Not Exactly Parenting 101: Supernatural’s The Things We Left Behind
As mid season finales go, last night’s episode wouldn’t be at the top of my list, but I did enjoy it. And once again, the moon was blue, because my daughter did too. I really hope all these blue moons aren’t a portent of some terrible evil. Oh wait, that’s a good description of mid season hellatus, isn’t it?
Fandom is split on its thumbs up or thumbs down of “The Things We Left Behind”. Some fans were ecstatic to have a Cas-centric episode and others were disappointed that there weren’t enough Winchesters in the mid season finale. I was happy with much of what we got when it comes to Sam and Dean, but there probably will never be an episode where I think it’s “enough.” I have a feeling I could have Sam and Dean on my tv screen 24/7 and still be wanting more of them, so I’m really not a very reliable barometer. The first segment (pre commercial no. 1) was noticeably Winchester-light, which didn’t make me a happy fangirl. On the other hand, the few minutes we got were, in true Supernatural style, first horrifying, then heartwarming and ominous. Simultaneously.
The CW promos made it seem like this episode would be all about Dean and the awakening of the Mark, which made sense, since it’s a mid season finale. That’s the major arc of the season, so that would be the expected focus of the mid season finale. So when we open to Dean on his knees amidst bloody corpses, looking stricken and alone and absolutely lost, I was bouncing. Bring it, Show, bring it!
When we didn’t really return to that story line until the last two minutes? Not so much.
Not that I didn’t enjoy some of what was in between. I did. I just want more of what that promo promised. Of course, we soon find out that was just a dream – a fact that most of fandom was spoiled for. We’re used to the promos cobbling together bits and pieces that don’t necessarily go together in order to mislead us, so that ‘twist’ wasn’t really a twist at all.
Little did we know that Show had a more complex twist in store.
The other glimpse of the Winchesters before the first commercial should have been a heartwarming brother moment. Dean Winchester laughing uproariously over a Three Stooges episode, on the surface, should just be funny. I always find acted laughter a little awkward, but I have no trouble believing that Dean loves the Stooges. That he wants to share it with Sam is icing on the cake, and I should be sitting there beaming. Especially when Sam has cooked Dean a grilled cheese sandwich that’s literally dripping melted cheese, and Dean consumes it with so much pleasure that it sounds obscene – to me and to Sam. Yum.
But this is Supernatural, and we know that Dean’s not okay even if he’s trying really damn hard to seem it. Sam knows it too, but he desperately doesn’t want to believe it. I felt for Sam so much in that scene – it’s like if he keeps refusing to see the warning signs, if he keeps buying Dean’s attempts to act like he’s okay, that might make it true. How many times have the Winchesters done this for each other? It’s what we all do, when we care about someone and we’re terrified they’re not okay. When your best friend is depressed and you try to believe them when they say they’re fine, try to pretend everything is like it was, try to laugh along with them even when their laughter is hollow. When your child is sick and you can’t fix it and you just want to crawl into a well of denial and pretend. We all do it. Sam, in that scene, is so heartbreakingly human. And his love for Dean is so very evident. Jared did an amazing job conveying all those conflicting emotions, as Sam schools his face from worry to a smile he can’t quite pull off. But he wants to – oh, how he wants to.
Throughout the episode, we see Dean eating with a hunger that seems insatiable. Is it the Mark that’s hungry, and Dean has just been trying to sate it? With sex, with food, with slapstick? Or are we seeing Dean giving in to the Mark already, being hedonistic like he was when he was a demon? The third option is the most heartbreaking. Is this Dean trying hard to hang onto his humanity, trying to enjoy all the things he does as a man? Sex, food, the Three Stooges, time with Sam. Is he acting as if he’s the same, trying to convince himself (and Sam) that he’s okay?
Oh Dean. You break my heart like no other fictional character ever has.
We then veer away from the Winchesters to follow Claire Novak, whose life has clearly gone down the tubes since her father became Castiel’s vessel. The young actress (Kathryn Newton) had a lot of dialogue on her shoulders and she did a credible job.
The ‘troubled teen’ is such a staple on television that it’s become a stereotype, but most of the dialogue managed to avoid being unrealistic. That said, we got way more of Claire’s story than I was expecting in a mid season finale. She’s not a character I’m invested in, and I don’t expect so much focus on someone who isn’t a main characters in a mid season finale. Especially when it means I don’t get much time with the Winchesters.
The episode, penned by Andrew Dabb and directed by SPN favorite Guy Norman Bee, packed a lot into its 42 minutes, which is always a bit of a challenge. I don’t like jumping between story lines, which happened too often for the angel war story, so I was glad that this time Castiel’s arc was integrated with the Winchesters. I was a little confused as to why Cas actually needed the Winchesters’ help, but maybe it was as much psychological as practical. Cas seemed overwhelmed with his still-new more human feelings when it comes to Claire and the Novaks.
I liked that Claire didn’t pull any punches, lashing out at Castiel with all the fury of a child who has been abandoned once too often.
Claire: You killed my dad, is that wrong enough for you?
The moment when she tells Cas that she prayed to him, begging for him to bring her dad back, was particularly poignant. And Castiel’s broken, “I know” hit hard.
Misha did a stellar job of portraying Castiel’s initial confusion as he belatedly tries to do right by Claire, and his increasing guilt as he realizes just how much he’s effed up her life. This was Hannah’s realization too, but she was able to actually leave and give her vessel back a chance at life. I really felt for Cas, that he doesn’t have that chance. I think, if he did, he would have taken it. (Of course then we wouldn’t have Misha Collins as Cas, so I guess I’m ambivalent about that. Sorry, Jimmy.)
It’s no consolation to Claire that her father is in Heaven, which was totally realistic. Congrats, Andrew Dabb, for not letting Claire fold too easily and be grateful for Castiel’s return. I imagine she would have been more than a little undone by the fact that he looks exactly like her dead father.
Congrats too for the typically SPN mix of humor and anything but. I don’t know how we got so lucky on this Show, to have four regular actors who can all do comedy as well as drama, but Misha’s conversation with the social worker had me laughing out loud. Literally.
Cas: I fight certain threats to humanity.
Claire: He’s an exterminator.
Cas: I’m an exterminator.
Also, later in the episode…
Cas: I’m extremely old, I think I’m entitled.
Apparently that was an ad libbed line. Or at least that’s what Jared says. Who can tell, when the boys are engaged in a twitter war like five year olds?
Dean’s conversation with Cas over burgers – actually one burger – kept the Mark of Cain story line woven into Castiel’s a bit, which I liked. Dean is already afraid he’s going down that dark route, can already feel the pull of the Mark, and he remembers that darkness. He remembers what it was like to be a demon. The weight of that memory must be nearly unbearable.
Dean begging Cas to kill him if he goes dark side again was heartbreaking enough. When he made sure to tell Cas not to let Sam get in the way, “because he will”, I teared up. Dean meant it, that was clear. And he knows Sam loves him too much to be the one to kill him. I think I got so emotional because I experienced that as healing, both for Dean and for me as a viewer. I think he believes it now, that Sam can’t kill him any more than he can kill Sam. That’s what I missed horribly in Season 9, that symmetry; it’s what I love about the brothers.
Sam didn’t get alot of screen time in this episode, but what he got, Padalecki made good use of. Not sure I’m a fan of what they’re doing with Sam’s hair this season though. Why so short and shaped, Sammy?
The scene in the Tiki bar was strange. I liked it, but the more I think about it, the more it tugs at me. I absolutely love getting glimpses of the Winchesters’ past, and hearing them talk about John made me squeeful while I was watching. I love that the brothers tell the story together, finishing each other’s sentences and sharing the memory. And I have no doubt that both Dean and Sam have come to terms with their father’s parenting of them, especially after his death. It’s the psychologically healthy thing to do (yes, I’m calling the Winchesters psychologically healthy for once, can you believe it?). We all need to make sense of the way we were parented, even if it was the most effed up parenting imaginable.
So I’m not surprised that Dean said that yes, he loved his dad with everything he had. I’m not surprised that the memory that both he and Sam choose to hang onto and relate to Cas is a story of being cared for and protected and saved. It’s what they actually didn’t have much of – a sense of safety and security. It’s what they’ve organized their adult lives around, trying to provide that sense of protection for other people as they literally save them. So of course they would make a time when John did swoop in and ‘save the day’ a pivotal scene from their shared life narrative. I get it, I do. It made sense, and I’m going to give Dabb the benefit of the doubt and say that he wrote it knowing it wasn’t an incident that was very representative of John Winchester’s parenting to anyone but his sons, who are invested in hanging onto the memory.
If that’s the case, the scene can work perfectly. But there’s too much canon evidence that John was far from that reliable caretaker most of the time. He might have been there that one time, but much of the time, he was not. He left two very young boys alone to fend for themselves, and shaped Dean into a caretaker himself when he was still in elementary school. Dean – and Sam – are still paying the price for that abandonment to this day, as they struggle to find ways to love each other that don’t revolve around the caretaker role forced on Dean when he was eight. That is not, in any way, shape or form, ‘raising them right.’ The Winchesters have worked their way around to believing that’s what their dad was doing, but it’s pretty damn far from true.
