“We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed;
perplexed, but not driven to despair.”
-2 Corinthians 4:8
There are number of offenses that keep “Danse Vaudou” from being a fun or exciting hour of TV. As is becoming usual with Constantine, the show’s fifth episode falters most because it would rather retread cliches than offer up something new to the well explored world of TV supernatural procedurals.
“Danse Vaudou” is a paranormal case of the week episode that once again sees John Constantine and psychic partner Zed Martin in pursuit of what’s making the magic map of America bleed again. Like “The Darkness Beneath” and “The Devil’s Vinyl” before it, the field trip format of this week’s episode tries to rest on its visual effects and relatively tame violence rather than aspiring to really invest in characters, theme, or even a very coherent plot.
The destination of the week is New Orleans, which is being haunted by the risen dead. In the cold open we see a guest-starring detective named Jim Corrigan (Emmett Scanlan) encounter the ghost of a scissor-wielding maniacle model while he pisses in an alleyway outside a bar. A passerby is stabbed to death and Corrigan empties some bullets into the assailant, but it’s clearly a job better suited for a dabbler in the dark arts.
Back in Atlanta at the divination den, Chas and John jumpstart Zed’s waning vision powers with a magical zoetrope and after a quick flash of Corrigan’s violent childhood the New Orleans blood dot freshens up.
Taking a look at the map again, only five episodes into the series, I feel an empathetic exhaustion for Constantine and crew. That’s a lot of dots to have to address personally, and based on how boring the deadly events surrounding the destinations seem to be, it just feels like a slog.
This week Chas has finally fixed the cab after it was totalled in the pilot, so he gets to come along for the trip from the beginning, but he surprisingly doesn’t add much to “Danse Vaudou.” I love this version of Chas, I think Charles Halford adds a special styling of tired comedy to Constantine that plays really well off of Matt Ryan’s flamboyant aging punker one liners. That said, finding an excuse for Chas to stay home again probably would have risen the stakes and given the writers the extra space they seemed to desperately need in telling this benign but somehow confusing story.
In New Orleans the team encounters Jim Corrigan at the scene of the stabbing and, as a detective would when meeting a career exorcist gumshoe, kind of just rolls his eyes and tells them to get lost. They don’t, obviously, and book their rooms at respective establishments (Constantine and Zed at a local inn, Chas allegedly at some chain motel).
While the main characters are settling in for some dark detective work, an old perv driving on the edge of town picks up a hitchhiking boy named Philip. When things get too creepy the kid turns out to be a ghost and the man is killed in a collision. The scene is exploitative, trading villainous shorthand for violence without consequence. As viewers we’re supposed to be like, “Good, a sexual predator died a horrible death,” but being put through the paces of such an old trope doesn’t feel good, especially in a genre that doesn’t need to earn the deaths of tertiary characters.
The haunted pedo death scene is worth deconstructing because it’s a microcosm of what’s fatally wrong about “Danse Vaudou”: the episode is filled with missed connections between cause and effect.
Philip’s victim, we’ll call him Pervy McDriverson, is a bad person. That’s what the show is telling us through its use of shorthand, and because the show created him we might as well agree. But his badness isn’t why he dies.
Pervy dies in a car crash because he picked up a ghost hitchhiker that crashes cars. This is independent of his reprehensible behaviour. If, in this scenario, Pervy McDriverson was replaced with Philanthropy Goodman the crash would still happen; pervs and philanthropists alike are susceptible to Philip’s wrath.
The issue is that the perviness of Pervy causes a muddled reaction. When he dies, we think he deserves it, so we can feel righteous instead of scared. It’s an unhealthy attitude to foster, made especially unnecessary by the facts that a) Constantine is not above sacrificing good people to heighten stakes and b) it confuses the nature of what Philip does.
The rest of “Danse Vaudou” falls victim to more of this unnecessary muddling.
It turns out that because it’s New Orleans and therefor voodoo must be behind this problem, Constantine’s rival Papa Midnite is the one causing the dead to rise and kill.
