And the (Fourth) Walls Come Tumbling Down: Supernatural’s MetaFiction
This week is the Popular Culture Conference in Chicago, which means I get to hang out with other academically inclined folks and have deep discussions about some of my favorite things – including fandom, the reciprocal relationship between fans and the things we love, and of course, Supernatural. That doesn’t leave me much time to do a review of this week’s episode (so this will be a briefer review than usual). But Robbie Thompson sure as hell gave me a lot to talk about!
I love meta episodes. Any time a character has mentioned “subtext” in the first minute of the Show (while breaking the fourth wall and staring into the camera, no less), I’m a happy camper. My daughter Emily, however, is generally not a meta fan. She likes Supernatural, and she loves to take it apart and critique it, but she usually prefers her characters not to talk back and the fourth wall to stay firmly in place. Imagine my surprise when we watched Show together last night and she announced, “I liked it!”
We both liked it – miracle! In fact, I wish we’d had time for a rewatch, because there are still parts I’d like to think more about and ponder (or savor, as the case may be…). No time for that this week, but even with one viewing, we had a lot to discuss on the drive to the train this morning.
Me: So you liked the episode, right?
Emily: I did. It was meta, but not too meta.
Me: And there were some beautiful scenes.
Em: (making a face) Are you talking about the Dean shower scene again?
Me: (shifty eyes) Um, no. I’m talking cinematography. Obviously.
Unfortunately Emily has read Fangasm: Supernatural Fangirls and was not easily fooled. However, I moved the conversation slyly to more intellectual topics.
One of those was the question of why Gadreel was so eager to die. After being imprisoned in Heaven for so many millenia, was the idea of being kept alive but once again imprisoned a fate worse than death for him? Or does Gadreel know something we don’t about what would happen to an angel after death now? I admit to having an imperfect understanding of what being stuck in the veil would entail – or does he believe that Metatron would get him back to Heaven somehow?
Another question we both pondered was why Castiel changes his mind and decides to become a leader. I wondered if it had something to do with seeing the Mark of Cain on Dean and realizing that things were pretty dire, and that maybe he needed to step up and take on that responsibility, even with the doubts he clearly still has. Em had a hypothesis that I like better, though. She was intrigued by Metatron’s granting Cas the accumulated knowledge of all the stories ever written, and frustrated that it didn’t seem to “go anywhere” other than being used as joke fodder. But perhaps we just missed the more important implication. What if the impact was bigger than that? What if, now that Cas has that wealth of knowledge, he’s able to make a different decision. With the changed context, perhaps he has a more nuanced understanding of what it means to be a villain – or a hero. Perhaps, with the benefit of all those ‘stories’, Castiel feels more capable of defining for himself what he is and what he wants to be. Supernatural has long played with the gray areas of good and evil, hero and villain, good intentions and slippery slopes and bad outcomes, after all.
We don’t actually know why Cas had a change of heart, but I like Emily’s theory. This episode was all about stories, and their impact. About whether the person who writes the story controls the narrative, or whether each individual who hears it controls the narrative through their interpretation. Metatron gave Cas all that knowledge along with his own interpretation – but Cas, like all of us, is free to come up with his own. Write his own version of the story. And act on it.
That sort of layered storytelling is what made this episode really work for me. It was a self-referential episode, in that the messages about authorship and power and control could just as easily be about the Show and its intimate relationship with its fans as about Metatron and his megalomaniacal intentions. Some fans bristled at the implications, which is always a risk when the Show decides to break the fourth wall and comment on itself and its viewers. The specific comments on continuity and canon, which are constant bones of contention in fannish discussion and in some fan/writer interaction as well, were interpreted by some (and here we are, back at interpretation again!) as instructing fans to ‘get over it’ and accept that canon evolves and sometimes a ‘retcon’ needs to happen. Some saw that as condescending.
Emily and I thought, instead, that the deliberate comments on canon glitches, continuity errors and retcons (Thompson wrote ‘retcon’ into canon, and I admit to loving that immeasurably) were not condescending at all, but a way to acknowledge the imperfectness of the process. Every conversation I’ve ever had with the SPN writers has made it clear that they care about these things just like we do. The fact that Metatron’s writing is as imperfect as any of ours (SPN writers included) seemed to be an important one, perhaps crucial at some point in the future.
