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Supernatural 9.18 "Meta Fiction" Review: It Doesn't Get Much More Meta Than This

    This week’s episode of Supernatural, “Meta Fiction,” was written by Robbie Thompson and directed by Thomas J Wright. Interestingly, Wright last directed “Holy Terror,” another episode featuring both Cas (Misha Collins) and Gadreel. Thompson has crafted yet another classic episode and is firmly solidifying himself as one of my favorite writers of all time for the series. I have to confess that I have an English literature background, so he pretty much had me at the title of the episode.

    Thompson also wrote “Slash Fiction” which also featured a number of scenes in which the characters break the fourth wall and speak directly to the camera, as Metatron (Curtis Armstrong) does in this episode. Thompson is also responsible for all for Charlie Bradbury (Felicia Day) episodes, giving us Dean (Jensen Ackles) and Sam (Jared Padalecki) LARPing and bringing the Wizard of Oz characters to the Bunker. He also time travelled Dean back to work with Elliot Ness (Nicholas Lea). While it wasn’t a popular episode with some fans, “Bitten” was a wonderfully experimental episode which I also loved. Fittingly, Thompson also wrote “First Born” which introduced Cain played by Timothy Omundson. Omundson is good friends with Richard Speight Jr, and Omundson, Speight and Thompson all worked together on Jericho.

    The absolute highlight of this episode had to be the return of Richard Speight Jr to the show. I’m not ashamed to admit that I literally shouted and jumped up off my couch. Good one, guys! You got me in the best possible way. I hardly dared to hope as Casa Erotica started playing on Cas’s television, but what a wonderful surprise. I will also admit that at first, I thought Speight’s performance as Gabriel was a bit off. It seemed somehow flat and not as intense as the last time we saw him. The dialogue seemed somewhat forced. And then, it’s revealed that this isn’t actually Gabriel but Metatron’s first attempt at the character, and suddenly, Speight’s performance is brilliant. He’s actually playing a not very good version of himself – pretty meta, right?

    But if this show had a middle name, it would be meta. The Concise Oxford Companion to English Literature defines metafiction as “a kind of fiction that openly draws attention to its own fictional status.” In true Supernatural style, Metatron not only talks about writing, he also breaks the fourth wall between the audience and the fiction by addressing the audience directly and looking straight at the camera as he does so. Of course, the show cleverly re-seals that fourth wall when we discover about half way through the episode that Metatron is not, in fact, talking to us, he’s talking to Cas – although, of course, he is talking to us too.

    However, the opening scene cleverly underscores the show’s rich tradition of metafiction as we see that Metatron’s desk is littered with copies of the Winchester Gospels. The two Gospels we see sitting on his desk are significant. "Wendigo" was written by series creator Eric Kripke and "A Very Supernatural Christmas" was the first episode Jeremy Carver, current showrunner, wrote on his own for the show. Later in the episode, we see that Metatron has been paying particular attention to Tall Tales, in which the Trickster (Speight) made his very first appearance.

    We already know that Metatron loves a good story. He tells Cas that the universe is made up of stories, not atoms. It’s a nice comment on not getting too caught up in the minutiae or not seeing the forest for the trees. Up until now, however, Metatron has been a collector of stories – not the author of them. The only author we’ve seen was Chuck (Rob Benedict), who turned out to be God. Chuck’s pseudonym was Carver Edlund – after writers Jeremy Carver and Ben Edlund. Chuck was seen as a stand in for Eric Kripke – and a way for Kripke to speak to the audience in “Swan Song.” Metatron’s move from reader to author is a reflection of his move from secretary to God. It’s also a journey that many fans take from watching the show to writing about it in fan fiction or on forums.

    Metatron’s opening speech examines a number of questions that all writers ask: “What makes a story work? Is it the plot, the characters, the text, the subtext? And who gives the story meaning? Is it the writer? Or you?” You being the reader/audience. Subtext is often what the reader/audience infers about a story, and this tension between what the writers may have intended and what the audience has interpreted has been much debated about this show, particularly this season. But it also touches on a long standing literary debate. Does it matter what the author intended or does in only matter what the reader takes away?

    The episode itself shows us how different characters interpret the story that is presented to them. In the end, Metatron appears to be successful in getting his end result: in getting the characters to play their part. Cas is gathering his flock. His army – these are exactly the words Metatron is typing over the final montage. Dean has embraced the bloodlust in beating Gadreel (Tahmoh Penikett) almost to death. Giving in to his addiction will only make the desire for more violence worse. Sam is now concerned about Dean. He’s falling back into his role as brother.

