It’s almost impossible to review this episode as a single thing. There was the Monster of the Week episode, which had to do with Garth and the definition of ‘monster’ that SPN has often considered. And there was the last three minutes, which was something completely different.
First, the MotW portion. I’ve liked Garth well enough in the past, but not so much that I was clamoring for his return. I liked him in this episode, though. He’s more interesting as a werewolf – sorry, lycanthrope – than as an unlikely (often comic relief) hunter. Adam Glass let us get to know Garth a bit better, and DJ Qualls gets to invest the character with some emotional vulnerability. His relationship with his new wife comes off as touching, even if it did apparently get very serious very fast (I suppose becoming a werewolf and then having one sniff you out and save your life will move you to the alter pretty quickly).
Supernatural has always used the monster-of-the-week story to parallel what’s happening with the brothers, and Adam Glass kept up that tradition here. The Reverend’s warning to Dean about the cost of revenge, and the way he lived through the same loss as John Winchester but chose such a different path, thinking more of his child and less of his own need for revenge, was a nice touch. Surprisingly, Dean was able to hear this message, even though this was the turned-on-its-head ‘hunter killed my monster wife’ instead of the Winchester family history. I liked that Glass let us see Garth’s reaction to Kevin’s death, and that their conversation gave us a chance to see once again how raw that pain still is for Dean. Even the conveniently long bad stepmom speech held some parallels – she’s been driven to a path of mindless revenge by the loss of her little brother. We all know someone else who’s repeatedly been driven to desperate means by the threat of their little brother’s death, don’t we?
I also liked the little twists and turns in the script, even if I could see some of them coming. The good guy sheriff surprised me by being a bad guy – but of course any group of people singing ‘Bringing in the Sheaves’ and dressed like that were going to turn out to be bad!
So the standalone story worked for me, but most of my energy was invested in analyzing every moment of interaction between Sam and Dean throughout the first 57 minutes. The preview repeated the boys’ breakup scene, highlighting Dean telling Sam, “People who get close to me, they end up dead – or worse.” That seemed significant to my analytical-in-overdrive little brain. Was Dean acknowledging that allowing Gadreel to possess Sam turned out to be perhaps worse than death? Was that his attempt at an apology even then? I hadn’t really caught it before, but it seems like Dean not only wanted to protect Sam by leaving, but was acknowledging that he had done something wrong when he let Gadreel possess Sam.
Throughout the MotW portion of the episode, I have to say the boys were just the way I like them. First, they both looked obscenely good. Sam in that suit with his hair the absolutely perfect length and style (in my humble opinion) and Dean with his scruffy break-up beard that just brought out the green of his eyes even more (and if his jeans get any tighter I won’t be responsible for the content of my live tweets anymore).
I also liked that Glass’ script showed off both brothers’ intellectual competence and physical prowess. Mmm, that sounds nice, doesn’t it? Physical prowess…. It’s no secret that smart!boys are a turn on for me, and both Sam and Dean got to trade off smarts here. Sam slaps Garth awake instead of Dean’s questionable adrenaline tactics, and it’s Sam who notices that it’s too quiet for Garth to still be in the bathroom. My guess is that Sam was purposely trying to keep the wicked stepmom talking in the barn too, hoping Dean would get there in time. And that moment when Dean tried to bullshit Sam about the camera being turned the wrong way so Sam will leave, and Sam cuts him off and confronts him? Hahaha. The flabbergasted look on Dean’s face, and Sam’s look of “Really?” When Sam says all serious-like, “no games,” damn! I don’t know who could hear that sort of command and not snap to attention. Like I said, smart!Sam is sexy.
Dean got to show off his smarts too. He realizes that the freshly killed deer is a little too fresh, and is able to recognize that the Reverend isn’t lying about being in the dark about Ragnarok. And that whole taking off his jacket to lure the bad guys and then wearing one of theirs to disguise his scent? Damn!
I also have a bit of a thing for the brothers working in sync, which happened a lot in the early seasons. Thank you, Adam Glass, for making that happen again here. Even when they’re not getting along, Sam and Dean have been fighting side by side for so long that they make it look like a well choreographed dance, smooth as silk and deadly effective. Dean’s hand signals to Sam are instantly understood and acted upon (I might have actually squealed out loud the first time that happened in this episode – I definitely did when it happened more than once!) It’s obvious throughout the episode that they are such a good team. Dean works on instinct and sometimes shoulders ahead too quickly; Sam reins him in and thinks things through. It felt so right when they were both leaning back against the hood of the Impala, shoulder to shoulder, and Dean listens to Sam’s “C’mon man, let’s do this right.”
