Monday, November 17, 2014

[Constantine]: "A Feast of Friends" Review



Two days have passed since I watched last week's installment and I still don't know how to begin or proceed with this review regardless of the fact that I've also prepared in advance an outline of the points that need to be discussed. I'm also VERY DISTRACTED right now with another comic book-related fandom (or, rather, a reality show at AMC about certain comic book proprietors). But I digress. Writing a review for this episode is just as important, considering that I was actually waiting for the show to FINALLY feature a storyline straight from the Hellblazer comics, and it's Jamie Delano's first two issues Hunger and the titular namesake of this episode, A Feast Of Friends. Before viewing this episode, I read the wiki summary first and was absolutely pleased that I was finally getting what I want. They couldn't have chosen a better story to adapt on screen first. It is, after all, the very first issue of the comic book series. Not only that, but it was to me a storyline that delved right into the damaged psyche of John Constantine in relation to the destructive role he often--though unintentionally--inflicts on his relationships. As soon as I finished this story (which ended differently from the show's more positive interpretation), I already have a very unflattering opinion of John from the very start, though he began to intrigue me no less.

I'll be discussing the crucial aspects of the episode in length for this review, but I will feature spoilers from the source material later. I'll indicate which parts so you can decide whether or not you want to read them anyway.

JUNKIES AND DEMONS
 

 
SMALL SPOILERS FROM THE COMICS ENSUE BELOW (nothing that crucial):

Originally, Hunger and A Feast of Friends were set in New York City as oppose to Atlanta. The location was important in the comics because there was a page in the second issue where the hunger demon Mnemoth had an inner monologue pertaining to the many delicacies the city that never sleeps can offer to him. However, the show writers did not make Mnemoth self-aware in the episode (I think the shaman Nommo pointed out that it was a drone) so the change of setting was excusable since the basics of how the hunger demon operates (invading a human body, using it as host as the person it possessed starts to gouge him/herself food then tragically dies) were still intact. Speaking of which, one of my favorite moments in the episode is that drug-induced trance between Constantine and the shaman Nommo which was also from the comics though the set-up was a bit different (again, John actually had to travel to a different country to meet the shaman). I enjoyed the bizarreness of the scene as well as the needed exposition concerning Mnemoth's origin in Sudan, Africa. The adaptation of that flashback vision was superbly executed and definitely delivered what the comic book pages intended to show.

Gary Lester's characterization and role were adapted impressively well too, although most would argue that the actor chosen was too 'handsome' to portray a supposedly destructive junkie who keeps falling off the wagon. In fact, his comic book counterpart is so much more filthy-looking and a lot more neurotic and incomprehensible in manner and speech. Personally, the casting didn't bother me because the writing for the character was acceptable because it all boils down to the ending and its message (which are, I repeat yet again, vastly different from what Jamie Delano intended in the comics).

The exclusion of Papa Midnite was also understandable. In the comics, the second issue introduces Midnite for the first time and his complicated though beneficial relationship with John. In the show, we already had him appear last episode so I guess the writers wanted to give viewers some break before they bring him back again which I thought was a wise decision. I must hint though, however, that Midnite's exclusion in the episode has also something to do with the fact that the message and execution of the final scenes were different which arguably is something you are either okay with as a comic book reader or you can't help but find unsettling, as many of the comments I encountered online from fans of the original story complained about.  It is sort of a massive deal breaker. Now I would consider myself a little bit of both, and I'm going to explain that much later on. I should warn you now that it's going to contain major spoilers.


ALL TWISTED STEEL AND GRIM APPEAL
 

"What was so captivating about John as the titular hero is not because he is a decent human being with noble intentions to save people and fight evil.  He is an extremely flawed person who had committed foul mistakes against his own loved ones and often only survive brutal encounters with the paranormal because of his shrewdness and gift for deception. He's a con artist who lives in the fringes of polite society, occasionally concerned about those who are suffering terrible fates and is willing to help them, but more or less has "callous and cynical" as his default personality. But it's his worst qualities that often make him oddly endearing to his readers because they reflect our own darker inclinations when faced by situations beyond our control. John Constantine is a self-preservationist and it has cost the lives of the people closest to him. It's been a thematic aspect of his character; that anyone who gets close enough to love him will suffer a gruesome fate. And yet, poignantly and shockingly so, over the course of the comics he is revealed, after all, to be a decent human being with noble intentions to save people and fight evil. It just takes readers a while to unearth that beautiful core because the outer layers around it are corroded and have so much grime and blood in them that it's almost impossible to believe that he still is, on all accounts, a character you will root for to win against his demons (including the literal ones) and find happiness...It's his evolution in Hellblazer that made this character so unforgettable and timeless. I only hope that the show writers keep that in mind and devote their time and commitment to deliver that fragile, complex characterization on screen. The stories themselves are only consequential to John Constantine's journey towards becoming the hero that I steadily and eventually fell in love with."

