Confession: After watching this week’s Constantine, I have absolutely no idea what “Rage of the Caliban” means. But thankfully, that doesn’t really matter: Despite the confusion, episode six of NBC’s supernatural procedural is easily its best so far. In fact, it’s better than I expected an episode of Constantine would ever end up being. Where last week’s “Danse Vadou” was entertaining through its complexity and simultaneous plots, “Rage of the Caliban” is all about simplicity, character development and atmosphere—like a good horror movie should be.
The theme this week is a classic stock trope: The Creepy Possessed Kid. It’s been done to death, which means your mileage will vary. In this case, the soul of a disturbed child has been entering and leaving other children for years, compelling them to kill their families. It’s pretty grisly stuff, and it works particularly well thanks to the performance by Max Charles, who plays the primary possessed boy, Henry. Compared to say, the kid on FX’s The Strain, Charles looks like a young Marlon Brando. His performance makes it easy to draw favorable parallels between this episode’s style and a film such as Insidious.
This is a self-contained and atmospheric story, which is something Constantine hasn’t tackled too often, but it’s pulled off rather beautifully. It’s likely the most genuinely frightening episode of the series thus far, full of tense, patient, lingering scenes of horror as the parents are menaced by their suddenly smirking, demon seed child. It’s one of the first times that an episode hasn’t felt like it was hurtling head-over-heels to get where it’s going, and it applies some very effective horror craft. I particularly enjoyed how one of the fake-out jump scares is immediately followed by a real jump scare, just after the audience’s guard has been lowered. It’s a clever bit of subterfuge.
“Rage of the Caliban” is also a showcase episode for Matt Ryan as Constantine. We see both his caddish side (as he flees a young woman’s bedroom to avoid her boyfriend), and his heroic tendencies as he struggles mightily with the guilt and insecurity that stem from his failure at Newcastle to save the young girl, Astra. This case of a possessed child hits especially close to home for him, rendering Constantine significantly more hesitant than he would normally be. Manny the Angel shows up to ruminate on these misgivings, and actually provides some sound advice for once. That’s got to be a first for him.
The episode (in a month-late Halloween setting) ultimately culminates in a chase through a haunted house maze/funhouse, where Constantine confronts the possessed kid, and saves the day with his usual shtick and a tidy twist ending. But the real takeaway is how well the episode works as a self-contained story. Most Constantine episodes have been only lightly tied to the “Rising Darkness” that is supposed to be the series’ central storyline, which can make them feel aimless, or as if they’re not accomplishing much. “Rage of the Caliban” actually accomplishes something with Constantine. His character undergoes the type of development one might expect to see in the course of a feature film.
Also, we have to wonder—is it a coincidence that the best episode of the show to date is one where Zed doesn’t make an appearance, and isn’t even mentioned? I submit that it is not. Although she undoubtedly provides a very pretty face, “Rage of the Caliban” shows just how much better the storytelling in Constantine can be when Zed isn’t around.
Now, if the Rising Darkness could just, you know, rise a little quicker, then we’d really be getting somewhere.
Jim Vorel is News Editor at Paste and a long-time Hellblazer reader. He hopes they’ll eventually adapt the storyline where Constantine convinces the devil to drink some holy water.