By Paula R. Stiles
Recap: Recap (to the tune of original show soundtrack “The Meatsuit Mambo”, which I do like and is very Rite of Spring creepy, but I guess getting Celine Dion last week bankrupted the budget too much for a rock song like “Desperado”) of Samuel Colt’s enormous devil’s trap from “All Hell Breaks Loose, Part 2”, Dean’s first trip back in time in “In the Beginning”, Rufus’ death in “And Then There Were None”, and the Greatest Hits so far (which ain’t much) of the Mother of All. Note the conspicuous absence of John’s “They say this gun can kill anything” speech from “Dead Man’s Blood”, though the Colt is most definitely mentioned and shown.
Cut to Sunrise, Wyoming on March 5, 1861. One minute before noon, in fact. It’s a shootout between two men in dusters. We don’t know one of them, but the sheriff in spurs? That’s Dean Winchester. They square off and draw on each other.
Cue a brand-new, western-themed title card of the Supernatural logo coming out of a burning map of Ye Olde Wyoming, before it all explodes in the season’s signature exploding glass.
Cut to “48 hours earlier (and 150 years later)”. No, really, that’s what subtitles say. It’s daytime at the Campbell Quonset Hut and Sam is telling Bobby and Dean that he’s sure he can find something. He discovers a secret trapdoor in the floor and lifts it up (while Dean warily goes for his gun, in case anything is lurking). “Welcome to the Campbell Family Library,” Sam says, as they descend into a small archival room. Dean examines a wall of old photographs and daguerrotypes of Campbells past (as well as the odd church, mummy and mandible). Not everyone in them is necessarily white/European.
These scenes are always little jarring. The brothers are the most obvious (and only) heirs to the Campbell heritage. So, it makes sense that they would go through it and use it, as they have things they have come by far less honestly. On the other hand, they were twice (maybe three times, if you count “In the Beginning”) estranged from their mother’s family and, in the last family reunion, Dean killed their one remaining cousin (after finishing off another one in a previous episode) and Sam killed their own grandpa. So, this scene feels as much like going through the spoils of war as inheriting the family compound.
They are there to do research on anything Samuel might have known (besides what he teased just before he died) about the Mother – specifically, how to kill her. Yes, I know this is probably something that should have been introduced much sooner (as in, half a season ago), but as long as I don’t have to hear about Sam’s tortured, wondrous soul, anymore, whatever. Plot movement we are getting. Thumbs up on that.
The three of them proceed to engage in serious research, which is ridiculously hot (Yes, I find attractive, educated men researching esoteric knowledge hot. Sue me). Also very hard on the eyes, but they’ve all been resurrected recently, so what the hell. Bobby finds something first, that “the ashes of the Phoenix can burn the Mother,” but he’d always thought the Phoenix was a “myth”. So, the next task is finding a phoenix. Dean pulls this one off when he discovers a very special book that talks about a phoenix that was killed back in 1861. In an entry set in Wyoming territory, the book states, “Gun killed a phoenix today. Left a pile of smoldering ash.” The book is Samuel Colt’s journal (Journals are like hunters’ grimoires in this show). Dean is all perky about this, but won’t share it with Sam when Sam wants to have a look. Still, there’s a problem because the phoenix in question has been dead and gone for a century and a half. Dean doesn’t see this as a problem, necessarily, though, when they’ve traveled through time before. He gets up and prays to Castiel.
A glitch occurs when the angel who arrives is a blonde woman named ‘Rachel’ and not Castiel. When the brothers ask where their friend is, she announces that Castiel is leading an angelic army in battle and goes off on an extended rant about how the brothers are ungrateful bastards (or she could just mean Dean), take Castiel for granted and she’s his one, true friend. Yeah, ’cause she was around last season when the brothers took Castiel in after Heaven blasted him to smithereens and no one else would have him, Dean acted as his “bullet shield” when Castiel went hunting Raphael, and the brothers worked with him to kill Apocalypse figures like the Horsemen and the Whore of Babylon. No need to thank them for that. Oh, wait, she wasn’t. Maybe she should be thanking them.
In the middle of her “entitled” rant (Yet another female character introduced via bitchery. Classy, show), Castiel appears and abruptly dismisses her. She doesn’t look very happy about it, but goes. Castiel identifies her as his “lieutenant” then moves quickly on to what the brothers want. While Dean goes shopping at “Wally’s Western World”, Castiel tells Sam that he can send them back but only for 24 hours. He claims it can be explained via “differential equations”, but Bobby doubts that any calculus is really necessary. I do, too, as I doubt the writers have the necessary knowledge of math to explain how temporal mechanics fit into a dark fantasy world, anyway.
