The primary moods of classic film noir were melancholy, alienation, bleakness, disillusionment, disenchantment, pessimism, ambiguity, moral corruption, evil, guilt, desperation and paranoia. source
Supernatural has always had embodied elements of the noir genre. It’s a show about the darker side of life, about two brothers trying to find meaning and purpose in a life mired in death and destruction. Sam and Dean Winchester are flawed yet moral men in a world where wanting to do the good thing, the right thing, isn't always enough. There’s no shiny American dream here, no sense that justice will prevail. As Dean observed in Season Two: "There's just chaos and violence, random unpredictable evil, that comes outta nowhere, rips you to shreds."
So when the Apocalypse was averted and Supernatural looked over the horizon of its original story arc, the decision by the creative team of showrunners Sera Gamble and Bob Singer along with creator Eric Kripke to take noir as the inspiration for Season 6 seemed like a natural progression.
Bob Singer called the season "a twenty-two hour film noir mystery" and noir influence permeated every aspect of the show from the characters and plot to the mood and the visual style. Think Chinatown but with souls instead of water rights!
Noir is about uncertainty and paranoia, of the world you thought you knew and could trust, being ripped away. In Season 6 this was true not only for the characters, but for the audience as well.
Each year Supernatural changes its opening title to reflect the themes of the season. In Season 6, the opening credits were a pane of glass that shatters. Part of the word "Supernatural" was seen on a shard from both sides, and then the whole word revealed. This was carried through on the station promos, where the letters in the word Friday were also reversed (although many fans simply took this for the inability of the CW to use a spellchecker!). It heralded a season where nothing was as it seemed, where usual tropes were subverted and where only after all the the pieces had come together would the whole story to be revealed.
Gamble foreshadowed this when she described how the opening of the season, with one brother pulling the other back into hunting, resembled Season 1, but warned fans not to expect that the story would play out in a familiar way:
"… it only seems that way on the surface. We very quickly pull another layer of the onion back, and you see the ways in which it's not the same…" source
Sam and Dean have always had the traits associated with the alienated, flawed heroes of noir, which Gamble highlights here:
If you think of 'L.A. Confidential,' if you think about Sam and Dean together being like a Bud White …. Bud White beats people up. He has anger management problems. He drinks too much. But he's a hero. The fact that he is moral is a problem. The other sort of hero in that story has a sort of moral relativism. There are a lot of shades of gray that we're playing with this season, in terms of the kind of heroes we're interested in. source
Like many of their counterparts, Sam and Dean started out with what they thought was a clear unambiguous mission – "saving people; hunting things"- only to find this disrupted and challenged until what is right becomes a question to which the answer changes daily. "We're supposed to struggle with this, that's the whole point," says Sam in "Croatoan". And struggle they have.
In this season, each of the main characters embodied a noir archetype. In Dean, we had the man of violence who has retired but is drawn back into the life. (Unforgiven, A History Of Violence). The season premiere "Exile On Main Street"opened with a montage to the song 'Beautiful Loser' that expressed the conflict in Dean's life of his desire for family and his life as a hunter, made further difficult by his despair and grief over Sam. His relationship with the Braedens played out in a classic noir way – Dean was faced with impossible choices. The scene where Dean and Lisa were brought together by Ben in "Mannequin 3: The Reckoning" is full of unfinished conversations and unanswered, and unanswerable, questions. Noir hates an easy resolution.
Sam played out a noir trope which has stretched from golden era films like Spellbound to modern films like Mulholland Drive and Shutter Island -- that of the amnesiac hero. The episode "Unforgiven" in which Sam got flashes of what he did while soulless, stylistically referenced the Christopher Nolan film Memento which used alternating black and white and colour sequences to tell the different strands of the story -- a non-liner narrative of a man with anterograde amnesia who killed a man at the beginning of the film.
Soulless Sam, to some extent, represented the part of us that doesn't want to live by the rules or worry about consequences, very much like noir protagonists ranging from the compassionless carpetbagger Harry Lime in The Third Man to the charismatic chaos-causing Tyler Durden of Fight Club.
Fight Club also featured a version of the amnesia trope and Sam this season – sans and with soul – mirrored Tyler Durden and the narrator from that film. In the finale, The Man Who Knew Too Much, there was a strong parallel to the film when Sam, like the narrator, had to kill his alter ego to survive.
In his trademark trenchcoat, Castiel came ready dressed for his role as noir hero. He represented the innocent everyman who falls victim to temptation and is corrupted (Double Indemnity, A Simple Plan). In typical noir style, we had his confessional voice-over and flashbacks to explain the truth of what had really been happening all season – albeit told from his own every subjective point of view.
Crowley was the femme fatale of the season. Cunning and manipulative, the femme fatale lures the hero into helping her and he is ruined in the process, just as Crowley metaphorically seduced Castiel, lured him away from his family and set him down the path of his downfall.
The femme fatale is willing to do anything to achieve her ends. She may not be bad but simply trying to survive. There is certainly no doubt that Crowley was evil, however he is not motivated by hate or passion. Crowley is self-serving -- the ultimate pragmatist who'll ally with anyone, and betray anyone, to get what he wants.
