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Constantine: “The Darkness Beneath”

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The Constantine pilot ends with a swerve, and “The Darkness Beneath” is the slick, unfortunate road ahead. What it lacks in humor or mood or imagination it makes up in polish. “Non Est Asylum” looks like something new. “The Darkness Beneath” looks like any other network procedural. With his fresh haircut and clean raincoat, John Constantine 2.0 looks like he belongs more in a catalog than an alley. We know Liv’s off to California, but Chas and Manny sit this one out too. As for spookiness, most of the episode takes place during the day. Not even the cave set gives much atmosphere, and this episode is called “The Darkness Beneath.”

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“The Darkness Beneath” is your standard procedural mystery, all plot and not much else. It’s surprisingly dull for a story about vengeful miner ghosts. The cold open sets up the spirit of the week, but not before establishing the fraught relationship between a domineering coal miner and his suffering wife in what amounts to a decent parody of kitchen-sink drama. Eventually the guy goes upstairs to shower, and that’s where the magic happens. First the water goes brown, then it stops, and then, with the guy looking directly into the showerhead, it roasts him like a dragon. Not bad, Constantine. The freakier the better.

Apparently the spirits of dead miners are haunting the mine, but in a good way. They knock to warn living miners of danger. But someone or something is summoning them for evil, and the rising darkness John warned us about in the pilot is helping. Promising premise, right? Pitch-black mines, head lamps, local folklore about ghosts. This could be a Val Lewton movie. So John heads up to Heddwich, Pennsylvania to poke around, which involves a lot of cute distraction (dumping the rocks, sneaking past the Family Only line) and not so many genuinely challenging situations. Chas refuses to accompany him because Pennsylvania has a warrant for his arrest. What happened to the devil-may-care guy who took a power line through the chest? Manny doesn’t even pop in to explain his absence. Instead this episode is about another sidekick, Zed Martin. She has the ability to see memories and experiences by way of touching people or even inanimate objects. That doesn’t explain her compulsion to sketch or how she was seeing John without touching something of his, but just go with it. We’ve got a lot of plot to get through.

Zed has potential, but “The Darkness Beneath” is one cliché after another, each played as flat as the last. John’s a better smartass than Zed is a badass, and John isn’t a great smartass yet. Anyway, they can’t leave each other alone. The moment John sneaks out through her window has so much promise, but then it turns out he wasn’t ditching her because he’s a lone wolf but because he wanted to doublecheck her visions. No edge allowed. As the mystery unfolds, she comes to his rescue and makes a decent magician’s assistant at the end, and he helps her hone her ability, so they agree to work together going forward. The closing voice-over leaves us wary of their partnership—something about it being difficult to tell who’s praying for you and who’s preying on you over a shot of her watching him sleep—but she’s about the fifth most formidable threat in this episode. It’s going to take more than a line of ADR to convince me she could take him.

In the end John resolves the miner spirit infestation twice in two equally interesting ways. The first is the ghost version of talking someone off a ledge, although it’s really more like convincing a friend to share your pizza. It’s over in a jiff, which is kind of a letdown—par for the course—but the solution is almost surprising enough to compensate, and besides, there are 10 minutes left. Then John realizes the put upon housewife in the opening scene is the one summoning the spirits and turning them toward evil. She sics three of them on John, so he gets out of it by summoning her dead husband to take his revenge, upon which he rises out of the lawn and drags her into the abyss. Now we’re talking! John needs to be backed into more corners if we’re ever going to have any fun with this show.

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The daylight kills a lot of the eeriness and the mine set is wasted even with that desperate Dutch angle, but “The Darkness Beneath” actually delivers some pretty cool supernatural stuff. Zed’s vision of the waterfall in the bar, like the montage of her sketches intercut with John in the beginning, effectively conjures a feeling of dislocation. The creeping rocks are already a nice touch, but that’s nothing compared to when they suddenly transform into a black, human-shaped demon. Before that there’s a scene where John and a local are in a truck, and it starts to fill with that oil or whatever from the shower. The doors are locked, and it’s fairly claustrophobic in execution. Then two skeleton hands pop up out of the water and wrap their cold, bony fingers around the guys’ necks, pulling them into the black. Pretty much any entity rising out of a scene is good for a fun spook. And did I mention the fire shower?

“The Darkness Beneath” talks about faith and brotherhood, but what it’s really about is an emotionally abused woman exacting her revenge by summoning spirits from the local mine. It could be about sexual politics, but the closest John and Zed get to a parallel is a look that lasts a second too long. It could be a good campfire story, but it’s light on mood. It could be the story of one small American town, and local flavor could add some welcome weirdness, but it’s not specific. Constantine has so much potential, but “The Darkness Beneath” is a waste.

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Stray observations:

  • “The Darkness Beneath” is written by Farscape creator Rockne S. O’Bannon. I wish that felt better to say.
  • Part of what makes the shower scene so fun is the sound design. Once the water stops and the shower gears up to roast the guy, the soundtrack becomes a creepy combination of a house settling, wood creaking, and pipes echoing.
  • Zed: “It’s you. You’re you.” John: “That observation always ends in the same way and it’s never in my favor.” Mark it: the moment I realized TV’s John Constantine is quite a bit like Jack Sparrow and the spirits rising out of the water are even more like the Black Pearl crew.
  • “I always get the honeymoon suite.” Where does his money come from? Or do we just chalk it up to his house full of exotic antiquities? (Update: He gambles.)
  • If you want some specifics, or at least as specific as it gets, regarding the overall story, here’s Johnny: “Something’s forcing evil to the surface in waves, changing the rules.”
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