“I guess we can rule out Moses as a suspect?”
I was a bit skeptical when Eric Kripke and his team introduced the concept of angels into the show in season 2, and even more so when season 4 opened with one of the host rescuing Dean from Hell. But now, two seasons later, we have had a war in heaven, renegade angels, an apocalypse and more biblical imagery than you can shake a stick at. And we have had Misha Collins as Castiel, a steadfast soldier who went against orders and ‘fell’ in order to serve the imperative for which he’d been created. Cas, and all of the rest of it, really grew on me and the return to a more contained insular scope for Supernatural just hasn’t felt right. So it isn’t surprising to find that this third episode of season 6,which brings Cas and the concerns of heaven back into the story, is the first to really feel like a return to the universe of the last few seasons.
This episode steps back from the Campbells and the shifting nature of monster behavior, and revisits what has been the main thrust of Supernatural since 2008; the Judeo-Christian struggle between good and evil, played out with demons and angels and God as an absentee daddy whose children grow noxious in his absence. The storyline is a bit choppy and oddly paced, with a town experiencing Egyptian plagues and then the surfacing of Moses’ staff, or as Dean calls it ‘Chuck Heston’s disco stick’. Still, it satisfies as a solid furthering of the show’s internal mythology.
The return of Cas, a petulant Sam who doesn’t understand why heaven never hears his pleas, and a rogue angel named Balthazar take up most of the run time. There’s a hint given as to what’s been going on inside the pearly gates since Lucifer’s imprisonment; a new civil war, with Raphael on one side trying to put a shelved apocalpyse back on the calendar and Cas and other angels trying to prevent this. Castiel, like every other character who isn’t Dean, is hiding some information or purposefully dodging clarification. I suspect he might be Raphael’s competition, the top candidate up for a promotion to Michael’s seat, but it’s hard to say with any accuracy whats going on.
The emotional/thematic centerpiece of tonight’s ep isn’t the overwrought death scenes or the angelic battles (which are also a bit more brutal than previously) but a quieter moment where Castiel has to inadvertantly torture a young boy to learn which angel has put their mark on his soul. Cas and Sam are not thrilled about it, but display no reluctance in taking action. Dean, obviously softened by his time as a family man, is less cool with the process and with his friend’s amibvalence towards it.
If there is any sequence that can demonstrate that Supernatural has lost none of it’s human bent in the absence of Kripke as headliner, it is this one. There’s plenty going on, not least of which are the myriad of unspoken mysteries and personal conflicts raging under the surface. Why are angels trading for souls? What exactly has happened to Sam to transform him from the guy who ran back into a burning building until everyone was out, to a stone-faced soldier who blithely watches a child suffer? Then again, Cas and Sam ultimately do succeed in restoring the boy’s soul as a result of this ‘torture’, so is it Dean whose softness is the real threat?
The Third Man is distinguished in my mind for a few things. One of them is the rampant and nauseating gore; this is about the ickiest it’s ever been on the show and must set some sort of network standard for gruesome imagery. Remember this is the same hour-long that delivered a viscious, macabre buffet frenzy last February that included a post-mortem scene inolving twinkies, a toilet brush and a ruptured lapband.
Man goes all out though, with blistering postules, locusts chewing through craniums and a scene where a man simply splashes into an inexplicable puddle of gore on the locker room floor. All of that is in contrast to the rather subdued nature of the interpersonal relationships. The connection between Sam and Dean feels particularly muted, but this is clearly a conscious choice on the part of the writers and not an example of character neglect. Collins, so precise last season in his evocation of a great warrior out of his element, has also calibrated his performance to suggest aloofness and a hesitation to embrace the humanity he’s fighting to save. What was mistaken by me as a coldness in the writing in the first two eps of the season turns out to be a coldness in the characters. The entrance of Balthazar and his sentiments regarding what it’s like living in the wake of an apocalypse that ‘broke all the rules’ is exactly the kind of fallout I’ve been waiting to see since this season began.
The Third Man is also unique in the way it’s approaching the mythology. If you observe carefully the set-up and the way the premise is executed, you will see that the creative team aren’t developing this thread as the overarching major storyline. Castiel, heaven, God, all of it has become just another piece of the Supernatural universe and not necessarily the ruling piece. So far, we’ve gotten a return to the folkloric and mythic monsters, the more sympathetic or ‘human’ motivations of the creatures, further exploration of the Winchester bloodline, and now the continued struggle of the Host in the heavenlies. The writers are carefully setting up a new kind of story, one that will weave them all together, I suspect, into something new. This isn’t just living in the aftermath of a great battle like Buffy season 6, but something a bit more seemingly ambitious. The scope isn’t as small as I originaly presumed. We might well be on the cusp of a new epic journey, and for series longevity I don’t see that as a bad thing.
Maybe, Im just projecting my hopefulness, but this is the first time I think we have gotten a clear glimpse into what Supernatural season 6 has in store, and if it seems a little random, a little less tethered to a narrative anchor, I think that’s purposeful. More so than any other season before it, this one is shrouded in character secrets. It is interesting to note that sometimes Supernatural’s clumsiness in storytelling still translates to its success as an emotional genre offering.
Take the final scene of Third Man, which feels tacked on, inevitable and detrimental to the heft of the episode’s storyline. It’s also relieving, satisfying and intriguing to the show as a whole. It’s nothing more than a twisted mirror version of that conversation by the Impala wherein Sam asks Dean what it is he’s bottling up inside. Except now, it’s the other way around, without any explanation from Sam. This happened in season 3, and Dean broke down in the last moments of the ep and told Sam what none of us knew–his time in hell had been longer and harder and more tragic than we had realized. It doesn’t happen here, there’s no answer, and Sam gets in the car. It isn’t good as a dramatic end or even an open door to next episode; it’s not done for the sake of any single story or season, it’s done for the sake of the characters. It shows us Dean sees the cracks in the architecture that we see, it proves that Sam’s new behavior isn’t just a case of less detail, but a purposeful distance. It reminds the audience that these are the same brothers, with the same problems, sharing the same struggle. What looks clumsy is actually quite canny and reminds me why I love this show in the first place.
Looking forward to shenanigans with Bobby and Crowley next episode with ‘Weekend at Bobby’s', the first episode directed by Jensen Ackles.
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