Dean returns with “authentic” western gear (which looks far more like John Travolta’s get-up in Urban Cowboy) so that the brothers can “blend in”. Sam refuses to wear more than the shirt, claiming that Dean has gone a little nutty over this hunt due to his “fetish” for westerns. In fact, Dean’s seen every Clint Eastwood film, ever, even “the monkey ones” (Every Which Way But Loose, etc.). After some back-and-forth at Dean’s expense (which Dean cheerfully ignores), Castiel sends them back to 1861 and Sam promptly steps in some horseshit.
They arrive in historical Sunrise, Wyoming in time to witness the hanging of Elias Finch (note the surname), who allegedly killed his own wife. The looks exchanged by the Judge, Sheriff and Deputy (who pulls the trapdoor) indicate they know some things they aren’t telling. Still, Sam figures the Sheriff might know where to find Samuel Colt. Before they go find him, though, one gnarled old goat snarks about Dean’s “blanket” and Dean tears it off and throws it down, humiliated. Yeah…’cause folks in the Old West had a refined fashion sense and it’s wise not to wear warm gear during winter time in Wyoming, just because some old fart laughed at your “blanket” and then probably snagged it after you dropped it. And Sam’s thin corduroy jacket doesn’t look like Hypothermia City, at all. Hmmm.
The brothers enter the Sheriff’s office and talk to him. Dean introduces himself as “Marshal Eastwood” and Sam as “Walker…Texas Ranger” (an obvious shout-out to Jensen Ackles’ father, who guest-starred on that show). The Judge and Sheriff remark a few times on how “clean” the brothers look and act as if this is a sissy thing, without wondering how anybody could get as far as the Wyoming territory (which did not, in fact, exist yet and was still in the Nebraska Territory) like that. It kind of makes the Judge and Sheriff look dumb and the usage is anachronistic. Eastern “dude” tourism didn’t appear until well after the Civil War (which wouldn’t start for another month in this timeline) and many “genteel” men of the time who were also stone cold killers quite liked to dress spiffy. If there was one rule for etiquette in the Old West, it would be: “Don’t needlessly insult armed men unless you want to die young.”
The Sheriff suggests the brothers talk to “Elkins” (Yes, as in the ancestor of the certain vampire hunter over a century later), who owns the saloon. To Dean’s dismay, the saloon is not nearly as romantic as the movies make it, with the whiskey like “gasoline” and the “saloon girls” looking especially sleazy and diseased. When one such gal, Darla (with an open sore on her mouth), corners Dean, it’s all he can do to get away. Which is too bad for him, because he’s as much a chick magnet (or is that “posse magnet”?) in 1861 as in 2011/12.
Elkins is a sarcastic and infodumpy fount of information, but the info is a bit dismaying. Colt hasn’t ridden through town in four years, being occupied with building railways to nowhere (“The devil’s gate,” Sam correctly guesses). While the brothers are figuring out what to do (and Dean is fending off the aforementioned Darla), the Judge shows up and calls Darla off for a prior engagement. Rather reluctantly, she goes upstairs with the Judge, though not without a parting wink to Dean. However, their business transaction (so to speak) is interrupted when Finch, the hanged man, appears in the room very much alive and burns the Judge to cinders. Hmmm.
After the brothers rush upstairs in answer to Darla’s screams for help (She is left unharmed) and the Sheriff arrives, the Sheriff says they’ll need to get together a posse. Dean is enthusiastic about this, but with their 24-hour deadline, he and Sam need to split up and prioritize, especially once they visit the cemetery after dark and find Finch’s coffin broken out of. They put two and two together to figure out he’s the Phoenix. So, Dean sends Sam off on a horse (which Sam does not really know how to ride) to bring back Samuel Colt, while Dean stays back to stall Finch. Dean gets in an extremely dirty, extended pun on the word “posse” during the graveyard scene that appears to have been at least partially ad-libbed, if Ackles’ barely restrained amusement is any indication. We then get to see Dean calm the horse Sam has to ride (on which Sam looks absolutely huge: “Poor horse,” indeed). These things are perhaps a bit outside of character, but they’re still fun. Even if the show misses the opportunity to show Ackles (who certainly knows his way around a pony) riding.
Meanwhile, the Sheriff is saddling up (for the posse or to run away isn’t clear) when Finch scares off the horse and attacks the Sheriff. The Sheriff shoots him a few times (which doesn’t work) then vaguely apologizes and begs for mercy (which also doesn’t work). He ends up torched like the Judge.
