Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Christmas TV Episode #4: "Supernatural"

4.) "Supernatural" 3.8 A Very Supernatural Christmas (Watch it now at Youtube.com)

(LIGHT SPOILERS AHEAD) A Very Supernatural Christmas is terrifying. It's one of the show's scarier episodes (RE: Evil Santa), with lots of blood and some seriously creepy ironic old people. That said, lots of "Supernatural" episodes are scary. Lots of them are hilarious, too. I think the true significance of this show, however, lies in its exposition, and how deeply imbued with sadness and loss these boys' lives really are. "Supernatural" is a fairly serious show. I don't just mean Angels vs. Demons or Lucifer and the end of the world. I mean this: Here are two brothers that have lost everything. They're bereft in so many ways. They've watched everyone around them die, and now they only have each other. This history, this dynamic is written so well into the infrastructure of "Supernatural," that when death threatens to take one of the Winchester boys away, and the other reacts so intensely, so extremely, that he would die, that he would sell his soul to save his brother, our reaction is equally extreme. It's heartbreak. Extreme, terrible heartbreak, and if you truly watch and understand this show, you understand that it's about just that: heartbreak, sacrifice, desperation. Demons, Angels, Tricksters, Vampires--these things are the secondary tension in "Supernatural." The primary tension lies in the tragic history of Sam and Dean Winchester, and that's why this episode, A Very Supernatural Christmas, is so goddam good.

At the end of season two, Sam is stabbed and killed, and to bring him back, Dean makes a deal with the crossroads demon, who gives him one year to live, and then his soul goes straight to Hell. Sam has been searching, but there seems to be no way to break Dean's contract. Dean is doomed. Dean sort of accepts his fate, but Sam will not. This episode does a really great job of capturing Sam's frustration, his unwillingness to cope with the inevitability of Dean's demise, as opposed to Dean's resignation of the matter, and then translating all of this over to the template of Christmas. Because Dean wants to celebrate Christmas this year, for the first time ever, and Sam rejects him on the grounds of unhappy childhood memories. This is not the real reason, of course, but it is, however, what catalyzes this episode's massive forays into in-scene exposition.

In this episode, we're given three long, very involved flashbacks, in which mini-Sam and mini-Dean (maybe eight and twelve years old) are spending Christmas alone in a hotel room. The hotel room is brown and gray, and there are fast food wrappers everywhere. The boys seem to have been alone for a long time, because dad is out on "business," and their dialogue implies that this sort of thing happens often. The boys and their dad move around a lot, and while Dean knows the real reason, Sam is still sort of left in the dark.

This scene is incredibly charged with resonance and history (Dean storms out after Sam mentions their mother), and yet the writing is fully conscious of, not only what's happened to them in the past, but also what's happening to them now, or in the future. Sam, in this scene, is inquisitive, resourceful, naive, and maybe a little pessimistic. He talks big, but he's vengeful and impulsive, and he's already showing us hints of moral ambiguity (in stealing his dad's journal and snooping around Dean's gun). Sam's moral qualms, as well as his tendency toward impulsive behavior, really explode in season four, after he loses Dean and consorts with Ruby for four months. By the time Dean returns, Sam is too far gone, too broken and entrenched in the notion of revenge, and there's really no possibility of repair, only forgiveness, and then "Supernatural," like "Buffy," becomes a show about redemption. Dean, in this flashback, is obedient, headstrong, and brave, and he seems to have some greater, darker understanding of the world and their situation that imbues him with a kind of death wish, or desperation, or sacrificial nature. He sleeps with a gun under his pillow, is evasive and condescending, and from this and previous flashbacks, we know that his first priority, as established by dad, is to protect Sam. Mini-Dean's development into the Dean we know today is based in his extreme observation of sacrifice. Not only would he die for Sam, but he's ready to die. He's willing, and that makes Dean, I think, the more sympathetic Winchester.

