Yippie-kye-yay! Okay just had to get that out of my system. Despite a few issues, I thoroughly enjoyed Supernatural‘s foray into the Old West, and I do know I will revisit this episode any number of times for all the goodness within it. Samuel Colt, Dean as a sheriff, Sam on a horse priceless!
As usual, I’ll get my criticisms out of the way first, and I definitely have some. All of them go to the script by Andrew Dabb and Daniel Loflin, and to the underlying story by Dabb, Loflin, and a name totally new to me, Jackson Stewart. Almost all of my criticisms are directed to the same thing, which is unfortunately part and parcel of the story: time travel being used as a cheap crutch, and improbable events being tailored simply to fit the immediate need. Admittedly, time travel was the only way we were ever going to see Sam and Dean back in the Old West, and that was a treat I think none of us would have wanted to miss, but it’s a seductive and dangerous tool to use, and I’m hoping we’ve now seen the last of it, at least in terms of seeing contemporary characters journeying into the past. I hope Castiel’s comment at the end I don’t ever want to do that again goes not just to directly siphoning off the power of a human soul, but to bending time.
Dean leaping to the immediate conclusion that time travel afforded them an easy out guaranteed access to the known location of the ashes of a phoenix epitomized the danger that began the moment the show gave angels the ability to travel in time all the way back in In The Beginning. That ability has been the motivator for a number of stories since then. While I have loved them all I prized seeing Dean meeting Mary, John, and his Campbell grandparents in the first go-around, The End will always be in my top five for the series, I would never want to have missed the interactions with young John and Mary in The Song Remains The Same, and I’m glad to have glimpsed the beauty that was Bobby and Ellen as a married couple in last week’s My Heart Will Go On this episode had the thinnest excuse for a time-jaunt yet. I would have felt better about it if there had been more justification for it; if time travel hadn’t been the first choice, but looked to be the only option. Unfortunately, both the characters and the writers have begun to take time travel for granted, and that simply fuels the temptation to use it. If it’s going to be used, however, I think it needs to be adequately justified, with the dangers recognized and accounted for especially since the show laid a foundation in the Titanic episode for journeys to the past now being able to change history and trigger myriad unintended consequences. Admittedly, My Heart Will Go On was shot and originally intended to air after Frontierland, so in the original plan it would have made sense for the Winchesters and Bobby not to have been worried about changing the past since their previous experience indicated that wasn’t possible, but the change in those rules was something Castiel obviously already knew and didn’t see fit to mention.
I will freely admit that Dean’s fascination with the old West meant a convenient excuse to visit it would have been almost irresistible to him, but I would have been much happier with the eventual trip if Bobby and Sam had been a lot more hesitant about it and forced more research into other options first. If research eventually turned up a strong indication that phoenixes were extinct, making a journey into the past the only way to get one, daring the danger of the trip would have seemed much more worthwhile. It might also have added dimension to the personal story of Finch, the phoenix, if Dean acknowledged to Finch that he had to kill him not just because he was technically a monster or because the brothers needed to use his ashes as a weapon in the future, but because history already said he died that day. If Finch was also the last recorded phoenix anyone knew of, killing him could have been the phoenix extinction event, adding to his significance. I was disappointed that Dean showed so little reluctance about having to kill Finch even after learning Finch had at least some human justification for his murders; it seemed almost as if Dean had reverted to the simplistic “all monsters are bad” mentality he’d had before he began to question that assumption after meeting Lenore’s vampire family in Bloodlust. I’d like to have seen less matter-of-factness and more conscious reflection and regret on his part. As it was, however, the phoenix was created solely to die and be used as a weapon … and why do I suspect the ashes won’t work quite the way the brothers and Bobby assume they will?
Finally, Dabb and Loflin almost always go a little too far in their scripts on the silly index for my taste, especially concerning Dean. This time, that led to Dean being so caught up in his gunfighter high noon moment that he lost sight of the mission time clock even though he’d been acutely aware of it just moments before while confronting Finch in the jail. Dean standing in the street watching the clock tick to a High Noon shootout and blowing the smoke away from the barrel were classic Western homage, but while they were funny for the viewer, they were foolish amateur hour for experienced hunters knowing time was of the essence, leading the brothers to fail stupidly in the last moment when they’d both been almost brilliant up until then. And all of that was purely to hinge the episode on an homage to yet another movie by having a package shipped by Samuel Colt in 1861 be held by a courier service, however improbably, for delivery to Sam Winchester on a specific day in 2011. Yes, I laughed for the pop culture reference to Back To The Future II, but relying on it to redeem the brothers’ failure to stay mission-focused enough to secure the ashes from the past was a bit much. Another scene director Guy Bee mentioned having been cut from the final version evidently had Bobby contemplating using automotive jumper cables to rouse the unconscious Castiel; I think I’m glad that one got cut, because I suspect it would have gone too far chasing the funny for me.
But enough griping. On to the good stuff! And that starts with me saying I really thoroughly enjoyed the essential lightheartedness of this episode, and will watch it again just to laugh some more.
Despite my time travel and story-related issues, I loved the execution of this episode. And the plethora of great lines and moments in the script make up for a lot! I was particularly delighted that the story began with Sam searching for and finding the Campbell family library at the apparently now-abandoned Campbell compound (although we were left to wonder whether he remembered it though a scary partial failure of his memory wall, or deduced it from realizing that Samuel had to have hidden his data stash in proximity to his base of operations), and with the resources of that library yielding hunting treasures unavailable anywhere else, including the reference Bobby found to the ashes of a phoenix burning the Mother and Dean discovering the journal of Samuel Colt. I’ve mentioned more than once hoping we’d learn more about the Campbells and their informational assets; I can’t express how happy I am that Bobby and the Winchesters now have access to a LOT more information than they ever did before. And I suspect most of it had been hidden before Samuel Campbell’s death in a long-term stash he accessed again after his return; a stash the distant Campbell cousins probably hadn’t even guessed existed. Hey: were I a hunter, I’d have leased a storage facility something like the one John set up, or bought a remote farm-type location such as the Campbell complex, and I’d have arranged a way to pay for it on a long-term basis so payments would continue even after I died. That just makes too much sense for a prudent hunter not to do it. I hope we see even more involving the Campbell family history, because I continue to believe there was a longer term reason for someone having brought Samuel back, and I still believe we haven’t learned who did it or why. I’ve said before that I don’t accept Crowley having had the juice to do it, no matter what he claimed and Samuel believed.
Other story and script features I definitely appreciated included the phoenix turning out to be not simply a cookie-cutter monster, but a likeable, essentially honorable man with issues the Winchesters could have understood. I positively LOVED all the internal consistency in the script with the show’s canon history, including Samuel Colt being in the process of building the hundred square mile railroad-and-chapel devil’s trap we learned about in All Hell Breaks Loose Part 2 to contain his devil’s gate, the sly hint that Elkins the bartender may have picked up the Colt after Dean dropped it and eventually passed it down to a descendant the hunter Daniel Elkins we met in Dead Man’s Blood, and the treasure Dean had recovered and gloated over in Like A Virgin being the way the brothers financed their mission in the past. I laughed for Dean’s childlike delight at the very idea of being in the old West, and thoroughly enjoyed the restored ease between the brothers that made Sam teasing him about it both funny and utterly without malice. And I loved that despite his classic “bitchface” responses in the present day Sam’s reaction to Dean’s growing disillusionment with the real conditions of the West was gently sympathetic rather than gloating at least apart from the one moment of getting his own back when the sarsaparilla turned out to be a lot more palatable than the local rotgut whiskey! I can’t help but think (and hope!) that a “bitch/jerk” moment will appear before the season ends, for the first time in literal years.
I thoroughly enjoyed Guy Bee’s direction. With his choice of camera placement and moves specifically including such shots as the high crane overview of the gunfight with the noose in frame, the close-ups on the gunfighters’ boots, eyes, and hands, the shots of the ticking clock, and the gorgeous silhouette stock shot of Sam’s galloping horse he hit every Western trope and clichÃ© while still making all of this decidedly Supernatural. His use of handheld cameras on location outdoors, while probably largely dictated by the conditions of shooting in muddy Bordertown (which we also saw most memorably as Cold Oak in All Hell Breaks Loose), gave the events and action an immediacy that more standard camerawork generally lacks.
I learned from the podcast he did on Winchester Brothers Radio that some of the wonderful moments in the episode weren’t dictated by the script, but came from a combination of actor and director choices. For example, Jensen using the silly falsetto voice on the Candygram for Mongo line happened because Guy, having a little extra time available, suggested the silliness as an alternate take from the straight one they’d shot first. The final shot didn’t specify Dean putting on the cowboy hat; that was Jensen’s choice, and punctuated the scene perfectly. Go take a listen to the podcast, because the insights are wonderful! Also very funny â€¦
The crew get major props from me for all their lovely work on this one. Something Guy mentioned in the podcast was the particular challenge this episode presented for the costumers. He noted they always need to have multiple copies of the principal characters’ outfits to ensure consistency from day to day and to equip stunt performers as well as main actors, but said dealing with all the extras who populate the background of contemporary scenes usually isn’t very taxing because most of them can simply wear their own clothes. For a period piece like this episode, however, he noted the costume department needed to come up with complete, authentic outfits for everyone who appeared onscreen, meaning they had a lot more work than usual.
Serge Ladouceur’s lighting and cinematography are always wonderful, but there were aspects of this episode that were simply glorious, especially the scene in the cemetery with the fog simply glowing in the sky.