Back in the present, Castiel is standing in a warehouse when Rachel flies in. He realizes that she “summoned” him. She asks him if the things she’s been hearing about him are true, his “dirty little secret” in particular. He protests that he didn’t have any choice if he wants to defeat Raphael, but his silence to her other questions confirms her suspicions. She attacks him, stabbing him with an angel blade to the chest, though not quite deep enough. A vicious fight ensues between her and the wounded Castiel. He finally gets the drop on her (being, no doubt at this point, the more experienced fighter) and stabs her in the chest, killing her. Horrified and remorseful, Castiel says, “I’m sorry.”
Then he flies back to Bobby’s, where he uses his own blood to make a warding sigil (which is somewhat different from the banishing one. Dean will be so curious when he gets back) and passes out in Bobby’s arms.
In the past, Dean has taken the Sheriff’s advice and changed clothes to a duster and spurs. Darla smiles at him nervously as he enters the saloon. Dean is very proud of his new wardrobe, even if Elkins isn’t so impressed, mocking Dean’s willingness to show up for a posse to “chase after a ghost”. But Dean has another reality check when someone outside discovers the Sheriff’s body and, when Dean asks Elkins who the new Sheriff is now, Elkins picks up the dead Sheriff’s old badge, rubs it off with his bar rag and pins it on Dean.
In a cabin in the woods, Samuel Colt is drinking good whiskey and writing in his journal when he’s visited by two men who show him black eyes – demons. Colt is weary and just wants to be left alone, so he gives them a chance to walk away. They aren’t interested and start threatening him. They know about the devil’s gate and they want him to open it. Instead, he shoots them with the gun that will in future bear his name – the Colt – regretting the loss of his bottle of whiskey (Old Battler) smashed on the ground.
In Sunrise, the Deputy is packing in an upstairs room when someone knocks on the door with a gun. He asks who it is and gets the falsetto answer: “Candygram for Mongo.” When he opens the door, it’s Dean (Ackles does a pitch-perfect imitation of Cleavon Little’s delivery of that line from Blazing Saddles), who then cracks John Wayne: “Howdy, Pilgrim.” Dean and the Deputy talk over their guns until Dean defuses the Mexican standoff by revealing he’s the guy’s new boss. He also points out that two of the men Finch swore revenge on are dead and the Deputy is the third. If the Deputy runs, Finch will only find him. So, Dean suggests the Deputy act as bait and draw out Finch so they can kill him.
Sam arrives around nine am at Colt’s cabin, just as Colt is returning from burying the two demons’ hosts out back. Sam gets splashed with holy water by the man himself, but protests he’s a hunter not a demon. Through a combination of straight-up honesty about being from the future, giving Colt his Blackberry and also showing him his 1861 journal, Sam convinces Colt that he is who he claims to be. But Colt is not interested in going off to kill some new monster he thought was only a legend. Running out of time, Sam suggests that Colt at least loan him the gun so he can bring it back and kill Finch, himself. Colt insists he’s retired and acts coy about knowing about any gun. Sam notes that he smells sulfur and saw two sets of tracks coming up to the cabin that didn’t leave, so Colt must have killed two demons recently. Colt is impressed in spite of himself, but still balks, saying the gun is “a curse” and that Sam doesn’t have enough “mileage” on him yet to handle the responsibility. Sam shrugs this off, saying he has more than enough mileage to fit the bill, and insists that he can handle it (which, considering he and Dean owned the thing until very recently, should be true).
In the present, Castiel wakes up and tells Bobby a censored Cliffs Notes version of his encounter with Rachel, saying she betrayed him (which, strictly speaking, is true) and is now dead. He leaves out the part about his “dirty little secret”. But there’s a problem. While he will heal (If he survived a stabbing of the type that killed Rachel in the same scene, is that an indication that he is now an archangel?), he lacks the strength to bring back Sam and Dean. He could recharge by touching Bobby’s soul, but it’s very dangerous, like trying to recharge a flashlight with a “nuclear reactor”, because the soul is “pure energy”. Bobby could blow up. Bobby rather reluctantly volunteers to let Castiel do it, anyway.
