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8.11 LARP And The Real Girl: Escaping Isn't What It Used To Be

8.11 LARP And The Real Girl: Escaping Isn't What It Used To Be

Frustrated LARPer
Binds fairy to kill rivals:
Brave hearts win the day.

Commentary and Meta Analysis

I thoroughly enjoyed this episode! I don't have a lot to say about it meta-wise, and being a standalone villain hunt, it didn't advance the overall arc of the season eight quest story, but for sheer fun, it was way up there. Through Charlie, I thought it also treated the escapist desires of fantasy gamers (and show fans) much more kindly than earlier episodes built around over-the-top “superfan” Becky Rosen.

While the principal goal of this episode seems to have been to give the brothers a bit of a chance to recover and rebuild after the shocks and conflicts of the first half of the season, I found meta lessons and moments in it. This episode continued the season's commentary on perception and further pointed up intrinsic differences between the brothers that affect the way they look at things. In this discussion, I'm going to look at the episode's use of perception, and also explore a life lesson from Dean that we've seen throughout the series and which Sam finally seems, in a small way, to have come to appreciate.

I Got To Face Reality From Now On

I avoid reading reviews and commentaries until after I've finished mine, which explains why I rarely wind up in discussions, given that I finish my stuff so late (sorry about that), but I'm willing to bet that a certain vocal part of the fandom rose up in arms and righteous, defensive anger when Charlie said, “So he found some normalcy with this chick, and now it's gone again. Thanks to you” – effectively assigning blame to Dean for the end of Sam's relationship with Amelia. I'm sure there were fans ready to pillory Charlie for being unfair to Dean.

Anyone who reacted that way, however, overlooked something very basic to this season: the whole concept of perception and the critical importance point of view and narrator bias have on what we perceive. Charlie had no independent knowledge of what happened to the Winchester brothers after she got on that bus at the end of The Girl With The Dungeons And Dragons Tattoo. She tracked the macro world events – the fall of Dick Roman and his empire – but had no intel on Sam and Dean. Everything she learned about what happened to them came from Dean in her tent at the camp, complete with Dean's biases. So when Charlie accused Dean, she was doing nothing more than feeding back exactly what Dean had just given her – meaning that Dean himself had taken the blame for Sam losing Amelia. Dean's perception was warped. Charlie wasn't accusing him of anything of which he hadn't already – wrongly – accused himself.

What we saw here was Dean's typical perceptual fallacy in full action. In exactly the same way he had been blaming himself for having failed to bring Castiel out of Purgatory, when the truth was the angel had been stronger and pushed him away, Dean assumed responsibility for negative events in Sam's life that were totally beyond his reach and control. In A Little Slice Of Kevin, Castiel told Dean, “No. No, you think you know. You remembered it the way you needed to.” Here, Dean evidently told Charlie the version of events as he saw them, the way they fit with the script inside his own head. His perceptions of himself, the disaffirmations he constantly repeats in his own mind, always say he fails everyone and everything he cares about, and he's ultimately responsible for all the bad things that happen to those he loves and for all the people he fails to save. He's wrong, but that doesn't change what he perceives.

That's not the way Sam sees what happened. Right from the beginning of the season, in We Need To Talk About Kevin, Sam said there had been a girl, and then there wasn't. We saw through his flashbacks that Don returned from his reported death and Sam chose to leave Amelia with Don before he had any idea Dean was back. Sam's initial choice to give up Amelia and the life they'd shared was purely his, based on his decision that he needed to do the right thing for her in circumstances no one could have predicted. Sam returned to the brothers' cabin after leaving Texas expecting to be alone; being tackled by Dean was the furthest thing from his mind. Sam appropriately blamed Dean for the spurious text message that sent him rushing back to check on Amelia, and he resented the way Dean's return and scathing criticism brought him willy-nilly back into hunting before he'd even fully adjusted to the realization that he'd just walked out on the first normal life experience he'd had since college and Jess, but he never blamed Dean for the decision he made to leave Amelia either time.

