Friday, September 14, 2012

Guest Blog: Adam Stovall Has Fun with 'Supernatural' Season Four...

Supernatural Season Four, Wherein The Wheels Come Off The Bus…But In A Good Way”

Oh. Hell. Yes.

It seems foolish to start anywhere but with Castiel, so let’s talk about Sergio Leone. Leone has a way of introducing a character that never fails to leave a smile on my face: You begin with a badass, the biggest badass in town. You spend a little while showing him being a badass, and you show the people fearing him and his badassery. Then you show someone defeat without even breaking a sweat, and that someone is your movie’s True Badass.

We open with Dean crawling out of Hell, out of his grave. Since we just spent a season knowing he was going to Hell, and knowing that there was no way he was going to stay, I love that Dean gets out and goes right back to being Dean. He grabs some porn, some junk food, even goes for the money in the register. But then…something happens. We don’t know what, but SOMETHING. Something big. Thus far, demons on this show have, despite being otherworldly and all that, been rather small in stature. Most of them, anyway. We’ve seen Lilith and Azazel, so we know that there are demons out there who are capable of some major damage. All of which is to say that when the security monitor goes staticy and all the windows get blown out by wind and a high-pitched sound, our minds go to what we already know.

The sequence of Dean going to Bobby and Sam is a lot of fun, but that’s expected. To be fair, at this point talking about how well they’ve crafted the dynamic between Sam and Dean and Bobby is like remarking on how efficiently Tom Brady executed a scoring drive– yeah, it’s what they do. The best television shows always have at least one dynamic that they can always fall back on, in case things get out-of-hand. Breaking Bad can always just put Walt and Jesse in a room. Community can have Troy and Abed go on an adventure. In fact, I’m a little surprised we haven’t had a “stakeout” episode– or bottle episode, if you will-- of Supernatural, where the brothers just sit in their car and talk. We’ve had plenty of long scenes where they yell and fight in a hotel room or some similar location, but you can’t tell me that a director wouldn’t jump at the chance to really show off and make the Impala the most cinematic car of all time. But I digress.

So Dean is back and something big is happening and the boys are ready to fight. Sound familiar? But Dean isn’t 100%, and they have no idea what they’re about to face, so they set the field in their favor and blanket the room in stuff that will make it impossible for a demon to exercise any of their demon powers against Dean and Bobby. And then the roof blows off and the walls shake and shimmy, and a dude walks in looking like John Constantine stepped right off the pages of Hellblazer. This is Castiel. He is an angel. Yep.
I find it a little odd that Dean, who spends all of his time hunting demons, would struggle so much to believe that there’s a flipside to that coin. At times, it seemed he clung to his disbelief as if it were a cornerstone to his person. Which makes sense, when you think about it. People cling to their faith in God and make it a cornerstone of who they are, just as people cling to their lack of faith (or agnosticism/atheism, as it were). I suppose there are those who would say that the arc of the season is Dean’s journey from one end to the other, but there really is no faith at the end for Dean. Obviously, as a guy who spends his days and nights fighting creatures of myth, he recognizes in his heart-of-hearts that it’s probably bad form to say anything absolutely does not exist, but he still struggles with the same questions we all have. In fact, it is precisely because he spends his days and nights in such a manner, that he struggles so much with the idea. For three seasons, Dean has been established as a foot soldier, a guy who takes the ground’s-eye-view of things and follows orders. When he contemplates God, he takes the common view, which is that God represents all that is Good and Right. Because faith. God, as presented to us by the marketing firm of Every Religion Ever & Sons, is a Father. The Father, in fact. And, as any Father must, He is there to reprimand us when we go astray of the right path.

Or at least, that’s what we think. We humans take a very narrow view of what God actually is/could be. We talk about “The Creator,” but we fail to comprehend the full implication of that. There is a video online that demonstrates just how vast our universe just might be. The state of our universe, simply its size, to say nothing of its potential contents, is overwhelming, and generally beyond our capacity for understanding. So, to follow the thought, what right have we to think we can understand and prescribe notions and motivations to an entity when we can’t even fully conceive of something they built?

So yeah, a primetime drama on The CW prompted that paragraph. Huh.

The true arc of Season Four is that of Castiel. It makes perfect sense that he likes Dean so much: Both are essentially foot soldiers, following orders bestowed on them by a Father they worship. Also, both are waking up to the idea that the world is far bigger and more complicated than they previously believed. Castiel trends toward doubt so quickly in the season, I have to imagine it was already a little present before he began visiting Dean. This is handled so well, it kind of boggles my mind that it wasn’t a bigger deal at the time. Or maybe it was, and I just missed it because I didn’t care about the show back then. In any case, remember before when I talked about how, in The Aviator, clouds are used to show how fast the planes are moving, and then used that to explain how character transitions are shown in storytelling? Well, Anna was a lovely cloud.

