“This know also, that in the last days perilous times shall come.” -2 Timothy 3:1
The mid season finale of Constantine is, for the second week in a row, what a sustainable supernatural procedural drama looks like in 2014. The genre tropes are the same as they were decades ago, and the premises have all been used up by The X-Files, Supernatural and to a lesser extent Fringe, but Constantine has found a new attitude towards those aspects that might not exactly seem fresh, but at least it works better for the series.
“Saint of Last Resorts” is, in a way, Constantine’s own last resort, since it’s the final bid for viewers’ attention prior to the mid season hiatus. To this end, episode eight pulls that classic TV move, the pre-hiatus cliffhanger, in order to make us want to tune back in when the show returns this winter.
The episode is also, in essence, the show’s canonization of John Constantine as the patron saint of last resorts, which is in a way acknowledging everything Constantine has done right in its inconsistent (at best) first season. John Constantine is a bastard who will do horrific things in order to keep innocent masses safe, and that includes using some of those pure individual lives as leverage against evil forces. “Last Resorts” takes a stand and frames John’s anti-hero morality as a saintly virtue.
The Miracle of Two Plotlines
Episode eight’s biggest revelation is in terms of story structure. Previous episodes in the season have felt laggy and over-long because they simply tell a single A-plot over a TV hour without enough character exploration to make the time feel earned. I usually check my watch at the halfway point of an episode expecting it to have ten minutes left, surprised to discover it’s only half way done.
“Last Resorts” solves the pacing problem by introducing the series’ first real B-plot in a way that almost lampoons a weird quirk Constantine’s had since episode two. Usually an episode begins with either Zed or Chas espousing a flimsy excuse for why the other won’t be in the episode. Zed might have art class, Chas might be spending weeks on end fixing the cab or mending relationships with his family, but we never see this secondary action. That is, until now.
Constantine tells Zed she has to stay at the divination den, despite her obvious usefulness in the case of the week. Someone, or something has stolen a baby from a Mexican convent where Anne Marrie, an old friend of John’s, is hiding out as a nun. Constantine doesn’t speak Spanish, but that doesn’t matter, Zed is grounded and Chas is the partner of the week.
That’s not the last we see of Zed though. In what feels like a miracle for this show, we keep checking back on her as she explores the places of the den previously denied to her, with special focus on the House of Leaves-esque corridor hinted at in episode three and a completely non-magical dumbwaiter that I guess is used for tea? Who knows.
The point is, thanks to the Zed B-plot which sees her defending the den from evil doers out of her mysterious past, Constantine feels more fleshed out this week. As hinted at in the previous episode’s tacked-on stinger, “Last Resort” has the nude model from Zed’s art class attempting to kidnap her. She uses her powers to figure out the model’s plan though and lures him back to the den for some interrogation. He ends up getting killed by one of two shitty co workers who arrive as backup, and – even though Zed manages to hold her own for a while, making a cool escape with the dumbwaiter (how convenient!) and tossing a pursuer into the abyss corridor – is drugged and taken away.
The whole Home Alone: Lost in Jasper’s Den plot takes up about a third of the episode and really helps “Last Resort” stay on track. The way Constantine has been presenting itself, I expected the B-plot to be the entire hour of TV. Instead, the plot line is given exactly enough screen time to make Zed’s previous cult ties (right? that’s what this is?) seem important to the series as a whole, where they normally seem to foreshadow a boring detour.
The Miracle of Boredom
Speaking of boredom, the primary storyline still has the classic Constantine problem of just not feeling very interesting. “Last Resort” has some exciting and creepy moments, and looks better than most episodes, but there is nothing here that makes me feel like anyone would want to re watch this show.
Anne Marie, another of John’s old world allies who was present for the botched exorcism that but Constantine in an asylum at the top of the series, needs her old buddy’s help to find out what sort of entity has abducted a newborn baby named Diego. As John and Chas help the new nun solve her mystery we’re given more glimpses into Constantine’s past and Anne Marie starts shaming him for his lack of empathy (classic Church move).
Over the course of “Last Resorts” we learn a few new things: Anne Marie introduced Constantine to the world of the dark arts, the rising darkness is the result of prehistoric Chilean bad guys that John has no spells to fight, and that Constantine can really nail demonic imagery.