As the season progresses, I think one of the themes is going to be how the characters' perceptions of themselves and their situations change with all the things they learn, and what those changing perceptions will mean both for their own growth and development and for the relationships between them. Dean already changed his attitude about Amelia based on Sam's reaction to the text message ruse, and that change cracked the emotional wall between the brothers. Sam, having committed to hunting at least until the immediate goal is achieved, changed his usual tune in this situation, arguing Charlie should remain because of her knowledge, while Dean, normally the one in the past who would have tried to use someone tactically – look at Something Wicked, for example – argued in favor of her safety and choice to leave. By the end of this episode, seeing the concerted effort Dean was making to give Sam understanding and support, Sam backed off his customary insistence on just doing the job, conceding that having a bit of fun would help them both. Those have all been small steps; I think much bigger ones await.

Despite what Castiel showed him about his mistaken recollection of his escape from Purgatory, this episode showed Dean is still seeing events through his habitually self-damning eyes and assuming blame for things beyond his control. I'm hoping this season will continue teaching Dean the lesson Castiel began and get him to finally change the broken record message of unworthiness and guilt that's played in his brain all his life. For his part, I'm betting Sam will learn more about Dean's experience in Purgatory, and that – along with whatever happens from this point on – may change Sam's reaction to and opinion of Benny. Castiel and the Winchesters are going to learn what Naomi has done to Castiel and other angels; that's definitely going to affect their perceptions of Heaven and of Castiel.

Perhaps in a foretaste of what this season might bring to our heroes, we saw in this episode how the changing narrative affected Charlie and prompted her to change her perception of her role. When she first saw the Winchesters, her immediate reaction was to get out of the way of the dangerous weirdness she associated with them. Once she realized people were dying, however, she saw herself in part as the hero queen responsible for her subjects, and in that role, she felt obligated to stay and fight. By the end of the tale, she decided to apply that same lesson to her real life outside Moondoor, choosing not only to take back her identity, but also inviting the brothers to contact her again for help any time they needed her. That was a major evolution in Charlie's character, brought about because of what happened when she stepped up to accept and wear the hero mantle.

The episode also stressed the importance of Charlie's perceptions of herself. When she explained to Dean why she enjoyed LARPing, she said she loved the escape because she was a hero queen in Moondoor but only a computer geek in real life. Dean countered she was already a real-life hero because the brothers could never have brought down Dick Roman and saved the world from Leviathan without her, but Charlie, feeling a lot of what happened was forced on her and too strange to accept, clearly did not see herself as a hero despite the role she had played in their story. This time, however, she claimed the hero role consciously and deliberately for herself, and won accolades and appreciation not only from Sam and Dean, but also from Gilda the fairy. She changed her perception of both herself and her role, and as a result, she changed her life. She chose to face her reality with a totally different view than she'd had before, and that changed her image of herself as well.

Sam and Dean – and Castiel – may do the same this season, and I hope they do.

You Remember Fun, Don't You, Sammy?

Way back in June 2007, I began a series of meta essays on life lessons from characters in Supernatural with one focused on Dean, called Supernatural University: Living In The Moment: Lessons From Dean Winchester. My premise for that essay was that Dean's greatest gift, after his love and loyalty, was his ability to live in the present moment, taking the maximum pleasure available from a life that didn't have much, materially speaking.

I've always seen this as a critical difference between Dean and Sam, and the primary reason Dean – despite his poor self-image and life of excruciating denial and loss – has always come across to me as being innately happier than Sam. What struck me was Sam, once he became aware of his family's history, always saw how their lives could have been better, while Dean, having already lost so much, always saw the wonder and delight of what they had, no matter how shabby it might have been. For example, look at their very different memories in A Very Supernatural Christmas of the beer-can wreath John had brought home once: Dean recalled it as superb, while Sam thought it a tawdry theft. Sam was embarrassed and dissatisfied; Dean was happy.

Dean's visceral enjoyment of burgers, pie, porn, sex, sleep, viewing and flirting with pretty women, driving his car while blaring music from the speakers, and simply succeeding in a hunt has always set him apart from Sam. Sam generally viewed his brother's enjoyment as evidence of immaturity; Dean didn't care one way or the other, and knew only that those things made him happy. He always saw their hunting mission as important, but he didn't let that awareness override the little joys to be savored in momentary distractions.

