Supernatural: In which I ponder, part 1
[I hope you’ll bear with me as I write a series of entries about “Caged Heat” and “Appointment in Samarra.” Trying to get all of my thoughts into one review would be a bit too much.]
Last week I was thinking about what I wanted to write concerning the epic and oftentimes jaw-dropping episode, “Caged Heat.” There is much to discuss — Crowley, Castiel, the pizza man, souls — all the expected Supernatural goodness. However, it was a twitter conversation with Stephanie that made me realize that before tackling the episodes I needed to lay some groundwork for what I’ve been thinking.
I didn’t discover Supernatural until the second season had already ended. In a post-dissertation coma, I tore through both seasons at an alarming, and potentially unhealthy, rate. It wasn’t a hard-sell for me. I’ve been a fan of anything supernatural for, well, as long as I remember. The show reminded me quite a bit of The X-Files, in terms of the monster-of-the-week appeal, and while watching the first three discs of the first season the show felt like an enjoyable distraction. Watch for forty minutes, be entertained, and not think too much about what was going on outside the box with the scary pictures and the pretty boys.
The early episodes were given a fairly standard template of exploring some kind of monster from urban legends or folklore. There was a hint of overarching mythology, of course, with the introduction of yellow eyes and the death of Jessica, but it was pretty light. However, about halfway through the season, give or take a few episodes, you get “Home,” “Scarecrow,” “Shadow,” “Something Wicked” – episodes that really start to mine the relationship between the brothers and their connection to their completely dysfunctional father. This emotional arc builds and by the end of season one you realize that while the monster-of-the-week episodes are great and fun, the real depth comes from exploring how these people save, scar, destroy, damage, frustrate, and love each other.
A few months ago I commented upon how in this sixth season we’re taking this journey with Dean. He is the norm against which we compare all behavior and, quite often, he serves as the audience mouthpiece, reacting to events with a concern that we share from our sofas. But really, Dean has been our norm for quite a while.
What’s striking is that it wasn’t always this way.
In the first season of Supernatural, Sam was our sympathetic entry into this world. After the pilot’s teaser in which Mary Winchester is killed by yellow eyes, we see Sam living his normal, and easily accessible, life at Stanford. He has high LSAT scores, a beautiful girlfriend, and a bright future. He is, for all intents and purposes, an everyman. By the end of the first episode, it is deceptively easy to say that Sam is the more straightforward of the brothers — he tells the audience exactly what he’s thinking and how he’s feeling. It’s no secret that Sam is suffering; we see the content of his dreams and his hallucinations of Jessica. He is a reluctant hero — he just wants a normal life. But like all great reluctant heroes, Sam is pushed into his quest with Jessica’s murder, as vengeance is a great motivator. So we begin our journey with Sam.
Dean, however, is a mystery. He appears in the middle of the night, speaks in vague terms about his life, and is a cheeky Lothario. The only thing we really know about Dean is that his mission is to find his father. Family first. Throughout the first half of the season it’s impossible to know how Dean is going to react to any situation. He’s an emotional wild card. The more Sam pushes for Dean to share feelings, the larger the wall that Dean hides behind. He’s bristly. There is only a brief glimpse of how life was as he tried to live up to the brutal expectations of his father.
As a result, in season one it’s much easier to embrace Sam’s character. He is a warm personality in a terrifying world — the initiate who is trying to understand his new existence, just as we, the audience, are trying to make sense of their world and mythology. Sam’s responses seem the more human of the two.
That said, season two is really the season of Dean. I like to think that about halfway through season one the writers realized what an asset Ackles is to the show – and that he could handle an almost insuperable backstory that would endear him to viewers. That’s how we end up with “In My Time of Dying,” “Bloodlust,” and, possibly my favorite, “What Is and What Should Never Be.” If season one was our opportunity to meet these characters, develop ties to them, and journey with them on their quest to find their father, then season two was where we witnessed how the bond between brothers was formed and the weight of responsibility and obedience under which Dean was raised. Parts 1 & 2 of “All Hell Breaks Loose” are the episodes that people often discuss – the arc of the yellow-eyed demon coming to a close, Dean’s deal with a crossroads demon to bring Sam back from the dead, a moment of apparent catharsis with their dead father – all things that lend itself to an epic conclusion. Yet it is Dean’s transformation over the year’s entire arc that is truly significant.
