Sunday, November 16, 2014

Constantine, Season 1, Episode 4: A Feast of Friends

A guy gets off a plane. This is relevant because OMINOUS MUSIC says it is. He goes through customs looking so shady  that he must be smuggling a bomb, drugs and souls while also sweating so much he looks like he may also be bringing in an infectious disease of your choice. Customs questions him because of the above (though since he’s just flown from Khartoum on a 19 hour flight, the looking like death thing now becomes more understandable). There’s an ominous looking ancient bottle on the table.

Apparently telling customs “hey here’s a bottle, don’t look inside it” isn’t a good idea (especially if you have dots on your arm which custom’s guy thinks are needlemarks) and the custom’s agent  picks it up is shocked and drops it. It shatters unleashing a vast tsunami of bugs that fly into custom-guy’s mouth

Over to John and Zed in a park with John trying to talk Zed into taking drugs (somewhat paraphrasing here), Zed having a vision of it raining money and time stopping because Manny the Angel wants to have a word. The whole pennies from heaven was a giveaway and John duly snarks on the lack of subtlety. Manny pokes John about his past failings and whether Zed is useful or will be  repeat of them but John praises her toughness though Manny still thinks John may scare her off. John asks if there’s an actual point to Manny’s visit and he disappears

That will be a no then?

They return to the Mill HQ and find someone has broken in – and there’s both flickering lights and scuttling beetles inside. Also there is Gary Lester, the guy from the airport, floating in midair in the mill’s mystical defences. Gary tells his story, he went to Sudan on a drinking binge (as you do) and there saw a man with containment patterns all over his skin, meaning someone had trapped a demon in him.

Being driven to atone for Newcastle (which was probably where John had his terrible tragic past as well with the damning of Astra) he pulled the demon out of the man and into the bottle.

Of course while he did get it into the bottle, we now know it all went wrong and a possessed customs guy is now running amok in the airport, apparently very very hungry. Also dying (in a food preparation area no less, that’s just unhygienic) and unleashing clouds of demon bugs

At the Mill, John prepares demon traps while Zed and he talk about Gary, friendship and John’s eternal cynicism but also a lot of bitterness – because Gary came from money, had a rich father and always had more money than the rest of their group. There’s an interesting question on whether John & Co used Gary for his money or whether Gary used his money to buy their friendship, but in the end John is angry and resentful with Gary because he had way more opportunities than the rest of them and he threw it away. He calls his life “wasted”

The demon moves on to another possession in a supermarket sending a woman through the aisles eating everything she can get her hands on – including a security guard’s face.
On the news, this is reported as an outbreak spread by insects as more and more people succumb. John concludes it’s a hunger demon – and is contemptuous of the idea of Gary joining them (it’s a side jab at Gary being an addict). Zed firmly opposes the idea that people can’t change.

John leaves Zed with Gary and Gary tells her something about Newcastle and Astra. She also gets a second-hand heroin withdrawal from touching Gary.

John investigates, pretending to be CDC questioning witnesses and tracking down the demon’s current host. Creepiness follows (and it is creepy. Very creepy – and she’s very flexible). He manages to get the demon in his little trap – but it promptly shatters. He has to run and hide to avoid being possessed though he does trap it in a freezer

This apparently counts as trapped for now – or so he reports when he returns to the Mill to tell Zed and Gary that it’s an uber powerful hunger demon. He needs to identify exactly what the demon is and Zed has some useful psychic sketches of the man who the demon was trapped in for that.

So John goes off to see a Shaman called Nommo, a man who runs an African cuisine shop, an old friend of his. Nommo knows of the demon but to find out more they’re going to have to have a vision with helpful substances. These substances involve super-duper drugs of permanent high (and a counter agent).

After some severe visions and ghastly eye swapping, Nommo tells the spirit’s history as a demon of famine in Sudan and a shaman having to bind the demon to a human (who has his tongue cut out and the symbols carved into his skin) as the only way to stop it. The shaman does a really good job of showing the terrible conflict of doing this it a person for the greater good. Of course, to repeat the process they need a special knife.

Back at the Mill, Gary decides he has to go out and help – Zed tries to stop him but he grabs her, inflicting his withdrawal on her psychically. While she collapses he leaves. The demon has also escaped from the freezer.

