Supernatural paid homage to Quentin Tarantino and Castiel almost paid the ultimate price in last Thursday’s ambitious episode. “Stuck in the Middle (With You)” writer Davy Perez joins us to discuss.
We’re halfway through Supernatural’s record-breaking twelfth season, and what a season it’s been. Twelve years is a long time to follow a show without burnout, but for dedicated viewers who actually give a damn about a decade’s worth of careful character growth, this season is hit after hit after subtle and fulfilling and validating hit: fresh ideas that have expanded the world of the Winchesters outwards exponentially, conversations between characters that we never dreamed of seeing, pointed social commentary, and brand-new stakes that hit very close to home. Last week’s episode “Stuck in the Middle (With You)” — a tribute to iconic director Quentin Tarantino, based loosely on Reservoir Dogs with a sprinkling of Pulp Fiction and Kill Bill thrown in — might just take the grand prize, but honestly, Supernatural’s current production team have been tying their own bar to a rocket and launching it into outer space all season.
“Stuck in the Middle (With You)” introduced some absolutely gigantic pieces onto the chessboard that is Supernatural season 12 — new information that retroactively informs a lot of what we’ve seen in the past. The Princes of Hell, for one: a high ranking class of demon who just happen to have yellow eyes, one of whom is this episode’s foe and another who we’re likely to meet later down the line. The deadly power of the Lance of Michael, for another. The truth about Crowley’s position as Hell’s ruler, and the reappearance of Samuel Colt’s gun — a reveal I never saw coming. Crucial new emotional heights with as-yet-unknown consequences for some of our characters too: the extent to which Crowley will go to protect the Winchesters, the extent to which Mary will go to keep her secrets safe, and the extent to which Castiel will go to express his feelings about his found family.
Often, when Supernatural episodes have a stylistic twist — “Monster Movie,” for example, or “Ghostfacers” or “Bitten,” — they’re low-stakes and the plot plays second fiddle to the unusual format. Not so here. The plot — both the myth arc and the story arc — are critical turning points for the scope of the show and the relationships between the characters, and the Tarantino homage is, more than anything, a style choice that allows those reveals to greater dramatic effect. It’s not winked at as a big meta episode, it’s not comedic, it’s not ironic, it’s not a gimmick. There are obviously tips of the hat — the title, for one, the non-linear time jumps, the nonsense diner bickering, the whistling, even the comparable bleeding-out plight of Castiel and Mr. Orange. But the episode is more than the sum of its parts — it holds up to those unfamiliar with the base material being showcased, it delights those in the know, and all in all, it’s an extraordinary feat of storytelling and production set to stand out as an example of Supernatural at its best.
Acting alumnus and Supernatural convention circuit staple Richard Speight Jr. returned to direct — his second time in the chair, after season 11’s “Just My Imagination” — but the concept and content was created by Davy Perez, one of the Supenatural writers’ room new hires for season 12. Perez, who serves as a staff writer and story editor, is a veteran of anthology and auteur television — an graduate of ABC’s prestigious talent development program, he worked as an assistant to new-household-name Noah Hawley on two separate shows, My Generation and Fargo, and earned his first writing credits under John Ridley on the prestigious American Crime. He’s one of three new additions hand-picked by Andrew Dabb, Supernatural’s most experienced writer who took up the showrunner reins last year, and the show is, quite frankly, lucky to have him. And so are we — Perez was happy to chat with Hypable about his latest offering, which, by the way, pulled in the season’s best ratings since the premiere.
First of all, given the context we now have, the pun element of “Stuck in the Middle” (Castiel ‘stuck,’ much like the proverbial pig, or perhaps like Jesus Christ, in the flank) is extremely groan-worthy and I hate you for it.
Mission accomplished. All I ever aim for is an emotional reaction from people, it doesn’t matter which one.
What came first, the Tarantino theme or the stab-Cas-in-the-side story? Did the plot beget the structure, or did the structure beget the plot?
Yes. Exactly. [A.N. Perez is a writer who relishes in near-trollish levels of cheek, as we’ll delve further into momentarily.] They were pretty hand in hand, but if I remember correctly, the idea to do a heist gone wrong a la Reservoir Dogs was the primary inspiration and the rest of the story built out from there.
This was an extremely ambitious episode for a variety of reasons — structure and style, story and subject matter, and the servicing of a lot of characters. The episode’s director, Richard Speight Jr., went so far as to describe it as “all-encompassing.” When did you know, for sure, either in your gut or in practical terms, that the show was going to be able to make it work?
When [executive producer] Bob Singer told me to watch The Killing by Stanley Kubrick, I thought perhaps the episode might actually have a chance at getting made. Bob was intrigued about trying this idea, but very clear about it being meticulously rooted in both visuals and story moments to help track the timeline. He’s been a part of making a lot of television over the years and he warned me that trying this kind of out-of-order episode can be a disaster if not done right. CUT TO: Andrew Dabb. He was pivotal in helping me make it all coherent and straightforward. My first draft was very ambitious; Andrew brought me back to earth. Knowing that Bob and Andrew were not only going to give me a crack at this but also pointing me in the right direction gave me some confidence we could pull this off.
You’ve told me before that the Supernatural writers work on individual scripts as a solo venture, rather than breaking stories together — but Dabb also mentioned, in a teaser video this week, that events or information from this episode evolved into being fundamental to the mythology of the whole show. There’s a few things that he could be referring to — the reveal of the Princes of Hell, which throws back to the show’s very first Big Bad; the return of the Colt, not seen since season 5; even the coronation of Crowley. When creating these ideas, what point, if at all, does the solo-writer bubble burst and you get the showrunner stepping in to maybe say “okay that’s permanently changing the status quo, that’s more than incidental so we’re gonna need to look at that through a wider lens?”
These myth pitches came in waves and grew out of the story itself. I wanted a villain that was going to be a formidable enemy and really create the sense of danger that this episode needed. I kept thinking of the Yellow-Eyed Demon and how great of a big bad that was for the boys and Mary. I pitched the idea of this class of demon called the Princes of Hell. Andrew let me take a crack at it to see if it would makes sense for our universe. As I was thinking about the heist element, again inspiration hit, and I thought to myself “Whatever happened to the Colt?” and I added that to the mix of things. I was halfway expecting for that to be taken out of the script at some point. I thought for sure Andrew was going to pour a bucket of ice water on me and tell me to sit down, chill out, and keep it to one thing at a time. But he not only embraced (most of) my ideas, he helped me to make them better.
Your first episode “American Nightmare” was an insular case on the road that involved Sam and Dean only, but for this one, you had the whole cast of regulars to play with. You got to create a really important bit of canon showing how Crowley became the King of Hell, something that Supernatural never explained after he re-appeared as ruler after being introduced as master of the crossroads. Was that part of his story invented by you for this episode, or was that something the EPs always knew, and had noted down somewhere to reveal at some point? If it was you, how do you handle the responsibility of creating retroactive canon for such a well-established character?
This was another one that came out of breaking the individual story portions of the episode. Now that we had this secret class of powerful demon, that meant that Ramiel was someone who is technically up the food chain from our own favorite deal-making demon. So I was working on the Crowley bits, what got him to this moment here with the boys in a barn… and I got another moment of inspiration that gave, and another far-reaching mythology pitch was born.
He truly turned out to be the MVP of this episode. I love Crowley, and wrote earlier this season about how I believe the only way to take him as a character is up. To me, this episode leaned heavily into his “unrequited love” for the Winchesters. The look on his face when Dean told him they didn’t have time for him, his frank plea to Ramiel: “What can I do to keep you out of that barn?” which betrays way more emotion than his excuses about merely keeping the guys as allies does, his breaking of the lance in order to save Cas — which shocked the guys much more than it shocked me — and Lucifer’s taunting of his predicament, in the final act. What do you keep in mind when writing for Crowley?
Crowley is an interesting character to me. He is a natural antagonist yet he always seems to be helping accomplish the same goal(s) as our heroes. And for his troubles, he still gets labeled an outcast. Then, as if owning the label, he takes a turn and really hits the boys with a curveball. Writing Crowley’s dialogue is fun, because of his sarcasm and pop culture sense of humor, but it can also be a little tricky to get the right tone down. Luckily, Mark Sheppard is great at making even the most basic lines sound like Shakespearean gold.
If Crowley’s dedication to the Winchesters is subversive, Castiel’s is becoming more and more overt during season 12, and you actually gave him that full-on “I love you” deathbed confession. These are three words rarely heard so plainly on this show, particularly between the boys — they say it with Mary, but pretty much never with each other. It’s even been revealed at conventions that the script for “Goodbye Stranger” initially had Dean saying those words to Castiel in a break-through-brainwashing situation, and it was changed in shooting to “We’re family, I need you,” instead – no less intense, but still somewhat different. Sam said it once while drugged to the eyeballs, Dean’s conceptually mentioned the fact that he and Sam have love for one another, and Cas has made a lot of grand statements about his faith and loyalty, but nothing this personal. The gang has faced death, “final” goodbyes lots of times — what made this particular situation the big moment that called for those words from Castiel?
As writers we always look to tell the story in the most honest way possible. Each of us has a personal well of inspiration that we draw from for story and dialogue. In my own life, I am constantly telling my parents, wife, and sisters that I love them. But when it comes to speaking with my two brothers, how we feel about each other is only ever implied. It should be easier to express but we always brush by it. So I thought of a situation in which I might not have much time left, and how I would want my two brothers to know exactly what I felt about them. (Yes, I’m aware in this metaphor I’ve made myself the angel, I think that’s a fair comparison.) So this speech, Castiel in his last moments of life, I made it personal to me. I thought of the two most important men in my life and how, before I take my last breath, I want my brothers Raul and Joey to know that I love them.
Truthfully, I may have gone a little overboard on the first go around because the speech was cut down and streamlined quite a bit, to a much stronger effect. There’s no better place to go when trying to craft an emotional scene than your own feelings. You hope the words resonate and touch the audience in some way. That’s what makes working as a writer rewarding, when an emotional truth transcends beyond your own experiences and finds an honest place in the audience.
Dean was the archangel Michael’s true vessel, yet Sam was the one to wield the Lance of Michael in order to slay Ramiel. Was Dean’s not using the weapon, only touching it once it’s broken, a purposeful unspoken character moment (he doesn’t want anything to do with Michael akin to Sam not wanting anything to do with Lucifer) or was it incidental? Or might there be more yet to come about that?
There was actually a bit of a back and forth [in planning] on who was going to deliver the death blow. It went round the barn and every character got a crack at killing Ramiel. For various reasons each character had a strong story argument that resonated and made sense, even a shady Crowley and a half-dead Castiel would have a payoff in that beat. It was starting to feel a little like Clue with the various outcomes. In the end we wanted the victory to go to one of our two main guys. The fact that they were up against a Yellow-Eyed Demon meant that it would be a great moment for Sam (or Mary, but we already narrowed it down to one of our guys) since Dean killed the last one. Sam has a lot of pent-up anger for the Yellow-Eyed of demonkind who we now know are Princes (& Princesses) of Hell. I’m sure Jensen was glad to have less stunt work to learn too, since we needed to carve out as much time as possible for him with his twins being born during the production of this one. Dean picking up the broken lance was our way of still nodding to the connection between him and Michael… whether or not that pays in some way remains to be seen.
Mother Mary. That’s a tough situation. After all that, she still handed over the gun to the British Men of Letters — she didn’t even crack when they had Ramiel trapped and it could have been the key to saving Cas, even though she was 100% responsible for getting them into that mess in the first place. Just how big will the fallout be from that? And what’s it like, writing a mom like this? Mary Winchester was such a Madonna-like ideal, the white-clad nurturer, for so long, but season 12 dismantled that when the boys learned more about what she’s actually like as more of a peer.
The fallout from that, we’ll have to wait and see I guess. When I write Mary I write her as a Winchester with some Campbell gravitas. Right now she has an idea in her head that she’s doing the right thing but needs to keep it a secret to make sure the ones she loves stay safe. Bearing the cross for others, even to a fault, runs in the family. And we’ve all seen how well this has worked out in the past…
The music, the slo-mo walk, the glowing box, the title cards, the jump cuts. What ended up being your favorite Tarantino homage that you got to write in and see come to life?
It’s really hard to only choose one, but I’m gonna have to go with that diner scene opening. Watching the family together before it all goes down was such a joy, and they all had so much fun with the dialogue. Then BOOM: it goes right into Castiel bleeding out and you know you’re in for a thrill ride.
You’ve recently been up to Vancouver to visit the Supernatural set for the first time. Was it for the filming of another episode you wrote? Obviously the writers work out of LA — was this your first time meeting the cast and crew? Any stories to share about that?
I was visiting production during prep of episode 18, an upcoming episode written by John Bring. I got to meet so many people face-to-face that make this show happen. It was a pleasure to really understand all the hard work that goes into making Supernatural a success every week. It was educational and very inspirational.
You have dropped some delightful “breadcrumbs,” as I call them, on Twitter — music, especially, that might be relevant to what’s coming up in your episode. Just how much do you enjoy messing with people?
A lot, I enjoy it more than I should actually. I’m starting to feel like perhaps it’s time to be more careful because at some point my sarcasm and teasing may get taken the wrong way and it will create a kerosene pyre.
Can you give me some breadcrumbs (or any other hints) about your next episode “Somewhere Between Heaven and Hell,” airing on March 9?
My next episode was directed by Nina Lopez-Corrado, and it’s another fun one. It’s more of a straight ahead case of the week with some little surprises here and there. Both Sam and Dean have great moments, and we see both of them in all five acts, so that should make a lot of people happy. They even have scenes together! Oh yeah, and there’s a little bit of a wink to the audience that happens early on in the first act. I’m pretty sure most people will get what I’m talking about when they see it.