Monday, April 27, 2009

In Defense of Bela

SPN is, deservedly, known for its masculine characters (Dean and Sam, obviously, and John, who continues to shape the boys' lives and the show far beyond the eps Jeffrey Dean Morgan actually appeared in; Bobby; Castiel). But the writers also give us recurring female roles. In Season 2, we got Jo and Ellen. In Season 3, we get the juxtaposed Ruby--a demon who, strangely enough, wants to help and has most of her scenes with Sam--and Bela Talbot, a exploitative thief who has absolutely no interest in helping anyone but herself (although that doesn't stop her from asking the brothers' assistance) and has most of her scenes with Dean. For someone who only appeared in a half dozen episodes, Bela certainly got a strong fan reaction--much of it negative as far as I can tell. Several reviewers would devote whole paragraphs of their recap to snipe about her accent or what she was wearing; fans I've met at conventions turned nearly red-faced in their enthusiastic renumerations of why they didn't like her; some viewers were actually snoopy dancing in forums when Bela finally died in "Time Is On My Side." And I have to say, I don't get it. I actually liked Bela.

Okay, don't throw rotting produce at me. I know that Bela actively worked against our guys on more than one occasion and shot Sammy and snitched to Gordon on them. I mean, I'm not suggesting we nominate her for sainthood (which would be a waste of time anyway, since I think people who make deals with demons are automatically disqualified.) But I think she added a lot to the show.

A breath of fresh air

Bela was a thief ("a great thief") seemingly unencumbered with morals. And I don't know if you've noticed, but a lot of the people on Show are seriously encumbered. They're bogged down by curses, regrets, vengeance, angst. Oh dear heavens, the angst. You know I love Sam and Dean (especially Dean!) but between the two of them, they have enough baggage to put Louis Vuitton out of business. We began Season 2 with John's death and ended Season 2 with Sam's, so we came into Season 3 with a lot of heavy.* Bela's breezy unrepentance was actually kind of charming in the fun love-to-hate her way.

Maybe I was predisposed to like her because I thought that "Bad Day at Black Rock" (in which she was introduced) was a vastly entertaining episode that had good follow through with the past (Gordon in prison continuing to seek Sam's death) as well as forward momentum (setting up both Bela's and Gordon's return spots). Plus we got Bobby (calling Dean an ijit) and a slew of laugh out loud pratfalls and one-liners (Sam cracked me up as the world's tallest preschooler pouting, "I lost my shoe" but Dean's "I'm Batman" was probably my favorite.)

One criticism I've heard is that Bela's character, the "sophisticated" thief, is a bit of a cliche. And I'll admit, there was a similar character (Gwen) who guest starred a couple of times on Angel and Bela would probaly slip right into the ensemble of thieves and con artists over at TNT's "Leverage" (whose great cast includes Aldis Hodge, better known to the Winchesters as Jake Talley). Did the writers play off of a commonly established stereotype? Sure! But perhaps you've heard of the Chosen One, the Father Figure, the Trickster, the religious zealot? Kripke and Co. frequently borrow plot elements, folklore, familiar-feeling settings and archetypes. But then they weave it together and make their own show--in fact, I've argued before that their use of stuff already in our collective social psyche adds more oomph.

I also, personally, thought that the actress had good chemistry with Jensen Ackles. (I've always felt that, as a romantic, I should have been more affected by the season 1 ep where we meet Cassie, who was supposedly so much his True Love that he told her the family secret! Yet I got far more invested in his scenes with Lisa in season 3's "The Kids Are Alright" or even his brief interactions with Amy Acker's single mom in early 'sode "Dead in the Water.) When Dean breaks into Bela's loft to take back the rabbit's foot, she seems almost appreciative of that. And of him. (Some found her to be a little smirky and smug, but, um have you met Dean? Love him dearly, but argue that in this respect, Bela's a pretty well-matched opponent.) If she and Dean don't respect each other's professions (in light of Gordon's character, her comment about hunters being obsessed sociopaths wasn't completely off the mark) they seemed to respect each other's capabilities.

And Bela was capable.

I've heard people complain that there aren't strong or well-written women on the show. (Overall, I disagree, but we'll save that for another post). Bela had flaws--and, as it turned out, a relevant backstory--but she was strong, smart, sexy and occasionally got the drop on our boys. Honking her horn as she drove off with their lotto tickets and keeping the gun with the wine gave her style, and set her apart from the more frequent worlds of small town greasy spoon diners we normally see through the Winchesters' eyes. Even Bobby seemed to feel some grudging respect for her, if not affection. I wonder if people would have been more forgiving of her actions if they'd known sooner that she was a desperate woman looking for a way to break her deal with Lilith. Yes, she told Gordon where the boys were (although, he tracked her down and threatened to kill her), she shot Sam (in the shoulder. "I can aim.") and stole the Colt (not that it always worked the way it was supposed to, anyway). But she was trying to avoid a very specific and gruesome fate--the fact that she couldn't only added to the gravity and nail-biting tension of late Season 4, as we got closer and closer to Dean's own, er, expiration date.

