Arts, Reviews

Silent Sky

Silent Sky opens the 2019-20 Walterdale Playhouse season.

On Saturday, I saw the Walterdale Playhouse production of Silent Sky, written by Lauren Gunderson, about Henrietta Leavitt, the early 20th century astronomer who discovered a relationship between the brightness of a star and the intervals of its blinking. She realized this could be used to measure the distance between the Earth and the stars, and between the stars.

Henrietta worked in an all-female group (the principal investigator actually called it a “math harem”) of “computers” (a tradition that extended to the 1960s mathematicians depicted in the movie Hidden Figures) who did the grunt work of analyzing glass photographic plates made from the big observational telescope at Harvard. Women were not allowed to peer out of the telescope itself. The play depicted how much Henrietta and her colleagues loved the work, despite the small-mindedness of the male faculty.

The patriarchal establishment is represented by a fictional character named Shaw, who also serves both a love interest for Henrietta and as a metaphor for Henrietta’s complicated relationship with the research field as it was then administered. Shaw embodies the saying, “You can tell a Harvard man, but you can’t tell him much!” At one point, he asserts that there is nothing beyond than the Milky Way, despite the evidence Henrietta has amassed to indicate otherwise. He insists that science must follow a logical path, quoting Newton’s phrase, “If I have seen further it is by standing on the shoulders of Giants.”

But a narrow interpretation of the phrase does not allow for innovation, differing viewpoints, or plain luck. Happily, the play avoids reductive characterizations. While Shaw stood in for the scientific establishment, Henrietta’s fictional sister, Margaret, stood in for the small-town domestic life that Henrietta might have been expected to lead. Both Shaw and Margaret comes around to acknowledge the value of Henrietta’s grand pursuit of truth, no matter how large and how shattering it may be.

A pre-show glimpse of the stage. Set and lighting design by Beyeta Hackborn.

Although the subject of Silent Sky is scientific discovery, music has a large role in the play. It’s used as a metaphor for Henrietta’s scientific theories, and the set is ingeniously dressed in suggest both musical scales and constellations. (Hats off to Beyata Hackborn, the show’s set designer and lighting designer.)

Director Kim Mattice Wanat, founder and artistic director of Opera NUOVA, knows her way around music. She weaves the Congregationalist hymn “For the Beauty of the Earth” through out the play, pulling together all the notes and themes of the show. She also works with a wonderful cast. Lauren Hughes is bright and undaunted as Henrietta. Joy van de Ligt provided music and grounded foil as Margaret. Susanne Ritchie and Samantha Woolsey are both fun and authoritative as Henrietta’s non-fiction “harem” mates, Wiliamina Fleming (who discovered the first white dwarf star) and Annie Jump Cannon (who created a classification system of the stars and became a leader of the suffragette movement). Matt Mihilewicz brought physical humour and a believable change in sensibility as Shaw.

I saw the show with three physicists, including one astronomer. The production impressed us all. Four stars for Silent Sky!

Silent Sky is at the Walterdale Theatre until October 12.
http://walterdaletheatre.com/the-2019-20-season/silent-sky/

Reviews

Every Episode of Supernatural Ranked: 1.10 Asylum

Kat and Gavin, perfectly freaked out.

THEN

Haunted asylum is haunted!

But it’s not that simple. The ghosts of patients at an abandoned asylum look scary, but they aren’t the real culprits. The ghost of a psychologist named Ellicott who used anger-inducing therapy on them is stoking murderous rages in living trespassers.

The first victim we follow is a cop who had been called about a disturbance at the place. After he goes home, his amplified rage leads him to shoot his wife and then himself. The next victim is Sam.

NOW

This episode seamlessly combined a compelling horror story with developments in the brothers’ relationships. Sam and Dean get a mysterious text, purportedly from their father. Dean is convinced his dad sent the message and that it’s either a clue to his whereabouts, or coordinates pointing the boys to a job that needs doing. Sam is more skeptical. He actually harbours a lot of anger toward his father, some to Dean, and probably a lot to his circumstances overall. When Ellicott’s methods affect Sam, he accuses Dean of mindlessly following their father’s orders and is prepared to kill Dean. Luckily, Dean is the furthest thing from being mindless, and made sure Sam did not have access to a loaded weapon. He also finds and destroys Ellicott’s ghost.

The interpersonal dynamic between the brothers and their absent father is very well depicted. Given Sam’s animosity to his father, and Dean’s contrasting devotion to the same man, it’s both surprising and heartbreaking when, in the last scene, the brother who receives the call from John is Sam.

