I continue to plow through Supernatural. This is not nearly so crazy as the reputation of the fans would have me believe. Wacky, yes -- as would be expected from anything involving Ben Edlund, who prior to this was known mainly for creating The Tick. (If you've never run into those, the main thing you take away from them is that Edlund has a corkscrew brain and a genius for parody on a par with Warren Ellis, except Edlund has outside hobbies other than hating himself and the entire rest of the human race.) A lot of the plots are affectionate send-ups of various monster and horror clichés, and not just the crew but also some of the characters count as Dangerously Genre Savvy. I watched the first episode, skipped past a couple of seasons to the point where the Winchesters had grown up enough to not pour all of their energy into being total cocks to each other whenever they're stuck in a car together, and picked up at the start of season 4, because Moggie had been prodding me about Misha Collins.

I find the Dean/Cas thing both endearing and fascinating. The internet -- particularly tumblr -- is dead convinced that Dean and Castiel are desperately in love with one another. I like the fact that this is treated as generally not weird or shocking. I've said before that one of the few things my generation has done goddamn right is completely fail to understand why anyone cares who you want to mash genitals with, or why anyone thinks they should. You can see this influence slowly sort of percolate through mass media, in a rock-solid textbook example of the normalization of deviance.

"Deviance", as academic jargon, is a value-neutral term, and is used to refer to any behavior, custom, or quality that is considered by the mainstream culture to be "not normal". You can have positive deviance, like being super-smart or incredibly beautiful, as well as negative deviance, like being of a minority ethnic group or engaging in criminal behavior. Annoyingly, both sorts of deviance tend to have the same social consequences in the end. Societies have this odd equivalent of the mathematical phenomenon of regression to the mean -- over time the behavioral outliers drop away and mainstream behavior becomes homogenized -- only instead of merely being an artifact of how probability works, it's because people hammer on square pegs until they fit in the round fucking hole, goddamnit, because then everything looks neat and tidy.

Normalization of deviance is the process by which that goes the other way: Deviant behavior is de-marginalized and picked up by the mainstream, becoming the new "normal". It generally starts when someone who already has "outsider" status takes an extant deviant behavior and starts doing it openly specifically because it pisses people off. Then people who want to be perceived as rebels start doing it because it pisses people off and cements their place in the "outsider" crowd. Representation of the behavior in popular media, although it does exist, is generally in the context of "stuff villains do". After enough people (read: people in the 18-30 demographic, with disposable income) get the bright idea to rebel in the same way, it loses its real shock value and drops down to merely "edgy"; this is around the point where people start to incorporate it into mass media as morally-ambiguous or morally-neutral behavior, sometimes as a cheap way to manufacture angst, or to mark a character as an antihero without actually bothering to make said character do anything terrible enough that they might lose the audience's sympathy. The final step is when the behavior is no longer remarkable enough to be used as a cheesy plot device all by itself, i.e., when everybody quits giving a shit.

We've been kind of stuck on the next-to-last step in regards to same-sex romantic pairings for a while. I know they exist on TV; there's one (two?) on Glee, which I don't watch, and apparently one of the women sort of took lesbian sex for a test drive on Sex And The City, which I aggressively avoid. I know about stuff like Queer As Folk, which was a premium cable series, but in that case the fact that the selling point was specifically because it was a bunch of gay men being horrible drama-llamas puts it a step back on the chart, where homosexuality was used, at least in the ads, as a selling point of its own. Ditto the rampant bisexuality on Torchwood. Will & Grace was so mind-bendingly stupid that I think watching half of one episode may actually have made me dumber.

Basically, most TV is still jammed up at the point where someone somewhere in the production chain had to sit down and consciously ask, "So, should we be including some of those gay people we keep hearing about?" It's still a Thing. It's no longer a Horrible Thing -- often it's intentionally played up as an Awesome Thing, Please Observe Our Commitment To Diversity -- but it's definitely a Thing.

