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The Devil Isn’t Just in the Details: Constantine and “The Devil’s Vinyl”

November 10, 2014 Leave a comment

Three episodes in, and here’s what we know about John Constantine: he’s an “exorcist, demonologist, and master of the dark arts” – sorry, dabbler in the dark arts (he does so hate to put on airs). You can tell he’s seen things that would give any sane person nightmares, which explains his stint in a mental institution in the first episode. Granted, he did accidentally damn a girl’s soul to hell…and his own. So, who can really blame him if he’s not all rainbows and sunshine?

His current headquarters belonged to an old friend (the deceased Jasper), and it (like Doctor Who’s TARDIS) is bigger on the inside. Of course, that’s where we find John at the beginning of “The Devil’s Vinyl” – naked, covered in blood, in the middle of a magic circle. As one does.

John’s joined by his friend and longtime mate, Chas (who cannot die…or at least, doesn’t stay dead when kebab’d through the chest by a massive, live electrical wire) – and Zed, who may or may not be an ally. Call me skeptical. She tracked John down using her visions, painting the millhouse of unusual size. But more on Zed later.

A woman (Jasmine) unearths a suitably creepy record, which appears to have a complicated, evil-leaning history. She goes to a man named Bernie to have it authenticated and insisted that under no circumstances does he listen to the record. Of course, you know what happens next: he listens to the evil record. I’m going to go ahead and assume he wasn’t one of John’s brighter friends. Because he dies, horribly, in a fit of frostbite and blood. We do get a taste of song, and while lovely, it’s hardly a song worth dying for. Poor Bernie.

On the case, John asks Zed to help out via her powers/visions, and the only clues she unearths are the smell of jasmine and the feel of cold. John tries to brush her and get rid of her – because really, who has time for groupies? Except, you get the feeling that he’s used to pushing people away. It seems like he’s always been self-isolating and rough on the outside as a defense mechanism, but I imagine since the damnation of that girl’s (Astra) soul, he’s only gotten worse about it. He promised to help Zed learn about her powers, but all of his words and mannerisms feel more like a challenge than an invitation. He’s not letting anyone close if he doesn’t have to. Repeatedly in this episode, he refers to Zed as being “useful,” which is the same descriptor you’d give to a crowbar or a screwdriver. He’s deliberately characterizing her as a tool, a means to an end. Why? For one thing, she hasn’t earned his trust yet, has she? And for another, keeping her at arm’s length is easier on him. In his line of work, in his world, caring is probably a liability. And, understandably, he doesn’t seem like the type to trust easily. Probably wise.

John and Zed sneak into the morgue, after she steals a keycard from some poor, random bloke on the street. Lighting up the creepiest hand (specifically, the pickled left hand of a hanged man – yum!) this side of “The Monkey’s Paw,” John temporarily resurrects his dead friend Bernie, although it doesn’t go as smoothly as he’d hoped. The other bodies start to flail and wail, and it’s basically every nightmare I’ve ever had about a morgue.

Bernie indicates that the “voice” killed him, mumbling about acetate, and capping it off with a final whisper of “moon rise.” After that John blows off his feels (literally walking it off), and admits that the spell cost him a few days of his life. I have a feeling that’s going to come up later, basically like the Machine from The Princess Bride.  John brushes aside the fact that he just shaved days off his expiration date in the same way most people brush off stubbing their toe.

Elsewhere, Jasmine, the woman who retrieved the hell record, decides it’s a smashing idea to bring it home and put in on her record shelf. Because, clearly, nothing can go wrong there! Especially not after her adorable daughter, Julilah, wanders in and asks what she is doing.

John and Zed track down Marcus, the man who owned the record company (the aforementioned Moon Rise, which Zed Googled) that made the evil record, and John uses a charmed playing card to trick their way into see him. (That’s one hell of a fake ID!) Marcus observes that Zed is kind, while John has a shadow guarding his soul. No truer words, my friend.

