Supernatural Rewatch: Supernatural Goes Meta with Hollywood Bablylon

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.

That…fades out.

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!

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The Winchesters are Renegades in Season 2’s Nightshifter (Supernatural Rewatch)

There’s a reason why the 12th episode of Season 2 is so good. Actually there are a few reasons. One, it was written by Ben Edlund. Two, it was directed by Phil Sgriccia. And then there are those two really talented guys who play Sam and Dean.

Edlund didn’t stay with the show as long as I wish he had, but the episodes that he wrote are some of my favorites (as are the episodes he wrote for some of my other favorite shows). Phil Sgriccia was instrumental in shaping the show, staying until Eric Kripke’s new show took him away – and it was a great loss even then.

In ‘Nightshifter,’ the combination of Edlund’s tight, humorous but heartbreaking, quirky writing and dialogue and Sgriccia’s brilliant directing (and Serge Ladouceur’s brilliant lighting and cinematography as always) make this one of those episodes that could be the answer to someone asking for recommendations of episodes that show how special Supernatural is. The whole episode is tense, a mirror of Ronald’s paranoia threaded throughout reflecting the very real danger the Winchesters are in. This time, it’s not just from a supernatural entity, but from all too human law enforcement too. The sense that Sam and Dean are trapped – in the dark bank building, with something dangerous lurking in their midst and something dangerous waiting right outside to invade – sets the dark tone for the whole season as the mystery of the Yellow Eyed Demon and his plans for Sam play out.

It’s also a truly tragic episode, one of a handful that are hard to watch at times. Chris Gauthier’s portrayal of Ronald (and Edlund’s creation of the character) made him achingly real and very sympathetic. He’s a fanboy at heart, and he’s heroic in his own way, risking his life to do what he believes is the right thing and trying his damnedest to ‘save people, hunt things’ just like the Winchesters are doing. We’re rooting for Ronald throughout, and so are Sam and Dean, each in their own way. The contrast in how the brothers try to protect Ronald are telling, deepening our understanding of them – both how different they are and how that contrast often makes them efficient and deadly.

We also are introduced to Agent Henricksen (C. Malik Whitfield) in this episode. He’s another brilliantly written character, memorable instantly. He’s not a bad guy – he’s genuinely a good guy trying to do the right thing, and he’s smart and savvy and wisecracking doing it. The problem is, he sees the Winchesters from the outside and misinterprets who they are and what they’re trying to do. He’s sure they’re the bad guys, and he pursues them like he’s the one who’s saving people. Outsider pov is a popular trope in Supernatural fanfic for a reason – from the outside, if you didn’t know any better,  you probably would agree with Henricksen. These guys are clearly dangerous, twisted, downright evil killers. I love that twist, and seeing that perspective so clearly through this character.

And lastly, the ending is one of the best in the series, with a music cue that is absolute perfection.

So, with all that build up… let’s dive into the rewatch…

We get a brief recap of Saving People, Hunting Things and the Winchesters’ previous encounter with a shapeshifter in Season One’s ‘Skin’ as well as a reminder that Dean is a wanted fugitive from Season Two’s ‘The Usual Suspects’ – and then we jump to the present, SWAT teams and cops and local press surrounding a building as a hostage is dramatically released – to our shock, the guy releasing him is none other than Dean Winchester.

That can’t be good.

Director Phil Sgriccia makes it both realistic and an intensely dramatic reveal as police and press all flurry around when they know a hostage is coming out, and the last thing we expect is for it to be Dean yelling at them to get back as he lets the hostage go.

ONE DAY AGO

Sam and Dean working a case in a jewelry store, Sam having a serious conversation with the manager guy and Dean having a flirty conversation with the woman who works there.  She asks him what it’s like being FBI and Dean takes the opportunity to play it up – dangerous, keeping secrets. And lonely. Most of all, lonely. It’s clearly effective, but then, how could it not be? This is Dean Winchester she’s talking to.

She offers to do a more private interview later, and hands over her phone number (on a piece of paper because this is 2006).

Dean: You’re a true patriot.

Early seasons Dean is good with the BS and always interested in a hookup.

Sam, on the other hand, is having a much less pleasant conversation with the poor store manager, who can’t understand how an employee he’s known for decades lost his mind and murdered the store’s night watchman.

Manager: I heard him die…

The poor guy is distraught, and I can only imagine how horrible that would be. Dean has the empathy to look guilty when he realizes the kind of conversation Sam’s having, and joins them. He can’t resist waving the clerk’s phone number at Sam though.

The manager informs them that the police took all the security tapes, much to Dean’s dismay.

Dean: Friggen’ cops.

