I got something like 12 or 13 messages in my inbox this morning asking me to explain why I loved last night’s episode so much, because many readers just didn’t get all the fuss. Okay, I’ll do my best, but keep in mind that there’s no way I could sum up everything I felt about “Bitten” or any episode just 12 hours after watching it, and that these are initial reactions only, subject to change or be amended in the future:
Generally fiction falls into one of two narrative camps: ordinary people thrust into extraordinary circumstances, or extraordinary people thrust into ordinary circumstances.
Horror tends to feature the former. You know the drill. A father and son chased by ravenous zombies. Teenage girls at sleepover attacked by murderous madman. Workers on an oil rig picked off one by one by a weird creature. In all these stories, mundane people living mundane lives encounter something so much greater than themselves – only to discover that it wants to destroy them. And we love these stories, we find catharsis in them, because these otherwise mundane people don’t back down; they instead rise to the occasion and save themselves. In stories like this, it doesn’t matter if you’re a cheerleader or a tax accountant or a bag boy at a grocery store; you can still save yourself, and maybe even the world. Horror makes heroes of us all.
That’s what typified the first three seasons of Supernatural for me – ordinary people becoming their own heroes. This otherwise normal family, the Winchesters, had been thrust into extraordinary circumstances, and come out the other side, and therefore their job wasn’t just to save people, but to encourage or inspire those people to save themselves. In “Asylum”, Kat learns she doesn’t need her worthless boyfriend. In “Dead in the Water”, Lucas learns to accept the loss of his father and open up once more. Even in “Ghostfacers”, Ed steps out of the circle and sends Corbett to his peaceful rest, and thus saves them all.
What I loved about “Bitten” was that it returned to this premise of normal meets abnormal in Brian, Michael and Katy — three beautiful kids, with normal lives and loves and aspirations and frustrations, the best of friends, an inseparable set. I’ve seen several people write lovely meta already about how Brian, Michael and Katy were parallels for Sam, Dean and Cas, and maybe they are, but I loved these kids not as proxies for my favorite characters but as characters in their own right. Brian, the moviemaker without a message, with too much ambition and not enough direction; Michael, the confident if self-absorbed slacker who doesn’t always understand what’s going on, but tries to ride it out anyway; Katy, the anchor, the one who keeps them grounded and focused and controlled. So much genuine love and care among them, and yet so much tension too: Brian in love with Katy in love with Michael in love with himself – it’s like a college AU of Sartre’s “No Exit”.
Hell, I could go on and on and on about the literary references in this episode, but this episode isn’t great because it references Lord of the Flies or Twelfth Night. It’s great because three ordinary kids found themselves in extraordinary circumstances; they looked too long and too deeply into the abyss, and the abyss looked back.
Each of the kids are victims and monsters; made victim by unfortunate circumstance and made monster by their own choices. Michael is presented as the monster-turned-victim: When we first meet him, he’s kind of careless with Brian’s feelings and steals the girl he likes, making him a monster. Then of course he is bitten, and he becomes the victim. In comparison, Brian is presented as the victim-turned-monster: When we first meet him, he’s the Nice Guy whose best friend steals the girl he likes by lying about a love of cameras, making Brian a victim (at least in his own head). Then of course Brian forces the bite, and he becomes the monster.
Only Katy is neither victim nor monster, or, rather, she is always presented as both in equal parts. Michael lies to her about liking cameras (victim), and she chooses not to care so that she can get a piece of hot ass (monster). She is bitten against her will (victim), but uses the opportunity to avenge Michael’s death (monster). She takes her victimizations and makes them work for her, meaning Katy is neither victim nor monster — she is a survivor. And that’s why she’s the only one that comes out this ordeal alive, if not unscathed.
Thus “Bitten” leaves us wondering how innate monstrosity really is. Is it fair to say that Brian always was a monster? Or Michael always the victim? Or vice versa? How much of being a monster is really just a reaction to victimization? And to what extent can we control our reaction to victimization, and prevent ourselves from becoming monsters too? How do we survive?
That hits the core of why Dean lets Katy go in the end, I think (which, btw, isn’t character growth as much as a complete character reversal; I’m surprised more people aren’t up in arms about this. Just last season Dean killed Amy Pond because, basically, “once a monster, always a monster” – and he’s always been very consistent about this point. That he’s suddenly not behaving that way means something really, really huge happened to him down in Purgatory, something that probably isn’t all that good.) It’s not just that Dean has learned to be more sympathetic with monsters. It’s that he has learned that “monster” is a set of choices, not a state of being.
I realize I’m sort of just rambling here, and I’m sure I’ll be meta-ing more on “Bitten” in the future, but I had to get this stuff out, because I just loved this episode so much: it’s everything I loved about “Heart” and “Ghostfacers” and “Dead in the Water” and the rest of the early season episodes, but packaged with late-season context and meaning. It’s no secret I’ve felt fairly lackluster about the past two episodes, but this one was just so good, so very, very good; I mean, episodes like this are why I fell in love with Supernatural in the first place.