Friday, March 20, 2009

Supernatural Gets Good

I don't watch that much television, but something I have kept up with for the last few years has been the show "Supernatural". The basic premise is that there are people who secretly hunt the ghosts, monsters and demons that plague humanity. It focuses on the activities of two of these hunters, Sam and Dean Winchester, as they fight the good fight.

I didn't get into the show in the first season. It seemed to me too interested in gimmicks and a cool image and not enough in substance. That's changed (at least my perception of it has changed) as the show has become smarter, funnier, and more insightful. It does a nice job of exploring the ethics of difficult choices, and it's two fallible heroes often choose poorly, but never without consequence. Their long campaign is making them tougher, wiser, and more cynical, just as real-world wars so often do to the people who fight them.

The series has been focusing on demons for some time and largely ignoring ghosts, vampires, and other sundry monsters. That's not a bad thing IMO, because different monsters give a story a different mood and feel. A vampire story is different from a ghost story is different from a werewolf story and so on. Finding a niche, as "Buffy" did with vampires is a good idea.

Very recently the show crossed into less familiar territory as it introduced angels as characters. There have been shows like "Highway to Heaven" and "Touched by an Angel" that have done this before but their angels have been benign, and rather bland, creatures. The angels on "Supernatural" are darker, more awe-inspiring, and more frightening. It's also not a foregone conclusion that they are good. They can be arrogant, callous, and justify terrible actions in the name of their holy war on the powers of evil. It's led Sam and Dean to question whether the angels are any better than the demons.

Dark territory, and relatively new for television, but this bleak view of heaven has been a part of speculative fiction since the 1970's when the war of Heaven and Hell became a frequent parallel to the Cold War. They became two super-powers, one 'good' and the other 'evil' but so ruthless in their struggle that neither cares about the collateral damage they cause.

There have been a number of novels that have picked up on this theme. So many, that it's become something of a cliche. In television it's an idea that was ably explored on the SF series, "Babylon 5", but when I saw "Supernatural" heading in that direction my first thought was, "Oh no, not again."

But tonight's episode suggests that something different, and far more interesting, is happening. Castiel, the main angel character, is conflicted about the ruthless things he is told to do.

In tonight's episode, Castiel recruits Dean to torture information out of a captured demon. He is tormented by having to do this, but believes that it is God's will. Anna, an angel who has deserted fromHeaven's ranks, challenges Castiel's obedience.
She suggests that the orders form on-high aren't coming from God and challenges him to think for himself.

The parallel to the US war on terror is apparent. Is it a okay to justify torture and other terrible things in the name of a good cause? It's also a good critique of many people's experience of Christianity where good people have often been co-opted into heartless actions and attitudes by those who claim to represent the will of God.

If I'm right about where they're going, the message isn't to reject God. Far from it, the message is to follow God by doing those things that God loves, showing honesty, compassion and courage. It's a call to grow up and take responsibility for our own actions. To give up unquestioning obedience to those who claim to speak for God.

As a writer, I like the insight and originality of the direction the show is taking. As a pastor, I hope this is a theme that we see a lot more in the years to come. It's good for Christians to remember that their faith was founded by one who questioned the authority of religious leaders all the time.


Catherine J Gardner said...

Plus Dean is hot. :)

Victorya said...

What Catherine said :)

Nice reading of the series, I got turned off by the angel stuff, only because I think the Prophecy Films (1-3, NOT the last two) did it so much better. . .

Matthew Baugh said...

I'd only seen 1 and that was a long time ago. Now that you mention it, there is a lot of similarity. I loved Christopher Walken as an archangel.

The best use of a similar theme I can think of is the novel GOOD OMENS by Neil Gaimen and Terry Pratchett.