A Great Big Beautiful Collaboration: Supernatural ‘Just My Imagination’
It’s taken me three days to write up this review, because there was so much to like about ‘Just My Imagination’. I’m not known for my ability to keep things brief when I have a lot to say, so I knew this review might get long. But now it’s a sunny Saturday morning on the East coast, and my Friday night rewatch is fresh in my mind, so here goes.
In case that wasn’t clear from the first paragraph, I loved it! Sometimes it makes me nervous to have a lot of anticipation about an episode – I felt that way about Robbie Thompson’s ‘Baby’ episode too, after hearing about it from Jared, Jensen and Robbie before hand. This time, I had the pleasure of chatting with episode director Richard Speight Jr. several times and with writer Jenny Klein too – not to mention, Jensen told me more than once how much he liked the episode and how excited HE was about it – so let’s just say, my expectations were high. Sometimes that’s a bad thing, but in this case, I think my giddiness worked perfectly to make the first watch even more enjoyable.
I have to talk about the script first, because Jenny did a fabulous job. If you’ve read my in-depth interview with Richard, you know that he gives Jenny all the kudos for writing an episode that allows Supernatural to do what it does best – combine horror, humor and heartfelt all in one episode without losing the impact of any of the three. No mean feat, Show! Jenny did that, and did it flawlessly. I bit my nails at the opening scene when Sam is being followed by a large and shadowy figure in the bunker as ominous Jaws-like music plays. I laughed so hard over the “She’s got Sparkle on her face!” scene that I nearly spilled my drink. And I reached for the ever-present box of tissues more than once. Supernatural is one of the only shows that can pull that off and have all those emotional beats actually work – because of the writing, the directing, the cinematography, the editing, the music and the acting. It takes all of those being at the top of their game for such a complex episode to work, and this one did.
After hearing Richard talk about his journey to directing, I have so much respect for what he did in this episode. It felt like the Show was being directed by someone who has been directing television – directing Supernatural – for a long time. That’s the highest compliment I can give, and I know that Richard was worried that wouldn’t be the case and that his first-timer status would show through, but really, it didn’t. Instead there were moments of brilliance throughout, where scenes were blocked and shot in a way that added so much to the dialogue. The scene where Sam and Sully are lying across the hotel room beds, the perspective upside down for a bit as they play the “Ever Think” game. The first scene in the bunker when Sam wakes up and someone is looming in the background, and his long walk down the bunker’s hallways. The lingering just enough shots of the Legos and army men. The loving pan up Jensen Ackles as he gets out of the car…in a sweater. Thanks for that, Richard.
And then there was the carnage in the little girl’s bedroom and Sparkle’s unfortunate demise. When Jensen told me he was glad that Richard was directing this episode because he knows how to do comedy – he knows when a joke lands and when it doesn’t – he was so right! Richard shot the hell out of that scene, and Jared and Jensen and Nate acted the hell out of it too. Also, big kudos to that actress, who was great way back when in Bugs but was incredible here with her deadpan expression covered in sparkly blood. I keep laughing just thinking about it.
I don’t think you could pull off the humor in this episode without actors like Jensen, Jared and Nate Torrence. So much of the humor came from the nuanced facial expressions, the subtle gestures, the exchanged glances. They are all capable of subtle humor, and that’s my favorite kind. They are all also capable of breaking my heart, and they all did in this episode. Jared in his heartbreaking talk with Sully, apologizing for being a “jerk kid” and confiding in him about the cage and the Darkness. Nate with 9 year old Sam, letting him go because that’s what Sam wants; Nate with Reese, ready to sacrifice himself because what he does is what’s good for the kid. (I kept thinking, this is what most of my clients need – an adult to say I’m sorry, that sucks, you deserved better…) And Jensen with every subtly played break-my-heart-open look that says he wanted desperately to be there for his little brother when they were young and couldn’t. That he desperately wanted to be enough for Sam, and he fears he never was and never will be.
Where are those goddamn tissues?
Here’s what Richard said about Nate in our interview: “He’s just so good. He brings such a level to it that he enabled Jared and Jensen to play at their top level. You know, you can only play tennis with somebody who knows how to serve. If you get a guest star who kind of lobs the ball, you’re stuck with that. But if you get somebody who can fire rockets, then you can fire rockets back. The mundane becomes interesting. What could be ordinary becomes fascinating. And we were fortunate to get Nate on the roster, because he just crushed it on every level. From the comedic to the heartfelt, he was in the pocket.”
He was. They ALL were. Every exchange Jared and Jensen had with Nate was just about perfect.
Jenny wrote the words, the actors made them believable and emotional and effective, and Richard gave them the direction they needed to do that, bringing Jenny’s awesome script to life. I would be remiss if I left out the contribution of the other person who is instrumental in crafting an episode that works – the editor. As Richard said in our interview, a show is made in three parts – the writing, the shooting, and the editing. In this case, that is the work of Nicole Baer, and she did just as amazing a job as the rest of the people who made this episode so powerful. I know from seeing rough cuts of my friend Night’s films that the editor is as much a storyteller as everyone else who contributes to a film or television show. Nicole put these performances together into an episode that flows, visually and story-wise. The transitions, the conversations, the timing, the looks that held long enough to carry so much meaning – all of that made the episode effective and hard-hitting.
Is it clear yet that I liked this episode? Of course, I’m not going to say that it was perfect, because even the things you adore rarely are – and isn’t that part of the point of this episode, after all? But let’s run through the episode itself, and I’ll get to the few things that weren’t quite perfect, and the many things that came pretty damn close.
The first scene was delightful. The music, the cacophony of rainbow colors, the hippie Manicorn reading The Velveteen Rabbit! (One of my kids’ favorite books of all time; we all believed in nursery magic at one point, didn’t we?) I loved Sparkle, so his demise was instantly heartbreaking. And SPN casts children who can really act, which probably isn’t that easy to do – that poor little girl’s scream was better than a lot of adult actors can pull off!
And then we’re in the bunker, which makes me happy, and Sam is in bed, which makes me even happier. I’m not sure why Sam gets up at 6:30 am when they’re not on a case, but I guess it’s just part of that whole being-a-hunter identity. I wanted to say Sam, go back to sleep, you need your rest, you poor thing, but he never hears me when I yell at the screen anyway.
We get sleepy, rumpled, bedhead Sam navigating the long hallways of the bunker, which is also lovely. Unfortunately we also get me biting my nails because of that great ominous shot of someone looming in the doorway and following Sam. Well shot, Richard! Sam’s expression when he finally notices the array of rainbow-colored food is priceless. Well done, Jared! And props or set dec or whoever set up that amazing buffet! Was any of it actually edible?
As if all that isn’t wonderful enough, then we get sleepy, rumpled, bedhead Dean too – in the dead guy robe and old man slippers!! The comedy works right away, as Dean reacts to Sam’s unusual stance and talking to no one with “Did you have a stroke? Do you smell toast?”
I don’t think everyone could make that line so funny, but Ackles can do comedy. They all can. That entire scene, Sam flustered and trying to explain, Sully a bit affronted and trying to cajole a resistant Dean, and Dean indignant and threatening to go get his gun – it was all priceless. When Dean finally resolutely tied the belt on his robe and ordered Sam to the library for a family talk – and Sam shuffled off like a naughty little boy, all six foot four of him – I was laughing out loud. Literally.
And somewhere in there we got Ninja!Dean and a little bit of boxer briefs and bare thigh too, which I will never EVER complain about.
The whole idea of the Zanna was inspired. It worked for me, as something the Winchesters hadn’t encountered before but is right there in the lore if you go looking for it. I love how it tied to the Winchesters’ backstory and allowed a glimpse of the boys as kids. I love the description, beings who take care of lost kids, who stay until the child is okay and allow them to move on with confidence. Maybe it’s because I’m a psychologist, but I just wanted to scream YES! So many kids are lost, so many need someone to tell them “you’re awesome”. So many need to hear “I’m sorry I wasn’t there for you” so they CAN move on with confidence, and self esteem, and a sense of identity. So many kids don’t get that, and it messes them up every bit as much as poor Reese. I found myself wishing there WERE Zanna out there, and that I could assign one of them to hundreds of clients I’ve worked with over the years. For me, anyway, the episode had an important message in amongst the scary and the funny.
Dean’s reaction to Sully is complicated. At first, I was a bit “huh?” by his resistance to helping. After all, the Zanna are helping kids, and Dean Winchester is all about that. But he’s also protective – of his home, of his brother, of their shared history. Sully is essentially an intruder, it’s a home invasion even though it’s by the most benign of creatures. And I think, too, from the very start, he bristles because this is someone who helped Sam when he wasn’t there. Someone who was important to Sam when Dean wanted to be the most important person in his life – when he felt he SHOULD be the most important person in Sam’s life. It was his job to be there for his little brother, and Sully’s very existence means that on some level, he failed. That is something Dean Winchester takes very seriously. It’s core to his identity and self worth, and Sully reappearing to tell a different story is threatening to Dean on a deep level. Hence his reluctance, and his initial dickish behavior. Sam seems to sense this, because he goes very easy on Dean and doesn’t call him on much of it, other than a slightly exasperated “You didn’t have to come, you know” when Dean complains a bit too much.
Sam also knows, as do we, that there’s no way in hell Dean would not have come.
