Would you look at that, a drama in Constantine’s clothes! An old friend resurfaces, and he and John hunt the ebola demon he brought to the U.S. from Africa. Okay, it’s a hunger demon, but props for opening with a visibly sick international passenger. Another Constantine might leave it at that, but “A Feast For Friends” digs. It gets into both serial elements, whatever happened back in Newcastle when Astra got dragged to Hell and whatever darkness is rising in the near future. Instead of having John drop into another town’s story, the episode tells a story about John. Most importantly it pushes these characters to revealing limits.

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Gary Lester, the old friend and literally scared-straight heroin addict, tries to redeem himself in John’s eyes. Instead of an episode stuffed with plot, “A Feast For Friends” has time for scenes that are just about how John sees Gary, and what their relationship was like, and how many regrets they have about the choices they’ve made. John’s not having any of it until the second half, when he decides the strongest hunger demon he’s ever had to face is a good moment to babysit Gary. It’s actually a sweet moment when John changes his tune about whether people can change. “You know what I always say…Everyone has the capacity to change.”

“I’ve never heard you say that before.”

“Exactly.”

So be sure to take a moment to appreciate their friendship before you consider the actual gravity of this situation. John’s taking his useless bro demon-hunting just because he wants to prove that he doesn’t think his bro’s useless, but his bro’s totally useless! Before you can roll your eyes—okay, a good 20 minutes after you stop rolling your eyes—we find out who John Constantine really is. After all this time of John being so goddamn cuddly, dude goes Nightcrawler on us. The only way to destroy the demon is to trap it inside a human body and let it devour itself. The only immediate options are John and Gary. And that was John’s plan all along. Stone-cold. It’s going to cost Gary five days of agony. “There’s no better way to go out,” he says without irony, so devoted is he to a hero’s sacrifice.

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Finally Constantine’s getting its hands dirty. This plays about as clean as possible—Gary’s the one who unleashed the demon from containment inside a body in the first place, Gary’s the fuck-up who wants to make his life meaningful, Gary genuinely decides to make the sacrifice (although let’s not forget that John stacked the deck in favor of that choice)—and still the stain won’t come out. John could have found a terminal patient to volunteer, a Death’s Row inmate who wants to make some money for his family, something. Can’t Chas resurrect? Instead John uses his mini cult of personality to manipulate a friend into dying for him. Granted, it’s to save the world, but on the other hand, how much lasting impact is this going to have on Constantine at large? The episode digs still deeper. John isn’t just ridding himself of a nuisance. He hates what he did. “You think I wanted this?” he asks Zed. “Any of it? I told you this would happen. People around me die.” John’s journey is beautiful every step of the way, and even when you find out it’s all fake, it only deepens the character. I’ll be surprised if this pain lingers long, but regardless, it’s the most interesting thing about “A Feast Of Friends.” At last, an episode all about John.

For once it’s the magic that’s lacking. The voice of Satan on a record, Welsh miner zombies, those have some mystical excitement. This hunger demon should be pure repulsion—for comparison, this episode is based on the first issue of Hellblazer, a sickening delight—but all it does is eat a bunch of food, and it never really gets to the point of pitting hunger against survival, like if it had nothing to eat but a bunch of glass or a bottle of hydrofluoric acid or something, although one host reaches inside a vat of French fries in the process of being cooked, and another bites someone’s face. The bug swarm is always a controlled spiral, too, so streamlined, so containable. Roaches make my skin crawl, and “A Feast Of Friends” doesn’t come close to evoking that fear. The demon of the week looks like Hannibal next to Zed’s visions, though. She describes the world’s ugliest rain of coins as beautiful, and her heroin montages are sub-CSI. Thank god for the drama.

As strong a duet as “A Feast For Friends” is for Gary and John, it’s just as illuminating about Zed and Manny. I had no idea how hollow these characters were until this episode. At the end, Zed screams at John for using Gary. John justifies himself by how many lives they saved. “I don’t care!” screeches Zed. It’s certainly a decision that needs unpacking, but this scene is like watching waves break on the rocks, and the rocks are somehow more dramatic. Poor Zed, lost to the world’s lamest harangue. And why? Who is this human being without even a trace of “good riddance” for the guy who psychically assaulted her?

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Zed offers something, though, even if Angélica Celaya detracts. Manny tends to be the opposite. Harold Perrineau truly feels otherworldly. You get the sense that he is not involved in these earthly affairs. But Manny the character frequently pops up for no reason other than to fill time. In the pennies from Heaven scene, John even calls him on it. Is there a reason Manny’s here? “I’m not,” he says, and suddenly time is back to normal. Well, thanks for dropping by! (See? Not an overly stuffed episode.) Later he interrupts John mid-break-in. “Are you sure you want to do this?” At the time it’s really inane, both because of course John wants to trap a demon and because it takes almost no effort to convince Manny before Manny lets him proceed. Later you realize what he really means. It’s a question about John’s soul. Maybe Manny can’t get overly involved in the plots, but see how much more he resonates when he connects to the drama in whatever way he can?

Constantine makes the argument for me in the final shot of “A Feast Of Friends.” The first three-quarters of the episode is a drama cobbled together out of old tropes. I mean, the first episode of Wagon Train is about an alcoholic who redeems himself by saving the train from an Indian attack. But the last act of “A Feast Of Friends” is something special, and at the end, Gary writhes in torment on his final night of fighting his demons, if you catch the metaphor. John’s at his bedside, holding his hand, taking this spot on his soul very seriously. It’s a beautifully layered shot, Gary lying across the foreground, John in the middleground sitting up, golden light pouring in from the other side, a faint blue in the background. Suddenly Manny appears opposite John. You know what that means. It’s time. There are no words spoken, not even a wrap-up voice-over. They just sit together honoring Gary’s sacrifice. Everything comes together in harmony: The Gary-John redemption melodrama, the magical element of demons and angels, John contemplating his sins he sits in opposition to unattainable Heaven.

Constantine’s one step forward, two steps back at this point, but once it figures out how to put all the pieces together consistently, it’s going to be good.

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Stray observations:

  • For such a rootless show, Constantine travels a lot less often than I hoped. John has all kinds of artifacts, knows all kinds of magic, has all kinds of acquaintances, but always stays in the town of the week (this week, Atlanta, his home base). Then again, setting is not the show’s strong suit.
  • Okay, at least Manny offers a hint in his first visit. “Not everybody has the stomach to watch you do [what you do].” Har har.
  • “Back then we all thought John was the duck’s nuts.” The duck’s nuts! You learn something new every day.
  • Best bit of magic this week is with John’s shaman friend. They’re going to take The Mist, the most powerful psychedelic in the world, and only this nectar can counteract its effect. “So, if we’re tripping balls,” John asks, “how do we know to take the nectar?” The guy answers with hysterical laughter. He’s already gone. Their trip includes such imagery as the building dissipating to reveal the galaxy behind them and the guy plugging John’s eyeball into his own socket. Again, check out the first issue of Hellblazer.

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