Summary : "Metafiction" is meta-tastic!
Supernatural’s “Metafiction” is a spectacular launch of season nine’s six remaining episodes. Written by Robbie Thompson and directed by Thomas J. Wright, “Metafiction” lives up to its name. The episode begins and ends with Metatron (Curtis Armstrong) discussing narrative.
In the opening sequence, reminiscent of Masterpiece Theatre, Metatron seemingly addresses the audience: “What is it that makes a story work? Is it the plot? The characters? The text? The subtext? And who gives the story meaning? Is it the writer? Or you? Tonight, I thought I would tell you a little story and let you decide.”
Although the episode explores these questions in fascinating ways, the action centers largely on Castiel (Misha Collins), Dean Winchester (Jensen Ackles), and Sam Winchester (Jared Padalecki). When Cas discovers that Gadreel (Tahmoh Penikett) is killing angels, he and the Winchesters hash out a plan to find the angel. Dean and Sam take Gadreel captive, while Cas is taken hostage via an illusion that involves the archangel Gabriel (Richard Speight, Jr.), who died in season five (5×19).
After Sam goes “Liam Neeson” on Gadreel, Dean sends his brother to find Cas, who’s not answering his phone. Meanwhile, Cas breaks free of the illusion and refuses Metatron’s offer to join forces. When Metatron learns that the Winchesters have Gadreel, he brokers a trade: Cas for Gadreel. The Winchesters agree, and the trade is made, though Metatron gleefully foils their attempts to trap him. The episode ends with Cas summoning other angels as Dean and Sam resume their hunt for Abaddon.
“Metafiction” is structured to provoke thought, to encourage questioning of the text. Episodes like these set my theory-loving heart fluttering, particularly because they emphasize that texts hold multiple meanings. What “Metafiction” means to one person may not be what it means to another, and different readings don’t necessarily negate each other; they can exist simultaneously. So, for all I’m writing here, bear in mind that there is so much more that can be said – and said differently – about this meta-tastic episode.
Equating writing with creation, even with godhood, isn’t new on Supernatural. When Metatron was introduced in “The Great Escapist” (8×21), he told the Winchesters, “”[Storytelling] is the true flower of free will…When you create stories, you become gods, of tiny, intricate dimensions unto themselves. So many worlds!” His connection of storytelling and free will is important, and what really interests me is that season nine is very much about the stories that people tell themselves and the stories that people believe.
This season, Cas, Dean, and Sam are struggling with their self-perceptions and reconciling them with the view(s) that others have of them. This “Who am I?” exploration has manifested in ways that have been decidedly painful at times, though the pay-off (I think) will be hugely worthwhile. Each character is figuring out how he’s been defined, how he defines himself, and how he wants to be defined, and one of show’s end goals seems to be that each figures out how to write his own story. To use Metatron’s own theory, won’t that be the ultimate expression of free will?
At this point, though, Cas, Dean, and Sam are still very much in the drafting phase.
Questioning perception, truth, and identity is at the core of Supernatural. Castiel is a prime example: A one-time obedient angel (even if, as Naomi said, he had to be continuously reprogrammed (8×21)), he has learned the hard way to not be a “hammer” (4×7) and to question the truth. Like Sam, he has struggled to maintain his agency and to determine his family role. Cas has evolved, though. This season alone, his path has taken him from an all-too-brief stint as human to prospective leadership of the de-winged angels. He uses technology, if somewhat awkwardly. He’s suited up again, except for his blue tie. He’s tanned, and his hair isn’t as severe. Cas is also more expressive, seen especially in “Metafiction” during his phone call with the Winchesters and when he grabs Dean’s arm to reveal the Mark of Cain and exclaims, “Dammit, Dean!”
While Cas experienced the throes of humanity, he’s also been split off from the Winchesters for much of the season. At times, as he dealt with these new experiences alongside his loneliness and isolation, which Collins and his emotive blue eyes portray very convincingly, Cas’s situation has been heartbreaking. That’s why, for me, watching him respond to faux-Gabriel is wrenching. Cas bonds with the illusion of his brother, accepting his encouragement and reassurance. Cas actually relaxes and settles into relief over Gabriel leading, and he’s so appreciative that he hugs his brother. It’s a sad moment when Cas discovers the “loose thread” and realizes the charade. Faux-Gabriel tells him, “Here’s the thing: None of it was real, but all of it was true.” Cas, his lessons learned, cuts right to the chase: “Whose truth?”
After the illusion ends, and Cas wakens bound and gagged in Metatron’s study, something interesting happens: Just as Crowley is the devil on Dean’s shoulder in “Mother’s Little Helper,” Metatron perches on Cas’s. Like Crowley, Metatron’s done his homework (let’s not forget the King of Hell reading the Winchester Gospels in “Clip Show” (8×22). And like Crowley, Metatron knows just what to say to push his target’s buttons.
I find it amusing that Metatron “retcons” Castiel’s popular culture knowledge by downloading every book, movie, and tv show that Metatron’s consumed. Now, presumably, Cas will understand “that the universe is made up of stories, not atoms.” But while, yes, Cas does understand the reference now – such as when he understands Sam’s Star Wars reference – he still doesn’t quite “get” its full meaning. This also reminds me of Sam and Cas’s conversation in “First Born” (9×11) about the PB&J not being the “sum of all its parts.” Will being able to see the narrative patterns change the way that Cas reads the “Big Picture”?
Considering that Metatron, who considers himself an expert on storytelling, is relying upon patterns and archetypes in his own narrative plan, I do think there’s more here to suss out. In Metatron’s story, to be the hero, he needs Castiel to be the villain; if Cas complies, then he’ll be rewarded. What’s interesting about this to me is that by giving Cas knowledge about narratives, specifically the ones that Metatron has read, he’s given Cas the playbook. So what happens when Cas learns how to interpret the meanings? Will he figure out the way to defeat Metatron? And will Metatron anticipate such duplicity? He understands revising, but does he understand the organic nature of a text? After all, though he acknowledges to Gadreel that well-drawn characters can surprise, he insists that he knows how the story ends… but if text is organic, can the ending be “known”? (I’d argue no.)
Also, if Metatron read the Winchester Gospels to learn how to deal with Cas and the Winchesters, then he’s working with incomplete information. He may have read the published works, but he hasn’t been shown with a computer, suggesting that he hasn’t found the unpublished volumes uploaded by “BeckyWinchester176” (9×4). So, does Metatron truly understand his adversaries? Does he know about Cas, Dean, and Sam defying prophecy, refusing to follow the script and saving the world in the process?
At the end of “Metafiction,” Metatron obviously thinks that he sees where Castiel’s arc will go, and Cas does call the angels. However, just because Cas is seemingly fulfilling Metatron’s expectations right now doesn’t mean he’ll follow along with the ending. Characters can surprise us. For example, in “Point of No Return” (5×18), Dean goes with Sam and Cas to the Beautiful Room, and he plans to say yes to Michael; even Sam and Cas think he will. But at the last minute, Dean changes his mind, makes a different choice, and the rest is history. So what will Cas do? Will he subvert Metatron’s text and write his own ending?
As Castiel acts on Metatron’s carefully placed suggestions, Dean continues to act on Crowley’s. The events of “Mother’s Little Helper” (9×17) catalyzed Dean – and Sam – to find Abaddon. And while the Winchesters temporarily shift their focus to capturing Gadreel in “Metafiction,” the Mark of Cain is clearly taking its toll on Dean.
Following Metatron’s opening sequence, the scene shifts to the bunker, where Dean is taking a hot shower. Fandom’s appreciation for Ackles’s physical appearance led to quite a bit of “Shower Hellatus” humor online, but this scene has narrative purpose: This is Dean stripped of his hunter’s accoutrements, a man laid bare. As he stands under the water, he’s red-eyed, as if he’s been crying. Once he’s out of the shower, he looks into the steam-covered mirror. Even after he wipes a hand across it, his reflection remains distorted. It’s a powerful scene that becomes more meaningful as the episode progresses.
Later, after the Winchesters have captured Gadreel, and Sam leaves to find Cas, Gadreel tells Dean that Sam thinks little of him. He points out Dean’s “daddy issues” and calls him “a sad, clingy…bottomfeeder…who would let everyone around him die.” These taunts hit too close to the insecurities that Dean has been portrayed as carrying since the pilot episode, and the hunter very nearly kills Gadreel right then. At the last second, Dean stops because he figures out the angel’s secret: He’s not afraid of dying; he’s afraid of being left bound, understandable for a being imprisoned since Lucifer gained access to the Garden of Eden (9×10). Dean stalks away, leaving Gadreel alone.
In front of Gadreel, Dean brushed off his derision, but when he goes into the factory’s dirty bathroom, it’s obvious that Dean is, in fact, bothered. He wipes a hand through the dust that covers the mirror above the sink, and after he washes his face, he looks up at his reflection. In this scene, Ackles conveys the depth of Dean’s despair palpably; it’s a hard scene for me to watch. Dean considers his reflection for a moment before coming to the decision, as we find out later, to kill the angel. He takes the angel blade he’d laid down and leaves the room. Dean forgets his cell phone, which I read two ways: It creates suspense because the audience knows that Sam is calling to tell Dean that they have to trade Gadreel for Cas, and it is at the least symbolic, if not foreshadowing, for Dean’s inability to receive communication.
When Sam gets to the factory, Dean is in the floor, slumped against the wall and dazed. Gadreel is laid out nearby, unconscious and bloodied. It’s significant that Dean, under the Mark’s thrall, beat up and nearly killed an angel. (He decided not to because they need Gadreel to talk.) Though Sam doesn’t say anything, Padalecki plays the moment as if Sam deduces what’s happened; he tells Dean that Metatron has Cas and that seems to rouse Dean. Though the Winchesters’ plan to capture Metatron doesn’t work, the trade is successful.
Since Dean took the Mark, I’ve been waiting for Cas’s reaction, and “Metafiction” finally delivers in a short yet effective scene: Cas is none too happy, and he makes that clear. Dean states, outright, that the Mark is “a means to an end,” a phrase that has been a refrain in season nine. Will the ends justify the means, though? What is it going to take to make Dean see beyond the ends? Cas isn’t soothed by Dean’s assurances, and the look on Sam’s face says he isn’t either. But Dean rebuffs any further discussion saying that he’s “got a Knight to kill” and getting into the car. Sam and Cas share concerned looks, and Cas tells Sam to “keep an eye on him.”
Even when Cas articulates his concern, Sam does not, though Padalecki’s performance conveys it. According to Thompson, a line where Sam expresses concern about Dean to Cas was cut, but the worry “plays in his eyes.” Though the vocalization would have been nice, I agree that the emotion is clear. Sam nervously looks between Dean and Cas during their exchange; he swallows hard and his body language, in general, suggests uncertainty.
The emphasis on physical cues to communicate Sam’s internal state is indicative of the season, and I find myself “reading” Padalecki’s performances more carefully these days. It’s been an interesting experience, as I’ve typically read Ackles’s physical cues more closely simply because Sam usually vocalizes his feelings. In the season’s first ten episodes, Padalecki’s nuanced performance distinguishes Gadreel/Ezekiel from Sam, making the glowing eyes unnecessary at times. Since Sam ejected Gadreel, nuance has also highlighted the gap between what Sam says (such as the “we’re not brothers” line) and what he does (how many times has he demonstrated the opposite since “Sharp Teeth”?). “Metafiction” is another episode where Sam says “more” without saying anything at all.
Sam’s behavior reveals more than his worry about Dean, though. It also shows that he’s still struggling with his own inner battles. When Gadreel mocks Sam with his insecurities – well, I think it’s pretty clear that the angel touches a nerve. After the encounter with Gadreel, Sam is visibly more emotional than usual; he’s downright twitchy. He’s clearly upset when he realizes that something has happened to Cas, and when Metatron surprises him in Cas’s motel room, Padalecki plays Sam’s physical response eerily similar to Gadreel’s when Metatron first approached him.
Since Sam now remembers everything from his possession, I assume the similarity stems from the memory of Gadreel’s fear, plus Sam’s own knowledge of who Metatron is and what he’s done. It’s an echo worth examining, one underscored by Gadreel’s jibe, “If this is like looking in a funhouse mirror for me, I cannot imagine how it must be for you.” I can’t imagine either, and I wonder how Sam will continue to deal with the aftereffects of his possession, particularly as the conflict with Metatron intensifies.
So where is season nine heading? Thanks to Gadreel and Metatron’s last conversation, we know that there is a door “home” and that it is secure. Where is the door? Who can access it and how? Will Cas lead the angels? How much further will Dean spiral? Will Sam be able to help Dean when the time comes? However everything plays out, as Metatron says, “It’s going to be a hell of a show.” Personally, I advise stocking up on security blankets and tissues because – let’s face it – Supernatural is going to bring the pain.
- I’ve been wondering how any of the angels are able to heal? In “Good God, Y’all” (5×2), Castiel can’t heal Bobby because he’s cut off from Heaven. Is this a canon-slip or a loophole?
- I absolutely love that Dean turned on Cas’s GPS so he has known exactly where he is. If we go by Show’s timeline, they haven’t seen each other since “Road Trip” (9×10), so he’s known Cas’s exact locations since then (at least, if not since “Heaven Can’t Wait” (9×6)). Considering how much the communication gap between Cas and the Winchesters has annoyed me, this retcon makes me feel so much better, and it fits with what I imagined Dean would have done!
- It’s great to see Speight back on Supernatural, even if it’s as a variation of Gabriel as created by Metatron after reading Tall Tales. When Cas asks him, “Are you dead?,” I crumbled a bit on Cas’s behalf. Faux-Gabriel’s ambiguous eyebrow- waggle does what the Trickster has always done best: leave everyone in suspense.
- Metatron tosses Tall Tales into the fire. If Metatron’s “rewriting,” and that’s the story where Loki stages his first “death” (2×15), I wonder if a loophole is being left for Gabriel to return for real? I have mixed feelings about that – I love Speight, but I also love Gabriel’s “real” death (5×19). I was very relieved that he had not, in fact, been hiding all this time.
- According to Metatron, Cas’s borrowed grace is burning out and part of his deal is an “endless supply of rechargeable batteries.” As we know, Cas refuses the deal, so will Cas eventually have to choose between angelhood and humanity? (I’ve suspected so all season, but is that what will really happen?)
- So holy fire gives s’mores a “delightful minty aftertaste”? Has fan art of Team Free Will roasting marshmallows over a holy blaze been produced yet?
- “The Sun Ain’t Gonna Shine Anymore” is the perfect song for the closing sequence.
- See here for ratings information.
- Twitter activity included live-tweeting from Robbie Thompson, Jared Padalecki, and William Shatner. Multiple terms trended, including #HelloCas and “Dammit Dean.”
What did you think of “Metafiction”? Favorite scenes? Favorite lines? Share in the comments below!
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