Billie Bowtrunckle (bowtrunckle) wrote,
Billie Bowtrunckle

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Upending the Hunter’s Ethos: Reversed and Upside Down Shots in “Sin City” (3x04)

A little post-turkey meta. 

This is late. Sorry. Meta hasn’t been coming so easily lately, which is strange because I thought writer’s block was reserved for fiction. *doublepalmface* But because we don’t have an episode prompt entry for 3x04, I thought I should do one, and this was such a mytharc-juicy episode that it deserves to be talked about more.  Don’t twist my arm or anything. ;) So, for spnematography’s “Sin City” (3x04) episode prompt, here are some ramblings about Dean and why the “reversed” and “upside down” camera work in this episode reflects reversals in his fundamental hunting ideology. It seems that Sam somehow snuck into this meta despite the fact this wasn’t supposed to be about him. Attention hog. Heh. 
Dean and the Things He Hunts
Dean’s hunting philosophy has evolved in fits and starts since S1. His hunting beliefs have been challenged on a number of occasions, causing him to re-evaluate his assumptions about the nature of good and evil as well as those that he defends versus the “monsters” he destroys. In “Bloodlust” (2x03) Dean migrated from the black and white “If it’s supernatural we kill it. End of story. That’s our job” mindset to wondering aloud to Sam if maybe he has killed things that didn’t deserve to die. In “HotH” (2x13) Dean’s refutation of angels and God and his belief in only things he’s experienced was questioned. He saw things that couldn’t be logically explained and began to entertain the idea of divine intervention, therefore, acknowledging the possible existence of a higher power. Dean’s shifting belief system was carried through in “Sin City” when Casey!demon asked him if he believed in God and Dean answered, “I don’t know. I’d like to.” 
He’d like to.
This was very forthright and candid for a hunter who usually crams his cards so close to his chest that the closest person to him, Sam, rarely sees his hand. It was also surprising, considering he was talking to the enemy. Or was it? 
This wasn’t the first time Dean has emptied his heart to an almost stranger.  He confessed his crumbling state of mind to Gordon, a soon to be enemy, in “Bloodlust” instead of Sam despite him nagging Dean to have a Care ‘n Share session with him about John’s death. In fact, Dean seems to forge intimacy with strangers relatively quickly when under emotional duress, and rather than express his fears directly to Sam, he repeatedly puts on his game face when around him. This is a classic defense mechanism born out of the instinct to protect those who the instigator deems are under their care. Dean’s stoic facade was likely learned from John, who probably used it on Sam and Dean, one that Dean repeatedly employed with Sam in S2 and now in S3, and one that we saw Sam use with the other PsyKids in Cold Oak, South Dakota (“AHBL-1” 2x21). With the heavy emphasis on reversals so far this season, it’ll be interesting to see if Sam starts wearing his game face around Dean. But regardless, it seems like the need to protect at the expense of one’s own emotional well-being is a patented Winchester trait. Oh, boys.
So like in “Bloodlust” Dean baring bits of his soul to Casey!demon was our first clue that “Sin City” was intended to strip down Dean’s walls and allow us to get a much-needed glimpse into his head. But not only did we see his mental state, we watched him essentially get a brain swirly whereby his assertions regarding demons and evil were shaken up and left in a soggy shades-of-grey puddle on the floor. Despite Dean’s game face suggesting otherwise, this episode picked him up, tipped him upside down, and shook him to the foundations of his hunter’s creed. 
The first time Dean voiced his opinion about demons and their motivations was in “Phantom Traveler” (1x04)--also the first episode that featured demons--where he said, “They don’t want anything, just death and destruction for its own sake.” This statement held water for the following forty-three episodes. However, in “Sin City (interestingly the S3 placeholder equivalent of “Phantom Traveler”) Casey!demon appeared to be “a demon with a heart”, and Dean’s previous statements no longer seemed to fit. 
