stuck the landing every time here. And finally, the performances, even Liv's, are better than you should usually expect from a pilot. Anyone who thinks that Matt Ryan is just playing himself as John Constantine would do well to watch his portrayal of the electricity demon dressed up in John's body to taunt John. He's playing two entirely different characters arguing with one another, one of which is in what could easily have turned into Halloween makeup, and he completely crushes it.

Other thoughts about this episode; it was a mistake to rush that much information about Astra in right at the beginning of the series in what was already a pretty full episode. Ritchie was a fun character, but they really shouldn't have introduced both him and Chas in the same episode because that reads as a bit of a wasted opportunity for later. And speaking of Chas, now that we know that John is bisexual, do we suppose that he and Chas have had sex? Clearly, the answer at this point appears to be yes, but we'll keep checking in on that point as the season progresses.


'The Darkness Beneath':

Jesus Christ, yes. This. This is what the show should have been directly out of the gate. Just look at how much less we know about Zed than we did about Liv, and yet how much fuller and richer a character Zed is simply by virtue of the fact that we aren't being force fed studio notes back story about her for the entire episode. Ditto for John Constantine. This, apart from being set in the US instead of England, is exactly the sort of situation he'd have been mixed up in in the pages of Hellblazer, and the show was rarely stronger because of it. The absence of Harold Perrineau helps as well, since all he really accomplished in the pilot was to loom menacingly and say, 'I'll be important later.'

If they'd had the balls to completely throw out the pilot and start with John Constantine in the alley with his fists on fire segueing directly into this episode, we would currently be enjoying the premiere of season five of this show. I have absolutely no doubt about that.


'The Devil's Vinyl':

Satan cuts a demo. Reviews are mixed. I suspect that this is the version of the show that the network wanted to have; basically The X-Files with demons for aliens and a warlock/psychic combo for FBI agents. It's not terrible, as monster of the week episodes go, and it provides a good intro for Papa Midnite, but you can't help but feel like the show is rushing to introduce as much Hellblazer back catalog as they can to make up for the pilot episode misstep.

And Chas brought John orange juice because he was worried about his blood sugar. They didn't just have sex in the past, they're currently still at it. John even called him 'Daddy.' Can Chas show up on Legends? Because I am shipping them so hard right now.


'A Feast of Friends':

For thirty-eight minutes of screentime, we get a pretty standard demon of the week wrapped up in a not particularly subtle addiction metaphor. Good enough television, but nothing groundbreaking. But then John walks his old friend Gary into a theater, fully aware that he was leading him to his slaughter just because he couldn't think of another way to win, and we get our first real glimpse in this series of John Constantine: Hellblazer. The interesting thing about Constantine in the comics is that he is always a man who fully expects every single thing he encounters to be the shittiest possible version of itself, and is rarely disappointed. But contrary to how that sort of character is usually portrayed in fiction, that knowledge neither makes him bitter and cynical, nor longing for hope. It makes him pragmatic. And pragmatic is scary and interesting, because it's rarely seen as a virtue and never portrayed as aspirational. Except in Hellblazer.

I hate to keep focusing on sexuality, but it would be fascinating to know what Matt Ryan thought about John's sexuality while filming this series, because we keep encountering moments like John's kiss to Gary's forehead which display an extraordinary level of comfort with male on male physicality while at the same time not glamorizing it or making it feel exploitative. At the very least, I bet Matt Ryan is a hell of a kisser.


'Danse Vaudou':

Jim Corrigan! Dammit, I'd forgotten that they were setting up the Spectre and never got to pay it off. I know I've been saying this almost every story, but can Jim Corrigan please, please, please, show up on Legends?

This is the episode that almost broke me as far as re-watching Constantine goes. There's just so much rich potential and setup that we know is never paid off. The rising darkness that never happens, the live action realization of The Spectre that they were clearly building up to and would have been amazing, Papa Midnite who they had properly set up to be as compelling and layered a character as he had been in the comic books. It's just heartbreaking.


'Rage of Caliban':

A fairly standard Halloween filler episode, the likes of which The X-Files had been banking for most of the 90s. The title exists solely to allow me to make a poncy literary reference for the sole sake of validating my English degree, which I'm going to hold off on for the moment. But the scares are genuinely scary, the child actors aren't irritating, and the twists are pretty good.

Chas, meanwhile, has taken to arguing with Constantine like an old married couple while he's under the influence of the truth telling sword. But then he goes and raises questions by mentioning someone named Rene, so I guess the implication is that John is his rebound relationship? Yes?


'Blessed are the Damned':

Apparently there is a rule that all genre shows are required to do at least one show about snake handlers and one show about faith healing. Sensing that their run would be limited, Constantine does both at once. And, it's pretty much your standard genre show about snake handlers and faith healing, to be honest. Zed's sudden desire for faith stands out as a little out of character, but that's because it only happens for the sake of making us fall for the 'grab the feather' fakeout later on.

It is interesting to wonder what Manny thinks is going on in this episode, with the benefit of hindsight. Were he and Imogene working together? Did he pull out her feather? Or is it just a coincidence that two different angels are up to shady dealings simultaneously? Don't hold your breath for an answer on this one, I'm afraid.


'Saint of Last Resorts, Part 1':

This is the moment you can see the show figuring out what it wants to be. As an added bonus, as the scripting and themes are gelling, the cinematography is absolutely gorgeous and there are a couple of directorial flourishes that are just beautifully handled. The DP on this one was Scott Kevan. I will be looking up his CV later, because his work here is so much better than we usually get.


'Saint of Last Resorts, Part 2':

It's a little odd how completely the naming ties these two episodes into one coherent two-parter, because really they have very little to do with each other as far as plot goes beyond this one picking up where the last one left off.  But then, this one picked up the previous episode's cliffhanger from before the holiday break, so that's not so unusual.

By the end of this episode, all the pieces are in place for what the show should have become. Zed's backstory is just roughed in enough to allow for a lot of future development. We've explored why John makes the choices he does through the time honored technique of taking a different character and watching them get forced into making those same choices so that we can better understand how John got there. And Chas continues to prove that he's John's one true soulmate. I've started referring to them as Chastantine, if anyone would like to join me in shipping them.


'Quid Pro Quo':

In which we meet a really fun potentially recurring villain, the pathetic, elderly, also-ran magician Felix Faust, who you just know they would have found a way to bring back repeatedly as a sort of Mudd/Quark hybrid. Plus we finally hear Chas' backstory, in which we find out how he basically became Captain Jack with a countdown clock, which is a great idea and could have been explored in a thousand interesting ways.

Okay, I've been a little puckish about Chas and John's relationship, but this seems like the right time to address the issue like a responsible adult. I think, based on what we've seen this season, that John and Chas have definitely been physically intimate at least once in the past, but purely on a friendship basis. I think that they currently have feelings for another that transcend what we currently think of as friendship but don't really qualify as romantic love. I'd say that they'd reached a pure form of the Greek concept of Philia, but I'd hate to be that pretentious. And I'll tell you why. Because John Constantine would never, ever, think to worry about whether someone was still all right to drive after a night out. But he does for Chas.


'A Whole World Out There'':

And we're back to what's essentially a Supernatural or X-Files monster of the week episode. That's not a terrible thing, intrinsically. As they go, this would have been one of the better Supernatural or X-Files episodes. Plus, Jeremy Davies is always worth watching. It just suffers a little bit from being sandwiched between the previous week's excellent study of character relationships and the knowledge that we're only going to get two more episodes after this.

The show can hardly be blamed for it, but our time with Constantine is rapidly running out, and we don't have time to waste treading water like this. Frustrating.


'Angels and Ministers of Grace':

The evil artifact of the week is a black diamond and not one person made a skiing joke. I find that disappointing.