Btw, perceptive fans did notice that Sully sort of had Dean’s hair. Hmmm.
So despite his hesitation, Dean is in. And that means we get another visual treat – Winchesters in sweaters! Jenny tweeted that she didn’t know fandom would appreciate that so much, but I could have told her otherwise. Because holy shit, did Sam and Dean look good!
(Serge and Richard, at the very least, knew it – because we get one of those loving pans up Dean Winchester as he steps out of the car, from foot to calf and right on up to bowlegs and sweater and grumpy Dean. Yum yum and more yum.)
Sam looks equally adorable, and improbably the sweaters and slacks show off just how good Jensen and Jared look when they’re not bundled in the Winchesters’ multiple layers. Again, yum. Seriously. Yum.
Of course, we have to have Dean grumping about how they’re dressed like Bert and Ernie (who, as we know from previous canon, Dean believes are gay, so I’m not sure exactly what he’s saying about their cover. That same guest actress thought Sam and Dean were together last time too, come to think of it!)
I also had to reach for the tissues for the first time in the middle of this scene, though. Dean expresses, in his very Dean way, the emotions behind his reaction to Sully.
“What did you need Drop Dead Fred for? You weren’t lonely – you had me!”
Oh, Dean. You break my heart in a million pieces.
Then Sam finishes the job (of breaking my heart). We get the first flashback of the episode, to a 9 year old Sam left alone in a motel room, lonely and desperate to feel like part of the family, to be hunting with his brother and his dad. And we get surprise Dylan Everett back as young Dean on the phone, clearly upset as Sam begs him to talk to their Dad and let him join them. The first time I watched this, I was so busy going OMG Dylan is back that I somehow missed the clear cues that tell us that this is not Dean dismissing his little brother. The horn blares, the Impala’s engine rumbles in annoyance, as John lets Dean know he needs to get off the phone and get going. It’s not Dean wanting to leave his brother alone, it’s not Dean not caring about Sam. It’s Dean stuck in the middle, the “good little soldier” who has to obey his father, just a child himself – and the big brother who wants more than anything to “take care of Sammy.” You can see the agony on his face (thanks to Dylan’s amazing acting), when he has to tell Sam he can’t come. The guilt comes out in anger, as Dean lashes out at Sam for having an imaginary friend that is keeping John thinking he’s still a little kid (which he is!). I imagine he’s already feeling threatened by that too. When he’s not there, Sam has someone else. More than anything, Dean wants to be there for Sam. And he can’t.
My rewatch of that scene necessitated many more tissues than my first watch, because all that emotion came through and made sense. Sam’s heartbreak, Dean’s heartbreak. Their father has put them both in a horrible position, and neither can change it. Both are helpless, hurting, lonely. That was never Dean’s fault – that was John’s. I feel so much for Sam, as Dean hangs up the phone and Sam is left waiting, alone. But I feel just as much for Dean, torn apart by having no choice, his loyalty to his father deeply ingrained, unquestionable. I understand why some fans felt at the end of their rope as far as Dean’s story line goes. He has sacrificed so much, and suffered so much, but he often is portrayed as overwhelmed by guilt for not having been perfect. For not being there 24/7 for Sam. For not being the perfect hunter that John wanted. For going to hell, for coming back, for letting people down. But we, as viewers of the whole story, know that guilt is undeserved! Dean was a hurt child every bit as much as Sam; in some ways, perhaps more. Sam had Dean to comfort him and tell him it would be okay, at least sometimes; Dean had no one. Why was there no Zanna for Dean, who was every bit as lost as Sam and just didn’t know it? It’s frustrating that Show doesn’t acknowledge this explicitly; that Dean never gets to hear from anyone that he too is awesome. That he too saved the world. That he did the best he could for his little brother in an impossible situation. When is someone going to tell Dean that??
Good thing I left these tissues right here.
We actually got some of the ‘Americana’ theme during those flashbacks, which maybe was Show’s way of telling us that they too realize the importance of family and being a Winchester to Sam. Thanks, Jay Gruska, for doing an awesome job on the music for this episode. Of course, that only made me need more tissues.
Anyway, then we get Sam and Dean as trauma counselors, and breathtaking closeups (thanks, Serge and Richard).
And we get Dean realizing that the deceased is both a man and a unicorn, which allows him to coin one of those words he loves so much. When the bewildered mom agrees with his “So a manicorn, then”, Dean’s childlike expression of glee is the best thing ever. It’s like a glimpse of Season 1 and 2 Dean, when he looked about five years old whenever he was happy about something.
A significant portion of fandom, myself included, could not help but think of this famous (infamous?) manip, which Danneel once delighted in showing to Jensen. I mean, manicorn, right?