Whereas the relationship between Dean and Castiel was apparently a complete accident.

First things first: The internet, for once, is not hallucinating. Both actors are playing this as romantic. Misha Collins finally got tired of being coy and just said so. In a meet-and-greet, mind you, within excited-fangirl-grabbing-range, so he was rather taking his life into his hands there. If Jensen Ackles has said it in so many words, I can't find it, but his answers to a lot of fan questions on the topic don't make much sense unless he's presuming everyone already knows this is the case. Both of them make a lot of cracks about it with a conspicuous lack of "no no just kidding" -- although that is Ackles' normal follow-up whenever he makes a crack implying that Dean isn't in love with Cas. Sera Gamble, the show runner during the season where all this went from subtext to really blatant text and the scriptwriter for a lot of the particularly obvious bits, is an anthologized writer of erotica, and, as far as I can tell, shy of pretty much nothin'. You can make a good case either way for whether it's a sexual relationship, but all involved are by their own account portraying it as a romantic relationship.

("Romance" in modern western culture is generally considered to have erotic overtones, but "romantic friendships" have been a recognized thing for most of history -- the concept was quashed virtually overnight when the world abruptly decided both that homosexuality existed as an orientation of its own, and that for some reason that it was evil. There exists a lot of correspondence between same-sex friends as recently as the First World War that sound suspiciously like torrid love letters today, which were at the time considered to be perfectly normal messages to pass between two people in an intensely passionate -- yet platonic -- relationship. This occasionally makes it rather difficult for modern historians to figure out who was a secret lesbian and who just made really, really good friends at boarding school, not to mention it makes things like Le Mort Le Roi Artu read ridiculously slashy.

Acknowledged or not, romantic friendships do still exist, and if you want to see one, I recommend you go digging around for stuff on the comedians behind The Mighty Boosh. Julian Barratt and Noel Fielding are inseparable. Barratt is a bit tough to get a bead on, as he's quiet and hates doing press, but he's married to a comedienne and has a couple of small kids; Fielding sounds a bit apologetic whenever he has to explain that he's straight, and I don't think anyone's ever thought to ask him if he's panromantic, but he's definitely very friendly without regard to gender, highly affectionate, and inhibited mainly by a desire not to make people uncomfortable.

Talk show hosts keep cordially inviting them to sit on opposite ends of the interview couch, and I don't know why, because within about five minutes they're sharing a cushion again. 'Joined at the hip' is an understatement. When they're at parties together, Fielding likes to drape himself over his friend like a fashionable scarf and not let go. If you read their account of how they met, it sounds rather like 'love at first sight', or at least 'intense bonding after the second, rather more successful, crack Noel took at chasing Julian down and talking to him after a gig'.)

The character of Castiel was only supposed to last about half a dozen episodes. Judging from the writing in his first couple appearances, it was always intended that he rebel, and the catalyst was always going to be Dean getting pissy and yelling at him until he developed free will, but the original plan was apparently that Anna was going to be their on-again, off-again guardian angel instead. The idea was that her ability to pop in and out at will would make her a viable long-term love interest for Dean, who never stays in one place long enough to date someone who doesn't know how to teleport. I don't know how Cas originally met his end, but assuming minimal restructuring, he was probably meant to cap off his rebellion by nobly sacrificing himself, asserting his independence from the Heavenly Host, buying the Winchesters a few precious minutes, finally understanding the true meaning of Christmas, blah blah blah you get the idea.

In order for an arc like that to have any emotional payoff, you have to make sure the sacrifice means something to your heroes, and in order to make that happen, your heroic victim has to develop some sort of rapport with the protagonist (and, by extension, the audience). Six episodes is not a lot of time to do this, especially when your guest star is merely the B plot in half of them, so your protagonist has got to trip over reasons to trust your significant sacrifice pretty damn quickly.

