John Constantine can't escape his troubled past in the series premiere.
Constantine is the last comic-book-to-television adaptation to premiere this fall, and is perhaps the most unique of the group. Rather than the costumed antics of Arrow or The Flash, or the costume-adjacent antics on Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., or the pre-costume antics on Gotham, Constantine takes its decidedly more supernatural source material to heart.
My colleague Jeff Jensen called the series’ premiere an “all-in-a-hurry pilot” that delivers “an utterly unnecessary Supernatural-ish, Grimm-esque” take on the character. And he’s not wrong in evoking The CW’s decadelong running tale of demon hunters.
The pilot doesn’t initially do much to set itself apart, and there is a bit too much crammed into the hour, but Constantine’s pilot gets enough right in its main character to offer hope for the future. There’s of course the episode’s reshoots, which I’ll address at the end, that make this a particularly strange pilot to judge, after all.
With that in mind, however, let’s take a trip to Ravenscar Psychiatric Facility in dreary old northern England.
“Non Est Asylum” introduces our antihero in a voluntarily precarious situation—receiving electroshock therapy at Ravenscar. John Constantine is already an exorcist by the time we meet him, and he already wants to forget some of his days on the job.
But as he tells us, there are “some you never will” forget, and neither electrocution nor group therapy sessions put his mind at ease. John witnessed the death of a girl named Astra in Newcastle at the hands of a demon, but he is also wrestling with emotional demons as well as the flesh and blood, drag-you-to-hell kind.
Matt Ryan quickly captures the essence of the character in look, but perhaps a bit less in personality. He’s dryly sarcastic, witty, and a bit of a prick–exactly what a network TV version of the much darker comic book character would be. But his veneer of cool can’t prevent the trouble that haunts him from following him wherever he goes. Even to Ravenscar.
John discovers a possessed woman scrawling a message on a bug-infested wall at the facility. Try as he might, John knows he can’t walk away from the scene, and instead attempts a rather messy exorcism. But the ensuing destruction of the room was not for nothing. John recognizes the message the demon left—”LIV DIE”—is for him.
And no, the demon didn’t fail first grade spelling, Liv is the name of a woman in Atlanta, Georgia, a car rental associate whose mysterious car troubles prove to be more than faulty wiring. The earth literally opens up beneath Liv, but John appears just in time to offer his help. As any self-respecting person would do when confronted by a stranger and a demonically challenged parking lot, however, Liv books it.
John’s momentary reprieve is dashed, as Manny (Lost alum #1 Harold Perrineau) the angel swoops down to give John a run for his money as the guy with the worst attitude on the show. Manny promises something is on the way, leaving the master of the dark arts with more questions than answers. My money is on that something not being good. At all.
Trouble follows Liv back to her apartment, where a mysterious man carves a strange symbol on her door and leaves a ring of salt outside her apartment. Any Supernatural fan will know that’s a protective measure, but unfortunately the same precautions were not taken for her neighbor, who’s found dead later that evening.
Well… not exactly dead, as something thrashes around in her body, killing the medical examiner driving her/it to the morgue in the episode’s sole truly creepy moment. In a world full of demons, possession, hellfire, and the like, hopefully this scarier side of the show won’t be as scarce in future episodes.
NEXT: The power this demon’s supplying, it’s electrifying!
The presumed death is enough to scare Liv into reaching out to John, who explains the protective symbol and the man who carved it—Chas, John’s “oldest mate” and the driver of the coolest taxi on TV. More importantly, however, John explains why he cares about Liv. He knew her father, Jasper, who left his daughter a parting gift. Manny’s words of warning come to pass mid-conversation, however, as Liv’s possessed neighbor comes crashing through her place of work hoping to have killed Liv in the process. “This is all wrong. They never operate in the open like this,” John comments, and the encounter is enough to scare Liv off to her mother’s home to seek answers.
A gruesome encounter with the spirit of her dead grandmother convinces Liv, however, that she may need John’s protection. When holding the pendant her father left for her, Liv can apparently see the lost souls left wandering the earth—and a ghost train for seemingly no other reason than that the term “ghost train” is hilarious.
John is more interested in squaring his debt to Jasper than providing Liv with answers, though, and with a more than appropriately foreshadowing “Ring of Fire” cover on the radio, a cab ride to Jasper’s former stomping grounds turns into a deadly encounter for Chas. The electrically inclined demon following Liv causes a car wreck that snuffs out Chas and causes John to flashback to losing Astra.
This trail of death and destruction barely puts a dent in John’s plans, as he rushes Liv off to her father’s Easter egg-filled hideaway (hello, Doctor fate!).
