“If one member suffers, all suffer together; if one member is honored, all rejoice together.”
-1 Corinthians 12:26
There’s little spooky ground left that hasn’t already been covered in the supernatural television procedural. Between The X-Files and Supernatural alone, it would be a monumental task trying to find even 12 monster of the week ideas that haven’t been at least touched on, if not done to death. And yet, audiences are still hungry for a weekly showdown between a detective and a demon.
This is the struggle that Constantine faces every Friday night: trapped in a thoroughly explored TV genre, how can it still give hungry audiences something new?
The answer to that challenge has been found in episode four, “A Feast of Friends.” After two weeks of incredibly disappointing, occasionally offensive road trip episodes, Constantine stays home in Atlanta for an hour and distinguishes itself through how its main character solves mysteries, rather than the novelty of a mystery itself.
“A Feast of Friends” cold opens at Atlanta International Airport where a man arriving from Sudan, covered in sweat, nervously tries to make his way through customs. He declares that he’s brought nothing back with him. It’s a lie and it doesn’t work, so he’s whisked away by a TSA agent into a darkened interrogation room.
The poor nameless agent is in over his head when he opens the mysterious bottle that security pulled from the traveler’s luggage. Beetles emerge in a steady stream, clouding near the ceiling and then diving down into the airport employee’s esophagus.
Main titles roll and then we catch up with Zed and Constantine in a park, waxing on the topic of divination and being close to people. Manny the Guardian Angel interrupts by granting Zed a vision of pennies falling from heaven and then freezing time to have a one-on-one with John.
It’s an otherwise unremarkable scene that mostly serves to affirm that Zed isn’t just another Liv from episode one, as well as introduce the episode’s main theme of empathy. I want to bring it up, though, because I find Harold Perineau’s character remarkable in a way that will help illustrate part of what makes “A Feast of Friends” so much better than its predecessors.
Every single time Manny shows up, time stops around Constantine and the two characters discuss motivations and goals. It has happened enough times already that the novelty should have worn off, but it hasn’t. Every time someone stops talking in mid sentence and gravity takes a smoke break something inside of me gets really excited, because Manny represents something that the show has sorely lacked thanks to its Demons Across America attitude: familiarity.
That comfy feeling is repeated in the subsequent return to Jasper’s Divination Den (the Constantine HQ). Chas is sadly absent again, John having told him to go get the cab fixed and therefore adding to the show the other familiar element of his sidekick’s absence.
The Den has been broken into by the man from the beginning of the episode, who it turns out is Gary Lester – a sorry old friend of Constantine’s who was present for the Astra debacle in New Castle that gave John his signature shoulder chip. Garry has come to Constantine for help with the demon he’s accidentally unleashed on America.
A quick flashback sequence heads into disturbing territory as Gary explains how he exorcised a man who had been made into a walking demon-prison and bottled the entity inside. John gets to work, creating a new demon bottle, while the beetle spirit body-hops from the airport, to the supermarket and finally to a meat packing factory, consuming each of its vessels along the way.
News of the supermarket incident shows up on TV in the Den, and Constantine understands the situation: this here entity’s a hunger demon. Gary wants to help put it down, but John doesn’t want the aid of a junkie that he only ever hung around with in the first place to use his car.
Constantine confronts the hunger demon at the Hoffrichter meat packing plant, but fails to contain it in his homemade Bottle of Solomon, while Zed and Gary get too close and she accidentally gets a taste of his inner struggle with heroin withdrawal. It’s a tough lesson in empathy that will have particular thematic resonance by the episode’s final image.
John needs more help on this case, so he visits a shaman, goes on a hallucinogenic spirit journey and pushes the standards and practices envelope like a 10PM show on Friday’s should. In order to take John on a journey to see where the demon is from, the shaman and Constantine both take a drug called Mist and then LITERALLY SWITCH EYES.
The camera doesn’t cut away when the shaman’s thumb gouges John’s eye and replaces it with his own. Neither does it stop short of a gruesome scene in which a Sudanese shaman carves containment runes into an innocent human sacrifice’s skin, showing the origin story of the guy that Gary initially exorcised. It’s fucked up and fun in the way that Constantine should always be. Thankfully, this is just the beginning of the craziness.
The vision has given John a controversial plan. Over drinks, he seduces Gary into helping him steal a ceremonial Kasa knife required for the grizzly containment ritual he witnessed while tripping balls (his words, not mine). When the demon hunting duo make it to the Fox Theatre where the demon is currently feasting, shit gets upsetting.
John and Gary are standing on a stage and the camera work becomes very theatrical. Lots of wide angles and rotating shots help lend weight to what’s happening. Constantine is going to sacrifice his friend, condemning him to an unimaginable death, in order to save a bunch of people he doesn’t really know or care about. Keeping his empathy in check, he can do a terrible thing to a person he finds pathetic in order to save many lives. It’s like an Introduction to Utilitarianism textbook filtered through a production of Faustus.
Constantine exorcises the demon from a theatre-goer, channels it into Gary, and then proceeds to carve runes into his old , still-conscious buddy’s face with the Kasa knife. The camera holds on the mutilation, emphasizing that even though Gary is a special guest star, you should care about what’s happening here.
John drags Gary back to the den, and Zed is understandably disturbed. The conflict between the partners resonates at a new level. In the world of Constantine, in which the stakes are of Biblical proportions, empathy is a weakness. John is the hero of the show because he can overcome barriers of empathy, at great personal cost, and do battle with forces that are to us as we are to ants.
If Zed is John’s conscience, then Manny is his guilt. As we sit in the final shot of “A Feast of Friends” Gary is strapped to a bed, screaming in unholy agony, as John holds his hand. Manny kneels next to the bed, watching Constantine and judging his sacrifice.
That is what Constantine can add to the spooky procedural: the ability to explore darker solutions than Dean and Sammy Winchester or Mulder and Scully. This is the show Constantine should be.
In the war between Heaven and Hell, this John Constantine might not be enough. For the rest of humanity and viewers everywhere, he’s exactly what we need. At least he was this week.
The Book of Random Observances
- – There are some really nice camera choices in this episode. There is a bar scene between John and Gary that particularly stands out , in which Constantine is sitting on the left as he tells Gary that he believes people change. About halfway through the scene, the camera switches to a mirror across from them, behind the bar, inverting their positions so that John is on the right. The frame is such that you can barely tell you’re looking through a mirror, making the switch in character positions uncanny (I actually had to rewatch the scene to make sure it wasn’t a massive blunder). Considering that the episode is about empathy, and this scene particularly deals with Constantine’s choice to sacrifice Gary, it’s an impressively poetic flourish of John putting himself in his friend/victim’s shoes.
- – As far as TV catchphrases go, I think “I am addressing the entity inside” is pretty badass.
- – I wonder how Chas would have reacted to Constantine’s major plan if he hadn’t been getting the cab fixed. Keeping the action and allegory contained between Zed, John and Gary this week was the strongest way to make the episode’s point, but the lack of Chas in this show is starting to feel a little ridiculous.
- – He’s a real bastard sometimes, but I love how non-violent John Constantine is. Most problems he solves with words (albeit magical words) and when he’s confronted by a security guard he hypnotizes him into a funky dance trance.