“Do not stay away from me! Trouble is near and there is no one to help.” -Psalm 22:11
If we stick with him, John Constantine will deliver us from superhero fatigue. There are currently four television series airing based on DC Comics properties and as it stands Constantine looks like it could be the best of them.
Constantine’s first episode, “Non Est Asylum”, is the coolest and most fun series premiere of the Fall season. The show is fast paced, charming, self-aware, and packs some legitimate scares (a big plus when dealing with supernatural subject matter), but its biggest strength is the way it chooses to forgo the origin story of its hero in favour of establishing relatable yet apocalyptic stakes for its title character.
At points in the premiere, Constantine feels like the best possible hybrid of House M.D. and season four of Supernatural. It begins with a voiceover from the title anti-hero as he’s strapped into a chair for electroshock therapy at Ravenscar Asylum where he’s trying his best to forget that he damned the soul of a nine year old girl named Astra to Hell.
In a psychiatrist recommended group sharing activity, bored out of his mind, John follows a stray cockroach into an art room where a female asylum mate of his is acting a little too demonic for his liking, painting giant letters on the wall as insect vermin obscure the message. A brief exorcism fight ensues (like a Bible themed Jedi Force battle), and after the demon host comes to her senses the writing’s on the wall: “LIV DIE”.
Constantine knows what this means; he’s being pulled back into the war he left behind outside the asylum. To us, it’s the reason Constantine’s first hour packs such a punch. The ominous phrase is a threat from the denizens of Hell, that Liv – the daughter of John’s old colleague Jasper and our outside eye into the spooky world of Constantine – is being marked for death.
We encounter Liv at her job, after hours, as she and a co-worker chow down on some fortune cookies. She opens one with a blank paper and, after remarking that her future is empty, she walks to her car and what we’ve been conditioned to recognize as certain death.
Her car starts going all Stephen King on her and the lights in the parking lot start to turn off. She moves from dying light to dying light and before you can say “Dumbledore? Is that you?” a flaming pit starts opening up underneath Liv’s feet.
Just as things seem the most dire for what you’d expect to be the first victim in some sort of demon massacre of the week style procedural, Constantine’s signature yellow cab shows up. He hands Liv his out of date business card (these ones still say “Master of the Dark Arts” but he’s more of a petty dabbler). He heads into the crater and meets Manny, a guardian angel played by Harold Perrineau, and get’s the doomishly vague news that something big is happening.
From here, a Mr. Magoo meets the Book of Revelations series of near death experiences draw Liv and Constantine closer together and we’re given a fun third person perspective of what John and his faithful chauffeur Chaz are all about.
Liv gets a ride home to her terrifying apartment from a neighbour named Talia and once again is targeted for demonic demise. A symbol carved on her door by Chaz saves her, but leads to the death and zombification of Talia.
The horror pedigree of Constantine really shows in the turning of Talia. From the way that right before the camera cuts away from her attack the screen on her laptop turns into a red eye, to the really unsettling reanimation scene in the back an ambulance and the subsequent jump scare that signals the death of a paramedic, the sequence is shot with an attention to detail and control befitting the best PG 13 horror films. As the emergency worker is ripped apart, the camera jumps between various screaming faces graffitied on the walls of the underpass.
The next day, after Constantine ambushes Liv at work to give her an artifact belonging to her father, zombie Tallia attempts vehicular homicide on the hunted woman. More spookiness ensues as Liv confronts her mother about lies regarding her father’s date of demise and death circumstances. When Liv handles her father’s pendant she sees the soul of her nanna caressing the hair of her mother.
Liv is driven back to Constantine and shown her inherited power to see the dead. A post car crash confrontation that sees Chaz fatally (for now) pierced by a haunted electrical wire, leads John and Liv to seek shelter in Jasper’s old subterranean divination den.
Constantine discovers the demon hunting Liv is a being that controls electricity named Furcifer and Liv uses her father’s pendant to divine a point on a map by way of automatic bloodletting. He formulates a plan to use Liv as bait and lure Furcifer into an exorcism trap. It’s slightly more complicated than that, however, and requires Constantine to reconnect with Ritchie Simpson (an always welcome on the screen Jeremy Davies), an old ally in the fight against demons who uses Big Data analytics to understand trends in apocalyptic happenings.
John blackmails Ritchie into helping with the Furcifer plan, which involves cutting off the electrical grid using the power of computer hacking as the demon is lured into an elaborate exorcism circle on the roof of a parking garage.
The plan works, but not without some classic demon trickery. Furcifer assumes the form of a demonic Constantine and tries to appeal to his nihilism. When John surprises the demon with his resolve, Furcifer conjures the image of Astra and offers a trade: Liv’s life for the salvation of a nine year old girl’s tortured soul.
He takes the trade.
Yeah, that’s right. The protagonist of a network TV show failed that hard in the first episode of his TV series. Liv saves herself when she reveals that the Astra John is being shown is just an illusion, but that doesn’t change the fact that Constantine is willing to have innocent souls eternally damned to experience just the slightest relief from the guilt that tortures him underneath his charming asshole exterior.
John’s momentary betrayal of Liv is a pretty brave character beat that says everything you need to know about Constantine. This show is not interested in the shallow waters of origin stories and heroic responsibilities, Constantine wants to go deeper, so it had to get the part about how he will do anything to correct his past mistakes out of the way in episode one.
Furcifer is exorcised and Liv abandons the cause, moving to California. Chaz delivers this news to Constantine in a bar, showing him a bloody map of the United States that Liv scried before she left town. There is a lot of demonic activity and these old veterans are down one spirit medium.
For good measure, Manny possesses the bartender and throws Heaven’s hat into the ring. Damned or not, John’s fighting on the god side and he might even win back his salvation.
The episode ends with a stinger, which, sadly is one of the only sour notes of this otherwise exceptional premier. Constantine’s voice monologues over a back alley way confrontation with goons. It’s super stylized, but shallow, seeing John set his hand on fire pre-fight, then freeze framing and fading to a reveal that a mad artist is obsessively sketching him somewhere.
There was no need for a cliffhanger in “Non Est Asylum” and as such the stinger feels tacked on. It’s the only time Constantine doesn’t feel confident in itself.
The greatest strength of “Non Est Asylum” is in its ability to quickly characterize John Constantine as a sympathetic, reluctant and imperfect hero while leaving an intriguing air of mystery around him and Chaz. The stakes are clearly defined and Biblical in proportion, while still remaining deeply personal and relatable to anyone who’s ever struggled with their faith.
Stay close to this show. It’s here to help.
The Book of Random Observances
– Liv’s co-worker opens a fortune cookie that says “Failure is the opportunity to do better next time.” Looks like the writers are aware of how much of a failure the 2005 film adaptation of Hellblazer was.
– A few too on-the-nose sound cues belied the show’s cool demeanor. Particularly when Manny is talking to John at the traffic barrier and thunder rumbles when he mentions something big is on the horizon.
– I really enjoyed Lucy Griffiths as Liv. It’s too bad she’s out of the fight. Think she’ll be back?
– Seeing a Vertigo title like Hellblazer work so well on TV had me asking why Sandman is slated to be made into a movie. Television offers a lot more wiggle room for comics-based stories, which by nature are heavily serialized.
– Anyway, if we don’t get a Sandman show I hope Constantine gives us a “Dream a Little Dream of Me” episode featuring Morpheus. What stories do you want Constantine to tell?