Sam: They’re just doing their job, Dean.

Dean: No, they’re doing OUR job, only they don’t know it, so they suck at it.

He’s not wrong.

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Everybody Loves A Clown – Except Sam Winchester (Supernatural Rewatch)

The second episode of Season 2 starts out with a bang – or rather a tick tock tick tock. The haunting lyrics ‘Tick tock tick tock time has come today…’ mark the recap montage and remind us of the great loss that has just happened to the Winchesters. As the ticking of the clock slows down in the song, we hear “Time of death, 10:41 am…” and then the last word of the song, ‘Time.’

Not on the Winchesters’ side.

And then: NOW

In Medford, Wisconsin, kids enjoy an old fashioned fair and carnival that’s come to town, laughing at a sword swallower and fire breather and some clowns.

A very relatable dad: God, I hate clowns, they always creep me out.

All of us watching: SAME.

A young girl (though not young enough to be acting the way she is, actually) sees the creepiest looking clown in the history of ever, and for some unknown reason happily waves back at him. Then it disappears.

I guess I’m glad the show didn’t hire five year old actors to be traumatized for life by being in this episode, but that girl was definitely old enough to realize there is something very off about this clown! (Interestingly, she was played by Nicole Munoz, who returns as an adult guest actor in the final season)

Driving home, she looks out the window and sees the creepy clown standing on the side of the road, and all of us watching start exclaiming ‘child, you’re old enough to know that’s just weird!”

Alas, she does not.  Instead she wakes up in the middle of the night and sees the creepy clown outsider her window, smiles and goes downstairs to let him in. What the hell??

Intro over, we switch to our boys, and instantly I’m emotional.

One of the most memorable and heartbreaking scenes in the series is in this episode, as Sam and Dean give their father a hunter’s funeral. Sam is sobbing, tears rolling down his face. Dean is stoic, eyes shining with unshed tears.

Sam: Before he… before he… did he say anything to you?

There’s a long beat. We know he did, though we don’t yet know what.

Dean: No. nothing.

A single man tear rolls down Dean’s face, and breaks all our hearts.

This is a Phil Sgriccia directed episode, and it shows. The shots are gorgeous, and full of emotional impact, with early seasons Supernatural trademark close ups on strikingly beautiful Sam and Dean (ditto young Jared Padalecki and Jensen Ackles).  Director of photography Serge Ladouceur once told us that they were so attractive that he could light them like he would light a beautiful woman, and this episode really shows just how true that is. The close ups allow the emotion to come through loud and clear, and director Sgriccia is as talented at showing us what the brothers are feeling as Jared and Jensen are at showing it.

The episode was written by John Shiban, who came from the X Files along with Kim Manners (Mr. Cooper in this episode was also a character from that show, which many Supernatural crew members also worked on).

That scene hits harder now than ever, after having to watch Sam Winchester build a similar pyre for his brother in the series finale. There’s something in my eye now and it isn’t smoke…

One Week Later.

As Three Dog Night sings about the road to Shambala and what the Winchesters would give anything for right now, to ‘wash away my troubles, wash away my pain…’, Dean works on the broken Impala. The brothers can’t fix that their father is gone, or that the demon is out there, so Dean works on what he can.

Throughout this episode, the Impala stands in for so many things, and if we all didn’t realize she was special to us before (we did), we would have known with this episode.

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Supernatural Rewatch – A Classic (and Scary) MotW Episode with Provenance

Provenance is a Phil Sgriccia directed episode, and it shows. It’s creepy and scary and memorable in multiple ways, starting out with a close shot of a decidedly creepy old painting in a giant antique frame. A young couple, for some inexplicable reason, just bought it – though the wife has the good sense to say it’s “kinda creepy”. The husband reassures her that he’ll keep her safe, so we’re fairly certain he’s about to die.

Wife: Maybe you’re the one I ought to be scared of…

He is actually kinda creepy and keeps pinching her, but she seems into it and heads upstairs. The old man in the painting turns his head and watches her go up the stairs and OMG that is super creepy!

The husband locks up, sets the alarm and turns out the lights while the wife lights some candles and gets into bed.

“Hurry up or I’m gonna start without you,” she teases, as someone makes their way up the stairs and slowly comes into her room. A gust of breeze blows out the candle and we see her husband just starting to climb the stairs and UH OH that’s not the husband in the room with her….   The clueless husband comes into the room telling her to get the lights, then pauses.

Husband: You smell something?

When the lights come on, his wife is dead on the bed, covered in blood. He falls to his knees, looks up at something we can’t see, and screams.

