Posts tagged Jared Padalecki

Heartache

Supernatural: Heartache

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After two weeks of strong episodes about Kevin Tran and the quest to shut the gates of Hell forever, stand-alone story “Heartache” is a nice sorbet to cleanse our palate while we wait for another arc-narrative episode. The writing team of Brad Buckner and Eugenie Ross-Leming provide a solid episode where the case is of far less importance than the exposition on the state of the Winchester sibling relationship. This is a writing duo who have improved markedly from season one’s disaster of an episode, “Route 666.”

As with prior seasons, Jensen Ackles again has the opportunity to show off his directing skills, which have developed from his earlier outings. While the Ackles-directed episodes are always sound, “Heartache” presented fewer of the non-traditional techniques that he tested out in “Weekend at Bobby’s” or “The Girl Next Door.” Given that much of the storyline also involved his character, the challenge was even greater to produce a seamless finished product. In this he has succeeded. There is also a fun cameo by his father, Alan Ackles, as Detective Pike, who Dean has a verbal banter/conflict with – their showdown has even more levity once you are aware of the familial ties.

The plot of the episode is a bit convoluted, with a series of murders taking place where victims have their hearts ripped out – almost like the psychic surgery in The X-Files. There is quite a bit of gore, with a character in one scene actually eating a heart, after spreading blood on her face. The boys discover that they are up against ka’kau’, the Mayan god of maize, who can ensure immortality as long as there is the twice-yearly consumption of heart sacrifices. Detective work leads them to the “mother” of Brick Holmes, a former football player who died and donated his organs.

Turns out that Brick (Inyo) made a deal with the Mayan god, and had lived life for 1000 years, as long as he continued with the required heart sacrifice. However, he hadn’t planned on falling into a deep and passionate love with Eleanor (Betsey). As she aged, he realized that in his immortality he would have to watch her die, and rather than do that he drove off of a bridge and killed himself. Those who were saved by Brick are all murderers, but are linked to the power of the one who received the heart donation. As a result, the woman who received Brick’s heart was the focal point of the sacrifice – find and kill her, and all of the other organ donors/killers would be stopped. In a fairly quick battle scene the boys dispatch the donors and are on their way.

Yet, as is often the case with Supernatural, the true significance of the episode is the story told through the brothers’ behaviors.

In season one of the show, we had a Sam that re-joined the hunting life to do two things – help Dean find their father and track down the yellow-eyed demon who killed Jess. He consistently proclaimed that once they had accomplished those goals, that he was done – he was out – he was going back to school. It’s not until Dean makes the deal with the crossroads demon to resurrect Sam that things change. In that third season, as Sam desperately tries to save Dean from Hell, he begins to transform into a hunter – and by season four he’d given up any desire to live a normal life.

As Sam transforms into a true hunter, it’s Dean that begins to crave an end to the life. Whether that end is death or through some kind of 9-5 normalcy is unclear. Dean does try. When Sam ends up in the cage, Dean follows through on his promise to lead a regular life and has momentary domestic bliss with Lisa and her son, Ben. The problem here is that even in this banal existence, Dean cannot let go of his previous life – whether it’s the demon traps painted on the floor under the carpet or the maintenance of an arsenal of weapons in the garage, Dean is wired to be on the lookout for supernatural anomalies.

None of this is a surprise. Dean has been tortured by angels, survived Hell, and ripped apart by hellhounds. His exhaustion made sense. But Purgatory has changed him. He’s come back a warrior and the idea of “pure” killing is bandied about often in relation to how Benny and Dean spent their time in Purgatory. Dean is almost manic in his need to track down demons and kill them. As I predicted in the review of last week’s episode, Dean has nothing but hunting and the brother who sits in the passenger seat. He has no home and nothing to ground him. The idea of not heading down the road on a hunt with Sam as his accompanying nomad is terrifying. He is, in many respects, turning into his father.

What he can’t control is Sam’s desire to leave – to find a life with Amelia. Their emotional differences are a mirror of their time in Heaven. Every moment of happiness that Dean wanted to relive was tied to family. His whole life has been about following orders, seeking vengeance, and investing time and energy into the Winchester clan (including Bobby). Sam, however, has never wanted a hunter’s life. A year without Dean and a leviathan threat has not made him nostalgic for nights on the road and life with a brother who’s addicted to hamburgers and whiskey. No, Sam wants picnics and birthday celebrations.

Sam’s memories of Amelia are painted in light and color and are bathed in the potential for happiness. Dean’s flashbacks to Purgatory are all dim, grey moments with the only color being the blood spilled. How this continues to manifest over the course of the season, with the threat of Sam’s departure hanging over Dean’s head, is the arc that I’ll be watching.

