Wow, that was freaking brilliant. For once, I’m pleasantly surprised.
For those that did not realize (and I haven’t read this from anyone yet) Andrew Dabb pulled a fast one on us. It’s pretty clever. The official name for the genre used here is surrealism, but a more modern day term is a mindf***. Okay, milder terms, a mind screw. Either way, we got something the show has never done before.
Surrealistic Cinema - Supernatural Style
When watching the entire episode, I felt like something was off, but I just couldn’t put my finger on it. Everything felt jagged, distorted, non-linear, and many times had a dream like quality. Then I remembered I’ve seen this style of storytelling before. David Lynch is a master at it. Granted, surrealism can take many forms and the choices in this episode were subtle, but they were also strange enough to throw things off. So what is surrealism and why is it used? Well, I’m glad you asked.
Surrealism in cinema stemmed from the surrealistic art movement that was popular in Paris in the early 1920s. Surrealism (or absurdity) in film intends to narrate with shocking images that dig deep into our inner psyche. The goal in a nutshell, is to take visuals to a different level, even trying to mimic the workings of the subconscious mind. The goal is to remove the viewer from a traditional structure using random scenes or unique and offbeat visuals that do not follow traditional plots. The process used is often illogical, irrational and sometimes disturbing to the mind.
Here’s a better explanation of it from Wikipedia:
Surrealism was the first literary and artistic movement to become seriously associated with cinema, though it has also been a movement largely neglected by film critics and historians. However, short lived though its popularity was, it became known for its dream-like quality, juxtaposition of everyday people and objects in irrational forms, and the abstraction of real life, places, and things. Highly influenced by Freudian psychology, surrealism sought to bring the unconscious mind to visual life. "Balanced between symbolism and realism, surrealist cinema commentated on themes of life, death, modernity, politics, religion, and art itself.”
So, if you felt jolted by it all like I did, that means John Showalter did his job perfectly. The surrealistic approach makes sense. After all, Sam and Dean’s world is turning upside down thanks to a beef with Chuck. What a better way to show that shift in perspective than an old and little used art form that is designed to mess with the mind? That is essentially what Chuck is doing to Sam and Dean in this episode so now we the viewers get to join in as well.
Right off the bat it started with a surreal quality. The monster gazing at us, perplexed and out of sorts. That was our main clue right there! In that opening fight scene, everything started in slow motion. The punches were choppy and distorted, the crowd noise muffled, the faces of the crowd were contorted, and then for some reason when it got really brutal "Claire de Lune" kicked in. Not exactly fight music! At that point a gruesome beating turns into something classical and refined, closing in a gorgeous fashion with a monster bleeding out on the floor on top of a grate. Not your typical Supernatural opener by any means!
Thing were happening rapidly throughout the episode, but the connections weren’t logically there. Dean’s card declining, Sam burning dinner and dropping it on the floor, Sam tripping then suddenly getting sick, Dean getting cavities, Baby breaking down, Dean getting sick on eating too many greasy grilled cheese sandwiches, Sam and Dean getting easily caught at the warehouse. It all was vaguely explained that God is mad at them and they have been removed as the heroes of the story. Could that be the cause of what’s really happening? Are they cursed? We never really find out. All we know is the events are a contradiction to the overall theme of the series. Sam and Dean are heroes in the series, but everything in this episode shows the opposite.
Throughout the entire episode the shots were choppy, short and lacked fluidity, much like a dream. Off the wall shots were thrown in between basic moments. For example, when Sam had his kitchen mishaps, we got a couple of vivid shots of plates smashed on the floor and pasta scattered all over the floor, aka something more in tune to the subconscious.
There were bizarre angles of Garth while he examined Dean in the dentist office. The one that stood out for me was the sudden bright light behind him, again delivering a dream like quality.
Then there’s Sam struggling in the middle of the floor while the rest of the family goes on normally. Later, Sam and Dean had a cartoonish fight with Maul. Dean escaped a potentially fatal choke hold by tagging out? The humor mixed into these bizarre scenes was offbeat and enhanced the strangeness of it all.
Another trick of the style is the use of random scenes that break up the narrative. Scenes like Dean and Garth suddenly dancing in the library in black and white to a vaudeville soundtrack. Admit it, you couldn’t turn away from Dean doing an elegant dance routine with a lamp or tap dancing on the library table, could you? It logically has no fit in the narrative. Will you ever forget it though? No! That’s surrealism at it’s finest, surrendering any real logic or interpretation. It’s a blast when done at its most absurd.
(The cinematography in this scene was the bomb!)
On top of that dancing scene, there were plenty of other random items that seemed out of place. The store clerk had Psoriasis. The twins’ names were Sam and Castiel, not Sam and Dean. When Garth took Dean downstairs in a normal looking house, he threw open the door and suddenly a full fledged dental office is there. The score even does a loud “bang” when that happened. Dean spent a whole conversation about God spitting out cotton pieces into a cup.
Sam and Dean now can’t pick locks, something second nature to them. How many times have you had a dream where basic things become impossible? The entire fight club scene while Sam and Dean were waiting in the cages had all sorts of weird and quick angles. Sometimes Sam and Dean’s faces were obscured by bars, sometimes they weren’t. Then Garth showed up, flashing vividly the werewolf face a few times and without a blink of an eye exploded everything. My favorite was a battered, manly werewolf laying in a little girl’s bed with cat pictures behind him. It was just something you don’t expect to see and just off-putting enough to tell you something isn’t normal here.
Another common trick for used for surrealism is going out of chronological order. The backward movement in time to when Garth arrived to save Sam and Dean, which was shown after the boys escape, fit that narrative. Andrew Dabb was pulling all sorts of tricks in this one.
