Television: Here’s the Way I Saw It – Commentary on Supernatural S5.01 Sympathy for the Devil

Before we go into commentary on the episode, let’s share a bit of news that has the CW Network dancing in the aisle!

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In a press release on 8/11/09 the CW announced that SUPERNATURAL Improved Over Last Year’s Season Premiere with Young Women. and SUPERNATURAL improved over its strong premiere last year by 6% in women 18-34 (1.7/5).  SUPERNATURAL, which scored a 3.39m rating for its season 5 premiere, also scored its best women 18-34 (1.7/5) and women 18-49 (1.7/5) ratings since Jan. 2009. THE VAMPIRE DIARIES and SUPERNATURAL Combine for CW’s Best Thursday Ever with Women. Best Thursday in 2 ½ Years with Adults 18-34

This news was no doubt music to the ears of the series creator Eric Kripke along with writers, producers and studio executives who attended Thursday night’s gala Supernatural premiere party in Los Angeles. Also in attendance were such notable actors from the series as Traci Dinwiddie (psychic Pamela Barnes) and Julie McNiven (the Angel Anna).  This all came on the heels of one of the biggest combined fan publicity pushes for the long running CW series about two brothers named Dean (Jensen Ackles) and Sam (Jared Padalecki) Winchester who roam the back roads of rural USA in a weapon’s loaded black ’67 Chevy Impala hunting creatures of a supernatural origin and saving people.

Fans of the quirky series literally took over the twitterverse using hashtags to promote the series with such tags as #inkripkewetrust, #supernaturaliscoming and the controversial #luciferiscoming: which eventually caused an uproar among a religious group led by rapper P. Diddy (who has since been challenged by Supernatural star Misha Collins to a rather strange competition involving eating cupcakes while riding horseback). This massive push by fans to promote the show garnered a lot of buzz and attention among many people who are active on Twitter and no doubt brought more attention to the premiere. It also goes to prove a personal point of my own, which is that scattering things on numerous LJ’s doesn’t have the kind of impact of fan based promotion for the show as it does when fans and viewers come together in one central location, easily accessible by other fans, media and those involved directly with Supernatural. When everyone comes together on one place, it creates a more cohesive force and gets more voices of support heard.

And speaking of cohesion, now I’m going to be moving on to my commentary about the Supernatural season 5.01 episode, Sympathy for the Devil.

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Like most viewers of the hit CW series Supernatural, I have been waiting for the season 5 premiere with anticipation of how the series was going to deal with the next step in their myth arc: the freeing of Lucifer from his prison and the weight of guilt the Winchester brothers would be carrying for their part in causing it to happen. Also, like most viewers, I was anxious to see how they resolved the immediate cliffhanger for Sam (Jared Padalecki) and Dean (Jensen Ackles) who needed to escape before Lucifer finished breaking free of his prison and posed a threat to them. I’m sure like most viewers and some of the fans of the show, I spent some time idly wondering what the writers would come up with as a creative solution to the immediate dilemma facing the characters.  What they chose to do in resolving this IMHO set the tone for the rest of the episode and while the Supernatural season opener for the fifth season is not as dramatic as the one for season 4 was, it had some very interesting elements to it (plus the good news, at least for me, is it was no where near as dreadful as the opener to season 3 was).

After viewing Sympathy for the Devil (written by Eric Kripke and directed by Robert Singer) for a second time, before writing this commentary, I came away with the impression that the writers and creators of Supernatural were taking one of those ‘artsy’ chances they do every now and then. That they deliberately presented the situations involving the Winchesters in way that appears on the surface to be disjointed and muddled to make a point about how in real life, events following a major traumatic experience don’t always follow a logical course or pattern. To show that human beings don’t, as rule, run in a straight and logical line after their world has been put into dramatic upheaval.  That ‘picking up the pieces and trying to puzzle them back together is not always a process done in logical sequence or with cool detachment.  I would like to think that what appeared to be a lack of cohesion was for dramatic affect, otherwise it would mean the writers didn’t really think about it and just slapped any old thing into place to make it look like a ‘story’ was going on.  While I am still left questioning the cohesion and the process of this episode and what it means for the story advancement, I did see things that seem to give a clear indication that the writers and creators were using the disjointed feel deliberately to help the viewers understand where Sam and Dean’s mind frame was.

