“Please, no more.”
-a nameless father, right before more inevitably happens via his possessed daughter and he dies painfully
Last week NBC announced that it will be halting production on Constantine after its initial 13 episode order is completed. That’s already starting to feel like too much Constantine. Or, more accurately, it will if Constantine continues to feel as much of a chore as it did in its month-late Halloween episode. Having however many remaining hours dumped online after the holiday hiatus would be a divine mercy for all involved.
I’m not saying this to be snarky. I legitimately think that of all the people involved in Constantine, the majority, anyway, simply don’t care about it in a way that can produce great TV. The network doesn’t care, the producers don’t care, the writers don’t care, and if anyone else cares it doesn’t matter enough to make any impact. Any glimpses of something that could be worth your viewing time on Friday nights is drowned in so much laziness and inconsistency that even John Constantine seems bored in his own show.
Though at a glance it might look like just a run of the mill crappy supernatural procedural, episode six of Constantine, “Rage of Caliban,” is an absolute mess. Partly victim of a network’s attempt to maintain its Friday night brand identity, largely a victim of bad writing, and mostly a victim of exceptional genre peers and ancestors, “Caliban” stands as notable only in that it is a perfect example of everything that’s killed this show.
“Caliban” takes place on Halloween, which is likely when it was initially planned to air. In order to sync it up with the rest of NBC’s freaky Friday night genre programming block, the network apparently had its premier pushed back into mid-October. Because of this push, the series’ second episode landed on Halloween proper and “Caliban” found a home on Black Friday.
The funny thing about this discrepancy in dates is that the Halloween-ish-ness is largely superficial and almost feels shoehorned in, as if it was written with a Halloween air date in mind and then shifted to American Thanksgiving Weekend just because… well… NBC cares about its Friday programming brand? Do viewers who care about that kind of thing exist?
There are pumpkins and costumes in “Caliban,” and a climax that takes place in a spooky fun house, but mostly the episode is about a ghost boy that possesses children and kills their parents, which isn’t really a seasonal terror.
Episode six opens with the exterior shot of a home seemingly stricken with a violent domestic dispute. In true present-the-crazy-premise cold open style it’s quickly revealed that the child, Emily is murdering her parents via evil powers. Her mom is crushed under the demolished fireplace, her father (quoted at the top of this article) begs for his life as he bleeds, pressed to the ceiling by an invisible force and suffering from unspecific blood hemorrhaging. He also dies, the credits run, then the entity inside Emily skedaddles during the resulting police response.
The Emily entity finds a new home in a dweeb named Henry – who is like 12 and somehow scared of Halloween – and the rest of the episode alternates between scenes of the kid hamming it up Bad Seed style and John Constantine going through the motions of fixing this problem.
It turns out that the ghost of a still living child abuse victim (40-ish and confined to a mental hospital) is possessing kids that live along a layline (a psychoactive railway) and killing conflict-prone parents. Doesn’t that sound cool? It almost sounds like the topic of conversation from a Haruki Murakami novel.
The premise has a lot of potential. We know that John has a complicated history with exorcising children, which has also been established as a very difficult act to perform, so it’s easy to see how by the end of the hour Constantine might find himself in a sticky moral dilemma. Throw in the fact that a “the ghost of a living man possesses children” is the show’s most intriguing episodic plot yet and things should be all set for televised fireworks.
But the fuses of said fireworks are cut. There is no payoff in “Rage of Caliban” and it feels less like a failure than a case of people behind the scenes just not giving a fuck. The Hellblazer IP is being used to elevate material that is no longer fresh enough for TV audience enjoyment.
Rather than exploring how cool the living ghost situation is, John is unphased, as are the people around him. He’s almost bored in his own show. Instead of struggling with how difficult child exorcism is, he just says a few words while hugging Henry in the aforementioned fun house. If there is a risk, it doesn’t read. If there’s something cool here, it’s being ignored.
Usually in a supernatural procedural, premise coolness can be manufactured and explored through the classic old-pro and fresh face dynamic: Mulder tells Scully about another X-File that fits the week’s situation, Dean Winchester explains to Sam something about his time on the road with their dad. In Constantine the fresh face is Zed Martin, but she’s not in “Rage of Caliban.”
