or â€œMannequin 3: The Reckoningâ€ and its Narrative Heritage
â€“ Book X, Ovid, Metamorphoses
â€œYou can imagine going to a work place where there are many mannequins: if a mannequin started to move, you might be shocked. This is a kind of horror.â€ â€“ Masahiro Mori, â€œThe Uncanny Valley,â€ 1970
There is something enchanting about the world of make-believe. Supernatural recognizes this attraction and incorporates it as part of its thematic structure. One cannot have a science-fiction/fantasy storyline without a dash and nod to the fantastic. However, the show also demonstrates, again and again, the problems of imagination, the dangers of fantasy, and the consequences of denying the real. Each season of Supernatural contains an episode that directly addresses the problem of Pygmalion, or more succinctly, the problem of the fantasy come to life.
Pygmalion is the name of the sculptor who fell in love with his creation, the beautiful stature popularly known as Galatea. It is always the danger of the artist â€“ to fall in love with the art. It is an inherently unrequited feeling, which leads me to a disclaimer before I start my analysis.
I am working now on an article that argues against Supernaturalâ€™s breaking of the fourth wall. It is not a kind portrayal of the show, so I was in a dark place as I was researching the topic. However, when the new episode â€œMannequin 3: The Reckoningâ€ aired, I found myself drawn again to the showâ€™s intricate storytelling rather than its puerile self-reference. Supernatural tells a complex story, layered with themes that double, triple, and quadruple back on itself. Itâ€™s a puzzle and itâ€™s good, even delicious. Iâ€™m not sure if it is intentional or accidental â€“ Iâ€™d bet accidental, or perhaps organic, but this recent episode demonstrated, for me at least, how mature its narrative arcs are.
For example, the problem of Pygmalion as I like to call it, is a running theme throughout the series. While this theme may seem disconnected from the overall story of Supernatural, I would argue that these episodes, which appear as stand-alone storylines, are really the showâ€™s way of exposing important character arcs that supersede its plotline. From the first season to the sixth, the show includes these episodes at various points throughout the plot and takes these opportunities to meditate on what it means to operate in fictional landscape by using a meta-fictional landscape. In other words, the showâ€™s imaginary world has its own imaginary worlds that it adores and fears, much like Pygmalion and his ivory skinned statue.
In season 1, â€œFaithâ€ warned against belief without the recognition of sacrifice. Season 2â€™s â€œPlaythingsâ€ used dolls as a metaphor to show the fragile and psychotic co-dependency of one sister on another, while at the same time introducing the heartbreak of a child losing the make-believe. Season 3 offered up â€œBedtime Storiesâ€ and its terror of losing a child, even when the child was already lost, and used fairy tales to filter this lesson. During Season 4, â€œWishful Thinkingâ€ explicitly showed the tragedy of loving the unreal, while Season 5â€™s â€œFallen Idolsâ€ criticized that tragedy, tying it to a pitiful depiction of the unrequited nature of fandom and the later episode â€œI Believe the Children are Our Futureâ€ revisits the trauma of breaking the childâ€™s make-believe world. And now, Season 6 uses â€œMannequin 3: The Reckoningâ€ to return to the theme of Pygmalion, but in a terribly personal way.
In â€œFaith,â€ the episodesâ€™ core lesson involved the contradictory nature of belief. In a world where the unseen is evident, this episode used a fable of healing to show how the unseen is a dark background of sacrifice. Belief always centers on a suspension of disbelief, the core of storytelling. At this point in the show, God was unseen, unproven. He was a figure on the edge of the narrative; a ghost in the machine, so to speak. For me, this episode is the first story to attempt to see the danger of wishing, of imagining with desire without recognizing how that desire blinds us to the aftermath. Dean sees this underbelly; his insight juxtaposes sharply with Samâ€™s desire to rescue his brother.
Desire and outcome dance across a field, mirroring each other but always separated by the figure of the reaper. The make-believe is the faith of death deterred, when in point of fact, it is simply death deferred. The fantasy collapses with the knowledge of sacrifice and unfortunately, Layla Rourke and her mother suffer the consequence of the uncovering of the make-believe. The Pygmalion moment happens quietly, in the scene when Layla says goodbye to Dean.
Dean: It must be tough. To believe in something so much and have it disappoint you like that.
Layla: You want to hear something weird? Iâ€™m okay, really. I guess if youâ€™re going to have faith, you canâ€™t just have it when the miracles happen. You have to have it when they donâ€™t.
Dean: What now?
Layla: God works in mysterious ways.
Deanâ€™s position here is clear. Heâ€™s expects to be disappointed. He sees only the ivory statue with its lifeless limbs. Layla, through necessity or kindness, sees the statue move. I would argue that this episode clearly places faith in the realm of the make-believe, a sentiment reinforced for two seasons, until angels and God make their entrance. But it is not until Season 2 that the show will establish and consolidate its fear and fascination with the plasticity of fantasy.