I might have a bit of a competence kink too, because I loved that Glass let both the boys show off their (sorry, I have to say it again) prowess. Sam using those long legs to kick the gun out of wicked stepmom’s hand even though he was tied to a tractor (Sam’s tied up, it must be Tuesday…). Dean throwing that knife right to the center of the sheriff’s chest before he can even move towards them. Sam taking about .02 seconds to pick the lock of Garth’s door. Dean doing the research to figure out Ragnarok. These are the Winchesters I fell in love with – smart, competent, hot as hell. Of course, they’re also headstrong and emotionally effed up and have been traumatized so many times I have no clue how they can even string two words together anymore. I do know that – so maybe I should have seen the last three minutes coming.
Throughout the episode, I hung on every word the brothers said to each other, and over-analyzed every wordless glance they sent in the others’ direction. From the second they surprised each other in Garth’s hospital room, every look and word was loaded. Neither wanted to be caught looking at the other, but they both kept casting furtive glances, trying to figure out what the other was thinking. While there was a whole lot of awkward between them, it was also clear that they’d missed each other – they both wanted to know what had happened when they were apart, and neither of them really likes to hear that the other is working with someone else. Dean scoffs when he hears that Cas has been helping Sam, making uncomfortable jokes to cover his resentment. That’s Dean’s job, in his mind, even though he’s the one who messed up and he’s the one who left.
On my first watch of the episode, I was furious that Sam didn’t seem to care about Dean having gotten himself marked by Cain – by the third watch, I saw his reaction differently. Sam initially seems concerned when he asks about the burn on Dean’s arm, especially when Dean tells the truth and says it was given to him by Cain. But as soon as Dean mentions hunting with Crowley, Sam gets stuck on that part and switches back to being angry. Both of them have, in the past, been scornful of anyone else they’ve partnered with in terms of working a job, and this time was no exception. In fact, they both seemed a wee bit jealous of each other’s new partner. They may be estranged, but they’re clearly still all tangled up in each other. (Which makes me secretly gleeful.) Sam still reminds Dean to be careful, and Dean still reacts to Sam not answering his phone by taking off after him in the Impala with tires screeching.
There were plenty of other things I enjoyed about the MOTW story. Dean’s disgusted look when he sits down to dinner with Garth’s pack and everyone is eating raw meat with far too much bloody gusto.
The way the wicked stepmom looks at Sam and her cheeky “Well don’t you look good enough to eat?” Gotta say, I completely agree with her.
I liked Garth’s hugs goodbye, and the way Dean came around to a (somewhat reluctant) acceptance of the lycanthropes. “Don’t let that go,” he tells Garth about his newfound family, and I think to myself, he’s talking about him and Sam too. I started to hope that Dean would change his mind about not hunting with Sam “for his own good”. I started to hope for some reconciliation. Oh, silly me. Haven’t I learned over 9 years of watching this Show that my heart is more likely to get broken in the last five minutes than anything else?? I actually thought I had made it through an episode without needing my always-at-the-ready box of tissues. Then the last scene hit me with ALL THE FEELS. A whole box full.
I’m not sure you could find words that would gut me – and Dean — more than for Sam to say that he and Dean could work together, but not be brothers. I get that he’s angry and that he’s finding it hard to trust Dean, who lies to Sam when he thinks it’s for his own good (and really, who likes that??) (Both of them have done the ‘lying to you for your own good thing’ far too often). And I guess it shouldn’t be surprising that Sam, who knows Dean better than anyone, would know how to cut him the deepest. I just didn’t expect it to feel like it was cutting me in two at the same time. Sam and Dean being brothers, with all that means, is what I love about this Show and why I watch it. I’m willing to hang on for the long road back if that’s what it will take, but damn, I don’t have to like it. Right now, it’s too painful to be pleasurable, even if it turns out to be good storytelling in the long run.
That whole scene was agonizing. (Though I like the way Glass wrote the dialogue as stilted and often trailing off into silence – the Winchesters, after all, have never been good at talking to each other.) It just hurt so much. Dean getting out of the car and going after Sam, his awkwardness as he struggles to apologize (but of course doesn’t manage to get the actual words out, because….Dean Winchester…), his attempt to use the code of ‘we’re family’ to explain what he did and why, and Sam’s refusal to buy it. To Dean, that’s explanation enough, explanation for everything. To Sam, that’s not enough.
