I've re-watched The Great Escapist" about ten times in between Wednesday night and the writing of this review. I can't get enough of it. In terms of writing, acting, directing, and production, this episode offers so much! This is plain and simple, the Supernatural" I used to remember. The Supernatural" that I could dig into every week and marvel over the story, creative elements, and acting that brought many tears to my eye, as well as making me gasp and laugh. I want to hug this episode and never let it go.
Season eight overall, while an improvement over season seven, has struggled quite a bit with consistency. It's not a well written season by far. So when a gem like The Great Escapist" comes along, one that actually matches my ideals when it comes to crafting a story, my excitement level hits the stratosphere. In other words, I'm so effin happy!
I'm taking a different approach with my review this week. My breakdown is going to be a bit more technical in nature. I'm going to point out some examples of why this episode was superior in terms of writing, directing, acting, etc. Just because I'm feeling punchy!
As I've said in my reviews many times before, I put a high emphasis on writing. That is the core fabric needed to take guys that look pretty and make them look pretty good. Let me take several paragraphs to explain what Ben Edlund is better than any other writer on this team, and in television in general.
1. He knows his characters.
Ben Edlund does have an advantage over everyone else in that he's been involved with the show since season two. He's created many of these characters that have dotted the Supernatural" landscape. He's the one responsible for introducing Crowley. His scripts have given multi-layered dimensions to Castiel that no other writer has dared to even venture. Edlund even admitted in a special panel saluting his career at Comic Con last July that his favorite character to write for is Castiel. Ben also created Kevin Tran. Now Metatron can be added to the list.
So, is it any surprise that when these characters meet in conflict in an Edlund script, that major fireworks emerge? In The Great Escapist," the partnership between Crowley and Castiel from season six comes into play in a big way. Crowley knows Castiel very well by now, even better than Naomi. So it doesn't shock me when Crowley is able to figure out where Castiel hid the tablet. It actually makes me smile! He's quite the crafty devil.
The best interaction between these secondary characters happens with Kevin and Crowley later in the episode. Crowley thinks he's on a winning streak, and having the angel tablet means everything, but Kevin knows that without him, these tablets are useless. He's no longer scared of Crowley, and knows that he holds the advantage. Seeing Kevin confront Crowley this time with a cool demeanor, the satisfied smile, our little prophet has oh so grown from his high pressure days as an honor student when he was first introduced. The way the power play unfolded between these two is nothing short of brilliant.
2. He knows his audience.
Most important, and only writer Robbie Thompson has been putting this much care into his scripts as well, Edlund asks himself with introducing new elements, What sort of questions will the fans ask?" He knows us. How he gets to know us is anyone's guess, but he does.
Ben Edlund gives his audience credit. He knows how smart fans are. Sure, I was a little confused in the beginning as to how Crowley could have captured Kevin, and why Sam and Dean were acting so weird. I waited though, knowing there was a reveal coming, even if the answer to the former came later when Crowley revealed to Castiel that he bought himself an angel in Ion. We all know the boat wasn't angel proofed. Only an angel could have gotten to Kevin. Did Crowley say that? No, but it wasn't hard to figure out. In other words, we got clues. This is in stark contrast to something like how Sam was easily able to find Bobby in Taxi Driver." We weren't given any such clue. There was no rhyme or reason why Sam could just walk into Hell and come across Bobby so easily. We were left guessing how in the world we jumped from point A to point B.Another question I read among fans was, why was Sam able to find the symbol of Metatron so easily? Edlund covers that with a perfect twist, Sam in his state is starting to remember old obscure things in such vivid detail. With that piece of information, suddenly it isn't far fetched that Sam could find a symbol in a book from a course in Stanford that he took 10+ years ago.
3. He writes amazing dialogue.
Okay, this isn't a skill that comes naturally to all writers. Dialogue is hard. Snappy, witty, fast paced dialogue is super hard. Phrases like, It's as if we're in every Biggerson's at once, trapped in a quantum superposition," comes from a mad creative genius who can somehow tie a fictional cheesy family restaurant he invented in season three with a clever trick by Castiel to avoid capture from other angels. I can assure, there are very few writers that would make such a leap. sweetondean already addressed the brilliance of, When you create stories, you become gods of tiny, intricate dimensions unto themselves." Just add me to the pool of people that think that's one of the best Edlund lines ever, and that comes from a very, very long history of incredible lines.
