As my friends and I make our way through a Supernatural series rewatch, I am so struck by the quality of these first few seasons. Season 2 is one of my favorite seasons – maybe my favorite of all. There are very few episodes that don’t feel like classics now, and this is certainly one that fits that description. Hollywood Babylon is extra special because it’s the first “meta” episode of Supernatural – something that the show would become known for over its 15 year run. I LOVED its wink wink nudge nudge making fun of itself and the industry when I saw this episode then and I loved this episode just as much rewatching it now.
Written by the brilliant Ben Edlund, also the mind behind ‘The Tick’, and directed by the venerable Phil Sgriccia, of course Hollywood Babylon was going to be both entertaining and creepy and just plain weird. Which is ALL good in my book!
The opening teaser is a stereotypical horror film, so dimly lit it’s almost black and white, a young woman (Elizabeth Whitmere) with a flashlight searching for her friends in the woods in front of a creepy looking house, the porch swing swaying, scary music playing.
And pretty terrible acting as the woman (searching for her sister, because Supernatural) is deserted by her cowardly male friend and then hears a twig snap behind her. Slowly she turns….and unleashes a bloodcurdling scream into the camera.
We hear a rather annoyed “cut” and realize we’re on a film set as the camera pans out. She’s been screaming at a suspended tennis ball, which at least partly explains the lack of conviction in her scream.
The meta kicks in instantly, as we meet the director, named McG after the very real producer of Supernatural and many genre shows. He’s as insincere as can be, critical behind her back and then fake oh that was great but let’s do it again and dial up that scream to Tara Benchley’s face. He assures her that the tennis ball will be replaced by a monster and look great “once Ivan and the FX guys are done with it” – an in-group reference to Supernatural’s real life VFX supervisor Ivan Hayden.
For fans who were paying attention, the episode was already leaving us grinning – and I have no doubt it did the same for the cast and crew who were also in on the jokes. Showrunner and creator Eric Kripke has loved playing with meta and in-jokes from the start, and he’s still enjoying doing that on his new show The Boys – and I’m still enjoying it too.
A long-haired crew member named Frank wanders around the set spreading suspicion that there’s some kind of real haunting going on, adding to the fun. At least it’s fun until poor Tara is walking through the fake woods trying to master that scream and is confronted with a dead and bloody Frank up in the scaffolding.
She screams for real, and on the other end of the set, McG happily announces “now that’s what I’m talkin’ about!”
Enter Sam and Dean and our title card. The meta picks right up again, Sam and Dean on the Warner Brothers studio lot taking the trolley tour that many of us have taken in real life, myself included. Dean is in excited fanboy mode, telling the unimpressed kid next to him that ‘Creepshow’ was filmed over there.
The camera pans up to Sam as the tour guide announces that Stars Hollow is to the right, the setting for the TV show, Gilmore Girls.
Tour guide: And if we’re lucky, we might even catch one of the show’s stars.
Close on Sam, who looks suddenly wary and hops right off the trolley.
The joke, of course, is that Jared also played Dean on Gilmore Girls, so he could have been that star she was mentioning. Poor Dean is upset not to be able to finish the tour, but reluctantly follows his brother. He’s convinced he sees Matt Damon on the lot, undeterred when “Matt” is pushing a broom and insisting he’s probably researching a role while Sam rolls his eyes. Sam’s trying to work the case while Dean just wants to have fun, saying he wanted to come to LA for a vacation, swimming pools, movie stars.
Sam: Does this seem like pool weather to you, Dean? It’s practically Canadian!
(Haha, Supernatural films in Canada…oh, Show)
Dean wants Sam to take a break after what happened with Madison; Sam wants to work to keep his mind off things. A haunted film set seems like a good compromise.
Dean: Like Poltergeist?
Sam: Could be a poltergeist…
Dean: No no no, like the movie Poltgergeist! You know nothing of your cultural heritage, do you?
Dean isn’t super interested until Sam drops the name of the actress who found Frank the dead crew guy.
Dean: Whoa whoa whoa, Tara Benchley? From Fear.com and Ghost Ship Tara Benchley? Why didn’t you say so?
Sam cocks an eyebrow, saying oh, now you’re on board, and Dean tries to stop grinning like the fanboy he is.
Dean: I just mean I’m a fan of her work…it’s…very good.
When they arrive on the set, another in-joke is happening, a studio exec named Brad telling McG and producer Jay that the movie should maybe be a little brighter. There are both a Brad and a Jay involved with Supernatural too, but what’s even funnier is that’s an actual note that Kripke and company got in the first season.
McG (channeling Kripke I’m sure): Brad, this is a horror movie.
Brad: And who says horror has to be dark? It’s sort of…depressing, don’t you think?
The dialogue is extra priceless knowing that it’s based on fact, and I love the skewering of the industry and how ridiculous it can be. Supernatural pretty much survived in spite of the execs never understanding what it was or why it pulled in such devoted fans.
Brad notices Sam and Dean walk in and asks Dean (aka Green Shirt Guy) to get him a smoothie from Krafty (Kraft Services, which supplies near-constant food and drink on sets, which I always feel like is some kind of surreal utopia when I’m on one).
Dean: You want a what from who?
Brad (derisively) You are a PA, right? This is what you do?
Sam intercedes and smooths it over, ushering his brother out to go find smoothies.
Dean asks what a PA is.
Sam (patting Dean’s back reassuringly): I think they’re kind of like slaves.
He’s not necessarily wrong. This episode is a little like foreshadowing of Eric Kripke’s scathing meta on The Boys.
The episode is an interesting character study of Dean in the midst of all the meta and in-jokes. He’s completely new to the film set environment, but within no time at all, Dean starts to adapt. He’s learned to be a chameleon as a hunter, seamlessly fitting in by being ultra observant and picking up on the norms of a particular setting quickly and then imitating them. He brings back a tray of smoothies as requested, gives a few out, then starts investigating the scaffolding where Frank died.
Meanwhile, Tara’s character reads Latin from an old book, struggling with it – as I’m sure the Supernatural actors have from time to time.
Sam catches up with Dean back at Kraft services, and Dean reports no EMF anywhere. Sam asks, so what do you think?
Dean: Well, I think being a PA sucks, but the food these people get, are you kidding me? I mean look at these things, they’re like miniature Philly cheesesteak sandwiches, they’re delicious!
Sam: (frowning at Dean’s sudden enthusiasm and the steak hanging out of his mouth) Maybe later.
Ackles and Padalecki strike just the right notes when they do this kind of subtle comedy together, Dean just a little unhinged, happy in his hedonism, and Sam just a little appalled at his brother’s antics, affection underneath all of it. I can’t help but giggle even looking at these screencaps.
Sam’s been busy researching – Frank was only working that one day and four people have died on the stage on which they’re filming, two suicides and two fatal accidents. Sam notes that they need to narrow it down more, and Dean sees Tara walk by and says he’ll get right on that. He follows Tara, grabbing a call sheet out of the hands of a passing PA and asking Tara shyly if she’s supposed to get one.
Pretty sure the expression on Dean’s face is the expression half the fandom has on their faces when they shyly walk up to say hi to Jensen or Jared for the first time too.
You get the feeling part of that is Dean’s real fanboy nervousness, but he’s also smart to play it up to get some information, letting himself be awkward as he smiles at her.
Tara: First day?
Dean admits it is and says he’s a big fan and loved her in Boogeyman (another inside joke, since that’s a Kripke creation. Kripke is not above lampooning himself)
Tara: Oh god, what a terrible script.
Dean’s approach works because Tara opens up to him, saying she thought she saw a shape of some kind in addition to Frank’s body – and that she took his picture.
Tara: Yeah, I take Polaroids of all the crew to kill time on set.
Possibly another in-joke, since Ackles himself used to take pictures on set for the first few seasons. Dean looks at the photo on her phone.
The boys visit Gerard St. James, who Dean recognized as an actor – who played the not actually dead at all Frank on the film set.
Dean gets another chance to be a fanboy, gushing that Gerard was “Desert Soldier number 4 in Metalstorm: The Destruction of Jared Syn”. Not to mention a tractor crash victim in Critters 3.