I’m not sure the word holds quite the same meaning for Sam as it does for Dean. Sam grew up with a family, because Dean made sure of that, and Sam ended up secure enough to take it for granted like most of us do when we’re adolescents – it’s what let him walk away. Dean has never been able to do that. Family means everything to Dean, because he’s always terrified he’s about to lose it. He doesn’t define it narrowly – it includes Cas and Bobby and Kevin and Charlie too – but Sam has always been first and foremost. It’s not that Sam hasn’t valued family too. I remember when Sam said, “You’re my brother. There’s nothing I wouldn’t do for you.” I remember the end of Season 5, when Sam remembering that he and Dean were family, and their shared lives together, literally gave him the strength to take control from Lucifer and save the world. That was Kripke’s message, and it’s too much a part of the heart and soul of Supernatural to forget.
I swear I could see Dean’s heart breaking when Sam looks him in the eye and says they’re not brothers – thanks Jensen, for portraying Dean’s barely stifled emotions so poignantly that it just about broke my heart too. I keep remembering the last time I asked Jensen about Dean’s emotional state in S9, and he got so serious and talked about Dean being in such a dark place, so dark that it was a struggle to shake it off at the end of the day. I know that Jensen has said before that when the brothers aren’t themselves, and he doesn’t have that familiar relationship to fall back on, it makes the job harder. Jared and Jensen are so close in real life – so much brothers – that having Sam and Dean not be must be really effing hard for them.
Adam Glass tweeted a reminder to a distraught fandom: “Remember everyone that conflict is good for story. And becuz something is happening now doesn’t mean it’s forever. It’s for now.
He’s right. But the conflict has to be believable and consistent with the rest of the narrative. A lot of people (me included) got stuck on the fact that we’ve seen the brothers at odds in similar ways before. When they walked away from Benny and Amelia in Season 8, Sam had the same sort of doubts about working with Dean, and it was painful. (The whole first half of Season 8 was painful, for that matter). The second half, and especially the finale episode, healed a lot of that pain – for the brothers and for the fandom. That emotionally powerful scene in ‘Sacrifice’ that saw the brothers reaffirming their love and commitment to each other was one of my favorite scenes in the entire series – it was important. Dean asked Sam to prioritize his own life – told Sam, perhaps for the first time in words, how much Dean valued Sam’s life – and Sam made a choice to stay alive and be with Dean. As much as we joke about it being “the commitment ceremony in the church,” it was something that carried a lot of meaning. To us — and to them.
What was disturbing about Sam’s speech to Dean at the end of this episode was that he seemed to conflate what Dean said at the church – which was a heartfelt admission of his love for Sam and his valuing of Sam – with what Dean did with Gadreel. At the church, it wasn’t Dean tricking Sam into anything or making a choice for him – it was Dean asking Sam to choose life and to choose them. And Sam did. He chose. The situation with Gadreel was different, and more disturbing. I think, in Dean’s rationalization of what happened, he essentially let Gadreel go in and say to Sam exactly what Dean himself would have said if he could have “gone in”. And Sam would have chosen to say yes to Dean then for real – it would have been his choice (though an ill-informed one). He was trusting Dean to do whatever he had planned to save Sam, and saying yes to that even without knowing exactly what “that” was. In Dean’s eyes, that was what did happen. He thought he had a way to save Sam – he believed Gadreel (because he wanted desperately to) and so, in that moment of such great distress and panic, he went along with Gadreel’s trick. Maybe at the time, Dean rationalized it as a way for him to communicate with Sam (through Gadreel) and convince Sam not to choose death.
Most of us didn’t see it that way. It was clear that Dean wasn’t thinking very clearly (Sam was dying, so obviously…) and that what he did would have dire consequences. But I can at least understand his mind set and how he rationalized what he was doing. I can also understand Sam’s horror — to Sam, he was absolutely tricked. He thought he was talking to Dean – and he wasn’t. You can’t make an informed choice based on misleading information, and Sam certainly didn’t knowingly choose to be possessed.
I was so horrified by this turn of events at the time that I convinced myself that it really was Dean talking to Sam in that cabin with Death (it wasn’t clear from what we saw in the actual episode). I wanted that to be true so badly that I asked Jensen about it at a con and then argued with him when he said no, that was Gadreel the whole time. I kept saying no no no, it can’t have been, that must have been Dean! I so wanted those words to be Dean’s (“They’re ain’t no me if there ain’t no you.”) that I literally tried to talk the actor who portrays Dean out of his interpretation of the scene. *is embarrassed*
With the benefit of hindsight, I still think that the words were Dean’s, even if the delivery wasn’t. Gadreel could see into both of them, so he knew exactly what Dean would say if he were actually in there. (And that Sam would trust his brother and say yes). Dean was able to rationalize it as a way for him to speak to Sam while Sam was in a coma. But now it looks like Dean is finally beginning to understand that what he did had huge consequences for Sam, that it “took a piece of him.” His rationalization for what he did is breaking down. (“What’s right is wrong, and what’s wrong is more wrong.”) He must know that Sam has had his choice taken away far too many times – Azazel, Lucifer, Meg, Ruby – so for Dean to let him be possessed by Gadreel is even more horrible. Even if it was to save his life. Even worse, I think to Sam it seems to negate what Dean said in the church, what Sam so needs to believe – that Dean loves him, respects him, values him. Maybe it feels to Sam like those were hollow words said to manipulate him at the time – but please, writers, tell me that YOU don’t believe that! Please don’t conflate the two events and define them both as the result of a needy and selfish Dean manipulating Sam. I don’t – can’t – believe that’s true. It takes away from the power of that scene in the church, one of my favorites in the entire Show, to now imply that Dean did something wrong there, that Sam didn’t have a choice, that Dean was wrong to want to save his brother. There were huge consequences, yes, but don’t tell me that moment didn’t mean anything to them! I need that emotional bond between the brothers as the entry point through which I invest in the Show.
I can understand Sam being angry and hurt and lashing out, so for now I’m putting his conflating the two things down to that – and also his insistence that “everything that’s gone wrong between us is because we’re family.” That’s just not true – the whole debacle with Ruby happened because Sam walked away from family, and Sam was able to save the world and kick out Lucifer because of family. Kripke ended his tenure as showrunner emphasizing that being family was the most important thing of all. What Sam said seems like a big bit of revisionist history, and I’m hoping it’s because of Sam’s emotional state and not an actual piece of revisionist canon.
So where are we going? I don’t know, but I know where I wish we could go. It can’t always be Dean saving Sam. Yes, that’s a major theme of the show, and it worked really well for the first few seasons, when Sam still looked like a vulnerable little brother with a forehead-covering mop of hair, skinny and wide eyed. He’s not that boy anymore – visibly for sure, but any innocence Sam Winchester still had when he went to Stanford is long gone. Dean has done all sorts of things to save Sam time after time, and while I think Sam is grateful, he also feels resentful – too often, Dean did what he did without giving Sam any choice in the matter, and it inevitably becomes uncomfortable if a relationship is too one-sided when it comes to sacrifice. It turns one person into a martyr and the other into a victim. And nobody is happy.
It doesn’t have to be that way though. Sam is big and strong and grown up (damn, is he ever – if you have any doubt, check out the episode preview for next week…) and he’s asserting his strength and independence. Unfortunately, he’s asserting it right now by stomping his feet and saying ‘stop making decisions for me or I’ll stop being your brother’. OUCH. In order to go forward, they have to stop having the same arguments over and over. Believe me, I love their codependence more than I can say – but they can be codependent in a much less stuck way by making their mutual dependence much more “co”. Dean is a freaking mess right now, emotionally broken and so desperate that he even tried to tell Sam the truth about it and ask for help, in his own emotionally stilted and awkward way. He was honest for a change, which is a little bit of growth – Sam was too. It’s fine for Sam to be angry. It’s even fine for Sam to need to punish Dean for a while – but surely they can each empathize with the other’s feelings. Sam has also lied to and manipulated Dean in his well-intentioned alliance with Ruby, so he knows what it’s like to have to earn back trust. Dean has also felt betrayed and knows what it feels like to be tricked and lied to. I have to believe that deep down these two still love each other more than anything else on earth.
Maybe we have the perfect set-up for something many fans have been clamoring for over multiple seasons — for Sam to save Dean for a change. Dean’s a mess, and he’s set himself up for something tragic by taking on the mark of Cain. Who better to save him than the all-grown-up little brother who actually does love him? That would go a helluva long way toward healing Sam’s resentment at always being the “victim” and instead let him prove his independence – at the same time, it would prove to Dean that he’s not in this relationship alone. The brothers can go back to liking each other and working as a team and having some fun in between the inevitable apocalyptic crises, and maybe they can take turns saving each other’s (very fine) asses for another season.
What do you think? Fandom was sharply divided in their reaction to this episode, with a whole helluva lot of emotion swirling around the internet.
Fandom portion #1: Sam went too far!
Fandom portion #2: Sam didn’t go far enough!
Fandom portion #3: Where the hell is Cas?
There was also a ton of insightful meta and reviews on what went right with the episode and what went wrong. Do you agree or disagree with me? What do YOU want to see happen next? Tell me in the comments!
I’ll leave you with a few upbeat things. Here’s a an adorable behind the scenes pic tweeted by DJ Qualls:
And thankfully, fanfic and fanart make everything better:
All together now — Awwwwwww.