As a huge fan of fanfiction and transformative works, I also loved that so much of this episode was about interpretation. Validating and celebrating interpretation. Saying that interpretation is what we should be doing, what we have to do. That means interpretation in all its broadest definitions – how we understand these characters we love, how we construct the world in which the Show exists, who we ship or don’t ship. Thompson seems to be saying, it’s all good. Do what you do, make of this what you will.
I don’t think, however, that the episode suggests that canon is meaningless or that continuity is unimportant. I do think it’s harder to accomplish after nine years and dozens of writers and three showrunners, but I think it remains a serious goal. When the Show makes a mistake, we get to call them on it, and that’s okay. The idea of imperfection runs through this episode (and the Show itself) – both Sam and Dean struggle to accept their own and each other’s imperfections; Castiel has to accept his failings in order to have the courage to go out on a limb and attempt something risky once again; Metatron’s refusal to see his own imperfection will perhaps be his undoing.
Gadreel certainly seems to be seeing Metatron’s imperfections more clearly. His entire demeanor with Metatron changed after he asked whether being captured by the Winchesters was part of the plan. Metatron’s admission that sometimes the story plays out differently than you intended was both an important message on a meta level, and something that Gadreel heard loud and clear. He’s back to being the interesting and nuanced character that he was when first introduced, and Tahmoh Penikett is doing a kickass job of playing him.
So basically we loved the meta part of MetaFiction. Kudos, Mr. Thompson.
The plot also progressed in this episode, which was perhaps a bit overly ambitious in how much ground it wanted to cover. At times, it felt like there was too much going on, and some things were cut short. There were several subplots going on, and I wanted more of most of them! The exception to that was the broader angel storyline. Other than Castiel, I just don’t care much about the angels – nothing in the narrative has ever given me much reason to. Cas is the only angel who I have an attachment to, so when the story revolves around the angel ‘war’ or whatever, I tend to tune out and check out what people are saying on twitter. Although I do think that Metatron is becoming a rather fascinating villain. I said long ago, at the very beginning of this season, that I found him to be truly terrifying – he’s creepy in a way that many SPN villains are not, and ingratiating in a way that throws you off and makes you keep questioning his motives. He seems very very dangerous to me – and I like that. Supernatural works best when it’s truly scary.
Castiel’s journey, in contrast to the whole angel war thing, is fascinating. His struggle to come to terms with his history of good intentions and bad outcomes is a universal one – I love him for his imperfections. I also love how much he cares about the Winchesters, which Collins plays subtly but effectively. His joy at reconnecting with Dean on the phone was touching, as immediately giffed a thousand times on Tumblr.
I also may have yelled out loud “YES! Finally someone is taking this seriously!” when Cas grabbed Dean’s arm (rather forcefully…) and demanded to know what he had done. I’m so frustrated that Sam hasn’t said much about the Mark, although it’s clear he’s concerned about what it will do to Dean. It’s like the elephant in the room, and I was so relieved that Cas actually confronted Dean about it. I want so much MORE about the Mark and what it’s doing to Dean! It’s a story arc with so much potential, and I just want it NOW! Also, Castiel’s reminder to Sam to look after his brother was sweet – though there’s no part of me that isn’t quite certain that Sam doesn’t need the reminder. I like the idea of Cas and Sam worrying about Dean together, since he seems to need it.
I wanted more of Sam and Gadreel too. I whooped with excitement when the Winchesters captured Gadreel (which seemed to happen so quickly I was disoriented – was it really that quick and easy?? Apparently there were some scenes cut of the Winchesters tracking him down, according to Thompson’s tweets). Anyway, I was psyched that Sam would finally get a chance to confront the angel who possessed him against his will, who killed Kevin using his body. Sam so needed that confrontation, and Jared played that need powerfully, taut with pent-up rage and emotion – and then he was cheated out of it. I felt cheated too – it felt like psychologically, Sam really needed that. He needed more than one wild punch. He needed some revenge and to work out some of his rage on the being who was primarily responsible for the horror inflicted on him. I get that Dean hates Gadreel as much as Sam does – maybe even more, for what he did to Sam and for what that did to Sam and Dean’s relationship – but we did get to see Dean give in to his need for revenge and take it out of Gadreel physically.
I think Dean needed that catharsis too, but I think Sam needed it just as much. I can only hope that it healed something in Sam to see how much anger Dean has about what happened to Sam, both his part in it and Gadreel’s. I hope that’s at least a little healing for them both.
