season gr8 retrospective, part the first

Oct 02, 2013 19:44

This was going to wait until I could rewatch the whole season in close succession, because I think most shows and Supernatural particularly benefit from the whole picture, but it looks like that's not going to be an option until tomorrow and I am not entirely sure I'll be in the frame of mind for logical thinking after not one but TWO hours with my favorite vampires tomorrow night, so! Here's what I've been thinking over the summer.

Supernatural took the meta-ness to a whole new level this season, in a way that was delightfully apropos to the in-universe story. The earlier meta episodes that simply acknowledged the existence of author and audience could be quite cool, but they were one-off nods, not a meditation on the nature of storytelling itself. S8 didn’t merely integrate the meta-ness into the longer story, but it hinged the season arc on an explicit indictment of the storyteller. That’s some power-postmodernism. It’s not that I’ve never seen it before. Dollhouse and The Wire - my two favorite shows! - did it too. The fresh twist on an already-neat twist is that those shows did so in their last episodes, in S5 of The Wire and coming to a head in the Epitaph era of Dollhouse, while Supernatural has taken a seriously interesting chance in doing this with at least one season left to go. It’s pulling a Littlefinger on us, telling us not to trust it and then sweeping right on with things. VERY VERY COOL.

But “cool” doesn’t mean too much if it can’t be tied in thematically, and on this front S8 did a really wonderful job as well, in that it was all about the way we write our own stories. The “free will” thing in S5 left a rotten taste in my mouth for a lot of reasons, but one of them is that this particular framing of one of the great questions of human consciousness is actually disempowering in a double-speak kind of way. If the question is “do we have free will or not,” that basically means that we have no say over whether or not we have any autonomy. “Free will” is a non-human concept that either exists outside of us or it does not. S8 looks at things in terms of authorship and ownership, acknowledging the existence of unfair constraints on agency while also acknowledging that we can, proactively, make the decision to support each other’s autonomy or to encroach upon it. Is there freedom? To some extent, maybe, if enough of us choose it and work hard enough at it.

That wouldn’t have been complete without the stop-and-start psychological process of making decisions. I think we saw a very similar process happen with both Sam and Dean, where they think they get what they’ve wanted and then something sets them off to recoil from it.

With Sam, it was the way he was cut off in that big hearty laugh to learn that Don was still alive. He’d just about gained some acceptance by Amelia’s dad, on his way to becoming an honorary (and maybe someday down the line, actual) member of a family he could see himself being a part of - OF COURSE something happened to make him feel like an interloper and beat himself up for letting his guard down for a second. So he wigs. He runs from Amelia because he can deal with sadness, but he cannot hold his shit together if he allows himself to hope, which leaves him in no place to deal with Dean’s mind games. Sam’s lines in Hunteri Heroici, which were seized upon so eagerly by people who wanted to delegitimize Samelia as evidence that Sam must have had a psychotic break* was actually about Sam’s conflicted inner feelings about his own life. Like Fred, he’s spent a lot of time lost in his own head. Did he make the right choice, not fighting for Amelia? Is he living in a dream world now, playing hero and giving up his chance to be a real person? Maybe he’s still in the cage; maybe he’s just always been crazy. And Sam just locks it all away until his own mind is like Fred’s wasteland. Sam has to make a choice about how he interprets reality. Sam has to write his own story. Did Amelia happen, or was it such a diversion from his awful “real” life that what they had didn’t count at all? And that’s everything, that’s the world, and so Sam’s the one who has to make the decision at the end of last season, to write his story and ours. Is keeping them out worth losing just one of us?

*(TEAM FREE WILL, unless and until you make a decision which disturbs our totally contracanonical interpretation of Sam and Dean and their relationship, in which case you must be psychotic and therefore have no free will at all!)

Later in the season, Dean went through a similar process of getting a home and running from it after they found the bunker. Dean got what he thinks he wanted - a furnished armory where he could put up pictures of Mary and hang out with Sam - and he FREAKED. Dean leaps onto the trials because he has absolutely convinced himself of his own father’s excuse - that we’ll get those sons of bitches and then we’ll settle down. (Dean’s not pissed at Sam for not following the unspoken agreement that I don’t think really existed. He’s mad at Sam for taking everyone at their word, that we won’t fight when we’ve gotten our revenge and cleaned up all our messes, we can survive without it. Dean didn’t want Sam to be able to survive without it.) And then they settled down first and they WEREN’T DONE, there are still DEMONS OUT THERE BEING DEMONY and so he treats it like OMG IT’S THE END OF THE WORLD (even though they’ve seen the end of the world and this is manifestly not that). So Dean throws himself into the trial in contrition to a God that has no right to expect Dean’s belief.

And then Sam tackles the hellhound and disrupts both of their dream worlds. Sam had proven to himself that he could write his own story, and was therefore going into the trials with as free a will as one can have. Dean, doing the trial under a sense of obligation, wasn’t ever going to qualify as the “sacrifice” that the final trial required. If he doesn’t see light, if he feels fatalistic about it because he goes into it with the attitude that the sacrifice he’s making isn’t really a choice, then he can’t further the seasonal embrace of free will. Sam sees light, so he’s going to try; to start off with hope means that he’ll be paying a price out of something that’s genuinely his to give. IMO Sam’s increasing hopelessness, brought on mostly by the way Dean made it clear that Sam was just never going to be able to win respect this or any other way, was the thing that paradoxically signaled that Sam wasn’t going to die in the trials - if you have nothing to lose, you have nothing to give.