NOTES

I’d forgotten house very creepy this episode is! Do not watch late at night on your own! Or, do, and be prepared to get the bejesus scared out of you. Kudos to the show’s special effects and make-up effects teams, and to director Guy Norman Bee, who would return to the show in season 6 and go on to direct 10 very memorable episodes of Supernatural.

Also great in this episode are the actors who play the trespassing teens who Sam and Dean save from the asylum. Brooke Nevin and Nicholas D’Agosto have both gone on to amass a ton of acting credits since. D’Agosto in particular cracked me up with this bit of dialogue as his character, Gavin, describes an encounter with a ghost:

GAVIN
There was…there was this girl. Her face. It was all messed up.

SAM
Okay listen, did this girl… did she try and hurt you?

GAVIN
What? No, she…uh…

SAM
She what?

GAVIN
She…kissed me.

SAM
Uh…um…but…but she didn’t hurt you, physically?

GAVIN
Dude! She kissed me. I’m scarred for life!

Transcript via the Supernatural Wiki

RANKINGS

  1. Episode 1.01 “Pilot”
  2. Episode 1.06: “Skin”
  3. Episode 1.03 “Dead in the Water”
  4. Episode 1.10 “Asylum”
  5. Episode 1.09 “Home”
  6. Episode 1.08 “Bugs”
  7. Episode 1.04 “Phantom Traveler”
  8. Episode 1.07 “Hook Man”
  9. Episode 1.05 “Bloody Mary”
  10. Episode 1.02 “Wendigo”

Reviews

Every Episode of Supernatural Ranked: 1.09 Home

When they assume you have happy memories of the house where your mom was killed by a demon.

THEN

Sam has nightmare that the new owner of their parents’ house is in danger. The new owner is a single mother named Jenny, whose two young children have experienced supernatural phenomenon since moving into the house. Having found a trove of Winchester family photos, she lets Sam and Dean into the house for coffee, but says any strange happenings must be due to the house being old, or her daughter’s over-active imagination.

The boys consult with an old contact of their father’s, a psychic named Missouri Mosley. Missouri says the evil that had visited the house has attracted multiple malignant spirits. The boys expel a poltergeist, but a second poltergeist comes for Jenny’s family, and nearly kills Sam. He’s saved by another spirit: the ghost of Mary Winchester.

NOW

In this episode, Sam and Dean prove that you can go home, but you have to face demons of the past when you get there.

The opening scene where Jenny’s daughter is afraid of the monster in the closet dramatizes a phrase that’s come up a couple of times on the show: there is literally a monster in the closet of the little girl’s room! This is what Sam and Dean were brought up to fight.

Sam finally learns that Dean had carried him out of the house after the fire started all those years ago (later in the episode, Dean would tell Sam to carry Jenny’s children out of the burning house to safety). Apparently, the Winchesters never spoke about that night in detail. The scene tells us a few things. One, Dean and John protected Sam from the details of that night even after Sam was old enough to go to college. Two, Sam’s questions as an adult prompts Dean, a man of action, to reflect on his own life and choices.

After that conversation, Dean sneaks off to leave a voice message for his father. It seems he’s been calling John this whole time, despite not receiving any response. He also shows vulnerability that he hides from Sam, as he’s pretty much in tears when he says to his non-answering father, “I need your help, dad.” It’s Dean’s version of prayer.

Sam and Dean create a plan and a ruse for approaching the new homeowner, but when she opens the door, Sam pretty much blurts out that they grew up in the house and just want to see it. He jumps the gun for a couple of reasons. First, he’s seen her in his nightmares, and he urgently wants to help, so he can’t help but drop the pretenses. Second, he had embedded himself with the normies who should never have to worry about the supernatural. The scene reflects his ease at speaking to them at their level.

Interestingly, Jenny has a bit of a mysterious past that she’s breaking away from. She glosses over her reasons for moving to Kansas, saying, “I just, uh….needed a fresh start, that’s all.” She’s obviously haunted by some kind of regret or past action, so she might be thinking about how she can’t escape her past. I like the way the episode leaves that story open for viewers to fill in.

The episode was legitimately mysterious: I never counted on the multiple spirits thing! It also had a real horror movie scene which ended in bloodily for the plumber who was trying to work while a cymbal-clashing toy monkey was clanging away. Working people can’t get a break on this show!

I remember being surprised by Mary’s appearance. I just did not expect to see her again. What she said to Sam was more surprising: “I’m sorry.” I’m sure at the time, I thought she was just expressing sympathy in the wake of Jessica’s death, but Season 4 revealed how Mary’s dealings with the very demon who killed her affected Sam’s life.