Cut to a bar and a band playing Steve Carlson’s “Nighttime”, which I wrote about in my recent look back article on some of my early chats with Mr. Carlson, so check those articles out here if you missed them.  Here’s what Steve had to say about how that song came to be in this episode:

I had seen my friend Chris, who co-wrote the song, one night at a birthday party and he was dancing using the drink as his prop and I was like, that would be a great beer commercial! We put the song together and I got back and played it for Jensen and he asked me to burn him a copy. He was playing it in his trailer one day and a producer was like oh, who’s that? He said it’s my roommate, Steve, and the producer said, that would be perfect for the bar scene in our next episode. Their people called my people and negotiated it and worked fast to get it in and sign a contract, and the next thing I know I was flying to Boston and it aired. I was on the phone with someone because I couldn’t watch it live and he was watching and telling me oh, it was loud (on the show) – I was going through security and the guy was like, you have to get off the phone, so I threw it in the Xray machine and then grabbed it back and was like, so it was loud? And he was like yeah, and it’s still on! I had it on Tivo but it sucked because I was in Boston and no one I knew had Tivo so I had to wait a week to watch it when I got home – that was the first thing I did!

You can read that full article here fyi:

Radio Company Vol 2! A Look Back at Steve Carlson and Jensen Ackles’ Musical History

Anyway, Dean’s flirting with a young woman (Brandy with a y or an ‘i’?) while Sam’s reading in the newspaper about a couple’s throats being slashed. Sam tries to call Dean over and he keeps ignoring him until Sam in exasperation says ‘Come ON’

Dean: I gotta go, be right back…

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The Music of Supernatural – Composer Jay Gruska on Scoring the Emotional Series Finale and More

I have long said that the music of Supernatural has had a significant impact on the show – making it memorable and especially giving it the emotional resonance that it had for all fifteen seasons. That’s not something that every genre “horror show” can say, and I’m not sure any can say it with as much pride as Supernatural. The music added so much to the emotional impact of the series finale, so I was excited to talk to composer Jay Gruska about scoring that episode and the emotional episode ‘Despair’, as well as his fifteen years working on my favorite show.

As with many of the  people working on SPN (and another thing that made it so unique and wonderful), the same two composers worked on the show for its entire run – Christopher Lennertz (now working with Eric Kripke on ‘The Boys’) and Jay Gruska. I’ve talked to Jay several times over the course of the show – he contributed to ‘Supernatural Psychology’ for the chapter on music in the show – so I know how insightful he is about how music is used on the show. Chris and Jay tend to alternate episodes, so Jay scored all the even numbered episodes of Season 15, including the final episode, ‘Carry On’, and episode 15.18, Castiel’s goodbye episode, ‘Despair’.

The week before we spoke, I had done a Supernatural music panel at the Southwest Popular Culture Association conference with two friends and colleagues devoted to the most recognizable musical theme in the show, ‘Americana’, which Jay composed. We had invited him to do the panel with us, but he was unable to make it due to a family party. Luckily he and I were able to coordinate our schedules for a phone chat afterwards though.

Jay: That’s amazing about the panel, and kinda flattering and sweet. I’m so bummed that I missed it, I would have loved to share my experience from my end.

Lynn: I don’t think that many composers get an entire panel devoted to one single piece of music at an academic conference – but that’s how important ‘Americana’ is to Supernatural fans.

The Emotional Rollercoaster of ‘Carry On’

Lynn: I know you read my review of the series finale so you know that I loved the barn scene even though it was incredibly painful to watch, but it was such a masterful scene. I was talking to Jensen about it recently and said that he and Jared killed it, and also that the music makes it so much more emotional. That whole piece, the piano then the strings, and then the most familiar part of Americana in the middle…

Jay: Right. As you know more than anyone, I try my best to not use Americana just at the drop of a hat. I try to really respond to when a scene is asking for it. I’ve probably made a misstep or two along the way as far as some fans are concerned – I used it once with Jack, but boy, I heard from people right away like hey, he’s not family! And I was like well yes he is to me! But don’t mess with the Supernatural fandom.

Lynn:  So true. We’re passionate, that’s for sure. And some people would definitely agree with that and some wouldn’t.

Jay: But let’s start with those performances (Jensen and Jared). Because I’m gonna be crude right now and say that without performances like that, which don’t come along often, if there’s a scene where someone is not pulling it off? You’re basically polishing a turd with the music.

Lynn: lol

Jay: My job and particularly that scene, which I count as in the top two or three if not the most emotional, well acted, just hearts-on-their-sleeves as actors and as humans moments in the whole run of the show…

Lynn: I agree!

It’s okay, Dean, you can go now.

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