The end of that scene was one of my favorites of the episode – Sam finding Dean crumpled on the floor like a rag doll after giving in to the violence of the Mark. I loved Sam’s protectiveness there, the way he calls for his brother and makes sure he’s okay. Both Padalecki and Ackles played that scene with understated emotions, and it hit all the harder because of that. It’s chilling how out of it Dean was, and damn it, I SO want more of the Mark storyline, have I mentioned? Give it to me, Show!!
Let’s stick with the theme of more for a minute. A great big thank you to Show and Thompson for writing Richard Speight Jr. back into SPN. It’s long overdue, and I know that it’s been something that both fans and producers have wanted for some time. Most of fandom was successfully unspoiled, so the Trickster’s appearance onscreen was greeted with so much squee on Twitter that I swear it was actually audible. How wonderful was it having Gabriel back??
I kept thinking that Gabriel seemed “off” at first, finally realizing that it was a clue that things were not as they seemed. But before Cas figured it out (smart!Cas, yum), we got so many delicious moments. Gabe riding shotgun while Cas drives, with banter at close to Winchester levels. Gabe grabbing Cas by the face to show him the approaching ‘minions’ (hehe) and calling Cas “Dean’s boytoy”. The spontaneous (and apparently unscripted) Gabe and Cas hug!
The Trickster (and Gabriel) are some of my favorite characters over all the SPN seasons, and Richard Speight Jr. did a great job embodying the trademark snark we love him for, along with that touch of genuine caring that is always clearly underneath. It’s that combination that has made him such a beloved character. And thank you, Robbie, for leaving it up in the air as to whether Gabriel is still alive – I, like most of us, choose to believe that he is.
Okay, and speaking of things I wish we could see more of….way to tease us for three weeks with a Dean shower scene tidbit, and then have the entire scene be barely longer than the teaser! And not only ‘above the waist’ but way above. Yes, I’m pouting. And being shallow. Although I will admit that what we got was very very nice.
Dean spent a lot of time trying to scrub himself clean or examining himself in the mirror during this episode (not complaining about either). He seems to be trying as hard as we are to figure out what the Mark is doing to him, if he’s changing, and how. It was both terrifying and heartbreaking to see his confusion and discomfort, and the mirror scenes seemed full of foreboding. Who is Dean Winchester now? Even he doesn’t seem to know. I’m just hoping that the people who love him can remind him when the time inevitably comes when they need to.
Seems like this review got long anyway – the episode itself was so jam-packed, it sometimes felt like too much. Emily and I both noted that the pacing felt a bit off at times, but I think that might be more about the way the season as a whole was paced. We went rather slowly for the first three quarters, and then it seemed like someone sat up and said “oh shit, we have a lot to accomplish in the last five episodes” and now it’s wham wham wham! Supernatural always feels like a rollercoaster ride, but now it’s a rollercoaster going about 150 mph. Guess I’d better hang on tight right up through the finale.
In keeping with a meta episode, the cast and writer were all over Twitter during the broadcasts. They were joined by CW fan William Shatner, who kicked off the night with a provocative exchange with Misha Collins.
WS to MC: I did see a preview. Apparently he and his lover angel are into bondage. And thankfully lover angel gagged him!
MC: Hey WS, what we do in the privacy of our leathery libraries and then film and broadcast internationally is none of your business.
(See? It’s all up for interpretation….)
Robbie Thompson continued the meta theme on Twitter, checking off his additions to canon:
Robbie: “No spoilers” is canon.
Robbie: Liam Neeson is canon….
He also added that he put in the Sherlock reference because he heard @curtisbooger is a fan. (That caused me to yell “SuperWhoLock!” at my television, btw)
Sometimes fan tweets and comments are the most priceless.
@Gadreel: I’ve been in your brother’s body, Dean. #kinky
@SPNfreaks: I feel like Metatron’s on Tumblr sometimes…
My daughter: Who the hell is cutting Dean’s hair? What’s with the fade??
Haircuts aside (and I tend to agree), what did you think of the episode? And what did you think about the return of Richard Speight Jr. to Supernatural? Tell us in the comments and we’ll pass them along to Richard – we’ll be chatting with him at the upcoming DCCon.
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Fan Phenomena: Supernatural –
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