We’re back to first season dynamics: Sam has a chance at a future, at escape, and Dean is driving farther and farther down a road of doom.

 

Random: There are these tiny moments in Supernatural that are so lovely and illuminate how well these two actors, Ackles and Padalecki, know each other, and it translates into their on-screen sibling relationship. A great example from “Heartache”: When Dean takes great pleasure in showing off the app that he bought for his phone, there is an amused, and surprised, glance from Sam. It’s quite fast, but it’s such a real, human moment that you truly believe they are related. It’s a rare moment of joy in a life often filled with death and darkness.

What'€™s Up, Tiger Mommy?

Supernatural: What’s Up, Tiger Mommy

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I was meeting with students last week about their research papers and had asked them what types of narratives they enjoyed, regardless of medium, and one of my students mentioned Supernatural. I immediately stopped talking research and started talking Winchester, as you do, and mentioned that the second episode of the show really highlighted how this season was going back to its roots – back to the characteristics and motifs that created an invested audience in the first place. The student’s emphatic nodding and subsequent response told me two things: 1. People really hated the last two years; and 2. Jeremy Carver truly is taking the show back to its origins. The showrunner debacle is fodder for another piece, but the first two episodes of the season have dedicated themselves to bringing back the Winchester struggles that encapsulated those early years of Supernatural and that created such a devoted fan base.

It’s not that we don’t have an overarching mythology that is consuming the early episodes, but they’ve proven to be a lovely blend of impressive, and oftentimes humorous, scenes, coupled with a Winchester response that simply wasn’t as consistently evoked over the past two years.

For now, the fate of the world doesn’t rest upon the Winchester shoulders, and that makes for some interesting dynamics. Yes, of course, the tablets of God and the secrets they contain are epic, but for now the overriding question is whether to permanently shut the gates of Hell. Okay, in typing that out it sounds like a fantastically significant event, but the first two episodes have given the impression that the choice will either shut the gates permanently, seemingly rendering the Winchester business shut, or that life would continue on as is, with demons wreaking havoc and hunters tracking them down and ganking them. Compared to the apocalyptic scenarios of the past few seasons, this seems almost tame.

Tame? No. But what it has done is forced the struggle to a more internal one – something I argued was necessary last season. The Winchesters are coming full-circle back to their original personalities – Sam wants a life with no hunting, but not if it means the sacrifice of an innocent, and Dean wants this life over, whatever it takes, and if an innocent is hurt in the process, so be it. This creates more of the ethical tensions that we’re accustomed to seeing in the sibling relationship. Is there a right choice? Does Sam’s decision not to hunt scare Dean because there is no longer a home base? There is no Bobby? Without Sam in the passenger seat, does Dean see the long highway in front of him with despair? He jokes of beaches and fancy drinks, but with no one but his brother, does life just seem like a lonely proposition?

All of this Winchester trauma is underlying the behaviors manifested throughout a very enjoyable episode penned by Andrew Dabb and Daniel Loflin. The focus is still Kevin Tran, who is traveling with the Winchesters to find the tablet that Kevin has secreted away. Kevin, however, plays the mother card, wanting to make sure that she’s okay. After all, he hasn’t seen her in a year. This, of course, serves to annoy Dean, who wants to stay on target. But if there’s one person who can understand the mother card. . . .

One of the rewarding elements to having the Tran family as added sidekicks is not only for the humor factor (the touching reunion interrupted by Dean and Sam rudely throwing holy water in Linda’s face), but also for the simple moments that make the audience realize that the Winchesters work on a level of awareness that we almost take for granted at this point. While Kevin waits for a glimpse of his mother, Dean notices the mailman who returns three times and the gardener who is overwatering a plant – Crowley’s demons sent to watch over Linda. More importantly, as soon as they walk in the house they smell the demon inside, possessing Linda’s friend Eunice, and with little fanfare deal with the problem.

Demons they can handle. . .Linda Tran? Well, she’s another story entirely – and a fantastic one. She’s a fierce mother when it comes to her son, but shows little fear when confronted by her son’s new reality. She and Kevin must both get inked with anti-possession tattoos, during which she barely flinches and Kevin hyperventilates and cries. Yet the real test arrives when the recovery of the tablet reveals that not only has it been stolen from where Kevin has hidden it, but that it is now part of a supernatural auction. This is an auction being run by the god of greed, Plutus, whose assistant, Beau, delivers an invitation to Kevin, and then begrudgingly adds a plus three for the Winchesters and Kevin’s mom. Again, Linda doesn’t even balk at any of this, rolling with the madness if it means ensuring the safety of her son.

