“It’s magic. And not the Copperfield kind,” says Constantine, after using a playing card to trick his way past a security guard. Breaking and entering? A psychic piece of paper? The series really settles into its role of dark Doctor Who in Episode 3, which sees a man kill himself after a listening to a possessed vinyl record. But with Doctor Who already dark in the Peter Capaldi era, what can Constantine do? If the first two episodes of NBC’s adaptation posed the question, this week reveals the answer: go even darker.
Doctor Who tends to wave his psychic paper on the BBC with a cheeky abandon; casual in the knowledge that everything will turn out ok. Hellblazer, though, has never guaranteed that. In Doctor Who, the presence of a time machine means that things can potentially be undone or reversed. In Constantine’s world, everything comes at a cost – and those contracts are legally binding.
The Devil’s Vinyl sees the show embrace its source material in full, looking beyond the monster-of-the-week formula to something bigger. For a series about a guy who has bartered his soul on a regular basis just to stay alive, this finally brings that twisted mythology to the screen. Where did John get his psychic paper? That cost him his immortality for a short while, he tells Zed. “Like a reverse mortgage.”
That theme runs throughout the story, right down to its haunted object premise. Why is the vinyl evil? It goes back to an old musician who, legend has it, sold his soul to the devil to become famous. Years later, the disc resurfaces – and people’s lives are put on the hell line once more.
Hellblazer has always revelled in the legal wrangling of mortal pacts and Matt Ryan doesn’t hide it, grinning as much as he grimaces through a cycle of double-crosses and shady deals. More than ever, he’s a perfect choice for the part, a guy who feels as reckless as he does damned – and has no qualms in acting accordingly.
“Isn’t that illegal?” asks Zed, as they break into another building – this time, the home of a wealthy record producer. “Almost everything I do is, love,” he retorts, vaulting over a fence.
Zed continues to prove a useful addition to the crew. Like the immortal Chas and the departed Liv (whose blood-stained map provides the impetus for each new story), her powers perform a natural function in our occult mystery-solving plot. But there is still little sense that our supporting characters do more than that; the actors are fine, but their parts are underwritten. Manny, though, our guardian angel created for the telly, is right at home chatting ledgers and debts, refusing to intervene like an impartial bank teller – unlike a troublesome soul broker, who meddles and makes promises but fails to realise that he has no power to change anything.
Ryan is so fun to watch, though, that even with the undeveloped wider ensemble, it’s a thrill to see the central character so well defined and understood. The first time we see John here, he’s naked and covered in blood, frantically shouting Latin at a wall. “He’s learning a spell,” Chas informs Zed, as they stroll past, exactly the kind of graphic moment that marks this out from the other comic book shows around (and justifies its following of Hannibal in the NBC late slot). We swiftly then hear a name drop for Constantine’s former punk band – Mucous Membrane – a nod to the graphic novels that also gives the episode’s music theme some emotional resonance. Another key scene sees Sex Pistols play over the top of the supernatural weirdness, with Constantine’s headphones at full tilt.
That balance between mundane and extraordinary adds to the series’ growing identity; where Zed might take the Hustle route and con her way into a building using a stolen ID card, Constantine takes paranormal possessions and turns them into everyday gadgets, an anti-James Bond with an arsenal of powerful trinkets. Nails that follow each other become run-of-the-mill tracking devices, a Hand of Glory becomes a convenient witness resurrection tool, while a deck of cards becomes a get-out-of-jail-free pass. But The Devil’s Vinyl makes it clear that each use of these objects has a price. And the forces claiming their fee are not ones to be reckoned with; namely, Papa Midnite, a voodoo priest (played with sinister gusto by Michael James Shaw), whom we’ll be seeing more of this season.
“We make a pact with whatever force it takes,” says John, after being tied to a table for sacrifice – not by a demon, but by a homeless man. As more and more pacts are made, and the stakes get higher, guts splatter across recording booths as frequently as eardrums melt. If it continues like this, the Hellblazer TV series has the potential to really heat up. Three episodes in and Constantine’s fire is well and truly lit.
Constantine is currently available to buy and download on Google Play.