Dean becomes humanized in ways that impact the course of future seasons. He was old enough to remember the death of his mother, and then loses his father to a demonic deal ratified to save Dean from dying — the guilt of this bargain becomes the yoke under which Dean suffers all season. Not only does he have to deal with the death of his father, a hunter whose reputation seems to precede the boys at every turn, but Dean must also work through the realization that the world is not black and white, that sometimes humans are more monstrous than the monsters. But the real turning point is Raelle Tucker’s episode, “What Is and What Should Never Be.”
This episode is a beautiful study of all the things that make up Dean’s character. Captured by a djinn, Dean’s greatest wish is granted and he’s presented with an alternate reality in which his mother was never killed. The result is heartbreaking. The emotion displayed by Ackles throughout the episode, usually conveyed through some subtle facial expressions, provided insight into the feelings of a character about whom we usually have to infer. By episode’s end, Dean must choose between dying at the hands of the djinn, living in a dream world of his creation — a dream world where he and his brother have no relationship, but where Jessica and his mom are alive — or the real world — a world of pain and suffering, but one where he has a brother that loves him and a slew of people who he has saved over the years. It says everything about him that he chooses reality, even with all of the turmoil and death. He knows that saving people must come at the expense of his happiness. What Dean is willing to sacrifice becomes clear with “All Hell Breaks Loose,” as he barters his soul for Sam’s life. And in part two of that episode we get our first glimpse that Sam is no longer the person with whom we began this journey in the pilot episode.
The path of season two created an intriguing situation, with an impact on the episodes we’re now watching. While Supernatural has gone through a creative resurgence this season, a development I’ll gladly attribute to showrunner Sera Gamble, it is an uncomfortable season. Sam is no longer the character we know and love. His snarkiness is welcome, and it’s almost amusingly disconcerting to see a highly emotional character stripped of feelings, but one of the show’s trademarks has always been that regardless of what’s happening, the brothers always take care of each other. We can no longer rely on that paradigm.
The show has been teasing us with this for a while. Sam’s reactions were initially dependable. . .unless he was possessed. . .but after Dean went to hell, the writers began cloaking Sam’s thoughts and intentions. Dean began worrying about his ability to trust Sam — this was a significant thread in seasons four and five — and this character transformation solidified Dean as the vehicle for the viewer. Was Sam drinking demon blood? Why was he sneaking out at night? Why was he teaming up with Ruby? All of these questions were addressed, and rarely did Sam have evil intent; he just made bad choices. But the seed was planted.
It was when Stephanie tweeted “I hate Sammy this season (again),” that I realized just how much the writers have destabilized his personality over the years. Seasons four and five were really all about whether Sam could be stopped from loosing anarchy upon the world. And the less insight we had into what he was thinking, the easier it was to distrust him. Season six has gone all-in. Without a soul, Sam is completely unpredictable and, even worse, has no loyalty to his brother.
Now we have the threat that his soul is in tatters and that the Sammy we desperately want back is gone. (I’m writing this having not yet seen “Appointment in Samarra.”)
It’s a brilliant strategy. It’s brought new life to the show, allowed Padalecki to play Sam in a completely new way, and it’s distanced us even further from the character. I’m impressed at how the writers have inverted their initial character development, making the character who should have been our touchstone completely unreliable.
And as I watched “Caged Heat” I realized that this is what season six is all about — breaking down the Supernatural paradigm and destabilizing our universe. . .and it’s glorious.
More on “Caged Heat” in part two. Plus we need to talk about this: