A couple weeks ago I was whine-dering why we met Papa Midnite in Generic City #3 instead of, say, New Orleans. That’s the last time I write a review in chicken blood while saying the appropriate incantation three times. “Danse Vaudou” brings Team Constantine to that very location where Papa Midnite has a big market for Crossing Over rejects. Unfortunately the deceased loved ones he’s communicating with are killing people. Except for the one that isn’t. Anyhow, that’s just one of the hundred logical leaps “Danse Vaudou” crashes through on the highway. Be careful what you wish for.

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A few glimmers of light shine in “Danse Vaudou,” starting with the one at the center. Even if the writing is never as funny as it could be, Matt Ryan’s still a lot of fun. Take the moment he slips out of handcuffs and the look he gives Chas when Zed’s like, “I got this.” Speaking of which, Zed starts to earn her keep in that scene, however ridiculous it is. More importantly Michael James Shaw is back to be both baller and genuinely concerned about the vengeful spirits he has a hand in raising. The episode introduces the once and future Spectre, Jim Corrigan, in the form of Emmett J. Scanlan. He’s fine, but his story—guy touched by the supernatural who is truly and thoroughly disturbed by what it all means—is on the back-burner the whole time when it should be this week’s Gary Lester. New Orleans is more defined than most Constantine cities, although that’s mostly thanks to this late-night voodoo bacchanalia that I suspect the local tourism board won’t be fond of. Still, that empty street and alley set, that creepily quiet background jazz at the hotel, and the above-ground crypt make the effort to transplant us.

The other source of promise in the episode is the way it fits into the larger story. “Danse Vaudou” is pretty smooth with a hook: Jim recognizing Zed, for instance, or John referencing Papa Midnite’s sister. There’s a strong sense of the wider story at work, exemplified in that last-minute surprise when Jim kisses Zed’s hand and she sees him suddenly glow green as he bleeds from the head and chest. We even get to see What’s Up With Chas finally. It’s a stupid set-up—Chas stupidly barging into an encounter with a scissors-wielding demon sporting some gloriously savage effects work—but there’s some nice, low-key comedy when the paramedics find him dead. Suddenly he wakes up and his wounds start to heal. “I think I just hit my head. I’ll be fine.”

But any time we get into The Rising Darkness, which makes a ridiculous proper noun in the tradition of terrible speculative TV names (The Others, The Event, The Initiative), Constantine goes silly. The ending splits the difference. It’s actually somewhat intriguing to hear Papa Midnite’s sister’s skull prophesy that John will be betrayed by someone close to him and to start considering what might lead to that eventuality. It’s not really all that grave for two reasons: John surrounds himself with unscrupulous sorts like Zed and Midnite, and the show is called Constantine. But it’ll still make for a fun twist at some point. As for the rest—“All your efforts are in vain. The Darkness is coming. Heralded by someone close to you”—we know that, lady. That’s why we’re asking for some information from the great beyond.

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As for the actual mechanics of the story, “Danse Vaudou” is just one damn thing after another. First of all, the interview montage is straight out of the procedural handbook. Why are they walking around? Did Zed volunteer to help this woman plant some plants while asking about her demon grandson? Stop and pay attention! There are murderous spirits on the prowl! This is partly a complaint about the credibility of the action, but it’s partly about the look and tone of Constantine. Now it’s not just the settings that are generic but the show itself. Constantine will never be at its best with scenes that could be lifted from Law And Order, or any other show for that matter. Take Zed’s dopey trope-y psychic vision, for instance: the white, the loud noises, the silly scene she witnesses. Least compelling fantasy yet, and just last week there was a scene where nothing happened except pennies raining from Heaven.

Turns out now you can zoetrope Zed into having psychic visions. Every time Constantine introduces a new magical relic, it’s a bigger wonder they ever gets stuck in a tight spot. Then again, sometimes that relic is a lame magic watch that, when you tell it to reveal forces past, simply glows blue for demonic activity, and would glow green for nearby demonic activity. “What about red?” Zed asks. Who says it glows red at all? That’s purely set-up for a tired punchline: They’d be dead already. That’s a good example of how the script works. It has places it wants to be and doesn’t do the work of getting there naturally. When the elevator doors open and Zed wanders into the hitchhiker demon story, John asks if she saw a driver wearing a surgical mask like the alley slasher they’re after. She says no, so he deduces that it must be two separate demons. The thing is, she didn’t see the driver at all. It could well have been the alley slasher. But this story has somewhere it needs to be.

Zoom out a little larger and you wonder what anyone’s plan is at any time. It’s okay to keep that a secret from the audience. It’s fun to discover Constantine has some tricks up his sleeve. But “Danse Vaudou” shows that nobody really knows what they’re doing. They just dive into mortal danger, which is fine if you’re Chas, but much less so if you’re Zed taking Jim Corrigan for a ride into Goosebumps. Then Jim leaves Zed with the demonic hitchhiker all night, trusting her to keep the spirit distracted for the two hours it takes him to track down three locals and convince them to come with him to Papa Midnite’s lair? The lack of motivation is even more blatant in scenes like when Team Constantine shows up at the site of the car crash. By the end of the scene it’s clear John knows exactly what to do to figure out what’s going on: Search the recent obituaries. So why the hell is he wasting his time driving out to the crash site? So his watch could glow blue?

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Finally, the finally. Throughout the episode, the good is bound up with the bad. Just like John’s uneasy alliance with Papa Midnite! It’s revealing to see the extent to which magic is an art and not a science. It’s about willpower and faith. You have to persuade the gods—and there are apparently different species of gods—to help you. As intriguing as it is to see John and Midnite arguing over whose gods were dissatisfied with the first attempt at praying the gray away, the actual solution takes almost no effort. There’s mystery in why the first try didn’t take, but the answer just comes to John. There’s work—a thriller element, maybe—in tracking down the three guilt-wracked survivors before the demons strike again. (There’s another pothole, too, in the fact that one of the reanimated spirits isn’t actually killing people every night, although his wife has a coughing jag, and Constantine is big on jumping to conclusions this week.) And there’s drama in actually convincing them that they need to forgive themselves and let go of their loved ones. “Danse Vaudou” barely touches on any of that, playing the loved ones more as a power cord that needs to be plugged in so the program can work. It does. Once again, magic is both finicky and formulaic, whichever is more convenient for the story beats at the time.

In the words of the first victim of “Danse Vaudou,” that’s a choice.

Stray observations:

  • There’s some decent spookiness, at least, with the creep in the car crash and the peek behind the surgical mask.
  • So…did Grandma banish Phillip the hitchhiker for being gay? Her story—she kicked him out of the house because he was skipping school to smoke week and play video games with his friends (who were also not in school?)—is hilariously thin, but she does drop a “scared straight.” Then Zed appeals to Phillip by saying, “She just wanted you to be something you weren’t,” which doesn’t make sense if you’re saying Phillip is just innately a pot-smoking gamer, but does if you’re talking about a not uncommon reason kids get kicked out. He also had a full backpack, so maybe he was just dealing drugs, but the hitchhiking come-on heightens the gay allegory. So why all the coding? It’s 2014!
  • Oh, and The Deal With Zed is she’s a runaway who was spotted once and law enforcement officer Jim Corrigan scrubbed the missing persons report for her. New Orleans’ finest!

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