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History Repeating: Constantine’s “Rage of Caliban”

November 29, 2014 1 comment

Life is all about connections, relationships, and the circumstances that make the world smaller. On a deeper level, it is also about the people who help make us who we are, for better or for worse – those who stand with us or behind us, helping to shape who we are and the path we take.

This week’s Constantine (Rage of Caliban – written by the wonderfully talented Daniel Cerone) was about looking to the past to inform the future. How actions, once taken, shape the road in front of a person. The episode opens with a classic bit of horror movie madness: a murder scene in a home, a small girl, and a bloodied, levitating man – who then plummets to his death. It’s clear the girl is responsible, but not how or why. Later, when two police officers start arguing about her, the child’s eyes turn black as ink and a coffee mug shatters. Someone yells, “Shots fired!” Shots fired, indeed.

Elsewhere, John’s getting kicked out of bed by a one night stand, with a bit of groggy comedy. She’s got a boyfriend, and the boyfriend’s at the door – and the important item she’s shoving at him is his tie (symbolism – yes, the tie means something). There’s a little frenzied he said/she said about whether Constantine knew she was attached, when he quips, “Should I set the table for three, then?” Shirtless, being shoved out a window, he’s got an incredible amount of sass – which I love. From the woman he was with, though, you get the kind of impression that yes, John is a world of trouble, but that his kind of trouble is also totally worth it. It makes his brashness a bit more endearing. I mean, I certainly wouldn’t kick him out of bed.

Back at the mill house, Chas gives John his best mom face/chiding eyes (I adore Charles Halford in this role), insisting that they pick the next point of trouble/case from the Bloody Map. They do, and it’s Birmingham, Alabama. Which is the murder site we’d just seen. So, off they go, with the cab still in the shop (this episode was intended to be episode two, which is why there’s only an oblique reference to Zed being at an art class).

Arriving at the crime scene, Chas and John give us a bit of backstory about the murder; John’s got his usual bag of tricks (literally a bag – an old medical bag, by the looks of it). What I liked about this episode is that we get to see more of the relationships between Constantine and Chas (as well as Constantine and Manny), which illuminates the relationship John has with himself. More on that later. The dabbler in the dark arts promptly breaks into the house, stiffs around, and then…licks a wall. I could make so many jokes here. But I won’t.

Manny shows up and he and John have a spat. They’re almost always having a spat, aren’t they? There’s a fiercely confrontational, almost adversarial quality to their conversation. “You know, I’ve never punched an angel, but you are begging for it, mate,” Constantine snarks after Manny surprises him. Manny wants to know what John’s planning on doing about the rising dark, what his plan of attack is. Calling him “more of a desperation move” as opposed to Joan of Arc, Manny really seems to take pleasure at goading John and making digs about how not special he is. Constantine needles him right back, using an insult-derived form of backhanded flattery to try and weasel information about the murder from Manny. That works about as well as you’d think.

Using a Mayan spell, Constantine figures out that the girl’s to blame, because she was possessed. He surmises that the spirit that’s done the possessing will be on the lookout for a new host. And a nice cut to the outside of a house lets the audience in on the fact that this episode takes place around Halloween. Inside, we get an earful of a screaming boy, insisting there’s someone in his room,. Being comforted by his folks, Henry seems like a typical kid – until later, when his creepy closet opens, and there’s really someone in his room. Once he’s possessed, he pretty much starts acting like the little kid from The Omen.

We find John in a bar (surprise!) with an unnamed woman, who provides some background on the case. There’s been a series of murders with the same M.O., starting 35 years ago. The woman and John have a history, and he helped her out in the past. It’s interesting to see this kind of bond surface, here and there, evidence of his good – evidence of those he’s helped along the way. We’ve heard about Newcastle – seen its scars on John (and Gary). But true to life, it seems like the bad carries more weight than the good.

Which is illustrated by the sneer Constantine gives when the woman tells him the first murder victim, Marcello Panneti, is at the local mental hospital. When he gets there, John finds a catatonic Marcello and a bit more backstory. Abused as a child by his father, Marcello pulled something of a Lizzie Borden, killing his parents. Upon seeing his frozen, unaffected state, John sits down and gives Marcello an interesting look. He’d thought that Marcello would provide some insight, but the avenue is closed. Which begs the unsaid question: what now?