Since we’re talking about storytellers, I’m going to put my usual “ author is boxed” perspective on ice to dissect a comment from Jensen Ackles:

"We ended last season with Sam doing the trials and Dean really, really harboring a lot of guilt over the fact that he wasn't the one spearheading that campaign, so the fact that that has now subsided and the brothers essentially chose each other, I think gives Dean a little bit more of a sense that he's in the driver's seat with what's going on.” (emphasis added) (source)

I believe that’s what Dean’s telling himself, but it's bullshit. Dean didn’t actually feel guilty about not doing the trials. If it were really about that, he would’ve tried to be helpful in getting it done, or at least not actively hindered the effort with constant undermining by either aggressive berating or passive-aggressive babying. He just didn’t like that there was a big thing happening and Sam was clearly the one in control of it. And then he didn’t like what that reaction said about him - that he was prioritizing ego and dominance over family and mission - and so he decided that unhappy feeling was guilt about the trials, because if they were his responsibility then it’s still ALL ABOUT HIM. He wants to reassure himself of his dominant role in the relationship, and so he is cruel because he thinks that’s how one exercises dominance; he decides the Trials are his tasks to do and therefore not only is he in charge even though Sam’s the one suffering but he’s entitled to be a dick to Sam as punishment for Sam getting out of line. And now that the trials have “subsided” and things are back to normal, Dean (and/or possibly Ackles?) believes that the default is not a partnership, as Sam wants, but a hierarchal dyad with Dean “in the driver’s seat.”

This is a problem that they have had for eight seasons now. This is something that took root at the beginning of S2 when their relationship was realigning after John’s death.

SAM: How could you not have told me this?
DEAN: Because it was Dad, and he begged me not to.
SAM: Who cares?! Take some responsibility for yourself, Dean! You had no right to keep this from me!
DEAN: You think I wanted this? Huh? I wish to God he'd never opened his mouth. Then I wouldn't have to walk around with this screaming in my head all day. (ep 2x10, Hunted; transcript from the SuperWiki)

Dean has kept Sam in the dark about something that is literally life and death for Sam, plopping himself down “in the driver’s seat” of someone else’s car. And when Sam calls him on it, Dean makes like Sam is transgressing upon his rights by having any opinion at all. Sam’s perspective, Sam's pain, Sam’s very existence - ALL ABOUT DEAN, and how dare Sam get so uppity as to imply otherwise!? And Sam, grieving his father and his humanity, accepts that framework, right up through that heartbreaking “so?” in the little church by the water.

All of which circles, again, back around to the idea of who gets to mythologize, and whether or not the things we say and believe come true. It’s a pretty frequently-cited fandom byword that Supernatural is Sam’s story through Dean’s eyes. THAT is what S8 problematizes so beautifully. Dean tells the story that’s convenient for Dean’s narrative of self, and Sam and the audience plod along accepting that it’s true - that if Sam were only deserving of better treatment, if only he weren’t too bullheaded/passive/emotional/sociopathic to jump through a zillion flaming hoops (even after the ACTUAL LITERAL FALL INTO A BURNING RING OF FIRE that was Sam LEAPING INTO HELL), then Dean wouldn’t HAVE TO make this relationship so complicated. Sam takes Dean/the universe/God and His tablets up on the challenge, and it doesn’t fix shit, because the official narrative was never particularly forthcoming in the first place. Everyone has an agenda, even the narrators who try to disappear - specifically, that agenda is to punish SOMEONE for the fact that Daddy didn’t love Metatron/Dean enough or in the right way or whatever, and now that Daddy’s gone and IT’S NOT FAIR, someone’s gotta pay and make it up to them, so FUCK YOU.

And this is why all the wailing about THE RITURRRRZZZZ re: S8 makes me want to put my head through a wall. Generally speaking, it’s not extradiegetic fail that introduces a bunch of incoherent rationalizations for a course of action that seems bafflingly counterproductive toward the things a character claims as their goals. That is how people really are. Dean really does have free will, he really is making his own choices, and for several years now he really has been spewing bizarre and increasingly cruel rationalizations toward actions that are unhealthy for him and frankly abusive toward Sam. This has been absolutely consistent the whole time. The difference between "then" and "now" is NOT a change in characterization, but that S8 was the dash of cold water bringing an unpleasant awakening as to what our usual narrator has convinced himself of, and how wildly unreliable he truly is. The season is shockingly successful, in putting the audience inside the characters’ POV on the dissonance that’s been there all along.

SO YEAH AWESOME, SEASON 9, BRING THE PAIN! If I do follow through on a rewatch-binge this weekend, I'm hoping I'll have more to say about Cas, because his story was just as sharp an exploration of these themes, but it involved a lot of new information in a way Sam's and Dean's stuff didn't, so I think I'll get more out of it when it's fresh in my head.

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everybody lies, meta-fantastica, the riturrrrzzzz, the author is boxed, supernatural, spn: sammay!, spn: dean what even, abuse

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