“Whoso diggeth a pit shall fall therein: and he that rolleth a stone, it will return upon him.” -Proverbs 26:27
After an amazing pilot episode, Constantine took an unfortunate detour to re-establish a few series necessities and tell a run of the mill (or should I say mine) monster of the week story. It’s boring, offensive, unfocused, and redundant. Worst of all, in trying to frame the episode around the theme of faith, it comes off as dumb and unaware of itself. To apply the above proverb: “The Darkness Beneath” sees Constantine falling into a shallow grave of lazy TV writing and being crushed by the heavy stone of expectations it garnered in its first episode.
The good news is that Constantine can score some major points in terms of its spooky tone and Matt Ryan is still a charming John Constantine whose inability to fit into society is always funny. Sadly, with Liv out of the picture, after having been scared off in the pilot, John finds himself in episode two going out of his way to find another psychic character to fill that role.
“The Darkness Beneath” therefore makes Constantine feel like a series that’s going back on its promise, refusing to be the show it introduced just last week and retconning its way into a new identity. It is a re-pilot directly following the series premiere.
Taking on the well established tradition of a monster of the week procedural, “The Darkness Beneath” begins with a cold open murder scene. In Heddwich, Pennsylvania, a miner named Lannis returns home after a long day’s work underground. After some shorthand that implies domestic abuse with his wife, the bastard heads into the shower, takes a drink of brown liquor and dies a terrible death.
The water turns to oil while Lannis is getting clean. Just as he notices this strange plumbing miracle, the grumpy blue collar crabapple is torched by supernatural flame. I don’t feel sorry for him and that’s a big problem.
A short title sequence plays and we’re taken to the divination den where Constantine and Chas notice a drop of blood that is still wet on the map that Liv scried before hightailing it to California. It is, of course, overtop of Heddwich. A line is thrown in by Chas, giving him an excuse to stay home this week, and winnowing the episode down to the show at its most basic: John Constantine doing stuff by himself.
The entire point of “The Darkness Beneath” is to replace Liv with the artist that we saw furiously sketching Constantine during the stinger of the pilot. The artist’s name is Zed Martin and she is some kind of unknowing spirit medium living in Heddwich. Upon John’s arrival, the two literally bump into each other and have to suffer a, “we’re two alphas, how is this partnership going to happen?” conceit.
Despite Constantine and Zed’s best efforts to not team up, they find themselves constantly in need of the other’s help throughout the hour. She is motivated by a curiosity of who this man she compulsively draws is and what has drawn them together, while he is determined to make sure the working citizens of Heddwich don’t dig up the apocalyptic being that he thinks is clearly sleeping in the mine.
After his first encounter with Zed, in which the two antiheroes take turns conning each other, John slips into the pub for a stout and some hearsay. An ex-preacher named Ellis, who acts as a thematic vehicle and red herring for the episode, is introduced and tells John that Lannis was a bastard.
Their conversation is interrupted by a wonderfully overserious moment of horror camp, an eavesdropping miner butts in and proclaims: “Some of the boys are saying we dug a little too deep and knocked on the door to Hell and now something’s knocking back.”
Before you start thinking John’s found a small town romantic poet, Constantine heads down into the mine, taps on the wall with a pickaxe, and hears something knock back from inside the rockwall.
Looking for more info on what could be causing all this trouble, Constantine attends Lannis’ wake. He sneaks off to the shower where the man went up in flames and takes a sample of the ghastly oil. He is discovered by Lannis’ widow and claims to be a journalist investigating the trouble at the mine.
The widow tells a fable of how she ended up in her abusive relationship. It’s the beginning of a troubling arc, reframing her as a gold digger instead of a woman trapped in a relationship and her abuse as an inevitability resulting from her greed. We won’t see the widow again until the final confrontation of the episode, and things only get worse.
He rebukes the woman’s inevitable romantic advance and is kicked out but not before learning all of the mystery solving clues he will inevitably need to pin this spectral crime on her by the end of the episode.
After some getting punched, running around town, teaching Zed to use her powers of divination and hearing some terribly misinformed testimony from a teen that all this drama might be the work of Slenderman, Constantine is brought back to Lannis widow. She used ghosts to kill her husband and the other miners.
The villain uses the ghosts to attack John, but in the end Constantine summons Lannis, who drags his former victim and wife the into the ground in a troubling moment of reverse revenge.
It’s the most frustrating anti-climax to what’s already a pretty cliche story in the first place. On top of that, it’s impossible to see this death as a victory for anyone. The very small amount of time spent characterizing Lannis at the top of the episode elicited no sympathy for the man, who was broadly drawn as an abusive husband. Then, through some forced reframing and lazy lines about Gypsy magic being really potent, the audience is asked to accept that the ghost of Lannis deserves retribution.
John tells the ghost to extract its revenge, but by the end of “The Darkness Beneath” I hate Lannis so much that I actually roll my eyes at Constantine, the only aspect of the episode that is consistently fun to watch.
Episode two closes with a stinger, Constantine providing a tautological voice over about faith and enemies that stay hidden (implying that maybe Zed is not to be trusted). The intention is to provide a button to “The Darkness Beneath” with some kind of thematic closure and frame the events of the past hour as having something to say about the value of faith, but again, it just doesn’t work.
Ellis, the ex-priest who is presented throughout the episode as a potential baddie and would-be reflection of Constantine, is shown in the final moments dusting off his Bible in the town’s abandoned church. He has re embraced his faith. Good for him. No one cares.
Constantine isn’t a show about the power of faith, its characters live in a world that is demonstrably caught in a very real war between pseudo-Catholic angels and demons that don’t require your belief to exist. To re-embrace the church in Constantine is akin to going back to school to pick up some science credits.
No, “The Darkness Beneath” is not about faith but it certainly tests it. By the end of episode two Constantine all but asks viewers if they still believe this show can be as good as it promised only one week ago. I still believe it can be great, but my faith has been tested.
Book of Random Observances
– Constantine only has white shirts and red ties that he refuses to tighten. Second biggest laugh of the episode was him telling Zed he needs to get changed and then appearing in the next scene in the only clothes he owns.
– First biggest laugh: Constantine bringing a frozen chicken dinner to Lannis’ wake.
– I think a lot of this episode’s problems would have been solved if it turned out Ellis was the villain of the week.
– My horror nerd frustration reached new heights when Constantine asked about the weird shadow demon that was definitely not Slenderman graffitied on the church wall and the naked teen described Slenderman.
– That said, I would really like this show to have a Slenderman episode.