Meanwhile, possessed Henry (well portrayed by Max Charles) starts acting out in a really effective, creepy scene. This episode pulled from multiple horror story tropes and not only brought them to life, but also made them work brilliantly. The subtle tapping of a lightbulb, while Henry’s dad, Daryl, stumbles around in the dark, was an excellent use of basic fear and suspense. It’s the kind of tension that makes a viewer shout at the tv screen. Not that I’d do that. Nooooo. (Yes, yes, I did.) The actor who plays Henry is reallllly good in this scene. After his father hurt himself, he almost chides, “Hey Dad? Be careful.” Definitely chills up the spine, there.

Once again back at the mill house, John and Chas discuss the case, which reveals the idea of ley lines to the audience – magical trackways that flow with energy that can be harnessed. While they’re looking for something to detect the malevolent spirit, Chas pulls a random sword out of a bookshelf (who doesn’t keep a sword there?), which leads to an honest, but funny moment between the two. It’s basically a sword of truth, and Chas prattles on about how Constantine is too self-involved, how he misses a woman named Renee, and how he can’t even talk to John about it – at which point, John takes the sword away from him. They both look hilariously uncomfortable and a bit sheepish. They dynamic here rings true.

After a rather unfortunate incident between Henry and a pumpkin, a raven/crow hurls itself into a glass door. This is not the first, or the last, time we’ve seen a crow/raven. I get the feeling the symbolism is going to come into play later in the series – that it has something to do with the rising dark. But that’s just a hunch.

John and Chas are walking down the street, waving the kind of incense holder you’d find at Catholic mass. (Because of course.) They stop outside Henry’s house and have a rather amusing exchange about whether or not they should knock, explain who they are and why they’re there. The back and forth here was really charming, but it’s also a bit revealing. Constantine takes the lead, always. He calls the shots. In a way, Chas looks to him to make the decisions. The laidback relationship between the two is really endearing. They’re solid, good mates – a dedicated team.

The next day, Constantine stops by the schoolyard and notices Henry fighting with another kid. He tries to bring it to a teacher’s attention, who is skeptical of John’s presence, asking, “What’s in that trenchcoat?” Constantine replies, “I am,” with a kind of quiet, insistent fury that only accompanies a man whose hands are tied – and not in a fun way. A man who is not used to being ignored and who isn’t accustomed to having to stand back and watch something bad happen. The subtlety bridled rage is an interest tic of John’s – a tell of sorts, evidence of the genuine good in an imperfect man.

The child who was taunting Henry suffers a fractured skull, while Constantine is forced to helplessly watch. Later, Henry is interrogated by his parents, his mom less lenient than his father. Which is of course when John decides to knock on the door, lie to get inside, then announce he’s an exorcist, and promptly gets kicked out of the house. He leaves his card on the way out, but not before getting punched by the father…and thus, thrown in jail.

John in jail is a really brilliant scene, character-wise. He’s antsy, frustrated at being trapped. Helplessness fits him about as well as an ill-tailored suit. Rambling and railing at his current state of affairs, he laments that his stint in an asylum (six months!) affected his skills negatively, verbally castigating himself. Face pressed against the bars, Constantine calls himself a “bloody amateur,” and his sudden bout of self-loathing is clear on his face. He is, almost always, at odds with himself. Sometimes, that motivates him to move forward, do and be better. But in this instance, he’s having a pity party of rather maudlin proportions.

Until, that is, Manny shows up and those two have a revelatory fight. Harold Perrineau is wonderful in this scene, one part antagonistic and one part righteous. He’s got the demeanor of an unaffected parent whose child is acting out again. And John is all sass, snark, and eye rolls – because he’s unimpressed with the angels refusing to intervene in the lives of humans. They’re simply watchers, passionately observing and advising without stepping in. Meanwhile, John’s risking his life time and again – assuming he’s on his own during all his hardships. But as soon as he offhandedly spat that he’s made it through his life without any help from Manny, the angel spins into an indignant rage, looming over him, basically driving home that the opposite was true. This interaction shows a bit of John’s horrifically tortured past, an abusive childhood where it appears Manny kept him alive when John might’ve chosen otherwise. Constantine’s reaction is the emotional equivalent of touching a hot stove with your hand: he jumps up, too many emotions on his face, and has to move. That says a lot about his coping mechanisms, by and large.

