"I believe that Supernatural has used the “fourth wall” as a metonym to comment on an increasingly disturbing aspect of its relationship with its audience. The evolution of these “meta” episodes trace a narrowed focus on the often symbiotic connection the show has to its fans, a symbiosis that both feeds the story and the success of the show, but can also transgress against it in fundamentally violent ways. As we will see, the more deeply embedded the viewer becomes in the text, the more the fan becomes a character on the stage, then the more exclusionary the relationship becomes, shutting out the casual observer – shutting out other potential voyeurs…..
In fact, if one traces the evolution of Supernatural’s “meta” episodes, as they are popularly called both in media coverage and in fandom, then one sees the increasingly claustrophobic distance between the show and its self-identified fans. The effect of this intrusion between reading space and writing space mimics the same uncanny moment that occurs in Vasquez’s Las Meninas, when the artist returns the gaze of the subject, but even more disturbingly, he returns the gaze of the viewer, so that viewer becomes subject and vice versa.
However, the gaze of the artist is evacuated and void because the viewer is always anonymous and objectified, always simply an object displaced and replaced by the desire of the artist. For film and television, this gaze uncovers the moment of failed reciprocity, of an aborted promise of dialogue. The gaze confronts the voyeurism of the viewer, makes the viewer conscious of the voyeurism, and instigates a moment of shame, a moment which reveals the scopophilia inherent in both cinematic and television viewership…”
I wrote the above passages in spring 2011; it’s part of a longer piece that I’ve since abandoned because I became too immersed in the fandom of Supernatural to feel comfortable writing about it. I use this paragraph, though, to introduce my reaction to the April 15th episode entitled “Meta Fiction.” The episode offers observations about the writing and storytelling process via the character of Metatron, who is the traditional scribe of God. Metatron was first introduced in the final arc of season 7, in an episode written by Ben Edlund who has since left but who was also known for his more experimental and yes, meta, episodes. The show has often played with form - it even signals its experiments by revising the title card for a chosen meta episode, such as last night’s title card:
This meta episode, which humorously features “Meta”tron, begins with the aforementioned character in a library, surrounded by books and typing on an increasingly antique item: a typewriter. The typewriter holds a special place in the cinematic and television tradition of writing - from the typewriter in Sunset Boulevard to various production companies that have used the sound of typing as its acoustic call card. Typing equals creating but unlike Chuck’s computer laptop and chaotic minutia of a frenetic writing life, Metatron’s library is distinguished, polished, and one might even argue overly manufactured to look like a writing space - the place for a character who wants to be the thing he is imitating. If you build it…etc. and so on.
At first I read this cold opening as a pointed insult to fans - Metatron is a reader, not a writer. He pretends to be a writer, wants to be a writer, longs to be the god who tells the story, but alas, he will always be limited by his too analytical, too intellectual, too rational approach to the “story.” His failure comes in reading too much and by virtue, reading into too much. So you can imagine, as a fan who has written many in-depth metas, I was taken aback. I was like “Well, hell, Robbie, give me my affection back and no more robots for you. Ever.”
Throughout the episode I kept wondering at the almost contradictory moves - at one point Metatron is creating fantasies only to stirringly long for an authentic text, a good story. Then Sam is basically erased, yet again, from the narrative landscape, sent off to search while Dean acted. Then there was the meta commentary that seemed to point to the writers of today dismissing the story of yesterday, with many targeted jabs at the elasticity of “canon” and the prevalence of the “retcon.” Show history was presented in the form of Chuck’s books and the irreverent “Winchester Gospels” and then tossed aside, even thrown into a sacrificial fire. These books have been the weapons for both Crowley and Metatron as well as entertainment for Charlie - so the history of the show is always present, even when its not, because anyone can access it. Anyone can read the books.
However, in a story that is about two brothers hunting things and saving people they were sadly relegated to this tertiary space while the show turned its attention toward Castiel and Metatron. Even in the immediate aftermath of the episode I struggled with my own reactions to it, which moved between a subdued rage to a grudging respect to a little bit of awe and then back again to rage. I saw similar feelings on twitter, but those feelings reacted to the parody of canon and continuity. I won’t lie. During my live watch I was disturbed and discomfited. But now I think those feelings emerged from a totally different place than what I first presumed and let me explain my revised (and always revisable) reading of the episode.
I’ve not been quiet about my dissatisfaction with the portrayal and writing of Sam Winchester for the past two seasons, if not before that. You can scroll through both my tumblr and my last season’s ragings over at my wordpress site, rocksaltandburnit, for further explication. I’ve written a tomb of rage for Carver, for all the writers, but specifically Carver. In my reading, Sam has become a character that seems almost too mysterious, too unknown. His point of view has evacuated the stage, which I think now is a necessary component to the story being told.
As I reflect on last night’s episode I have started to think that this complex and complicated network between the show and its fans mimics, to a very very great extent, the relationship between the main characters: Sam and Dean. And they drive the car, the writers get to pick the music, per se. They are also the ones who we see betraying - the ones who have taken the brothers’ relationship away, have transformed it from the relationship we came to rely on, and we cannot speak inside the text although we inhabit it in a strange and beautiful way. So now that cold opening becomes both instructive and seductive. It reminds me of Whitman’s “Song of the Open Road”: