But Will it Still be Epic? Supernatural’s “The Purge”
I’m assuming Eric Charmelo and Nicole Snyder intended that title to refer both to the physical transformations of the MotW’s victims and to the emotional purge of Sam’s speech to Dean in those all-important last five minutes of SPN. Nice touch, writers.
Once again, the episode was split into two parts – and once again, I have more to say about the second. The first was a rather tragic story of a monster-trying-to-be-normal, a classic Supernatural theme. I was a bit worried that there would be too much insensitivity and ‘fat jokes’ for me to just sit back and enjoy, but I think the script did a decent job of avoiding that, so I was able to enjoy the ride. The special effects were disgusting (and awesome), the guest actors were memorable, and despite the chill between the brothers, the humorous scenes still worked. Dean with powdered sugar all over his face (and Sam’s expression haha), the awkward conversation about sex and ‘extra padding’, even some of their snarks at each other made me laugh. There was suspense, some scary scenes, some gorgeous cinematography with the boys and their flashlights. The brothers worked together as seamlessly as ever – there’s nothing wrong with their working relationship at least. We got boys in suits, and in dress shirts and ties lounging around motel rooms, which is always a big plus.
Oh, and there was Sam in shorts and a tank top, and Dean in a hairnet (which you wouldn’t ordinarily think would be a good thing, but Dean Winchester? Can even make hairnets sexy.) So nice job on that, writers. Thank you for Sam as a yoga instructor and both boys in tight-fitting clothing. And whoever is keeping up Dean’s break-up scruff? I love you.
There was the customary parallel between the MotW and the main characters’ journey – this time, that was a toxic sibling relationship that cost the ‘good sibling’ her happiness. How sad was she, sitting on the couch at the end and telling Sam, “I lost my whole family today.” Ouch. That better not be foreshadowing, I’m saying to my television at that moment. (I said the same thing in the beginning, with Dean looking nearly as sad as Maritza eventually did, drinking too much and not sleeping, and deflecting Sam’s “you sure you’re okay?” with a defensive insistence that Sam didn’t hurt him at all. “I don’t break that easy,” Dean says, and I start screaming “Nooooooooo, don’t say that, you know that’s tempting fate!”) Yep.
But Sam got to save Dean for a change, which is exactly what I was clamoring for in last week’s review, so that made me smile (for a little while – god knows, Show was just waiting to wipe that grin off my face!) Dean’s desperate and plaintive “Sammy, I need your help” gave me ALL THEFEELS, as did Sam’s “Hey Dean, hey.”
Then came the last five minutes, and with it, an online firestorm of fan response. When I could manage to pick myself up off the floor and string two words together again, I went looking for explanations to make sense of my own emotional meltdown.
I realized two very interesting things while reading fan reaction to this week’s and last week’s Supernatural all over the internet, and both say something important about this Show. The first isn’t so surprising – fans are almost unbelievably passionate in their opinions about a bunch of fictional characters and a Show in its ninth season. The second is just how real these characters have become to us. It’s partly because we’re so invested in them. And it’s partly through familiarity, as we’ve welcomed them into our living rooms and onto our media screens for the past nine years. There’s research that shows that we react with the same emotional intensity to things that happen to our favorite television series characters as we do when things happen to our real life loved ones. Yes, actual research. (Most fans knew that anyway). They’ve also become so real that I noticed that many of the episode reviews don’t read like episode reviews at all. Instead, they read like a bunch of smart, articulate, passionate people who are heartbroken about the tragedies that have befallen people they love. Article after article tries to make sense of what was painful to everyone, the same way we would if we were staging an intervention for beloved family members.
So there were a lot of very real life comments. “It’s hard to watch, but it had to happen.” “Dean needs to find a sense of self worth and realize that he can let Sam go, because the lengths they go to save one another are destructive.” “They need to treat each other as equals.” “They need to get to a place where they’re both emotionally healthy and have a healthy relationship.”
At first glance, who could argue with that? If Sam and Dean were my real life brothers, I sure as hell wouldn’t. Then there were some comments like these:
“If Sam & Dean were real people I would agree completely. But, I probably wouldn’t have this ridiculous obsession with their show if they were so emotionally healthy.”
“The core of SPN is Sam & Dean doing anything and everything for each other. It isn’t healthy, but Dean and Sam’s messed up relationship is why SPN packs such an emotional punch.”
“It’s that part of the Show that draws me in. In real life, I help real people… When I’m watching the Show, though, I thrive on the emotional mess and co-dependence. Oh the joyful guilt.”
Joyful guilt – an interesting way to put it. That could actually be a description of the books we’ve written on fandom and why it’s so powerful, and at the same time so prone to shame. It also went a long way toward dissecting my own emotional reaction to this episode when I sat down to write my own review. I was struck by how many reviewers and commenters used the words “real life” in whatever they wrote. But as much as we all treat Dean, Sam and Cas like real people after all this time, we do all know that they’re not. If we wanted to watch real people, we’d be watching Real Housewives or Jersey Shore, and then we could weigh in on what the people on our screens should or shouldn’t do from a real life ethical perspective (not that reality television reflects reality either, but that’s another discussion…) That’s not why we watch Supernatural – to see a reflection of reality. SPN is a fantasy universe full of things that don’t exist in real life, and that’s a big part of its draw. Fantasy allows us to explore things and be drawn to things that we wouldn’t be in real life, hence the appeal of every effed up relationship in every variety of media since the beginning of storytelling. It’s the appeal of the tangled, twisted, dysfunctional relationship between the brothers that hooked many fans on the Show, and it’s the appeal of the forbidden love between a human and an angel that partly drives fans’ passion for Destiel. Both relationships have a history of strife and sacrifice, hurting and being hurt, that makes them compelling and inspires a great deal of fannish passion and creativity.
The allure of the “romantic hero” has long fascinated all of us, and it often has little to do with emotionally healthy characters. Sera Gamble talked about how much Dean and Sam’s heroism flowed from the fact that they are damaged when we spoke to her and Eric Kripke about SPN back in Season 4:
“Dean is the more damaged of the two. He’s had to put his own needs aside for his entire life, which tends to cook up an interestingly fucked up kind of person – and in this case, has ended up making him instinctually heroic. Selflessness is a huge part of heroism. We often say in the writers’ room, when the two of them are in disagreement, as long as they’re falling all over themselves to save each other, they can go pretty out there with the misguided ideas; their actions will still maintain a core of heroism.” (Fangasm, p. 7).
Of course, Eric also told us that “part of the process of the Show is driving [the fans] nuts. It’s part of the viewing experience. If they’re happy and content every episode, that means you’re not doing your job. It would be a very boring show if at the end of every episode, it was like, oh isn’t that nice? That isn’t very exciting.” (Fangasm, p. 175).
No worries about that, Mr. Kripke.
Obviously a story can’t remain stagnant, and I haven’t seen anyone suggesting that it should. It hasn’t. The question is, how much do we want Sam and Dean to change? Laura Prudom wrote this in her thoughtful review:
“Right or wrong, I believe that Dean would always choose to save Sam’s life, regardless of the cost or consequences, and, sadly, regardless of Sam’s wishes. He’s basically acted as Sam’s father for most of Sam’s life, and you’d be hard-pressed to find a loving parent who wouldn’t do anything to save their child’s life if there was even the slightest possibility of protecting them from certain death. It is an inherently selfish position, especially if your child/loved one/stubborn younger brother is suffering and has made their peace with dying — because the one who dies is ultimately at peace, but the one who’s left behind has to live with the loss. But regardless of the reasons behind it, it’s a realistic instinct and one that I don’t think Dean will ever fully evolve past. (Nor would I want him to, honestly, because it’s such an intrinsic part of his character.)”
It is. And I agree with her, I wouldn’t want that to change. (I also can totally relate, as a parent, to that motivation to do anything to save your child. That’s a part of Dean’s psyche, part of what makes him the complicated fictional character he is). It’s well established that Dean is terrified of losing Sam and being alone, but any parent can testify to the strength of that impulse – and it’s not about fear of being alone.
Why do we all care so much about fictional characters anyway?
The spark behind the creative force that is fandom often comes from our emotional investment in these flawed characters and the need to fix things for them – to move the characters in the direction that we, as fans, want (it can feel like need) . Not for the characters’ sake, since we all do know intellectually that they don’t exist, but for ours. It’s that very personal need that makes fans love – and disagree – so passionately. When we were researching “Fangasm” and “Fandom At The Crossroads,” fans alluded to the importance of fantasy again and again. We’re drawn to fantasy not to see what’s around us in reality, but to vicariously experience what isn’t – sometimes, what we very much wish we could see for real, and sometimes what we very much do NOT want to see in reality. The things we’ve experienced ourselves that have hurt us. The things that fascinate us, but also make us feel guilty for that fascination. These are the things we often want in fiction. It’s safe, it can help us master our own past bad experiences by identifying with fictional characters who deal with a lot of crap in the safe realm of fantasy. It can help us construct our own wish fulfillment fantasies and then (we hope) see them played out onscreen. Do we all want someone to love us like Dean loves Sam? Someone who will throw the entire universe under the bus just to save us, because we are just that important? In reality, no. Most of us aren’t that cavalier about the universe. In fantasy? Hell yes. Do we all want our very own personal angel, who loves us above all others with a profound bond that can’t be understood by the rest of the world? In reality, probably not – not all of us even believe in angels. In fantasy? Hell yes. Fantasy – and fictional television shows with unbelievably powerful characters played by amazing actors – gives us that.
So what happens when the fantasy we want to see changes, or doesn’t go in the direction we want/need it to? Supernatural’s narrative has changed quite a bit since we sat down with Eric and Sera. Sam and Dean have both been through even more trauma, on top of what they already had on their shoulders. They have always had different personalities and views of life, because their childhood experience was so different. So the set up for change has been there from the beginning, and we’re all in agreement that stagnant doesn’t make for good storytelling. At this point in Season 9, the stage has been set for major change in the brothers’ relationship, ready or not — since one side of the relationship (Sam) has changed quite a bit already. I generally hang onto my optimism when it comes to SPN, and I’m mostly managing that, though I admit it’s being sorely tested by how painful the show is to watch right now.
In order to be a fulfilling fantasy, we have to try to make sense of our beloved fictional characters, and individual fans are hashing that out right now. One of my sticking points is how much I’m struggling to understand what we’re supposed to make of Sam’s head space. The poor guy has been through so much in nine years, so some of his evolution as a character certainly makes sense, but other changes just haven’t been well explained. Everyone gets that Sam puts a lot of importance on choice and agency, because he’s had his own co-opted far too often. Everyone gets that he’s angry at Dean. I make sense of that in terms of their history too, as I said last week. As the younger sibling who’s always been sacrificed for, Sam had a hard time seeing himself as a grown up as long as he was in Dean’s protective shadow (hence the move to Stanford). He doesn’t want to be the victim or have Dean be the martyr. I’m interpreting some of the things he said to Dean as his way of seeing their history differently – instead of Dean being the self-sacrificing protector, Sam needs to see him as the selfish over-protective big brother who won’t let Sam grow up. In real life, every child has to eventually give up their hero worship of their parent, and this is often how we do it. That’s why we talk about “adolescent rebellion”. Essentially Sam is doing that now – he even talks about Dean swooping in and being the ‘hero’.
It’s a familiar dynamic in families, but it’s usually played out between child and parent, not siblings. That too makes sense, though, since Dean was as much parent to Sam as brother. Perhaps Sam’s normal adolescent rebellion (usually against parental protection and control) that began at Stanford got derailed by Jessica’s death and he’s only now getting back to it – except this time it’s played out against Dean. Unfortunately, revisiting that now, with Sam a grown man and Dean not at all an independent parent who can easily weather what would have been Sam’s normal adolescent individuation, is a tough road for Show to go down. Dean is not Sam’s parent, and he shouldn’t have had to play all those roles in his brother’s life. It certainly has been to his detriment often enough. They’ve both been hurt by the traumatic circumstances of their life, which were not their fault. Dean’s acceptance of his role as protector was clear from the pilot, when John set the stage by putting Sammy in Dean’s arms and telling him to save his little brother, a directive made explicit by John over and over again. Dean was reinforced for making those decisions repeatedly – the one time he didn’t save Sam and let him choose to put himself and Lucifer in the cage, resulted in Sam going through hell and coming out soulless and then psychotic. No wonder Dean decided he wouldn’t do that again. Understanding that makes it hard to watch Sam lash out at Dean for doing what he’s learned and believes is the ‘right thing to do’ – even if we (sort of) know where Sam’s coming from.
Change is never easy, even when it’s happening to fictional characters – that is, all this change is hard on us, the fans. It’s been difficult to reconcile this version of Sam with the Sam from earlier seasons who played out his side of the not-at-all-real-life relationship in such a powerful way. As Sera said, then they were “falling all over themselves to save each other”. Not just Dean saving Sam. I remember Sam’s impassioned “You save my life over and over — you sacrifice everything for me. Don’t you think I’d do the same for you? You’re my big brother – there’s nothing I wouldn’t do for you.” Sam would have done anything then. Tried to – with crossroads deals, demon alliances, even a readiness to kill Bobby to get Dean back in ‘Mystery Spot.’
The change in Sam is striking – but I could make sense of it better if I’d been privy to more of Sam’s thoughts and feelings. I’m having to make assumptions about why he’s changed so much, and who knows if they’re right or wrong? I’d rather see it. I struggled with Carver’s choice to have Sam not look for Dean in Purgatory too, and had to construct my own explanation since we never really got one. Was it a reaction to the trauma of losing Dean and the resulting hopelessness? Or perhaps he was remembering how his efforts to save Dean turned out with Ruby, and the apocalyptic consequences of that effort, which ultimately failed anyway. I can understand him not wanting to go down that road again. If that’s it, I wish Show would lay it out a little more clearly. The Sam we’re seeing now, whose need to get away (psychologically if not physically) from his brother is reasserting itself rather dramatically, still seems jarring. Is it real-life healthy? Probably. Is it consistent with what I want from Supernatural as fantasy? I don’t know.
I’m also confused about Sam’s rather quick turn-around from his speech to Dean about the trials, where he declared that he valued his life and wanted to live, and wanted to show Dean the light and have Dean want to live too. What happened to change his mind so completely? In the church, it was Sam’s choice not to keep going with the trials and to live (though he was taking Dean’s feelings into account too). And if Sam actually wanted to die, as he now seems to be saying, why did he change his mind so readily and go with (who he thought was) Dean instead of Death as soon as he believed that Dean had a way to save him? I’m going to make sense of these questions by assuming that Sam is overwhelmed with so much guilt about the consequences of making those choices (Kevin included), that he needs to think of it as not his choice at all. It’s too horrible to think that his choices had those consequences, and easier to be angry at Dean (who did, after all, trick him into agreeing to possession). A bit of projection would make sense considering what Sam’s been through — I don’t think Sam can live with knowing that Dean valuing him above others has gotten people killed. We’ve seen Dean struggle with that same guilt, after John sacrificed himself for his son, and when he made Sam swear not to do anything to try to save him from going to hell. I’m just not sure why Show has made that the tipping point for the brothers’ relationship, or how that will play out for the characters I love.
I commented to someone that I think I’m developing Supernatural-related PTSD. When I look at the clock and see that it’s 6 minutes from the end, I reach for the box of tissues, clutching it as I watch reluctantly, perhaps trembling a little. (Shhh, don’t judge). I’ve learned that in those last 5 minutes, Show can break me into a million pieces and leave me on the floor. That’s definitely what happened at the end of this episode. I’ve seen some comment that Sam’s words weren’t intended to hurt, that he just wanted Dean to understand where he was coming from, but I think that’s wishful thinking (which I understand completely!) How many barbs start with “Hey, I’m just being honest”? That’s the classic way to introduce (and rationalize) a comment intended to cut, as Dean does to Sam later in the episode about his skills with the ladies, with the same pointed introduction.
The last image of Dean literally made me nauseous. Damn Ackles for his acting skills, because I swear I can see Dean’s worst nightmare coming true with Sam’s words. “You sacrifice everything for this family, but they don’t need you like you need them…” “I’m poison…” The image got stuck in my damn head and I couldn’t get rid of it — how’s that for reacting emotionally as though to a real person who was suffering? That’s how it felt. Ouch.
I saw some interesting speculation about the effects of the Mark of Cain, which apparently curses the person who bears it from having any kind of family. Is it possible that’s part of what’s going on here? Is that influencing Sam’s feelings? I found it hard to believe that he was uninterested in helping research the effing MARK OF CAIN that his brother has on his arm. What??? And was that why Dean was so gung-ho to kill the friendly pishtaco? (immature snicker). That would be an interesting explanation for some of the seeming contradictions. I’ve also seen the explanation for Sam’s speech as that he wasn’t saying that he wouldn’t have his brother’s back, only that he wouldn’t sacrifice the universe to save one person, even if that person is Dean. That’s mature and reasonable and makes perfect sense in real life. But it’s not quite as “romantic” (I don’t mean in the sexual sense) as the premise of Supernatural, the fantasy. It’s not what Sera Gamble famously referred to as “the Epic love story of Sam and Dean.” Can the Show create a Sam and Dean who don’t have that twisted, tangled, heroic, epic bond but who are still just as compelling as characters? I don’t know.
Wherever we’re headed, I agree with many fans who are missing another important aspect of Sam and Dean’s characterization that’s been part of the Show from the beginning – the brothers having fun, teasing each other, enjoying life every now and then when they take a break from trying to save the world (and each other). Tell me you’ll get them back there, Show. You know I’ll keep watching.
Here, have something upbeat — and real life! — to close this out. As heartbreaking as this episode was for the characters, Jensen and Jared apparently had as much fun as ever. Sometimes I have to remember that.
Hang in there fandom,
To read more of our adventures in fandom,
check out “Fangasm: Supernatural Fangirls”,
by clicking the link at the top of the page.