In Sunrise, Dean has the Deputy in a jail cell and is anxiously waiting for Sam to show up, with only ten minutes left on the clock. While he plays with an iron nail, he asks the Deputy why Finch wanted revenge. The Deputy points out that he and the others did hang Finch, but Dean thinks it’s more than that. In walks Finch (The Deputy sees him first because Dean’s back is to the door). He demands that Dean open the cell door so he can get at the Deputy. Dean shrugs and tells him to open the door himself, then tosses the iron nail at him. As he catches it, the nail burns Finch’s hand. Finch deduces from this special knowledge of Dean’s that Dean is a hunter.
He tells Dean that he was married to a human woman and they lived outside town. They came in to buy supplies and, while Finch was in the store, the Deputy tried to rape the wife. When Finch came out and caught him, the Deputy shot both Finch and his wife. Mrs. Finch died in her husband’s arms. Finch, of course, did not die. So, he was hanged, instead. He asks if Dean is really willing to die for the Deputy and Dean says of course not, but he does have to kill Finch (though he does seem to pity Finch). Finch then grabs a gun from its holster by the cell (I think it’s the Deputy’s because Dean is armed later) and shoots the Deputy. Startled, Dean still reacts quickly enough to jump out the window and run. Finch pursues him, but as Dean is hiding, Sam comes running up with the Colt. He quickly explains that Colt didn’t want to come, but did loan Sam his gun. Dean perks right up, calling the gun “Beautiful” as he exchanges his other gun for the Colt and then calls Finch out for a standoff with only a minute left.
At the same time in the future (Yes, I know that’s confusing), Castiel is getting ready to touch Bobby’s soul.
Finch comes out, confident that he can take Dean and that Dean can’t kill him. We see a repeat of the opening scene and then the quickdraw. Dean shoots first. Shocked, Finch bursts into flames and dies and Dean pulls a Bruce Willis, saying, “Yippee, kay-yay, Mother – ” But as Dean and Sam rush toward the smoldering ashes to grab them up, Castiel touches Bobby’s soul and flashes them back home, empty-handed.
Fortunately, a knock at the door a moment later (while Dean is apologizing to Bobby and Castiel for screwing up) reveals a delivery guy with a package for Sam, one that’s been waiting for a century and a half to be delivered. Rather than answer the guy’s burning question about how this could be, or even sign off on the guy’s form, Sam takes the package and closes the door in his face (Nice going, there, Sam! Though at least you did thank him). Inside, he opens it up and finds his Blackberry, a note from Samuel Colt, and a bottle full of “Ashes of a Phoenix”. Cheerful again, Dean puts on his hat and says it’s time to take the fight to the Mother of All.
Review: Wow, this episode was a lot better than any of the promotion for it (with the exceptions of director Guy Bee’s pics from the set and Jensen Ackles enthusiastic endorsement). The promos made this sound jokey and kinda dumb. While it’s not terribly dark, “Frontierland” is a lot more than yet another meta goofy parody, not least: action-filled, well-acted overall, plot-heavy in a good way, and a quite decent homage to various western subgenres. More like “Monster Movie”. Less like “The French Mistake”.
Yeah, “Frontierland” has its minor problems (and I hate the final title they went with, Bobby’s joke notwithstanding), the most formidable one being that the writers either forgot about or chose to ignore that extra year between seasons five and six. You could argue that the show lagged a bit behind our own time with its split-second cliffhangers for seasons one and four, but “The End” firmly sets the first half of season five in 2009. So…fail on that one, show. It should be 2012 not 2011. And yes, I know that Samuel Colt died in real-life history in 1862 (on my birthday, in fact), in Hartford, Connecticut, which may be what influenced the writers to ignore the missing year. Not that this lets them off the hook for anachronistically calling the area “Wyoming Territory” on the map and “Wyoming” in the subtitles. Bad show! [whaps show on the nose with a period newspaper] Learn some history, dammit!
But these nits do not detract from the fun of “Frontierland” and I find myself not caring overmuch, which I always see as a sign of a good episode. Even some things I didn’t love at all (Yes, I’m talking about Rachel) contributed to the storyline. Rachel is what has become the show’s stereotypical superpowered bitch, an example of which (Atropos) we saw as recently as last week. Poor Sonya Salomaa – though admittedly, the writers of Canadian demonic dark fantasy show The Collector didn’t always give her good stuff, either – gets saddled right off with a terribly unsympathetic introduction. Give her props, though, for making Rachel’s later confrontation with Castiel intense and violent (April Telek, nearly unrecognizable as Darla, also attacks her role with gusto, raising it a notch above the extended saloon girl joke of the script). It annoyed me that we had no chance to get to know Rachel or measure her character before she started bashing the Boys. However her “curse your sudden but inevitable betrayal” scene with Castiel reveals some more info about Castiel’s motives and the fight scene itself is kinetic and well-done.
