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Constantine‘s “Angels and Ministers of Grace” has some excellent character developments, but squanders them so Manny the angel can do sexual comic relief.

If you’re familiar with Constantine, you’ve probably heard of Hellblazer, the 300 issue Vertigo Comics series that established John Constantine’s legacy. 300 issues is a lot of comics (25 years worth, to be precise), which means the books could occasionally look past the supernatural to explore real-world issues. Like dealing with lung cancer. Or life within the American prison system. Or the non-magical final flight of a Second World War pilot.

By comparison, NBC’s Constantine doesn’t have much time to tinker with real-world side plots – it only has 13 episodes of rising darkness and supernatural going-ons to address. “Angels and Minister of Grace” is probably the closest to an exception, where Constantine and Zed are distracted from their investigation by a heartbreaking revelation.

The good news is the twist is inventive and refreshing, presenting Constantine and Zed’s characters in a new light. The bad news is the opportunities are squandered almost immediately, thanks to a ludicrous monster-of-the-week premise and Manny’s comic relief sex scene. (No, I’m not making that up.) Even worse, the episode doesn’t really have answers for the emotional questions it asks early on, preferring Touched by an Angel-style platitudes about God’s will. At least John Constantine is still true-to-character in that he’s not impressed by said platitudes. Check out our previous reviews if you’re looking for context, or you can watch this week’s episode at the official NBC website, Hulu, or buy it from Amazon Prime.

The episode opens with a segment that I wish Constantine would explore more – looking into its magical safe house. After recovering from her Faust-induced psychic collapse, Zed is taking shelter within its mysterious rooms, using thread to trace her path between dimensions. If only the entire episode was about exploring the physics of this amazing place… but it’s not to be. Instead, Constantine pressures Zed into returning to Earth and taking up the fight against the darkness once again. His tactics are certainly dickish, comparing her suffering to a hangover of which the cure is more drinking. But he makes a fair point about the rising darkness not going away, so Zed returns to the land of the living.

And just in time, too. Manny arrives to tell Constantine that the darkness is now too pervasive for even the scrying map to detect, ending his argument by destroying it entirely. Thankfully, Manny does have a clue for them – a nearby hospital is collecting overdose victims whose divine light is being snuffed from their bodies. The monster behind the killings is quite interesting: He’s a serial killer exposed to a Black Diamond fragment, a crystal God flooded the world to get rid of. The fragment increases his strength while decreasing his mental faculties, driving him into a rage whenever a trigger is encountered. In this case, the trigger is seeing addicts succumb after getting a second chance – perfect fodder for a show like Constantine.

It’s a great idea, but has two problems. First of all, the killer never actually goes after Constantine, despite the obvious connection. Second, the killer is completely ridiculous. More than once, we see some potential victim taking their drug of choice. The lights flicker ominously, a sure sign of supernatural forces – the scene is set. But no ghost or demonic force appears. Instead, the horrific monster who rushes into frame is… some guy in a black trenchcoat. Sure, he has hideous facial scars, but that makes him a B-Movie villain at best. His appearance is so out-of-place with the rest of the episode that I almost burst out laughing every time he showed up. Constantine has done far better monster designs than this, and probably should’ve just kept the killer in the shadows.

Thankfully, most of the episode isn’t about the monster for a change. During the investigation, Zed has a seizure out of the blue and finds herself admitted for medical care. A cat scan reveals the surprise news that Zed has a brain tumor, which may even be the source of her psychic powers. Zed now has to decide whether she’ll have the tumor removed, saving her life but cancelling her powers, or leave the tumor in play and risk an early death.

Constantine actually blames himself for Zed’s plight. Magic has a cost after all, and by forcing Zed to constantly use her psychic powers he fears he’s exacerbated her condition. Losing another friend isn’t something he was prepared for, so he spends most of the episode avoiding what he’s “done” to her. It’s a great character moment, but the best part comes later: Constantine confronts Manny and demands he heal her. Manny insists he cannot, as usual, but Constantine won’t accept no for an answer. So he breaks out the big guns – a powerful binding spell that traps Manny in his host body. This ingenious little twist comes out of nowhere, showing how dark Constantine truly can be and how deeply he’s come to care for Zed.

With Manny bound, Constantine’s intentions are straightforward – force Manny to spend more than two minutes at once on Earth and actually experience a range of human emotions. In practice, however? Manny is now the comic relief, vomiting at murder scenes and awkwardly stumbling into sexual encounters with his host’s girlfriend. (I’m pretty sure that’s borderline rape for both parties in this context, even with a throwaway line that the host enjoyed it too.) Constantine crafted this dark moment with gut-wrenching implications – John knows what it’s like when angels are cut off from divinity – and it’s used solely to humiliate and traumatize Manny for humor. Oh, plus it cuts Manny off from his angel power, which is the only thing that can stop The Black Diamond.

Remember, Constantine‘s Manny is not Hellblazer‘s Gabriel. Manny has expressed genuine emotions to John before, and sympathizes with his cause. It’s only the divine mandate that kept Manny from directly interfering, not a lack of will. In that context, Constantine’s actions are especially cruel – which would be an interesting direction if we weren’t supposed to laugh at Manny’s plight. Speaking personally however, it just left me cringing.

Anyway. Eventually the Black Diamond is defeated thanks to a yawn-worthy Deus Ex Machina sequence, while Zed risks an aneurysm and decides not have the tumor removed. We’re left with Constantine explaining his standoffish behavior to Zed, then Manny wrecks the mood by suggesting Zed’s powers aren’t evil – they’re part of God’s plan. Without, you know, actually confirming the tumor has anything to do with her powers, or mentioning how long she has to live.

“Angels and Ministers of Grace” is trying to have a feel-good ending where Zed’s starry-eyed belief can be justified for once. But sorry, Constantine, this isn’t Touched by an Angel – mostly because if this all was God’s plan, I’m deeply concerned for the rest of the angels.

Bottom Line: “Angels and Ministers of Grace” features the best character developments for Constantine and Zed we’ve seen yet. Sadly, it also squanders them for a ridiculous monster design and Manny’s unexpected comic relief. As great as the better moments of the episode are, it’s not enough to salvage a confusing plot and out-of-place religious tone into something truly satisfying.

Recommendation: Constantine purists will love Matt Ryan and Angélica Celaya’s performances. Otherwise, unless you’re watching to laugh at the B-Movie monster, stop the episode after Constantine punishes Manny. You’ve already seen the best parts by then.

[rating=2.5]

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