Posts tagged Sera Gamble
If not, you should be. Season 8 is a welcome return to form.
Then: What went wrong.
Supernatural took a lot of hits when Eric Kripke left after season 5. There was uncertainty amongst the ranks for while fans were happy to see the Winchester duo continue their adventures, there was a sense that with Kripke’s vision basically complete, anything afterwards would struggle to maintain the standard of prior Supernatural seasons.
The naming of Sera Gamble as the new showrunner put many minds at ease, mine among them, as she had not only been with the show from the beginning, but was one of their best writers. I would argue that Gamble was the most significant in terms of emotional resonance. Gamble had a clear understanding of the Winchester boys, and the support system they built, and could incorporate powerful revelations and lachrymose catharsis that in other hands would have been overwrought or ineptly composed. Furthermore, in a landscape where there is a dearth of female showrunners, especially in the sci-fi/supernatural/fantasy genre, it served as a progressive appointment.
How I wish I could sit down with Sera Gamble and find out what exactly happened over those two years. I would love to know what discussions were had in the writers’ room and what pushed her to make some of the choices she did over those two seasons, because the missteps were grave. While soulless Sam was not a favorite storyline for many, it did give Jared Padalecki a chance to move his character beyond the emotional loop he had become burdened with, and it provided the writers with yet another opportunity to torment Dean – his arc seemed to become some form of torture porn. Is there something we can do to make Dean even more depressed, hopeless, and isolated? Yes? Then let’s do it. The Leviathan storyline, which had so much potential, was rendered impotent until the final episodes of season 7. While stripping the Winchesters of everything that had given them a minimal sense of security – friends, a girlfriend and her child, a home base, and the beloved Impala – it was the fumbling of the Bobby narrative that felt like the most egregious miscalculation.
As I wrote at the time, while I wasn’t, as a fan, pleased with the decision to kill Bobby, I felt it was a bold move on the writers’ part. Bobby had become more integral to the mental health of the Winchester boys than any other character on the show. Killing him destabilized everything – for the boys, Bobby was the only thing left to lose besides each other. And the Gamble-penned episode, “Death’s Door,” was a gorgeous eulogy to a beloved character. Jim Beaver owned that hour and illuminated just how much Sam and Dean were his sons, even if not by blood. The episode was a tribute to the character, the actor, and the show itself, because it is a rare thing to be able to weave that much emotion into a narrative that also focuses on reapers and leviathans. It was a template for how to send-off a beloved character.
And then they brought him back. For no reason. Only to “kill” him again a few months later. Everything that happened with Bobby as a ghost was superfluous to the narrative arc. The only reason would be to show how when you don’t leave with a reaper, you begin to turn into a vengeful spirit. But we already know that. In one of the series’s best episodes, “In My Time of Dying” (2.01), Tessa the reaper explains to Dean what will happen to him if he doesn’t go with her – how he’ll remain on Earth and become the type of thing that he’s grown-up hunting. The audience doesn’t need Bobby alive to make that point. Making Bobby a ghost doesn’t bring about catharsis, but rather negates the beautiful work that Gamble had done in the winter finale of season 7. Something was going on in that writers’ room and I wish I knew what it was.
In the next piece, I’ll explain exactly what new showrunner and longtime Supernatural writer Jeremy Carver is doing so right, and how he’s infused the show with a vitality it’s been sorely lacking.
I’ve been in a bit of a quandary about the show as of late. In fact, after spending so much time during the first half of the season defending show decisions and offering a “just wait and see” attitude, I’ve come around to the criticisms of many viewers who feel that the show has lost its way. If anything, the past four or five episodes have simply brought that point home rather depressingly.
And I’ve been thinking, perhaps my own high expectations for the show have caused this disconnect. At a fundamental level, Friday nights with the Winchester boys are still an enjoyable experience. It’s not that the show has suddenly become something that panders to the masses. Yet, and I’m obviously speaking for myself here, there was the potential to do something transformative with the season and it simply hasn’t been capitalized on.
The Leviathan threat has not carried the power or menace of a yellow-eyed demon, a Lucifer, Heaven’s power-hungry angels, or even a soulless Sam. The potential was there, as the Leviathans have taken everything from the Winchesters, but these monsters have been on the back burner for so long that they are a muted threat. Unfortunately, by saving the true impact and menace of the Leviathans for the final episodes of the season, what has come before has felt adrift. There has been a loss of momentum, and in the same way that the stand-alone episodes during season five felt dissociated from the arc of the apocalypse threat, the independent episodes of season seven, while entertaining, add to the confusing narrative digression.
As I wrote in December, killing Bobby was a brave move. After the loss of Castiel and the Impala, it was the final step in breaking Dean (and of course, to a lesser degree, Sam). It seemed as if the show was really taking a relatively nihilistic approach to the Winchesters’ life and future. More than that, it demonstrated a show willing to anger their fans for the innovative evolution of the show’s traditional narrative.
But it turns out that’s not the case. Both Bobby and Castiel are back – although not in their original fighting form. The fan in me is glad, especially with last week’s return of Bobby. It felt right and natural to have him there helping the boys, even if it was in ghost form.
In some ways, I feel that Dean is a mirror for potential audience reaction. Dean has mixed feelings about Castiel’s return. While Castiel is alive, he has yet to be a substantive presence (though I imagine he is back to help with the Leviathan threat). Castiel gets to return for another deus ex machina save, allowing his mind to take the place of Sam’s broken brain, allowing Winchester healing to happen.
Then there is Bobby. Dean’s declaration that Bobby’s return is just not natural was most likely intended to provide narrative and emotional tension. Yet it also highlights a narrative problem. “Death’s Door” was a beautiful episode. It was a glorious goodbye to a character much beloved by the audience, and clearly the writers. It was a Sera Gamble masterpiece of sentiment that demonstrated how Supernatural transcends the limiting appellation of genre show and could reach towards the moments of brilliance found in our most acclaimed television. But it turns out it’s not a goodbye. It is an episode that will lose some of its power on a rewatch.
Bobby’s return is wonderful, but simply serves as a reminder that Supernatural is escapist fun, not Mad Men or Fringe, and that maybe trying to analyze it as such does the show a disservice.
Having said all of that, I’m looking forward to seeing how the Leviathan threat plays out, since it’s almost impossible to predict what’s going to happen, as we have almost no information about them. But. . .there’s the promise of Felicia Day.
My other thought is that the return of Bobby potentially gives us an arc for season eight – a season that, while not yet greenlighted, is said to be an assured thing. Trying to prevent Bobby from becoming the decaying, mentally traumatized ghosts seen in “Of Grave Importance” provides the series with a more immediate purpose. Rather than focus on a threat to the world, the Winchesters can focus on saving someone closer to home. The seasons with a more localized threat tend to be tighter and more emotionally resonant.
“The Slice” Girls is a perfectly serviceable episode of Supernatural. It was an enjoyable one, but in the greater arc of the season there is little that it moves forward. It’s clear that the writers, Eugenie Ross-Leming and Brad Buckner, are providing an inversion of the Amy Pond storyline from earlier in the season — giving Dean a moment of hesitation in killing a monster while Sam ends up pulling the trigger — but was it a necessary inversion?
As always, Ackles and Padalecki act the hell out of the material they are given, elevating a rather mediocre script, and director Jerry Wanek makes some interesting shooting decisions, especially during the Lydia/Dean seduction scene in the Cobalt Room. That said, there were some jarring moments that didn’t feel true to the characters, and there’s yet another hint that Bobby might actually be the ghost haunting the boys. I’m still hoping that will not be the case, as it seems a decisive misstep, not only because of the type of man Bobby Singer was, but also because the audience knows just what happens to souls left behind — thanks to the Eric Kripke penned season two opener, “In My Time of Dying.”