Curious that many online fans seem willing to take Rachel’s accusation at face value (no doubt based on last week’s equally vague revelations and Castiel’s previously expressed regrets, plus the fact that Castiel being a co-protagonist requires him to meet higher standards of morality than a one-shot antagonist). What little we saw of her indicated a blinkered fanatic with no love for humanity and decidedly black-and-white thinking. She’s sincere, sure, but that doesn’t make her one of the good guys. If she doesn’t like what Castiel’s doing and thinks he spends too much time attending to the brothers’ (well, Dean’s) needs, I’m going to remain skeptical that Castiel’s motivations and actions are bad for the human race, or at least worst than Rachel’s (or Fate’s). Also, the very first thing we see Rachel do is yell at the brothers that her crush on Castiel is bigger than theirs (well…Dean’s, anyway) and the next thing we see is her accusing Castiel and then attacking him. She claims Castiel has betrayed her and the other angels with his “dirty little secret”, but she’s the one we see doing the betraying.
We also see that Castiel feels badly about killing Rachel and about lying to the brothers (well…Dean, anyway) and Bobby. He loves at least Dean enough to leave commanding heavenly troops on the battlefield, hang out at Bobby’s while Dean goes shopping, expend a lot of energy sending the brothers back in time, and risk himself (and Bobby) to bring them back. Plus, we even find out that it was not Castiel’s idea for Rachel to come in his place; it was Rachel’s. And when that doesn’t go down well with Dean and Sam, he arrives and overrules her, damaging his reputation with her and other angels to repair it with the brothers. And when he flees Rachel’s ambush, he goes to Bobby’s for sanctuary. When he needs help, he works out a plan with Bobby. Until the mission with the brothers is complete, his own mission does not come up again. This episode is very pro-Team Free Will.
Do I think Castiel is up to ulterior skullduggery? Yes. Do I think what we know so far is setting us up for Castiel being revealed as evil or even a Big Bad? No. Castiel shows too much remorse for his actions and clearly values maintaining his friendships with Team Free Will. He is even willing to screw up his own goals in Heaven to keep at least Dean’s friendship. Either Castiel is not any more evil than the brothers or Bobby in their darker moments (Try looking at Bobby’s actions in “Weekend at Bobby’s” through an outside perspective, let alone Sam’s in season four or Future Dean’s, period), or Dean is absolutely critical to Castiel’s plans, more so than any other element in the universe. Which is most likely to be true with this writing team? Yeah.
If you really look at it closely, Castiel’s big priority is winning the heavenly war. But his number one priority, which trumps even the war, is helping Dean. Note that this conclusion comes from Castiel’s actions as a whole over the past two and a half seasons and not just what Misha Collins and Jensen Ackles’ subtextual acting made of the writing. Don’t forget that we already know one future where 2014 Castiel gave up literally everything for 2014 Dean. Dean is Arthur to Castiel’s Merlin.
This doesn’t necessarily mean that Dean should trust Castiel unreservedly. Castiel has also shown himself ready to lie to Dean and the rest of Team Free Will, leave Sam’s soul in Hell, and endanger Bobby, however reluctantly and with Bobby’s consent. Castiel’s number one priority (even, apparently above Dean approving of Castiel’s actions) is Castiel helping Dean (within reason) and keeping Dean safe – not doing whatever Dean wants him to do. And Sam and Bobby’s welfare definitely doesn’t come above Castiel’s top two priorities.
Keeping this in mind, I’m guessing that Castiel’s “dirty little secret” to the angels is likely that he made a deal with Crowley. I think what he’s hiding from Team Free Will is somewhat different/extended – that Castiel broke Sam’s body out of the Cage and left Sam’s soul inside. Perhaps he even colluded in letting out Mother. Now, this may not have been deliberate. It could be that Castiel tried to break Sam out completely and only realized, to his horror, that he didn’t get everything.
Support for this theory comes in Castiel’s refusal to answer Sambot’s prayers for a year until Dean finally prayed to him; Castiel’s constantly coming down in answer to Dean’s prayers, but refusing to help with restoring Sam’s soul; and the timing of Sambot’s jailbreak. Castiel healed Dean and resurrected Bobby immediately in the graveyard near the end of “Swan Song”, and Sambot appears to have been resurrected in the same place soon after. It would make sense that Castiel was going for a full trifecta of restoring Dean’s world because the show has been pretty reliable in stating that Castiel is All About Dean in the way that Dean is All About Sam. And we know how extreme Dean has been about helping Sam.