There is a tense moment when in trying to figure out how they will be able to afford the word of God, Sam hints that they could trade it for the Impala. Even I gasped.

It’s at the auction that the other season strength is seen with the arrival of Crowley. This is a character that’s not only great in his comic relief interactions with the Winchesters (especially during Leviathan season), but should also prove to be a valuable enemy for this season’s arc. Crowley is sarcastic, but menacing. He seems like someone you’d like to grab a beer with and talk sports players who sold their souls for winning seasons, but he would then snap your neck at the end of the evening. While it is amusing to watch him fight with Sam and call him Moose, his natural nemesis is Dean. Crowley’s not a stupid man. He knows that Dean is the one who will make deals and dirty decisions, and will sacrifice people for the greater good. Sam was fun for Crowley when he didn’t have his soul, but now he’s simply a roadblock to Crowley getting what he wants. As Crowley warns Kevin at the end of the episode, “Run. Run far and run fast, ‘cause the Winchesters, well, they have a habit of using people up and watching them die bloody.”

The auction is a fantastic scene. Not only does Linda punch Crowley in the face, but there are also drool-worthy items for sale – including one of Leonardo da Vinci’s notebooks and Thor’s Hammer, which Sam will eventually use to kill the Norse god and brother of Odin, Mr. Vili, who purchases it with a finger of Emil and 5/8th of a virgin. The group combines resources to come up with $2000 in cash, a credit card, and a Costco membership. What’s great about the scene is how confident they are that this will end well. But when the first item up for bid, the amulet of Hesperus, starts at three tons of dwarven gold, the group knows that they’re doomed, much to Crowley’s amusement. Crowley and Samandriel, an angel sworn to protect the tablet, begin a bidding war for the word of God, ranging from three-million dollars, to the Mona Lisa, to the moon, but to no success. Beau sweetens the pot by adding Kevin to the sale – buy the tablet, get the prophet. This, in turn, leads to a very Winchester move – Linda gives them her soul for Kevin’s freedom.

I realize it’s only two episodes in, but another thing that this season has excelled at is guest casting. Kevin, Linda, Benny, Mr. Vili, Beau. . .they all have moments that seamlessly integrate into each episode, and, more importantly, work well on a character level with Sam and Dean. There is very little so far that feels forced. Even Plutus, the god of greed who dresses like a New Jersey mobster, is menacing without being excessively out of place.

As Supernatural is wont to do, it’s Dean that’s confronted with the critical choice at the end. Sam is left to wield Thor’s Hammer to destroy both Beau and Mr. Vili, but Dean is the one to chase down Crowley, who has inhabited Linda (after Beau burned off the anti-possession tattoo). When he catches Linda/Crowley, and holds the demon-killing knife to her throat, it’s abundantly clear that if Kevin hadn’t shown up that Dean would have killed her, without remorse. A fact that Dean confirms to Sam a few scenes later.

We don’t know what’s happened in the year that Dean was missing, but clearly the experiences have affected both Winchesters. Sam’s year has softened him and brought back his conscience – and it’s made hunting seem like a life best left behind. Dean though. . .something happened to Dean in Purgatory and we’re only getting drips of the story. Dean has come back to the world a warrior, and by the end of the episode Kevin gives voice to reason when he tells him to shut up – to stop regaling him with platitudes about the realities of a life fighting demons. Dean is back to the end justifying the means, and as he hints at the end of the episode, if he had killed Linda he would have hated himself but “what’s one more nightmare.” The final minutes of the episode spell out Dean’s psychological struggle. Kevin has taken his mom and fled, leaving a note saying that without the tablet, they don’t need him any longer. Sam is nearly apoplectic, as Crowley will still be pursuing Kevin, and can’t figure out why he would do something that stupid. Dean, unable to look at Sam, replies, “He thinks people that I don’t need any more, that they end up dead.” Sam, looking like he’s been sucker-punched, tries to console his brother, assuring him that’s not true, but it leads to a significant final scene – a flashback of Castiel in Purgatory, desperately reaching out, trying to hold onto Dean’s hand, and screaming his name as Dean lets him go.

I think we still have much to learn about how Purgatory broke Dean.

Other Flashbacks:

Dean and Benny continue their quest to find Castiel, and Dean has morphed into full soldier mode, manifesting pleasure at killing to fulfill his mission of finding his angel friend. At the auction, Samandriel, an angel of god, shows up to protect the tablet and ask Dean about Castiel’s disappearance. This leads to a flashback where Dean very happily finds Castiel, hanging out by a river and looking pensive. Castiel has regained his sanity, but is not quite pleased to have Dean show up. It’s interesting that Benny is the one who jumps to Dean’s defense – who verbally attacks Castiel for abandoning Dean when they landed in Purgatory. In an almost pathetic moment, Dean defends Castiel, saying he must have been fighting off some beast and has been looking for Dean ever since. Yet Castiel confesses that he ran away – that he must be left alone because the Leviathans have put a price on his head and he’s trying to keep Dean safe. Dean is Dean though, and unconvinced by Castiel’s argument tells Cas that he refuses to leave Purgatory without him. Cas agrees. What happened here? How did things end so fractured? And what really happened to Castiel?

Random:

  • Nice to see Dean back to his old routines – eating giant hamburgers, saying “son-of-a-bitch” with situational intonation, and getting annoyed at basically everything everyone who’s not a hunter does to delay his process.
  • Sam with the reverse exorcism. . . .interesting
  • The scene where Linda takes down the pawn shop owner was priceless.
  • Is there anything better than when Crowley arrives and says “Hi boys.”
  • I can’t see Mr. Vili without seeing him as a fortune teller in the fantastic The X-Files episode, “Clyde Bruckman’s Final Repose.” Things don’t end well for this man in supernatural shows.

One of my favorite moments:

Beau: “Oh if you’re worried about the safety of the prophet rest assured that we have a strict no casting, no cursing, no supernaturally flicking the two of you against the wall just for the fun of it policy.”

Sam: “Is that right. How’d you manage that?”

Beau: “Well, I am the right hand of a god after all. Plutus specifically.”

Dean: [snorts] “Is that even a planet anymore?” [totally chuffed with himself]

Beau: [disdainfully] “It’s the god of greed.”

–Dean rolls his eyes, while also looking quite pleased with his joke.

 

 

What’s Up, Tiger Mommy?

Supernatural: We Need to Talk About Kevin

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“Change of tone” and “back to the beginning” appeared to be the mantras of Supernatural’s 8th season premiere, “We Need to Talk About Kevin.”  Former writer and producer Jeremy Carver has returned from a two-year absence to take over the role of showrunner, and the shift is marked.

As you might remember from the final moments of last season, the Winchesters’ lives were transmuted with the well-placed swing of a bone soaked in the blood of the fathers. Given that the brothers have traveled to heaven and hell, it’s not much of a surprise that purgatory has come into play. It was a nice way of separating the brothers, with Dean and Cas left in great peril, and Sam not knowing what had happened to his brother.

Now it’s one year later.

We’ve seen Sam without Dean – actually we’ve seen this twice.  In the fantastically funny and emotional episode “Mystery Spot” (written by Jeremy Carver), we watched as Sam fell apart, becoming a soulless (shades of things to come) hunter whose only focus was killing things and tracking the trickster who destroyed Dean.  Then, when Dean goes to Hell, and after four months without his brother, we are introduced to a Sam that has become fixated (with the help of Ruby) on using his powers to kill demons and save the people they’ve inhabited.

This is not the Sam we meet in the premiere.  Even more important than the girl in the bed that Sam is exiting is the dog that Sam seems bereft to leave.  As seen in “Dark Side of the Moon,” one of Sam’s happiest life moments involved running away from the family business and getting a dog.  While there are hints that during Dean’s time away Sam has been involved in things he’s not yet willing to share (especially his life with the girl in the bed), Sam has moved on from hunting – he’s abandoned all the burner phones; he’s stopped listening to messages; and he didn’t look for Dean.  This in and of itself is a significant development in the sibling relationship.  Can you imagine a time when Dean would not look for Sam?  Yes, I know Dean led a new life when Sam was trapped in the cage, but that’s different.  If Sam had just disappeared, right in front of him, would Dean really give up looking, regardless of what they had promised each other?

Of course, Dean has some secrets of his own.  He’s emerged from Purgatory, bloodied and almost feral.  Although it’s unclear how he made his escape, it seems to have involved smuggling out a vampire, Benny (Ty Olsson), in his blood – a vampire he then brings back to life by “releasing” Benny’s “soul” onto his unburied bones.  And then there’s Cas, who Dean says didn’t make it out of Purgatory, but the story is vague, and there’s an implication that perhaps Dean and his new vampire brother are hiding something about that story.

Plus, did I mention Dean’s friends with a vampire!?!?!