The end of the episode reveals that John Winchester was there the whole time. Missouri wonders why Sam, who is manifesting psychic abilities, couldn’t sense John’s presence. At that point, Sam seemed to be able to sense the activity of spirits, but not living people. He also has a big, rationalizing mind, so believing that John is missing, Sam did not suspect that this father was hiding behind the proverbial curtains.

NOTES

Dean’s face when Jenny says, “I’m sure you had lots of happy memories here”! Genius expression from Jensen Ackles, genius edit by David Ekstrom.

RANKINGS

  1. Episode 1.01 “Pilot”
  2. Episode 1.06: “Skin”
  3. Episode 1.03 “Dead in the Water”
  4. Episode 1.09 “Home”
  5. Episode 1.08 “Bugs”
  6. Episode 1.04 “Phantom Traveler”
  7. Episode 1.07 “Hook Man”
  8. Episode 1.05 “Bloody Mary”
  9. Episode 1.02 “Wendigo”
Reviews

Every Episode of Supernatural Ranked: 1.08 Bugs

Honeys

THEN

Mysterious bug infestations are killing workers in a new suburban housing development. Sam and Dean find a skull on the grounds and learn from an indigenous elder that the community was built on the site of an “Indian burial ground”and the spirits are angry.

NOW

This episode is about aspiration and duty, and what happens when the twain don’t mix. After Dean hustles some locals at pool, Sam draws hard lines between honest work and dishonest work. Dean just wants to do what’s “easy and fun.” They flesh out their differences as they arrive in the suburbs. Dean says he’d sooner die than live in suburbia (making his post-apocalypse choices in Season 5 ironic), while Sam says there’s nothing wrong with “normal”. The debate continues in proxy form later in the episode when Sam tells the real estate developer’s weird, insect-obsessed emo kid that things will get better in college, where he will be free of family expectations. Dean’s counterpoint is to stress the importance of fulfilling family obligations.

The Winchester family values include hunting things to save people. Dean has long carried out what he believes is the necessary violence to keep the supernatural at bay, but Sam has yet to acknowledge that establishing or achieving “normal” can also be violent. How appropriate is it for colonizers to make money off land stolen from indigenous people? The episode’s answer is that it was never appropriate, and never will be.

After a final confrontation with a house full of bees (yes, actual bees were used in the filming of the episode!), Sam and Dean check back with the developer and his family (white neo-settlers, when you think about it). He says the development is on hold while the government studies the burial plot. Remarkably to Sam and Dean, the developer seems to shrug off the delay, saying that the project was the biggest financial disaster of his career. It’s interesting that he didn’t say that it was the biggest financial disaster of his life. It was healthy of him to separate his life from his career, and that he’s not bitter about the financial bath, not when he has what he values most: his family.

It was easy for the developer to talk away sanguinely, but the first victim, gas company worker who could never afford to live in the development, is not coming back. Neither is the second victim, a realtor who was selling homes for the developer. The curse worked from the bottom of the hierarchy, and failed to defeat the most privileged person on the grounds.

The Winchesters never do go back to check on the elder. That part of the story is mired in “magical Indian” tropes. It would have been interesting. He can’t walk away from the history that has left his people dead or displaced. Even if he subscribed to the same notions of ownership as the developer, the elder can’t just take back the land, nor the land does the land return to the indigenous people of the area.

The societal issues brought up in the episode aren’t fully resolved, but there’s enough there to be interesting.

NOTES

Apparently, filming the episode was a nightmare, especially when they brought live bees to the set. The payoff wasn’t great, though: a swarm of bees might be terrifying in person, but it’s not much to look at on screen. For this reason, Eric Kripke has gone on record as saying “Bugs” is the worst episode of Supernatural.

It actually contains dialogue that has fascinated fandom for 14 years. We learn details about the argument that ended Sam’s relationship with his father; Sam and Dean’s differing perceptions of what John thinks about Sam; John’s habit of checking in on Sam at Stanford. The exact moment of Sam’s argument with John has never been depicted on screen, although it has been talked about endlessly by Dean and Sam, and, later, time-travelling John. Every account makes clear that the teller is giving a heavily subjective account. This has given fanfiction writers a lot of leeway to construct the moment and what each character could have been thinking or feeling at the time.