For me, Anna was one of the things this season that fully restored my faith in the show. The idea behind her character was solid, and the story well-told. It also didn’t overstay its welcome. While I liked her story, the character itself didn’t (or hasn’t yet) bring out any new colors in the brothers. What it did do, however, was provide a pivot point for Castiel. Castiel knew Anna, he saw her lose faith and fall. He’s watched the heavens organize to find her so she can be punished. That also means that she has become somewhat mythologized by him, a totem of doubt. As he starts to question things, she is what naturally is prompted in his head. So, of course, when he is reined back in, turning her over is one of his first acts of contrition. As she is dragged to an off-screen punishment, I have to wonder if we’ve seen the last of Anna. Again, I like the idea and I dig the actress. I think there’s some cool stuff that could still be done there. But if not, she had a good run, and I’ll remember her fondly.

The story of Castiel, and thus the story of Season Four, is transition. Transition is one of those words that is both a noun and a verb, and Supernatural being a show wholly unafraid of whooping some ass, it’s never gonna shy away from the verb aspect. The thing about transition, though, is it requires a degree of consistency, if only for a moment. Castiel is an angel, and nothing beyond that. Any doubt runs contrary to his entire state of being, so of course he’s terrified of what he thinks is happening within him. But pay attention to his surroundings. Uriel reveals his plan, then Zacariah his. That fear that had been building in Castiel– that he might betray the wishes of The Lord His God– is shown to be unfounded, that the orders that were causing him such distress were actually coming from somewhere far less on high. I love that this is echoed so simply when Sam checks the voicemail Dean left and hears something completely different than what Dean actually said. There are several instances of this throughout the season, but this one struck me as simple and elegant. However, while Castiel gets to remain an agent of faith and strike down the plan, Sam and Dean are afforded no such easy-out.

All year, they’ve been played as pawns, yet allowed to think they were as mighty as knights. Sam and Dean were set on a path that would end with the raising of Lucifer because they could always be counted on to do what they perceived as the right thing. It’s no accident that Hell would pursue Sam, who seeks out power in the quest to get stronger than Lilith so he can finally defeat her once and for all; just as Heaven pursues Dean, whose primary directive will always be protecting Sam by any means necessary. Sam’s faith in power and Dean’s faith in community are very, very well established. Seriously, so much work goes into the crafting of this show, I don’t understand how it’s not a bigger deal.

Actually, yeah I do. For all its coolness and great ideas, Supernatural is still definitely a flawed show. For one, could the word “slut” be used any more frequently? If there’s a drinking game for this show, I worry for those who drink when someone says “slut,” because they are gonna wake up with a mighty hangover. Also, while there is an abundance of good ideas in the storytelling, they don’t always land very well. For instance, it was established early on that the grave is not exactly a hindrance for many things. I get that salting and burning the bones compels the spirit to leave this realm, but what is happening when Dean compels a demon out of a vessel and back into Hell? They just return to the place from which they’ve already escaped? It’s possible that I’ve missed something (that’ll happen when you’re mainlining a show this quickly), but isn’t sending them to their room just a temporary solution? Like sending Gordon to jail, won’t it just make them angrier? My thinking is that it would be better if the soul/entity/whatever just ceased to be. I realize that this would hamstring the show into stating concretely that something/someone could never return, but as this show has shown a willingness to be bold, I don’t see why they’d have a problem with this. Maybe The CW is wary of one of their shows causing its audience to begin questioning their entire notion of existence? After all, as I’ve stated before, networks are largely in the business of programming material that people will welcome into their home, which often means something familiar and reassuring. In fact, I’d say it’s a victory that a show this weird got on the air and found its audience in the first place.

Any quibbles I have this season– the aforementioned “slut” problem, minor homophobia amongst a few characters with nothing really balancing it out– are dwarfed by how much I dug here. I’ve enjoyed Ben Edlund’s writing for a long time (The Tick Forever!!!), and every time I see his name credited with the episode’s script, I know the next forty-two minutes are going to be a blast. I mean, a teddy bear with an existential crisis? Amazing. Plus there’s “Yellow Fever,” in which Ackles made me laugh harder than I have in a while (not the air guitar bit, but his face when the snake was crawling on him and then his delivery of the line “That was scary” at the warehouse), while still building to the moment when Lilith is killing him, which I found incredibly effective. They even managed to work in my favorite line from a Leone film in the second episode! “When you have to shoot, shoot, don’t talk.”

Actually, I was a little surprised by how many “Monster Of The Week” episodes there were this season, given how uniformly I was told that this season was where things became all-mythology-all-the-time. Perhaps it’s because the mythology of the season has grown to such a mammoth scale, people don’t remember the non-mythology episodes as well. After all, what chance has a movie-obsessed shapeshifter against the Lord Our God? The reveal that Mary Winchester was the hunter, not John, was pretty great, and not just for all the Back To The Future references (though a little for all the Back To The Future references). So much of storytelling is indulging yourself to some extent, because it gives you something to go back to later in the story. Over on The Newsroom, one of the subplots was about Will (Jeff Daniels, the main character) going on-air high as a kite to report the death of Osama Bin Laden, and how that was eventually used against him. The thing is, it was clear that this was the plan from the beginning, as there was no real reason for him to be high in the episode. It hadn’t been seeded in previous episodes, in fact what HAD been seeded was Will scoffing at a date having weed in her purse. He wasn’t a drug guy until the show needed him to be. Or in Prometheus, this summer, which sold out its characters’ backgrounds and motivations as if it were being paid by the WTF Moment. Here, however, Mary’s death was shocking when we first saw it, and provided the catalyst for the story we’ve seen heretofore. You can say that the expression on Mary’s face in the pilot doesn’t honor what we come to know about her this season, but I would argue that they revisited that scene and re-shot that moment so that her “It’s you” moment is appropriately knowing. They may not have known in the pilot what her precise background was, but I appreciate that they took the time to go back and play with it just enough that it wasn’t radically different from the original scene, yet still made what happened this season completely feasible. Again, so much care and effort goes into this show, it’s sad to think some people only know it as “That show with the hot guys hunting ghosts.”

Of course, no discussion of Season Four is really complete without talking about “The Monster At The End Of This Book.” First of all, I’m a little stunned this wasn’t a Ben Edlund episode. Secondly, holy moly, this was an incredible hour of television. I’m sure the meta aspect gets most of the notice, which is fair since Supernatural has proven especially adept at being just the right amount of meta. What impressed me most, however, is the deft manner in which they moved from a hilarious beginning (“There are Sam Girls and Dean Girls. And there are Sam & Dean Girls.” “They know we’re brothers, right?” “It doesn’t seem to matter.”) into a place that serviced mythology and character, all while exploring an age-old concept, prophets, in a compelling way that is completely in keeping with the tone of the show. Of course a modern prophet could/would be viewed as a fantasy/sci-fi writer! How many fantastical visions from the pop culture of the 50s are now things we take for granted? Also, I feel a special kinship with Chuck. I’d love to see an episode that explored his history a bit more, but even if that never happens, I can fill in the blanks in a way that I think honors him. I suspect he grew up wanting to be a writer, devouring book after book, and honing his craft. When the visions started, I bet he was grateful, certain that he’d hit a point in his evolution that his subconscious had developed to the point that stories were starting from a much more completed place. Then, as it went on and the visions kept coming, it started feeling less and less like a gift. And now drinking. And hookers. Because he must now bear the horrible burden of watching and reporting on the exploits of the Winchester boys. (Hey, wait a second…)
Speaking of the brothers Winchester, my how far we have come. There is something about Padalecki’s look that still bothers me, but I have to admit that he’s gotten very good at filling Sam’s shoes. I don’t know that he’s who I would cast as an academic, but he absolutely exudes Sam’s sympathetic nature. I was struck by a scene in the season premiere, where we first see him “jedi” a demon. He’s standing there, furrowed brow and clenched hand, forcing the demon smoke out of the waitress, who flops around and chokes and shakes as it leaves her. Without the right camera angle, without the right score, without the right effects, this scene would look thoroughly ridiculous. As it is, well, it’s actually pretty cool. You can see both of these guys having the time of their lives in these roles. Ackles and Padalecki are both grown-ass men with wives (and even a kid, in Padalecki’s case), but they get to spend their days running around shooting fake guns at fake demons and saying the most ridiculous stuff in the most earnest way imaginable.

It would seem, at least to this neophyte Supernatural fan, that this show, from the top down, is made out of love. Kripke, all of the writers, all of the directors, the cast, everyone seems completely on the same page here. Contrary to a show like American Horror Story where Connie Britton is giving her usual grounded and soulful performance while everyone else is swinging for the rafters, no one ever seems to have wandered onto Supernatural from some other show. Except for Linda Blair, of course, but even that was fun and kooky. As I said in the beginning, the main job when creating a TV series is creating a world in which stories can happen. Whatever its shortcomings, Supernatural is Supernatural is Supernatural. It’s a show that doesn’t seem to want to be anything but itself, and is even okay with some of its audience not understanding or appreciating what all of itself even is. It’s fun and spooky, and smarter than it typically seems to want to let on. And now the Devil’s among us. And Sam makes demon eyes. And Dean swore allegiance to the heavenly host.

Am I excited for Season Five? Oh hell yes.

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