Just don’t retcon who Papa Winchester is because Jeffrey Dean Morgan might finally be coming back, okay, Show? We all want him back and we’ll take him as the imperfect father figure he is and enjoy the hell out of the complex effed up relationship he has with his sons anyway. You don’t need to turn him into a paragon of virtue – because that, I won’t believe.
Also, that story itself? What an odd choice. Apparently all that fanfiction about Dean being roofied is now canon. Huh.
Oh, but CBGB’s? Blondie and the Ramones? Awesome reference. Love that Guy Norman Bee wore his CBGB’s tee shirt during filming.
Anyway, back to the story. Oh wait, there’s another story too. My bad. This one stars Crowley and his mother, the recently returned witch Rowena. I could listen to Ruth Connell talk pretty much forever, and I feel similarly about Mark Sheppard, so I love the two of them together. (Even though what I said about this episode being busy? It’s still true.)
The theme of this episode is parenting, good and bad but mostly bad, and the legacy that leaves for the damaged children. For the Winchesters and Claire and even Cas, that means daddy issues, but for Crowley it’s all about his mum. (In part because he was conceived during the winter solstice orgy while Rowena wasn’t exactly taking names…ouch.) We’ve known for a while now that Crowley really does just want to be loved, and Rowena figures it out easily enough. She plays her son expertly, with a kiss on the forehead and the promise of being there – the things that Fergus never had and always wanted. The missing mother returns, and Crowley’s lingering humanity make the lure of having her again irresistible. As much as Crowley is a bad guy, I really felt for him in those scenes. Being abandoned at eight….and his plaintive “I could juggle…”
Kudos again, Andrew Dabb, for making that hurt so much. It’s just what a child would say who had been abandoned, just how hard they would try to make themselves worthy and lovable. It will be hard for me to ever hate Crowley, knowing what I now know. I hope that was the intention.
And Rowena, as much as I love her….how harsh was it when she left behind the demon who lied for her (in order to off poor loyal Gerald)?
Both Connell and Sheppard are doing a fabulous job making these characters absolutely delicious in their interactions with each other. I love Crowley’s vulnerability and Rowena’s manipulation, and I can’t wait to see where they’re headed.
Okay, back to the other story. The other other story. So Claire runs away from poor Cas (how heartbreaking was it when he ran out into the street calling after her?) and back to Randy, who is just one more example of problematic father figures in this episode (and on this Show, who am I kidding?) What makes this guy interesting is that he happens to be played by Roark Critchlow, who co-starred with Jensen Ackles a long long time ago on Days of our Lives. Also, they sang a rendition of the Beatles ‘I Saw Her Standing There’ that’s been on my playlist for about a decade. I never watched DOOL, but I love when guest actors on the show have a history with the cast or crew.
Anyway, that’s pretty much the only good thing about Randy, who seems to have a twisted sense of caring about Claire but is mostly interested in gambling and is frighteningly easy to convince that handing her over to the bad guys to pay off his debts is the only way to go. Claire fights like a wildcat but is about to be overpowered when other-substitute-father-figure Cas bursts in the door and knocks bad guy down. Claire then takes over, and I’m pretty sure a lot of us were cheering when she kicked him in the nuts.
After pondering for 24 hours, I like what this episode had to say about the consequences of how we’re parented. Each story commented on that theme in a different way, but the common thread was how devastating it is for a child to be the ‘thing left behind’. Claire, abandoned by her father so he could go follow his own ‘quest’ and then by her mother. Taken in by Randy but quickly left behind to pay off a gambling debt. Crowley, devalued and then abandoned at eight by a mother who was more concerned about saving her own hide. Gerald, whose mother burned him with cigarettes. Sam and Dean, who lost their mother way too soon and then were left behind repeatedly by their father as he pursued his own ‘quest’. And Castiel, whose father was always absent, whose loneliness is even more evident now that he’s experienced being human. They’re all damaged; they were all ‘things left behind.’
Then, as the episode is almost over, comes the second twist of the evening. That horrific scene that turned out to be a dream, as expected? Was a premonition. We know it before the last cut-away, as Cas takes Claire to the car with Sam, and Dean is left behind. We know it with a sinking certainty as we see the look on Dean’s face, as the bad guys don’t back off. I started screaming NOOOOOOOO at my television set, hoping Sam would burst through the door just in time, or Dean would regain control, or something else that I knew wasn’t going to happen.
