Saturday, September 29, 2012

PCAS Presentation: The Plural of Apocalypse: The (Post?)Apocalyptic Genres of Supernatural

Presented 9/29/2012 SPN started as creator Eric Kripke's adaptation of American urban legends. The first season featured those stories many of us remember from sleepovers and campfires. The hook man, the woman in white, Bloody Mary--the classics. The show took a particularly male-oriented, blue collar, Midwestern approach, focusing on survival and skill, not the mysticism or the metaphysics behind these stories, which were all loosely linked by the two main characters', brothers Sam and the elder Dean Winchester, search for their missing father and the creature that killed their mother 22 years previous. As a narrative arc, the search story held through the end of the first season, at which point the show began focusing on the hows and whys of demonic influence specifically. With Kripke at the helm, fans were assured of a planned five season arc. In Kenneth Burke's words, the show runner and producers were aware that form is the arousal and fulfillment of desire, and that fulfillment of the form creates satisfied audiences. When Kripke stepped down after season 5 but the show was renewed, fans were understandably concerned. After all, season five was the story of the apocalypse--what else could a show called Supernatural do once they'd stopped the end of the world and put the devil back in his cage? While the show remains one of the flagships of the CW, since the Winchesters put an end to the end, fans have expressed increasing dissatisfaction with the character development, plot, and general cohesiveness of the show. What I want to do here today is provide a framework through which to view the show and the audience response to seasons 4-5 versus seasons 6-7, keeping in mind that with the season 8 premiere on Wednesday, this could all be blown out of the water. Using traditional definitions of the apocalyptic literary genre, I will first show how Supernatural can, in fact, be considered a kind of “sacred” text. Then to explain the show’s perceived failures in the last two seasons, I will examine it as an example of the blurry line between the two genres Martin Buber names "the apocalyptic" and "the prophetic." Using this as a basis, I will close with a brief discussion of the inherent problematics of placing apocalypse into serial narrative--or, as Buffy's Riley put it, how we’re finding ourselves needing to know the plural of apocalypse. First: SPN as apocalyptic. The apocalyptic genre comes from Judeo-Christian sacred texts, the most familiar of which is the Revelation of John, although the old testament book of Daniel and a large number of apocryphal texts also fit into that category. Noting that “Apocalypse” is Greek for “unveiling”, Joseph Collins’ (1979) Apocalypse: The Morphology of a Genre names several elements as necessary to the apocalyptic genre including: 1) urgent expectation of the end of earthly conditions in the immediate future; 2) the end as a cosmic catastrophe; 3) periodization and determinism; 4) activity of angels and demons; and 6) manifestation of the kingdom of God; Supernatural features most of the elements in seasons 4-5. In addition to the demons already present in the show’s mythology, angels (with one serving as a major character) appear. The question of free will and determinism plays throughout season 5, particularly in the episode set five years in the future titled “The End”. God himself appears in the form of the character Chuck, who writes Sam and Dean’s lives in the form of a book series titled “Supernatural” which will come to be known as the Winchester Gospel, aligning Chuck with the creator and writer of the show, implying that the show itself is a kind of gospel. Supernatural is not exactly a sacred text, but the show uses apocalyptic texts as its source material. In fact, so much of seasons 4 and 5 are based on readings of those Biblical texts that we might almost call them fan fiction--or, in the rabbinic tradition, midrash, the act of expanding on and explaining stories in sacred texts. While I'd hardly call Kripke and company rabbis, their textual goals for spn--the key arguments the text is making about the world, good and evil, and free will--does place it, if somewhat hazardously, in the apocalyptic genre. As a serial narrative, SPN stretches the unveiling across two seasons, at the end of which, we assume all has been explained (until Sam’s mysterious reappearance. More on that in a minute). What seasons 4 and 5 do well is to balance the various kinds of apocalyptic texts. Philosopher Martin Buber divides and categorizes the genre into two separate subgenres: What he calls the prophetic sees God as a potter who “works on the historical shapes and destinies of human nations” but is flexible enough to allow humans to make choices and shape their own destiny. The prophetic text uses an announcer—nabi/navi--to tell of the disasters and end that will come if humans do not make the right choices, giving them a chance to save themselves. The apocalyptic, on the other hand, is a simple warning: It assumes the divine plan is set, and the communicator is only there to reassert this fact and let the masses prepare their souls. This is where we can see SPN as a show that shifts generic borders with skill in seasons 4 and 5; at times in those episodes, the show seems firmly set in the apocalyptic, with a sense of determinism overriding the characters’ choices. Gabriel claims that Sam and Dean’s destiny has already been written, and until the season five finale, this seems to be true. That finale, aptly titled “Swan Song,” though, shows Sam and Dean’s choices as effective deterrents against the end of the world; Sam’s martyrdom saves the planet, and the devil is caged in Hell, a clear vote for “Team Free Will”. In the final scene, we see our “divine potter,” Chuck--here, representing the departing Eric Kripke--end his book, snap his fingers, and disappear from existence. The prophetic message has been delivered, and humanity is back on track. This play of the two genres in Supernatural allowed Seasons 4 and 5 to have a satisfying narrative arc. The characters’ fatedness allows an audience to anticipate (or try to anticipate) and be satisfied by the next plot point. Likewise, the struggle against that determinism is a familiar one to American audiences