“The Devil’s Vinyl” is the best Constantine episode yet, even if it stumbles and keeps making Doctor Who references.
I wasn’t especially impressed with the first two outings of Constantine, although I still couldn’t help but have high hopes for the series. Hellblazer‘s John Constantine is arguably one of the most popular comic book characters of all time that doesn’t wear spandex and a cape. With 300 issues worth of stories to draw inspiration from, one would imagine these opening episodes could do more to engage the audience beyond aping shows like Supernatural.
With “The Devil’s Vinyl”, Constantine goes a surprisingly long way to restoring my faith in what a Hellblazer adaptation could do. It cuts loose with several unexpected twists and turns, expanding the scope of its supernatural threat while keeping the audience on its toes. There’s also great references to Constantine’s past and the magical world he comes from, including the introduction of a classic Hellblazer villain.
The bad news is Constantine still has flaws muddying the water. John and Zed still don’t have the best chemistry. Characters don’t behave in especially believable ways. And instead of copying Supernatural, Constantine seems to be taking notes from Doctor Who. (Seriously, “The Devil’s Vinyl” has psychic paper and makes a “bigger on the inside” joke about the magical home base. Although I suppose that helps make the series a little more British.)
Thankfully, that’s not enough to stop you from enjoying the episode. Check it out for yourself on the official NBC website or iTunes.
“The Devil’s Vinyl” takes us to Chicago, where Constantine’s map says evil will strike shortly before he learns that an old friend has committed suicide. Noting there’s no such thing as coincidence (another Doctor Who reference!) John and Zed eventually discover the existence of a vinyl record that captured the voice of Lucifer, First of the Fallen. Now everyone who hears the soundtrack either dies or kills themselves in a horrifying fashion, and even worse, the evil inside the record keeps convincing others to listen to its contents.
But the record itself isn’t the only threat Constantine needs to deal with; it’s those who wish to control it. That role goes to Papa Midnite, a voodoo priest and mob boss who has a long history with Constantine himself. And unlike Constantine, who seeks the record to halt its evil, Midnite wants to make the Fallen voice recording a key addition to his magical artifact collection.
What’s great about “The Devil’s Vinyl” is that it’s not a one-trick pony: there are several surprise twists outside of Midnite’s arrival. The episode jumps across a series of seemingly unrelated developments to string together a layered supernatural mystery. Sure, the connections are tenuous at best, and barely have context beyond “the vinyl was here”. But the novelty of each key scene contributes to a greater whole, while keeping the episode from following a checklist for the cursed artifact of the week.
Take Jasmine Fell, the woman who kicks off the episode by retrieving the record from its resting place. Jasmine is the wife of Ian Fell, a highly successful musician now living out a luxurious mansion. She agrees to find the record and trade it for her immortal soul, which was given to a demon 20 years ago. At first it appears that she sold her soul to ensure Ian’s wealth and success, but she was actually at the end of her rope: Ian was dying of terminal lung cancer. Now she wants to retrieve her soul before her family loses her instead.
The trouble, as Constantine notes, is that souls can’t simply be traded back. The entire plot is a trick of Midnite’s to have a third-party uncover the vinyl record and put it in his control. Complicating matters further is that the record doesn’t want to be controlled. The second it gets into Midnite’s goon’s hands, it possesses them and sends them on a killing spree.
To be fair, not all of these twists are very well portrayed. Papa Midnite, who in the comics is a powerful immortal magician, is barely more threatening than the ordinary human villain from the last episode. The only reason he seems like a big deal is because Constantine recognizes him, although he proves somewhat capable in a later scene. Ian Fell, meanwhile, takes the news that his wife sold her soul incredibly well, completely accepting the news at face value. Presumably this is because asking for details might get in the way of the story, but just a little more shock from Ian would go a long way.
Even with that in mind, “The Devil’s Vinyl” feels like a legitimate supernatural mystery. Constantine and Zed actually have to do legwork and form theories to piece together what’s happened, and by the time they do, the vinyl record has a substantial body count. The pacing builds to a surprisingly satisfying climax where Constantine rushes into battle armed with nothing but a music player and headphones to stop the Devil’s voice… and it’s hard not to smile a little at his musical preferences. And once it’s all over and Midnite realizes what his old enemy has done? That single shot is the best of the series so far.
That’s not to say problems from previous episodes don’t stick out like sore thumbs. Zed is still forcing her way into Constantine’s life because reasons. And Constantine is still being snarky about it, even as she becomes useful to have around. The episode is also inconsistent about the capabilities of its vinyl record itself. Its powers jump from “force people to listen to me” to “force people and force other people to listen to me” without any hint it could do anything of the sort. And while Constantine’s entrance in the final battle was impressive, actually defeating the Devil’s Vinyl was surprisingly simple; it would have been harder to click his ruby slippers three times and say “There’s no place like home.”
Regardless, this episode is a very positive step in the right direction, and I’m actually a little excited to see what happens next.
Bottom Line: “The Devil’s Vinyl” is a solid Constantine episode that proves this TV adaptation still has life in it. The monster has a threatening presence, despite just being a recording. But more importantly, this story feels like a genuine supernatural mystery, throwing one surprise twist after another at the unsuspecting audience. Constantine and Zed’s chemistry is still feeling a little flat, but between Papa Midnite and Lucifer’s voice recording, there’s enough to make this episode worthwhile.
Recommendation: It’s not a perfect episode, but there’s a lot to enjoy here. If you’re on the fence about Constantine, this might help change your mind.[rating=3.5]