Monday

Brothers in Arms


My latest obsession: Supernatural. Having never followed the show over the past years of its run, I've played quick catch-up, burning through Season 1-4 over the past month. Consider me converted; as a serious admirer of Joss Whedon's work, especially Buffy and Angel, Eric Kripke's series is the next-best thing in terms of a fantasy-horror series with an absorbing and well-developed mythology and increasingly multi-dimensional characters dealing with demons both personal and literal. While Kripke has clearly been influenced by Whedon's approach--particularly with regard to Supernatural's seamless integration of comedy, drama, and horror elements and mix of stand-alone "concept" episodes with arc-driven narrative--the universe and personalities he's crafted are richly their own.

One of the most remarkable aspects of the show is its feel for an Americana, at once, of-this-moment and smartly aware of decades' worth of American history. The first names of protagonist brothers Sam and Dean Winchester imply an earlier era when such simple, monosyllabic male names were more common; the rifle-manufacturing connotation of their surname, meanwhile, suggests the subtextual genre Kripke is also slyly drawing on: the Hollywood Western (the same form Whedon relocated to outer space with Firefly). Yet rather than a pair of horses, Sam and Dean traverse the country in a black '67 Impala, blaring (mostly '70's and early '80's) classic rock from the cassette deck. The effect of these elements is a sort of blurred timelessness that's only rendered present-tense through the brothers' 21st Century dependence upon cell-phones and laptop computers.

The other nifty trick that Supernatural pulls off is convincing us that one week Sam and Dean are in Wisconsin, the next Wyoming, and the week after that Ohio, when every episode save for the pilot has actually been shot right here in Greater Vancouver. Initially, as a Vancouverite, this was a little distracting, as I tried, with occasional success, to spot local locations (including a cemetery in "Upstate New York" that's actually just up the street from my house). But as I became progressively engrossed in the world of the series, I was mostly able to suspend disbelief; after all, if I can momentarily accept that ghosts and demons exist, it shouldn't be too much of a stretch to buy that some non-descript suburb of Vancouver is small-town Indiana, right? It helps significantly that Kripke nails virtually every other detail of Americana, while using Vancouver's oft-grey skies to compliment the show's moody textures.

To be sure, this is a dark show even when the demons aren't on-screen, but it's also one of the great works in film or television about the dynamics of brotherhood, as tender as it is thorny. It's a story as ancient and elemental as Cain and Abel. Sam and Dean are, by disposition and world-view, drastically different men: the former is sulky and cerebral, the latter extroverted and pragmatic. And yet the shared experience of their upbringing bonds them together in a way that's virtually impenetrable to everyone else. They don't always get along swimmingly, but they're constantly aware (and, frankly, terrified) of how lost one would be without the other. This blood-bond--the subject of so many great Westerns and other classic American films and novels--is strengthened further by the fact that Sam and Dean are, first effectively and later in the series literally, orphans: all they've really got is each other and they know it. The nomadic nature of their lifestyle (driving all across the Lower 48 in search of their next non-human nemesis; Dean's afraid to fly) coupled with the danger and strangeness of their profession (they refer to it as "hunting") prevent them from forming any other lasting relationships, aside from with other "hunters"--a necessity they both eventually acknowledge and begrudgingly accept.

The first season, like most debut runs, is largely concerned with introducing the primary ingredients: Sam and Dean are just about the only reoccurring characters, Kripke's specific version of horror mythology is established, and the episodes are mini-horror movies centered on a demon-of-the-week, with a connective arc only hinted at until the final few episodes. The episodes range in quality from merely fine to very good and even moderately scary, as such famous villains as Bloody Mary, the Wendigo, and the Hook Man square off against Sam and Dean. The best of these, "Scarecrow," borrows from the chilling idea behind Shirley Jackson's "The Lottery," as a small Midwestern town makes annual human sacrifices to a pagan god. All things considered, it's probably as good as Buffy's first season, if not quite Angel's, which worked from the advantage of our familiarity with most of the principals and thus required less time for exposition.

Supernatural's second season is where the show truly hits its stride. The master-narrative tantalizingly introduced near the end of the first season drives the momentum, giving the follow-up season a real sense of urgency from start to finish. And the "stand-alone" episodes (a misleading categorization, since they all serve to further the show's central themes of brotherhood and duty, if not the season-specific arc) are often legitimately powerful. "Heart," in which Sam and Dean try to cure a young woman who has been made a werewolf, is one of the most devastating hours of television I've ever seen; its final scene, in particular, is brilliantly-staged and utterly haunting. The third season, woefully shortened by six episodes due to the Writer's Guild strike, is nevertheless nearly as strong.

One of the most interesting dichotomies established over the first three seasons of Supernatural is between faith (Sam is a Believer and regularly prays) and agnosticism (Dean repeatedly states that he believes only in what he has seen, which includes ghosts, demons, vampires, and werewolves--but not God or angels). It's a constant source of tension between the two brothers, surfacing again and again, from a first-season episode involving a corrupt faith healer to a later one, where the ghost of a renegade priest must be stopped.

That's why I cringed a little when, in the fourth season opener, an angel resurrects Dean (who died in the third season finale), claiming that he's part of God's grand design. This seemed to mark a bold, potentially dubious commitment on Kripke's part and, inevitably, ended the on-going debate mentioned above. But over the next few episodes, it gradually becomes clear that this development is actually Kripke's most subversive move to date. The angels, we soon realize, aren't benevolent guardians of human-kind. Rather, they're a cultish, militaristic force operating mostly on blind faith and big-picture fatalism. One "fallen" angel tells Dean that only four angels have actually seen God and that they must suppress any and all emotion because such feelings are the "pathways to doubt." Often, in fighting their eternal war against Lucifer's army of demons, hundreds or even thousands of innocent human lives are shrugged off as mere collateral damage; the critique slyly embedded in this depiction of brutish angels and a decidedly Old Testament God seems also to extend beyond religion and toward fanatical nationalism or even unregulated capitalism. That such an argument could be made--I won't push it further until I've watch the fifth and sixth seasons, which could very conceivably offer more curveballs--without requiring too much critical stretching is certainly saying something. In fact, it seems nothing short of radical for a CW series about hunky brothers driving around in a classic muscle car fighting ghosts and monsters.