Everyone has something – an event, a relationship – that they never quite walk away from. They carry it with them, close to the heart. Sometimes, like a talisman. Sometimes, like a curse. Blame, grief, and responsibility are a fearsome combination – and when the price is a child’s soul, the burden is a heavy one.
In this week’s Constantine (A Feast of Friends), we met Gary Lester (excellently brought to life by Jonjo O’Neill) – a junkie, a dabbler, and an old mate of John’s. Through the course of the episode, we learn (as Zed learns) more of what happened in Newcastle. That’s where the previously referenced Astra lost her soul to hell and John’s with hers. Gary’s reaction to Newcastle is wildly different than John’s. He fell back into some serious drug habits, choosing to run away as far and as best he could. Except, he proved the old saying that you can’t run away from yourself. Constantine, the polar opposite, takes what happened in Newcastle and lets it inform his actions. Sure, he did a brief stint in the asylum, but when push came to shove, he stepped up – and he stopped trying to avoid responsibility. For Gary, this episode was an exercise in just that.
Gary had found himself in the Sudan, and ended up accidentally (through a series of well-meaning actions) releasing a hunger demon, Mnemoth, in the States. The plot, taken straight out of the pages of Hellblazer: Original Sins, was pretty clever and hard to watch at times. People, once possessed, were driven to wild hunger – only to be unable to sate the need and ended up starving to death, gruesomely. (Yes, there are a few scenes that will be haunting my nightmares.) Turns out, the only way to defeat this Big Bad (Buffy shoutout!) is to contain it in a charmingly carved up…human vessel. Of course, said vessel will suffer in agony, before eventually dying.
Those stakes – someone’s life – underscore John’s constant refrain of being a loner, of everyone around him eventually dying, and of exactly how ruthless he can be. There’s nothing soft or uncertain about Constantine. His eyes are always wide open, and there’s no point in this episode where the audience sees him flinch. Even when Manny appears toward the end and asks if he’s sure he wants to do what he’s about to do. There’s no a ghost of hesitation. It’s a calculated choice. But that choice – ultimately, Gary’s life – is not one without burden and a stark sense of honor.
Gary Lester may be a piss poor waste of skin. He’s let John down in the past. There’s no love lost between them, but there’s also the deep bond of a shared history, no matter how sordid. No matter how disappointing. There’s a conversation between Zed and John about whether people change. Zed, looking every inch Bambi-eye’d and hopeful, believes they can and do. But John’s seen too much to even entertain the idea. Gary’s not a good man. Neither is John. But is total goodness necessary for doing good? I think not.
Which is why the scene between John and Gary at the creepiest theater ever was so heartbreakingly beautiful. John knew that the demon needed a human vessel. It was a one-way ticket to torment and agony. He brought Gary with him with only one intention. The turn is not when John knows what he’s going to do – it’s when the audience, and Gary, knows. Playing on Gary’s anguish over being stoned when they were exorcising Astrid, John tells Gary that his life could finally mean something, if he sacrifices himself. And old Gaz, he agrees – desperate, as some people are, to make up for the past. To atone. To finally do something right. And for Constantine, it is a not a decision made devoid of emotion, although he does see it as the only choice. John’s not a total bastard without feeling, and the emotions that Matt Ryan conveys in that scene are masterful. But that doesn’t mean John ever flinches. That doesn’t mean he runs. He makes the tough call. And, right or wrong, there’s something admirable about that.
One thing that touched me the most, though, was the scene in which John sat vigil by Gary’s deathbed. His old mate was writhing in unimaginable pain. Constantine was not merely sitting by and watching his friend die. Although, there was that – a level of personal responsibility. No, he was also bearing witness. It was a nice added layer, too, the Manny the angel came and bore witness, too.
There’s something immensely powerful about connections in this episode. About really seeing things as they are. About stepping up in often difficult ways. Zed, for all her soft idealism, comes to see the necessary cut to the choices John makes. For all Constantine’s darkness and weight, she acts as his counterbalance – and their relationship is one part adversarial and one part student/teacher. Yes, John’s teaching her about her powers – helping her learn. But she’s also teaching him things, parts of humanity that perhaps he’d forgotten along the way. She challenges him. And he is, perhaps, a dose of reality (darkness) for her.
This episode illustrated the heavy burden that often comes with doing good. John’s a character built on strength and regret, guilt and ardent righteousness. There’s no easy path – there’s just the one straight through hell, by whatever means necessary. It raises the question that when faced with a choice, does a person chose the right thing or the good thing? If you pay careful attention, they’re not often the same.