I was surprised to have mostly enjoyed the first episode of The Continental. The second, “Loyalty to the Master,” is more in line with my expectations for the John Wick prequel series. It’s a dull story – or segment of a story – that feels inconsequential, over-explains the mysteries of the films, and has action that’s a pale imitation of what we’ve come to expect from the world of Wick. It’s also got a healthy dose of identity politics, just in case you thought this franchise would remain a haven from the ubiquity of that sort of thing.
Winston (Colin Woodell) and his allies gather their forces to take down Cormac O’Connor (Mel Gibson) and the Continental. The High Table pressures Cormac to find the stolen coin press. Charon (Ayomide Adegun) is torn between loyalty to his past and a chance at a happy future. KD (Mishel Prada) makes some headway in her investigation while her relationship with Mayhew (Jeremy Bobb) strains. Lou (Jessica Allain) butts heads with a new crime boss in Chinatown.
“Loyalty to the Master” is mostly wheel-spinning, the same thing the Disney+ Marvel and Star Wars shows all experience sooner or later. This is the result of taking a concept that would have better fit a movie and stretching it into a miniseries to bolster a streaming service. The main plot is the brewing conflict between Winston and Cormac, but there are a host of side characters the first episode set up, and they all need something to do in the middle chapter. The result is busy work. Lou has to deal with a Chinese gangster who wants to force her and her dojo under his thumb, which has nothing to do with anything, but it allows her to say her enemy doesn’t like her because she’s black. (That he’s extorting every other business in the area is beside the point, I suppose.) KD takes baby steps in her investigation of the Continental, but she doesn’t get anywhere or affect the plot; she’s on the outs with Mayhew and threatens to expose their affair to his family, but her self-righteousness does little but make her seem even worse than she already did. They could have cut plenty of time from this almost feature-length episode without losing anything important.
Also extraneous is an early flashback (because that’s what you need in a prequel: jumps even further back in time). “Loyalty to the Master” shows us how Winston’s brother Frankie (Ben Robson) met his wife Yen (Nhung Kate, who has become my favorite part of The Continental), but it’s an empty scene designed to look more important and profound than it is. Yen was a would-be suicide bomber in Vietnam whose explosive failed to detonate, but she and Frankie locked eyes in the building she was supposed to blow up, and that was that… I guess. This precedes her discovering that Frankie’s body has been cremated without her knowledge, so it’s supposed to demonstrate their bond, but it doesn’t; it’s just more of the show killing time to fill up three long episodes. Another flashback, which shows what Winston did that Frankie took the rap for when they were kids, is better; it gives us some more context into why Winston feels so much responsibility to avenge Frankie, especially against Cormac.
But it’s also one of those double-edged swords that go with the territory in a prequel, which is why I don’t usually like them. We’re getting more information about a character who lived in the shadows of John Wick’s world than we needed, and now every scene of the Wick movies that Winston occupies will have that backstory. And the show is not making Winston more interesting; he’s another angry avenger motivated by revenge rather than a seasoned hand who knows how to navigate the intricacies of the High Table’s society. This is also true of Charon, who now has a backstory where he went to work at the Continental because Cormac promised to bring his father from Africa to America. He’s also, it’s very heavily implied, gay, and he has a relationship with a musician who works at the hotel. We’re just ticking all sorts of boxes this week. It also sets up an odd conflict for Charon because it has him appear to take Cormac’s side in the war after Winston offers him the chance to help unseat the current manager. But we know he will eventually choose Winston, so again, this is just wasted time.
But “Loyalty to the Master” chips away at still more John Wick lore. Remember the Bowery King, the fantastic character played by Laurence Fishburne in the movies who ran a network of homeless spies to keep tabs on New York City’s criminal goings-on? Well, this week, The Continental introduces a proto-version of him in the form of a woman played by Zainab Jah. In John Wick: Chapter 2, the Bowery King tells the story of how Wick spared his life, inspiring him to make sure no one would ever get the drop on him again – the implication being that this is why he set up his homeless organization. But now, it turns out that someone else created his infrastructure, so I guess he just took it or inherited it somewhere along the line. And if that isn’t annoying enough, the Chinese gangster trying to muscle Lou calls himself “the Boogeyman.” All of this is what I was afraid of, and it took a week, but The Continental delivered on that fear.
And on top of that, “Loyalty to the Master” doesn’t look all that good. The first episode was a well-filmed 70s crime story that recreated the decade well and had some kinetic action scenes that recreated some of the fun of the John Wick films, even if they didn’t quite reach those cinematic heights. But this week, a new director has taken the helm in Charlotte Brändström, and I knew that had to be the case before I looked it up because everything looks and feels worse. The music, doled out expertly last time, is now heaped onto the episode in piles, sort of like in Suicide Squad, where seemingly every cut brought with it a new pop song. As for the action, there’s one fight, and it has no weight to it; Lou takes on some of the Chinese gangster’s henchmen, and of course, she makes short work of them. That would be fine, but the fight is choreographed and filmed poorly, with none of Lou’s punches looking like she’s trying to hurt anyone. The impact never registers, and it comes off as kids pantomiming in a playground. Lou owns a dojo and is supposed to be a martial arts expert, but that isn’t conveyed in her fight. Comparatively, last week’s throwdown between Yen and one of Cormac’s killers was brutal and hit hard, every punch, kick, and improvised weapon attack making you feel the impact. Thankfully, Albert Hughes is back for next week’s finale, so at least it should look good.
It isn’t all bad, I suppose. I like that Cormac is being backed into a corner by the High Table, and that’s forcing him to become even more dangerous, to the point where he’s now willing to break their rules. And a new assassin, Jenkins (Ray McKinnon), is introduced, and he’s pretty cool. When he first appears, he’s eliminating a child predator as the creep scopes out a kid’s birthday party in the park. He doesn’t seem to have been contracted for it, his intel nothing but a police bulletin; he’s just performing a community service. He’s also getting older, and his eyesight – and, therefore, his marksmanship – isn’t what it used to be. But Miles (Hubert Point-Du Jour) recruits him to join Winston’s crew, and these are the best scenes in “Loyalty to the Master.” Again, the thing I like most is seeing new assassins that round out the universe pop up, like Hansel and Gretel (who are still around but have nothing to do, so they’re just searching for the missing press). It makes me wish they were interacting with Wick instead of the junior versions of his supporting cast, but they’re fun just the same. And hopefully, they’re introduced late enough that they don’t suffer the fate of all the characters I liked last week, biding their time in someone else’s story till there’s something to do.