Forget the clever stuff though. Edlund isn't beyond fart jokes either. I'm sure he was cackling when he wrote out the line, You rode a farty donkey." Remember, he was the catalyst behind season seven's Dick" jokes as well. He's got something for everyone.
Most of all though, he uses dialogue to contribute to the fast pacing of his episodes. A lot happens in an Edlund episode usually. Without sharp, very entertaining, yet meaningful dialogue, a very busy script doesn't blend together well at all. It comes across as choppy and ill conceived (we know which episodes had that problem). That didn't happen in this episode, but it's hard to realize that unless you give it multiple viewings. It's easy on the first couple of views to get lost in complex plot points.
4. He knows this show's history
Ben Edlund used to be one of Eric Kripke's closest advisors. That's because he's never forgot what this show is really all about. It's about family, that's for sure. But its also about free will and the consequences of using that free will. That's a subject that has always fascinated Edlund the most.
Edlund is a big picture kind of guy. He's determined to make sure that what ever microcosm of a story he's creating blends well with the overall arc and theme. In this case, there are struggles on multiple fronts. There's the fight between Naomi and Castiel. Doesn't it make sense that the angel that ends up on the side of Crowley, the one that betrays Castiel and Naomi, is an angel who's disillusioned by Heaven's control over angels? Free will has consequences. Beings don't always choose the greater cause, they choose the path of least resistance. Free will can be a dangerous thing.
For anyone that throws at me the one continuity error of the Grand Canyon (which I'm calling an innocent mistake), I can show you hundreds of examples where Edlund ties actions and emotions of characters perfectly from one story to the next. He shows, he doesn't tell. He runs on continuity and respect for the Supernatural" universe, not catch phrases and cliches. He knows when to be subtle, and when to completely shock us. This type of writing is pure instinct, and it's done by someone who completely knows his craft.
5. He really, really, really gets Sam and Dean.
Most of all though, Ben Edlund gets Sam and Dean. For every line he gives them, he knows what their motivations are, what their history is, and how to cleanly bridge any new circumstances with past history.
In the history of Supernatural," only two writers have really got Sam Winchester. One is now gone, Sera Gamble. The other is Ben Edlund. Most writers approach Sam as close to the vest, inward projecting, withdrawn and often somber. He doesn't interact with people much. No, that's Dean's job. After all, that's the way he is. It takes a real skill to bring out what's buried deep inside of Sam, yet not have the moments seem wildly out of character. When moments like that do happen, they're gems. The first episode I can recall this ever happening is Mystery Spot." Another great episode where we got to see the real Sam inside was When The Levee Breaks." In terms of Sam's character exposure, The Great Escapist" now joins those episodes.
Edlund ran with premise, which is something that hasn't been happening a lot this season. There's been plenty of missed opportunities. Sam is no doubt sick. What happens if you put him in a delirious state? He gets very emotional. He's letting all that stirs inside him surface. What's even better though, is since he's changing because of the trials, he's now having moments of extreme clarity. When you put all that together, it's the open Sam I've always wanted to see!
Sam really wasn't out of character though. We were just getting a rare look inside, seeing who he really is. Remember how Sam in his delirium was light and funny? That's happened before if you recall when he was drugged up in Sam, Interrupted." Canon also dictates, Sam is a happy drunk. So yes, in his state, a farty donkey is going to be funny! But it wasn't just that. He got really excited over the discovery of the symbol and was eager to go find Metatron, when it sounded like a mere whim to Dean. He cackled over his memory of Dean with the gassy donkey. He got teary over the memory of knowing even as a young child that something wasn't right with him, that somehow he knew he was infected with demon blood. He was completely livid when Metatron talked about reading stories of humanity's suffering all those years and did nothing about it. This is Sam in the extreme. It's a rare treat.
As for Dean, he's responsible for keeping Sam together. There is no doubt the trials are a two man job. If Dean wasn't there with quick thinking and tons of ice, Sam would be dead. But it's more. Dean needed to work the case because Sam was clearly in no shape. For those of us fan girls though that live on brotherly moments, he was needed for emotional support as well. All Dean needed to do was listen, to be there when Sam tearfully admitted the trials are purifying him. He only made one comment, a heartfelt It wasn't your fault." This moment between them is subtle, but oh so perfect. They don't need tons of words or an over-exposition of dialogue. They just need to be there for each other. That's what's carried them this far.
