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Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

Supernatural: “Thinman”

Illustration for article titled Supernatural: “Thinman”
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Supernatural has been successful at most of the things the show usually does this season—there have been a few solid standalone episodes, both funny and scary, a dense, enjoyable mythology, a lot of Cas humor, etc. One thing season nine hasn’t had, however, is a successful meta episode. There hasn’t been a really great one since season six’s classic “The French Mistake,” and I’ll admit I was hoping this would be it—not an episode like that one, which utterly destroyed the fourth wall in pursuit of winking laughs, but something a little more subtle, riffing on the tropes that breathe life into pretty much every episode of the show. Tonight’s episode, which brings back the characters most capable of jump-starting that conversation (next to Becky) has a ton of great ideas, but doesn’t quite manage to execute them. There are hints at an episode that manages to take on the way we create monsters with stories in the way a few great horror films have done (among them Scream, which gets several nods), but it doesn’t quite manage to follow through.

There are several promising parts of “Thinman,” most notably the episode’s appropriation of the Slender Man legend to create Thinman (there’s not even an attempt at camouflaging the theft here—beyond the superficial similarities and the name, Thinman, like Slender Man, strikes in the forest and is capable of teleporting). Slender Man (which, I should admit, I had only heard about a couple of times before watching this) is a really cool concept; an urban legend definitively created on the Something Awful forums that is still taken seriously by some people after being compounded by thousands of homemade photos, drawings, videos, and games. This is the sort of myth that Supernatural did well in its early days when it still had fresh material to work through in standalone episodes. And the nature of the collective hallucination of the Slender Man, even presented superficially, raises enough interesting questions to have that standalone episode be thought-provoking in a way the show has struggled to achieve from the beginning (it’s not The X-Files, nor is it trying to be, but it’s cool to see an intellectually challenging installment every once in a while).

It doesn’t hurt that the use of Slender Man is paired with the return of the Ghostfacers, now pretty much the longest-lived recurring characters on the show by default (even though they’ve only been in a handful of episodes). Though every time we’ve left the Ghostfacers before there’s been at least some hope for them, by now the team is now reduced to just a duo—Harry and Ed having been abandoned by Maggie and Spruce in favor of “normal life” (whatever that means in this universe). Harry ended a promising relationship with an attractive, well-off woman because she thought Ghostfacers was “stupid,” and has been chasing something called Thinman with Ed, backed by apparently vast Internet forums where people post about sightings of the creature (which looks a bit like The Silence from Doctor Who except middle-aged). At first, it looks like Supernatural is going to back off a bit from how pathetic Ed and Harry are (since they’re so well-respect online, I guess?). They’re even pretty funny—in particular, as the Winchesters try to investigate the murder that actually drives the plot, they discover that the Ghostfacers have already intercepted most of their leads, causing the victim’s mother and the deputy to already be—at least superficially—inclined to believe in a supernatural solution.

But then Ed reveals that he invented the Thinman as a way of getting Harry back into the Ghostfacing game, and, while the episode doesn’t quite turn into sad story about the pathetic bullheadedness of the aging Ghostfacers, abandoned by the rest of their friends, it comes pretty close. Even though Ed acted like a total dick so he could pursue his juvenile fantasy with his friend, he still manages to come across as sympathetic and invested in his friendship with Harry. Harry’s anger is believable, and even though it gets put on the backburner for some of the episode-closing action, it’s never far from the episode’s mind. This is by far the most compelling part of the episode. Travis Wester and A.J. Buckley are surprisingly effective here, playing the dramatic turns far more effectively than much of the comedic dialogue and more or less selling a lifelong friendship that has fallen apart. When Ed says “without the Thinman, we’re just—guys,” it should be boring and silly, but instead hits home how much the two have invested in this Ghostfacers insanity and what they’d have to own up to and face if they gave it up.

