“It’s a Terrible Life” Except Every Time We Watch it We Realize it’s Our Lives

Dean from Supernatural

I’ve been a big fan of Supernatural for a few months now (just got to season 5) and when I was watching the episode It’s a Terrible Life I was struck by how critical of work it was. So I thought I’d do a bit of an episode review and interweave some anti-work commentary into it.

But before I do that, let’s back up.

Supernatural, for those unaware, is about two brothers named Sam and Dean Winchester whose job it is to hunt ghosts, ghouls and vampires, etc. In their world all of these creatures (and many many others) are all very real. Whether the monsters are seeking revenge, hungry or want to take over the world it’s up to the Winchester brothers to stop them.

But sorry, no Bigfoot.

Anyways, that’s the basic premise of the show. By the time we reach It’s a Terrible Life (season 4) the show is well past your typical “monster of the week” format that it started with. I won’t get into specifics because I don’t want to spoil anything but suffice it to say the whole series is worth watching.

In this episode Sam and Dean wake up in corporate offices having to do very menial things for different very levels of pay. Sam is assigned the task of taking calls about how to fix printers. The line, “Have you tried turning it off and then restarting?” is used more than once to humorous effect. While Dean is more of an upper echelon individual in the corporation, handling meetings and finances and driving a Prius while listening to NPR on the radio, instead of hard rock.

If you’ve seen the show enough times, you know that something seems off. Hell, just by reading my description of the show you probably could have guessed that things seemed wrong. But it isn’t just the wrongness of the situation but the level of humor and wit the show brings with it to showcase life in a giant and faceless corporation.

The episode is very reminiscent of movies like Office Space (you can read my review of that here) but it spends its time a lot more wisely and narrowly than Office Space does. It’s easy to make fun of the cubicle life, it’s an easy target and whereas Office Space seems to constantly hit you over the top of the head with it, Supernatural just adds light touches.

That being said, while there’s some light touches the episode itself revolves around a rather harsh theme: a growing list of co-workers are suddenly becoming workaholics and committing suicide at the slightest mistake. Sam is shown as someone who is frustrated with the way his life is going and feels like he should do more He’s got a co-worker who he who steals pencils from the corporation, doesn’t wear the uniform to work and generally tries to slack off.

But when his co-worker comes back from a meeting with one of their managers, suddenly he’s had the “fear of God” put into him, as one character puts it. He starts working as hard as he can and treats every possible second like it must be dedicated to his job. He has no real identity of his own past working or putting energy into whatever the corporation asks of him and ends up, like several other co-workers, killing himself.

None of these things seem like particularly “light touches” but as I said, that central premise and plot is harsh but their are plenty of small moments that really add to the oppressive environment. And even the environment itself adds a lot to that when we get overhead shots of the cubicles. Or when we see sticky notes above microwaves about the dangerous of putting fish in there for too long. Or the general tedium of Sam’s job and how he responds to it.

So, grim as the central premise may be, it’s a rather instructive look at the way people feel about their jobs and it’s all wrapped around a cast of characters we already know and love. It’s treated in a serious way but also in a bitting and humorous way that I feel captures what Office Space was trying to do, except better.

There’s a really good quote from this episode, a few actually:

Sam: I just can’t shake this feeling like I- Like I don’t belong here. You know what I mean? Like I should do something more than sit in a cubicle.

Dean: I think most people who work in a cubicle feel that way.

Most people these days feel like they should get more out of their lives than doing whatever their bosses tell them to do. To make up for my own lack of meaning at work I try to inject as much meaning by bringing books, trying to make customers smile (if I have the energy) and making the day more bearable for my co-worker.

It’s not perfect, but all of these things help me get through the day and make me feel like I’m actually accomplishing something. When I finished re-reading The Picture of Dorian Gray my life felt enriched not just by the experience itself (it’s a terrific book) but by the fact that I finished it while I was supposed to be working.

Most of that book I read while I was supposedly “on the job” but during my downtime where I could keep an eye out for my manager(s) or co-worker(s) who might try to bust me for reading. So there’s a feeling of accomplishment that I get from having finished books, especially books I might not read otherwise in my spare time. I use work as a way to do things I might not have time to do otherwise. I mean, I’m bored out of my mind, why not?

I won’t source this second quote for fear of spoilers but it’s a good one:

All I’m saying is it’s how you look at it. Most folks live and die without moving anything more than the dirt it takes to bury them. You get to change things. Save people, maybe even the world. All the while you drive a classic car and fornicate with women. This isn’t a curse. It’s a gift. So for God’s sakes, Dean, quit whining about it. Look around. There are plenty of fates worse than yours. So are you with me? You wanna go steam yourself another latte? Or are you ready to stand up and be who you really are?

This episode is more than just about criticizing work for how inane and soul-sucking it can be in our lives, but it’s still a core part of the episode. The worst fear for two people who do so much with their lives, have helped so many and give so much of themselves for what they do, they have their worst fears as well.

And for many of us, their worst fears, are our realities.

Let’s end that.

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