What stands out most in this episode are the images of old testament demonism. As John and Anne Marie do some sleuthing in order to find info on where the missing baby is, for example, they encounter a tree that’s growing human fruit. Constantine picks a pear from a tree in Diego’s father’s backyard and it’s made of skin. He cuts it and it makes the tree bleed. It’s everything a horror fan wants to see on TV and more: this sort of unsettling and gross imagery that is at once vaguely biblical, nightmarish and lacking any sort of logic that could reveal a plot hole. It’s like something out of a Mars Volta album’s liner notes: uncanny and creepy just enough unexplained symbolism to make you want more despite your discomfort.
The other nods to the old testament come courtesy of an obvious inspiration at work in “Last Resorts”. There are a number of shots the evoke The Exorcist movies (particularly the third film). The demonic entity that’s snatching babies, a sister of the biblical Eve, has makeup clearly inspired by Pazuzu (the demon for the first Exorcist film), and the king of wind demons is actually invoked to put an end to the kidnappings.
All of this said, the images and pacing simply can’t make “Saint of Last Resorts” stand out as anything other than a passable episode of TV (which to be fair is an A+ by Constantine’s own standards).
Primarily, the Anne Marie relationship is to blame for the overall underwhelming quality that plagues the episode. It turns out that she is a very important character in the show’s internal mythology, but because Constantine has avoided fleshing out John’s past all season, we have no attachment to her beyond what is demonstrated to us via TV shorthand of kisses and arguments of the past which pass for secondary action.
Anne Marie, by the way, is an exciting character to have in Constantine. Her relationship with John is deep, complex and complementary in terms of theme (the way that she has embraced the church mirrors Constantine’s self-exile to the asylum). “Saint of Last Resorts” was good enough that it made me resent how the previous seven episodes have been mishandled leading up to what would have been a more shocking mid-season twist. It is now apparent that Constantine functions best as a serialized show rather than the heavily episodic fare that it’s been so far.
The Miracle of Last Resorts
“Saint of Last Resorts” makes good on Papa Midnite’s prophesy from “Danse Vaudou”, that someone close to Constantine will betray him. At the time, Constantine had two friends, Chas and Zed, and so the implication of Midnite’s prediction was that John’s new artist friend was going to turn out to be a snake in the grass.
I will tip my hat to the showrunners: I didn’t expect them to surprise me on that front.
After Anne Marie, Chas and Constantine fool the ancient evil into leading them to the babies (at this point there are two from the same bloodline that have been kidnapped) two climactic confrontations occur in the catacombs beneath the convent.
First, John threatens to murder an infant in exchange for information from the sister of Eve. It’s the best version of Constantine showing its face: a man who will literally do anything to fight the coming darkness having to take the highest stakes option because he’s so profoundly out of his depth. He stops just short of infanticide and the evil entity is thrown into a flaming Pazuzu portal.
The second confrontation is between Anne Marie and Constantine. After Eve’s sister is dispatched an even greater threat appears: a Silent Hill inspired Old Testament terror that they can’t outrun and John has no spells to fight. Inspired by Constantine’s saintly use of last resorts, Anne Marie makes sure the babies can be safe and, as eyeless monstrosity approaches, she shoots John in the gut and leaves him to die. The stakes are so high that these people who love each other in the way only the oldest of friends can will condemn one another to horrific fates just to buy more time to fight. There’s your betrayal, Papa Midnight.
It’s a big surprise, but why did Constantine only just now introduce Anne Marre? If the show had been more generous with Constantine’s troubled past rather than just barely hinting at things for the past seven episodes, the utilitarian backstab would carry more weight. As it is, “Saint of Last Resorts” feels like, well, a last resort to get us interested enough in Constantine that it might live on past its shortened 13 episode season.
As a last resort though, the episode succeeds. For the first time watching this show I want to know what happens next, and not just because of the cliffhanger image of John Constantine bleeding to death in a sewer. I see the potential of this show and I sincerely hope that the creatives behind it do too.
The Book of Random Observances
-At the top of the episode Constantine mentions the great flood as an event from a secret history. Despite this show’s reliance on its own collage of Christian mythology, I never considered that Constantine might exist in a Young Earth universe. John Constantine: creationist hero?
-After this episode I have taken the liberty of upgrading my suggestion to NBC regarding the final six episodes from “dump online” to “air and promote.” Don’t squander this good faith Constantine. Please.
-Two pretty good episodes in a row? Way to bring the B-game, Constantine!
-The biggest surprise of the episode: no Harold Perrineau. I was not sure that an episode without Manny the Angel would pass muster, but here we are.
-I can’t get over that image of the human pear. It was perfect for this show. More nightmarish omens next year please!
-I’ve complained about more episodes of Constantine than I’ve praised this fall, but how did you like it? Did you have any favourite moments? Did you watch it? Will you watch it in 2015? Let me know in the comments.