Perhaps their “peace or freedom” conversation in the car made Castiel realize that Dean would never be truly happy with Sam in the Cage. So, he tried to break Sam out afterward (Note that the car conversation occurs at night in the rain and Sambot claims in “Exile on Main Street” that he woke up in the graveyard at night in the rain). Since Dean arrived at Lisa’s not long after and we saw Sambot appear outside, that would fit the timeline. Perhaps Castiel even transported Sambot there (the spritzed street light).
Or it could be that Castiel’s real dirty little secret is that he has human friends (well…Dean, anyway) who are more important to him than Heaven. At first, this seems unlikely, what with both Balthazar and Rachel knowing about Team Free Will. However, Balthazar doesn’t seem thrilled about Castiel liking Dean better and Rachel turns on Castiel shortly after realizing he really is willing to go hang out with the humans when he should be fighting Heaven’s battles. On the the other hand, Team Free Will has been kept out of the fight and both Rachel and Atropos imply that Castiel’s secret involves the ugly things he’s been willing to do to win Heaven’s war. These things don’t seem to be what we’ve seen him doing with Team Free Will (though to Team Free Will might be a different story).
The episode is strongly influenced by Clint Eastwood’s revisionist take on the western post-Rawhide and not so much by Rawhide‘s older “white hat/black hat” aspect of the genre (though Dean quotes both John Wayne and Cleavon Little). Dean turns out to be a huge Eastwood fan, as well as a Trekkie. The original soundtrack music is clearly inspired by Eastwood and the spaghetti westerns, as is the time period (The Good, the Bad and the Ugly is set during the Civil War in Arizona and The Outlaw Josey Wales occurs in Missouri during and after the war) and setting (Unforgiven takes place in Wyoming). In plot terms, the Phoenix’s revenge story evokes elements of The Outlaw Josey Wales (with the Phoenix as the title character avenging his dead family and Dean as his relentless pursuer, Fletcher), Hang ’em High (an innocent man who survives a lynching and seeks revenge), and High Plains Drifter (an apparent dead man/ghost/demon who metes out Old Testament justice on the town where he was murdered).
There’s even a casting connection (well, two). Canadian actor Gordon Michael Woolvett, who starred in Andromeda (like Lexa Doig, who appeared in season five’s “The End”), is also the younger brother of Jaimz Woolvett (to whom he bears a strong physical resemblance), who played the Schofield Kid in Unforgiven. Gordon Woolvett does a really nice job of evoking his brother’s performance in a very different character. The Schofield Kid initially appears to be a budding sociopath, but develops a conscience and eventually bails on the job. He realizes he’s not as awful a person as he envisioned, definitely not awful enough for the hired killer line of work. The Deputy is on a sort of opposite moral course, appearing at first to be innocuous and “merely” cowardly, and later turning out to be a nasty and unrepentant rapist.
Not only that, but Frank C. Turner (Elkins) actually appeared in Unforgiven, as a character named “Fuzzy”. And if Dean Wray (the Sheriff) looks familiar to you, that’s because he previously appeared in “Scarecrow” as one of the drivers who picks up Meg (to his terminal regret). Oh, and totally unconnected, but neat if you like Canadian actors, Scott Hylands (Judge Mortimer) once played the top cop on Night Heat. That sure brings back memories. I’ve been watching late-night television a long time.
In addition, we get a couple of Bobby injokes. Bobby says he only watched Deep Space Nine of the Star Trek series (Jim Beaver’s late wife, Cecily Adams, was the second and most popular actress to play Quark and Rom’s business-minded mother, Ishka). He also makes a comment about getting the boys back from “Deadwood” (Beaver starred for three seasons on that show). A third crack evokes the show’s ongoing Disney obsession, with Bobby making a reference to Disney World attraction, “Frontierland”. I’ll admit that one annoyed me enough that I kept spacing it and calling the episode “Frontierville“, which is a game on Facebook.
I was surprised at how many Easter references there were in the episode. Sure, it aired on Good Friday, but the original order (before CW did that stupid, last-minute preemption back in January and pushed everything forward) was that “Frontierland” would air as 6.17 on April 8, “My Heart Will Go On” as 6.18 on April 15 (for the 99th anniversary of the Titanic sinking) and “Mommy Dearest” as 6.19 on April 22. The main connection to Easter should have been “Mommy Dearest”, if there was any. The ostensible dates inside “Frontierland” (March 4-5 of 2011 and 1861) do not correspond to any Easter Week or Lenten date, either in 2011, 2012 or 1861.
