Supernatural: “Stairway To Heaven”
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Supernatural: “Stairway To Heaven”

Sometimes all of our thoughts are misgiven

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Supernatural

"Stairway To Heaven"

Season 9, Episode 22

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Supernatural is no stranger to riffing on pop culture, but “Stairway To Heaven,” from its title on, really presses on the gas with the references—there’s a ton going on in this episode, most of it not so good. At the outset, Cas has “noticed” that the Winchesters use the names of “popular musicians” for their aliases and selects Christina Aguilera, which is the kind of thing he’d have done in, what, season four? The “hiding place” for the portal to Heaven showcased some of Metatron’s favorite stories (like Lord Of The Rings and Indiana Jones And The Last Crusade), and the rest of his actions bring to mind the framing of “Meta Fiction.” But the allusions, intentional or not, that pepper the episode under the surface are full of unfavorable comparisons.

Part of that is because a lot of the episode is made up of the sort of things that don’t really gain charm from Supernatural’s low-budget approach to the mythic, particularly the glow in the dark paint that revealed the “Why was six afraid of seven?” riddle and the fact that Metatron had an angelic summit at a bowling alley. “There’s nothing like this in Heaven.” Yes, because, as Gadreel points out, it’s a bowling alley. The contrast between the ridiculousness of the setting and the supposed stakes of the conflict is something the show recognizes, and can often mine for both tension and stakes, but here it just doesn’t work at all. “Authenticity,” Tyrus tells Metatron. But most of the comparisons that flag themselves suggest the ways that “Stairway To Heaven” is anything but.

The “angelic suicide bombing” plot comes off as a sad, poorly executed version of a Battlestar Galactica script that aired 10 years too late (yes this is a bit harsh, but this story is also really bad). So… there’s a “conspiracy” of angels who are blowing themselves up in Cas’ name, mostly so that Cas can feel bad about it and the other angels can eventually abandon him. Whether or not this is something that Cas wants to happen, the episode’s attempt to let him off the hook by revealing Metatron to have been behind the attacks doesn’t really ring true to the hard questions that telling a story like this ought to raise: What does it mean for Cas to be a leader? What sort of sacrifices should he accept? How can he minimize loss of life while still trying to defeat Metatron? These are all questions this season has asked, albeit half-heartedly, during Cas’ nomadic period. And the consequences for Cas here—a horribly burned Josiah serves merely to make Cas guilty for no reason whatsoever. His lines aren’t particularly well delivered, and it’s sort of unclear why, exactly, he hates Cas so much.

The scene near the end of the episode in which Cas is asked to make a politically expedient moral sacrifice for the greater good (killing Dean to keep his army) for little reason other than forcing this sort of dilemma also entails another unfortunate comparison: the last season of Buffy The Vampire Slayer. Cas’ army leaves him alone for reasons that feel extremely forced, designed to send the hero (because at this point Cas is probably more the hero of the season than either Winchester) to his lowest point. (We also get a narrative time bomb: Cas’ stolen grace, which will apparently burn out and take Cas with it.) This standoff, in which the angels demand that Cas kill Dean as a sign of good faith and “proof” of his intentions, is… dumb. Like Buffy, Cas is struggling with questions about leadership and responsibility that he’s not sure he’s ready to deal with, and that part of her story is generally considered a failure (though I’d defend some of that last season) even after seven seasons, where Cas gets an army and loses it in just a couple of episodes, and with far less long-term character development.

Thankfully, we don’t have to turn very far for our last pop-culture analogue: early seasons of Supernatural. Crazy Animal Dean is definitely setup for next season (there was some speculation in the comments that we’d have a Winchester battle, which is plausible although I’m still skeptical) but it became the focus of the end of the season super abruptly, and is sucking a ton of oxygen away from the other political machinations while continuing to be a knockoff of Evil Sam and pretty much ever other alteration to the brothers. (Remember when Bartholomew was a thing?) Dean gets exactly two good moments here, not coincidentally both with Cas—his attempt to call out Cas’ previous evil actions as “God,” which Sam dismisses for no reason other than convenience, and his grizzled, sweet affirmation of their bond at the end. Other than those, though, the Mark appears to have just amped up all of Dean’s older assholish tendencies, and then some. He has selective memory (claiming he’s never wanted to kill himself, though there are probably a few scenes from earlier in the show’s run that might beg to differ), he tortures people (in another faux-Battlestar turn), and worst of all he gets to attack a woman and say, “Honey, there ain’t no other men like me.” Dean is not a good villain to have around. The Mark doesn’t make him “gritty,” it just makes him unpleasant and terrible.

And, somehow, this marks two weeks in a row that the show has killed off a recurring female character. Tessa’s had a few solid appearances over the series’ run, dating back to season two, and her disposal here is absolutely baffling. There’s a ton of stuff happening (it is the last episode before the finale after all, which wait, what, let’s come back to that), but that doesn’t mean the script couldn’t spend a few seconds, if not mourning, at least remembering Tessa. As it is, she’s just introduced to be a name we know in Metatron’s plan, and that’s it, which is really disappointing. At this rate, there aren’t going to be many recurring characters left for the writers to kill—maybe Hannah will come back? Regardless, “Stairway To Heaven” might exploit Tessa even more than Metatron.

And given that he’s the big bad of the season, it’s kind of a problem that watching the beginning of this episode I had to ask myself: Who is Metatron? In his first scene with Gadreel, Curtis Armstrong plays Metatron as almost buffoonish, trying on a trench coat and bumbling a bit—this is a fun enough version of the character, but a very different one from the mastermind he was positioned as at the end of last season. As “Stairway To Heaven” goes on, we realize Metatron is still very much that mastermind, but the fact that it’s even conceivable for the writers to make such an about-face with the character does not say good things about where we are with either Metatron or the season as a whole. Tyrus gets it right when he calls Metatron “A nerd trying to be one of the popular kids,” but as the prank that Metatron pulls on Cas—leading him to a fake Heaven that looks like a high school prom and the body of one of his angels—indicates, that nerdy passion for books curdled into hatred and a need to write his own story. This is really great—if only Metatron had been pulling stuff like it from the very beginning of the season.

Metatron has, of course, sent the suicide bombers himself, something that is not only an obvious twist the script thinks is really clever, but also obviously sets up Gadreel’s betrayal, something that’s been telegraphed for most of the season. Though he’s great in the bowling alley scene (“Old shoes and alcoholism?”) Tahmoh Penikett’s (hey, BSG!) acting for most of the episode is… not the best, mostly requiring him to yell in a stilted voice, even when he turns traitor and heads to Cas. It’s not his fault, but still. It’s especially a bummer, because it looks like this was Gadreel’s sendoff. Dean, fueled by the rage of the Mark and First Blade, cuts the angel open, sending him, Sam, and Cas back to square one. I guess this is a decent enough consequence of the Mark, but the big twist heading into the finale is just killing another character and sending the show, more or less, back to its status quo from the beginning of the season. This season has had a lot of plates spinning at different times, and it’s simply chosen to add more rather than actually resolve anything or try to set its many threads to dovetail for a cohesive finale. As Metatron might say, at least it’s flipping the script?

Stray observations:

  • “He’s always a little angry.”
  • “Prime numbers can be intimidating.”
  • “I don’t get this whole Cas love fest either.” Some great quotes in this one, at least.
  • Metatron is playing Monopoly instead of checkers, and always builds a hotel on Boardwalk. I don’t think he understands how to play Monopoly.
  • Dean’s moment with Cas there at the end is a good indication that maybe this show should retool itself as Ackles and Collins just kinda kicking back with a 12-pack, maybe with banjos?
  • Finale predictions?

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