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Constantine – Rage of Caliban Review

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“Rage of Caliban” injects a little Halloween flavor into the preponderance of holiday-centric Thanksgiving weekend programming. Capitalizing on one of the most reproduced and cheaply entertaining horror tropes in film and television, creepy kids, the episode delights in utterly silly and ridiculous scares making for a sufficiently enjoyable hour. It was originally intended to be the second episode in the series, but got pushed back presumably in order to establish Zed quicker and get into the John/Zed/Chas road tripping dynamic that the show settled into more swiftly. Though the episode works on its own, the producers didn’t gain much by disturbing the projected order of the episodes. Particularly when the writers haven’t done much establishing the supporting characters (Zed and Chas, mainly Zed) or their dynamic with John in any particularly impressionable way. With such thin character development and characterization the few episodes pushed ahead of this one only helped to cement the narrative formula rather than any character dynamics. It definitely feels like with “Rage of Caliban” the show is doing a lot of backtracking, not just in terms of narrative, but also in terms of quality.

Starting with Matt Ryan’s portrayal, which feels much more affected and over the top than the John Constantine we have come to know. It is not like Ryan has entirely honed in on the character, but his performance in this hour is gratingly over the top and quite off putting at times, more so than it has been in previous episodes. There is evidence of the show actively working out the kinks, as any series does early in its run (especially in its second episode), the awkward, expositional dialogue is at its clumsiest – there is some inelegant shoehorning of John’s childhood woes; stylistic flourishes that have since been dropped (voiceover narration as episode closes) give the hour an off-kilter vibe; and some of the characterization just doesn’t make sense.

John has been portrayed as a world weary, mostly successful conman, but he makes some idiotic choices (not lying to the teacher at the playground and telling him he has a kid in the school/ explaining why he is holding a mirror up as he faces Marcello’s spirit just so the demon spirit could break the mirror and leave him unprotected) that are rookie mistakes Constantine would never really commit. The episode offers an explanation for his shaky performance, having just been released from the mental institution he is acclimating to his former ways. It’s been a while since he did anything like this and he is out of practice, but knowing that this is all out of order (and if you don’t know it, it makes no narrative sense) it takes one out of the story in an irritating way. Not to mention the overall weirdness of having a pretty vital conversation between Manny and John, in which the writers explain the nature of their relationship and Manny’s role in this whole endeavor, after we have seen them have various dull and often confounding encounters. Now we understand why their conversations are often so cryptic and vague, and why Manny is of almost no use to John and his team. And now that this scene has finally aired, can we stop discussing the “rise in darkness” so much? We get it, evil things and beings and entities are getting more powerful and prominent, etc. and it is up to John to make it all better.

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Not that all the consequences of airing this episode out of order are negative, thanks to Zed’s “art class” she is absent from the hour entirely and it is quite nice. Though Zed’s absence doesn’t give us much more Chas than the average episode, this episode is a reminder that he and John make for a much more entertaining and agreeable pair. Despite all the weirdness of getting a blatantly out of place episode, in the middle of a slowly improving season, the hour pulls through by giving us just enough supernatural nonsense and fun horror clichés to chew on.

The cold open is effectively freaky and sets a grim tone for the rest of the hour. The lack of distracting CGI effects let the horror speak for itself and allows the terror of the situation really take effect. Just the image of the suspicious trail of blood to the ceiling mounts tension and dread without having to resort to hokey effects. And to go from a pretty harrowing death scene to a little girl, obviously traumatized by the whole thing is very disconcerting. A creepy/cute kid is always fun fodder for a horror story and the show does a good job with its version of adorable demonic possession. The kid does a good job at playing malicious and evil, and the situations, while not at all original, are over the top enough to sustain the episode.

While the scares and scenarios are silly and outlandish, the series seems to be holding back the crazy a little, never really reveling in the ridiculousness of it all. There is a seriousness or realism that the writers seem to want to hold onto that doesn’t allow the show to really go for the zany, cuckoo-crazy the premise sets up for. We are already dealing with ghosts, angels, demonic possessions, various supernatural beings, etc. there is no need to ground this universe to a familiar kind of realism. Grittiness, which is what I think the writers are aiming for and failing, does not equate boring realism. The actions of the demonic spirit are pure horror camp, but everything that surrounds him is unremarkable and disappointingly subdued. His parents hardly react to the very drastic and sudden transformation. He is smashing pumpkins and killing birds, making things move and actively harming people here, I want to see his parents start to freak out over him. Though the mom is concerned for her child’s well being, she is surprisingly nonchalant and dully pragmatic about the whole thing, which doesn’t make for the most compelling dramatic stakes. There is a resistance to embrace the ludicrousness of the series’ premise that is holding Constantine back. Embrace the camp, writers; it will only make the show more interesting and fun to watch.

Though the future of Constantine is unclear, we know that there will be at least thirteen episodes airing in its first (and perhaps only) season. The series was heading in a promising direction before being derailed by this remainder episode; hopefully it can get back on track with the upcoming installments and manage to attract more viewers. It certainly needs bigger ratings if it wants to come back for a second season. What did you think of “Rage of Caliban”?

 

Final Thoughts

  • That scene with the bird and the glass door was pretty cool, right? A nice jolt to end that unsettling scene.
  • Glad to see the writers dropped the cheesy voiceover at the close of the hour.
  • What’s up with that three-legged deer?
Rating
6.5
Pros
  • No Zed!
  • Creepy Kid
  • Silly Scares
Cons
  • Random Episode
  • Annoying Exposition
  • Clunky Dialogue

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