Papa is accepting wads of cash from the recently bereaved in order to channel their spirits and allow for some final words to be exchanged between the living and the dead. Constantine crashes one of these reunion parties, tells Papa he’s responsible for the ghost murders, is promptly voodoo-dusted into unconsciousness and locked in a trunk.
Midnite discovers that John is at least partially right, when the wife of his most recently contacted ghost introduces him to the resurrected stiff she fell in love with, Clark. Papa and Constantine promptly team up to fix this ghastly conundrum, which it turns out is actually being fueled by the guilt of the survivors and not Midnite’s bad magic.
It is in the realization of this guilt-connection that we see more of the missed connections tearing the episode apart. Papa and John swipe all the bodies of the three ghost killing people in New Orleans and do a joint releasing spell, but it doesn’t work because the spirits are being reanimated by the guilt of the survivors.
As this is happening, Chas is distracting the scissor murderer, tracking her with a magic mood bracelet and sometimes being stabbed to death (and coming back to life because, well, Chas), while Zed and Corrigan keep picking up Philip to keep him off the road.
In order to get all the survivors at the voodoo warehouse where the spell is set up, John enlists Corrigan to gather the loved ones. This errand takes Jim away from Zed and ghosty Phil, but we don’t see him leave, he just shows up with the right people in the right place and then skidaddles back out to Zed after witnessing the spell.
When reunited with Zed (we only know he has been absent thanks to the sound of a closing door off screen), Jim admits that he recognizes her as a missing person from New Orleans and kisses her hand prompting a vision: Corrigan covered in his own blood. But Corrigan is a guest star based in this single location, so we don’t expect him to be back next week, we just saw him seemingly in two places at once, and Zed’s powers aren’t well defined enough to confidently state that this isn’t a Sixth Sense he-was-dead-the-whole-time reveal.
Jim Corrigan is in the next episode, according to IMDB, so the big reveal is actually a tease rather than the twist that its framed as.
Once again, like the Pervy McDriverson scene, confusion could be eliminated by changing a few things around. Why pull Corrigan away when Papa has lackies that could go fetch the survivors? Does the skeptical detective really need to see the spell? Wouldn’t it be even more effective if he was with Zed when Philip dissolved into thin air at the completion of the spell?
Hell, why not just make Corrigan dead the whole time as a fourth ghost? Then the episode doesn’t hinge on Jim’s incredible ability to corral people in the middle of the night over the span of a commercial break and the audience’s uncanny ability to decipher the sound effects that signify Jim’s return to Zed’s location.
“Danse Vaudou” isn’t without a few highlights. Zed has grown on me and I enjoy the chemistry she and Constantine share, and like I mentioned before, Chas brings a nice amount of humour to the proceedings.
Even the business with Papa Midnite, a character whose most villainous trait is being such a racist cliche (A scheming voodoo priest? Nowadays?), I found was pretty well handled. In this episode, Constantine’s rival was painted as sympathetic rather than as a downright evil doer like he was in “The Devil’s Vinyl.” Considering the shady and selfish territory that John Constantine traversed last week and in the pilot, it was a surprisingly honest way to treat the antagonist.
Those praises, however, are small details in the larger sea of confusing and exploitative missed connections that make up “Danse Vaudou.” Constantine is capable of telling interesting and new stories in the well worn genre it chooses to occupy, we saw that last week with the exceptional “A Feast of Friends.” Sadly, all too often it feels like the minds behind this show just don’t want to put in the work required for that sort of storytelling.
The Book of Random Observances
– Did anyone else hear Constantine call Jim “Cardigan” instead of Corrigan near the end of the episode?
– We get more glimpses of the supernatural elements behind Chas in this episode. He can heal at near-Wolverine speeds and prevent ghost attacks by confusing them with questions.
– One aspect of Constantine that I always enjoy is the unlimited number of supernatural gadgets John and Chas have access to. The ghost finding mood bracelet was pretty cute.
– No Manny in this episode. Too bad. Harold Perrineau is a constant highlight in this show and for some reason I don’t buy other characters’ claims of a coming darkness.
– So, other than Zed, who could the betrayer that Hell warns Constantine of actually be? He only knows about three people and an angel.