I submit this is one way in which Dean has always been spiritually wiser than Sam. That was never intentional on Dean's part; it's just how he developed. Dean has always found ways to enjoy his life as it is; Sam has always been occupied with finding ways to make his life better, and usually failed. Always striving, Sam was almost never content. It's almost as if Sam felt he would have been betraying his goals, the mission, or the people he'd lost if he took his eyes off the ultimate prize even for a moment to indulge in something lesser and actually let himself enjoy it. His attitude has always been a match for what he said in the car at the beginning: “Working a case. As long as we're waiting on Kevin, that'll be our fun.”

The first time in the series we saw Dean pointing out to Sam the opportunity for fun in the form of a pretty girl came in Dead In The Water, the third episode of the first season. Sam rarely let himself off the leash; one of the few times I can recall was in Provenance. Pretty much the only time we ever saw Sam willingly indulge Dean without implied judgment was in the beginning of the third season, when he knew Dean was preparing to die and go to Hell. The rest of the time, Sam usually rolled his eyes and pressed Dean to stop wasting time.

That wasn't the way it had always been, however. We saw in Swan Song, in moments when Chuck talked about the past, that there were times the brothers had gone out of their way to attend a concert or watch a game, or just sat on the Impala's hood drinking beer and watching the stars. The compulsion to hunt to the exclusion of everything else apparently didn't come until after Sam had left for college and returned only because he'd lost Jess, mission-focused on his duty to hunt. Everything about his hunting life became so grim, with stakes so high, that Sam largely lost the capacity for seizing the moment and taking the time to enjoy the little good things scattered along the way.

I dare to hope Sam's decision in this episode to indulge along with Dean in simple fun, to momentarily drop his burdens and just play, might result in him realizing that letting himself – and Dean – enjoy the little things could increase his contentment with the life he has, despite all its sacrifices, and recapture a bit of the happiness the brothers sometimes shared in years past. I'm not saying Sam should settle for doing what Dean wants or resign himself just to hunting despite wanting more; not at all. But I hope that, even when he chooses to dream of and work toward something more – going back to college, for example – he doesn't get so caught up in wanting what he doesn't have or being weighed down by unwanted duty that he misses out on enjoying what he's got: a brother who loves him, a job worth doing, and dinner and a beer after a long day's efforts.

Production Notes

I'm always happy to see Robbie Thompson's name on a script. He's got a lovely sense of the relationship between the brothers and a fine touch with humor; he brings the funny without crossing the line into sophomoric silliness. I really enjoyed what he brought to Charlie and the LARPers as well. As a veteran of thirty years of playing Dungeons and Dragons in the same game world, I appreciated the respect his script gave to people using fantasy gaming as a way to bring creativity, delight and wonder into otherwise mundane lives. Sam and Dean understanding the impulse and joining wholeheartedly in the fun was validation to offset the sheriff's scorn for young men living alone in apartments full of toys.

I also particularly enjoyed the brothers being confronted with the realization that they'd been LARPing all their lives, every time they assumed a role while investigating a case. Having a gamer call them out on their fake FBI badges and typecast cheap suits when those same things had already passed muster at the real sheriff's department was hysterically funny, and also tipped the hat to the intelligence of gamers and their attention to detail. That was an amusing callback to their first brush with LARPing and the intelligence of geeks in The Monster At The End Of This Book. People in the mundane world generally see what they expect to see; gamers creating a world from imagination, on the other hand, have to attend to every detail.

I also enjoyed Garth's continuing off-screen evolution. The hunter resource and network coordination function Bobby served really was too valuable to lose, and having Garth pick it up as his niche is a solid idea that opens up many good possibilities for introducing potential cases. Garth taking the next logical step to track hunters using the phone GPS and alert them to cases nearby was a neat development. I like having him in the background as an occasional resource; the brothers need a support structure.

My only minor irritation with the script was one bit of logic-fail. The belladonna line was a hoot, with Dean and Charlie speaking in chorus and betraying a disturbingly amusing shared mindset on porn, but there's no way a medical examiner with a negative toxicology report would ever have said our two bloody LARPer deaths were caused by the poison. I shook my head so hard I practically got whiplash!

There's one production detail I'd like to know more about, particularly to learn whether it was in the script or something that came about through the the visual effects department. The screen displaying the text message on Ed's phone in the beginning indicated the date of his death as being January 23, 2013 – in other words, real time for when we were actually viewing the episode, a nice touch the show has played with before, for example in Lazarus Rising. If that was also scripted, it meant that Dean's plea to Sam in the car about taking a night off could have been an indirect request for a birthday present, since Dean's birthday is January 24 – and since neither brother acknowledged or mentioned the significance of the day, that would have been a subtle commentary on the dysfunction of the brothers' current relationship, to pass without any mention at all even if the brothers never were particularly observant of birthdays. Coincidence or subtle commentary? I think we need Robbie Thompson to answer that one.

Veteran director Jeannot Szwarc had fun with this episode, and the coordination between the direction and the special effects, visual effects, and sound effects crews was spectacular. The opening death by quartering was amazingly effective, combining all those elements to sell the presence of invisible ropes and horses. I also particularly enjoyed the visual stunt of Charlie running out of and into the fairy's tent, especially in the effects-enhanced whip-pan shot where we saw her in the mirror running out while we saw her live running in. The transformation of the brothers' guns into feathers, complete with clucking chicken sounds, was another delightful combination of live action with multiple effects. Editor Nicole Baer did her usual stellar job.

That closing scene, including the bombastic, expansive Chris Lennertz score swelling under Dean's Braveheart speech only to crank down when the frisbee guy showed up, and then crank back up again – the same musical cue trick they used with Dean's hilarious attempt on the sword in the stone in Like A Virgin – was a classic! The guys in costumes and face paint, Dean's hysterically funny wig, Robert Singer's uncredited voiceover of the text roll, and the alteration of the first end production credit to match the roll font were all an absolute delight. Kudos to everyone involved, including all the LARPing extras!

Felicia Day's slightly larger and broader-than-life Charlie Bradbury – excuse me, Carrie Heinlein (nice way to salute Stephen King and two classic science fiction masters, Robbie!) – was a treat. I thoroughly enjoyed her kid-sister chemistry with Jensen Ackles' Dean. Charlie's awareness of herself as always playing a role came across in Day's reactions, especially when Charlie was consciously being Moondoor's queen, deliberately being a bit too broad to be real. The difference between Charlie just being herself – for example, talking with the Winchesters in her tent in the beginning – and Charlie being both the queen and herself, as she was when she first faced the fairy, was clear. I would enjoy seeing Charlie again sometime, and the script definitely suggested we will.

Several of the other supporting actors were examples of Supernatural's amazing ability to pull off perfect casting. The gorgeous Tiffany Dupont was a perfect choice for fairy Gilda, but the absolute best casting coup was Don Thompson as the handlebar-mustachioed sheriff; he was a hoot! This was Thompson's second appearance in Supernatural: he played Mr. Guenther, John's long-ago partner in the garage, back in the first season episode Home. I'd also seen him before in Battlestar Galactica and The Killing; he's one of those fine character actors who can take a supporting role and make it something more. Hank Harris gave yeoman service as the villain Gerry/Boltar.

I really loved watching Jensen Ackles as Dean reacting to Moondoor, from the testing quirk of his lips watching the fake orc getting his teeth put back in to tactically assessing the troop map to suiting up in leather and mail and swaggering around with a sword. Dean's enjoyment of the whole role-playing aspect of the case was just so much fun to watch; he enjoyed the chance to dress up and play like the kid he'd never really been allowed to be, and I think that got through to Sam fully as much as his appreciation of the effort Dean was making to be sensitive to his brother's feelings. These guys are just so good at inhabiting these characters! Jared Padalecki gave us multiple degrees of Sam, from his impatient frustration in the beginning all the way through his own decision to indulge in fun at the end, and I loved him for it.

I found the way this episode ended, with the brothers taking a few hours simply to play together, happily healing. They have a long way yet to go to rebuild the full strength of their brother bond, but they've both taken purposeful steps toward that end. And I think they will take those lessons with them when they leave Moondoor's escapism behind to go bravely into the next world – their real one.

Tags: christopher lennertz, dean winchester, episode commentaries, jared padalecki, jensen ackles, meta, philosophy, psychology, robert singer, sam winchester, supernatural, supernatural university, television production, winchester family business

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