    Metatron tells Cas that he’s done his homework, and he determined that Cas needed to be taught a lesson. Metatron discovered that nobody teaches lessons like the Trickster – remember that that is what the Trickster is doing in “Tall Tales” and “Mystery Spot.” So what is Metatron trying to teach Cas?

    The last time we saw Gabriel was in a Casa Erotica 13 in “Hammer of the Gods,” so it’s fitting he returns in Casa Erotica 14 – especially as it’s now 2014. Gabriel quickly snaps his way from Cas’s television to his hotel room. He tells Cas he had been hiding in Heaven until everyone was kicked out. He’d been in hiding on earth until Metatron sent his “minions” for him. I thought it hysterical (and meta) that Metatron’s followers would have the same name as Misha’s Twitter followers. In the middle of telling Cas about having gotten back into porn, Gabriel pauses to comment on his own dialogue.

    Gabriel identifies the horn of Gabriel for Cas and then tells him that he came out of hiding because there is safety in numbers and he’s decided to lead the angels against Metatron. Gabriel describes himself as the new front man of the band. This is a fun reference to Rob Benedict, a close friend of Speight in real life, who played Chuck. In real life Benedict is the lead singer of the band Louden Swain.

    Gabriel tells Cas that most angels can’t handle free will because they’re “not like us.” Gabriel says that most angels are sheep or drones, but they are rebels – one with a cause – nice James Dean reference! Cas protests that he’s just a soldier – and Gabriel points out that Cas has been God more than “Dad.” Gabriel tells Cas he doesn’t want to run anymore, he wants to stand and fight and they need a leader. Cas agrees and says he’s glad it’s going to be Gabriel. There’s a nice shot of Gabriel looking out the window – not at the gas gauge – looking concerned and saying they need gas. He’s concerned the plan is not going according to plan.

    When they stop for gas, they are beset my Metatron’s minions. Gabriel tells Cas that he’ll stand and fight, but Cas must get away and become the leader of the angels against Metatron. Gabriel once again tells Cas that the angels need somebody different, somebody like them to lead the angels. Cas is concerned that he will fail again, but Gabriel reassures him that he won’t. Just as he’s about to leave, Cas notices that his coat is not ripped. He’d ripped it at the beginning of the episode when he himself had followed the sound of Gabriel’s horn to a warehouse full of dead angels.

    Cas asks if any of what had happened was real. Gabriel says it was all true even if it wasn’t real. Gabriel wants to know what gave it away and when Cas tells him it was his coat, Gabriel remarks in true meta fashion that he hates continuity errors. This is funny on another level, however, as Carver has been roundly criticized for lapses in following canon.

    When Cas presses Gabriel for more information, he apologizes that he can’t give it because he didn’t read the whole script – he just skimmed it for his own parts – a joke that’s been told at conventions. In reality, actors actually do need to read the entire script as action that doesn’t involve them may still affect how they have to play the character. I loved Cas’s final question to Gabriel, however, pressing him about whether or not he is really dead. Gabriel doesn’t answer, he just waggles his eyebrows and snaps out. For me, this felt an awful lot like the Trickster. My hope is that he really will be back!

    At this point, the story brings us back to the beginning and Metatron asking Cas what makes a story work. What follows is an interesting look at story telling. Metatron refers to the rip in Cas’s coat as the “curious incident” – a plot point upon which the action in a Sherlock Holmes mystery turns. He then does what he calls a “retcon.” Retcon stands for retroactive continuity or altering previously established facts for the continuity of a fictional work. Metatron gave Cas every book, movie and television series Metatron had consumed. I had to admit that I groaned when he did it because so many wonderful moments have come out of Cas’s bewildered “I don’t get that reference.” However, we see in the final scene that while Cas may understand that going after the Emperor on the Death Star is a Star Wars reference, he still doesn’t get it! Whew!

    Metatron also shares some writing “rules” with Cas. The first rule of writers club is steal fro
m the best. And isn’t this what all fan fiction writers do? Loved this rule! Of course, so did Shakespeare! The second rule is that every hero needs a villain. Cas thinks he’s the hero, but Metatron tells him that in Metatron’s story, Cas is the villain, and of course, every actor will tell you that when they play a villain, the villain never thinks he’s evil. And everyone is always the hero of their own story.