However, there are at least two major allusions and several minor ones. First, Rachel is a fanatic who betrays Castiel because she feels he’s betrayed their cause, just as Jesus’ lieutenant Judas Iscariot in some versions of the Passion story betrayed Jesus because he felt Jesus had betrayed or let down his followers. In these versions, Judas is either a realist or a fanatic, but either way, he feels justified in betraying Jesus as the only possible option, though he regrets it later.
Second, the Phoenix is an early symbol of the Risen Christ on Easter Sunday. Very early, going back to the late first century, with the metaphor made by a martyred pope. One site calls the Phoenix a symbol of “rebirth, hope, purity, chastity, marriage, faith, constancy, summer, eternity, immortality, and light”, which goes along with Finch’s initially peaceable nature and love of his wife. It’s once Finch decides to go gunning for revenge (which is perfectly acceptable in the Old West’s Old Testament morality, but hardly New Testament) that he engineers his own downfall. And it’s not until he goes after Dean (another figure on the show with major Christ allusions) first, knowing Dean can’t harm him and hasn’t yet tried, that he ends up dead. Even then, with the Phoenix’s ashes being potentially used as a way to kill the Mother of All (and the myth that the Phoenix rises anew from its own death pyre), we may yet see Finch again. That may be why he was portrayed sympathetically and given a sympathetic backstory (very ably carried off by Matthew John Armstrong). He even bears some physical resemblance to Dean. Incidentally, while the show did the usual cheat of making the Phoenix look human, it does allude to the creature’s original bird nature with the name “Finch”. The Phoenix, though effectively immortal, is reputed to be unique.
Other minor allusions include things like Dean tossing an iron nail at Finch, who grabs it with his hand and burns himself in a stigmatic way. Also, there is Finch being hanged for a crime he did not commit and rising from the dead. Further, Castiel is stabbed in the left side, like Christ, and leaks out the light of his grace and Bobby offers himself up to help the brothers come back home. And for those keeping track on the angel grace front (AKA how Dean survived Zachariah’s death light), Rachel’s death grace blast is portrayed as violent and destructive.
In terms of acting, Jensen Ackles owns “Frontierland”. Often, his sheer, child-like enthusiasm for getting to do a western (a lifelong dream for him) shines right through his portrayal as Dean. However, Ackles never does anything that can’t be explained as being Deanlike. Nor does he ever break the fourth wall (which is funny, since the earliest example of this technique is in a western silent short from 1903, The Great Train Robbery). In the most obvious adlib (the obscene, censor-baiting “posse” joke), where Ackles seems barely able to keep a straight face, he always addresses Padalecki (rather than looking straight at the camera) and never says anything Dean might not say to Sam. Even Dean’s affinity for the horse has appeared before in Dean’s affection for animals and hostility toward those who harm them. Kudos to Padalecki for not laughing. It must have been really hard.
On the flip side, I’m not thrilled at the writing’s extended humiliation of Dean and his crestfallen initial reaction to the “real” Wild West, which is perfectly natural culture shock. That joke quickly grows thin and, I suspect, would not have seemed quite as funny to the writers had they their own experiences of extreme culture shock (Check out this trailer from Volunteers and you’ll see the difference in the “So, this is Hell” and belly-flop clips, which are hysterical without making the protagonist look stupid). If anything, Sam comes across as an even bigger greenhorn. Maybe it’s just as well he had the most linear task, though it is admittedly a very important task and he seems willing (for once) to allow his brother all the glory. But I wonder how well he’d have done if that horse had stepped in a prairie dog hole or encountered a rattlesnake. Not to mention, his clothing was completely unseasonal for March in Wyoming (and where was all the snow?).
Speaking of Sam’s task, Sam and Bobby both get important things to do and Castiel is busy being a lot more than a heavenly Delorean. It’s still Dean’s episode, but everybody gets a balance. On top of this, we get some great guest stars. Sam Hennings as Samuel Colt navigates the minefield of one of the most pivotal (and potentially Mary Sueish) historical figures in the SPNverse and makes it look effortless. In the few moments we see (or hear about) Samuel, he fully lives up to his legend – a soft-spoken, educated, tough and wily, old hunter. You believe without question that this man could muster the resources in 19th century America to build a huge devil’s trap out of railroad tracks. You don’t necessarily believe his claims of being retired. And while the final scene may be a shout-out to Back to the Future, there is no reason to believe that Samuel couldn’t (or wouldn’t) pull that off. A man as mechanically inclined as Colt could figure out pretty easily an idiot-user-friendly device like the Blackberry and come up with a plan for it that outlived him, just like his gun and big devil’s trap.