The Directing and Acting
I'm heaping lots of praise on our director of the week, Robert Duncan McNeill. He has this incredible knack for bringing out the best in the actors he works with. This is actually his second Supernatural" appearance, but that was a long while ago. He directed season one's Skin." He's been kind of busy in between, most notably being the in-house director and co-producer for Chuck" for five seasons. He's also worked on numerous other shows, knows how to get the most from actors since he's one himself. He played Lt. Tom Paris on Star Trek: Voyager."
McNeill did some fascinating shots that we normally don't see on Supernatural," and each had an extraordinary impact on the story. Let's take Castiel jumping from Biggerson's to Biggerson's. It starts off at a wide angle, so we can see what's going on behind Castiel. He doesn't change in any of the shots. It's the same tortured, weary, blank expression as he flips from place to place. With each flip, even when there's a break in the action for the scene between Ion and Naomi, the camera moves closer and closer toward Castiel, until we get the closeup of Cassâ€˜ solemn face and weary eyes. It really adds an emotional element that wouldn't have been there before if they had just shown Castiel moving from place to place.
When a script calls for one of the leads to start resonating," one does wonder how that can be pulled off visually. The choice to distort the field of vision as well works! I love getting the opportunity to see what was happening from Sam's eyes, as opposed to just watching him give off weird faces.
In the scene with Crowley, Castiel and Ion in Crowley's office, you may have noticed everyone is shot at an off angle. It's a classic trick, but it's really effective here. It can be interpreted many different ways, but I see it reflecting Castiel's skewed frame of mind right now. The angel was in some peril.
I will confess, and for very shallow reasons, my favorite sequence of shots came from Sam's quite jarring ice bath scene. It starts with a close up of Sam underwater, immersed in a thick layer of ice. That visual right there tells under no uncertain terms how bad Sam really is right now. Then he pops out of the water, startled and completely freaked out. That's when the angle backs away from outside of the bathroom, showing Dean standing by to assist, but letting Sam wildly flail until he's out of the tub. Then, we're back in the bathroom after Sam is calmer (and Dean so awesomely hands him a towel). It's masterful, and it really adds something to see all those perspectives rather than Sam just hopping out of a tub.
Another effective, and very emotional scene was poor Kevin Tran's video, and his emotionally fired reaction to the idea of his own death. It went from livid anger back to restrained bitterness, then a tinge of regret. Brilliantly scripted, acted, and directed.
Since we're on the topic of emotional scenes, there are times when it's just best to let your greatest asset, the incredible chemistry between the two lead actors, work their magic. Here the approach was simple, a tight shot on the boys, running purely on reaction. We haven't had a scene this strong between the brothers since the stone number one" speech in Hello Cruel World." Hmm, guess who wrote that?
Even Metatron got his chance to shine, and we get to see his sincerity from Dean's POV. It's your choice, and that's what this has all been about. The choices your kind make. But you're going to have to weigh that choice. Ask yourself, what is it going to take to do this, and what will the world be like after it's done."
In closing, but certainly not least in any way, there's the angle from the backseat of the Impala. This shot isn't used much, and I remember how it really added something when Phil Sgriccia did it in Like A Virgin." It's great here too. We're in the back seat, on the next great journey with the boys. It's exciting. But we're heading somewhere, the end." It's so wonderful we get to go along for the ride.
The Loose Ends
There's just one issue that's bothering me that I wanted to get out in the open, so excuse the small break in the format so I can get this off my chest. I'm telling you right now, Sam is going through a literal transformation. He is being physically cleansed of the demon blood. The evidence is all right there.
Ever since Sam fell into that pit at the end of season five, the status of his demon blood has been very murky. The creative minds probably felt that they had gotten enough mileage out of that story, and decided that it shouldn't even be addressed. The point is though, the demon blood has always been there. It's still a fabric that makes up this man, and he still feels that evil inside him. This isn't the excess demon blood that he drank to be powerful in seasons four and five. This is the taint of his blood that happened when he was a baby and has plagued him his whole life. The part of him that he's never been able to shake, no matter how much he wanted to be normal. It's the part of him that's alienated him from the world, and with relationships with others.
There's no way Sam would get weepy over a figurative transformation. For him, it has to be real. He knows he's changing, and given Castiel's comment in Goodbye Stranger," it's happening at a sub-molecular level. He feels different, and he seems to be very in tune by this point in the trials to what's happening to him. I'm hoping we'll find out more in the final two episodes, but I'll bet the farm he's coughing up demon blood.
For the episode, my overall grade, an A+. The first one I've given this season. This episode kicked up the stakes, so let's hope the remaining episodes of the season run with this amazing momentum they've been given.