embedded in our ideologies of individualism. Further, Sam’s fall into hell to save the planet nicely mirrors Dean’s fall to save his brother (or, to use Chuck’s own words, there was “narrative symmetry.”). Our expectations for both the prime time televisual narrative and the apocalyptic endings are met. This neat ending is problematic, though, when your show is renewed and your stars have six year contracts—hence the final, added on scene of Sam reappearing on earth to watch Dean live out his “apple pie life” outside of hunting. While some blame the weak narrative arcs of seasons six and seven on its new showrunner, Sera Gamble--and here we could digress to discuss the authority of women authors of seemingly sacred texts as impacting audience expectations, but we will not-- and while we might blame Gamble here for poor narrative arc planning as the simple answer, it would be more fair to consider the narrative and generic problem she inherited. If the apocalyptic genre's--both the apocalyptic and prophetic--’s key argument depends on how it ends the narrative--whether or not humans have free will and what, then, we are supposed to do--and if viewers consider episode 5.22 to truly be the swan song, with the creator-author-god disappearing, then any new revelation that comes after is barely even supplement. Apocalypse cannot have a plural; it relies on its terminus to make meaning. Once you've had an apocalypse--once you've revealed your author-god, what is there left for the audience to desire? The only choice, as Kripke noted in an interview prior to his departure, is to “go small” and “intimate” instead of epic and apocalyptic. An entirely new approach is needed—a new world (a paradise) appropriate for the saviors of the planet. In other words, you must move from a serialized unveiling of God’s plan to a serialized explanation of the planet after the end, a post-apocalyptic narrative with an entirely different purpose. Battlestar Galactica , upon unveiling its final shocking revelation simply ended, and its spinoff Caprica was dystopian, not apocalyptic—two genres with very different purposes. (It was also “intimate” in that it focused on two to three families instead of the entire planet). At first it seemed that season six would follow this path. It opens with a musical montage showing us a "new" Dean, dressed differently, without his beloved car, in scenes using highly different cinematography: brighter, more saturated color palette, more long shots, higher key lighting to soften the angles on Dean’s face. The diegesis has clearly changed, but instead of the intimacy Kripke suggested, Gamble and company attempted to use the narrative arc of the apocalypse, again, restarting, to frame the new story. The tagged on scene of Sam’s reappearance in "Swan Song" could have hinted at a return to the intimate (sometimes very) brotherly relationship storyline, but instead, as we learn very, very, very late in the season, it was all secretly a part of Season six’s REAL “A” storyline, an epic, mostly invisible to viewers civil war in heaven that once again threatened the destruction of earth. Season seven further attempted to use the serial apocalyptic narrative structure to reveal, or maybe just retcon a mythological creature more terrifying and world-ending than and prior to Lucifer, seeming to imply that the previous apocalypse was incomplete, and that all along this more fearsome creature has been lurking, forcing the audience to reframe and reconceptualize the previous unveiling. What should have been post-apocalyptic, focusing on reminding us what we value, how to hold on to it, and how to keep fighting in this new world, attempted to remain apocalyptic by extending the sense of unveiling—but this time without the sense of the divine (or at least Chuck) gently guiding toward a set conclusion or an announcer explaining where they’re headed. Seasons six and seven can’t make up their minds: What genre are we in now? Thus, the lack of cohesion felt by audience members in seasons six and seven may not be due to “bad writing”, but due to the lack of satisfaction of form. A new unveiling, if Gamble et al had taken that route, would have meant first setting up new questions and problems to be answered and solved, or necessarily explicitly (and early on) denying that the previous apocalypse was a complete unveiling. When Gamble failed to set up a recognizable narrative arc that names the genre in season six until the angel Castiel’s confessional speech in episode 20, The Man Who Would Be King, the audience was understandably lost. Season seven, then, seemed to go the other direction, over-emphasizing what Porter et al call the “kernels” of the story arc in every episode by referring to the narrative arc in every episode so that we all understood very clearly what kind of story this was (another extended unveiling, with a new divine text found at the end to further support this). Even with this guidance through multiple dick jokes, though, it’s hard to get excitable about Leviathan monsters when Lucifer himself is locked up for good and God himself is out of the picture. It’s no wonder season seven literally ended in Purgatory--the narrative is in limbo. This problem is unique to commercial serial narratives dealing in the apocalypse. Apocalyptic rhetoric, either the prophetic or the standard apocalyptic, depends on a singular ending clearly visible to audiences to hold ideological sway. With each apocalypse only building on a new one and denying its completeness, we are left without a clear sense of space, or what we are supposed to do (if we CAN do anything). When there are multiple “ends,” we become perpetually retconned about the genre we’re in and the argument being made, and Eric Kripke’s departure shown through Chuck was clear enough that most fans will not see seasons six and seven as a further delay of narrative desire, as a further unveiling of the hidden kingdom of God (or the supernatural). While I cannot offer a solution to this narratological quandary (although a look to Buffy, BSG, and, I’m told, Fringe, would help), Season 8 premieres Wednesday (9 pm, the CW), and I am putting my faith in new show runner Jeremy Carver to, at the very least, pull Dean out of Purgatory and back to the show’s most basic form: saving people, hunting things--the family business.

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