Back to the immediate dilemma of getting Sam and Dean Winchester away from Lucifer before he finished rising, I have to admit when they suddenly appeared on an airplane for no apparent reason I was confused. However once I got the reference, I found myself appreciating the visual way in which the writers candidly admit ‘ok so we solved the problem by having some mysterious outside force temporarily transporting them to another plane of existence’.  The cleverness of that use of a visual helped me to overlook this ‘trite convenience’ as a plot device and to appreciate it for what it was: a way to solve the problem so the story could continue forward. I liked that they also used it as a means to show that not just human, earthly existence is going to be affected by the terrible force unleashed but that it was going to ripple out to affect other levels of existence as well. The cartoon playing on the “soul plane” was also a very intriguing way of letting the viewers know that Lucifer and Sam weren’t finished yet. It was a way to say without lengthy exposition that there would be a meeting between them in which Sam would be accountable for his actions.

In Sympathy for the Devil, the director and the writers chose to use a lot of visual means to add exposition to the story without having to actually use time on dialog. The use of lighting and camera angles was particularly intriguing in the first tense motel room scene between Dean (Jensen Ackles) and Sam (Jared Padalecki) Winchester. The careful staging of the characters to make Dean in his anger look as if he is looming over Sam who was hunched in on himself in guilt conveyed more about where the character were in regards to each other than a whole hour’s worth of dialog could convey. Having the characters then brought back into perspective as each retreated from their emotions and they move into the neutral territory of talking “shop” was also a brilliant use of staging and lighting.

What was also interesting in this episode is that among the frantic and disjointed pace of the events were the very human moments that were like the eye of a storm. Moments that involved quick hugs for the boys from longtime friend/father figure Bobby Singer as he brought Dean’s beloved Impala back to him; then Bobby’s coldly turning on Sam when the younger Winchester Brother admits his guilt in being a major factor in the breaking of the final seal and the freeing of Lucifer. All of which amped up the element of surprise when it turns out that Singer was possessed by a demon since before he even walked through the door of the brother’s motel room.

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While I think that this possession of Bobby Singer by a demon was done overall to facilitate the reintroduction of the demon Meg (now played with extreme aggression by Rachel Miner) as once more a major player in the storyline, I also like the way it was used to advance the emotional side of storyline for Sam Winchester. Both Jensen Ackles and Jared Padalecki never seem to fall back on thinking that ‘it’s just a genre show on a little network so why bother putting a lot of effort into the characters’.  Time after time in scenes like this one that call for highly charged emotions and raw open expression, both of these truly talented young actors throw their heart’s into their work and pull off the kind of impact that so called A-list actors could learn a lesson or two from (and now we have the added bonus of having the highly talented Misha Collins thrown into the mix). As you listen to Sam humbling himself before someone he has come to consider family, hear him pouring out all of his need to confess his sin, you just know how much Sam is hurting. When Bobby turns on him, Sam while most likely expecting it, still has such a devastated look in his eyes that tells the audience that Sam was hoping for a little bit of absolution. Both Jim Beaver and Jared Padalecki made this scene work on so many levels and convey so much about Sam Winchester to the audience. It’s the kind of thing that makes Supernatural more than just genre show on a little network.

“A faithful friend is a strong defense.”

