There’s a popular trend in gaming, one that this author is actually proud to be a part of- Massively Multiplayer Online Roleplaying Games, or MMORPG for short. For the uninitiated, in these sometimes sprawling open world games, a player creates a character, chooses what they look like, what kind of character they are and then, ostensibly, how that character lives their life. In these worlds, for the most part, there is no death- you’re character just respawns and you try again. In these worlds you can be things you could have never been in real life- a super hero, a sword wielding dragon slayer, a mage against the coming winds of evil. And, provided you stay in the world long enough, you can make your character rather successful. Most MMORPG’s require either one of two things to prosper- in game credit you can buy with real world money or in game credit you can acquire through gameplay. It becomes an all engrossing, life-consuming thing if you let it.
This week’s offering from NBC’s “Constantine” approaches the subject of letting fantasy rule reality in only a way that it can; with dark hues and thought provoking story lines. The story hearkens back to an early masterpiece in it’s line-up, “A Fiest of Friends”. For those of you that don’t recall, it’s the episode where series protagonist John Constantine is forced to sacrifice his friends life in a horrible, painful way in order to save the world from a ruthless demon. “A Whole World Out There” shoots at the same target, but with a different gun. Where’s “Feast” dealt with topics of drug addiction head on, “World Out There” takes the aforementioned topic of escapism and sidles up to it, approaching it obliquely. Though it lacks the emotional punch of “Feast”, it succeeds in several other areas.
First and foremost is it isolates the variable- John Constantine. We’ve had episodes where he didn’t have Chas or Zed, but in this episode he has neither. Just the guidance of Manny, who tells him to seek out and help an old friend, Ritchie Simpson. Some of you may recall him from the first episode of the series as the guy very begrudgingly helped out John. In the exposition of the episode, we find out that four students at the university where Ritchie professes have tried to use ancient Egyptian magic to open up another realm, thanks to the notebook a Mr. Jacob Shaw (whose name sounds oddly familiar but return nothing on a basic Google search). Though still reluctant to help out his old demon hunting buddy, Ritchie agrees once the students start dying under mysterious circumstances.
The meat upon which this episode feeds happens in a nether-world, a creation of the mind of the deranged Jacob Shaw, who has set up a house in which he hunts people who dare enter his realm. Going there to try and save the one person they still can, John and Ritchie set up a seen with Jacob Shaw that is an actors dream and does a great job of painting the point they’re trying to make. You see, Shaw has become engrossed in his Role Playing- he is God, literally. He can create anything he wants in this world- so he chooses to play a game, as he calls it. When he could be creating a beautiful world full of life or magic, he instead chooses to indulge his own brutal desires.
One of the things I positively love about “Constantine” is there liberal application of metaphor and simile. Now, the writers are not in any way saying that gamers are violent nerds just waiting to shoot people up. Instead the touch on the topic of letting yourself get too far into a fantasy world and how it can hurt other people. I’m sure most of us, nerds in our own right, have that one really nerdy friend. You know, the one who always smells of armpit stink, looks like he let a saber-tooth tiger cut his hair and has a face so pot-marked it’ll take the State 4 months longer than it should to finish repairs on it. This is the person the episode is addressing; they are essentially harmless. They harbor no real violent thoughts and would just as soon spend their time LARPing as they would doing any other activity. But they have let themselves go just a bit too far. They either are under-employed or living off their parents wages, are out of shape and basically have no direction in this life.
Because why bother when you’re avatar is a chiseled 6’6″ handsome warrior who can take out a horde of goblins with one swing of his axe? When your entire social life are other players who only see the you you want to be, why bother with real world friends who see the you you are? Some would argue that it is about control, about having peace in a world of their choosing. But, as per the usual, John Constantine calls them (read: Ritchie) out on this. It’s not about all that- it’s about running away. It’s about not facing up to the things in life that scare or bother you and instead living in this created world of fantasy. It’s an allegory that can be broadened to things like alcoholism or people who live in the past. Falling into this category are people who spend their off time watching TV or endless amounts of movies or trolling the internet.
With John’s acknowledgement of the beauty of the world Ritchie created, the message is hammered home: yes, these things are amazing and can really help take your mind off things. Technology and imagination should never be pushed aside. But, like all things, should be taken in moderation. Hiding inside these worlds doesn’t stop those bad things from happening, it just makes you less able to handle them.
“A Whole World Out There” is a great example of why I tell people to watch “Constantine”. As you know, the show is struggling with viewership, which is sad given how amazing of a show it can be. Sure sometimes it still seems to struggle a tiny bit to find its footing, but when it does, it is simply sublime. Most of this comes from the setting and the ambiance created by the directors and the design crew, who do a great job of showing us the darkness of John’s world without making it too dark. The writers mix in a good balance of dark humor and emotional dialogue to make for a compelling watch. And lastly the acting is top notch, mostly due to the distinctly British-y swagger of lead actor Matt Ryan. But while this episode starts out like a study of John’s character, it becomes an exploration into the character of Ritchie. Filling this role in an exceptional portrayal is Jeremy Davies. Some might say his southern accent is too much, but I don’t find it particularly distracting. In any case his screen presence is undeniable, playing a neurotic, paranoid ex-medium. He writhes and makes jerky movements, but not too much. He knows when he isn’t the main focus of the camera and knows how to scale his character back appropriately. Luckily, unlike John’s friend in “Feast”, Ritchie makes it through this one, which is good, as I hope he becomes a recurring ally for John is his fight against the coming darkness.
Thomas J. Wright as the episodes Director. I don’t normally give much credit to the directors in this section, but I’ll take exception here. Mr. Wright uses all the old horror cliches in a refreshing way in this episode and then balances it nicely with the serenity of the college campus. The special effects during the revelation of Ritchie’s world may have been a little less than stellar, but I’m willing to bet that Mr. Wright was working with a less than stellar budget. That being taken into consideration, the final moments in the nether world come off as ethereal and reminiscent of “What Dreams May Come”.
Matt Ryan as John Constantine. Mr. Ryan continues to hit all the right notes in his portrayal of the Hellblazer. Channeling Johnny Rotten into a detective like demon hunter is hard, but he does it almost naturally. To me, Matt Ryan’s John Constantine is probably what the original graphic novelists had in mind when they wrote the character.
Jeremy Davies as Ritchie Simpson. Mr. Davies only had a brief part in that first episode, but with a few lines in that one and this one does a great job of establishing his characters mental state and drive. He is all about to yell a battle cry while he is a moment away from crying…a truly scarred individual.