Supernatural season 9 episode 18 review: Meta Fiction
Supernatural's always had fun breaking the fourth wall, and now there's nothing left of it. Here's Anastasia's review of a great episode...
This review contains spoilers.
9.18 Meta Fiction
Well, that was seriously one of the best episodes Supernatural has had in years. No, really.
The conceit of Meta Fiction, as its title makes evident, is just that: metafiction. Supernatural is already one of the most metafictional TV shows ever made – it’s written not only itself, but its own fandom, into the show itself, and featured episodes with fans reading fan fiction about its own characters. But it’s done more than that: a few seasons ago, it extended that conceit to its epic, seasonal story arcs. Back when the Winchesters were stopping the Apocalypse, they were “ripping up the rules and changing the ending” of a script written by God that insisted that they had their roles to play in an Apocalyptic battle.
At the time, though, Supernatural was a little too busy celebrating free will to truly ask why God wrote a script for them to follow and whether he truly intended them to play their roles. Meta Fiction, though, takes that whole God-as-writer conceit and makes so much more of it. In fact, it adds so many layers to the whole concept that this literature grad-student-in-training practically drooled over all the layers of this episode(in between tearing my hair out like a grad student with a dissertation deadline, because there are so many levels of meta it gives me a headache).
From the very beginning, this episode sets Metatron up as a writer, supposedly penning the story we’re watching; there’s almost a mock documentary style to the way he appears to address the viewer through the remnants of a fourth wall that Supernatural got rid of long ago. As the episode goes on, it becomes clear that Metatron’s attempting to orchestrate events to pen the kind of story he wants - and the brilliant thing about this is that it sets Metatron up to be a completely new and different villain from anything the Winchesters have ever faced.
Up to this point, Supernatural’s had villains with pretty much every villain motivation known to writers: hunger for power, duty, faith, misguided attempts to do the right thing... When Metatron was introduced, he fit pretty squarely into that list: all he wanted was power, and how boring was that? Now, a season later, he actually has a good motivation: he’s a villain because he’s trying to write a good story, and he’s not afraid to manipulate reality to make it happen. That very fact makes him terrifying, because it makes him one step removed from the very concept of morality, which becomes no more than a plot device.
And the brilliant thing about Supernatural is that it has the scope to tell that kind of story. Metatron quite literally has the power to alter reality until he creates a fiction in which he’s the hero and our protagonists are the villains. That’s what the Winchesters are up against: a storyline, and, in a way, fate – except that this time they don’t quite know that they’re being forced to follow a script, which makes it all the harder to fight.
And, since it’s almost the end of the season, it’s likely we’ll get to see how it gets there quite soon. Everything is coming together for that journey – or, rather, being positioned by Metatron.
Part of that coming together seems to be the culmination of the Mark of Cain storyline – interestingly, the one thing Metatron seems to be either unaware of or unconcerned with, despite the fact that it’s one of the most interesting storylines this season. That storyline means, of course, that Jensen Ackles is getting hotter... er, I mean, Dean Winchester is sort of going darkside. Apparently on Supernatural, though, when you go darkside you get hotter, which gives you an excuse for long, luscious, and utterly obscene shower scenes. To use an oft-quoted cliché, in the nine seasons Supernatural’s been running, Jensen Ackles has matured like a fine wine, and when you add sprinklings of scruff and handfuls of evil and darkness, it just becomes utterly unfair to the female viewer.
But yes, okay, I watch for the plot. No, really, I do. And there’s so many brilliant ways, plot-wise, that the episode focuses on Dean’s journey into darkness. In an utter feat of alchemy, Jensen Ackles has transformed himself into an utterly bone-weary, helpless, despairing Dean Winchester, with death in his dead eyes. Particularly striking is the one scene in which Dean wipes a completely clean mirror off with his hand, as if he’s hoping that the darkness he sees in his face can simply be erased like that – but only seeing the same deathly expression again. It lasts no more than a minute, but that’s what’s called packing a punch.