These are the thoughts I've expressed not long ago in my review of the pilot episode concerning the core character of John's quasi-tragic characterization.  I also claimed that I was afraid that he's going to be white washed by the show writers (and, quite frankly, this episode's ending did just that--but I'm getting ahead of myself). The main defining trait for John Constantine is that he's an 'antihero' and this episode has crucially emphasized this role, as it introduces us one of John's old friends, Gary Lester who served as a way for the viewers to understand how most of John's relationships start and end. During a conversation with Zed, Gary enlightened us with stories from the past concerning the way John can often beguile potentials friends (and lovers) with his charm and enigma to join him in his occult practices. Gary even remarks that though a few of these people are genuinely interested in the occult, most of them just want to hang around John because they like him and are enthralled by him. There is definitely 'hero worship' in Gary's part too, especially the way their relationship on screen played out. (I'll get back to this on the last part of this review because my deeper analysis of this relationship falls under the major spoilers territory which include details from the source material from the comics.)

Meanwhile, I was pleased with the fact that Gary Lester also provides a cautionary tale for Zed herself who had been following John around for a couple of episodes now and has yet to realize and see for herself what being near John would entail, especially the consequences that would cost her if she still chooses to stick around. I enjoyed her participation in the episode which was minimal and on hindsight and that for me is sufficient enough because she's not supposed to be the focal point of the story but rather a viewer herself who has to watch the things unfold and react to it. I surely hope that Zed will begin to question her decision to stay with John now, and that we viewers will get to see it in the next episode. John had been adamant from the beginning that he will endanger her life sooner or later. He's not just saying it to be the cool, bad boy. He means it literally and Zed is about to see how much of potential threats will come to past later on.

 
AN IMPOSSIBLE CHOICE
 



The episode does a great job to tie in the Newcastle storyline again which we last heard of from the pilot. Gary Lester was also present during the events concerning the damnation of the girl named Astra which John himself feels responsible for while Gary feels like an accomplice to such a heinous deed. At the end of this episode, he and John  reconciled and had a heartfelt conversation where John absolves him from this guilt, and offers Gary a way to redeem himself by offering his body as a host to contain Mnemoth so the hunger demon will not spread throughout the country. There was no other way, considering the demon is far to powerful for any blessed or marked container, and only a living vessel can imprison it. Gary tearfully yet willingly volunteers himself, seeing it as an opportunity to make up for his past sins since Newcastle.

United one last time, John performs the ritual on Gary in a vey poignant scene where they stood on stage together as if this was all just make-believe. The mood was appropriately Shakespearean and I thought, in a cinematic perspective, that the choice of setting was highly symbolic. The last scene features John sitting beside Gary's bed, holding his hand, as his friend convulses and thrashes around in agony and suffering. The angel Manny makes an appearance and we thankfully did not get any closing voiceover (which can be rather cheesy). Manny just stares down at John, almost pitifully, and then he leans in front of Gary on the bed, and the scene cuts to black. Viewers can only assume that the celestial being was there to either take the spirit away or impart strength for the corporal vessel that inhabits it--or moral support for John. We'll never really know for sure what happens after, but that final scene with the three of them manages to be both unsettling and comforting, depending on how you wish to interpret it.

MAJOR SPOILERS FROM THE COMICS ENSUE BELOW:

Quite a touching display of friendship and sacrifice, you might say, after watching the episode which is probably why you liked it and why a lot reviews online applaud it. This was definitely the strongest episode of Constantine yet, which was why the different interpretation did not bother me though it ultimately warrants a discussion concerning the stark contrast with the original source material and writer Jamie Delano's less uplifting ending but one that is remarkably most shocking and unique, which then defined the rest of his writing for Hellblazer during his run. 

One missing ingredient to this story that the show hasn't used (and I'm not sure if they ever have any plans to) is the presence of John's literal ghosts; souls of dead friends who have been haunting him nonstop. We later find out as the issues progress that these people are part of the crew who assisted him in Newcastle (and something is killing them off). Their role in terrorizing John with guilt is where the A Feast of Friends title comes from, actually.