Soon after, Henry’s mom (Claire) shows up at the jail, springs him, and they set to work at trying to bind the spirit in Henry to a single spot (she drugs her son so that they can work). The spot is the home that Marcello Panneti grew up in, who is supposedly the first possession victim. The house, I should point out, is a character in itself – creepy, foreboding, and generally where abandoned nightmares go to live. Chas, John, and Claire are unsuccessful – all that shows up is a three-legged baby deer. It was a brilliant moment of comic relief and misdirection, but it failure leads her to ask Constantine to perform an exorcism on her son.

Like a sucker punch, the wound of Newcastle wells up within John, revealing his pain, his lack of self-confidence, and his raging, vicious doubt. Claire tells Constantine something that almost rattles him – that she does trust him. There’s a look of gratitude crossed with disbelief that ghosts across his face. John has a complicated history with trust, and there’s nothing that pains him more than the idea that he might let someone down. But her words might just be enough to balm what’s broken in him, to begin to counterbalance the horrors of Newcastle. If he can swallow the fear that’s raging inside him long enough to do what needs doing. He is, even at his worst, a man who tries.

Returning home with John, Claire and Daryl argue about what to do, revealing conflict as the trigger for the spirit. Without hesitation, Constantine enchants a mirror – which is a typical one you’d find at Bed, Bath, and Beyond. For some reason, that amused me greatly. I like the idea of everyday items being used throughout the show – the enchanted card, the mirror, etc. Using the mirror to deflect Henry’s magic leads the kid to flee house, trapping Chas painfully between two cars, with Constantine in hot pursuit.

This, of course, ends in a confrontation in the creepiest damn funhouse in the world. There, John realizes that the spirit is Marcello Manetti, when Henry appears holding an axe. Employing his usual irreverence and sass, Constantine takes Marcello to task for his actions, as the spirit tosses him here and there with a simple nod of his head. It’s here that John’s own past, his own rage, comes in handy – he draws an implied parallel between himself and Marcello, quipping that “this world’s dark – and full of pain, for everyone – only most people don’t leave a trail of dead bodies and shattered lives and retribution.” Perhaps in Marcello, Constantine is seeing what he might’ve been, if he was driven not to help people, but to seek revenge. If John had given into the dark, perhaps revenge (not protecting others and doing good) would’ve shaped who he’d become. Constantine’s rage and disgust at what Marcello did because of what happened to him illustrates the idea that while a person is shaped by his past, it doesn’t mean he is condemned by it. Everything, every moment is a choice. And for John, he chooses to fight.

Marcello Manetti’s spirit is returned to his body, and a quick glimpse at the asylum shows him going totally berserk. There’s a possibility he’ll find peace at some point, but it’s the closing scene I found more poignant. Constantine, lounging in the back of his truck, is in for the long haul. Lighting up a cigarette (someone get me that lighter, please), he knows that he’s in for a fight against the rising dark, but he’s taken up the mantle. The hardest part, for him, may be overcoming his own flaws, his own weaknesses, but there’s a sharp determination about him. As he spits at Manny in the preview for next week, “You’re either this bloody fight with me, or you’re not.”

Constantine’s in. I’m in. Are you?

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The Affair: Change in an Ordinary Instant

October 16, 2014 Leave a comment

“The scene is memory and is therefore nonrealistic. Memory takes a lot of poetic license. It omits some details; others are exaggerated, according to the emotional value of the articles it touches, for memory is seated predominantly in the heart.” Tennessee William, The Glass Menagerie

Anais Nin once said, “We do not see things as they are, we see them as we are.” There’s no arguing that point; who we are shapes our worldview, our perspective, and how and what we see. Our experiences and our sense of self color how we see life, shadowing (for better or worse) our recollections. Further still, each person is the hero of his/her own story (the exact quote has been attributed to two different people, so forgive my lack of credit). Each person is the protagonist, the central figure, and that narrative focus determines our remembrances. In the pilot episode of Showtime’s The Affair, this holds remarkably true. Two character (Noah and Alison) recount an affair they had together, separately. Told as a retrospective from the present, they’re being interviewed by a detective regarding a murder of a man whose identity has yet to be revealed.

