Reblogging myself for seasonal reasons…
A few weeks ago, I was browsing through Tumblr and I was shocked to see that a couple of individuals had listed “A Very Supernatural Christmas” among their top five least favorite SPN episodes in one of those “30 Day Challenge” thingies…
Insanity, yes? I have nothing but love for that episode and, in honor of my 1,000th post (yay! milestone!), I would like to explain to you why I esteem that episode so highly…
Structure and Context
If there was ever going to be a Christmas-themed SPN episode, there is no better place for it to exist than the beginning of Season Three. Given their latchkey kid upbringing, it makes sense that the Winchesters would have little to no motivation to normally celebrate the holidays. What then would be the one event that could change their perspective and provide a meaty, emotional context for the entire episode? Dean’s One Year Hell Countdown, of course!
It’s one of those brilliant references to a story arc that just makes so much sense in retrospect. The drama bubbles in “Fresh Blood,” and foams in “Mystery Spot,” but no where else in the third season does the quiet, impending doom of Dean’s ever-ticking hell clock carry as much emotional weight as the Christmas special episode.
The holidays are supposed to be emotionally complex; edging on notes of the melancholy variety just as often (if not more so) than the joyful. Thematically, the somber reality of Dean’s situation is entirely appropriate to the mood of a holiday special.
Supernatural is, technically, a horror genre show. By labeling an episode as “A Very Supernatural Christmas” it would be important to adapt the concept of a Christmas special to the Supernatural setting, rather than the other way around. A hypothetical holiday story would, thus, have to be somewhat gruesome and have a real-world, mythic basis in order to stay true to the show’s premise.The use of actual winter solstice folklore nicely informed the obligatory Monsters of the Week: the fiendish pagan gods that looked like Martha Stewart’s BFFs. I love it when a plan comes together!
Kripke also intended for this show to serve as a satire of a Christmas special. The benevolent-looking baddies help the episode to parody the notion of a Christmas special by showing the sinister and subversive things that lay below our seemingly innocuous holiday trappings. That feeling is also affirmed by all the torture and bloodshed that ensues in the final act of the episode which create an overall mood that is entirely unlike, say, the Charlie Brown Christmas special.
All these elements are, however, mere window dressing for the lovely flashback story that is told about Sam and Dean’s childhood.
Groundbreaking Backstory Moments Featuring The WeeChesters
Oh, Lawd. Any Weechester moment breaks my heart, but this one almost did me in. How do people not fathom how significant this storyline is? We get to witness Little!Sam uncover the truth about the family business, which is tragic for two main reasons:
1. This is the beginning of Sam’s normalcy complex. He might have felt different before with the constant traveling and lack of parental guidance, but this new intimacy with the supernatural cements Sam’s feelings of isolation, not just from other kids or from a larger given community, but, eventually, from the rest of humanity. What Dean considers empowering, Sam will find condemning. It is his first moment of “otherness.” This striking difference between the boy’s perception informs not just their individual backgrounds, but the rest of the entire series. (See 2)
2. This moment establishes the horrible pattern of Sam constantly being victimized / uninformed. Sam was clueless about the role of his psychic nature in Azazel’s plan, clueless about how to save Dean’s soul, clueless about Ruby, clueless about Lilith, and clueless about how his blood-exorcism powers would lead him to addiction. It’s not that he’s excused from any culpability, it’s just that it feels like poor Sam is always THE LAST PERSON TO KNOW. Again, this colors not just his immediate character background, but it also establishes themes that perfectly will set up Sam’s emotional damage for the NEXT THREE SEASONS! In the same way that Sam always feels like an outsider, he will always feel flawed as well: Ex. Luciferliberator!Sam, Lucifer’svessel!Sam, and Soulless!Sam.
Meanwhile, the final interaction between Little!Sam and Little!Dean, does three things simultaneously:
A. In terms of pacing, it contains a nice comic relief break because the gifts Dean steals are, unwittingly, “chick presents”. This momentary lightness is all too welcomed after the fingernail-pulling scene from earlier. (Shudder!)
B. Backstory-wise we witness the origin of The Samulet! which demonstrates Sam’s absolute love for his big brother. We see Sam (quite literally) crowning Dean as his father figure by giving him the amulet Bobby had intended for John. Sam’s antagonism toward John makes so much more sense within this new context; his need to separate from that patriarchy was practically inevitable. However, at the same time, this act also foreshadows Dean as the future patriarchy against which Sam will have to rebel.
C. This storyline, in which Little Dean tries to give Little Sam a makeshift Christmas BEAUTIFULLY parallels the present-time story, wherein Big Sam tries to give Big Dean a makeshift Christmas in a ratty motel with air-freshener decorations and gas station gifts. It’s absolutely compelling because you get to see both brothers trying desperately to support and love each other in the face of adversity and uncertainty.
Structurally speaking, having these actions inverse and parallel each other in this way is this episode is just…gorgeous. That’s A-grade story building, people!
Best Music Cue In the HISTORY of Holiday-Themed Television
The final scene ends with Rosemary Clooney’s cover of “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas.” Sound editor or writer or whoever it is that decided to use THIS version of THIS Christmas song to score THIS scene…may I please rear your children?
Look at how the lyrics work so well with the emotional notes of this story:
Through the years we all will be together. If the fates allow.
Until then, we’ll have to muddle through somehow.
So have yourself a merry little Christmas…now.
As I said, before, the melancholy tone of the episode is wholly appropriate for the holidays. Dean’s predicament is actually a pretty relatable one. If you stretch it a bit, his hell clock could be seen as a a metaphor for terminal illness. Stretch that a little bit more and you realize life is a terminal illness and we’re all patients. Tick tock. Dean’s situation is worse because he knows the hour and the day, but truthfully…we all have sand slipping through our hourglasses. For that reason, the seasonal message of “Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas” can be extrapolated on a much larger scale. We ALL have to make the best of whatever time we have left. We need to make every moment count, because “now” is all we have.
Eric Kripke once said that the brother’s troubled past led to a lot of “chick flick” moments in the show. The writers learned to work through this when they discovered that sometimes it’s not what they say to each other, but what they don’t say that creates the truly expressive moments of the show. No where is this more evident (or more painful) than when Sam tries to express something heartfelt to Dean…but then changes gears and asks him if he “feels like watching the game” instead.
The thought of actualizing Dean’s fate by addressing it, even in a compassionate way, is too much for Sam…so he decides it’s best to “muddle through” so they can have a merry little Christmas…right now.
The final moment of the show, where the music ends and the camera pans out and we see Sam give his big brother one last sidelong look…Gah.
It never stops hurting.