I was reading a review of this episode from a site when I decided to scroll down to the comments section. A user there explained why this episode bugged him/her and this statement stood out for me because this is definitely the significant change that I was talking about since beginning this review: "The original story wasn't that Gary sacrificed himself for the world, it's that JOHN sacrificed him without consent."

Now here is the clincher from the source material. The next paragraphs you will read below are taken directly from my review and analysis of the second issue itself. I highlighted the statements that are the most important:

The bottom line is that John Constantine doesn't hesitate to make hard decisions and that is what makes him a compelling hero to read. He may have doubts. He may have reservations. But Constantine is always able to look at the big picture and decide for the greater good's sake, knowing inaction will only screw him quick so he better get ahead then. Having said that, the shocker for this issue is the fact that Constantine sacrifices his own friend Gary Lester to ensure the city's safety.
He did so by choosing Gary as the host he will entrap Mnemoth in. He justifies this by saying that Gary is already a lost cause (given his addiction) and that Mnemoth was drawn to him in the first place which meant that binding him back to Gary's body will be easier. Another crucial reason is that he simply does not have time to look for a viable host especially with the restricted time they have to perform the ritual. In all pragmatic sense, Gary is the perfect, if not the only, candidate. Of course, Gary does not volunteer himself wholeheartedly. Constantine had to coax him, using the friendship and trust between them to lure Gary into giving up control of his body. 
We can look at it in two ways. A popular perspective is that Constantine is a sociopathic jerk for not at least attempting to save both his friend and the city. A noble hero would go down fighting for both causes and not make a choice which one should be prioritized over the other. The other perspective which is I think what made the writing for this issue so extraordinarily cut-dry and honest is that Constantine knows he doesn't have the luxury to hit two birds with one stone. It needs to be a choice between one life against a million others. He does not dwell on whether or not he's a bad or good person for letting one his best friends become bait for a demon. He just does it. One notable scene is when four of his friends who passed away (including his ex Emma) started appearing in his bedroom the night before the ritual just so they could haunt him, as if to discourage him from sacrificing Gary Lester. Constantine shuts them out. 
Now I believe that both perspectives are justifiable. Constantine was kind of a dick for doing that to his friend, given that readers were also able to see that he had a history of losing his friends whether through his own actions or because he placed them in harm's way unintentionally. I would like to point out that Constantine did stay with Gary to the bitter end. He spent hours sitting outside Gary's jail cell, listening to him adjust to the pain of the demon inside him. Constantine could have easily called it a day after the ritual and go some place to clear his mind. But no, he chose to drink himself into stupor while listening to Gary's torturous screams for the rest of the night.
*

I've asserted earlier in this review that the show's version did not bother me because it was a redemptive look at the relationship between John and Gary. However, the intention to further portray John as a mercurial man driven by his pragmatism and latent guilt did not come across in the episode because the show writers decided to go the other way and, in a sense, it only seemed to "white-wash" his character. Again, I would not grit my teeth an whine about this anymore because I would like to see how this could play out in the next episode, particularly how it can impact his relationship with Zed which badly needs development and progress at this point. Personally, if they went with the comic book ending, it would have been AWESOME beyond words. It was daring and chilling, and Zed's proclamation, "He loved you and you betrayed him" would have more gravitas if John did trick Gary because Gary was not a willing host in the first place.

He practically violated Gary in the comics by literally allowing a demon to trespass him AND THEN he had his mummified body BRICKED UP in a cellar somewhere in Papa Midnite's establishment. That is really fucked up but a very John Constantine thing to do. That's a crucial device too in his redemption story. We need to portray John as a deeply flawed and often destructive force of nature that is mostly amoral and self-serving in order for us to eventually admire and root for him once he began to show growth and change in the course of the stories. But the show is evolving for the best at this point, and I do hope they continue to apply more stories from the source material. Matt Ryan's performance for this installment was a great pleasure to watch on screen. You're getting there, NBC's Constantine.

On a side note, I decided to upload copies of the first two issues of Hellblazer so any interested party can download them. You're going to need to download a software that reads the .cbr extension file format though. I use ComicRack, personally.


RECOMMENDED: 8/10
 
* Infused with compelling character conflict and dramatic confrontations that serve to emphasized the titular hero's darker inclinations, the show's take on A Feast of Friends, a story about making impossible choices, leaves more room for discussion among fans who either loved or hated the interpretation on screen. Nevertheless, it's also a step towards the right direction.

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