I got that in a fortune cookie the other day and it was the first thing that came to my mind after I watched the emotionally charged confrontation scene between Sam and Dean at the end of Sympathy for the Devil. Like I have been saying, this episode to me is filled with visuals to convey story points but it is also filled with messages that the writers and producers wanted to get across. So I also believe they used this episode to address some issues that fans have had with the direction the writers and creators have taken the show and the characters in. One of the biggest issues I know that fans and viewers have is the concept that the show is suppose to be about the brothers Winchester and that the writers have somehow gotten away from that premise. When Sam finally gets Dean to open up to him about the issue standing between them, the revelation made is not the one that Sam expected it to be and in Dean’s revelation we find the message that the writers have for the fans about what’s really been going on between Sam and Dean.

Sam and Dean Winchester will always be brothers, that will never change (unless the writers decide that one of them is adopted) and that has never been the point of what the show was about between them. What I saw in this exchange, so amazingly played by Jensen Ackles and Jared Padalecki, is that Sam and Dean were friends and partners. More than being brothers they were two men who had each other’s backs, one could totally rely on the other. That they had a “brotherhood” that was more than just blood deep but forged in battle and necessity of reliance. When Dean says, “we can’t go back to being what we were”, he doesn’t mean being brothers because that didn’t change. He meant being friends and being partners in which to have complete and total trust in. Dean is telling Sam that he is hurt and angry not because Sam broke the last seal, but because Sam broke the bond of trust between them. He left Dean without the best defense of having a faithful friend.

Another point I believe that the writers, producers and the actors, used this episode to get across is one concerning the fans themselves. This episode contained what I consider to be one of the best homage’s to loyal fans and one of the most tactful ways to say, “we love your support but sometimes you cross the personal space line and that’s not good”. In Becky Rosen (played by 32 year old Emily Perkins who oddly enough looks like Angel Anna’s sister) we have a fan that writes slash and adores the characters to point of minor obsession and seems not to understand that she is making Sam, who is a real person, uncomfortable by invading his personal space. And while the writers use this personification to show one aspect of how fans can behave, they also use the character to give a “shout out” to how much they appreciate that the writers/actors can rely on the fans to take the message to the streets and get the word out about Supernatural and use the power of their collective voices to reach the ears of the “suits” at the studios in ways the creators/writers and actors can’t. In all honesty it is the first fan homage that I didn’t feel uncomfortable about laughing a little at recognizing the behavior of some people in fandom and at the same time being proud to recognize the contributions of others.

Oh and the writers also used this episode to answer one of the long-standing fan debates about Dean Winchester: did he or didn’t he graduate from high school. Dean said he had a GED so that mean he didn’t graduate, but he took the GED test and passed it at some point in his life. As a viewer, I like it when we get little background stuff like this about the characters. We learn something about them.

Overall there were lots of things I liked about Sympathy for the Devil. I liked the continued presence of Carver Edlund aka The Prophet Chuck Shurley (Rob Benedict) and the rogue angel Zachariah (Kurt Fuller). I like that the writers also drove home what the major influences were over Sam and Dean during season four and what has pulled them apart not just by the confrontation at the end of this episode but in the fact that Dean uses a trick taught to him by Castiel and Sam uses one taught to him by Ruby.

I really liked that Dean has been revealed as the Sword of Michael and his chosen vessel. While, like the majority of viewers, I saw something like this coming for a long time, I was one of the ones looking forward to it being revealed as such. I also like the stance that the writers are having Dean take over the whole thing. I like that despite all he has been put through, Dean Winchester still has his smart-ass attitude and his warrior’s heart is still going strong. That even though Dean is still as Zachariah said, filled with self loathing, Dean has become a lot stronger in who he is as an individual and come along way from being John Winchester’s obedient soldier. To paraphrase a line from St. Elmo’s fire, “They broke the boy in Dean Winchester, but they can’t break the man he has become.”

I liked that in complete juxtaposition to the frantic, disjointed pace of things happening to Sam and Dean Winchester, the pace at which Lucifer stalked and seduced his vessel into consenting to be used was slower which added a creepy element to it. However that said, it leads me into what I didn’t like about this episode.