Sam is unimpressed, but Dean knows how to get this guy’s cooperation (and is clearly a bona fide fan also). Everyone gets made fun of in this episode, fans and actors and writers and studio alike!
Turns out the producers brought Gerard in to get some publicity for the movie – new media, building buzz.
Sam and Dean wonder if that isn’t kind of cruel (which it certainly is) but Gerard says he was just playing a part – and invites the boys to come to his dinner theater production. (Actors get their digs in this episode too). Dean can’t resist a last question.
Dean: Hey what was it like working with Richard Moll?
Dean: Metalstorm. He was Hurok, King of the Cyclops people.
Gerard: Gentleman’s gentleman.
Sam (nodding like OMG)
It’s such a fannish interaction, I can’t help but smile.
Back on the film set, the sound guy keeps getting feedback that ruins the takes. (All the lingo that you hear passed back and forth on actual sets, Supernatural included, are worked into this episode, which is pretty fascinating – like “going again for sound, people!”)
Brad the producer is still unhappy, asking why the kids doing a Latin chant makes the ghosts show up. If the ghosts are in Hell, how do they hear the chanting? Do they have super hearing?
[I don’t know if this was a note too, but these are definitely the kind of discussions fans have been having about Supernatural forever]
Marty the writer promises to throw in “an explainer” aka some of that dreaded exposition that nobody is fond of.
McG: (muttering) Suits…
[You get the feeling Kripke and many directors must have muttered the same thing from time to time]
Brad the cranky producer wanders off to a wooded area of what must be a gigantic stage and a woman who looks like she’s from the past (and in black and white) appears, strangulation wounds on her neck. Brad assumes she’s in make up and when she drops her robe and beckons, he follows her up some stairs to a scaffold.
The movie starts filming again, with some priceless edits.
Mitch: When we read from that book, we must have brought them back from Hell.
Kendra: But I don’t understand, if they were in Hell, how could they hear our chanting?
Mitch: They must have super hearing!
So much for exposition.
Just then the ceiling caves in and the dead body of Brad falls through, hanging from a rope.
Nicely done, Show!
The next day, they resume filming anyway, though Marty the writer questions if they should shut down filming. Jay the producer says no.
Jay: We had a moment of silence for him at breakfast. He was just a studio guy.
When the director calls cut, we cut to Dean, now in full PA mode with a headset, munching on a taquito.
Dean: That’s a cut!
He overhears Tara struggling with the dialogue, questioning why a ghost would be scared of salt.
Marty the writer: We’re not married to salt, what do you want? Are we still sticking with condiments?
Walter, who we’ve seen around the set before, is pissed as he also overhears, saying they’re idiots.
Sam joins Dean and asks him about the case, and Dean goes into a long explanation of how Tara has really stepped up her performance.
Sam: Dean, you know I’m talking about the case, right? We don’t really work here.
Dean has gone from hating being a PA to kinda liking it, saying he kinda feels like part of the team.
There’s a blatant shot of Dean’s crotch at this point that I think was trying to show that he’s got a walkie and the whole PA belt etc. but mostly at the time it made me go, huh?
Sam keeps trying to talk to his brother and Dean keeps answering what’s going on in his headset and it’s pretty hilarious.
Dean (to his headset): They’re aware.
Sam: Who’s aware?
Dean: Sorry, what were you saying?
Poor Sam. Dean has been working though, always. He has Dave the sound guy play Sam some recorded audio. The brothers exchange a knowing look.
The brothers realize that somehow they’ve now got a legit haunting on their hands.
As Sam and Dean head to a trailer to look at the dailies (another set term that Dean has all figured out), a crew person comes through on one of the little mini bikes that Jared and Jensen used to ride around set in the early seasons. The first time I visited, they both had them in their trailers and they were hilariously small for these big six foot plus guys. More in-jokes that I so appreciate.
Dean pops the tape in the player and we all picture the gag reel moment that happened at that time when Jared decided to take that opportunity to slap Jensen on the ass – and Jensen didn’t even flinch!
Sam and Dean are both smart because it’s Season 2 – they spot the ghostly woman and realize it’s spirit photography.
Dean: Like in Three Men and a Baby!
Sam doesn’t get that reference, but he does recognize the ghostly woman as an actress from the 1930s who hung herself from Stage 9’s rafters right into a scene they were shooting.
Meanwhile, we get more of just how integrated Dean has become into the film crew, using all the lingo competently, much to Sam’s exasperation.
They figure out who the actress is and where she’s buried.
Later that night, Sam and Dean head to the cemetery, flashlights and shovels in hand, confused about why the long-dead actress is suddenly killing people, but they find her headstone and do a salt and burn anyway. It’s an iconic Supernatural scene, Dean digging the grave and prying open the casket, Sam pouring on the salt, Dean climbing up and lighting the matchbook, tossing it down.
Also that Humpty Dumpty grave marker is super creepy…
Producer Jay makes the same mistake other assholes before him have made, walking onto the deserted parts of the stage after telling McG to his face he’s a genius and then saying something completely different on the phone with someone else, complaining that he hates his dailies and can’t control the guy (I’m sure that was how Kripke felt sometimes in those early seasons).
He butters up another guy on the phone too, then grumbles “what a dick” as soon as he hangs up.
He’s annoyed when the set lights all suddenly go off. When he sees what he thinks is a crew member, he dismissively asks them to show him to the exit, ending with “Hey putz, I’m talkin’ to you”.
The guys turns around, and in a totally Sixth Sense moment, we see that his head is sliced to pieces. A giant fan starts up and Jay gradually realizes he’s being dragged toward it. He flails, trying to hang onto something but drawn inexorably closer until he screams and we see a huge splat of blood on the white screen behind the fan.
Another asshole gone – I feel like this episode must have been at least a little therapeutic to film!
The meta-ness of the episode is increased by what happens next – we go right into what looks like an actual preview for Hell Hazers 2 the movie! The voiceover mentions previous films including Charlie’s Angels but also Monster Truck, which makes me think of the Supernatural episode about the possessed killer truck.
The credits are a shout out to some of the real Supernatural crew members, including actual casting director Robert Ulrich, production designer Jerry Wanek (who outdid himself on this episode), DP Serge Ladouceur, and music by Jay Gruska. I don’t know if Rauol X. Fernandez was the story editor, but I wouldn’t be surprised. I didn’t realize so many of the real people were on the credits card until I looked at the screencap!
After the preview, we’re back to the show – I remember at the time still chuckling over what they’d done, because it was so unusual then.
The Winchesters continue to be smart, Sam’s research turning up that an electrician was chopped up by a giant fan on the same stage in 1966 – which doesn’t seem like the first actress ghost did it. So are they dealing with another ghost?
Dean: Yeah, but these things don’t usually tag team…
To complicate matters, the electrician was cremated. In addition to the meta, this episode is just a really good mystery, as Sam and Dean struggle to figure out what the hell is going on.
McG gathers the cast and crew and says that they’re shutting down production for a few days after Jay’s death – but that they also owe it to Jay and Brad to see Hell Hazers 2 made, because after all, it’s what they wanted most (an entirely fabricated let’s do it for the money speech clearly).
The actual McG and some real Supernatural crew members are in the group shot too.
Sam and Dean go back to watching dailies – lots and lots and lots of dailies.
Sam: You know, maybe the spirits are trying to shut down the movie ‘cause they think it sucks. Because, I mean, it kinda does.
But then he notices something surprising – the Latin invocation that Tara is reading is the real deal – a necromantic summoning ritual. As Sam asks in alarm, what the hell is that doing in a Hollywood movie??
The Winchesters visit Marty the writer to find out, who has some Supernatural scene posters on his wall. He makes it clear they were forced to shut down, but that at least it gives him time to pitch “that time travel thing”. Marty the asshole writer is a bit of a parody of Kripke himself here, and the series Timeless that he’d eventually write and get made!
Marty loves being flattered, but tells Sam and Dean that “that Latin crap” in the script wasn’t him – it was Walter, the original writer.
Dean: Wait, Walter the PA Walter?
