“The high, thrilling song of the Sirens will transfix him,
lolling there in their meadow, round them heaps of corpses,
rotting away, rags of skin shriveling on their bones…”
– The Odyssey
The third episode of Constantine sounds like it should get things right. A recording from a Robert Johnson-esque blues musician starts making those who hear it kill themselves. Sounds fun. Sadly, it misses every chance to really run with its material and become a great story.
“The Devil’s Vinyl” could have been a punk rock retelling of the Robert Johnson crossroads legend. It could have been an interesting way to explore who this particular version of John Constantine is. It is almost a nifty adaptation of Odysseus’ encounter with the Sirens in Homer’s The Odyssey. Unfortunately, it doesn’t commit to any of these ideas and, for the second week in a row, Constantine ends up boring and muddled.
“The Devil’s Vinyl” is a series of missed opportunities strung together in a coherent sequence of events meant to introduce a recurring series villain. Similar to (but better than) last week’s terrible “The Darkness Beneath,” episode three sees John Constantine going out into the world to address another bloody dot on his map of the United States.
The case of the week in “The Devil’s Vinyl” starts off promisingly enough. A woman we eventually come to know as Jasmine Fell breaks into an abandoned building labeled Moonrise Studio. Inside she finds all sorts of mutilated critters in a trail leading up to a pentagram painted on the back wall. She breaks the wall and pulls out an old Holy Bible, inside of which is stuffed a clearly cursed vinyl record.
Jasmine brings the record to a producer named Bernie, who, despite Fell’s warnings, listens to it while performing a spectral analysis. His headphones freeze onto his ears and he is compelled by some sort of music devil to kill himself. There’s a Siren in the record, and Constantine is going to need to sail his metaphorical ship to Chicago, resist the song, and set everything right. At least, that;s how it should have happened.
It doesn’t help the episode’s case that the scene immediately following the cold open teases a version of Constantine that I’d rather be watching. Zed finds the Divination Den headquarters with her artistic powers of future sight and, after being confronted by a gun toting Chas, is allowed inside.
In the Den, Zed finds John, naked and covered in blood, chanting and dancing, learning a new spell. This is an intriguing detail that deepens the show’s fantasy aspects with humour. Chas gives Zed a tour of the place and after finding out that the headquarters is essentially the House of Leaves (the space inside is mutable and unknowable). John meets up with the tour and literally shuts the door to a seemingly infinite hallway of fun story potential.
Constantine tries to get Zed to divine information from the stigmata map and a newspaper article about poor, earless Bernie. She gives John enough information to get an investigation going on his own, but Zed insists on accompanying him to Chicago.
Chas is grounded again this week as the cab is still out of commission, so for the second episode in a row, we have comic book legend John Constantine inserted into a sadly generic procedural episode away from home.
It didn’t have to be generic though. All of the ingredients are present in “The Devil’s Vinyl” for a cool “sold my soul to the devil” rock’n’roll ghost story. It turns out Bernie was an old band mate of Constantine’s when they played punk under the name Mucous Membrane.
A bunch of procedural business leads our heroes to the mansion of Constantine’s old music rival, Ian Fell, Jasmine’s husband. It turns out that Ian had cancer and Jasmine sold her soul to save his life and is trying to trade the demon record to get out of her deal with the devil.
Constantine, goes in search of the soul broker that facilitated the transaction and instead encounters the real villain behind everything: the voodoo priest Papa Midnite. This caricature of evil human greed captures, interrogates and tortures Constantine, finally sending goons to grab the record. The henchmen succumb to the acetate’s magic and take it to a nightclub instead
In the wake of the subsequent massacre, Zed calls Chas for backup and the team figures that, since the record wants to be heard by as many people as possible, the goons are likely going to play it on the radio.
The climactic confrontation, like most everything else in the episode, has so much potential, but is murdered in the execution. In order to avoid hearing the evil voice in the music, Constantine blares “Anarchy In the UK” through an MP3 player while he storms the radio station. It is the perfect time for super fun punk rock victory set to a licenced song that’s pretty on brand.
And if Constantine did kick some ass then there would be a fun twist on the whole devil’s blues/ myth of the Siren story type: the self righteous music of John’s soul allows him to overcome the deadly temptations of the devil. Instead though, punk music blaring, Constantine breaks into the studio and takes cover before just kind of just sitting there while everyone starts killing themselves. When his earbuds fall out, he’s captured by the song’s devil voice but Papa Midnite shows up just in time and saves the day, allowing John to destroy the record with magic.
The soul broker is taken back to the Fell mansion and is made to literally eat the soul stealing contract. This reverses the soul-for-cancer trade that started all this deadly business in the first place. Ian gets his cancer back, Jasmine gets her soul and we all get another episode ending voiceover stinger that closes with Papa Midnite burning a voodoo doll that looks like Constantine.
There are excellent moments in “The Devil’s Vinyl” but none outweigh the episode’s non-committal attitude. When Harold Perrineau’s character, Manny the Angel, possesses a homeless man that’s stealing the bound and dying Constantine’s shoes there is a great bit of humour and exploration of the show’s overarching themes. When John brings all the bodies in the morgue back to life in order to get some clues from poor old Bernie, I see the kind of fun Constantine can have when it’s being being spooky.
None of those moments feel great though, they only make me angry. Watching this show, I feel like Odysseus: tied to the mast of a boat that’s ignorantly bypassing a maddeningly seductive song. I want it to turn around and show me the Sirens, but Constantine is too worried about shipwrecking to take that kind of exciting risk.
The Book of Random Observances
– Definitely thought that we were going to have a werewolf story on our hands when I saw the sign for Moonrise Studios.
– The soul broker was played by Sean Whalen, or as I like to call him: Frogurt from LOST. Between him, Jeremy Davies and Harold Perrineau Constantine is starting to look like a flash-sideways universe. I wonder how long until we inevitably see Dominic Monaghan.
– Matt Ryan is in his thirties so, assuming that John Constantine is similar in age, Mucous Membrane was playing in the late 90’s or early 00’s. I really wish this episode gave us more information on Constantine’s youth, because there is a big difference between a washed up 80’s exorcist and a Millennial that’s obsessed with the Sex Pistols.
– I wonder why the writers chose to invent Willie Cole instead of using Robert Johnson, whose legend they used anyway. I suppose they wanted a singer instead of a guitarist, but it feels cheap to not even mention the guy once. Those of you out there feeling a little ripped off at the lack of Crossroads legends in “The Devil’s Vinyl” should check out Supernatural episode 2.8 “Crossroad Blues” or the super interesting Radiolab podcast on the legend of Robert Johnson.