It's really hard to square this episode with the following week's revelation about Manny. It feels like the whole point of this installment was to humanize Manny and bring him more into Team Constantine's fold, but we learn pretty conclusively in the following episode that that is not where Manny's storyline is going, so what exactly are we supposed to make of what happens here? And what was the long term plan for Zed's brain tumor, which is clearly sitting there in the final scene wearing a tiny t-shirt that says, 'I'm going to be a significant plotline later on', and then never gets the chance to be.

Honestly, as I near the end of re-watching these, the thing that's striking me the most is how much optimism the writing room is showing; diligently moving forward with planting the seeds for long term plans, carefully setting up mysteries inside backstories, all meticulously orchestrated to come into play later on. There's a strange and tragic nobility in the amount of faith they were showing in the show's prospects for a future.


'Waiting for the Man':

This was an amazing season finale. It gelled the developing Constantine/Zed/Jim Corrigan triangle, which we already know to be doomed. We get the foreshadowing of The Spectre, who clearly has very specific wounds that we're going to presumable see inflicted on Jim as he dies and is transformed into his supernatural identity. We get the new information about Manny that completely flips the table on everything we thought we knew about the season's storyline and just begs the viewer to re-watch the season while waiting for answers in season two. Plus we get a stand alone story whose style feels like it could be straight from the pages of Hellblazer; involving ghostly goings-on colliding with the most grotesque and debased aspects of humanity.

This is a heartbreaking series finale for all those same reasons. The showrunners' optimism about the program's future remains unbowed, and no concession is made to the possibility that they might not be renewed. Instead the storyline marchs boldly on, telling a solid standalone story while delicately weaving in the seeds of events to come. If you'll pardon the mixed metaphor.

The closest the show itself comes to acknowledging its situation vis-à-vis renewal is a speech of John's early on in the episode about human life, in which he basically says 'we're here as long as we're here, and then we're gone. It can't be changed, it can't be helped, and it can go screw itself double hard, because we're not going to let fear of that matter.' Which is basically the most John Constantine sentiment ever expressed.




So, now that the charms are all o'erthrown, if I might borrow an appropriate line, what do we make of it all?

This would have been an amazing show, is the closest I can get to a concise answer. It was doing everything right, it was proceeding in good faith and making no concessions to fear, and it got screwed out of continued existence by the most banal and crushing forces. So, in a way, the show Constantine is very much a reflection of Constantine the man.

For those who don't know, or don't remember, the answer to what happened is depressingly simple. The network needed to make final decisions about renewals and cancellations by a fixed date, and Constantine hadn't aired enough of its run by that point to get the amount of positive feedback it needed to survive. It might have made the cutoff if they hadn't tripped out of the gate with the replacement of Liv for Zed, making it feel like the show was already troubled to network executive eyes from the get go. The combination of that initial wobble and the show happening to air a lot of its episodes after the cancellation decision had been made finished it. There aren't really any bad guys in the story, just a confluence of terribly unfortunate factors that no one could change. This is also, in its way, the most Constantine thing ever.

It's ironic that Constantine, the television character, has lived the opposite experience of Constantine the comics character. In the funny books, John was a random factor that occasionally cropped up in other supernaturally flavored books, most usually Swamp Thing. We didn't know much about him, but every time he randomly popped up he got more popular until they eventually gave him his own series. On the television, they jumped right to his own series, and then after that wasn't renewed began using him to pop up in other character's shows as a mysterious magician who served as a random factor in their storylines. Maybe if they'd done it the other way around his own show would have flourished earlier, I don't know. What I do know, however, is that Matt Ryan is clearly beloved, both by fans and by the people making decisions on the TV shows, because a character from a cancelled show on another network just does not get a brought back and given a second chance at life on other shows. That absolutely, categorically, never happens. The closest possible other example is Richard Belzer, and both of his shows were at least on the same network.

