There is no doubt that Supernatural’s mid-season finale, “The Executioner’s Song” was a masterpiece. The script, acting, music, sets and direction all combined to create a stunning example of television artistry. The visual and cinematography choices that presented the characters’ conflict were masterfully woven into the story, yet they immeasurably added to the story’s impact.
Upon examination, a few themes were used repeatedly in the episode. Shots that focused on specific parts of the body, truncated shots and diverse camera angles all reinforced and, in retrospect, predicted the storyline.
Feet (or more specifically, Shoes)
At first it may seem odd, but shoes were a dominant theme in “The Executioner’s Song”. The emphasis on shoes brought to my mind the old adage that one must “walk a mile in another man’s shoes” before truly understanding his fate or judging his actions. Shoes can also tell you a lot about a man, and thus were used as a vehicle to convey character traits and motivations.
The first image of shoes was of the guard as he made his rounds of death-row inmates:
Our introduction to Tommy, the serial killer, was through the state-issued gym shoes he wore in his cell:
The mood of impending doom was then created by showing us only the footsteps of an unknown figure (i.e. Cain) approaching his victim in the dark:
A stark contrast to the guard’s padded work shoes, the inmates minimalistic tennis shoes or the ominous, heavy shoes of the intruder were the polished dress shoes of investigating authorities (i.e. the warden):
Notice that his hands were also shown, crossed to reflect his confusion and deep contemplation of the situation (discussed later).
When Cain was first trapped in the barn, we were shown shoes that had obviously seen many, many miles. They were scuffed, tattered and aged. They belonged to a practical man who was methodically analyzing his situation, step by step:
Dean’s entry into battle was graphically depicted with a shot of his shoes. These were work boots, belonging to the man who bore the weight of the world on his shoulders:
Lastly, during the fight, Cain’s feet captured the blade, claiming it as his own:
The episode’s examination of shoes told us so much about the men who had to put one foot in front of the other to walk paths that were impossibly hard. They each faced their own burdens and destiny, not knowing where their journeys would ultimately lead them. The shoes they wore reflected their lots in life, how far they had already come, and how far they had yet to go.
The second directorial theme involving the physical body focused on hands. Most often these hands were shown holding weapons, acting as (and symbolizing) the instruments of a person’s ability to defend themselves.
Before we saw Cain’s face, we were shown his hand jingling the chains of the jail’s captives. The chains bound people for their crimes, helplessly constraining each against Cain’s judgment:
We were then shown Tommy’s hand, blindly feeling its way past the desk and his Bible, searching for a way out of the trap:
Not finding any external weapon to use against his assailant, Tommy’s hand became his only weapon:
We were shown the power of Cain’s hand, as he deflected Tommy’s advances with just the flick of his finger.
Later, Cain used the same hand wave to throw Castiel into a fence, and Dean through a window.
Dean’s hands skillfully used the tools of his trade to try to ascertain the threat:
The transfer of the Blade from Crowley to Dean was emphasized through the image of one hand releasing while the other hand grasped the ancient weapon.
Dean’s hand recognized the weapon it had longed to hold. There was a fierceness to the weapon in Dean’s hand.
A critical turn in the showdown between Dean and Cain was conveyed through the crossing of their hands:
Then Cain’s hand embraced and welcomed the weapon it recognized so well.
All of these images of the power of the hand to wield weapons foretold the climactic move that allowed Dean to overcome his opponent! Dean cut off Cain’s hand, with all its power to attack and defend, irrecoverably weakening the ancient murderer. Dean’s victorious hand is left holding Cain’s knife, with Cain’s severed hand left empty and useless. The transfer of the burden of the Mark had been symbolically completed.
After the battle, Dean’s hand presented the bloody weapon to Castiel’s surprised and hesitant hand, leaving Crowley’s expectant hand empty:
The aftermath of Dean’s battle was simply shown by a bloody, bruised hand:
Although not as obvious, there was also a suggestion of how much the eyes betray the feelings and fate of a person. The opening shot was an extreme close-up of Tommy’s eye:
That got me thinking of how expressively Dean’s,
and Sam’s eyes told us their stories.
It is possible that the director, Phil Sgriccia, recognized that his key actors can powerfully convey their emotions through their eyes, so he specifically emphasized and captured these windows to their souls throughout the episode.
Showing only part of a person is a timeless strategy to create mystery and tension. Since we can’t view the whole person, we wonder “What is the rest of the person doing?”. We can’t see their face, so we can’t judge their facial expressions, and thus their intentions. The truncated shot also emphasizes an image or evokes an emotion as our minds are restricted from processing an entire scene.
In this episode specifically, the truncated shots of people’s bodies also depicted a body that wasn’t whole, or that was missing some of its parts. This was a brilliant way to foreshadow the climactic battle, when Cain’s hand would be severed from his body and he also would be missing one of his limbs.
All of the shots shown above that emphasized feet and hands dually portrayed truncated bodies. Other shots included these extremities, but the truncation seemed to be primary, with the feet/hand shot secondary. For example, the shot of the guard walking down the hall showed only his lower torso. The audience was left to focus on the weapon (baton) in his hand, and his job of walking a path alone.
We then were shown Tommy’s lower torso, also with his hand in the foreground. Tommy looked alone and isolated as well, plus dejected and forgotten.
Cain was introduced through his lower torso. Ominously, this shot specifically excluded his hands (i.e. they were already “missing”).
One of the final shots of Crowley and Rowena was at an upward angle that decapitated Rowena:
I wonder if that could also be foreshadowing??
Had you noticed how physical bodies were used to convey meaning in “The Executioner’s Song”? Do you agree with my interpretations? Do you think this was done specifically to foreshadow Cain losing his hand? What other meaning did you get from these shots?
In part 2 of my cinematography review, I will look at how angles, bars and isolation were all strategically used in the episode. I will also review the use of color, plus present the best shots of the show. Don’t miss it!
screencaps courtesy of www.screencapped.net