Episode titles are rarely so literal as “The Devil’s Vinyl,” which is pretty much about a piece of vinyl owned by the devil—well, an acetate, anyway. And I suppose that technically, “the devil” isn’t exactly the correct nomenclature either—this is “The First of the Fallen.” Those who are familiar with the Constantine source material from Hellblazer comics will know that The First is a major antagonist over the course of the whole comic series, so it’s actually pretty cool to see him get name dropped so early in the run of Constantine, especially when there’s no shortage of lesser baddies for the British warlock to run up against. The First doesn’t actually appear in “The Devil’s Vinyl,” but that’s fine—the audience sees all too well the destruction his presence (in the form of his recorded “voice”) can wreak.
As examined in last week’s episode, “The Darkness Beneath,” Constantine has become a sort of road-tripping paranormal procedural—a gritty, would-be X-Files with much more overtly supernatural goings-on and (so far) fairly little focus on a central plot. We’re three episodes in, and each has featured an almost entirely self-contained story, this one falling somewhere between the first and second in terms of quality and engagement. Constantine himself literally refers to their journeys as dousing “spiritual brush fires” where they crop up, and this week our setting is the south side of Chicago.
Constantine is pretty plot-heavy, and quite a lot gets packed into “The Devil’s Vinyl.” The macguffin of the episode is an actual acetate record made by a legendary blues performer who sold his soul to The First of the Fallen. When The First comes to collect during a recording, a horrible record of the events is left on the acetate, which possesses and/or kills anyone who picks it up or listens to it. We learn all this from an aged record producer on his deathbed, which seems to be the sort of character who’s cropping up in Constantine all the time: Pure exposition machines who meet a stranger (our lead characters), and then unload decades of secrets on them in exchange for nothing, with little to no convincing. The show doesn’t seem to have time to dawdle, which makes such free exchange of information a necessity, as impractically silly as it may be.
The rest of the episode unfolds as opposing forces all try to claim the acetate for their own reasons, from a wife and mother trying to save her soul, to a new supporting character instantly recognizable both from Hellblazer comics and the previous film adaptation—the voodoo priest/nightclub owner/occult mercenary Papa Midnite (Michael James Shaw).
Midnite is destined to become one of the show’s more valuable supporting pieces thanks to his connections, resources, alignment or lack thereof—he’s what a D&D player would doubtlessly refer to as a “true neutral.” He doesn’t take stakes in the conflict between heaven and hell, except for when it lends him some personal benefit. He doesn’t kill unnecessarily, but he wouldn’t hesitate if there was something to gain by it. It’s always going to be difficult to say what he’s thinking, which is a perfect quality for a serial character. Like a pro wrestler, his status as friend or foe will vacillate constantly.
Zed, meanwhile, cements her role as Constantine’s clairvoyant sidekick, although it’s clear she still has secrets of her own. Her visions add a brightness to the show’s visual color palette, whether she’s suddenly standing in a field of jasmine or seeing a white tiger in the back of an ambulance. Regardless, it’s almost impossible to imagine she won’t betray Constantine somewhere down the line before making amend—prove me wrong, NBC.
The problem with Constantine may end up being that with so much time spent on plot, we haven’t gotten much chance to know any of these characters, besides John himself. How the hell did Chas survive being impaled in the first episode—can we get a quick backstory on that one, please? Likewise, the problems placed in front of Constantine and Zed often seem daunting, only to be almost instantly solvable, thanks to the Swiss army knife quality of magic, and John’s bag of tricks. Case in point: What does one do to deal with an evil acetate record? Well, as it turns out, one just mumbles five seconds of magic words, and the record goes back to hell, “where it belongs.” You half-expect Constantine to channel Ray in Ghostbusters: “Well, that wasn’t such a chore now, was it?”
We’ll see if John’s well of tricks, talismans and goodies ever runs dry, but until then we’re left simply to speculate on where Constantine and Zed will journey next week. Native American curses in St. Paul? Mutant beavers in Green Bay? Haunted … corn… in small-town Iowa? Sure, whatever.