Thursday, March 26, 2009

"It's a Terrible Life"

The last several episodes of Supernatural have been super heavy, so it's natural that this one was projected to be light and funny.

But come on. This is the fandom that counts "Mystery Spot" among its favorite episodes, because of the combination of humor and pathos. So did we really expect this week's episode to be "Hollywood Babylon"?

Oh, wait, that's next week.

Number One, who watches with me, had to go to bed straight after the show, so I couldn't write this up while I watched. So I'm sure I'm going to miss details, and I will likely ramble all over the place. Please fill in the blanks and make corrections in the comments. We're interactive! :)


I was kind of surprised that they launched us right into it. We have no idea what's going on when we see Dean Smith getting ready for work, making himself a latte at home, wearing suspenders, combing his hair flat...and driving a Prius to work.

Dude. NPR.

We see him totally comfortable as the director of sales and marketing, schmoozing it up and--OMG--eating a salad. Getting a master cleanse recipe from someone on the phone...I'm sorry, but even in alterna-world, there is no bloat on that boy.

In the meantime, Sam Wesson (can you believe I didn't GET IT* until long after the episode was over?!) is working tech support. Apparently, the company they work for is full of morons who can't operate their printers. He's friends with a guy one cubicle over. At first, I yelled, "He's the one!" because he wasn't wearing the yellow shirt. I was wrong. But that's later. Ian and Sam are friends, and Ian gets off on listening to Sam talk about his dreams. He finds stuff like, "I saved a grim reaper named Tessa from demons" high-larious. But it's apparently affecting Sam's sleep, because he dozes off over his work and scenes from past episodes his real life flicker through his mind.

Let me pause for a moment to say how delicious Sam is in a polo shirt, even if it is a bit too stiff and loose and I can't believe I'm saying this, but...I miss his hunting clothes. He seems diminished without his boots and the layers that make his wide shoulders look even wider. It's a minor degree, though, really--I mean, how many men tower over cubicle walls like that?


I've only seen Office Space once--Trish, were the recurring images of copiers and papers being faxed and pencils being sharpened a tribute to that movie? How about the phone later? I remember the printer thing, but did he do the phone?

Anyway again.

Sam stares at Dean in the elevator in their first encounter and is sure he knows him from somewhere. Dean blows him off. "Save it for the health club, pal." Later, alone in the elevator again, Sam asks him about ghosts, and tells him he's been having these dreams. Dean seems to have adapted to his new life a little more easily, since he doesn't appear to sense anything amiss, hasn't been having dreams, doesn't recognize Sam one iota...of course, can we blame him? After what he learned?

So there's an employee obsessed with his work, and when his computer freezes and he loses some, he panics, then says he failed the company, then goes and sticks his head in the microwave. Gruesome. Everyone's pretty shaken by it, and suspicious Dean shows his first inkling that he's not like the rest of these corporate drones or even the movers and shakers at his higher level. Then Ian appears in a yellow shirt after having been called up to Human Resources, and he's obsessed with his work. If Sammy was himself, he would have clued in already, but even though he knows it's weird, he doesn't know why or what to look for.

Then Dean calls Ian upstairs and lets him know he filled out the wrong report. Ian gets disproportionately upset, even with Dean's reassurances. He runs to the bathroom, and Dean follows. We get typical ghostie activity: breath-fogging cold, running taps, soap dispensers gone wild. When Ian stabs himself in the neck with a pencil (poetic, considering he'd just stolen a few packs), Dean sees a reflection of an old man who isn't there. After giving his report to the authorities, he calls Sam up to his office.

It took him a little longer than usual, but Sam's clued now. He found the connection between the two employees after hacking their e-mail accounts. Dean calls him on that, he admits to having some skills, and Dean, instead of being corporately disapproving, finds it sweet (as in sah-weet, not awww). Both guys had been called to HR in room 1444--except, as Dean points out immediately, HR is on 7.

Both guys have been working at this company for three weeks. That's coincidentally odd, but hey, it's a big company, and they don't work together, so it's not that much of a coincidence, I guess. They talk about what's going on, and can't help themselves--they go investigate.

They arrive in room 1444 just as another employee, who'd been called up there, is trapped (more ghostie activity, with the monitors in this storeroom all turning on with static) and is about to be electrically altered by the ghost (ref. "Asylum" in season one). The boys get thrown up against the wall and shelves (standard treatment, though they don't know that!) and Dean grabs a huge iron wrench, swinging it through Mr. Ghost, saving the random employee.

Back at Dean's (awesome!) apartment, they dissect their heroism. "How'd you know ghosts are afraid of wrenches?!" Sam asks in awe. He wants a beer, but a gleeful Dean, who is on that master cleanse, has gotten rid of all carbs. I think Sam says something about figuring out what's going on, but I don't remember because I was too distracted by Dean calling him Sammy, and then the following exchange:

Sam: Did you just call me "Sammy"?

Dean: I don't know, did I?

Sam: I think you did. (Both look perplexed.) Don't do that.

Dean: Okay. Sorry.

So they start to do some research. Dean find the best site ever, and it's...Ghostfacers! We couldn't stop giggling at them, but Ed and Harry have learned from those douchenozzles Sam and Dean Winchester, and don't hesitate to give them (insulting) credit. They have a step-by-step approach that Sam and Dean follow.

Sam uses his research-fu to find out the founder of the company is their ghost, who poured everything into the company and said his blood ran through its walls. He also finds that there were 17 suicides around the stock market crash that preceded the Great Depression. Dean reflects that the only time things were that bad He laments his portfolio's losses, and the mind boggles.

Then they collect weapons--salt and iron fireplace pokers--while discussing the impossibility of getting guns they can load with rock salt shells. They take the weapons they can collect back to the office--room 1444 was the owner's original office, before the building was made taller--and start to search the room. But a security officer finds Sam and starts to escort him away. I don't know why, but Ghost Boss stops the elevator between floors, and when the security guy climbs out and tries to get Sam to follow, the elevator moves and chops him mostly in half.

You can tell Sera Gamble wrote this episode. No, a beloved recurring character doesn't die, but she definitely writes the most gruesome deaths. Ick and ugh.

Sam goes back to Dean, who has figured out where the remains are (museum level), but when they break open the display holding Ghost Boss's gloves, he appears and they have to fight him. They delight in their prowess, flinging salt through the apparition and whaling away with their pokers. Every time Sam commends Dean, he goes, "Right?" or "I know, right?" He's such a delight.

While Dean is about to become ghost toast, Sam manages to light the ghost's gloves on fire, and ghost is no more. But back in Dean's office, as they post-mortem the job, things get weird. Sam claims that he is not who he is supposed to be. He's meant for more ("Most people who work in cubicles feel that way," says the guy with the nice office) and he hates his job and his clothes and his last name. He wants them to do this for good--go after ghosts--but Dean wonders about the logistics. How would they get money? Steal credit cards? What about sleeping? Crappy motels? He's not thrilled with the idea, but to Sam, that's all just details.

Sam admits that he's been dreaming about hunting with Dean, that they're friends...brothers. Dean says no way, he has a father, Bob, a mother, Ellen, and a sister, Jo. Even through my glee I found that sad--why not his real mother and father? But it makes sense, because it's things he might have half-wished, and it's foreign to reality, so probably easier to maintain in the illusion. On Sam's part, he moved here after he broke up with his fiancée, Madison, but when he called her number he got an animal hospital. Oh, whoever is doing this has a real sense of humor**.

Well, Dean refuses to buy into Sam's weirdness, and when Sam says he knows Dean, Dean gets all serious, says he does not, and sends him away.

The next day, Sam's staring at his phone, which is ringing off the hook. He finally stands, beats the phone to death, and announces that he quits. That's the last we see of him, and I was a bit disappointed by that. Sam has got to be part of Dean's destiny, and it bothers me a little that whenever Dean is forced to face that destiny, Sam is somewhere else.

But I'm getting a little ahead of myself.

Dean's at his desk, trying to work, but it's obvious Sam has gotten to him. His boss comes in, offers him a big bonus because they're so happy with him, entices him with the possibility of a vice presidency if he works seven days a week, 16 hours a day, for a decade. Dean turns him down. Says he's got other work to do. That he just has to do it.

"Finally," the boss says, putting his fingers on Dean's forehead, and all the color drains out of the world.

Light and color are often symbols of wrongness on Supernatural (ref. "What is and What Should Never Be"). Even when we have sunlight and sailboats ("Red Sky at Morning"), the color is washed out a bit. So it's especially jarring to go from the alterna-reality to real-reality, even as it brings a sense of anticipation, an eagerness that goes along with "here come the answers!"

I have to say something here about the acting in the episode. Jared has gotten a lot of praise lately for how far he's come since season one, and the complexity of his character has given him plenty to draw on (moments like when he was lying to Cole in "Death Takes a Holiday"). But Jensen, who has been amazing since the pilot, once again nails every beat. In the early scenes, there wasn't an iota of Dean Winchester in him. When Sam confronts him and he sends him away, we see some flickers. But when Zachariah (his boss, but in reality Castiel's boss, who doesn't seem to think much of humanity either...but I'm getting ahead of myself again) touches Dean, the weight of Winchester settles over him. He's instantly himself, and his movements, his expressions, change.

At this point, I'm realizing how nice it was to see both boys, but Dean especially, well rested and focused on something mundane. Now it's changed, and it's enough to make you weep. And yet, rejoice, too.

When Dean followed the Hero's Journey Rules and Rejected the Call last week, I wished I was in the room with him to tell him he could wallow for a day, but then he had to suck it up and do his job because for damned sure he was capable. More than. Zachariah's way was better, I guess, though it amounted to the same thing. Dean's strong. Saving people, hunting things, isn't just the family business--it's who Dean is, and he's more than ready to take on his destiny***.

This was all done perfectly, IMO. Sam and Castiel could have cajoled and supported and pushed Dean, tried to convince him he was up to the task, that he had no choice, etc. But they were just too close to him. Dean would never have believed them, or been able to hear what they said through his haze of grief and despair and self-loathing.

But Zachariah was higher up the chain, someone who had the authority and the objectivity to make him hear. Not to mention, the power to not just tell him, but show him the truth. When Dean lived it, it was much harder for him to deny. Plus, the removal of memory sufficient to let him experience the simple ghost hunting job for itself gave him some healing time, some distance he could never have gotten otherwise.

So can Dean do it? Can he face the worst possible fate and make it not happen? It's much, much easier to believe in now.

*Dean Smith and Sam Wesson. Smith and Wesson. Gun manufacturers. Just in case there are people who don't know. I should have. My mother worked for them!

**After seeing the preview for this episode, I'd wondered if the Trickster was behind it. I didn't want him to be, because it's been done before [even though I desperately want the Trickster back!], but this bit of humor fits that guess. Perhaps a bit of deliberate misdirection.

***That was a nice moment when Sam said something about something being in his blood, and referring to destiny, and Dean saying he didn't believe in destiny--their real selves showing through, or a bit of meta-ness in advance of next week's extreme meta episode.