I have to call out the sound effects folks for all their delightfully iconic Western touches, including the spurs on his boots ringing with every one of Dean’s steps, the swoosh of dusters being swept back and knuckles cracking as Dean and Finch flexed fingers in preparation for the gunfight, and the ticking and chiming of the clock. One sound cue thoroughly amused me; we heard a thunderstorm, complete with rain falling, at the beginning of the scene in the jail when Dean learned the truth about why Finch had killed the men. The rain sounds stopped before Dean jumped through the window to escape Finch shooting at him â€¦ but wonderfully explained why the street was wet and muddy when he jumped and when he confronted Finch for the gunfight. Nice job, there! The crowning glory was having one more ringing spur be the very last sound at the end of the episode, just after the screen went to black. The underscore by Jay Gruska paid homage to almost every spaghetti Western ever made, with special reference to Ennio Morricone’s unmistakable theme music from The Good, The Bad, And The Ugly. And having grown up on Bonanza, I really laughed at his version of an opening title theme, Western Supernatural style!
Speaking of Bonanza brings me to Ivan Hayden’s brilliant visual effects crew and the special title card they devised for this episode, with the Wyoming map burning away in the style of the map of the Ponderosa. As if that whole effect wasn’t funny enough on its own, I laughed hysterically to realize the flames burned out a shape remarkably like the outline of the state of Texas! I also appreciated the phoenix immolation effect we saw when Finch burned the same way he had killed others; this effects team definitely has a way with fire. And while we’d seen Castiel delve for souls before in The Third Man, Family Matters, and Like A Virgin, the visual effects this time around distinguished those touches from this one, when Castiel actually siphoned off power from a soul to fuel himself; we saw the energy pass into Castiel and burst in light from his eyes. That was a “wow!” moment.
I also can’t say enough about what Jerry Wanek’s and John Marcynuk’s design and art crew pulled off in this episode. The specifics of the set-dressing art were flawless, especially including not just the wonderful joke of the “Western Courier” office on the Sunrise, WY street in the past being echoed by the livery worn by the delivery man at the end in the present (not to mention that the office in the past was adorned with advertisements for riders that echoed the Pony Express recruitment notices of true history, down to the “Orphans Preferred” wording!), but by every single detail in Samuel Colt’s journal, from the hand-tooled leather book cover being emblazoned by the same “non timebo mala” slogan used on the barrel of the Colt to the journal entry for April 6, 1860 one of the entries Dean read in the Campbell basement specifically talking about Elkins and suggesting he knew about the supernatural. (Did you miss that? The entry as much as I could make out, anyway read: April 6th 1860 Elkins has sought me out on two occasions. I gave no mind to his requests. Only a fool would stick his nose into matters such as he evidence of that. He’s se … preternatural at work, be a sobering sign, time. I may well ). Details matter, and this crew knows that better than any other!
The whole cast was wonderful. Sam Hennings made the perfect world-weary, war-weary Samuel Colt, who’d seen so much that nothing fazed him. I appreciated the fun touch of Colt being a left-handed writer, but pulling a fast one on the demons by drawing and shooting the gun right-handed; there’s a consummate professional hunter for you! I really liked Matthew John Armstrong as Finch, the phoenix; he made me feel for the plight of a non-human who nonetheless loved a human and reacted accordingly. Gordon Michael Woolvett, whom I remembered from Andromeda (don’t judge me; it was a guilty pleasure, however silly!), did a very nice turn as the deputy. And I laughed for April Telek’s blowsy bar girl; takes guts for an actress to willingly make herself that unattractive, and then have the fun of intimidating Dean! Sonya Salomaa wasn’t onscreen long as Rachel, but it was interesting to see her convey that not even other angels technically on Castiel’s side feel remotely about humans the way Castiel does.
All our principals obviously had fun with this episode, but none more than Jensen Ackles. We know Dean believes he’s funny, but I don’t think we’ve ever seen him crack himself up with a joke before, the way he did with the whole “posse magnet” thing. That was hilarious! I’m wondering if Jensen couldn’t keep a straight face himself on that one, and passed the weakness on to Dean. I loved the range of Jared Padalecki’s Sam, from his transparent eagerness at the discovery of Colt’s journal through his utter distaste for the time travel experience to his martyred tolerance of Dean’s enthusiasms and the absolute, earnest conviction he used to sell Samuel Colt. Sweet! Misha Collins gave us an exhausted, overwhelmed Castiel torn between conflicting duties, obligations, and desires, out of resources and out of options. I really hope we’re going to get a lot more insight into his experiences in the war for Heaven soon; it’s obviously been Hell on him. Jim Beaver simply delivered the real Bobby Singer, a man utterly devoted to his adopted family and willing to do whatever it took to keep them safe. He also got two of the best lines of the night in his I only watched Deep Space Nine shout-out to his wife, Cecily Adams, and the reference to not stranding the idjits in Deadwood, the series for which he is best known.
This lighthearted romp was something I think we all needed, and I’m grateful for it. I suspect it’s the last fun fling we’ll have this season as the dark tide rises …