21 July 2011
Don’t you love it when a show you already love basically sends you a love letter right back? The fifth season of Supernatural has had two majorly fantastic episodes that feel just like that. I wouldn’t go so far as to call them Supernatural’s “Once More With Feeling” (the famous Buffymusical episode, for the uninitiated), except that maybe I would.Let’s rewind. By this point in Supernatural’s continuity, a lot has changed for our Winchester boys. If Season 4 was all angsty betrayal and unwitting steps down the road to damnation, then Season Five is taking a very Angel-like “screw fate” vibe. After being informed that they are meant to be vessels for the opposing teams in the big Angel/Demon showdown, Sam and Dean decide to fight fate with the help of the hilariously dead pan Castiel. It’s allowed the show to pull out of the pit of depression it fell into in Season 4 without losing the great thematic elegance the show was starting to form.When I wrote about the show during the last season, I wondered if it was fully in control of its themes. After a particularly strong start to season Five (for those playing along at home, I just finished episode 8), I’m happy to report that I’m pretty sure Eric Kripke (the show’s genius creator) knows exactly what he’s doing. Just when I think my appreciation for this show can’t possibly grow, they throw episodes like the two absolutely classic ones we’ve gotten this season: “Changing Channels” and “The End.”
Both of these episodes play with television conventions (one indirectly, and one oh-so-directly) and both reminded me, almost against my will, of Angel. But I’ve got to say, whereas before connections with Whedon shows mainly just served to illustrate for me the distinction between “fun, good” tv from “great” tv, I’m starting to lean more towards thinking Supernatural is heading into the upper pantheons of excellence.
In “The End,” the first of these two super episodes, Dean fast forwards to the five-year future thanks to some heavenly influence in the form of Zachariah. See Dean’s still refusing to play the part of the Angel Michael’s little meat puppet, so Zachariah sends him back to the future to see just how bad it’s gonna get. Dean is entered into a Croatoan hell scape, where he meets future Dean. Future Dean is even dickier than current Dean, more apt to sacrifice friends, bang random chicks, and use that deep-gravely-batman voice to cut off any forms of dissent. Future Castiel is a grace-less “love guru” who spends his life stoned and having orgies to numb the pain of being mortal. And Future Bobby? Well he’s just a bullet-laden wheelchair.
Future Dean begs Our Dean to give in and say yes to Michael in order to save humanity. But the major theme this show has been working on since Season One is the idea that actions have consequences, and the ends don’t justify the means. It’s this reverence for life that defines our characters and separates them from both angels and demons (who are both kind of asshats).
When Our Dean squares off with Lucifer-in-Sam’s body, I knew in my heart where this storyline was going. Hell I knew from the moment that Dean flashed forward that it was going to be a “This is your life without Sam” episode. This happens to me a lot in Supernatural; since my first days watching Xena and Hercules on Saturday mornings to teenage year spent eagerly anticipating Tuesday nights to college Battlestar Gallactica parties, I’ve encountered pretty much every trope fantasy and sci fi tv has to offer me. I’m rarely authentically surprised by where an episode ends up*. But what’s so cool about Supernatural is that the show kind of knows that. It doesn’t feel the need to arbitrarily undercut expectations (although it does this sometimes, and very effectively), but it is aware enough of the tropes with which it plays that it can really twist the knife with very subtle touches. By leaving in ambiguity with the ending of “The End,” they keep us from every fully knowing whether Lucifer was right when he told Dean he’d meet him there in five years. We don’t know if Dean is right when he decides to avoid that future by going back to Sam. The show has played so effectively with the “fast forward” fantasy device that it somehow seems fresh.
Which brings us to an episode that much more directly plays with TV tropes: “Changing Channels.” Everyone’s favorite little mischief maker, The Trickster, shows up in a small town, and immediately traps Sam and Dean into his own little TV Land. They go through a series of genre parodies including “Dr. Sexy M.D.”, A Japanese game show called “Nut Smasher,” a herpes commercial, and “Supernatural” the laugh-track-including sitcom. Each of these goofy little numbers is spot on and hilarious, and the obvious joy Jensen Ackles and Jared Padalecki provide in playing them is enough to put them over the edge of greatness.
But the really fantastic thing about late-in-the-game Supernatural is how it manages to takes these super fun, seemingly-stand-alone stories and use them to effectively further the master plot and deepen the thematic and emotional resonance of the stories on our main characters. Thus, this isn’t just a throw away episode about a Trickster: it introduces a substantial piece of Dean and Sam mythology, reveals another presence in the climactic battle between Angels and Demons, and ultimately reaffirms our heroes’ absolute dedication to each other and to the pursuit of right over wrong. This is fantastic, beautiful, intricate storytelling, where at the end of an episode it seems almost mythical how well these plots are woven together.
I keep expecting to have to write a “less-than-reverent” piece about this show, but damn if every episode doesn’t make me think more and more of the people behind the scenes.
Also-Great Highlights from the Episodes Between My Last Review and This:
– The House of wax style parody with Paris Hilton (Who would have thought she’d be a positive?)
– Everything about the character of Castiel (Misha Collins, who has become a series regular)
– Dean as an old man
– I’m super intrigued by the crazy powerful antichrist child
*This really isn’t a compliment to me so much as it is an admittance that I spend too much time watching TV.