Meanwhile, jokes abound as the developer and the real estate agent assume that Sam and Dean are a gay couple. Separately, Sam ribs Dean about watching Oprah, and Dean likens Sam’s role in the family to “the blond chick in the Munsters”. The show’s open acknowledgement of how Sam and Dean look like a couple and how they embody noth feminine and masculine complicate the characters’ gender and sexuality, launching thousands of pieces of fanfiction and analytic meta (essays).

Rewatching the episode, I wanted to write an essay about practically every scene. It’s not polished, but it is fascinating. “Bugs” is not the worst episode of Supernatural, not by a long shot.

RANKINGS

  1. Episode 1.01 “Pilot”
  2. Episode 1.06: “Skin”
  3. Episode 1.03 “Dead in the Water”
  4. Episode 1.08 “Bugs”
  5. Episode 1.04 “Phantom Traveler”
  6. Episode 1.07 “Hook Man”
  7. Episode 1.05 “Bloody Mary”
  8. Episode 1.02 “Wendigo”
Reviews

Every Episode of Supernatural Ranked: 1.07 Hook Man

Lori and Sam bond as victims of supernatural incidents.

THEN

“Hook Man” is one of the nice and tidy Monster-of-the-Week (MOTW) episodes which were common in the early seasons of Supernatural. It was moody, had some decent scares, and played out like late-1990s, early 2000s horror movies like Urban Legend.

NOW

Supernatural MOTW episodes typically featured a character note for one of the two brothers. In “Dead in the Water”, we learned about Dean’s rapport with children. In “Hook Man”, Sam strikes a chord with the witness-of-the-week, Lori. Lori was with her boyfriend when he was killed in a manner consistent with the Hook Man legend. Sam, son of a demon-hunting fanatic, just recently witnessed his girlfriend’s murder by a demon. Lori makes a move on Sam, but he resists, saying it’s too soon after Jess.

Dean teases Sam about his rapport with Lori. It’s partly his way of encouraging Sam to get over Jess, but it’s bigger than that. The difference between the two brothers would not be fully realized until Season 4, when we learn about Mary’s deal with the demon.

Sam sees himself as the victim of a supernatural crime that’s interrupted the new life he made for himself. Dean has long accepted that his life was defined by supernatural interference. He’s devoted his life to helping his father hunt down the demon who killed Mary, and to stop other supernatural interference along the way.

Looking back, a big part of Sam’s seasons-long story arc is about how he comes to grips with the fact that he’s not the victim of the supernatural, but a product of it.

RANKINGS

  1. Episode 1.01 “Pilot”
  2. Episode 1.06: “Skin”
  3. Episode 1.03 “Dead in the Water”
  4. Episode 1.07 “Hook Man”
  5. Episode 1.04 “Phantom Traveler”
  6. Episode 1.05 “Bloody Mary”
  7. Episode 1.02 “Wendigo”
Reviews

Every Episode of Supernatural Ranked: 1.06 Skin

Not Dean

THEN

This episode stood out as a very creepy crossover homage to low-budge 70s slasher and biker films. It even starts with “In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida” by Iron Butterfly. By the end of the teaser, we’re grossed out by the sight of a bloodied and beaten woman tied to a chair and a fleeing suspect who turns when the cops tells him to stop and reveals himself to be Dean Winchester.

Of course, we don’t expect the star of the show to be a sadist, but, only six episodes in, we don’t know Dean that well, we don’t know anything about the woman, and no one knows about shapeshifters yet. It’s an intense moment of viewer uncertainty that can’t be replicated in later episodes.

NOW

After the opening credits, the show begins in earnest by starting the action one week earlier. Watching this more or less immediately after “Bloody Mary”, it seems Sam pulled back again after seeing the apparition of Jess. He’s constantly on his phone, checking messages from his friends. Dean teases him, which allows the show to highlight the difference between the introspective-yet-social Sam, and the extroverted-yet-loner Dean.

The shapeshifter’s psychic connection to the people they imitate give us more insight into Dean and why he’d never do what we saw in the teaser. (He may be violent, but he’s not a sociopath.) The scene where the shapeshifter takes off Dean’s skin is one of the grossest in the series’ history. Thanks, John Shiban (the episode writer) and Robert Duncan McNeill (the episode director)!

This episode is the first in which viewers see a shapeshifter, and it’s also a first for Sam and Dean. Shapeshifters were obscure lore to them. I miss the days when they were discovering stories were true. That said, shapeshifters as a species have undergone an impressive narrative arc over the 14-year span of Supernatural. They’ve gone from being fiction to Sam and Dean to being sociopathic menaces (in “Skin”), to being kind of sad (in “4.05 Monster Movie”), to almost getting their own spin-off (9.20 “Bloodlines) to actually being helpful (Mia in 13.04 “The Big Empty”).