Given that memory is a shifting and often unreliable narrator, Noah and Alison’s stories are similar, but not exactly the same. Each sees him/herself as the hero of the story, and that is reflected in the memories each relays. Central to both narratives, though, is a sense of personal loss – both a loss of a sense of self and a familial loss. Noah is in his father-in-law’s shadow, who is a famous author; Noah is a first-time novelist and a school teacher. While his marriage to Helen seems relatively solid, there is a palpable strain between them, an odd disconnect. Twice, they try to engage in sexual intimacy, and twice they’re interrupted by their kids. During the second time, Helen starts laughing, and something about that wounds Noah. They’re staying at his father-in-law’s house in Montauk for the summer, much to his dismay and his kids’ dismay. Sullen does not even begin to properly describe his eldest daughter’s attitude. Helen and Noah’s marriage appears relatively solid, but there’s a sense that personal fulfillment is lacking – at least for him. The beginning of the episode has a brief bit of flirtation with a woman, before leaving for vacation. It may bear out that Noah has lost his sense of self, and he no longer knows who he is outside of his relationship to Helen.

Alison has lost a child and is struggling to regain her footing in the wake of that – not to mention her relationship with her husband, Cole, has suffered in the wake of losing their son. There’s a distinct impression that neither Noah nor Alison are succeeding in their lives as they’d hoped – that they’re falling short of personal (and external) expectations. We meet her in Montauk on her dead son’s birthday, and her grief is consuming and raw. She and her husband has sex, but it is a strangely empty intimate act – it’s just sex. She looks heartbroken during its duration, and afterwards, Cole notices that she didn’t orgasm – and she tells him not to bother, to just hold her hand. The argument could be made that holding someone’s hand is an intimate act of comfort. You don’t hold the hand of someone you don’t like. But the fact that she’s not invested in their lovemaking gave me pause. Before he leaves for work, Cole tells her to try and have a good day, and it’s almost accusatory – like he believes she wants to be unhappy. Their initial sex scene is in stark contrast to the one near the end of the episode, after Alison meets Noah on the beach (we’ll get to that later). Alison and Cole argue; she was late to the dinner his mother put together. She thinks he’s cheating on her. They are at odds with each other in a way that feels almost irreparable. However, the sex they engage in at that point is both more intimate and less (she’s facing away from him – and she makes distinct eye contact with Noah, who had just walked her home.). It read like grief sex – comfort sex. Rough and something that fills a need, not something necessarily born of love.

But let’s delve into the start of the affair between Noah and Alison. The basics of the story are consistent: they meet at the diner in Montauk where she is a waitress. His younger daughter nearly chokes to death on a marble. They meet later on the beach, near the world’s least rowdy bonfire. He walks her home, witnesses the fight she has with her husband, and see her have sex with Cole.

From Noah’s perspective, Alison flirts with him. She is the initiator, the instigator, and one might say temptress. After the choking incident (Noah saves his daughter, and Alison picks up the marble that the child had choked on), he runs into her by the bathrooms accidentally, where she is visibly upset – because as she just witnessed a child almost die on her dead son’s birthday, that’s understandable. Later, when they meet on the beach (he wandered from his father-in-law’s house, while his wife is sleeping), she flirts with him heavily. In his version, she is wearing a dress with a distinct lack of underwear. She asks him to walk her home, gets in her outdoor shower, naked, while flirting heavily – and he’s the one who flees before anything happens. He only comes back because of the shouting between her and Cole, and his perception of their argument is interesting. It positions Cole as a bully and possibly an abuser, who possibly forces Alison to have sex. Alison and Noah make eye contact – and he starts to rush toward her to help, but she shakes her head. Noah sees himself as a hero and not the initiator of the affair. It should also be acknowledged that Noah’s father-in-law is kind of an emasculating jerk, who blatantly states his literary success makes him kind of a whore, but that he doesn’t care – because he has a wealth of material possessions. Noah, in contrast, seems stuck in his father-in-law’s considerably shadow, which is punctuated by overt sense of judgment.