Personally, I find it impressive that the writers crafted a character who, while bantering with Dean, could break the looming tension, then turn write around and use the same character's impending doom to heighten it! Besides, she also helped save Bobby in "Dream a Little Dream of Me" and she gave the boys info on Gordon. She wasn't all bad. She wasn't all good. She had some internal conflict, even if we weren't let in on it until late in the game, and her external conflict (scenes that pitted her against the boys) were often entertaining to watch.

Say what you will, I'll take Bela and Dean sizing each other up over watching someone get beat up/slice/tortured for ten minutes any day! (No, seriously, say what you will...I'm curious? Did you like her? Cheer when she left the show? Or was she so forgettable that you read this whole post thinking 'Bela who'? Share your opinion--and we know you have one--in the comments)

* Of course, when I watched Season 3, Season 4 did not yet exist. In retrospect, some of last year's "heavy" seems like cheeful children's programming...


Unknown said...

i found this blog via my google alerts for Jensen.... and i will say that i love and enjoy all the characters on Supernatural save one. alot of people didn't like Bela, and i'm sure a good number of those might have even been *shudsers* Wincesters.

when i started writing fic, i introduced a female character who was hitting on Dean. the advice i got was get her out of the picture and keep the brothers together. there is a large part of the fandom that is still like that even on the show, and that takes out some of my enjoyment in a very well done, smart scifi show.

i loved all the women characters and still do. (oh, and my original female character did hook up with Dean. heh.)

Anonymous said...

To be honest I neither hated Bela nor loved her. Yes, Bela was a walking cliche, but that wasn't the problem. Most of the hardcore fans are protective of the boys and anything or anyone that makes them look bad is reviled. Perhaps if Bela had only yanked their cranks once (i.e. the lotto tickets) the Bela hate wouldn't have been so bad...then again...

In my opinion Bela had potential, but the writers dropped the ball. Rather than sassy and tough, she just came off as an annoying pest that at times was relegated as a plot device. By the time we find out the truth about Bela I could have cared less. Perhaps it was because of the writer's strike that Bela was not explored as she should have been. I honestly don't know.

When she died I personally couldn't be bothered to shed a tear. After all to shed a tear I have to care and with Bela I just didn't.

Trish Milburn said...

Tanya, as usual, you make some excellent points. I didn't hate Bela, but I liked the original Ruby better. I did like what they brought to that season, and while I don't want to say negative things about Genevieve Cortese, I did like Katie's portrayal of Ruby better. It was interesting how much more I empathized with Bela in her final episode.

Anonymous said...

Thanks guys for stopping by!

>>>keep the brothers together

Obviously, Sam and Dean and their relationship, are the soul of SPN. But I'm trusting enough of the actors and writers to feel that they could add recurring secondary characters without jeopardizing the emotional core of the show. Done well, it could even add a new layer to enjoy.

>>Most of the hardcore fans are protective of the boys and anything or anyone that makes them look bad is reviled

Okay, I can see that as a valid point! Well put.


Anonymous said...

>>>while I don't want to say negative things about Genevieve Cortese, I did like Katie's portrayal of Ruby better

Oh, I liked Katie waaaaay better. I feel bad for Genevieve. I've never seen her in anything else. Maybe if she'd had the part originally, I would have liked her more, but I feel she suffers in comparison.

Anonymous said...

I completely agree with every single word of your post, Tanya. I loved Bela and I thought she brought a fresh and interesting dynamic to the show. Her scenes with Dean were some of my favorites for season 3 and I'm still sad that we never really got to watch their dynamic evolve. I think it would have helped if they had introduced her back story earlier, but honestly, the fandom was predisposed to hating her from the get-go so I doubt it would have made a huge difference in the long run.

Having said that, I do think the writers made some mistakes with the character, most obviously, they did have a tendency to dumb the boys down when she was around.

I do mourn the loss of potential for this character who started out like gang busters and kind of petered until her very last appearance when she was finally give a purpose in the show.

Ah well, there's always fanfiction right?

QueenBitch said...

I have to say that i absolutely love Bela. Hell i even shortened my name from Belinda to Bela. I loved that she beat them at their game, because they aren't genius as much as people would like to believe but they always did something to kick her up the arse. Sometimes you win some, sometimes you loose some. She was fun, manupulative, quirky and was sooooo funny. i loved how she outsmarted them, and i don't think the writers dulled Sam and Dean down at all. She, to me, is essentially the younger, bitchier, more selfish version of Bobby. She just happens to know more and she exploits whats she knows by using it against them whereas Bobby doesn't, but thats what made her fun and what i dig so much about her. I am a super diehard fan and i have to say she is without question she is my favourite female character, and there have been alot of excellent female characters on Supernatural.

Over and Out Be!a

Anonymous said...

>>>She, to me, is essentially the younger, bitchier, more selfish version of Bobby

LOL! That's a very interesting comparison and one I wouldn't have thought to make. Thanks for sharing.


Natalie J. Damschroder said...

I'm kind of with QueenBitch. I didn't LOVELOVELOVE Bela, but I thought her introduction was marvelous. I don't know what parts of her were supposed to be walking cliché, but I found her to be smart, clever, confident, and funny, and a great counterpoint to the boys. Her portrayal wasn't perfect all the way through, but I get a bit exasperated with the idea that Sam and Dean have to be perfect and can't be one-upped once in a while, too.