The writers ignore two major questions regarding Colt, though. First, where has Colt’s gun been since “Abandon All Hope”? It’s mentioned frequently and Dean speaks about the legend that it can kill anything, but its location (or continued existence) in the present is never clarified. I can see the brothers being wary about trying it out on the Mother and perhaps failing the way they did with Lucifer. But we’re again seeing some linear plot-think with, say, no attempt even to see if iron could subdue the Phoenix more than temporarily or have an effect on the Mother.
Second, how did Samuel’s journal arrive in the Campbell library? This involves more than similar Christian names between a Colt, a Campbell and a Winchester. In real history, Colt and Oliver Winchester were both instrumental in the invention of the Winchester Rifle, which became a major technological force in the Old West. The writers dance around it and never engage, but the conflation of real history, the repeated use of the same name, and the presence of the journal in the Campbell library strongly leans toward the SPNverse’s Colt being an ancestor to Sam and Dean. One thing we know for sure now is that Dean is the user of the Colt in Colt’s journal and the mysterious hunter in the legend. As I said previously in our spoilers column, this was the easiest way for the writers to retrofit the legend because they weren’t likely to send the brothers back twice or elaborate on Colt’s story in ways that didn’t involve the Brothers Winchester. Much too expensive and complicated.
Finally, “Frontierland” hints that the saloonkeeper, Elkins, is the ancestor of vampire hunter Daniel Elkins, who’s killed in season one’s “Dead Man’s Blood” and somehow came into possession of the Colt after Dean dropped it following his duel with Finch and literally disappeared into thin air. Whether Colt retrieved it and gave it to Elkins or quietly allowed the “curse” to pass along to Elkins after Elkins picked it up, we don’t know. This rather neatly explains the paucity of bullets for the Colt in seasons one and two but the unlimited number later on (Colt seemed to have no concern about wasting bullets, only booze). If the Colt was pilfered and passed down with incomplete knowledge and only the bullets left in it, that means the Colt could have more ammunition if someone knowledgeable in making it were around.
Dean: What are we looking for?
Bobby: Anything that’ll put a run in the OctoMom’s stockings.
Bobby: Either of you jokers ever heard of a thing called “the Phoenix”?
Dean: River, Joaquin, or the giant, flaming bird?
Dean [to Sam about Colt’s journal]: Get yer own.
Dean: We’ll Star Trek 4 this bitch.
Bobby [exchanging a blank look with Sam]: I only watched Deep Space Nine.
Castiel [to Sam about why they can only go back in time for 24 hours]: Well, the answer to your question can best be expressed as a series of differential equations.
Bobby: Ye-ah. Aim lower.
Sam [to Dean]: You have a fetish!
Dean: I do not! I happen to like old movies.
Sam: You can recite every line to every Clint Eastwood movie ever made.
Bobby: Even the monkey movies?
Sam: Especially the monkey movies.
Dean: The name is ‘Clyde’.
Bobby [to Dean]: You going to a hoedown?
Castiel: Is it customary to wear a blanket?
Dean: It’s a serape.
Sam: We’re looking for a man.
Judge: I’ll bet.
Dean [entering the saloon]: This is not awesome!
Dean [being hit on by “Darla”]: Oh! So much germier than I pictured!
Dean: I’ll stay here, hook up with the posse. I mean, I’m a posse magnet. I love posse. Make that into a t-shirt.
Sam: You done?
Dean [watching Sam ride off]: That poor horse.
Bobby: Cas? Are we running or fighting?
Demon: Samuel Colt?
Colt: You have the wrong drunk, gentlemen. Have a nice day.
Dean: Howdy, Pilgrim.
Deputy: I ain’t no Pilgrim!
Colt [to Sam]: When you’ve done this job as long as I have, a giant from the future with some magic brick doesn’t exactly give you the vapours.
Colt [on seeing a 150-year-old copy of the journal he’s writing in that day]: I’m either too drunk or not drunk enough.
Bobby [to Castiel]: We got an hour before you gotta go back and pick up the kids at Frontierland.
Bobby [to Castiel]: We can’t just strand those idjits in Deadwood, can we?
Bobby: I didn’t get a soulenoscopy for nothin’.
Next week: Mommy Dearest: When the brothers, Bobby and Castiel decide to go after the Mother of All, they encounter a town full of demons…and one of them is their mother.
You can watch (or download) this episode, in standard or HD definition, on Amazon.com.