Zed is thrown away for the episode with a line from Chas about attending art school, and her absence becomes much more of a problem than removing the show’s sounding board. With Zed gone we’re given our first ever John and Chas episode, but rather than give the cab driving sidekick a long overdue time to shine, this focus just highlights how unimportant he is to the show.
Chas betrays his established authority when he has to defer to John about how certain occult-ish artifacts and techniques work. Chas betrays his usefulness when he is once again incapacitated (this time getting hit by a car) before the climactic confrontation. Chas betrays his old excuse for not being in earlier episodes by NOT EVEN DRIVING THE FUCKING CAB HE SPENT THREE WEEKS OFF SCREEN GETTING FIXED. They drive a pickup truck in this episode.
The uselessness of Chas is a sign that Constantine cannot last, but it’s not the only indication of its doom. “Caliban” is another example to add to the pile of episodes sterilized by the show’s acquiescence of mediocrity.
Throughout the episode we are treated to a couple visits from Manny, the guardian angel played by Harold Perrineau. Each one sets the stakes higher on a personal level, as it should. We learn that Manny has been at John’s side for his entire life, standing idly by and sadly watching as li’l Constantine suffer at the hands of abusive parents.
Once again, these scenes are elevated by Harold Perrineau to a point where they feel like they’re from another, better show. I want to see the relationship between a washed up, abused exorcist and his guardian angel. I just want to know more about these interesting people!
When it comes to showtime, this heightening of stakes is all but thrown away. After a fun house scene that I’d call clever and meta if it were in a show I had any faith in, John hugs the demon-child, mutters some words, and everything is fine. The spirit goes home to the body of the catatonic 40 year old asylum dweller and everything is wrapped up with a monologue from Constantine as he tries to light a cigarette on his car and kids commence trick or treating around him.
Constantine has the potential to be an amazing and risky show that has never been shown on network TV. We’ve seen glimpses of this in the Pilot and “A Feast of Friends” – both of which hinged on Constantine being a huge bastard in the name of a spiritual utility. When it’s not taking those kinds of chances though, Constantine is not worth your attention. The people behind it don’t seem to care, so why should you?
I would normally give you more details about what happened in the episode, but none of it matters. The only scene really worth noting is this: Just past the halfway point in “Rage of Caliban” Chas, John and Henry’s mother hold a seance in order to draw the demon out of the child. It doesn’t work, and instead of a terrible spirit entity a three legged deer hobbles through the open door of the dilapidated house that’s hosting the ritual.
The mother asks Constantine what the creature’s appearance means and the exorcist shrugs it off, annoyed and frustrated. It doesn’t mean anything and that should come as no surprise. Sometimes a crippled animal is a symbol and other times it’s just a pitiful creature that can’t stand a chance in the competitive world, doomed to be out-survived all the other living things better equipped for the environment. Sometimes a crippled animal is just like Constantine: sad, pitiful and devoid of meaning.
The Book of Random… ugh Who Even Cares?
-The scene in the fun house, which has Constantine searching for a costumed Henry as fake ghouls pop out at him can be read as another metaphor for the failing series. For all of Constantine’s reliance on big budget effects, no risk is ever presented to John. He spends so much time walking past these false threats that when he gets to his eventual goal there isn’t enough time to frame it with any weight.
-If anything can be learned about Constantine from this episode it’s definitely that the show can’t work at all without Zed. I suppose that qualifies her as an essential female cast member, something other DC Comics TV shows could probably use a bit more of (I’m looking at you, Gotham).
-There has been some controversy within the Hellblazer fan community that Constantine has stripped its title character of some of his more defining traits. Namely, this version of John is not bisexual and is not allowed to smoke on TV. It’s funny how the show tries to get around this last one by implying cigarette use, like in the final frame when Constantine sits on a car and pretends to struggle with his lighter, which is generously and easily lit, before slowly bringing it to his lips. This goofy aversion to letting Constantine smoke and the homophobic choice of making him straight serves as mounting evidence in a theory I’m slowly developing, that the people putting Constantine on TV actually hate the Hellblazer comics.
Two more episodes for this show to turn around before the Winter hiatus. That’s two more chances to recapture the fun and drama of the Pilot and “A Feast of Friends.”