It's no coincidence that like many femme fatales, Crowley is extremely charismatic and overtly sexual. Since his first appearance, he has used his sexuality as a weapon and his predilection for the erotic potentialities of torture marks his sexuality as literally dangerous. One could also draw a parallel between the social transgression of the emancipated sexuality of a woman in a classic noir film of the 1940s, and that of a gay man today.
Film noir has been called the "dark night of the soul" expressed cinematically. Sam and Dean have probably had more long dark nights of the soul than most people have had hot dinners. However this season took a very specific look at what their life of hunting has cost them. Here Gamble described the parallel between the two brothers in the first half of the season:
I think that there's the literal soullessness and then there's the metaphorical soullessness.
There's what you give up to save people in this horrible way, because the job itself is hard and violent and disgusting. I mean, you just have blood in your mouth all day, every day. It's a terrible, terrible, terrible way to live. I mean, the more you actually think about what they have to do on a daily basis, the more it's like, "How much of himself did he have to turn off to be able to do that?" source
Like many noir heroes, Dean had to face a hard truth about the chasm between what he wanted and who he really is. He finally sees himself reflected in soulless Sam – "I ain't a father, I'm a killer. And there's no changing that, I know that now." (Dean in "You Can't Handle The Truth")
This doesn’t stop him wanting of course. Ultimately, Dean's decision to remove himself quite literally from their lives, to erase himself from their memories, removing even the temptation that he might one day seek out that life again in"Let It Bleed", is about Dean punishing himself as surely as if he took a blade to his wrist.
Both Samuel and Rufus are examples in their own ways of the cost of hunting on a person’s soul. In Samuel Campbell we saw a hunter who's lost sight of what's right and reasonable, willing to do anything for the person he loves. It's a road both Sam and Dean have trodden at least part of the way down. Samuel is a warning of who they could become.
Similarly, Rufus was presented as another possible future. Less treacherous than Samuel certainly, but a man isolated, unwilling to let go of past grievances. His death however provides an important moment for Dean, when he realized how much he needs to value the relationships he has:
I mean, at the end of the day, you two are family. Life's short, and ours are shorter than most. We're gonna spend it wringing our hands? Something's gonna get us eventually, and when my guts get ripped out, just so you two know, we're good. Blanket apology for all the crap that anybody's done all the way around.
You got the memo about noir being bleak didn’t you?
The hope for Dean is that in facing the bitter truth that his grandfather would sell him out to a demon, and that his fantasy of a life with Lisa and Ben is unattainable, he also comes to realize that doesn't mean abandoning his desire for family. In the end, it just turned out that his family just looked a bit different than he might've expected - "two boys, an old drunk, and a fallen angel".
Dean’s graveside epiphany ended up playing a big part in how he tried to engage with Castiel even after the revelation of his familial betrayal which is, as Ben Edlund puts it, Dean’s kryptonite.
Earlier in the season, Sam's soullness drives Dean to becomes increasingly anxious and paranoid -- noir staples. For five years, viewers have been used to tension, bickering, and angry conflict between the brothers but what we started with in Season 6 was the antithesis of this. What we saw between Sam and Dean was the absence of connection, a coldness for which we -- and Dean -- were initially given no explanation.
Dean is faced with what seems to be a terrible reality – that there is nothing supernaturally wrong with Sam, that he has simply changed and with it his relationship with Dean. For a show that spends each week with blood-thirsty monsters and evil demons, the writers of Supernatural never forget that often the most painful and the scariest things in life come in the form of our relationships.
This disconnect between the brothers was discomforting not only for Dean and the viewers, but even Jensen spoke on numerous occasions how difficult it was for him, after five years of playing Dean off Jared's Sam, to play Dean with that familiar dynamic completely absent.
Once Sam's soul was restored however, we got to see the boys picking up their relationship from where it had evolved to at the end of the previous season. We could appreciate it anew, as the first half of the season served to highlight the wonderful relationship the boys have once it returned. Absence makes the heart grow fonder and all that.
By most people's measure it's still far from normal– Lisa was pretty spot on when she called it "the most unhealthy, tangled up, crazy thing that I've ever seen" – but for Sam and Dean, they are doing pretty damn well. As Bob Singer described it:
“Dean is willing to trust him (Sam) completely. And by season’s end, they are in total lock-step with each other, saving each other’s lives and having that relationship the fans crave. source
This is just one example of how the show balanced the bleakness and pessimism of noir, with a care for the audience, ensuring we had spaces where we could reconnect with the familiar and get some light relief. We had the show’s trademark humour to slice like a flashlight through the darkness – from parodies of Twilight and The X-Files to the day in the life of Bobby, the Titanic-less AU of My Heart Will Go On the Old West antics of Frontierland and of course the meta madness of the French Mistake.