Even though Dean is characterized as a womanizer, a soldier, the do-now-think-later type, and he can sometimes come off as radical or vicious, he is, essentially, a true selfless character, in that he rarely seeks revenge or power, relief or happiness for the sake of himself. Usually, when Dean seeks these things, he's seeking them for Sam. Sam, on the other hand, is not selfless. Sam is, in fact, quite selfish, and we can see that a little bit in A Very Supernatural Christmas, when Dean tries to convince Sam that they should have a real Christmas this year, and Sam snubs him.

Sam: Look, Dean, if you wanna have Christmas, knock yourself out. Just don't involve me.
Dean: Oh yeah, that'd be great. Me and myself making cranberry molds.

Dean doesn't actually want Christmas for himself, even though he's about be sent into the pit. He wants to celebrate Christmas as a family. Sam thinks about himself. "Don't involve me," he says. Dean resigns. Later in the episode, Dean brings up a memory of a wreath made of empty beer cans that their dad brought home one Christmas. Sam attacks him, because Dean hasn't "talked about Christmas in years." Dean responds, "Well, yeah. This is my last year." Sam says, "I know. That's why I can't...I can't just sit around drinking egg nog pretending everything's okay when I know next Christmas you'll be dead. I just can't." I! I! I! Sam won't sacrifice his own hang-ups to accommodate Dean, who's just sacrificed his soul to save Sam. Then, we move into another flashback in which mini-Dean comes back with dinner and ends up telling mini-Sam all about their dad's true identity as a Hunter. He also tells Sam that it was monsters who killed their mom. Sam responds, "If monsters are real, then they can get us. They can get me...If they got mom then they can get dad, and if they can get dad, they can get us." Dean says, "It's not like that, okay. Dad's fine. We're fine. Trust me." Dean then promises Sam that it will be all better when he wakes up. "I promise," he says. Sam is worried about himself. He's young, sure, but Dean is young, too. Dean is worried about dad. He's worried about them. "We're fine," he tells Sam. Sam doesn't believe him. I'm not sure he believes him now.

A Very Supernatural Christmas is about Sam coming to terms with his own selfishness in dealing with Dean's sacrifice. After they almost die several times before killing a couple of pagan gods, Sam sends Dean out to buy beer and sets up a little Christmas celebration while he's gone. The two drink very strong egg nog (an acknowledgement, I think, of Sam's lingering inability to cope, and a bit of foreshadowing, as Sam does have some minor struggles with alcohol in coming episodes, as with other, more unsavory addictions) and exchange gas station gifts next to a make-shift Christmas tree decorated with car air fresheners. They share a moment in the end, of silence, and it seems like Sam might say something, but I'm so glad that he doesn't, because that silence alone is fraught with more emotional history, sacrifice, and baggage than any words that any writer could ever write. "Supernatural" really is one massive, televised demonstration of resonance. It's a show occupied by silence and sidelong glances, conversations and singular moments that are wrought and heavy with the past. Christmas episodes are always good opportunities for any show to excavate the ever-present emotional underbelly that lingers in the space between two characters. "Supernatural" doesn't really need a Christmas episode to excavate its characters' emotional fixations, but it's got one anyway, and it's a good one. It's a really, really good one.

UP NEXT: "I've been down here before, and I know the way out." Yo-Yo Ma and Christmas meltdowns in the White House.


Upsidedownpaddle said...

This show does flashback brilliantly. Revealing more and more pieces of an extremely complicated puzzle. 'In the Beginning" is a great example of keeping the story moving forward without additional Big Bads and long term apocalyptic plots.

Tarah said...

I think so, too. In the Beginning, I haven't seen in a while, but it's one of those episodes that sort of foreshadows a larger rift between Sam and Dean, as Dean is taken into this flashback alone, by an angel, while Sam continues to consort with Ruby, a demon. This separation (Dean/Angel vs. Sam/Demon) really starts to play out as season four continues, both literally and figuratively. I won't give anything away. Season four is Sam's season, but I think it's really about Dean: Dean coming to terms with what happened to him in Hell, trying to unlock the life Sam lead while he was away. You let me know what you think.