8.16 Remember The Titans: This One Was Supposed To Be On Me
Prometheus' fate –
Die every day forever:
Commentary And Meta Analysis
I enjoyed this episode a lot more than I expected to when I first learned about it. Supernatural has an unfortunate track record when it comes to stories involving non-Christian gods; they have most often come off as sloppy caricatures bearing little resemblance to their source mythology. I particularly loathed everything about the travesty that was Hammer Of The Gods and the bizarre depiction of Osiris in Defending Your Life, among others. This episode had its significant inaccuracies and issues, but it escaped the gross stupidity of prior outings, and I found the story of Shane, Hayley, and Oliver magnetic.
In this discussion, I'm going to look at Supernatural's cosmology and its treatment of gods and myth, and talk a little about the Winchesters' current relationship and the parallels I saw between them and Prometheus.
Like The Gods Before The Gods
Supernatural has always put its own spin on monsters. Their stories usually start from traditional myths and legends, but often depart from the accepted norms in unusual ways. So, for example, the show's vampires live on blood, but have a whole additional set of teeth instead of fangs, aren't put off by religious symbols or garlic, and can walk in the sunshine, albeit uncomfortably – and without sparkling. Others more closely resemble their traditional roots: thus, the show's werewolves and other shapeshifters can be hurt and killed by silver.
Supernatural's own cosmology derives mostly from the Judeo-Christian tradition, although it's given a hefty dose of Supernatural spin with the explanation that the humans who wrote the Bible got more wrong than right. Thus, the biblical Old Testament father-god who purportedly created all things, including angels, humans, Heaven, Hell, Earth, and the prototype monster Leviathan, is generally presented as the show's god, but with a lot of twists: rather than being truly omnipotent, he's contemporaneous with and expected to be subject to Death; has wandered off from Heaven and was last reported dwelling on Earth, apparently in the guise of his prophet Chuck Shurley; and is apparently letting all aspects of his creation pursue their own free wills without regard for the consequences. The New Testament story really hasn't featured in the show at all except for Sam's faith and the generally religious bent of some other hunters; the report from Anna in Heaven And Hell that angels had been assigned to be hands-off observers on Earth for 2000 years, basically since the time of Jesus; and odd details such as the name “Christo” having power over demons.
Since the show assigned actual creation to that pseudo-Old Testament biblical god, it has approached the gods of all other human religions simply as powerful non-human supernatural beings. Each time Supernatural turned to non-Judeo-Christian gods and the myth structures surrounding and describing them, it treated them in a weird mix of the literal and the different, hewing to only a few selected details from their myths while discarding their essence almost entirely. That schizophrenia – particularly the choice of which details were taken literally – has caused most of the problems I've had with the various god stories.
Scarecrow was the first episode to deal with a non-Christian, pagan deity. While using the name Vanir and associating it with Norse gods of prosperity and fertility – reasonably accurate, as far as that went – the episode took off into fantasy with human sacrifices to an unnamed individual Vanr animating the form of a scarecrow wearing the skin of its most recent male sacrifice, which could be killed by burning the sacred tree to which the Vanr spirit – rather like a Greek hamadryad – was bound. Instead of hewing to Norse myth and getting caught up in the complicated war between the Vanir and the Aesir, Supernatural took the concept sideways, blending the Norse myth name with sacrificial stories out of other cultures to create its peculiar scarecrow spirit. A Norse scholar would have had conniptions over the bastardization of the base mythology, but the tale worked in part precisely because it blended familiar elements out of many cultures into an archetypal story.
In season three, A Very Supernatural Christmas set the primary foundation and design the show has used for its non-Christian cosmology ever since, introducing the basic idea that virtually all of the non-Christian gods were other-than-human beings with extraordinary abilities who set themselves up as gods and used their human worshippers to enrich and feed themselves and extend their power. The Carrigans, pagan deities loosely connected with the Scandinavian Hold Nickar, complained of being displaced and disenfranchised by the rapid spread of upstart and intolerant Christianity. They superficially assimilated into mainstream human culture for two millenia to avoid being hunted down and destroyed by the church while continuing to practice their own direct ritual sacrifice and dine on humans. While ostensibly unaging and immortal, they could be killed if someone knew their particular weakness or susceptibility.
From Scarecrow up until this episode, virtually every non-Judeo-Christian deity was depicted as a monster killing and most often eating humans, even when that conflicted with the lore of their religions and cultures. That included Samhain (which is actually a Celtic festival time, not an individual deity or spirit) in It's The Great Pumpkin, Sam Winchester; the Leshi in Fallen Idols; and every single one of the hideously badly drawn deities in Hammer Of The Gods. That episode was so bad in so many ways, I'll just link to my original commentary on it: http://bardicvoice.livejournal.com/66005.html. Suffice to say I ripped it to shreds. Osiris in Defending Your Life wasn't specifically depicted as eating people, but he was also shown only and deliberately judging people he would definitely find guilty and condemn to death; far from the impartial judge of legend who weighed the guilt of souls after death to determine their fate in the afterlife.
This episode raided Greek myth in the show's customary pick-choose-and-discard fashion. On the one hand, aspects of the Prometheus myth were taken absolutely literally, as indicated both by Shane's situation and by Zeus's angry denunciation of him. Prometheus had stolen fire from the Greek gods and given it to humanity; Zeus blamed him for giving humans the means to live without worshipping the gods and depriving the gods of their power base, and for punishment chained him to a rock with an eagle eternally eating his magically renewed liver. The Greek gods weren't depicted here as living on Olympus or eating humans – judging from his appearance, Zeus had assimilated much as the Carrigans had, taking on the mantle of a wealthy business tycoon – but did evidence power and arrogance and dismissed humans as inconsequential except to the extent they provided entertainment or proved useful.
Where the literal acceptance of the myth became problematic for me – well, apart from the whole idea that Zeus could have hoarded all fire away from mankind in the first place – was the premise that Prometheus had actually been physically bound to a mountain in Europe for multiple thousands of years until a random avalanche seven years ago swept him to anonymous freedom and Hayley's arms. That was almost as hard for me to swallow as the idea of an angel and her separate grace falling from Heaven as meteors through the night sky – something I smacked Kripke for in Heaven And Hell.
The episode also played fast and very loose with the nature of Artemis. In myth, she was indeed associated with the hunt, but also with the protection of young girls, virginity, and women in childbirth. The majority of tales involving Artemis preserved and even stressed her chastity, so hanging the resolution of this story on her having fallen in love with Prometheus – and even more, Sam inferring that she had periodically freed him from the mountain for dalliance – emphasized that she was simply being used as a plot device. Artemis was the single most unrealistic character in this story, because I couldn't buy any of her motivations. If she loved Prometheus, how could she have left him on that mountain to be tortured for thousands of years? If she was able to free him from time to time, how could she return him to torment? Perhaps her attempt to kill Prometheus in the motel room when he didn't recognize her was a combination of resentment, filial duty, and recognition that he was lost to her anyway, but it felt too contrived for words, particularly if she had loved him for so long. Similarly, her instant about-face when Sam lied to her about Prometheus having said he loved her and her rapid transition from dutiful daughter to would-be patricide were sociopathic reactions, not reasonably supportable ones. If she were an immortal who had been living with all these father and lover issues for thousands upon thousands of years, them coming to crisis in an instant would simply make no sense. Given the underlying myth, it would have made more sense to me if the story had hung Artemis's rebellion on her objection to Zeus hurting an innocent child – but since Supernatural has generally cast gods as monsters, I suppose that wasn't in the cards.
Supernatural's treatment of the gods of our human cultures will always be problematic. Most religious traditions depict their gods as too powerful to be affected by humans or by the gods of other cultures. Every religious tradition has its own creation story, its own heirarchy, its own rules. The show has always created its own mythology from the way it has deliberately warped and woven aspects of the stories we know, using the rationale that, even where they purported to be the words of god, all such stories were told by fallible humans speaking from purely human perspectives.
It fascinates me that the show is now breaking new ground with its own “revealed truth” in the form of the tablets containing its god's direct words. In show canon, unlike all the stories of all other religious traditions, the tablets are reportedly the actual Word of God: not the work of humans, but an angelic transcription of direct divine dictation. That … intrigues me. And I still wonder when we might learn of the existence of a human tablet to match the demon, leviathan, and angel ones.
Here's To That Crazy Little Wild Card Called Love
This episode advanced the story of the Winchester brothers and their quest even though they got no further in the trials. And even though Sam is still keeping secrets and Dean knows he's doing it, there's no anger between them this time, because Dean understands perfectly well the nature of the secret Sam is so obviously trying to hide: he can tell Sam is hurting, feeling the effects of the spell that put him on the road to closing the gates of Hell, and trying to keep it from Dean as much to spare his older brother worry and guilt as to prove his own strength and capability. For the time being, Dean is even willing to let Sam think he's successfully hiding his pain and fear rather than calling him on it, simply because he knows Sam derives some comfort from thinking he's in control.
Throughout the series, the brothers have always taken turns supporting each other. Whenever one lost faith and hope, the other carried it for them both, and they've passed that ball between them time and time again. In Trial And Error, realizing that Dean saw the quest as a suicide mission while he did not, Sam took up the mantle when circumstances made him the one to kill the hellhound and be soaked in its blood. To keep his brother from sacrificing himself, Sam held out his vision of both of them surviving the fight and reaping the rewards of a Hell-free world, and Dean, however reluctantly, followed along.
Now, feeling the effects of the quest geas taking its toll on his physical well-being and seeing Shane dying in his own quest to free his son from his curse, Sam started to doubt the very hope and light he'd held up to his brother – and true to form, Dean stepped in to shore him up. Eschewing any sappy touchy-feely crap, he did it in typically Dean fashion, insisting that he would hold Sam to his promise of not dying and going on to live a long and happily ordinary life. Tellingly, he still didn't make any promises for himself, but he renewed his eternal commitment to keeping Sam safe on his watch.
There were so many echoes of Sam and Dean in the story of Shane and Oliver. The brothers could both relate to Shane in ways we could see, although Shane could not; he couldn't know how often both of them have died, or the tortures they endured in Hell, or their intimate knowledge of the psychological and emotional toll taken by constant pain and suffering.
Accepting that he was Prometheus, Shane understood the curse he suffered under, and while he didn't accept it as fair, he knew it was a consequence of his choice to defy Zeus. What he couldn't accept was the thought of his curse being visited on Oliver simply because the boy was his son. That paralleled Dean saying in his prayer that he should be the one suffering for undertaking the quest instead of Sam; Dean had resolved to do it and do it alone, and never meant for Sam to take his place on the altar of sacrifice.
But I think while Dean saw himself in Shane and Sam in Oliver, Sam was seeing exactly the reverse. Especially in the scene at the funeral pyre, I couldn't help but think that Sam saw Dean in the solemn little boy who grew up way too soon when a load far too heavy was put on his shoulders; the little boy who'd retreated into silence while he came to terms with his confusion and fear, and who emerged from the trial determined to stand fast and stay strong for his mother. And I think Sam saw himself in Shane, who without initially intending it, nonetheless accepted his death to take down Zeus and save his son from the torment he'd endured.
And I hope neither of the brothers' perceived parallels with Prometheus actually proves true as the Winchesters' story plays out.
Despite the issues I've detailed with the episode's use of Greek myth and the convenient, unrealistic motivations of Artemis, I thoroughly enjoyed the story while I was watching it. Daniel Loflin's script had a lot to recommend it, particularly in the witty dialogue between Sam and Dean (What do we know of that has Jason Bourne fighting skills, dies a lot, and has a history with violent women? – I don't know; you?), the heartbreaking and very human treatment of the story of Shane, Hayley, and Oliver, and in showing how well Dean understood Sam and his situation. Director Steve Boyum and editor Daniel Koch did a brilliant job of conveying all the important non-verbal beats of the story, particularly in showing Sam figuring out the unspoken relationship between Artemis and Prometheus just by observing her reactions as Zeus was doing his thing. Special kudos to Jared Padalecki for making Sam's mental gears visible on his face as he processed what he saw!
Speaking of Steve Boyum, I really liked his low-angle shot of the Impala arriving at the sheriff's office/Montana state patrol station. Mind you, I also still haven't forgiven him for taking off the Impala's spotlights all the way back in Dream A Little Dream Of Me, but at least he gave her some hubcab, flank, and door love here! I also loved the way he framed Dean praying at the end, mixing the corner ceiling point of view – like an invisible angel's vantage point – with the close shots on Dean's face. And while I'm talking Dean, I have to say Jensen Ackles kills me every time he conveys Dean's love and concern for his little brother, and makes me laugh out loud with Dean's pride in his new home.
The guest stars in this episode did a superb job, especially John Reardon as Shane/Prometheus. His portrayal of a man with no memory and at his wit's end dealing with an impossible situation was absolutely believable. For all that I couldn't get behind Artemis's decidedly non-human motivation, I definitely appreciated what Anna Von Hooft brought to her, especially in displaying her conflict when Zeus was torturing Prometheus and most of all in connecting with Hayley at the end with absolutely no words. In that final moment and exchange of looks, I bought Artemis as someone who had loved Prometheus, who saw and acknowledged in Hayley another woman who loved him, and who chose without jealousy to yield her claim to him by taking only her father's body with her. Playing Hayley, Brooke Langton was the other half of that marvelous exchange of looks and emotion, and she did a lovely job throughout as a mother freaked out by circumstance but staying strong to do all she could. John Novak's Zeus was appropriately arrogant, and he obviously enjoyed chewing the scenery as a god on the loose. Little Callum Seagram Airlie, in a role with almost no words, made a powerful impression, especially in his last scene with Jared.
I had to laugh at Ken Tremblett's Trooper Jack Spradun. Supernatural is on fire this season with amusingly wacky, superbly cast supporting players, from quirky cops to uptight librarians. And Tremblett joins the ranks of repeating character actors, having played Ron – the clueless husband of witch Renee, walking out the door on “book club” night – in Malleus Maleficarum.
Trooper Jack is the source of my one little specific detail quibble with the script, and with the prop, set decoration, and costume decisions based on it: everyone calls him a Trooper, but his car and uniform both proclaim him part of the Sheriff's department. The state of Montana has the Montana Highway Patrol, whose road officers are called Troopers, and each county in the state has a Sheriff's Department, complete with a Sheriff and his/her deputies. Their jurisdictions and missions are different. And that probably wouldn't have jumped up and smacked me so hard in the face if I hadn't ridden with the Wisconsin State Patrol back when I was in college. *grin*
Apart from that little niggling detail, I have nothing but praise for all the technical departments on this one. The fake corpse used for the scene with the juvenile bald eagle eating dead Shane's liver was very convincing – loved the eagle, by the way! – and the work done by both the makeup folks and the VFX team to transform Shane from dead to living was wonderful. I also enjoyed what the VFX crew did with Zeus stamping lightning and torturing Prometheus, and with Artemis dissolving into black mist and disappearing with her dagger.
I do rather hope the brothers collected the arrow Artemis tossed aside; it would be useful in the future to have a weapon able to kill immortals! I suspect her bow vanished along with her, but I do wonder about that arrow …
This was a monster of the week story rather than one heavily into the show's mythology, but I very much enjoyed the way it still managed to tie the brothers' overall themes and issues into a standalone tale. That kind of solid linkage always makes a MOTW story more memorable and enjoyable, and with all the emotional and thematic resonance among Sam, Dean, and Prometheus, I will remember and savor this one for a long time.