In “Sin City” Dean learned that demons are capable of having long-lived attachments to a single partner (perhaps even feeling something that could approach love?) when it was revealed that Casey!demon and Father Gil!demon have survived going to hell and back for centuries together. The demons’ actions reinforced this assertion, making it more than likely it wasn’t a lie: Father Gil!demon’s eagerness to find Casey, the fact he seemed more concerned with finding and freeing her than killing Bobby, Sam, or Dean, Casey!demon yelling for him not to step into the Devil’s Trap, as well as their ardent kiss. Interestingly, it was only after Casey!demon was freed and found to be unharmed did Father Gil!demon turn his attention to Dean.
Casey!demon also demonstrated that demons are capable of positive human emotions such as respect, admiration, and mercy. This demon respected its host and didn’t want to cause undo harm to Casey’s body, a very different approach from what Ritchie describes as typical demon protocol: “It wrecks one body, moves to another. You know, like taking a stolen car for a joyride.” Furthermore, Casey!demon voiced her respect and admiration for Dean’s choice to sacrifice his life for Sam’s, she called him “likeable”, and showed that demons are capable of mercy by asking Father Gil!demon to not to kill Dean.
But perhaps nothing upended Dean’s hunting ethos more than the discovery that some demons, like humans, believe in a higher power. In fact, Casey!demon’s words about demons having Faith in an unseen and seemingly absent god sounded eerily similar to Layla’s and Sam’s assertions about Faith and hope in “Faith” (1x12), “HotH”, and “Roadkill” (2x16).
The fact that both humans and demons are waging war in what appears to be a largely godless world and waiting for the return of their respective gods and creators creates a lovely symmetry in the SPNverse. It seems like Kripke is pushing the idea that humans and demons are not as dissimilar as previously presented; they could essentially be the opposite sides of the same coin. Dean and Casey!demon’s conversation hit home this point nicely:
“Is my kind all that different from yours?”
“Except that demons are evil.”
“And humans are such a loveable bunch.”
To bring the inversion of Dean’s previous assumptions full circle, it was no accident that the people doing evil deeds, the ones Sam and Dean believed to be possessed by demons, were nothing more than humans acting on their own free will. Reggie shot John, the man who slept with his wife, and Trotter was the financier for the bars, clubs, and casinos that were partially responsible for the town’s corruption. This reinforces the idea that, just as demons are capable of positive emotion, humans possess the same capacity for dark deeds. Once again Casey!demon acted as Kripke’s mouthpiece when she said, “All you gotta do is nudge the humans in the right direction … and they’ll walk into hell with big, fat smiles on their faces. You kind is corrupt, Dean. Weak.” Like in “Bloodlust” and “HotH”, the two other episodes where Dean’s hunting principles were overhauled, at the end of “Sin City” Dean questioned the validity of his previous assumptions.
“Do you think anything’s gonna change? Maybe these people do just really want to destroy themselves. Maybe it’s a loosing battle.”
In “The Benders” (1x15) Dean said, “Demons I get, people are crazy!” But after “Sin City” and the blurring of the line between humans and demons does Dean truly understand demons anymore?  Did he ever?
Dean and the Reversed God Shot
It’s appropriate that “reversed” and “upside down” camera shots were also featured in an episode where Dean’s fundamental beliefs were upended. The example that applies to Dean involves the components and shots surrounding the exorcism ritual. 
Before “Sin City” the demon exorcism ritual was performed five times. With the exception of “Phantom Traveler” every instance involved luring the demon into a devil’s trap and performing an exorcism by reciting the Latinate incantation. Each time the devil’s traps were painted on overhead objects and were revealed using extreme low-angle shots tilted up toward the subject.