In â€œPlaythings,â€ the story of the Thompson sisters demonstrates what will become the most poignant subtext involved in the problem of Pygmalion: the loss of childhood belief. The dolls, in this story, play a key role. They are representations of a lost past. Their plastic, shiny faces with their dull, lifeless eyes invoke the unreal in a specific and human and childlike way. They are memories of a forgotten history as well as a tangible link to childhood, to the reality of a sister who died tragically. It is appropriate that the doll-like ghost, Maggie, would haunt the edges of her sister Roseâ€™s life, threatening to unravel not only Roseâ€™s life but the life of her granddaughter, her future. Dolls watch but can never speak, only from the imagination of young girls who have yet to discover the real.
Sam and Deanâ€™s story presents a looking glass to the Thompson storyline, with Johnâ€™s instruction to Dean about taking care of or killing Sam haunting the narrative, much like Maggie. In that scene where Sam begs Dean to kill him, if he should happen to fall into darkness, articulates the fear of being left behind which is the lightning rod moment of the episode. Even Samâ€™s drunken pawing of Dean invokes a childâ€™s desperate clinging to reality, to the human. Johnâ€™s words, Deanâ€™s promise, and Samâ€™s fate are metaphorical dolls; they are lifeless, deadened shapeless things and they are all tied to that moment when the Winchester childhood lost its innocence, when the brothers lost their make-believe.
How does the show resolve this problem of Pygmalion? At the end of the episode, the sisters are reunited in death. One wonders if this is the vision of the Winchesters that the show foresees.
In the shortened season 3 the show aired â€œBedtime Stories.â€ While the episode is probably more noted for Samâ€™s murder of the crossroads demon, the narrative return to the problem of fantasy is the centerpiece of the episode. This time the theme emerges between a father and daughter. The daughter, who suffered at the hands of her stepmother, has existed in a liminal space for many years, in a coma that has now manifested itself in the real world with fairytales coming to life. The frozen imagination of the young girl provides a space for the show to examine not only the sinister nature of beloved childrenâ€™s stories, but also it becomes a device to again showcase how imagination and make-believe are tied to loss and desire. The fatherâ€™s desire for his daughter to live is not so much selfish as it is desperate. That desperation is seen in Sam, who yet again as he did in â€œFaith,â€ tries to deter death. Dean sees the futility, even calls Sam out with a line about learning to let go, just as the father learned to let go of the daughter.
â€œBedtime Stories,â€ though, has an embedded theme that calls back to â€œPlaythingsâ€ and forecasts the stories that will follow it. The theme revolves around the danger of desire that appears innocent. Appears. Once desire enters the stage, the figure of loss is not far behind. To want something is to recognize its absence. Loss and absence are foundational experiences for the Winchester brothers and it comes into full relief in the episodes that use the world of make-believe as a vehicle of meaning. Perhaps it is a safe space to experience the grotesque dimension of desire.
Fairytales, dolls, and religion/myths are all predicated on the imaginary. They rely on the unseen and the inanimate, but once seen and animated, these items and their stories can reveal a sense of abjection in the human experience. In her theory about the abject, Julia Kristeva argues, â€œThere is nothing like the abjection of the self to show that all abjection is in fact recognition of the want on which any being, meaning, language, or desire is foundedâ€ (Powers of Horror, 5). Kristeva sees this sense of the â€œuncannyâ€ as a way for humans to identify those unspoken desires that disgust us while at the same time enchant us. Itâ€™s a lesson that â€œBedtime Storiesâ€ and later, â€œWishful Thinkingâ€ will showcase: What happens when what you want in your make-believe world breaks the membrane between fiction and reality and appears in the flesh? For Supernatural, this breach always brings death.
If any episode directly addresses the Pygmalion problem, it is â€œWishful Thinking.â€ The season four episode stands alone from the overall story arc of season four and Samâ€™s spiral into the demonic, or so it seems. What this episode makes is a relevant digression into the make-believe and showcases how the decay Sam and Deanâ€™s relationship is directly connected to the breakdown of the imaginary. The story does this by emphasizing the point where fantasy and reality intersect in desire and the consequence of this intersection. If we cross-breed the make-believe with the physical world, then we get sad teddy bears and empty hearted lovers, but for the Winchesters we see not the far-away land of fairytales, but the imminent memory of hell.
