Everybody Needs a Spike: Thoughts on Supernatural

Mark Sheppard as Crowley
Both Whedon's Buffy and Kripke's Supernatural tackle theological themes. Buffy provides demons, vampires with souls, and the Powers-that-Be. Supernatural--with slightly less depth but a whole lot more complexity--supplies demons, self-serving angels, confused angels, and a writer who may or may not be God.

Both also provide a self-serving and sarcastic bad guy who helps the good guys while helping himself.

James Marsters as Spike
In Buffy, this guy is Spike (played by James Marsters).

In Supernatural, this guy is Crowley (played by Mark Sheppard).

They both deliver their clever lines in crisp British accents--acquired by Marsters; the real thing for Sheppard.

Both characters are impressively at home in the real world:
Buffy: What do you want?
Spike: I told you. I want to stop Angel. I want to save the world.
Buffy: Okay, you do remember that you're a vampire, right?
Spike: We like to talk big, vampires do. "I'm going to destroy the world." It's just tough guy talk. Struttin' around with your friends over a pint of blood. The truth is, I like this world. You've got... dog racing, Manchester United . . 
 Crowley is Spike's brother under the skin.

It raises the question: Why are these guys so necessary to theologically-themed fantasy? Supernatural went through several ambiguous bad guys (Gordon Walker, Ruby, Bela) before settling on Crowley as a long-term player. Crowley's appeal was so readily apparent, reasoning backwards from Crowley can help explain Spike.

Three reasons why Crowley is necessary to Supernatural

(1) Crowley (like Spike) wants something.

The brothers want things, but their things--like Buffy's things--involve the future: I want my brother to survive. (I want to be a normal girl.)

Don't get me wrong: these are great things to wish for, and they help to ground the characters. But such things--accompanied as they are by highly emotional states of mind--make the characters extremely vulnerable and serious.

The angels--and Angelus--also want futuristic things though their futuristic things are far grander: cosmic show-downs, the end of the world, etc. etc. 

Crowley (and Spike) want things in the here and now: fish 'n' chips, big house, big dog.

Characters who want specific things in the here and now lend themselves much better to episodic writing than characters who want futuristic things. And if too many of the latter type want grand futuristic things, the episodes sadly run to (bad) ground on the ridiculous sandbank of big-bad-conspiracy-theories.

Crowley (and Spike) keep things real.

(2) Crowley (like Spike) is irreverent. 

Theological shows need irreverence because they need to be able to discuss doubt and faith without becoming too dogmatic. Despairing angst is no better than Touched by an Angel.

Crowley's irreverence is quite distinct from Dean's (as is Spike's from Buffy's). Dean is a believer who doesn't want to believe because he doesn't want to doubt. In many ways, the internal arc of Supernatural belongs to him while the external arc belongs to Sam (since Sam is ostensibly more intellectual and insightful than Dean, this may seem contradictory but actually it makes a great deal of sense).

A character who can be disillusioned is not a character for whom irreverence is a comfortable state of mind. Dean's irreverence (which can be quite amusing) is tied directly to his weary calls for aid. He is Job-- overwhelmed by catastrophe and his inability to fix his family's lives--demanding that God intervene. He is Dylan Thomas's father "raging against the dying of the light."

One of Dean's favorite memories: when he was able to "fix"
his brother's problems.
All the above makes Dean a great character! But the irreverent Crowley (or Spike) is necessary to restore balance. Rage all you want--you still gotta buy gas. What can it hurt to call for aid? It doesn't change what's going to happen to you anyway. And by the way, you need more chips.

While Sam and Dean are (enchantingly) willing to throw themselves in the fire for each other, Crowley (and Spike) are looking around for an actual match--or a fire extinguisher: Kind of depends on the day. 

(3) Crowley (like early Spike) is an outlier.

From a writing point of view, the outlier is a necessary character. The outlier--like the omniscient narrator--can step outside the action and explain what is going on.

Dean: Is this a fight? Are we in a fight?
Castiel: [Hugging] is... their handshake.
Dean: I don't like it.
Castiel: No one likes it.
Regular characters must be committed to their narrative arcs. This is one reason that Castiel, however amusing at times, is NOT the outlier. He is committed to the narrative arc of questioning his faith. Castiel does provide a nice foil to everyone (including Crowley). But he has chosen a side.

Chuck--despite his outlier tendencies--also has a side. Only Crowley (and Buffy Spike) don't.

In mystery shows, the outlier is the audience or occasionally the newest member of the team--or Watson. It is to the outlier that characters deliver long-winded explanations about how DNA works, the ins and outs of game theory, and the exculpatory nature of tainted evidence.

Fantasy suffers from the same need for definitions: who is that guy? why did he show up again? The audience needs to know the information but is less willing to be educated in the same way as mystery audiences. After all, if you were a real fan and watched the show every week, you'd know already! Since the audience is less willing to BE the outlier, the outlier must be a character--but not one of the main characters (see above).

Not only does the fantasy outlier get told stuff (both Spike and Crowley operate as "new" members, who occasionally need to be caught up), the fantasy outlier also possesses the ability to deliver information in tidy ways that don't appear explanatory (even though they are).

Crowley explains that Bobby can now stand:
Crowley: Bobby, you just gonna sit there?
Bobby Singer: No, I'm gonna Riverdance.
Crowley: I suppose if you want to impress the ladies. Bobby, Bobby, Bobby. Really wasted that crossroads deal. In fact, you get more if you phrase it properly. So, I took the liberty of adding a teeny sub-clause on your behalf. What can I say? I'm an altruist. Just gonna sit there?
Spike explains that the scoobies need to fight the Native American demon, no matter how politically incorrect:
Spike: Oh, someone put a stake in me.
Xander: You got a lot of volunteers in here.
Spike: I just can't take all this mamby-pamby boo-hooing about the bloody Indians.
Willow: Uh, the preferred term is...
Spike: You won. All right? You came in and you killed them and you took their land. That's what conquering nations do. It's what Caesar did, and he's not goin' around saying, "I came, I conquered, I felt really bad about it." The history of the world is not people making friends. You had better weapons, and you massacred them. End of story.
Buffy: Well, I think the Spaniards actually did a lot of - Not that I don't like Spaniards.
Spike: Listen to you. How you gonna fight anyone with that attitude?
Willow: We don't wanna fight anyone.
Buffy: I just wanna have Thanksgiving.
Spike: Yeah . . . Good luck.
Willow: Well, if we could talk to him . . .
Spike: You exterminated his race. What could you possibly say that would make him feel better? It's kill or be killed here. Take your bloody pick.
Xander: Maybe it's the syphilis talking, but, some of that made sense.


Joe said...

One thing about both Spike and Crowley is that they both have a consistent "moral" compass, however twisted it may be. Above all, they both prefer the world than hell, though Spike is more explicit about it. To both, people are "happy meals with legs". (Castiel is much the same.)

Eugene said...

iZombie has introduced a bad-boy character ("Blaine"). He's the pusher who got infected by his own drug (apparently having no idea what it really was). Now he's pretending to be a "changed man" but probably isn't. Yeah, David Anders is doing "the same only different," but so far he's doing zombie Spike just right.