Caps 1, 2, 3, and 4. From top to bottom: Meg in “Devil’s Trap” (1x22), the RED in “Crossroad Blues” (2x08), Sam in “BUaBS” (2x14), and the Envy!demon in “M7” (3x01). Low-angle shots like these give the impression that the subject is being dominated and overwhelmed by forces greater than themselves.  All caps from marishna.

However, in “Sin City” the devil’s trap shot sequence and its components were inverted. The devil’s trap was on the floor, not the ceiling, necessitating an overhead high-angle shot instead of the traditional exorcism low angle shot used to reveal the devil’s trap. Even though chalking a devil’s trap on the ground isn’t new (Dean sketched a trap under the Impala in “Crossroad Blues”), it’s interesting we don’t see an actual exorcism with a ground level devil’s trap, an inverse of the norm, until an episode where Dean’s fundamental beliefs about the demons he’s exorcising are also turned upside down.

Cap 5.  “Sin City” marks the debut of a new version of the devil’s trap (compare this cap with 1-4).
In line with the parallels previously discussed, the demon/human symmetry between this shot and the ones from the Pilot of Mary and Jess burning on the ceiling is interesting: two demons versus two humans (as far as we know); the floor of a cellar, the closest approximation to the depths of Hell, versus the ceiling of two second-story buildings, which lies closer to Heaven; Mary and Jess backed by yellow demon-induced flame while the demons are backed by the red blood of humans; low angle shots were used for Mary and Jess’s shots (in reality they were lying on the floor so the shots were really high angle, but lets look at the shots from the perspective in which they were meant to be viewed, not from which they were filmed) while low angle shots were employed for the demons’ shot. In all fairness Charles Beeson, the director, probably wasn’t thinking about demon/human parallels or how this shot might seem similar to the two ceiling shots in the Pilot (because how can you be insanely thinky when you have an entire episode to film in a week?). I admit that these shots are likely coincidental, but nit-picking and detailed analysis is the life force of fandom, is it not? ;)
High-angle shots are used for esthetic, technical, and/or psychological reasons. In this case, it was probably employed because there was no other way to get a complete shot of the devil’s trap, but also because high-angle shots have high dramatic impact as they’re visually distinct from the more commonly used eye-level shots. The higher angle the high-angle shot, the greater the dramatic impact. And judging by the use of a direct overhead shot (the highest high-angle shot possible), Beeson was aiming for a high visual impact shot, likely to reinforce the consequences of Sam’s itchy trigger finger. I call shots like this “God shots” (recall the last shot of “AHBL-1”) because I think they create a feeling of heavenly transcendence (I hope that doesn’t sound as pompous as it reads *gags*), which is ironic considering they’re demons. But perhaps that was the point considering one of the main themes in this episode was that demons and humans may not be so different after all.
Sam and the Upside Down Mirror Shot
Even though this meta is about Dean, I couldn’t ignore the most conspicuous shot in the entire episode, and the fact it was upside down was like a red flag flapping two inches from my nose.  So here’s a very brief discussion about Sam and his backwards dynamic with Ruby and Dean because I’m weak and can’t resist blabbing about Sam even a little bit.
In “Sin City” Sam wasn’t without his own visual clues signifying the inversion of his hunter ideology.  At the opening of Sam and Ruby’s conversation at the end of the episode, we were treated to this:

Cap 6.
This shot disorienting because it’s upside down. The diagonal lines formed by the edges of the bed, walls, and door as well as the cross-cutting lines in the mirrored ceiling injects tension and contributes to the visually disturbing nature of this shot. Even though it’s technically a low-angle shot, we’re looking down on Sam and Ruby because of the mirrors, which is a little funky and kind of cool. I suppose it could have some deep meaning about contradiction (Ruby being on the “good side” despite that she’s a demon and Sam apparently being the Anti-Christ despite that he’s on the “good side”) and illusion (Sam and Ruby playing each other to get what they want), but I don’t know … it’s all just spaztastic arm waving at this point. *shrugs* But what we do know is that this was purposefully used for an establishing shot to grab our attention and prep us for an unsettling scene. And what an unsettling scene it was. 
Sam is not only in league with a demon, but it was made perfectly clear that he believes he needs Ruby's help. He stood there, clenched his jaw, and aimed the Colt at Ruby's chest, but it was all posturing. We know, Ruby knows, and Sam knows he’s not going to kill Ruby because he has no other options but to trust her. But even more disturbing was that Sam didn’t deny he’s willing to do things that will go against his “gentle nature” in order to save Dean; things he won’t like; things that will involve “collateral damage”. This ruthless, desperate attitude is a far cry from the sensitive and empathic pre-death Sam who was overly concerned with saving as many people as possible no matter the cost and acted as Dean’s moral compass. So appropriately “Sin City” was the debut of a shoot-first-ask-questions-later Sam as he killed two demons and the humans they possessed without blinking an eye while it was Dean who yelled for him to stop. And just like this shot is upside down, we get our first glimpse of Sam and Dean’s role reversal in this episode.
Futhermore, I found it interesting that Ruby was included in this shot when it could’ve easily been just Sam throwing his bag around on the bed and angsting out. Recall that Ruby exhibited backwards/upside down behavior for a demon in this episode. She helped Bobby restore the Colt to its former demon-killing glory and then handed it over to hunters who could easily use it to kill her (Bobby or Dean). That was certainly curious behavior. It seems Sam isn’t the only one caught in what appears to be a role reversal, and it's lovely that the visual story behind the story also suggests this.

“Sin City” was full of inversions and reversals. Dean’s hunting ethos got tipped upside down and Sam behavior took a 180 degree turn. We saw Dean struggle to reconcile what he learned from Casey!demon with his years of anti-demon conditioning and his hunting mentality. We watched Sam take up arms and kill two demons and the humans they were possessing and then lay plans with a demon. And appropriately, we’re given some lovely shots that reflect the backwards nature of Sam and Dean’s mindsets, behavior, and dynamic. This episode also touched on the nature of evil in humans and the capacity of good in demons. It blurred the line dividing line between black and white and produced a huge swath of grey full of contradiction, symmetry, and lots of unanswered questions. Hopefully we’ll be getting more of this in the future because it makes for juicy meta.  :) Go demons! Go Show.
Tags: 3x04, supernatural meta
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