“Everyone has the capacity to change,” says John in Episode 4 of Constantine. “I’ve never heard you say that before,” replies his friend, Gary. John looks at him. “Exactly.”
A Feast of Friends sees his old mate Gaz arrive at the airport, carrying a powerful force in a jar, only to get picked up by customs for looking dodgy. Needless to say, things go bad – and very, very messy.
It’s another typically gruesome opening sequence for the series, which seems to be getting bolder by the week in how much gore to show pre-credits. But if Constantine’s now firmly entered a groove, it’s a good groove to be in. Last week’s episode saw Constantine finally ignite, catching on to the character from the comic books with ambiguous precision. Now, Cameron Welsh’s script sets the show’s mission statement out even more clearly.
“I did it, John,” says an incredulous Gazza. “I trapped a demon in a bottle.” It’s a direct quote from
Original Sins, the first ever Hellblazer issue. If the arrival of Gaz or Episode 4’s title – A Feast of Friends – wasn’t enough of a clue, that’s the series’ intent spelled out: it loves the graphic novels as much as anyone in the audience and it wants to stay faithful to them.
What’s Gaz got in his tub? Mnemoth, a nasty little hunger demon made up of even nastier little insects. Invaded by the parasites, the unfortunate host becomes possessed by greed and hunger. They rush through cafés and diners, stealing subs, gorging on salad, shoving their hands and faces in deep fat fryers – and even, in one brilliant moment, taking an ice cream from a nearby child. (Forget the blood and the carving into flesh. Steal a kid’s Cornetto? That’s evil.)
The premise is simple – find a way to contain the demon and kill it – but like The Devil’s Vinyl, it sketches out a universe (and a protagonist) in detail. Matt Ryan continues to relish his main role, which is consistently well defined, from the gruff anger and miserable face to the sardonic humour. “I’m off to see a man about a dog,” quips John. “Or, rather, a Shaman about a blood demon.”
In the original graphic novel, the shaman that helped was Papa Midnite, who was introduced to telly watchers last week. He’s sadly absent, which still leaves the show without developed supporting characters. Zed continues to provide plot points effectively, but is still little more. Here, her psychic touch reveals glimpses of Gary’s drug-addled past; an addict who, much like the demon itself, is driven by hunger. In this case, hunger to make his life mean something and atone for unleashing Mnemoth in the first place.
While Papa’s absence is a disappointment, though, John’s trip to the shaman does give the show its most visually striking moments to date – a trippy sequence that does everything from show us close ups of Containment Patterns being scratched into people’s faces to someone’s eyeball being removed. If you thought NBC’s decision not to show John smoking meant the show would be softened for mainstream audiences, they’re doing their damnedest to make up for it in all other departments.
The Khapra beetles themselves are wonderfully disturbing, a CGI swarm that still carries a physical impact for its hosts. That impact isn’t necessarily felt by John himself, because he’s not that guy: he’s not a hero. He’s a survivor. He doesn’t make the sacrifice play; he’s more likely to sacrifice other people. That ruthless edge is what separates out John from all the other DC characters flooding our TV screens at the moment. And after last week’s display of the cost of Constantine’s actions, each double-cross among Constantine’s crew has a real consequence: people don’t just die; their soul is doomed for eternity.
A dark exploration of deception and mortal debt? It’s not bad going for a writer who’s made his career so far scribbling Neighbours – and a director (John F. Showalter) who once made Lois & Clark: The New Adventures of Superman. The lack of an engaging ensemble remains a problem, but this is a mouth-watering taste of what Constantine is setting out to do. The talent behind the camera is proof of the capacity all people – and programmes – have to change over time. But Constantine? That hard b*stard will always be this way. More please.
You can watch Constantine online in the UK within 24 hours of its US broadcast on Amazon Prime Instant Video, as part of a £5.99 monthly subscription – with the first 30 days free.