    Metatron also tells Cas that Hannah (Erica Carroll), who told him in the first scene about Gadreel’s asking them to join him and then killing those who didn’t, was really a plant – left to tell the tale of Gadreel’s actions – to be an object lesson to others. Cas presses Metatron about whether he can bring the angels back to heaven. Metatron responds with “no spoilers!” However, at the end of the episode, Gadreel tells Metatron that he has secured the door, the way home, so apparently he can!

    Metatron tells Cas that he really does like Cas because he’s got spunk – he’s not like the other angels. He’d really hoped that he would live happily ever after as a human. He tells Cas he’ll have to follow his script if he wants to come back on board. He tells him that if he leads the other angels against him, so he can slaughter them, he’ll save a place in Heaven for Cas. Cas refuses and that’s when we learn that the grace that Cas stole is burning out of his body. What that ultimately means is left unsaid. Will Cas return to being human or will it kill him? Is Cas’s grace gone for good?

    The final insights to Metatron’s story come between he and Gadreel at the end of the episode. Gadreel asks how Metatron’s play turned out. Metatron tells him not as he’d expected. He emphasizes the power of re-writing until you get it right. Is that why we keep revisiting the strife between the brothers? Until they get it right?

    For his own part, Gadreel isn’t too happy about having been captured and tortured by Sam and Dean and asks if that had been a part of Metatron’s story. Metatron admits that that had surprised him! So there is clearly hope that Sam and Dean can defeat Metatron – he’s not all seeing as the true God was. Though even in "Swan Song," Chuck was not entirely sure of how things would turn out.

    Metatron explains that every writer loves a good twist. The writer’s job is to set up interesting characters and see where they take him. The by-product of having well drawn characters is that they may surprise you. But what the writer knows and the characters don’t is the ending. It doesn’t matter how they get there as long as everybody plays their part. In point of fact, those are almost exactly the words Gabriel uses in “Changing Channels” when he’s trying to force Sam and Dean to acknowledge their roles as the vessels for Michael and Lucifer. Sam and Dean have a long history of surprising their writers. The final montage of the episode felt a lot like the montage in “Swan Song” as we see Metatron typing as the action unfolds.

    We see Sam watching Dean as he drives down a dark road. We see Cas back in his hotel room, stripping off his coat and then stripping all the information off the walls of his hotel room that he’d decorated hunter-style. He replaces the trappings of hunting with the sigil of Gabriel’s Horn, calling the other angels to him. It was nicely symbolic of Cas leaving the ranks of hunter and rejoining the ranks of the angels. As Cas walks out, we see that Metatron is typing, “Cas heads out to join his flock. His army. And God watched over them.”

    I can’t say enough good things about Armstrong’s performance as Metatron. He’s so very earnest in his love of stories and story-telling, it’s hard not to like him. But he’s also clearly mad! He gets fantastic lines, but his delivery is always perfect. He and Collins have terrific chemistry. Collins was also a delight in this episode – for everything that has always made Cas such a wonderful character – his basic innocence, but in this episode, it was wonderful to watch him struggle with wanting so badly to do the right thing and struggle against his past failures to finally finding the peace and strength within himself to try again.

    So far, I haven’t even really touched on the other powerful element to the episode – Ackles’ shower scene! I’m joking of course – but we do see that the mark of Cain is truly having an effect on Dean. Sam is clearly becoming concerned for his brother and has noticed a change in his behavior and how Dean keeps rubbing at the mark. The shower scene actually parallels the later scene when Dean goes to splash water on his face in the midst of interrogating Gadreel. In both cases, he appears to be trying to sooth the effects of the mark, to cool the rage that is burning through him.

    There are a couple of nice moments between Cas and Dean in the episode. The first is when Cas calls to check in with the brothers. Cas discusses the case with Sam and then muses about what’s honorable about a minibar in a motel room. Dean, typically, answers “everything!” This prompts Cas to ask how Dean is, receiving Dean’s stock reply of “fine.” Dean then asks about Cas, and Cas says he misses his wings. It’s a nice allusion to the fact that Cas misses being able to be anywhere in an instant – such as with his friends. Cas says life on the road smells – and I had to think that that could also be interpreted as life on the road stinks. Cas is lonely.