Even the soundtrack was all over the map. Various quirky sounds and styles were used throughout, contributing to the absurdity. For example, it started with "Clair De Lune" during a monster fight! Then it went to a light, upbeat yet quirky piano score, then very mischievous music when Dean had his dental examination and Sam took the remedy. Later it turned cartoonish when they arrived at the warehouse, then it went a little jazzy when Garth arrived at the fight. The kicker was the cartoon-like boinging noises during the altercation outside with Maul. In between all that was a not quite normal version of the Winchester’s theme during Dean’s speech. It was played with a different instrument, adding to the “something isn’t right” feeling.
(Notice that Dean is taller in this shot?)
Garth Fitzgerald IV, DDS
The fact that Sam and Dean can’t do the normal things they do because they are no longer heroes is very absurd, thus the choice in film style. Given the dream like quality of the episode, I’m thinking this is one of Chuck’s stories from his POV, an alternate narrative with a new hero. The true hero’s journey in this case belonged to Garth. Think about it, Chuck told Sam last week that they weren’t the heroes of this story anymore. This is Chuck telling a new story, using a new style, showing Garth as the hero in question. He does have some appeal. He’s goofy and lovable, he’s the world’s best Dad, he’s got the idyllic life with the perfect family in the perfect house living the perfect life. Forget the fact that he is a monster. It isn’t relevant. Garth was placed on a pedestal for sure. The guy who could do no wrong. Considering this is the Sam and Dean story, shifting the focus to Garth feels off, thus another reason for choosing the skewed narrative.
(There's the distorted view and weird lighting again)
I love Garth as a character, but if you think about it, all the episodes that involved him so far have really sucked. “Season 7: Time for a Wedding” made my all time worst episodes list, “Party on Garth,” “Southern Comfort,” “Sharp Teeth” are all forgettable, and “The Spear” made my worst list of season fourteen. I mean, I was so angry when they turned Garth into a werewolf in “Sharp Teeth.” Last time we saw him they left him in the Impala trunk! The writing has never done his character service…until now. A perfect ending for a character that never quite got that perfect start.
In that everyday hero theme, Garth may have gotten out of the hunting life, but he still knows what it takes to be a hero. A hero never turns his back on his friends, no matter what the cost. That earned his some well deserved praise from his mentors at the end. The ending scene was quite telling. There were Sam and Dean, watching Garth and his wife dance happily, looks of sad envy on their faces. Do they want everything Garth has? Probably not. They just want to be everything Garth has become. That is the true hero’s journey, finding that happiness after all that sacrifice. Sam and Dean aren’t there yet. Perhaps that is the end game they’re shooting for?
Yes, everything about this episode was jarring intentionally and I don’t think it will stick. If anything, it was just an odd setup for next week’s episode. I have reason to believe that because everything came in for a soft landing and realism kicked in at the end. Garth wasn’t worried about them being “normal,” he was worried that God was after them. Sam’s honest “I don’t know” answer to Garth’s question if they will be alright really hit home and returned us to the gravity of the situation. Okay, Baby was sputtering at the end, but perhaps she knows something they don’t about their next adventure.
I have one quibble involving the fight club. THEY WERE SUPPOSED TO FIGHT SHIRTLESS!!! WE MISSED OUT ON THAT?? **grumbles and flails, accidentally kicks the dog.** Come here puppy, momma didn’t mean it! Give me some puppy kisses. Awww, that’s my baby. It’s all better.
Sorry, where were we? Oh yes, I MISSED OUT ON SHIRTLESS WINCHESTERS??? I better stop before I alienate the other dog.
Nothing, absolutely nothing, compares to that dance number. Yes, I can’t believe during a Supernatural critique I’m analyzing a dance number. All I can say is I didn’t know I needed this in my life. Did they bring in a special choreographer? I mean come on, Dean was dancing elegantly with a freaking lamp! The entire sequence was brilliant. I must find out who was the inspired genius who decided to go with the vaudeville theme, but I suspect it was someone’s crazy dream. The black and white set, the white suit, the music, put all that in the capable direction of John Showalter and the brilliant cinematography of Serge Ledoucer and magic happened. It doesn’t hurt that we found out Jensen knows how to dance! It was perfect in every way.
Great casting BTW with those twins. The way “Castiel” was staring at Dean was uncanny!
I love that one of the visuals brought back the Sammy puppy dog eyes, only to get denied by Garth’s cousin. That definitely told us something was off.
“The Heroes’ Journey” is nothing more than a diversion from the norm and the approach to tell that story was inspired. Not only was it a clever manipulation by the writer, but the direction, cinematography, editing and the entire crew ran with it in spectacular fashion. At first viewing I felt that outrage at the end of the episode - just what did Andrew Dabb do to Sam and Dean? Once I looked at it more though, digging deeper into the unconscious level, the intention became clear. The intent had to not only displace us on the surface but deep in our psyche to make an impact. I can’t believe I’m saying this, but Andrew Dabb, you magnificent bastard. Well done. Things have gotten absurd indeed!
Overall grade, an A. It was no “Twin Peaks” but it was still great fun and a good attempt at something different. I’ll have to mark this one as a must for a full visual review, because a lot of the images are worthy of deeper examination.
A super huge thanks to Raloria for use of the incredible screencaps! It would have been impossible to tout the exceptional visuals of this episode without them. Check out all she has to offer at Raloria.livejournal.com.
Read more of Alice's insights on Supernatural! Reviews on every episode of the series are on Alice's Writer's Page and in WFB's Episode Guides!