Monday, April 27, 2009

In Defense of Bela

SPN is, deservedly, known for its masculine characters (Dean and Sam, obviously, and John, who continues to shape the boys' lives and the show far beyond the eps Jeffrey Dean Morgan actually appeared in; Bobby; Castiel). But the writers also give us recurring female roles. In Season 2, we got Jo and Ellen. In Season 3, we get the juxtaposed Ruby--a demon who, strangely enough, wants to help and has most of her scenes with Sam--and Bela Talbot, a exploitative thief who has absolutely no interest in helping anyone but herself (although that doesn't stop her from asking the brothers' assistance) and has most of her scenes with Dean. For someone who only appeared in a half dozen episodes, Bela certainly got a strong fan reaction--much of it negative as far as I can tell. Several reviewers would devote whole paragraphs of their recap to snipe about her accent or what she was wearing; fans I've met at conventions turned nearly red-faced in their enthusiastic renumerations of why they didn't like her; some viewers were actually snoopy dancing in forums when Bela finally died in "Time Is On My Side." And I have to say, I don't get it. I actually liked Bela.

Okay, don't throw rotting produce at me. I know that Bela actively worked against our guys on more than one occasion and shot Sammy and snitched to Gordon on them. I mean, I'm not suggesting we nominate her for sainthood (which would be a waste of time anyway, since I think people who make deals with demons are automatically disqualified.) But I think she added a lot to the show.

A breath of fresh air

Bela was a thief ("a great thief") seemingly unencumbered with morals. And I don't know if you've noticed, but a lot of the people on Show are seriously encumbered. They're bogged down by curses, regrets, vengeance, angst. Oh dear heavens, the angst. You know I love Sam and Dean (especially Dean!) but between the two of them, they have enough baggage to put Louis Vuitton out of business. We began Season 2 with John's death and ended Season 2 with Sam's, so we came into Season 3 with a lot of heavy.* Bela's breezy unrepentance was actually kind of charming in the fun love-to-hate her way.

Maybe I was predisposed to like her because I thought that "Bad Day at Black Rock" (in which she was introduced) was a vastly entertaining episode that had good follow through with the past (Gordon in prison continuing to seek Sam's death) as well as forward momentum (setting up both Bela's and Gordon's return spots). Plus we got Bobby (calling Dean an ijit) and a slew of laugh out loud pratfalls and one-liners (Sam cracked me up as the world's tallest preschooler pouting, "I lost my shoe" but Dean's "I'm Batman" was probably my favorite.)

One criticism I've heard is that Bela's character, the "sophisticated" thief, is a bit of a cliche. And I'll admit, there was a similar character (Gwen) who guest starred a couple of times on Angel and Bela would probaly slip right into the ensemble of thieves and con artists over at TNT's "Leverage" (whose great cast includes Aldis Hodge, better known to the Winchesters as Jake Talley). Did the writers play off of a commonly established stereotype? Sure! But perhaps you've heard of the Chosen One, the Father Figure, the Trickster, the religious zealot? Kripke and Co. frequently borrow plot elements, folklore, familiar-feeling settings and archetypes. But then they weave it together and make their own show--in fact, I've argued before that their use of stuff already in our collective social psyche adds more oomph.

I also, personally, thought that the actress had good chemistry with Jensen Ackles. (I've always felt that, as a romantic, I should have been more affected by the season 1 ep where we meet Cassie, who was supposedly so much his True Love that he told her the family secret! Yet I got far more invested in his scenes with Lisa in season 3's "The Kids Are Alright" or even his brief interactions with Amy Acker's single mom in early 'sode "Dead in the Water.) When Dean breaks into Bela's loft to take back the rabbit's foot, she seems almost appreciative of that. And of him. (Some found her to be a little smirky and smug, but, um have you met Dean? Love him dearly, but argue that in this respect, Bela's a pretty well-matched opponent.) If she and Dean don't respect each other's professions (in light of Gordon's character, her comment about hunters being obsessed sociopaths wasn't completely off the mark) they seemed to respect each other's capabilities.

And Bela was capable.

I've heard people complain that there aren't strong or well-written women on the show. (Overall, I disagree, but we'll save that for another post). Bela had flaws--and, as it turned out, a relevant backstory--but she was strong, smart, sexy and occasionally got the drop on our boys. Honking her horn as she drove off with their lotto tickets and keeping the gun with the wine gave her style, and set her apart from the more frequent worlds of small town greasy spoon diners we normally see through the Winchesters' eyes. Even Bobby seemed to feel some grudging respect for her, if not affection. I wonder if people would have been more forgiving of her actions if they'd known sooner that she was a desperate woman looking for a way to break her deal with Lilith. Yes, she told Gordon where the boys were (although, he tracked her down and threatened to kill her), she shot Sam (in the shoulder. "I can aim.") and stole the Colt (not that it always worked the way it was supposed to, anyway). But she was trying to avoid a very specific and gruesome fate--the fact that she couldn't only added to the gravity and nail-biting tension of late Season 4, as we got closer and closer to Dean's own, er, expiration date.

Personally, I find it impressive that the writers crafted a character who, while bantering with Dean, could break the looming tension, then turn write around and use the same character's impending doom to heighten it! Besides, she also helped save Bobby in "Dream a Little Dream of Me" and she gave the boys info on Gordon. She wasn't all bad. She wasn't all good. She had some internal conflict, even if we weren't let in on it until late in the game, and her external conflict (scenes that pitted her against the boys) were often entertaining to watch.

Say what you will, I'll take Bela and Dean sizing each other up over watching someone get beat up/slice/tortured for ten minutes any day! (No, seriously, say what you will...I'm curious? Did you like her? Cheer when she left the show? Or was she so forgettable that you read this whole post thinking 'Bela who'? Share your opinion--and we know you have one--in the comments)

* Of course, when I watched Season 3, Season 4 did not yet exist. In retrospect, some of last year's "heavy" seems like cheeful children's programming...