So while the show doesn’t begin with the brothers living in some kind of hate spiral, they do not emotionally exist in the same place.  Dean admits that he’s not the same person he was a year ago, but immediately resumes his hunting life – a life that Sam begrudgingly begins again. And I’m not quite sure Sam is rejoining the life.  He gives off the vibe that while this might be a welcome family reunion, it’s a temporary hunting mission. If it weren’t for all the things that have happened in the interim, it would almost be like the first episode of the series.

These differences manifest almost immediately in the narrative involving Kevin Traan, the very young prophet of the Lord, who has escaped from Crowley and needs Winchester help. Kevin Traan, who had been calling Sam for help for over six months, with his messages not only going unanswered but unheard.  As Dean sits and listens to message after message, we see the sibling rift become exacerbated.

It’s really at this point that the new storytelling element comes into play.  Reminiscent of LOST, the show is now reliant upon flashbacks to tell the story of Dean’s year in Purgatory and Sam’s year without hunting.  I’ve heard mixed reviews about the flashback motif – I think it can work, as long as they aren’t reliant upon, as Stephanie Wooten called it, “the brothers looking all ‘deep’” as a necessary component of the transition.

The Purgatory flashbacks illustrate how Dean’s entire year was spent trying to survive – that he was seen as nothing more than “man-meat” by the creatures surrounding him and every day involved hand-to-hand combat.  It’s like a year long Hunger Games and you get the impression that he got little sleep and little sustenance.  In the flashbacks he’s looking for Castiel, unfortunately with little luck, but he does meet vampire Benny, who explains that there’s a portal out of Purgatory, but it can only be used by humans – he will help Dean, as long as Dean carries Benny’s soul with him during the escape.

Sam’s flashbacks involved his life-changing event of hitting a dog with his car, and then forming a bond with both the canine and the vet, Amelia.  While there weren’t many scenes with Amelia (Liane Balaban), her ability to banter with Sam gives me hope that there might be a female character on Supernatural who isn’t (fingers crossed) a demon and might actually serve as a regular.

This first episode sets up for the viewer the conflict arc that we’re going to follow – at least for a little while – with the Winchesters and Kevin in battle with Crowley and his minions.  Crowley needs Kevin to translate more tablets, but underestimates Kevin’s wily nature.  This is a great new character addition to the show.  He can handle the Sam/Dean dynamic, has moved past his fear/confusion about being a prophet, and is brave enough to fight Crowley and his demons.

Kevin also misleads Crowley about the content of the tablets, offering him a way to open a hell gate, when in reality he’s found a way to purge the Earth of demons. . .forever.

This revelation invigorates Dean, but causes Sam to reflect upon life and free will.  It’s definitely the Sam of old who ponders whether Kevin can make it out of this adventure alive, and if not, then is it really worth it – is sacrificing the life of one for the good of the Earth justification for closing down the gates of Hell?  Dean, reminiscent of his second season personality, finds this a no-brainer, but Sam just isn’t convinced.

Unfortunately, as long time Supernatural viewers are aware, running with the Winchesters and fighting evil doesn’t happen without consequences.  In this instance, Kevin’s friend (high-school girlfriend) Channing.  Possessed by a demon, Crowley is willing to return her, unharmed, to her university life, if Kevin is willing to walk away from the Winchesters and join his team.  Dean is the one who calls Crowley’s bluff, and Crowley allows Channing momentary sentience.  It’s enough to make Kevin question his position and he agrees to go with Crowley, much to Dean’s chagrin.

But as I already said, Kevin is a wily one, and instead of handing himself over he sets a trap, dumping buckets of holy water on Crowley and Channing.  As the boy escape, we get a gorgeous slow-motion scene of Crowley snapping Channing’s neck while the Impala’s passengers watch.

The episode ends with Dean taking a call from a “wrong number” and then sneaking away to call Benny.  The two share a cryptic conversation in which Dean asserts that he regrets nothing they did in Purgatory – that it was necessary for their survival and escape.  He also advises lying low, but assures Benny that if he needs help, Dean will be there.  For someone who can demonstrate such a black and white attitude towards demons, monsters, and evil, Dean has the most complicated relationships with supernatural creatures.  The flashback structure will clearly serve as the means to disseminate details about what evil deeds transpired in Purgatory, and it will not be a shock to discover they have something to do with Castiel’s absence.

Jeremy Carver’s reign has begun by bringing in elements of the show that hearken back to earlier seasons.  Behaviors, philosophies, monsters, even weapons are all familiar to long-time viewers.  It’s a way of reassuring the audience that has been dissatisfied with the past two seasons that things have gone back to an earlier mindset, but that the stakes are still high.  How successfully Carver can continue this trend is the real question.

And can I just say, how flipping fantastic was it to finally have the Impala back on our screens?

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