Marcus explains the origins of the record. Willy Cole was a musician who’d sold his soul to the devil. The voice of the deceiver (Ol’ Lucifer) was recorded when Willy’s number was finally called in a very bloody way. Marcus tried to destroy the record, but as with magical objects, they’re not exactly easy to break. He did the next best thing: hid it where he thought no one could find it – a wall. (I mean, maybe dropping it into a volcano would’ve been wiser?)

Once Marcus finishes his story (and whispers the name Fell, which John recognizes), an angel pops up (am I the only one who finds it difficult to take an angel named Manny seriously?) and whisks him away into the afterlife, while John watches. There’s nothing easy about watching someone die, and even though you get the feeling that John’s seen more than his fair share, the old man’s passing still manages to get through. It’s the vulnerability underneath that gets me about Constantine – he’s not a one-note character. He’s damage, flawed, and not what you’d call good. But there’s still goodness about him. I mean, he is fighting monsters, after all. For someone who seems to be so flip, he’s certainly fighting hard, isn’t he?

During a car ride, John explains why the devil would give two immaculate damns about taking human souls. Being the first of the fallen, each soul taken is a bit of revenge, taking something pure – retribution for being cast out of heaven. And of course, while John is explaining this, we see Julilah sneak out of her room and caress the creepy record, proclaiming that she DOES want to hear it. Because nothing says DANGER more than speaking to the voices.

John tracks down Ian Fell and accuses him of making a soul deal in exchange for success (he’s a musician). Except it turns out that it wasn’t him – the blonde woman, Jasmine, is his wife. She was the one that sold her soul– in exchange for saving her husband’s life. Twenty years ago, Ian had cancer, and she saved him. When that’s revealed, John’s face quickly drops from righteous and pissed off to affected and a bit sheepish.

But there’s a twist, which is how the devil’s vinyl came into play. Anton, the soul broker in question, had reapproached Jasmine – and said that he could get her soul back, if she retrieved the record for him. This, of course, was a wretched lie and impossible thing, which given the fact that Anton deals in tricks and soul – that doesn’t exactly come as a surprise. John dashes off to meet with Anton, but not before giving Jasmine an out-of-character hug, allowing him to slip a nail from the coffin of Saint Padua. Retaining a second nail, it’s basically holy relic GPS; one nail will always seek the other.

John corners Anton, who is something of a cowering, slim of a man. As soon as John says Ian Fell’s name, the “underworld ambulance chaser” has a fit, and a creepy laugh comes rolling out from behind an equally creepy curtain. It appears that John is intimately familiar with the entity belonging to the laugh, and his name is Papa Midnite. And to say that this confrontation goes poorly is an understatement.

Papa Midnite is a voodoo practitioner, who very much wants the evil record. And I’m fairly certain it’s not to DJ a tea party. Unfortunately, Papa gets the best of John, who wakes up tied up with zip ties. He quips, “All this to get me alone. I’m flattered. You’re going to have to respect my boundaries – I don’t do zip ties without a safe word.” As someone who uses humor when she’s nervous, that’s just what John’s doing – his wit is a weapon in his arsenal, and his bravado is probably one of the things that’s helped keep him alive all these years. Plus, you know, that was kind of a hot reference. MOVING ON…

Papa cops to waiting the acetate as a kind of get-out-of-hell free card, an insurance policy of sorts – and reveals his plan to John (perhaps he’s been taking cues from pretty much every Bond villain ever), having sent his men to retrieve the record. But, wait – there’s more. He drugs John with a blood thinner, the cure which he places nearby, and cuts him – which would cause him to bleed to death over four hours. Good times.

Meanwhile, Papa’s goons burst into the Fell residents with all the tact that gun-wielding wackos tend to have. Which is to say…none. Zed warns them not to touch the record with bare skin, and they simply…leave. Of course, they don’t heed her warning, and not only do they end up dead, but they bring it to a club, resulting in a pretty substantial massacre. But more on that later.

Of course, while tied up, John is robbed by a homeless guy. And the aforementioned Manny basically taunts him for being less than himself (lacking in balls), and even bleeding to death and bleary-eyed, John rages like a righteous prick, which he somehow manages to make appealing. The angel, on the other hand, has taken a Watcher stance…which kind of makes him a special kind of asshole. But he’s the least of John’s problems, because the homeless guy is about the murder him. Zed shows up (using the Padua nail) and saves his ass. Because, you know, she’s useful.

John and Zed arrive at the scene of the massacre (the next morning), and Chas meets them there with headphones, mp3 player, a clean shirt, and orange juice. Chas pulls a mom with the OJ, chiding that John’s got to get his blood sugar up. So, at least if John has a death wish, someone else is trying to keep him alive. Of course, this provides a convenient opportunity for Chas to inform John that Zed has no arrest record, which doesn’t seem to comfort him. A person without a discernable past can be anyone.

Freddy, a deaf busboy, is the only survivor of the club massacre. He explains what happens and John asserts that Papa Midnite’s lackeys have gone off-book. And Zed hallucinates a white Bengal tiger, leading Chas to spy a poster with a tiger on it. John’s knickers are a bit twisted when Zed’s powers are what uncover where the acetate is headed: a radio station. She just takes the lead and leaves both guys gawking. It’s kind of hilarious.

When they get to the station, John straps on a pair of headphones and instructs Zed and Chas to find a way to kill the signal, while he wades in armed with the Sex Pistols and earbuds. As far as weapons go, that’ll do.

Chas drives the car through key component of the radio station, disrupting the signal. At that exact moment, John loses his earbuds and it looks as painful as you think the devil’s voice would sound. Just shy of spontaneous ear-bleeding. Saved by Papa Midnite (not out of benevolence; he’s still a Big Bad — he came to recover the record), John has just enough time to drag out the magic and the Latin and send the record back to hell. Midnite stops just short of shouting, “I would’ve gotten away with it if it weren’t for those kids and that mangy dog,” but as far as villains go, he’s fairly compelling.

At the close of the episode, John drags Anton to the Fell house to undo the deal that Jasmine had originally struck. Anton literally has to eat the contract, which was hilarious to watch. During that scene, Chas is pretty menacing with a knife.

We’re left with two distinct images during John’s final voiceover: Zed holding a beautiful cross and Papa Midnite with a murderous look and a John-shaped voodoo doll. Whatever happens with that, you know it won’t end well.

A couple of bits and bobs. When Chas questions Zed’s name (it means zero), he asks what kind of parents name a kid that? She intimates that isn’t her given name or that, perhaps, someone else named her. Consider my interest piqued. Even with all the good she’s done, I don’t quite trust her yet.

An interesting thing about John Constantine is that he’s an odd sort of anti-hero. He’s almost made peace with his own brokenness – or, at least, that’s what he wants you to think. His sense of wit is almost as well-developed as that soulful look that ghosts across his face from time to time. It makes you wonder where he’s been. In the first episode’s ending voiceover, he made a quip about walking through his life alone – who would be crazy enough to walk it with him? While his loner persona is well-developed, it is (at least partially) just that: a persona. There’s a vulnerability underneath the veneer that is more than just appealing (though, it’s that, too) – it’s humanizing. There’s a desperate, dangerous quality to him, which balances out his seemingly flippant personality. It’s a precarious balance that shows in the way his lines are delivered, with a crooked smile and more than just a hint of a dare.

I’m curious to see what’s revealed about the man underneath the trench coat (but let’s be honest: Matt Ryan wears it so well). I suspect it’ll take a while for the audience to get a real naked moment, the emotional kind – not the bloody circle dance. But like the stigmata (as the show puts it) on the map, I want more of the story. I want to see how the danger plays out.

Give ’em hell, love. Or, as it were, give hell something to talk about.