I had no sympathy for the devil or rather I didn’t feel any connection of sympathy for the emotional state of the vessel in which Lucifer would walk the earth in disguise as. The actor, Mark Pellegrino didn’t resonate with me. He didn’t generate any onscreen presence that made his character intriguing. Not like last season when Misha Collins appeared as Castiel or Robert Wisdom made his appearance as Uriel. Not like when Jim Beaver first step foot on the Supernatural scene as Bobby Singer or Jeffrey Dean Morgan burst in as John Winchester. In all honesty, in the second viewing of Sympathy for the Devil I was fast-forwarding through the scenes with Mark Pellegrino as the vessel. Not that I won’t be giving him more of chance than just one episode before I make up my mind about him. All we have seen of his work so far is that of a distraught man who has lost everything. My whole opinion could change once I see Pellegrino in action as Lucifer and working opposite Padalecki and Ackles. For now though, this was one of the parts of Sympathy for the Devil that I felt really brought the episode down and kept it from having more of an impact as a season opener than last season’s Lazarus Rising did.

Next up is episode 5.02 titled Good God, Ya’ll which airs on the CW Network on Thursday September 17th at 9PM EST right after the new lead in series The Vampire Diaries.

Castiel (Misha Collins) tells Sam (Jared Padalecki) and Dean (Jensen Ackles) that he is going to search for God, who will be able to defeat Lucifer. Bobby’s (Jim Beaver) old hunter friend, Rufus (guest star Steven Williams), is panicked about demons attacking his town, and begs Bobby for help. Sam and Dean arrive at the town and realize there is a spell over the townspeople, making them hallucinate that they are demons and causing them to kill one another. The episode is written by Sera Gamble and directed by Phil Sgriccia.

Check out the photo image gallery and see if you can spot the other returning Supernatural favorite.

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6 thoughts on “Television: Here’s the Way I Saw It – Commentary on Supernatural S5.01 Sympathy for the Devil”

  1. Amen! Like you, I wasn't moved by Lucifer's new vessel. Pellegrino may well end up being a key actor for the season, but so far, I'm bored with his part of the episode.

    Excellent review!

  2. Thank you! I felt the exact same way about the Nick/Lucifer scenes. I ff'd through them too on subsequent viewings.

  3. I think the thing about the Nick scenes wasn't that they were bad, but that they were slow, and creepy, and very out of sync with the rest of the episode. The angels make mention of the fact that Lucifer is "circling" his vessel, and that's what it felt like, watching a penny in a well. I felt like Dean being the sword of Michael was way too obvious, but that's also because I just finished watching some of my Season 2 DVDs and saw Houses of the Holy and the whole icon of Michael in the church. So I feel like that's been done to absolute death and while I understand they don't want to introduce a whole fleet of new actors, ugh.

  4. Very thoughtful review. I'm totally with you on that final scene with the brothers. Many fans have been harping on the idea that Dean is mad about Sam breaking the seal. It isn't about that. As you pointed out, it's about breaking the trust, about putting an outsider before family and that's the biggest sin there is in Dean's book.

    As for the plane — sorry, still not getting it. It simply didn't make any sense and there were 100's of other ways to pull the boys out of harms way. Maybe it was an Oceanic flight.. . did anyone notice the name on the plane? LOL.

    And Nick – yeah, not what I was expecting, but I'm willing to reserve judgment until I see how it plays. I do like the new Meg, though. On the third hand, as Kelex above me says, — what's with the whole fleet of new actors?!? I want my brothers, please. Can we do an episode with just the two of them? Trap them in a building somewhere and let it all fall out. . . that would be. . .heaven!

  5. This was an excellent, thoughtful and in-depth review that was spot-on IMHO. I, too, found myself fast-forwarding the 'Nick' segments. Not sayin' Pelligrino won't grow on us as the season progresses…. But Jensen and Jared were truly amazing in their portrayal of Dean and Sam in this episode. Especially Jared as Sam. If their acting is anything to go by, we're in for a helluva season. Bring it on!

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