Turns out he’s not a PA, he’s a writer who has a clause in his contract that allows him to come on set. (Many of the Supernatural writers also visited the set from time to time – we spent a whole day on set with Robbie Thompson, thrilled to watch him collaborate with director Bob Singer).
Sam and Dean read Walter’s original script for “Lord of the Dead”, which is actually pretty good – but also reads like a how to manual of how to summon ghosts and get them to do whatever you want. They realize that Walter learned some pretty dark black magic and now that he’s angry at the producers and directors for ruining his movie…
Sam: Motive and means.
They’ve figured it out.
Meanwhile, Walter asks Marty to meet him on the stage and confronts him about all the changes to his script, saying that they tore it to shreds and replaced what was real with cleavage and fart jokes. Marty is dismissive, saying there’s no such thing as ghosts anyway, but Walter holds up a talisman and says he’s wrong.
Marty: Okay, nutjob.
He turns around and the sliced up electrician ghost appears, dragging him toward the giant fan as Marty screams for help.
Luckily for him, Dean Winchester appears in the nick of time and shoots the ghost while Sam turns off the fan.
Marty: You are one hell of a PA!
Dean: Yeah, I know.
They try to convince Walter that he’s playing with fire, but Walter is furious, saying that you put your heart and soul into something and then they take it and crap all over it, and want you to smile and say thank you.
That must ring true for Kripke and anyone else who’s tried to break into Hollywood scriptwriting for sure – though I don’t think most of them took up necromancy in response luckily.
Walter tells Sam and Dean to leave, that he has nothing against them, but they can’t do that.
Dean: Sorry, can’t do that. It’s not like we like him or anything…it’s a matter of principle.
Sam: Walter, listen, it’s just a movie.
That’s a meta comment if I ever heard one!
But Walter is beyond listening. He summons a whole bunch of ghosts, who are invisible. The Winchesters and Marty retreat into a set building, Dean doing a perfect rendition of Bruce Willis in Die Hard and then realizing to his dismay that because the building is a set it’s completely open on one side (which made me laugh out loud – Ackles is so good at comedy)
Smart Sam figures out that he can use his cell phone to find the invisible ghosts, telling Dean where to fire and then Dean blasts them. It works, and we get some great Winchesters-working-seamlessly-together ghostbusting.
Dean and Marty stay behind to keep doing that to hold them off while Sam goes after Walter. When Sam confronts him, Walter smashes the talisman. Sam looks horrified.
Sam: I wouldn’t have done that if I were you. You just freed them. We can’t stop them now. You forced them to murder – they’re not gonna be very happy with you.
That turns out to be a bit of an understatement. Invisible ghosts rip him apart as he screams, blood appearing all over.
Marty watches through the cell phone as they tear Walter apart.
Case solved, the movie resumes filming – Marty has now written into the script using the cell phone to pick up the invisible ghosts so they can dramatically shoot them just like he and Dean did.
Sam: You find out there’s an afterlife, and this is what you do with it?
Case solved, Sam leaves and starts walking off the set. As he walks by Tara’s trailer, we see that it’s rocking, music playing.
The door suddenly opens, Dean putting his jacket back on.
Tara pokes her head out, wearing only a robe.
Tara (smiling at Dean): You’re one hell of a PA.
Sam looks at his brother awkwardly, because as we’ve established: theme.
Also? Another classic gag reel moment we’ve all seen when Jensen sees Jared there and gets distracted and misses a step and falls right down. When he gets up he offers the explanation of “I’m like a cat, always end up on all fours” to an alarmed (and probably amused) Jared.
Dean thanks Tara, pats his uncomfortable brother’s chest in reassurance, fixes his jacket and grabs one last mini cheesesteak.
The brothers walk off toward a painted sunset, music still playing as a crew member rolls the sunset away.
Dean: God, I love this town.
A final little meta moment, expressing simultaneously the fakeness of so much of what television and film production is about, but also the very real affection that Kripke and company hold for what they do as the real sunset is revealed.
Me: God, I love this Show.
Beautiful caps by spndeangirl
Stay tuned for more Supernatural rewatch!
You can read all about what made Supernatural
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