This episode is the first time Dean admits to his memories of hell, even if it is not a full disclosure. Itâ€™s appropriate that â€œWishful Thinkingâ€ would be the moment of confession. Hell, while real for Dean, is still a make-believe world for Sam. Sam, like the nerdy Wes, wants (perhaps needs) the image of normal affection. The emptiness of Hollyâ€™s love for Wes is equivalent to the emptiness of Deanâ€™s connection to his brother. I would argue that this episode marks the moment when Sam, unconsciously, begins his downward fall into the demonic. The disconnection, fed by Deanâ€™s refusal to share his experience of Hell, signals to Sam the absence of the brotherhood, or at least the absence of what the brotherhood once meant.
In his work, Jean Baudrillard sees the â€œhyperrealâ€ as the moment when representation becomes the more than its referent (model supersedes the real): when the doll becomes superhuman, when the idol becomes the most intimate lover, or when the companion becomes the closest brother. In â€œWishful Thinking,â€ this danger is examined and resolved, as it often always is on Supernatural. It is a show that steps to the edge but very rarely steps over it.
The core lesson becomes: Wishful thinking is only wistful, never real.
In Season 5 two episodes return to the Pygmalion issue, perhaps more if I wanted to argue that. My reading is that this theme becomes more prevalent because the show itself is dealing with a narrative disconnect between its fictional reality and the reality of the viewing public. By puncturing the fourth wall, Supernatural introduced a whole host of problems and issues that directly link to the unrequited love for oneâ€™s art. But thatâ€™s a digressionâ€¦..For the purpose of this article, I will simply highlight one episode, â€œFallen Idols.â€
In â€œFallen Idols,â€ the pagan god inhabits the figures of contemporary iconography. Paris Hilton, â€œLilâ€™ Bastard,â€ and â€œAbe Lincolnâ€ are simply faces to fill, statues to animate in the name of desire. The episode is a frighteningly sarcastic and close to demeaning depiction of a perceived false idolatry. The episode uses wax figures in place of dolls or teddy bears, but the lesson is the same. The theme returns us to the Winchestersâ€™s problematic brotherhood and, in a way, underscores the disappointment so inherent in loving the false idol, in expecting the one you hold on the pedestal to maintain its pinnacle. Deanâ€™s fallen idol is (Sam?). Samâ€™s fallen idol is (Dean?). The problem with Pygmalion is not that the statue is beautiful and perfect; the problem with Pygmalion is that once the statue comes to life, it is simply human.
Idols fall in the presence of the human.
And now we come to season sixâ€™s â€œMannequin 3: The Reckoning.â€ This episode deliberately uses the doll metaphor to accomplish a few narrative points. First, the parallel between Rose and Isabel Brown and Rose and Maggie Thompson from â€œPlaythingsâ€ is heightened by the presence of the doll. Whereas the dolls of â€œPlaythingsâ€ were childhood mementos, the dolls of â€œMannequin 3â€ are more menacing because they are adult dolls, mannequins. I would say this difference parallels the difference between where Sam and Dean were in Season Two and where they are now, in Season Six. In Season Two, the brothers were still dealing with the remnants of their childhood trauma and how to move past them; now they are dealing with what it means to be adults, both responsible and accountable.
Both Maggie Thompson and Rose Brown are vengeful spirits who cause the death of their sibling. With Maggie it is the specter of loneliness and the fear of being left behind that spurs her anger (the disappearance of the dolls); for Rose it is the specter of loneliness and the anger at being teased with companionship (in the form of a doll/mannequin) that spurs her vengeance. And yet, it is the sisters who carry the brunt of their revenge. And the saddest line of â€œMannequin 3â€ is one I feel is echoed in many exchanges between Sam and Dean, â€œI didnâ€™t mean for this to happen.â€
Finally, and this is not going to be popular, I think the almost-human nature of the mannequin reveals the danger of the almost-human relationship that one might have with it. There is an interesting British documentary called â€œGuys and Dolls,â€ which documents four menâ€™s â€œrelationshipsâ€ with RealDolls. RealDolls, for those who donâ€™t know, are very expensive mannequins that are built and designed to be as human-like as possible. These men interact with the women, dress them, go out with them, and generally live their lives with these dolls as if the dolls were real. But the dolls arenâ€™t real, they are just projections of the menâ€™s desires. The relationships are one-sided and subject to the menâ€™s ideals, which dolls can achieve and humans cannot. I see Dean in this analysisâ€¦.and thatâ€™s all I will say.
While â€œMannequin 3: The Reckoningâ€ had its issues, I found it as satisfactory because of its link to other stories that the show has told. The episode has a heritage and I find it to be a fairly complex and interesting one. And I will leave my analysis with that last observationâ€¦.and to say, for anyone interested, the article that I am writing (which I escaped from to write this one) is tentatively titled, â€œBreaking the Fourth Wall to Build a Fifth: Reciprocal Violence between Supernatural and its Fans.â€