“Waiting For The Man” is best encapsulated by the scene where Zed has a vision of a man writing a message to her—we see “DE” but presume it continues even though there’s no time because the episode is cut down to the bone—and when she comes to, she writes down the message backward, as if it was written backward in the vision, even though we just saw it written forward, all in order to manufacture a little suspense as Zed tries to find a mirror so she can interpret the impossibly complex, mirrored version of “4 DELANO ST.” I would say it’s a wonder she can carry on a conversation, but we’ve all seen her conversation skills.

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The failure of this episode is an awful lot to place at the feet of a glorified continuity error, but that error exemplifies the lack of thought on display. From the moment some girl wanders into an abandoned carnival (what is she doing?) to the moment John Constantine struts off into the pouring rain like he’s super cool and not just super cold (what is he doing?) “Waiting For The Man” is a plot without an off-screen world. It only exists in the moment. Just go with it.

What happens is Jim Corrigan calls John and Zed to help him out on a case. Someone killed a detective investigating someone—The Man—for the disappearance of three girls. The detective’s corpse came back with two unusual styling choices. He’s desiccated, and his torso bears an unusual marking that John identifies as the Devil’s brand. With our gift of cold opens, we know that The Man has also sent his three child brides to find a fourth, the aforementioned carnival aficionado, and killed a security guard himself. So this guy has a lot more to answer for than a ritual sacrifice, but so does the script. First of all, how did the girls even find Vesta, our victim of the week? Second, their pitch is that Vesta wouldn’t have to answer to her mom and she’d never be alone if she married into the family. Good enough for Vesta! All of them look like young teenagers but act like 10-year-olds, and Vesta isn’t even smart enough to be scared when The Man finally, uh, proposes. In fact, her acceptance looks sincere. In her defense, one look at the altar with its pentagram backdrop and candles galore is enough to have her finally shivering in fear. And as for the security guard, he’s in his trunk looking for jumper cables to help get The Man’s car started when The Man appears at his side. He’s found his own. “That oughta do,” says the security guard, before returning to his non-business in the trunk and politely allowing The Man to strangle him. The Rising Dumbness is powerful.

Along the way to the conclusion there’s a romantic plot between Jim and Zed that will have you saying, “Her?” Personally I don’t even buy that John and Zed have romantic feelings for each other, but the script does what it wants. The problem, well, a problem is that Zed isn’t a very complicated performance. She saw Jim die in her vision, ergo Zed is moody and only moody and has no other thoughts or feelings about anything. So our rascally New Orleans detective is all up close and personal trying to flirt, and our sad, runaway psychic couldn’t be less into it, so what should play as a cute, fun guy courting the girl who likes him but knows he’s gonna die instead plays like grist for a weeklong series on Jezebel. Seriously, dude, she’s not interesting. Whoops, I meant interested. Freudian slip.

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John is apparently interested in Zed, too, which is about the biggest mark against his character in the entire series, but the heart wants what it wants. However, his main focus is on a bounty placed on his life in Hell, one that Papa Midnite is trying to collect. The magic, as usual, is pretty fun. Fun is what the episode gets by on: There’s no drag, the mystery is freaky, and the finale gives the episode over to some huge moments. The excitement gets off to a good start when the corpse of the detective suddenly starts talking. It’s Gary Lester using the body to warn John about the bounty. Later Midnite sics a zombie on John, and thy tussle in the funhouse, which is sadly not a euphemism. There’s a great medium two-shot of the zombie slamming John’s head against the wall, John on the left, the zombie on the right, and then Jim’s gun enters the frame at the far right. He fires, and both bodies crumple to the ground, because that’s how beaten up John is. (Naturally when he gets a line of dialogue in the next shot, he’s pretty much right as rain.) Later Midnite goes after John himself, and a short while after you can ask, “Why is John just standing there?” we find out it’s not John that Midnite shotgunned in the face. It’s some reanimated corpse with a spell on it to look like John. That’s when the real John handily defeats Midnite with just his fists. At the time I wondered why he would leave it at that, but I quickly understood. John’s trying to atone. He doesn’t want to kill. But in light of the ending, the floor is re-opened for questions.

That ending is where “Waiting For The Man” is most useful, in that it’s a terrible True Detective ripoff that shows just how seriously the better series takes its subjects. The comparisons go way beyond the superficial, the rural Louisiana setting and the mentally ill man kidnapping girls for his cult. It goes into the themes (violence begetting violence and the worthiness of trying to do right) and even blocking: At one point John sees The Man across the way and tells him to freeze. The Man stops for a second and then darts into the woods. He’s then quickly distracted by Jim’s gun and subdued by Zed’s shovel, but the True Detective moment is unmistakable, unfortunately for Constantine. As Jim handcuffs The Man, John asks if, considering the enormity of his crimes, maybe there’s another way to deliver justice. There is! Jim lets him go, tells him to run, and then we hear a gunshot. Justice!

That act fits into a vulgar streak in Constantine, the one that gives us John coughing up a hairball and numerous scenes reveling in the revulsion of The Man caressing the girls. There’s a version of a show like this, a sick horror-adjacent procedural about a fucked up man trying and maybe even failing to make the world a better place, where our hero abetting (suggesting, even) the shooting of the bad guy in the back instead of taking him to jail would fit right in. But Constantine is not that show. Constantine’s so conventional the producers won’t even let John be bi (although there’s a decent pander when John’s peeing and he tells Manny, “Be an angel. Come over here and hold it for me, will you?”). Constantine is about the mark on John’s soul from letting an innocent go to Hell. He’s ostensibly fighting to make up for that failure. Isn’t revenge-killing a pretty big knock against your soul, regardless of The Man’s crimes? And what does this mean for the series’ overall pretense of trying to do good even though there is such evil?

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The question of the night is why does John even do it, what motivates him to suggest removing the handcuffs and just shooting The Man, but the answer is the same as it is for every other non sequitur in “Waiting For The Man”: The script said to. He tells Manny that he’s faced a serious evil now, The Rising Darkness crossed with the worst of humanity. I would love to hear Rust Cohle’s take on things. “Waiting For The Man” is an exciting, disgusting, momentous episode. Unfortunately it plays more like a weak stab at True Detective than Constantine.

Stray observations:

  • The hints about the smell of the house really whet the appetite for the discovery that the first three brides are spirits, and their decaying corpses are all in a bed together. Good grossness, Constantine!
  • Yes, yes, The Thing About Manny: At the end John has set up things so that the cops find Papa Midnite next to the security guard’s corpse. (No murder weapon, though, because John took it.) As the cops are carting Midnite off, time stops, and Manny sets him free. His terms: The bounty on John Constantine is lifted. Midnite asks, “You work for the Brujeria?” Manny tells him, “No. The Brujeria work for me,” and then he flies off cackling into the night. So that should give us a lot to reconsider over the possibly eternal hiatus.

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