Jasper’s hideout also hides the identity of the demon chasing Liv, who meanwhile learns the secret of scrying. Her pendant allows her to use a map and discover demonic activity before it happens, which leaves her with something to do while John searches for some answers.
And so John travels to Ivy University to visit an old friend, but not before stalker angel Manny pops up again. In one of the show’s most visually impressive moments, Manny freezes time and the falling rain to suggests it’s not too late for John to save his soul. The mere prospect gives John hope, but any ray of sunshine is blocked out by the storm cloud of his reunion with Ritchie Simpson (Lost alum #2 Jeremy Davies).
John requires Ritchie’s hacking services to defeat this demon, but the metaphysics professor doesn’t want to be involved after Newcastle. He wishes the demon, Nergal, had taken John instead of Astra, but thanks to a little blackmail, John convinces Ritchie to put aside his anger and pitch in.
Luckily, John has Chas back at the bunker to warm him up with a nice pre-hunt meal—apparently that “oldest friend” title was a literal one, though Chas’ true powers remain a mystery for now.
Instead, it’s time for the big rooftop showdown. John paints a massive self-designed demon seal, and while he waits for the demon to arrive, he and Liv have a dark heart-to-heart. John reveals his mother died in childbirth, his father blamed him for her death, and that he started learning the dark arts in the hopes of finding his mum’s soul. The true underpinnings of John’s character are beginning to show, and Matt Ryan effectively pulls off the mixture of anger and sadness at the heart of John.
But the one helpful therapy session of the episode is cut short by a possessed guard. Stepping into John’s trap, he forces John to come face to face with the person he loathes most—himself. The demon takes on the visage of a much more haggard John Constantine, attempting to strike the real John down with electrical fury.
NEXT: Traveling the lonesome road
The exorcist fights back with a citywide power outage courtesy of Ritchie. The demon tries one last trick, summoning Astra and pretending that he can release her soul. And John almost buys it. He actually lets himself be momentarily blinded by an obvious trap, but Liv snaps him out of it with her truth-revealing pendant.
The demon bites the dust in a spiral of flame, and all seems well, but John is clearly shaken up by the ordeal. Liv leaves the battered John to his thoughts, as Ritchie drives her home. He warns her to stay away, and here’s where things get tricky about this pilot. She, surprisingly, does stay away. Witnessing a crime scene she knows was caused by a demon’s handiwork scares her off the path of demon hunting. Chas informs John of Liv’s decision, though she apparently took the time (off-camera, of course) to scry a map of demon-related incidents all across America.
This isn’t how the pilot was supposed to go, however. Liv was meant to be along for the ride with John, but due to creative choices behind the scenes, she was written out of the show. John wanted to keep her safe, which, for the moment, makes sense considering his previous motivations. John wouldn’t want to lose an innocent soul to evil while he’s still trying to save another.
And so John leaves the bar, claiming to walk alone as he is surrounded by a gang of well-armed street thugs. More interestingly, though, is that the moment is being captured by an artist in an entirely different location. This unnamed woman simply sits in a room surrounded by pictures of John.
The titular exorcist may think he walks alone, but if this mysterious woman has anything to say about it, he won’t be alone for long.
Between Heaven and Hell
Talking about the future of Constantine is a tricky one, considering the changes made to the pilot. But the show nails enough of its main character in the initial going that I’m excited to see and learn more about him. The hints about his parentage and the heartache of losing Astra are clearly important to his character and could be brilliantly mined for material down the road.
Obviously a pilot needs to move through events quickly, so it’s understandable that “Asylum” speeds through its events, but there’s almost too much ground covered. Other than John’s backstory, Ritchie, Chas, and Manny only feel like quick characterizations at this point, not fully fleshed out characters.
And then there’s of course the mythology to consider. As a Constantine neophyte, I will rely on any faithful hellblazers to catch some of the hints and clues I may miss. There’s the groundwork for a fascinating mythos to develop, but the pilot seemed definitely more concerned with establishing John and Liv, who, unfortunately, won’t play into things much going forward. The announcement that her presence would be replaced by that of actual comic book character Zed Martin hopefully indicates the show will dive headfirst into the weirder and more twisted facets of Hellblazer lore.
Despite some of the pilots shortcomings—watching some electrical wiring kill a man feels more like a Final Destination deleted death scene than a truly horrific foe—Ryan delivers a solid enough performance that I’m excited to see where John’s hunt takes him. I can’t deny part of it is due to my soft spot for anything demon and angel related. Maybe it’s a long diet of Winchester and Summers lore. Maybe its an effort to rebel against my 12 years of Catholic schooling.
But there’s hope for John Constantine, even if he doesn’t believe there is.