Better still, “Thinman” uses Harry and Ed’s relationship to comment on the tension between Sam and Dean without being blindingly obvious about it—the parallels are clear and underlined several times, but, for one, Sam’s insistence that the Ghostfacers not keep secrets makes perfect sense. Keeping the Winchester tension on the backburner without exploding into angst strikes me as a really good way to play this sort of conflict, and I hope the show keeps it up if it wants to go down this road again (which it will).

That potential is, for the most part, squandered by the last third of the episode. Conceptually, there’s a “look at the terrors of modern technology” thread here that does the Ghostfacers and the show itself a disservice, particularly when Dean gets to keep repeating that people are sick and the episode gives it at least some weight. A hundred horror movies and thrillers have done hackneyed fear of webcam-type stuff like this already–and Sam literally says, “When did viral go from that baby chimp falling out a tree to killer Candid Camera?” Ed describes Thinman as a “crowdsourced legend,” which, while not a totally inaccurate description, is still a little too on the nose and proud of itself for my taste. For the love of all that is holy, the proper name of the episode has a hashtag in it. That focus wastes the opportunity “Thinman” has to actually comment on Thinman as a fictional story, and the nature of collective belief—Ed is totally fine with everyone believing in Thinman if it keeps him and Harry popular, but what if they just wanted to believe it so badly that it wouldn’t matter? (There are still people who think Slender Man is real, even knowing his origin story, so this is not out of the question.) There are just a ton of story-telling directions and insights I would’ve loved to see out of this episode, and we don’t get any of them.


And, unfortunately, the resolution of the mystery itself is pretty bland (There’s a reason I haven’t been talking about it much. Also, did anyone not guess that the deputy would be involved?), with the revelation that the monster was really just two guys “doing a Scream thing,” conspiracy nuts that discovered Thinman and turned it into a way to get revenge for petty slights. Props to the show, I suppose, for introducing characters to this episode who are somehow more pathetic than the Ghostfacers? The motivation of social invisibility is boring, even for this kind of ultimately conventional, Scooby Doo-like horror story, and the actors don’t sell their menace enough to be either scary or convincing as two dudes who decided to start killing more or less just because. Mostly, these characters serve three purposes. First, to justify the Thinman murders in this town when Ed invented Thinman. Second, so Harry can shoot one of them and look like a badass while simultaneously ending his friendship with Ed—or placing it in “It’s complicated” territory. Third, and most importantly, they exist to facilitate Dean just stabbing a dude in the gut.

Dean’s murder—because that’s what it is—of an ordinary (if murderous) guy should be Supernatural’s equivalent of the end of Breaking Bad’s “Dead Freight,” which at least tried to put some hard moral choices in front of its characters. Here, there’s a suggestion that Dean might (might?) have been influenced by the Mark Of Cain in his aggression, but Sam papers over his issues so quickly that it’s hard to tell. Of course, they’ve been in situations like this before, but just dumping some bodies and setting up a fake story for the police is a pretty serious ethical line, even for the Winchesters. The end of the episode, which fades out while Harry is hitching a ride with the Winchesters, hits home only because of the dissolution of Ed and Harry’s friendship, which now feels like a story the show needs to return to. It’s great that “Thinman” makes us (or just me) care so much about such minor characters, but if it can’t get worried about a major development from one of the two protagonists, something’s up.


Stray observations:

  • Let’s take this opportunity to again pay respects to Harold Ramis, whose Ghostbusters character was the inspiration for Harry’s name.
  • I’m sure it wasn’t meant to suggest that, but I sorta got the impression that Harry might show up in the next episode, still helping the Winchesters for no particular reason. Not that that’d ever happen, but it totally should.
  • Ed and Harry’s dialogue, as ever, straddles both sides of nerd parody, from the good (“You crashed the Jenga tower of our lives!”) to the bad (“I just got punched right in the feels.”).
  • Still no Snooki! Anyone know why it got moved? Is it even still airing?
  • Next week: The Crowley blood episode I know we’ve all been waiting for. YES.