So, I highly recommend going back and watching these 13 episodes, because they really are for the most part damn good television. And John would absolutely want a party, not a wake. As to the overarcing plot about the rising darkness, I managed to find peace with it by telling myself that the rising darkness referred to the demon Mallus, who John was eventually able to help defeat on Legends of Tomorrow, and so it all worked out. We still won't ever know what the hell Manny wanted out of the whole situation, but if you squint at it sideways it all hangs together.

Nine out of ten trenchcoats. It's only not ten because the first half of the season is clearly finding its feet, but even so it's fantastic. Now bring on season four of Legends, wherein Chas turns up and helps John summon the Spectre to rescue Zed from the Brujaria.

I can dream, can't I? 

Oh, and 'Rage of Caliban' is a quote from Oscar Wilde's introduction to Picture of Dorian Gray.  You're welcome.

Mikey Heinrich is, among other things, a freelance writer, volunteer firefighter, and roughly 78% water. You can find more of his work at the 42nd Vizsla.

7 comments:

An Honest Fangirl said...

There is so much that I can say about Constantine, both the character and the show. I actually only discovered him after he guest starred on Arrow for the first time. I immediately sat down and binged the entire show over the weekend. I was just completely enthralled with it and Constantine is now my favorite DC character, hands down.

Reading through all of these recaps/reactions was a lot of fun. "A Feast of Friends" was probably the episode that completely sold me on the show, though. John's entire relationship with Gary was just absolutely fascinating to me on every level. You're right - John is absolutely pragmatic, and that's just so interesting to explore.

Also, have you ever read the script for what was supposed to be the next episode? The show runners released it online a couple of years ago. I don't know how good of an actual episode it would have been (very "Monster of the Week"), but I loved reading the script and highly recommend reading it if you haven't already. It should still be up somewhere, I'd assume.

Otherwyrld said...

I had high hopes but low expectations for this series, and (correctly as it turned out) that it would only last for 13 episodes. One of the reasons it failed (apart from the ones you already mentioned) is that it for comics fans it didn't feel enough like Hellblazer, the comic which starred John Constantine. The only one that felt that it could have come from the comic was the one that actually did - "A feast of Friends" was based directly on the first episode of the comic.

I am glad that Constantine has found a new home on Legends of Tomorrow and am looking forward to adding monsters to the wackiness.

Mikey Heinrich said...

Fangirl - I only recently heard about that scripts existence, but I haven't checked it out yet. I did get all Constantine'd up from this and went and watched both Justice League Dark and the Keanu Constantine. JLD was entertaining for what it was, it was good to hear Matt Ryan and Jeremy Davies reprising their roles.

The Keanu film... well, I didn't hate it as much as I did the first time I watched it. Knowing that Matt Ryan is out there allowed me to treat this as a strange 'otherworld' version, and that's just fine. Tilda Swinton is fab. The main change in my reaction is that I really despised Shia Labouf Chas. He was completely ignorable before, but now that the TV series gave us proper Chas (although not at all the Chas from the comics, I acknowledge) every time Shia was on the screen I kind of wanted to throat punch him.

Otherwyrld - Holy crap, I'd totally forgotten that Feast of Friends was a direct lift from Hellblazer. It's been a good couple of decades since I read my old Hellblazers. Did you follow Sandman at all? Because I've always kind of felt like John's appearance there was one of his best.

Otherwyrld said...

Mikey Heinrich - I don't remember Constantine from the Sandman comics (one of my favourite series by the way), but I do remember him from Swamp Thing (yes, I'm old).

Mikey Heinrich said...

You and me both, sister. You and me both. :)

Constantine was in issue three of sandbag. He helped dream get back his pouch of sand from a junkie ex girlfriend

Mikey Heinrich said...

Has anyone else been watching the promotional interview stuff with Matt Ryan and Jes Maccallan for Legends? I adore how clearly Matt is enjoying every single second of getting to be Constantine again. You can see he's having the time of his life.

Billie Doux said...

Haven't seen them, but they sound like fun. I never watched Constantine past the pilot, but I've gotten the impression that the writing was the reason the show failed, not Matt Ryan.