It was doubly horrible because we’d seen it once and then let out a sigh of relief that it was a dream. A classic horror trope, but it was used well here. I’m pretty sure I kept babbling No No No No for an alarmingly long time, as Sam got into the car and then realized Dean wasn’t behind them. Then we got slow motion Sam turning back to the house, his long hair swept back dramatically, but I couldn’t even appreciate the beauty of that because OMG Sam HURRY UP and get to your brother! Now is no time to inexplicably move in slow motion!
And oh god.
Sam’s face when he sees Dean on his knees, bodies slashed around him, bloodied.
The way he goes to his knees too, takes Dean’s face in his hands. It’s one of the ways the Winchesters check on each other, a gesture we’ve seen again and again over the ten seasons we’ve known them. The way Dean cradled Sam when he died that first time, from Jake’s knife in his back. The way Sam held Dean as he died at the end of last season. It holds as much power for us watching as it does for them, speaking volumes of the way they love each other. All that history makes it hurt even more when we see how frightened Sam is for Dean, how desperate he is to find an alternate explanation for what has happened. So desperate that he begs Dean to lie to him.
Sam: Tell me you had to do this.
Dean (brokenly): I did…I didn’t mean to.
Sam: Tell me you had no choice.
And Dean can’t. He doesn’t lie to his brother, he can’t do it. He just kneels there, a lost little boy cradled in his brother’s hands, terrified by what he’s done, sobbing “I didn’t mean to.”
Cas and Claire come back into the room (why Cas would bring Claire back inside when he must have known what he’d find is beyond me – another instance of major parenting fail?) Cas is there long enough to register the horror of it too – and for a moment, we see the weight of his promise to Dean on his face before he hurries Claire out of there, trying (belatedly once again) to protect her from the carnage.
And true to its sadistic heritage from way back in the Kripke era, that’s where Show leaves me. In a puddle on the floor, with my daughter wondering about my priorities as I gnash my teeth over a fictional character. Pretty sure my voice joined a chorus of fans around the world all yelling ‘DEEEEEEAAAAAN!’
As usual, I stayed up for the west coast feed for the live tweets. Jensen was still working (Jared’s response? BOO!) but Jared and Misha tweeted back and forth at each other amusingly, essentially calling each other names. Boys.
Jared also let us know that he and Jensen really did crack up over the Three Stooges episode, which nobody who has ever seen them at a con or actually anywhere would doubt for an instant.
Jared provided the requisite “here I am live tweeting” selfie:
Mark Sheppard and Ruth Connell tweeted each other too, with her calling him “Marky” and saying “thank you my petal xxxx”. Awwww.
Misha ended up over at Lauren Tom’s house to watch the episode with a giant bowl of popcorn when his cable went out.
Lauren: They reassembled Misha Collins very well. Still cute.
Guy Norman Bee tweeted that Jensen ate so many of those grilled cheese sandwiches that the roof of his mouth was bleeding. Now that’s dedication!
And he also provided this priceless pic of Ackles kidding around during the filming of that anything-but-funny scene. I burst into laughter seeing it, remembering the time we were in the green room at a con waiting to do an interview. Jensen came over and out of nowhere decided to help us pass the time by demonstrating his unique ability to cross one eye and not the other, which totally freaked me out. I screamed, he was delighted, and then that continued for a ridiculously long time, as Kathy laughed at both of us acting like children. I can’t help it, it’s alarming!
And Osric Chau had the heart-rending tweet of the night when he said he hoped that this mid season finale didn’t kill him like the last one did [the death of Kevin]. Ouch.
His little tweet exchange with me was more light-hearted.
Osric: Watching Dean is half food porn. He always makes me hungry.
Me: Me too. In more ways than one.
Osric: Lol. Reading the first Fangasm book right now.. I have imagery in my head at the ready for that statement.
Me: I bet you do considering you’re reading Fangasm. Umm, sorry? #lying
Osric: Meaning I can imagine a “hungry” Lynn. And a stoic Katherine.
Oh dear. He knows me so well.
So here we are, facing a mid season hellatus. As much as the last scene tore me up, it also left me climbing the walls having to wait until January for more. And that, as always, is a good thing. As my twitter dash put it:
“NOOOO! BUT YESSSSS!” — the Supernatural fandom on the topic of the Mark of Cain
In the meantime, get through hellatus the same way Osric Chau is – try reading Fangasm: Supernatural Fangirls or Fan Phenomena: Supernatural. Or pick them up for holiday gifts, for the Supernatural fans on your list – or to treat yourself! On sale now at the links at the top of this page.