Sometimes this comes off... well, kinda stupid. It's hard to do that with dialogue alone when you don't have a lot of screen time to play with. Collins and Ackles pulled it off because they're both very physical actors. I've not seen Ackles in anything else, but when he's playing Dean, unless Dean is intentionally lying to someone, pretty much every thought that crosses his mind also crosses his face. Collins is frighteningly good with body language and microexpressions, to the point where I'm not entirely sure I'd have recognized him as the actor playing Cas if it hadn't been pointed out to me beforehand, and he has to pay particularly close attention to it in this case, as he's playing someone who isn't human. They made it work largely on the basis of non-verbals and behavior -- the audience can see that Cas sympathizes with Dean every time he won't look Dean in the eye while delivering yet another dick message from the management, and they can see that Dean thinks this angel might kinda want to listen to what he has to say from the number of times they see him note that Cas looks unhappy with what he's doing.

Then the character of Castiel didn't disappear after half a dozen episodes after all. In the context of a much longer story arc, cramming all of that rapport-building into the very beginning makes it look like Dean got himself entangled with Castiel with a breathtaking quickness -- not even head-over-heels so much as ass-over-teakettle -- and that Cas goes from stoicism to feeling everything much too fast to process it. It's an intense and emotional bond, because plot-wise that's what it would have taken to get a millennia-old angel to flip on his garrison that fast and with that much at stake, and because theme-wise the whole point of Supernatural is that you need to make your own damn decisions, with people asking, "You can't or you won't?" as a recurring motif. The original fallout would have been Dean dealing with yet another death on the doorstep of the Apocalypse, and probably Anna dealing with the idea that her brothers and sisters would either be trying to kill her, or marked or death on her behalf; it was never particularly intended for Dean to have to figure out what to do about someone he cared for deeply not walking out on him forever, and since Anna had lived as a human for a couple of decades, they didn't anticipate having to figure out the collision of "I would do anything for you" and "I don't do emotions quite like you do" that they have with Cas.

Rather than cooling their jets, the writers (correctly) thought that watching the two of them interact was too interesting to pass up, so they basically let the actors run with it to see what happened.

Apparently what happens is that the codependent pit of self-loathing you call an antihero accidentally starts to maintain what is, so far as I can tell, the only long-term emotional connection he's ever been able to hang onto while his family is still around. Quite likely because the angel doesn't do emotions quite like people do, and fails so hard at being jealous of the amount of time and energy Dean pours into his little brother that he probably hasn't thought long enough to realize other humans would be. Season 8 would have been the one taped after the above-referenced meet-'n'-greet, where Collins was asked about Edlund's comments on a relationship being resolved; the gag reel for it has a lot of faffing about while taping the climactic fight scene in 8x17. Collins and Ackles poke fun at the dialogue not because poor writing makes it comes off as a confession of love despite being something totally different, but because that's exactly what it is, and Dean won't just sack up and say the scary scary L-word. Evidently "I gave up everything for you" is not enough of a hint for him.

Given how meta the show gets about authorship and fiction, it's arguable that God (or Death) keeps resurrecting Castiel because if He didn't, Dean would spend the rest of eternity literally doing nothing but tearing up Heaven and Earth in an effort to get Cas back. Even that would quit making for interesting television after a few millennia, plus there would be that whole mess to clean up afterwards.

Comments

  1. Re: Misha's acting, have you seen The French Mistake yet? If not, I don't want to spoil you, but he really knocks it out of the park in that one - his sublety is a joy. rock_chick_333

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    1. I have -- I'm caught up through about 8x20. I also don't mind spoilers. They generally just make me want to watch it more.

      One of the reasons I say I might not have recognized him out of character is that he changes almost all of his body language for Cas -- and for other roles. Moggie pointed out, accurately, that you can tell whether he's in character as Castiel, as bonkers!Castiel, as Jimmy Novak, as "Misha" in "The French Mistake", or has just given up and dropped for the gag reels, from still photographs. He also does it when launches into one of his collection of random accents, which he will do at the drop of a hat.

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