Sam’s moment where he mocks Dean for keeping Bobby’s flask felt out of character. What in the world would make Sam think that Dean would ever carry around a picture of Bobby as a memento? Of course he would keep the flask; that pays homage to both Dean’s character and his relationship with Bobby. The argument for this random moment could be that Sam is worried about Dean’s drinking, but it is disingenuous that Sam would criticize Dean for his choice of keepsake. Sam has historically expressed his concern about Dean’s drinking by doing just that, simply stating his concern about Dean’s drinking. Sam is the brother who can talk about emotional things — Dean’s the one who blows it off and changes the subject.
At its core, the biggest failing of the episode is that the situation with Dean and his daughter is not a true mirror of the Amy Pond episode. Will Dean leave this episode with a stronger sense of the complexity of killing monsters? No. This is not a monster, this is his daughter. Yes, it’s only been his daughter for three days, but killing Amy Pond and killing Emma is nowhere near the same thing. The relationship between the characters is different. Emma was part of Dean — they shared a bloodline. Amy Pond was a long-lost acquaintance, reliant on Sam’s good nature and trust. Or at least, if I were Dean, this is how I would argue that killing Emma was not analogous. Besides, Dean has learned this lesson before — season two, episode three, “Bloodlust,” written by Sera Gamble. Dean knows things aren’t black and white; he knows it’s situational. When Dean is upset, when his world is completely askew, he behaves rashly. When Dean behaves rashly, monsters end up dead. It’s still unclear why this lesson is the one that he has to learn over and over and over.
The need to put Dean in a situation that teaches him about his behavior and choices prevented the episode from capitalizing on what it could have been. There was much more material to be mined from the fact that Emma was the only Amazon to have hunter blood running through her veins. There were hints, initially, that she was rejecting the Amazonian indoctrination. It turns out that this was simply a way of tricking the viewer into believing she wouldn’t kill Dean, but it could have been much more profitable to make her a living and unknown quantity in the Supernatural universe. Instead, we get more Dean-torture-porn. While Ackles is a master at manifesting the incredible pain and suffering of his character, at this point it feels like the writers’ room is simply coming up with ways to emotionally torture him. It’s like living through the “Mystery Spot” episode, except that Sam doesn’t wake up every morning with all of the events of the previous day erased.
Here’s hoping that clowns usher in a stronger Supernatural experience.
Despair. I think it’s the emotion hardest for an audience to embrace — especially if that emotion extends over many episodes or, to the audience’s chagrin, an entire season. It’s this word, this feeling, this thought, that is driving season seven of Supernatural. It is what I believe to be the concept most frustrating for the discontented in the audience.
I’ve been thinking about this after reading Mo Ryan’s article on aoltv.com about what Supernatural needs to do to rescue its stumbling season. Now I find Ryan to be a refreshing and incisive critic, who can be a passionate advocate for television shows, yet I read this article, paused, and wondered if I was watching a different show than everyone else. Then I thought I must be giving Supernatural some kind of pass simply because I feel like, after seven years, that the Winchesters are part of my weekly life — in a weird way they are like TV family (exactly how I felt about LOST). You spend so much time watching and re-watching that their story becomes interwoven into the fibers of your very being. Then I wondered if it was even possible to be critical of something that you love — in the same way that I refuse to listen to any negative comments about William Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury, was I simply incapable of applying rational thought to a show that I love?
No, that wasn’t the answer. There are instances in this website where I have critiqued the show or negatively reviewed an episode. It’s not that I can’t find flaws with Supernatural — don’t get me started on their problems with female characters — but clearly something is happening. If you look at responses to reviews, the audience seems overwhelmingly unhappy. Some of you were generous enough to give me your thoughts, which demonstrated that there are satisfied viewers who probably aren’t speaking up in blog comments. Yet there were also a few responses that pointed to issues that I’ve seen elsewhere. These concerns tend to revolve around Castiel and the season’s seeming lack of purpose, as, for many, the Leviathan arc seems too amorphous to create an invested audience.