    Ultimately, Dean and Sam capture Gadreel. Gadreel begins by taunting Sam, rubbing it in that he’d been Sam and knows that he “reeks of shame and weakness” so there’s no way he’ll ever make Gadreel talk. Sam loses it and Dean pulls him away. Sam suggest they get Crowley (Mark Sheppard) to possess Gadreel, but for once Dean won’t have anything to do with Crowley and sends Sam for Cas. It’s pretty clear that Dean doesn’t want to let Sam so something that Sam will regret, but even more so, it’s clear that Dean wants to be alone with Gadreel to feed his own hunger for violence.

    Ackles is superb as he returns to Gadreel after sending Sam away and tells him, “I don’t care whether you talk. You’re going to pay for what you did to him. And Kevin.” The scenes that followed resonated with a number of scenes from previous episodes. It felt a little like Dean torturing Alastair in “On the Head of a Pin” when we saw the perverse pleasure Dean had acquired while torturing souls in Hell. Alastair managed to taunt and wound Dean in much the same way Gadreel does in this scene. He tells Dean that Sam would never have traded his life for Dean’s. Of course, we know that is a lie because Sam did try to trade his life for Dean’s after Dean went to Hell. Penikett is terrific in this scene, and I think it’s the best work he’s done so far on the show.

    Gadreel also taunts Dean that Sam has always thought Dean was just a scared little boy afraid to be on his own because Daddy never loved him enough. Gadreel calls him a coward and finally pushes him until Dean punches him. He keeps pushing, calling Dean a pathetic bottom feeder who lets everyone around him die. Dean almost kills Gadreel but stops himself from stabbing him at the last minute when he realizes that Gadreel would rather die than be left locked up and alone again. Gadreel’s taunts then, could really be about himself – Gadreel was afraid to be alone and was only interested in regaining his father’s good graces.
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    Dean’s attempt to resist the mark is not entirely successful. When Sam returns he finds Dean slumped on the floor. Again, Ackles knocks it out of the park. Dean is almost drunk with the euphoria of having beaten Gadreel almost to death – no doubt he couldn’t kill an angel that way, so he’s clearly exhausted himself.

    Sam attempts to get Dean to focus on the task at hand – they have to save Cas and it may be an opportunity to trap Metatron. It was fun watching Padalecki play against Armstrong only this time being Sam and not Gadreel. In the rendezvous, Metatron is determined to “play” his part in the plot to capture him and makes an exaggerated effort to hit his mark and over acts egregiously when surrounded by the holy fire.

    Metatron then demonstrates just how powerful he is by blowing out the holy fire and erasing the protective sigils on the trunk of the Impala. Shout out to the VFX team for those particularly wonderful effects! When Dean presses Metatron on why he’s doing what he is, Metatron answers simply because he can. He tells them they can’t stop him but he’s going to enjoy watching them try. I couldn’t help but think that he’s underestimating their power to surprise him.

    Many were happy to see Team Free Will united – even if it was only briefly. It is really a shame that the show has made Collins a regular this season, yet has had very few episodes in which the three leads work together. From a practical standpoint, it’s nice for them to spell each other off, but from an aesthetic standpoint, I know I’m not alone in wanting to see these three wonderful actors share the screen.

    Cas points out that Metatron is “playing” God, but Sam states that he IS God. He’s powered himself up with angel tablets somehow. Dean suggests that they sneak into Heaven and take him out. The other two don’t consider that a viable option. This is another indication of Dean’s increasingly reckless behavior. Cas’s understanding the Death Star reference, once more spurs Dean to ask if he’s ok. Cas, however, has noticed that there is something very different about Dean. When Dean reaches out to pat Cas on the shoulder to reassure him, Cas grabs his arm and discovers the mark of Cain. Cas is clearly upset. Dean brushes it off as merely a means to an end. Sam tells Cas to be safe. Cas says you too – and also tells Sam to keep an eye on his brother. Padalecki does all his acting with his face here – so well, in fact, that they cut his line from this scene in which he actually says he’s worried about Dean.

    It wasn’t really immediately obvious to me why they split up again. However, Cas is now clearly focused on the Heaven problem and Dean is focused on Abaddon. It made more sense, however, for Dean to be focussed on Abaddon when they didn’t have any leads on Metatron or Gadreel – weren’t they focussed on getting revenge for Kevin? Really a minor quibble in an otherwise fantastic episode.

    What did you think of the episode? Were you thrilled to see Richard Speight Jr back? Is Cas making a huge mistake? Did you like the meta aspects of the episode? Do you think the Trickster is still out there? Did you read all the way through this very lengthy review? Thanks if you did! Let me know all your thoughts in the comments below!

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