Love, Loss and Why It’s Cool to be a Fangirl: Supernatural 8.20 Pac Man Fever
If I’d written my reaction to “Pac Man Fever” right after the episode aired, it would have sounded something like this: SQUEEEEEE OMG SQUEEEEE SAMMY! DEAN! CHARLIE! I LOVE YOU ROBBIE THOMPSON! SOBBING FOREVER! ALL THE FEELS! After my third viewing, the emotional impact is still something that deserves all caps, but I think I’m composed enough to command the English language once again. Mostly.
In my defense, starting an episode with Dean Winchester in a uniform with his hair side-parted and looking both badass and freckle-faced simultaneously is guaranteed to steal most of my intellectual ability. I was immediately transported back to the first time I laid eyes on Mr. Ackles, onstage at a Fort Worth production of “A Few Good Men” in 2007. Same hair, same freckles, similar uniform. Exact same reaction. Some things, thankfully, never change.
The episode just got better from there. There was scary (the scenes with the djinn stalking Charlie in her apartment and Sam in the warehouse were suspenseful and terrifying, the camera work and lighting ratcheting up both), there was pretty (what other show makes you stop periodically to ogle the cinematography?), there was special effects magic (those djinn tattoos, not to mention exploding Alien-esque bellies….ewww). There were so many perfect pop culture references, it would take a whole post to list them. There were smart!boys, which always makes me tingle. There were broments and protective!Dean and brotherly hugs (which I’ll get to in a bit, because you know I have lots to say about that…
And there was Charlie – a female character who seems to be embraced by most of the fandom. Part of that acceptance is due to writer Robbie Thompson, who created a unique and appealing character and brought her to life over the course of three episodes. Felicia Day gave credit to Thompson, thanking him for creating “the dream character,” and calling it “a gift every single time I get to play her.” Day doesn’t have a lot of time to act, but drops everything for this because “there’s nobody like Charlie on TV right now.” (TVLine, 4/23). Day recognizes Charlie as a powerful character, “a girl who really holds her own and is proud to be who she is even though it’s out of the box.” This is reflected in her kickass outfit within the dream world – not the stereotypical (and notoriously impractical) get-up that female characters are often shown wearing (and no doubt being hindered by) in fights. Day’s own recognition of this in interviews again reflects fans’ own concerns about the depiction of female fans and gamers. As she put it, the outfit was “iconic without being exploitative.”
Charlie’s acceptance in the SPN world is also influenced by the popularity of the actress who plays her. The character is recognizable to most viewers as a geek and a fangirl, making her likely to be seen as a proxy for fans themselves. Felicia Day’s real life geek cred added to the character’s credibility as a fangirl, without any of the negative connotations that plagued Becky Rosen. One of the issues that fans had with Becky was her sexualized investment in Sam, something that kicked up a lot of internalized shame in fans trying to convince the rest of the world that “we watch for the plot.” Never mind that most of us are also quite happy to watch Sam’s shirtless workouts or even Dean in a single layer Henley. Or at least I am. Charlie is a lesbian, which takes care of accusations of sexualized investment when it comes to the Winchesters. (Of course sexuality is a lot more complicated than that, but that’s a conversation for another day.) And since Charlie is attracted to women, there’s no risk of romantic entanglement with either Winchester. Charlie can profess her love outright and be a “little sister” character in a much more successful way than Jo ever could, since there was always an undercurrent of romantic possibility there.
Felicia Day is the perfect actress to portray a fan — she “gets” fandom, because she is a fan. She understands the importance of community and passion and fantasy among Supernatural fans, because she has it herself with The Guild. Her portrayal of Charlie – and the way the character is written by Thompson – ensures that there’s not a lick of shame to be found there. When Charlie says, “I’m a wee bit obsessive, if by a wee bit you mean completely”, we all get it – and we can own it without apology, because Charlie is not apologizing.
Charlie, like Day, mirrors the discussions that fans have amongst themselves, commenting on the Men of Letters. “Too bad they got wiped out — though that’s what they get for the sexist name.”
Charlie has fangirl qualities that are positive, not condescending to the fangirl audience. She LARPs, she goes to cons, she’s passionate about her “collectibles”. She wears a Lying Cat tee shirt, is tech-savvy and competent (even at shooting things). She has been portrayed as a fan from her first introduction. In this episode, however, Charlie essentially becomes a Supernatural fangirl. She reads all the Carver Edlund books, which means she now knows the Show’s history the same way all of us do.
“I won’t forget the pie,” she assures Dean. Clearly she read the Supernatural books obsessively – err, carefully.
She knows the monsters and myths and lore; she understands the Winchesters – like we do – as heroes. Charlie’s status as fangirl proxy allows her to comment on the Winchesters from inside the Show, speaking for the fans watching from the outside.
“Meta madness,” she says wryly of the Supernatural books. Nudge nudge wink wink.
“I don’t wanna miss the broment,” Charlie complains when the boys are about to have an emotional discussion.
“You fight like an old married couple,” she says fondly after listening to them argue.
In this episode, Charlie’s connection with the Winchesters starts to make sense on a deeper level. They’re all outsiders, living off the grid and outside the law, not fitting in. She’s a girl who’s “outside the box.” She’s alone in the world, and so are Sam and Dean. These aspects of their experience are some of the things that make the Show so powerful for its fans as well. We’ve all felt like outsiders at some point in our lives, so the sense of shared kinship with the Winchesters (and Charlie) is compelling. It brings fans together; it brings Charlie and the Winchester brothers together.
Mother loss is a defining experience for both the Winchesters and Charlie, further bonding them as “siblings,” and providing some of the most emotional moments of the episode. Charlie’s fannishness is a way of identifying with and connecting with her mother, just as the Winchesters’ investment in “the family business” is a way of identifying with both their lost parents.
Loss is a universal human fear, and an inevitable human experience. Perhaps that’s why when it’s depicted in a realistic way, it hits us so hard. I was watching the episode with my own daughter, who was luckily there to hand me the box of tissues when the last scene began. I was literally saying “Oh no no, don’t let her take out The Hobbit,” knowing it would make me lose it, and of course that’s exactly what happened. My daughter and I went through more than a box of tissues watching the episode of Buffy when her mother died, and at least half a box when Jo and Ellen sacrificed themselves – this episode was right up there. I’m a daughter and the mother of a daughter, and all those incredibly strong and primal emotions – love, loss, hanging on and letting go — were evoked by that final scene. Kudos, Robbie Thompson and Felicia Day, for tapping into those universal feelings (and making me cry like a baby).
There were other emotional moments too. Every time Dean told Sam to “go home,” I got a little teary eyed. Not “back to the motel”, not “back to the car”, but “home.” They have a home. Such a simple word, but it carries so much meaning.
The impact of the trials on Sam was heartbreaking to see, and masterfully acted by Padalecki. When Dean tossed the beer to Sam – something he’s done a million times in the past, always counting on Sam’s keen reflexes and how in sync the brothers are – and Sam misses it entirely, I gasped out loud. The look on Dean’s face told me that it hit him just as hard.
“Listening in” on Twitter as the cast and crew watched the episode along with the fans only made the experience more meta. Robbie Thompson tweeted that Jensen’s line “I’m telling you, give me five minutes with some clippers….” wasn’t scripted. Jared live tweeted while he watched, adding little tidbits of behind the scenes information. (In the gun range scene, the casings were hitting him and Jensen, so they had to quickly change the angles of the gun and the camera). His wife Gen took a picture of Jared watching the Show and tweeted it, then confessed to “girl crushing” on Felicia Day, who immediately tweeted back. While the two women expressed their mutual affection, Jared butted in, prompting Day to quip, “we’re having a Lady – ment, Jared!”
The episode was more than emotionally powerful – the story line also progressed. Charlie earns Dean’s respect in this episode, and that means he listens to her. Her biggest fear was losing her mother; Dean’s biggest fear is losing Sam. He’s listening intently when she says her goodbye to Sam.
“If anyone can get through the trials, Sam, it’s you.”
Charlie gives Dean a pointed look as she says this. And Dean makes a decision. He would never give up on Sam; that would be going against every fiber of his being. But he’s been ruled by his own fear of losing Sam again, and that’s interfered with being able to have faith in his brother. Sam can do this, but only with his big brother’s help. The hug Dean gives Sam is his way of communicating his faith to Sam. I’ve got you. We can do this.
Dean says a lot to Sam with his hugs this season. Once again, he grabs Sam and pulls him in, conveying his support and affection and his belief in his brother. As Sam embraces him back and they hold each other tightly, the fond look on Dean’s face says it all. Cheesy as it sounds, one of the messages of this Show is that love conquers everything. The Winchesters have proven it, repeatedly. In the words of Charlie (and every Supernatural fan all over the world), “The Winchesters can do anything if they work together.”
Could anyone doubt it when Dean Winchester looks at you like this??
After the hug, Dean pauses and holds Sam by the shoulders for a second more, not so eager to step back from the “chick flick moments” as he was in early seasons. And nobody was even near death! As someone on Tumblr said, “BRO FEELS OVERLOAD.”
“You gonna let it go?” Charlie asks when she says goodbye to Dean, meaning his conviction to save his brother no matter what.
“Never,” Dean answers, and Charlie smiles. Because of course, he wouldn’t be Dean if he did – and that’s exactly why we, and Charlie, love him.
“That’s my boys,” Charlie says fondly, and I find myself nodding along with her. Because the way Robbie Thompson writes them? Yes. That’s my boys.
The last line that Charlie reads as she says goodbye to her mother, “…it was a hobbit hole, and that means comfort.” For Dean and Sam, holed up together in their own underground, round-doorway “hobbit hole”, I hope it means the same.