“Zed’s on bed rest and Chas is playing family man” is an inauspicious way to start a new Constantine, but I’m starting to appreciate the humor of the weekly cast announcements. There’s a throwback quality to Matt Ryan being the only cast member in every episode. It’s like an old Western. He’s our Maverick. Sometimes he’ll be joined by his brother or another recurring, tenuous ally, but the only one you can count on each week is the guy whose name is on all the ads. There’s also something retro about watching TV in the last prime-time programming slot of the week, which isn’t how you have to watch Constantine but is how I do, and if we’ve learned anything from watching John let his only lead go without at least asking what she was doing at the cemetery when this week’s horror began, it’s that context matters. You’re not looking for Mad Men on Friday at 9. You’re looking for The Twilight Zone. Constantine isn’t an enduring show, not yet anyway, but it may not have to be. Episodes like “A Whole World Out There” are just right for late on a Friday night.
I’ve written before in one dimension or another about how this show could be a modern Val Lewton series with its 40-minute standalone mysteries in various cities around the world. It’s a reach to call “A Whole World Out There” Lewton-esque, but its best sequence is heading in the right direction. A college student named Miranda has just experienced a couple bizarre things in a row. First she and her friends went to a cemetery and performed some silly ritual that turned out to be not so silly and in fact sent their consciousnesses to another dimension. A day or so after they returned, one of them was found catatonic. So that’s what’s been haunting Miranda, and she refuses to believe that anything extraordinary really happened, because she can’t handle the reality that something extraordinary really happened. The night of her friend’s vigil, she goes to the studio to practice her ballet and work out some of her anxiety. They got the setting right. A dance room is up there with a hotel corridor and a submarine at night for this kind of atmospheric horror. It’s dark and foggy and greenish, not just in this scene but in the whole episode. It’s amazing how greenish (sometimes yellow, sometimes blue, but always greenish) the light is everywhere. Anyway, she eventually spins across the room (or to use a technical term, does that thing of where she spins in place and then takes a stride and repeats) along the mirrored back wall. In one glorious, inexorable pan we follow her, the camera oblique to the wall but getting closer as it goes, our field of vision narrowing. And staring out the mirror is a creepy William Mapother (Ethan from Lost, to name a similarly unnerving role) just watching her. Every time she goes past one panel, there’s another Mapother in the next. She’s floating along, and he’s popping up to the rhythm of her spins, until finally at the end we’re all up in her face, and so is he, and it’s terrifying. And all it is is a pan shot of an actor dancing and another standing.
Nothing else quite lives up to that sequence, but “A Whole World Out There” gives it the old college try. The man in the mirror is Jacob Shaw, who once theorized a way (primarily involving New Age gobbledygook) to open doors to other dimensions. He then killed a guy and retreated to another dimension while his body in this realm awaited charges. Clever girl. So now that these four college students have followed in his footsteps, he has four new friends to practice murder on. They get sucked back into his dimension through mirrors, which are another classic, battle-tested trope of low-budget horror. Just about every mirror scene gives me the shivers, but usually they’re jump scares. The one that’s freaky even without startling you is the final one, where the last of the four, a girl named Carmen (Erinn Westbrook who you might know from Glee but probably don’t), is safe and sound at the Constantine fortress, and then right as the scene ends she decides to call her mother. Staring out of the reflective surface of her phone is Jacob Shaw, and he pulls Carmen’s consciousness into his world. Even your phone is out to get you!
It’s a fun little Thriller episode. The students try to figure out what’s happening to them on their own, and meanwhile John and Jeremy Davies’ Richie are trying to help, only they don’t find out about the Jacob Shaw angle until three of the four are already gone. Which at least means we get three sudden murder sequences, the best of which is when John and Richie find one student’s catatonic body sitting in a crypt, his consciousness in the other world, and it starts spouting blood from spontaneously appearing lacerations. In happier news, Richie realizes he can manipulate the other reality too. (More nonsense: He apparently “studied” this. Just go with it.) The golden low-angle shot of him mentally drawing a doorway is a total fist-pump. Again, it’d be overstating it to compare it to “Duck Amuck,” but it’s in that direction.
The pathos isn’t nearly as convincing as the horror, especially in the latest scene about how, deep down, John really cares. There’s a hint of a story about how The Rising Darkness™ is really weighing on Richie, but it doesn’t build to the climax so much as it leaps to it. After Richie has written Jacob Shaw out of existence, the house starts to crumble so he and John rush out and have a good “All’s well that ends well” laugh together before remembering that the whole reason they came here was to save Carmen. Don’t worry; Carmen’s fine, too, but it’s still comical. They send her back to the real world, but Richie has decided to stay. “I’ll do it right. I’ll build a world here. I’ll invent and create. Thrive.” (One of the many ideas not very fleshed out by the episode is that Jacob is an authorial god who has the power to create but instead destroys.) It’s kind of touching, and it could be more so with some cumulative power. But the important thing is it plays like an honest-to-goodness goodbye. It’s not, but the fact that it feels like one is how it manages to sell this awful feeling at the end that Richie is giving up, surrendering to the darkness, and likely will succumb to his own rising darkness in time. “I don’t want to be afraid anymore, John.” Coming from Jeremy Davies, it’s hard not to be sympathetic. “Fine. Indulge yourself, Richie, just like Shaw,” Constantine tells him. “This isn’t about you creating something here. This is about you running away.” And John leaves him with that.
There’s some genuine suspense at the end about whether John’s words got to Richie, whether the Jeremy Davies corpse in Constantine’s house is about to be reanimated or not, although it’s pretty much obliterated by John saying, “Come on, Richie, Richie, Richie,” and such for the entire period until Richie returns. Yes, of course he comes back to our world to give a bookend lecture about nirvana. The lesson is suffering is a byproduct of desire. From my perspective it’s a pretty bleak lecture to give a day after three of your students died, but it does illuminate poor Richie, who at the very least is more compelling than The Leftovers. Besides, “A Whole World Out There” does pretty well with broad strokes. More worlds like this and Constantine just might become a Friday night staple.
- In the other world, Miranda bumps into some guy she doesn’t know. “Open the door,” he says. She asks him why he can’t do it, a question with infinite possible answers, none of which she’d be happy to hear. He doesn’t say anything. He just shows her his arms, bleeding from the part where his hands used to be.