The episode ends with Dean saying that he wanted Sam to go back to being “Joe College”, but Sam admitting that he never really fit with the posh crowd at Stanford. And so, Sam and Dean both feel like metaphorical freaks, in contrast to the actual shape-shifting freak they just defeated.

NOTES

The original music for this episode was Grade A (including Lynard Skynard, Filter, and Free), while the Netflix substitutes were pale in comparison. The Supernatural Wiki was not able to identify the Netflix substitution for the last song. Does anyone know it?

RANKINGS

1. Episode 1.01 “Pilot”

2. Episode 1.06: “Skin”

3. Episode 1.03 “Dead in the Water”

4. Episode 1.04 “Phantom Traveler”

5. Episode 1.05 “Bloody Mary”

6. Episode 1.02 “Wendigo”

Reviews

Every Episode of Supernatural Ranked: 1.05 Blood Mary

Comforting words from Sam.

THEN

“Bloody Mary” succeeded in freaking me out when I first saw it. Perhaps because of that, I unintentionally missed it during my first all-season rewatch of Supernatural in late 2008, when the show was only 4.5 seasons old. Months later, I was dealing with the disappearance and suspected suicide (since confirmed) of a friend. I decided take my mind off things by completing my rewatch with “Bloody Mary”. The episode was as scary as I had remembered, but what really got to me was Sam’s words to a woman who had been blaming herself for her boyfriend’s death: “You really should try to forgive yourself. You probably couldn’t have stopped it. Sometimes bad things happen.” It felt like Sam was speaking directly to me! I knew that I would probably always have complicated feelings about my friend’s fate, but at the end of a traumatizing day, Sam’s words were a comfort.

NOW

I’ve seen this episode so many times now, the scare has gone out of it for me, but I still admire the episode’s homage to Japanese horror movies like Ringu.

Rewatching the episode this time around, I paid a lot of attention to the “rules” of the haunting, and so did the episode. I now understand why some people don’t like the episode: it really does get spend a lot of time explaining the rules. But the rules made sense. Anyone can look into a mirror and manifest Bloody Mary by saying her name three times, but Bloody Mary will haunt whoever in the vicinity has been keeping a secret about their role in someone else’s death. She seems to ease up when someone confesses their secret.

So when Donna says “Bloody Mary” three times, the ghost goes after the friend standing next to her, Charlie. Bloody Mary chases Charlie around campus. She finds Sam and Dean and tells them that she felt responsible for her boyfriend’s suicide. After that, Bloody Mary leaves her alone. Later, when Sam calls for Bloody Mary, he gets a Bloody Sam reflection that blames him for Jess’s death. Sam’s eyes start to bleed, and Bloody Mary goes after for him. Coming to Sam’s rescue, Dean’s eyes also start to bleed.

For years, fans wondered why Dean’s eyes were bloody. What deadly secret was he hiding? It’s never addressed explicitly in the episode or any subsequent episodes in the series. But knowing only what we know of the first four episodes of Supernatural, I’m satisfied with concluding that Dean’s eyes bleed because he doesn’t feel like he’s done enough to protect his family. I do like the more dramatic theory posited by Dean-girlx on Fanpop that Dean specifically felt guilty about not acting fast enough years earlier to stop the Shtriga, as revealed in episode 1.18, “Something Wicked”.

However, I’m now conflicted about how I felt about Sam’s reaction to seeing an apparition of Jess in the final scene. After solving the case, Sam tells Dean that he’s made peace with Jess’s death, but then he sees her standing on a street corner. Sam reacts with distress, but doesn’t tell Dean. So was the show trying close the door on Sam’s guilt? Was it opening new lines of guilt? Was it saying that Sam would always have to live with complicated feelings about his role (or non-role) in Jess’s death? “Bloody Mary” ended with a lot of conflicting emotions. Maybe that’s just true to life.

NOTES

Recently, Jared Padalecki said one of his favourite sound cues was “Laugh, I Nearly Died” by The Rolling Stones, which played when Sam sees “Jess” again. The original music appears on the DVD, but not on Netflix because the music licensing agreements did not cover streaming. The two song lists are included in the Supernatural Wiki’s episode recap for “Bloody Mary” and other Season 1 episodes.

RANKING

  1. Episode 1.01 “Pilot”
  2. Episode 1.03 “Dead in the Water”
  3. Episode 1.04 “Phantom Traveler”
  4. Episode 1.05 “Bloody Mary”
  5. Episode 1.02 “Wendigo”