The plots of noir thrillers are often complex, even labyrinthine, and full of deception.(The Maltese Falcon, No Way Out, The Usual Suspects, The Matrix,Inception), In contrast, Supernatural traditionally has two major plot arcs covering the first and second half of the season, and there is usually one major antagonist.
Not so this year where the noir plot structure heightened the dramatic tension throughout the season with the viewer drawn through a series of mini mysteries full of twists. There was a progression of likely 'Big Bads': Samuel Campbell, the Alpha creatures, Crowley, Eve. These foes are set up and then knocked down, though they are not simply MacGuffins. They are each a legitimate antagonist in their own right, but they are also parts of a much bigger puzzle, slotting together until ultimately Castiel is revealed Keyser Söze-style to be behind it all, the puppet master of the entire season.
Noir plots rely on misdirects and shock revelations , but they are much more achievable in film than in a season of TV, especially in the age of the spoiler-drenched internet. ( read this great essay on the challenges this poses to writers). Yet the show succeeded in playing its cards close to its chest, and most of the major reveals came as a surprise to even the biggest spoiler junkie.
Most notable were two appearances of Crowley – first to disclose that he is the one manipulating Samuel Campbell in Family Matters and later in Mommie Dearest when it is shockingly revealed that he did not die at Castiel's hand, but that they are collaborators. In each instance, the plot was successfully kept a secret, as was the actor’s return to the set. In a wonderful demonstration of his appreciation of the genre, Mark Sheppard also suggested his name not be included in the opening credits so as to further enhance the surprise.
Supernatural’s look has always been tinged with a noir feel; more particularly, like noir, it has very deliberately used its visual style to reflect the textual themes. As Director of Photography Serge Ladoceur eloquently described :
Light helps to create meaning. A good script focuses on an essential conflict. As a cinematographer, I am looking for the essential light that will be the extension of that conflict and that will enable the viewer to experience it.
The cinematography this season showed a marked homage to the genre. Episodes were shot more in the stark chiaroscuro typical of noir. This high contrast between light and dark often manifested in strong backlighting to put foregrounded figures in silhouette, or a shot may be blocked so the scene, or a character's face, is half in dark shadow and half in light. More extreme angled shots (especially very high and very angle) also featured frequently this season.
In addition to the black and white scenes of the episode Unforgiven, the stark lighting and emphasis on shadow made it was almost easy to imagine the season was shot in black and white.
An icon of noir is the use of the interplay of shadows and light, and we find that in many episodes as long shadows are cast by bannisters or window shades, or light is mosaicked through metal grates or the bars of a prison cell. A great example is the light play through the blades of the fan in the cell wall in Family Matters. Director Guy Bee said in an interview that he and Serge Ladouceur deliberately blocked the shot this way in an homage to SF noir films Bladerunnerand Aliens.
Another feature of noir is the use expressionistic scenes to convey altered consciousness and this were deployed to great effect in sequences such as such as Dean's Djinn hallucinations, his fairy encounters, Sam's flashbacks and the finale when he faces his fractured subconscious.
Noir films are typically set in dark, rain drenched, broken urban environments.Supernatural is of course a show of the Mid West, set in small towns, where the feel is more rural and rustic. This season there was a marked difference -- more spaces were decayed industrial or nighttime cityscapes, full of impersonal hard, cold surfaces, enclosed and claustrophobic. There was the Campbell's compound, the classic rain-drenched alley and warehouse conversion vampire lair in "Live Free and Twihard", the two prison settings of Family Matters, and "Caged Heat", the sewers of "Like A Virgin" the basement in "You Can't Handle the Truth" and of course Crowley's torture chamber.
Noir is a style rarely done on TV – Twin Peaks, Battlestar Galactica and The Killing currently on AMC are two of the few true examples, although the influence of noir is found in series as diverse as The X-Files, Veronica Mars and Breaking Bad.
Noir is not mean to be easy viewing, and it is far from the formula of most TV series -- “easy answers, endings wrapped up in a bow...” as Gabriel said in "Changing Channels."
The anticipation of resolution, or of love or justice triumphing is subverted in noir; concepts of what is good or right or true are disrupted. The audience of noir tales, like the heroes in them, may feel discomforted, and off balance, even alienated. It is not a place all viewers will be content inhabiting.
In the sixth season of any TV series, it could be tempting for the Show to rest on its laurels, and re run tried and true formulas. "Whatever. Season Six" as the faux Bob Singer repeats with weary exasperation throughout French Mistake.
However the Supernatural writers, crew and cast have always shown a propensity to push themselves and the form, combining serious emotionally layered drama in a genre series, writing scripts that expect the audience to be as familiar with Jack Kerouac as they are with Stephen King, producing cinematic quality TV on a budget that is equivalent to two flat rocks and a piece of string. It takes what it does seriously, passionately, but also playfully.
In immersing this season in noir, the creative team at Supernatural provided fresh challenges through which to explore the characters and a season of taut suspense and surprises. It is one that will provide added reward on rewatching as character motivations, and the unfolding story are viewed with the knowledge of how they fit together.
I can't wait for my Season 6 DVDs to arrive.