I bet jenshih-blue is right, too, about the writer's strike messing up their plans for her.

On the other Bela was received compared to, say, how Ellen and Pam have been received, should be a clear message to the network--hands off! The show is always much better when you let the writers and Kripke have their way! LOL

Just want to add a welcome to all the new names here! It's awesome to see so many new commenters!

Anonymous said...

I too liked Bela, and wished that the rather brilliant reveal of how she was linked to the mythology of the show had come earlier, so we would have had more perspective on her actions. In the Season Three Companion, Kripke notes that she was converted from a one-off to a recurring character because of studio pressure for more girls on the show, and laments that "we did a great disservice to the character because we didn't spend enough time thinking about how to tie her in to the boys' story". The other mistake he admitted to was having so much fun with her ability to screw the boys over that they went too far and made her irredeemable.

Sure running into Bela in "Red Sky" was contrived, but I enjoyed the '60s romantic comedy vibe so much I could easily forgive the improbability, and I loved how well she played off/reflected Dean, and his inarticulate but impassioned responses to her jibes. Her back story led me to thinking about what Dean would be like if he'd grown up alone, unloved, with the crushing guilt of knowing he'd killed his parents, the conviction that he was rightfully damned because of it, and the terrible fear of going to hell. I suspect he'd be a lot like Bela, determined to spend every penny she had or could get her hands on searching for a way to avoid her fate, while pretending that nothing mattered. It's interesting that she waited until literally the last possible moment to kill the boys, even knowing that was her only salvation, and knowing the likelihood that they would have twigged to her and either escaped or killed her first. A very interesting character. I mourn her.

QueenBitch said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
QueenBitch said...

(i deleted my previous comment because i wnted to add something)

>>>The other mistake he admitted to was having so much fun with her ability to screw the boys over that they went too far and made her irredeemable.

Is he kidding? He's kidding right. Well in my book he's kidding. and i know i already said in my last post but her ability to screw with them was what made me fall in love. (I'm a girl, straight, but you get the idea) and I'm glad they had fun with it because i had fun watching it and laughing my butt off, even though it wasnt as well recieved as initally though. To me, I'd love to see her back, just to pop in say and some quirky thing that i can quote.

I'm australian so i have yet to see Dean in hell if they are going to show that(otherwise that kind of defeats the purpose of calling 4.09 i know what u did last summer. Monday is coming and there i shall find out) but i am so curious as to whether Dean actually does see Bela in Hell. ( i do believe i just contradicted myself, considering the fact that the angels would not ressurect her because she is not, as Uriel said, 'Useful." whereas Dean was.)

Which randomly brings me to another topic. Are Fans Racist? Because Bela is was whatever, the only person who wasn't American, or a main character who wasn't at least. I'm not saying they are, but i thought that the english accent was a perfect addition and would not have it any other way and she is the person who cops the most crap. Or maybe they dislike her in a way where they have pick on EVERYTHING. I believe that for every bad thing (we're talking about someone you superbly dislike not half and half) you hate about someone there is something you like to the very slightest manner that you would never admit to and these people are just picking on everything, and it's not quietly either. Its annoying and really kind of sad, that in a show they truly love they pick endlessly on what may be its only fault(not in my oppinion, lol). Seriously i don't mind people having an oppinion, but there is a point where you just say "shut the hell up and get over it"

Unknown said...

An excellent and well written piece. Personally, I really liked Bela's character and I really wish they could have brought her back - even if it was just for one episode. Of course I love Supernatural, but a show that is just all the brothers all of the time is going to get boring. They need the female characters, especially the strong ones like Bela and the old Ruby who could hold their own against the boys.

wunderla said...


I loved Bella (and both Megs - but esp Second Meg - Who DIDN’T eventually adore Second Meg? - and both Rubys). But I really loved Bella for exactly the reasons you detailed here, and, for once! An unapologetic female Rogue! (And a complex equal for Dean). Purposefully or not, even their looks and coloring were harmonious, and as such they were two sides of the same coin; it would have been delightful to watch them slow burn, hate each other, love hating each other, hate loving each other, and have “angry sex” to prove it. More than that, though, I wanted to learn the how and whats of Bella, her backstory, her motivations, what made her tick what gave her complexity; but it was not to be. When they finally revealed said backstory they broke my heart, and then obliterated her, all in the same thirty seconds (that’s how they traditionally treated female characters in SPN, still do, to some extent, but I’ll never fully forgive them for their treatment of her...but, at least it wasn’t another Woman in the Fridge moment *cough*Charlie*cough*.). I’ve always believed they did it to placate the worst of their jealous female fans (they griped about her accent? She spent half her youth in England, and graduated from The University Of Winchester, for Pete’s sake), which to me was possibly the very worst reason on earth. Oh well. Thanks for coming to her defense, she really did deserve better.

wunderla said...

And P.S. I adored Jo, and the Roadhouse, and that whole crew. They killed her for the fans, too, didn’t they?