From Alison’s perspective, we get a glimpse into her relationship with Cole, which I mentioned a little bit previously. There is a brokenness about her, a sense of abject loss, not just of her son – but of who she is. Her boss at the diner comments about how she was 10 or 15 years ago in a way that implies she hasn’t lived up to her promise. It should be noted that her boss is also a serious creep, who mentions how hot she was and how he slept with her. Apparently, he is unaware that sexual harassment is a thing. In her version, Alison helps save Noah’s daughter from choking to death, when Helen freezes and is unable to move. A grateful Noah follows her to the bathroom, thanks her profusely, and flirts with her heavily. Later, we follow her to the ocean and to the cemetery to visit her son, and she ends up arriving late to the dinner in honor her deceased son’s birthday. The tension between Cole and Alison during dinner is volatile, even though neither really speaks to the other. He’s visibly angry that she was late to dinner, despite the fact that they apologize.

After dinner, they presumably arrive at the aforementioned bonfire together. She sits well apart from the group, and Cole (as far as we know) makes no attempt to join her. She watches him flirt with a blonde woman, who later drops him off at home, and then Noah arrives. In her recollection, he flirts with her. She is wearing shorts and short, which is far more modest that what Noah remembered. And while he does walk her home, she recalls his insistence at doing so (a repayment from saving his child), and it is Noah who insists on seeing the outdoor shower. In a huge disparity between the two narratives, Noah kisses Alison (who pulls away and stops him, though not immediately). Noah’s narrative excludes a kiss and any kind of real physical contact. Because it’s Alison who stops the moment, she continues to see herself as being the hero – as being good. Each character is desperate to see themselves as fundamentally good people, which is how every person wants himself/herself to be seen. (More on that in a moment.)

In Alison’s view, we get the full-view of her argument with her husband. From her perspective, their fight culminates in sex as a coping mechanism, as a method of combating the grief and loss they both feel. While their dialogue is sharp and tense, each almost fed up and disconnected emotionally from the other, I’m not entirely sure the passion is anything more than escapism. Alison makes eye contact with Noah, who was drawn by the shouting, and it is that moment of connection where we see Alison really engage in sex with her husband (her husband cannot see her face). The sex, here, has two values: it contrast the earlier intimacy between Cole and Alison, and it suggests physical intimacy is being used as a Band-Aid for emotional intimacy. However, the moment of connection via voyeurism between Noah and Alison cannot be overlooked. Perhaps it is his presence that spurs her own. The possibility is certainly present.

Each character sees the beginning of the affair as the fault of the other. It’s more common to excuse (or explain away) an illicit relationship, if you lay the burden of its beginning (and possibly continuation) at the feet of the other person. If it just happened, you’re not at fault. If you didn’t pursue or go after the other person, you can still talk your way out of guilt. If you don’t acknowledge your role, you’re less culpable. At least, that’s the theory.

But the truth is that as much as a person may want to divest themselves of blame, no relationship just happens. You have feelings, and then you act of them. It always, always takes two people to tango – especially the naked tango. The reasons for an affair are often varied. Loss can fuel it in so many ways. But there’s always a reason, and it’s almost always not just about sex. It’s the emotional component of an affair that’s most dangerous. Sex is easy. Feelings are most definitely not.

So, who began the affair? Who seduced whom? As of right now, I don’t think that matters. A person may not remember details perfectly, but feelings always remain. I think Noah and Alison both need something – and someone. Neither went looking for it. (If they did, it would be easy to label one a villain or a bad guy and be done with it.) That’s what makes this story so real: it’s not black and white. No one is perfect. Nobody is good or bad. Noah and Alison are like you and me: human, flawed, and fallible. As Joan Didion said, “Life changes in the instant. The ordinary instant.” For Noah and Alison, that ordinary instant is when they meet.