John returns to the Mill to find Zed there and Gary not. Zed assures him Gary means well but cynical John sees the worst in people and considers Gary an irredeemable addict.

John finds Gary being beaten up by guys he tried to buy drugs from – and trades them the super drug to make them go away. To the pub and while John has all kinds of issues with Gary, Gary’s still his friend. Gary talks about how he betrayed John and Astra; he reveals that he was high during the séance in Newcastle and when things went wrong he hid rather than helped. John doesn’t blame him though – he blames himself because he shouldn’t have got Gary and the other’s involved – they weren’t part of the occult world. He also says everyone has the chance to change – which is a change of tune but he holds that up as proof of what he’s saying (which is kind of clever).

So now it’s Gary and John working together to steal the special knife (though Manny appears to question whether John is really willing to go ahead with the sacrifice et al).

To the demon in a now quarantined theatre and John reveals that you need a human sacrifice to contain this demon. Guess why you’re here, Gary? Gary accepts as a chance to give his life meaning (even while calling John a sneaky bastard). An emotional goodbye follows.

John removes the demon and puts it in John’s body – and carves the symbols on his face.

John takes him back to the Mill and Zed is not impressed but as she gets angry at him sacrificing his friends, John says “it was his choice and it was a brave one, you need to respect that.” I agree… though I also don’t think John gave him many options to say no. Zed also sees through it to John’s manipulations. John throws back ends justify the means, Zed counters with John’s betrayal of someone who deeply loved him and wanted to be him.

John tells her people around him die – and if she can’t face it she has to go. She stays and helps him – a tactic (and powerful) acceptance.

The demon consumes Gary and he dies slowly in agony, John holding is hand. Manny looks on.

Constantine finally delves into quite an interesting dynamic with John’s anger at Gary coupled with Zed’s sympathy. She’s not willing to just write him off and condemn him as a “hopeless junky” and even John doesn’t dismiss him as a friend (albeit grudgingly). John’s judgement seems harsh to say the least, but from john’s perspective he has been through everything Gary has – and Gary has had, from John’s perspectives, far more advantages; I can see John resenting Gary’s collapse. It’s a rich message on how you can’t expect everyone going through the same experiences to react the same way (and why the whole “well I went through X and I’m fine” is such a terrible sentiment). It’s also a comment on privilege and how we take it for granted and the complicated feelings attached to seeing someone with privileged advantages being so… blasé with them. On top of all that we have Zed and Gary really humanising Gary and his addiction without magically curing it – especially emphasising Gary’s underlying pain and being driven to self-medicate that adds more depth to the usual “junkie” narrative.

Still… a lot of this complexity is somewhat dubious when we get to the fact that to give his life meaning, the drug addict has to dramatically sacrifice himself

It was also unusual to see the use of narcotics presented in a more complicated way than “drugs bad. AAARGH!”

Again Manny shows up randomly to just disappear. Whyyyy? Either make him a character or not. This random “behold we have a regular occurring Black man – oops he’s gone” is getting old. I also don’t see why it was necessary for John to be poking squeamishly at the undefined “African” food he has been served (aside from the racist aspect of it, what are the chances of John Constantine being actually squeamish about something as mundane as food?)

Also, spirit of famine linked to Sudan with images of food-aid? That smacks just a bit of appropriating actual disaster and using it for woo-woo.

Y’know, last episode we covered that Zed was skilled and awesome. This episode John tells Manny that Zed is tough. So John leaves her behind. Of course.

Also there was a lot of issue with Constantine straightening out the bisexual John Constantine (because Goyer) – but they played with a LOT of subtext in this episode between John and Gary… the writers are resistant to an openly bisexual John but are willing to go for heavy implication? Not ok, very not ok.

The sacrifice, though, does do a much better job of presenting the grim darkness of this world than what we’ve seen before. This show was supposed to be about the dark hero who has no good choices but does terrible things to stop more terrible things happening. Sometimes there are no good choices and John fights the darkness because he does what has to be done. John and Zed’s emotional argument after the fact is powerful and goes well with the old shaman’s obvious pain over what he had to do. The ending was very very well done – this episode covered that grim darkness not only better than it has before, but possibly better than anything I’ve seen before.