“You didn’t tell me last night you had a boyfriend.” “Yes, I did.”
What does a not-very-nice exorcist do when he’s not exorcising? Not very nice things. That includes sleeping with women behind their blokes’ backs, Episode 6 of Constantine reveals. It’s a raunchy start to the story – and a funny one too, reminding us that NBC’s series can do jokes as well as jet black drama about damnation and hellfire.
Fun and fiends all in one package? Rage Of Caliban arrives hot on the heels of the decision not to extend Season 1 of Constantine to a full run of 23 episodes – and seems perfectly timed to prove NBC’s decision wrong.
If it feels a little too much like a restatement of purpose, that’s no coincidence: the word is that the episode was originally set to be number two in the series. And so there’s a hint of introduction to Hellblazer’s world in John’s voice over, setting him up as the loser he is, reiterating the show’s themes of sacrifice, loss and being as much of a b*stard as it takes to stay alive.
It’s hard to believe that Matt Ryan could feel even more like John Constantine that he already does, but he manages it handsomely here, deadpanning sarcastic quips with the kind of attitude that dripped from the graphic novels’ pages.
“If I need you,” he tells Chas (Charles Halford), as they go to investigate the murder of a child’s parents, “I shall give a little whistle that chokes into silence.”
Where last week’s episode saw Constantine slip into generic police procedural territory, with surplus characters blurring the point of the programme, Rage of Caliban is the opposite. Zed’s absent – “She’s at art class,” jokes John (a cover for the episode’s early origins before Angélica Celaya was drafted in) – but so is anyone else unneeded. Constantine’s methods, meanwhile, are as far from ordinary as you could expect. Lighting a candle and wandering around a blood-splattered living room (do any other kind exist in this show?), he recites Latin incantations to invoke puffs of the past. Then he kneels down and starts licking the wall. Mrs Marple wouldn’t be caught dead doing that. (Although, in this show, that wouldn’t be out of the realm of possibility.)
This is Constantine. Likeably downbeat, bitterly dark, but outrageously weird. Even if the show is sanitised slightly (cf. NBC’s ban of on-screen smoking), it’s led by a character who cries for more episodes just to spend time with him.
Harold Perrineau’s guardian angel is still in first gear – another side effect of the script’s post-pilot position – but his interactions with our anti-hero are amusing to watch. “St. Peter. Joan of Arc,” Perrineau comment. “Oh, John, they were special. You’re more of a… desperation move.”
Desperate is the underlying state for most of Hellblazer’s characters; desperate to stay alive. For the bad guys, that means a nasty spirit jumping between children and taking control of them to kill their parents. For John, that means doing whatever it takes to save his own skin – and, after his tormented backstory, stop another innocent soul being snatched.
Daniel Cerone’s script is far from desparate, though, comfortably chalking up the horror tropes with a casual confidence. Even when false jumps occur, they do so in interesting ways: a three-legged deer hinting at the trauma behind all this regressive violence. Director Neil Marshall returns after the moody pilot, bringing more than enough menace to the table to make the familiar set pieces effective. The notion of tying a spirit to a fixed location becomes a lot easier to believe when The Descent’s director is shooting the set, while the visual effects – shattered coffee mugs, telekinetic doors closing – are eerily effective.
Like the miner’s tale before it, Episode 6 of Constantine veers towards potential Doctor Who territory, helped by our posessee’s strong mother, but lurches into its own dark territory as soon as you think you know what’s going on – and the notion of unwilling sacrifice again rears its head. It’s the same kind of nasty conclusion that made Episode 4 of the show so strong: a final act that scars and spares simultaneously.
Imagine if this were Episode 2 after all. How much stronger would the show have looked then, to both NBC and to audiences? Would ratings have been higher, enough to convince them to keep Constantine alive for another season? That’s irrelevant to our exorcist. The last shot of the episode sees him slouched on a car bonnet, resigned to whatever fate awaits. He lights a cigarette – a middle finger to NBC – and doesn’t give a crap.
What does a not-very-nice exorcist do when he’s not exorcising? Not very nice things. And Episode 6 leaves us wanting to know about all of them.
Constantine is currently available to buy and download on Google Play.