“Who are we to question the gifts we are given from the Lord?”
Constantine has impressed several times already in Season 1, mostly thanks to Matt Ryan’s fantastic portrayal of John. The show’s best moments, though, have been when it moves beyond its main character to capture the universe in which he operates, be that his underdeveloped sidekicks or the wider struggle between good and evil. Episode 7 – Blessed Are the Damned – is the first time we really see those forces made flesh, both the ones from heaven and the other place. It’s also Constantine’s first properly brilliant episode.
A brief visit to the art class mentioned last week brings Zed back into play and before you can say “topical vision of snakes”, we’re whisked away to a small village where a serpent-handling preacher has not only defied death but gained the ability to heal people to boot. John suspects a charlatan, but we soon see it’s the real deal – something confirmed by the arrival of an angel, who is drawn by the preacher’s actions.
Constantine’s visual effects continue to be fantastic here, from flying messengers to a man’s severed leg growing back. This December, you will believe a man can heal people. Belief is the main word of the week and it’s used to define our ensemble effectively. While we the audience may have no problem buying the miracles on display, helped by director Nick Gomez’s flair for realism, the others have a range of reactions. John is wary of the preacher’s abilities, while Zed (Angélica Celaya) is far more willing to accept them at face value. The same is true of Zachary (Patrick Carroll), who believes he is doing the Lord’s work. But when his cured congregation members start to do things that are distinctly un-Christian (not to mention un-human), it raises all sorts of questions.
That complexity is key to elevating Constantine above the enjoyable case-of-the-week B-movie slot it could otherwise sit in: comic books and TV shows are a natural fit because of their similarly episodic nature, but Hellblazer’s universe is bigger than solving mysteries in each issue – in the phrase “occult detective”, the emphasis is on “occult” more than “detective”. As its title suggests, Blessed Be the Damned dives right into that mythology. Referring to “The Rising Darkness” as the cause for all the bad things happening still sounds cheesy, but here it’s more than that: the other elements of the story make it clear that this is a small part of a bigger picture.
Central to that is guardian angel Manny, who finally gets a chance to spread his wings. Harold Perrineau has been entertaining so far as the enigmatic figure, who appears every now and then to give cryptic advice to John, but he has had little to do other than drop hints. Manny’s refusal to become an active agent in the plot has previously rendered him something of a one-note character. Here, though, his passive principles become the focal point of the whole episode: the arrival of another angel (an otherworldly Megan West) challenges him to respond, or at least give concrete answers to previously evaded queries.
“Can an angel die?” asks Zed. “Yes,” explains Manny, with a blunt tone we’ve never heard before, reinforced by his blazing contact lenses. “Their soul is extinguished. They simply cease to exist.”
It’s a fascinating reveal, one that peers between the feathers of these distant supporting characters; it’s not just because they’re rendered corporeal that they feel so real. Zed’s curiosity also helps to bring to light a new side of her, as she marvels at the powers on display from fellow supernatural humans (a brief romantic interlude also gives her some welcome screen time away from John). Manny, meanwhile, is morbidly obsessed by the idea of Imogen feeling pain, which he is unable to do; their hushed exchanges are among the best in the series so far.
Both contrast strikingly with John, who isn’t in the least bit curious about the divine beings around him. While Manny’s knowledge is limited (“all part of God’s plan”), John already seems to know their secrets – or he simply doesn’t care. Either way, he’s far from in awe of them. God exists. No biggie. “Courtesy goes a long way,” cautions Manny, as Constantine tries to summon him, another interesting hint at this universe’s rules, but it’s that jaded nature that gives our anti-hero – and the show – its depth. When John confronts our preacher, before things descend into a wonderfully fun game of Run Away from The Zombies, Zachary accuses him of wanting power for himself, but Constantine is about stopping power rather than seizing it. It doesn’t matter where our gifts come from, John tells the wide-eyed Zed. “What matters is what you do with them – and what it costs you.”
For Zach, his tale is one of misunderstanding a greater power. For Zed and Manny, it’s one of growing comprehension that things can go down as well as up. For John, though, it’s perhaps one of him believing in something too much. His faith in cynicism works against him; he’s duped by his own matter-of-fact attitude towards whatever religion is on the table. As a result, for once, the trickster cannot save the day with a convenient trinket or cheat his way out of a situation. This is more complex than that: it’s bigger than him – the first case that doesn’t feel like an introduction to our lead character, and a tantalising glimpse of just how much this series, if NBC doesn’t cancel it, has to explore. (Given its rough-around-the-edges opening episodes, though, it will need to pull off this level of quality every week to bring in enough viewers to #SaveConstantine.)
“Wouldn’t it be lovely if I wasn’t?” he retorts to Zed, after she quizzes him on his anti-religion stance.
“Yes, angels exist. Yes, religion. Be nice to your neighbour and all that. But you can’t just pray evil away,” he argues. “You still have to fight hard. On your own.”
For the first time in this series, the one thing Constantine isn’t is on his own.
Constantine is currently available to buy and download on Google Play.