The most revealing scene of all, though, is the torture scene. On Supernatural, torture scenes are a sort of shorthand for character development, because the Winchesters are allergic to “chick flick moments.” This time it’s Gadriel – captured by the Winchesters while running errands for Metatron – who serves that function in a scene that’s nevertheless excellently done.
The highlight is the way this scene evokes Dean’s experiences in Hell. Dean’s always had a very special relationship to torture: since Hell, where torturing others threatened his own humanity, his talent for causing pain has been one of his most bitter secrets. Deep down, he has a capacity to hurt and to take pleasure in pain, and it’s a darkness he’s forever fighting in himself. And this scene – well, it serves as a reminder that the Mark of Cain isn’t so much turning Dean evil as letting out a darkness that Hell awoke in him and that he’s never been able to put away since. The fourth season brushed aside the inevitable trauma Hell had to have caused, but this time Dean’s potential for evil is turning into a damn good storyline, and all I can say is finally.
But that’s not all there is to this scene. In fact, there’s so many different ways it could be interpreted that there isn’t even room to cover them in a short review. That’s the hallmark of good writing, though: to answer Metatron’s question, it’s when the text and the subtext, the reader and the viewer, come together to create myriad possibilities and myriad interpretations.
Meanwhile, Castiel is finally back. It’s kind of unclear what exactly he’s been doing the past few episodes (leading angels? Which he doesn’t want to do? But has still been doing, apparently? While travelling around and searching for something?) so it’s nice to see the show actually acknowledge his existence.
His presence brings back a familiar conundrum that Castiel faced in season six: that of being a leader. This time, he’s in the same position of leading a ragtag band of angels against the would-be ruler of Heaven – a position Metatron is gleefully maneuvering him into. That didn’t go so well last time, ending with the classic villain plot of doing the wrong things for the right reasons and meeting a tragic downfall. Hopefully, though, Castiel learned something last time, and maybe he won’t play quite the role that Metatron intends him to.
However, as Metatron said, part of the importance is not where the story goes but how it gets there. And, as much as this episode was about Dean’s journey into darkness, it was also about Castiel’s journey towards reluctant leadership, towards the role that Metatron wants him to play or away from it. The best way to teach a lesson is to tell a story- and Metatron does. He takes Castiel on that journey by fashioning a story for him to star in, and whether it was reality or illusion matters less than how it affected its protagonist.
That story begins with Casa Erotica and the supposed return of Gabriel (whose return everyone in the fandom except me seems to be ridiculously enthusiastic about). I personally am going to go with the idea that Gabriel’s still dead, because his sendoff in the fifth season was one of the most poignant character deaths in the world – and he deserves that sendoff rather than a retcon. Plus, Gabriel being dead means that he can aptly function as a foil to Castiel without all those pesky questions about what he was doing following Metatron’s orders. Whether he’s really here or an illusion, though, it’s almost touching to see him having a brotherly heart to heart with Castiel in a car (so much resembling those of Sam and Dean) and speaking what happens to be the truth: Heaven needs a leader and Castiel’s the best option. Cas has always been that special angel with a crack in his chassis and a predilection for free will rather than blind faith. He knows what to do with free will much better than the other angels, and whatever role Metatron wants Cas to play, it’s a truth that remains that Castiel has the potential to be a better leader than Metatron could imagine.
Of course Castiel recognizes the illusion for what it is – and, predictably, he ends up captured by Metatron. It’s here that Metatron performs his most atrocious action of the entire episode: he takes away Castiel’s pop-culture cluelessness (R.I.P. all the humor and wonderful moments that that created). Even more predictably, Castiel refuses to take part in Metatron’s little game (did Metatron not do his homework? He’s read the Carver Edlund books. Did he really think Castiel was going to just play his role?).
That means that, as the storylines are falling into place for the finale, the characters are seemingly unaware of the fact that they’re performing according to Metatron’s wishes: in the last scene, Castiel heads out to lead his flock, the ending beautifully intercut both with Metatron typing away and the Winchesters driving away. My money’s on the idea that Team Free Will will change the story and rip up the rules one more time, though. But, once again, it’s not a question of where the story goes but how it gets there, and I’m more than up for that.
Read Anastasia's review of the previous episode, Mother's Little Helper, here.
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