This is why I circled back to the concept of despair. Ryan asserted that by taking everything away from the boys, they have nothing to fight for, no reason to go on (I’m badly paraphrasing). I would argue that that’s exactly the point. We’ve seen them with purpose, with a specific goal that they’re fighting towards (killing Azazel, saving Dean from Hell, stopping the apocalypse, restoring Sam’s soul), and Gamble could have easily followed that template. Instead, as KimberlyFDR pointed out, Gamble started her tenure as showrunner by adopting a darker tone. This shouldn’t be surprising. Gamble has historically written the episodes that delve deeply into the emotional fragility of the boys. She consistently pushes past Dean’s bravado to explore what makes him a depressed, martyred, fan of the drink. As I’ve mentioned ad nauseam, her episode “What Is and What Should Never Be” provided the first, tragic look at what drives Dean — and it was horrifically sad. So the tone of the new seasons shouldn’t be a surprise at all.
I would argue that last season was the setup for Sam and Dean hitting rock bottom this season — the setup for complete despair. Ideally, this season, the boys would be left with no one. And if this was a novel, Bobby would also have been a fatality, perhaps the Leviathan would have ensured his end. However, I don’t think the show can kill off Bobby — not without a complete fan revolt — or at the very least not until near the series finale. We’re at a point, after seven years, that following the traditional Supernatural template is not the best option. Exploring despair, exploring what happens to our Winchesters when they have nothing but each other to fight for — now that’s meaty. The vague threat of the Leviathans? I would bundle that up with the concept of despair. The boys barely understand what they’re fighting, only knowing, once again, that it’s a threat that could destroy the world. Yet as a result of their despair — and really, it’s Dean’s despair — the day-to-day is rote. Rote in a way that highlights how much they have lost and how far they have fallen. How do you survive when you have nothing?
One of the darkest periods of the show was when John Winchester died. It’s the event that brought Dean the closest to this despair — his character now is a reflection of his character then. Brooding, excessively drinking, refusing to see beyond the black and white of the situation, seeking some kind of solace through the destruction of monsters. It was all there. But the quest for vengeance — for killing Azazel — is what brought him back, after just a few episodes, from the abyss. In the present, that vengeance is missing. The enemy is scattered, can spread easily, and is almost impossible to kill. Not only that, the Leviathans are smart, strong hunters. There is no respite from running because they consistently and quickly track the boys down. Or, in an even worse case scenario, make life almost impossible for them by shifting into their forms.
Can’t you just feel it? When you think about what they’re currently going through? No home, no place of safety, no Castiel to act as a deus ex machina, no easy way to identify or kill their foes — it’s despair. It’s their darkest moment. And it’s incredibly difficult to watch.
Yet none of this means there’s something wrong with the show — it just means it’s progressing in a way that makes the audience uncomfortable.
During this past season of Breaking Bad, another fantastic critic, Tim Goodman, whose thoughts I appreciate and often disagree with, wrote about his concern with how deconstructing every episode prevented critics/viewers from just sitting back and enjoying the ride. That because we don’t let the arc happen without trying to anticipate or second-guess the writers, we can’t fully appreciate what the show is trying to do.
I think it’s an interesting point. And while I’m not comparing Supernatural to Breaking Bad, I do think that we take such ownership of a show, that it’s oftentimes difficult to let the arc happen without feeling like we’re being betrayed in some way. Isn’t part of the magic letting a show take us somewhere that we haven’t anticipated? Isn’t it the responsibility of art to force us to examine and explore emotions and situations that might make us feel uncomfortable or distressed?
This is the darkest place the Winchesters have ever been. They have no one. They have nothing to hold on to but their skill as hunters. Their entire world is destabilized — so much so that they don’t even have control over their own bodies, their own stories. The Leviathans can inscribe a reality for them by assuming their own shapes and personas. It’s taxing to experience this with them, but it’s a fascinating journey.
[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: