Winchesters Through the Funhouse Mirror: Supernatural’s Thinman
I’ve had so many different thoughts about ‘Thinman’ that my head is still spinning – once again, I woke up this morning already writing this review in my head, which I suppose isn’t a bad thing (unless of course I was supposed to do something else this morning….cough…work…cough…) There was alot I loved about this episode. In fact, Jenny Klein should expect a tackle hug next time I see her for the Weechesters flashback scene alone (fair warning, Jenny).
I love that we saw some progress with the Mark of Cain story arc, which is a road I’m anticipating going down even as I’m biting my nails about the dark places Show intends to take us. I’ve been theorizing about the Mark and what its impact on Dean has been already, and am intrigued by the possibility that part of what it does is pull the wearer away from those he loves, isolating him from family and turning him away from love and affection and his own humanity, so he can kill without remorse or regret. It’s a punishment more than a gift, influencing those he loves most to turn away from him. And that’s terrifying. One of my favorite themes of the Show is Dean’s understanding of why he and Sam are better together, especially after he glimpses a future without Sam in ‘The End’: “We keep each other human.” It’s true. Sam has repeatedly been the one thing that keeps Dean from going darkside, from becoming the vicious killer that he secretly believes he is. If the Mark can separate Dean from Sam, how close to that internal self image will Dean become?
Already we can see Dean pulling away – he intends to go off on this hunt alone, assuming that Sam won’t want to come with him. At the beginning of the episode, Dean still doesn’t understand where Sam is coming from. (Since Show hasn’t exactly been very forthcoming with Sam’s pov, we can empathize). He’s getting used to being hurt, though, so he’s becoming defensive, pre-emptively walking away from Sam in preparation for Sam walking away from him. That beginning was chock full of meaning, and it left me with a gnawing anxiety about what was to come in the rest of the episode.
Then there was the confrontation with the MotW badguys, which took the anxiety to full-on fear. Watching Dean plunge the knife into that (admittedly monstrous but still human) young man was chilling – we saw Sam’s reaction for a second too, as he catalogs his brother’s coldness. That scene and Jensen Ackles’ face ™ were perfect.
I’m bouncing with anticipation to see where this story arc takes us. I’m fairly certain it’s going to rip my heart out, but if that stopped me from watching, I would have bailed on SPN years ago.
And once again in this episode, Show gives us a clear example of how very much Sam still loves and cares about his brother. In fact, Show has been careful to do this in every episode since the brothers’ estrangement, to keep showing us that the love is still there. Sam’s agonized “Nonono, don’t!” and the expression on his face when Dean was about to have his throat cut just floored me with how much anguish was there. I found myself screaming right along with Sam. Kudos, Jared, you broke me. (In contrast, look at Dean’s face, stone cold and calm, like he’s ready to die and really doesn’t give a damn if he does. Chilling). Kudos to you too, Jensen.
I liked that the episode was based off the real ‘Slenderman’ phenomenon, which gave the Show an invitation to go a little meta, one of my favorite flavors of SPN. The beginning was satisfyingly scary and creepy and gory, which is what I expect from the first five minutes of Show, and I sort of wished the monster-of-the-week was “real” just because he creeped me out so much. In the end, though, it was a nice twist that the Winchesters were dealing with monstrous humans again. We didn’t get to see them struggle with that too much in this episode, but hopefully we’ll see the idea come up again. It’s something Kripke was interested in from the beginning – the idea that sometimes it’s humans who are the most monstrous, that what appears to be a monster on the outside might not be, and what doesn’t might be after all. Also, the fact that they were human gave Dean’s swift dispatch of the busboy a gut-wrenching impact (literally, for the busboy) that left me shuddering.
My favorite callback to canon line?
“Sheriff’s on a hunting trip…” I actually yelled at the television “And he hasn’t been home in a few days”. I straight up got goosebumps at that line.
And maybe during this scene too, for an entirely different reason. Sam and Dean in tight white dress shirts with rolled sleeves? Thank you for whoever made this happen – please don’t stop any time soon.
I also like the Ghostfacers, so I was happy to see them back after all this time and all the actors’ convention appearances. I’m kind of glad that Show didn’t go where I expected it to with the Ghostfacers, that instead of comic relief, their story went dark and tragic and ended up painful. I like to be surprised, and that was unexpected. Wester and Buckley proved they can do sad as well as funny – Buckley had me tearing up at the end, as Ed stands there alone and heartbroken and Harry gets into the backseat of the Impala just as broken. The actors did such a great job that I really felt for the characters. Good job all around on that last scene – script, directing, acting, cinematography, everything. It came through with more impact that I would have expected.
Much of the meta on social media, fame and fandom gave the episode some great comedic moments. Travis Wester and AJ Buckley can do humor as well as Jared and Jensen (which is really saying something) so there were many times during the episode that I laughed out loud in the literal way, not the meaning-morphed LOL way. Klein gave the Ghostfacers and the Winchesters some excellent lines to chew on, and according to Jared’s tweets, AJ and Travis ad-libbed some into the script as well, giving viewers some much-needed comedic breaks from the angst that we’ve been drowning in for much of this season. Some of the best lines were clear shout outs to fandom.
“No one cares what they think, they don’t even have a twitter” (Or was this a shout out to the still-twitterless Ackles?)
“I just got punched right in the feels.” (99% of fandom, every Tuesday)
Also that whole conversation about the pronunciation of “meme” was brilliant – because who the hell was sure how to pronounce it? Osric confided that he’s still saying me-me. He he.
Also any dialogue that gets Dean to say “treasure trail” is A plus in my book.
It’s always a risk when Show decides to comment directly on fans, because let’s face it, many of us go hypervigilant when we see it happening, always alert for “what they really think of us.” (Us included, since we wrote two books that aimed to discover exactly what “they” really did think of us!) I still love the meta episodes in which Kripke broke the fourth wall to depict fans on the Show, with such a deft mix of affection and poking fun (at the show, the fans, across the board) – but then there was the episode I’ve excised from canon (something about a wedding…) and it’s easy to see just how wrong this can go. I enjoyed most of the meta in this episode, though the “Let’s keep it going for the fans, they’ll never know” was an exception, sounding too much like a fans-are-clueless comment.
As always, watching SPN along with cast and crew live tweets adds to the fun. You never know who’s going to join in – sometimes even Captain Kirk himself!
@Jarpad: @WilliamShatner, you should be watching Supernatural!!!
@WilliamShatner: It’s DVRing
@Jarpad: Ok…then I can forgive 😉
Sometimes when fandoms collide like that, I just end up staring at my twitter feed and grinning like a fool. Of course Captain Kirk watches Supernatural – my Show is a pop culture phenomenon, damn it!
Jared echoed fandom a few times:
@Jarpad: Oh, Sam and Dean….I hate when y’all argue…
And so did Osric Chau, who was tweeting along
@OsricChau: Brother bonding moment 🙂
All that laughter felt really good – until suddenly everything went from hahaha this is so funny to OMG take the knife out of my heart and the anvil off my foot!
I’ll confess that I’m a little touchy about subtlety. Anyone who reads these reviews knows that I adore parallels, and think that Kripke’s original formula of letting the MotW mirror the Winchesters’ relationship is brilliant. That said, as soon as the parallel starts to feel too on-the-nose, it yanks me right out of the Show. That messes with my viewing experience – and that upsets me. I like the idea of setting up the Ghostfacers’ relationship woes to mirror the Winchesters’, and this morning I’m more okay with it than I was at first viewing, but as I sat there watching on Tuesday night, the parallel seemed so heavy-handed that I couldn’t take it seriously. There was a lot of “Help, falling anvils!” on twitter, and there were some upset fans who took to twitter afterwards to make their complaints known. Then there were fans just trying to get their squee on who took to twitter to chastise those fans, and… well, you know how this goes.
I get both sides – in fact, in this case, I feel like I was on both sides! I get why fans are upset when Show seemingly does something that’s not perfect. Let’s face it, we hold Show to a pretty damn high standard. We want it to be witty and funny and smart and breathtakingly gorgeous and also to make us FEEL, which is a lot to expect (I can’t be the only one remembering what a mistake it was to expect all that in teenage romantic partners…). But we do expect it from our favorite Show. We’re passionately invested in Show’s “success” – that is, when the Show delivers all these things, we feel like it’s a winner. And we, in turn, also feel like a winner. There’s research (yes, legit empirical research, for those of you who are academically inclined) that shows that when a sports team wins, the invested fans of that team experience the exact same rush of endorphins and euphoria that the actual players do. It’s the same for media fans – when we feel like “our” Show is witty and funny and smart and gorgeous and tugging at our heartstrings successfully, then it’s a “win” for us too. But if it seems our Show falls short of the mark, we’re devastated – and then we’re angry at our “team” for not winning so we can have that lovely addictive endorphin rush! As I was watching the first time, I had plenty of euphoric moments, but I felt a bit of that let-down too when the parallels weren’t the subtle sort that I love.
I’m invested in Supernatural, and I watch to get my fix of these fascinating characters and this amazing intricate world I’ve been sucked into over the past nine years. So when something doesn’t quite go the way I wish it would, I need to sit back and figure out why. I don’t want to be that devastated fan sitting in the bleachers with her head in her hands – I want to be jumping up and down cheering and euphoric and eagerly counting off the days until the next “game”. Over nine years, I’ve come to trust Show to take me there about 9 times out of 10, which is a pretty damn good record (better than some early examples of that dating analogy).
Having pondered for two days, and rewatched the episode, I’m still happy about all the things I loved, and I’m alot happier about the parallels. Here’s why: The blatant parallel works for me if I look at it from the Winchesters’ point of view, and in fact the whole episode works well this way. It’s almost like I’m reading a piece of outsider pov fanfic (one of my favorite things in the world) – we’re seeing Ed and Harry through Dean and Sam’s eyes (even when Sam and Dean aren’t in the room with the Facers, it’s like we’re seeing and hearing from the Winchesters’ pov).
Perhaps that’s why the things Ed and Harry say to each other are at times almost a verbatim repeat of what the brothers have said to each other in the past. Many times, it’s literally what Dean and Sam are hearing. The camera angles and perspectives make this explicit – we are watching Dean or Sam watch Ed and Harry. They don’t comment overtly on what they’re seeing and hearing, but we see their line of sight, their concerned expressions, their constant sideways glances at each other to check on how their brother is reacting. We can almost hear the Winchesters’ internal dialogue: “How is he hearing this? Does he think that’s what I’m doing? What I did? What meaning is he taking from what he’s seeing here? Is this where we’re headed too?” I was going to say that I wish they had actually said some of that, but honestly, I don’t. At first viewing, I thought this episode lacked subtlety – watching it this way, the Winchesters say plenty with just those looks. And each one breaks my heart.
The other thing that bothered me about using Ed and Harry as a mirror for Dean and Sam was that the parallel just didn’t work well for me. I mean, the Ghostfacers and the Winchesters have vastly different histories. Ed didn’t practically raise Harry, and they haven’t saved each other’s lives a million times. When Harry accuses Ed of “dragging me away from a normal life” it seems like that could apply to Sam too – except Dean had a real reason for doing so, not a fabricated lie. And he brought Sam back. Sam chose to come with Dean after Jess was killed, he wasn’t tricked. He’s choosing to stay with Dean now (at least as a hunting partner) when he knows the truth about Gadreel.
They also have vastly different missions – the Ghostfacers haven’t been tasked with repeatedly saving the world, after all. They haven’t had to make the kind of impossible decisions with which the Winchesters grapple on a weekly basis. Yes, there are surface similarities in their situations. There’s one partner who desperately doesn’t want to lose the other and deceives them to accomplish that, which superficially fits both duos – or at least fits from Sam’s overt understanding of what happened with him and Dean. Yes, lies were told and people died and the deceived person feels responsible for those deaths. He also feels understandably betrayed and not sure he can keep trusting.
But there are so many differences in their situations, it’s hard for me to see a mirror image. Ed created the Thinman fantasy to keep Harry as his partner; Dean deceived Sam to save his life. There’s nothing keeping Sam from leaving Dean. Ed’s deceit seems mostly selfish, although he rationalizes it as getting Harry away from a life that wasn’t “right” for him – but it’s made fairly clear that’s only a rationalization. Dean’s deceit may have been partly selfish, in that he doesn’t want to be without Sam, but it was also clearly about Sam too. Saving a life is not the same as hey, don’t marry that girl. Both Harry and Sam ended up hurt by the deceit, but Ed and Dean’s motivations were quite different. Ed kept it up for a ridiculously long time simply because he wanted Harry to stay; Dean kept it up reluctantly because Gadreel kept threatening to let Sam die if he didn’t. It wasn’t an intentional gaslighting, though from Sam’s perspective, intent doesn’t matter quite so much when you’re in the agonizing position (again…) of thinking you’re going crazy. But the stakes are vastly different here.
So there I sat, gnashing my teeth and saying “Come on, Show, fandom is smarter than this, you know that” when suddenly it hit me. Maybe the parallel isn’t supposed to line up. What Ed did to Harry is not what Dean did to Sam. Sure, it sounds like it on the surface – and maybe that’s why we got the exactly mirrored dialogue so often – but dig a little deeper, and it’s not a mirror at all. It’s a fun house mirror, with the reflection skewed and imperfect. At first, it looks like we’re supposed to see it as a reflection, because we’re still seeing through Sam and Dean’s eyes – and they are seeing the parallels. They are seeing the mirror image as closer to their own than it really is, because that’s how any of us would view it if the reflection was right there in our faces. But Dean and Sam are smart. They’re almost as smart as the SPN fandom. They’ll figure it out. They’ll see the places where the images don’t line up, where the reflections diverge. They’ll use the mirror in (perhaps) the way it was intended – to see that their own path forward doesn’t have to be the one that the Ghostfacers followed.
Harry’s forlorn comment from the backseat hit home, both with me and with the Winchesters.
“You roll with a guy so many years, you start to think he’s always going to be next to you. When you’re old he’ll be in the rocking chair next to you…”
Neither Sam nor Dean want that rocking chair next to them on the porch to be empty. (And Jenny, be prepared for another tackle hug from me for that image of future!Sam and Dean, which is the ending of some of my favorite fanfics). I can see the wheels turning for both of them. Agonizingly slowly, yes, but this wouldn’t be Supernatural if it didn’t shatter my heart and then drag it through the mud for five or six or twenty episodes. But I can see the glimmers of understanding in both Sam and Dean, and it’s enough to keep me hopeful.
The highlight of the episode, other than the fact that we actually saw some evolution in the Winchesters’ relationship drama (albeit without words), was the glimpse we got into Sam and Dean’s childhood. Every time Show gives us a morsel of backstory, it feels like the most delicious treat imaginable. And this one was perfect, absolutely perfect. It’s in line with all my head canon of how Sam and Dean were as kids, and (as Dean no doubt intended), an illustration of all the countless times that Dean took care of Sam. The image of an injured Sammy balanced on just-a-kid-himself Dean’s handlebars as he races to the hospital left me so emotional I didn’t know whether to squee or sob. Sam wanting to be Batman, following in his big brother’s footsteps always – it reiterates so much of canon history, so many things the brothers have said to each other and been to each other. You can see how emotional Dean is as he remembers, a fond expression on his face (and eye crinkles!)
You can see that Sam has the same fond recollection, affectionately ribbing his brother (like they used to all the time, OMG Show you’re killing me here!) before he schools his face into a more serious expression. Kudos to Padalecki for making it look like Sam had to really struggle to do so.
So, in the end, I liked this episode a lot. I don’t know whether the imperfect mirroring was intentional, or if TPTB insisted that the parallels be more on the nose so even a brand new viewer could get it, as they’re apt to do. I prefer to believe the former, because there’s a reason SPN is my tv boyfriend. Show really is smart and witty and funny and gorgeous and makes me FEEL. So I’ll be right here in the bleachers, cheering for my winning team.
PS – Twitter started clamoring for fanart of that backstory immediately, and fandom, as always, didn’t disappoint. If the uncredited one is yours, please let us know so we can credit. Couldn’t resist posting them all, because damn, our fandom is talented.
Where are those tissues??
So what did you think?? Tell us in the comments!
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