July 19, 2013

The Great Escapist in Supernatural

The Great Escapist episode of the TV series Supernatural featured a Native subplot. It aired May 1, 2013, and I saw a repeat of it recently.

The relevant part of the story is pretty simple. Brothers Dean and Sam are searching for Metatron, an angel who fled heaven. They have part of a "demon tablet" that may provide a clue.

Here's what the Supernatural wiki has to say about it, with my comments:

8.21 The Great EscapistWhile reading Kevin's notes from his translation work on the demon tablet, Sam notices a recurring symbol which appears to be Metatron's signature. It is familiar to him from a course he took at Stanford on Native American art. It's a petroglyph from a tribe in Colorado called The Two Rivers. As the tribe is supposed to be protected by the Messenger of God, Sam and Dean realize this is where they might find Metatron and head to have a look.A few problems here:

  • The symbol is an ornate, three-lobed thing that might've come from a medieval textbook on alchemy. It doesn't look remotely like a carved petroglyph.

  • Sam's Native art book says the symbol means "messenger of God." For starters, no one knows for sure what a prehistoric symbol means. Experts can offer theories, but these are educated guesses, not definite translations.

    More important, the singular "God" is a Christian concept, not a Native one. I don't think any Native religion was monotheistic, and no one called their chief deity "God."

  • Dean calls the Indians "Indians" and Sam corrects him, saying they aren't called Indians anymore. Completely wrong.
  • As they check into a hotel, Sam becomes more unwell, hearing noises, developing a fever, and having vivid memory flashbacks to his childhood. Dean visits a local museum, where the curator tells him that the Native American tribe was led by a man who gave them a bounty in return for their stories. Noticing an old photo features the hotel manager, seemingly unaged, Dean realizes that they may be close to Metatron.
  • The Two Rivers Reservation is supposedly located on Route 34 in Colorado. This is a real highway that crosses the northeast part of the state.

    Colorado has only two Indian reservations in the southwest corner, but a fictional tribe is tolerable for storytelling purposes.

  • The hotel is really a casino/hotel with slot machines in the lobby, a "Coyote Lounge," and rooms upstairs. Checking in, Dean notes that no one has signed the register since 2006. The place seems almost deserted.

    The Two Rivers reservation and hotel appear to be in the mountains, which would put them close to the towns of Loveland, Fort Collins, and Greeley and not that far from Denver. In other words, the deserted hotel doesn't make sense.

    If Route 34 doesn't get much traffic for some reason, the small casino/hotel would go out of business. More likely, it would draw visitors from the nearby towns and from Rocky Mountain National Park. It would do decent business and the tribe would build a larger casino.

    This is a variation on fictional reservations located in the desert or the wilderness far from "civilization." This reservation is close to "civilization," but Supernatural portrays it as forlorn and abandoned. I presume the reason is because a bustling reservation business with lots of visitors wouldn't convey the same mood.

  • The Two Rivers hotel manager is stone-faced and unresponsive when Dean tries to joke with him. He's a classic stoic or wooden Indian. He's played by Native actor Clint Andrews and wears a business suit, but his demeanor is purely stereotypical.

    Supporting the point, his character is listed as "Hotel Manager." In other words, he's a function, not a character with a name or a life. He exists solely to advance the plot.

  • The "museum" appears to consist of a single room next to the casino/hotel filled with photos and artifacts. This, at least, is realistic for a small tribe.

  • The old Indian managing the museum tells a tribal legend that confirms the meaning of the petroglyph. A "messenger of God" came to live with the tribe. He gave them prosperity and long life in exchange for telling him stories.

  • Yeah, that's a big problem. A tribe whose religion is based on a visit from a Judaic angel? Is Two Rivers supposed to be a Lost Tribe of Israel?

    Here's the story on the original Metatron:

    MetatronMetatron (Hebrew מטטרון) or Mattatron (a differentiation of Metatron) is an archangel in Judaism. According to Jewish medieval apocrypha, he is Enoch, ancestor of Noah, transformed into an angel. There are no references to Metatron as an angel in the Jewish Tanakh or Christian scriptures (New and Old Testament); however, Genesis 5:24 is often cited as evidence of Enoch's bodily ascension into heaven—"And Enoch walked with God: and he was not; for God took him." Although he is mentioned in a few brief passages in the Talmud, Metatron appears primarily in medieval Jewish mystical texts and other post-scriptural esoteric and occult sources, such as the Books of Enoch—1 Enoch, 2 Enoch, and 3 Enoch. In Rabbinic tradition, he is the highest of the angels and serves as the celestial scribe.The whole idea is kind of insulting to Indians. Some Native cultures have existed longer than the Talmud, but here's a tribe who got the word indirectly from Yahweh. What was its religion like before Metatron appeared: a bunch of "primitive superstitions"?

  • As the wiki notes, the hotel manager appears in an old photo of Two Rivers Indians. Presumably he's lived for centuries. I imagine Metatron gave him long life and he serves the angel by bringing him books--the modern version of telling him stories.

    This supernatural bit might not be bad in another story. But there are only two Indians in this story, and one or both are "supernatural." They serve or believe in their master, a white Judeo-Christian angel. They have no independent culture or existence beyond their devotion to Metatron.

  • Conclusion

    The The Great Escapist is a good example of how Hollywood takes one or two steps forward, then one or two steps back. Steps forward: featuring modern Indians at all, and using a Native actor to play the main one. Steps back: the mistakes and stereotypes, especially the implication that Native religion is derived from Judeo-Christian beliefs.

    It wouldn't have been hard to do this episode well. Make the clue something other than a petroglyph referring to God. Show several Indians in and around the hotel and make it look prosperous. Have Metatron hidden in a remote part of the rez, not upstairs.

    Or just have Metatron hidden in an isolated non-Native rather than Native community. Joseph Smith received tablets, after all, so tie Metatron and his tablets to the Mormons somehow. Indians don't have to be responsible for every supernatural situation in America.

    For more on Indians and the supernatural, see Metatron in Supernatural and Bad Kids Go to Hell.


    Anonymous said...

    FWIW, a few seasons ago, they had that other uniquely American supernatural folklore present.

    Actually, at this point in Supernatural cosmology, I'm pretty sure God is gone, and the archangels have set up a fascist state in heaven.

    Yeah, relying on Supernatural for folklore information is stupid. Plus, I seriously doubt God's chosen heroes to stop the Apocalypse would interpret "love thy brother" that way. (Okay, that part's not canon, but they allude to the fandom's obsession with that so much.)

    Unknown said...

    You might have missed an angle for this analysis. The Church of the Latter Day Saints believes our nations are part of a lost tribe of Israel. We run across this sort of thing all the time. A dominant culture trying to make sense of a people they know nothing about will always try to interpret the culture in terms they already understand.

    Rob said...

    I've written about the Mormons' belief in a Lost Tribe of Israel before.