The next scene is my favorite of the episode – and one of the funniest scenes ever on Supernatural, I think. It’s right up there with The French Mistake “acting” scene, which I still cannot watch without doubling over from laughter.
Sam and Dean and Sully’s horrified faces as the mom walks through the carnage, practically sitting on poor dead Sparkle, and then wipes her face with her sparkly bloodied hand? OMG I was dying. Jared, Jensen and Nate are all so damn talented when it comes to this kind of comedy – all three of them were perfect, and so was the guest actress and her deadpan expression. By the way, that’s Carrie Genzel, whose brother, Kevin, is one of the Show’s artists! (Thanks Mark Meloche, for that interesting tidbit) SPNFamily, literally!
Kudos to all the actors – and Jenny, and Richard, because that scene was awesome!
Dean’s suggestion of a family hot shower as he gets carried away with “The family that showers together…” was also priceless. And will undoubtedly result in either some fanfic or some fabulous gifs.
Dylan Kingwell and Nate both got a chance to shine in the flashback scene of Sam and Sully playing “Ever Think” which was shot so brilliantly by Richard. I loved the scene, but at the same time, I started to get a pit in my stomach as soon as Sam mentioned thinking about running away. I don’t WANT Sam to run away! I’m immediately plunged into Dean’s headspace, thinking about how much that would devastate him. I want the Winchesters together and always will, so Sam going down that road – and Sully encouraging him – upset me even as I knew it probably made sense. We know that Sam eventually did run away, so I’m sure he thought of it a lot. And what 9 year old left all alone in a hotel room wouldn’t be pissed as hell and think about running away, if only to punish the parent who left them there? But it still hurt. And I couldn’t help but question Sully’s wisdom in encouraging a little kid to “run away” with only an invisible friend to help him out. Where were they going to go? Were they headed to the foster care system or what? I’m still not sold on that being a good idea at all. That’s as bad as John leaving him alone in the first place.
Shout out to Jenny Klein for some awesome continuity in this episode, btw. It’s always a risk going back to the past, with the potential of not getting canon quite right, but I thought Jenny did a good job. The license plate on the Impala was the one that appeared in After School Special. When Sam talks about thinking he could fly until he broke his arm, we all know that’s the story Dean told about him being Superman and Sam being Batman and jumping off the roof (and being taken to the hospital on Dean’s bike handlebars…). And for young Sam gathering up the Legos and army men that we all recognize instantly as the things that will eventually save the world, stuck in the vents of the Impala for all time. I teared up just seeing them, they mean so much to me.
I know there were some quibbles about Sam not being Colin Ford (who looks anything but nine these days), and about the timeline being so close to the Christmas episode, but those were minor glitches for me. I really appreciated Jenny’s attention to continuity, especially those emotionally significant Winchester moments.
We cut back to Nicki the unfortunate mermaid and Weems the not-quite-as-unfortunate air guitar player – and I have to give kudos again to Richard and to Nicole, because the episode never felt like it jumped around too much, or in an inorganic way. I loved every single one of the Zanna, and the guest actors were all top notch, but I really loved Weems. He reminded me of Ash with his mullet and slacker persona, and I loved that he was such a gentle, caring being in his Zeppelin lyric-ed tee shirt.
Nice job on the horror movie vibe that you had going in that scene, Richard – especially the stab through the sheets! And the Winchesters reluctantly impressed by Weems’ air guitar was also spot on.
The last flashback scene was my favorite, though it was also hard to watch. Sam finally gets the call, and he’s off to be a Winchester, to join his dad and Dean. Is it wrong that I cheered? I wanted Sam to go, I wanted him to be with them, to be a Winchester. Even if, on some level, it’s not what he wanted. My heart broke for Sully though, especially as he was so graceful and unselfish in bowing out of Sam’s life. Ouch.
Sam and Sully’s heart to heart in the present, as Sam has the courage to say he’s sorry and Sully the courage to accept that and move on, pointing out that maybe he was wrong, was also fabulous. Jared and Nate knocked it out of the park.
Sully: It worked out. You’re a hero. You saved the world!
Damn right. God, that was a great scene! I loved them both, the honesty and openness with which they talked to each other. Why can’t Sam and Dean talk like that, openly? It hurts that there’s so much between them that they often can’t. Winchesters saying “I’m sorry, I was a jerk” to each other? It’s what they need. It’s what I desperately want. Please, writers? Carver? Bueller?
I’d also give anything to hear someone say those same words to Dean. You’re a hero. Someone who he could believe when he heard it.
Anyway, kudos to Jenny Klein for getting that scene so right.
I loved Jared’s performance as Sam too, in that heart to heart with Sully scene. His conviction, his hope, as he assures Sully that “Dean and I, we’re gonna fix it.”
Sully: Ever think about running away?
Sam: Not anymore.
I like hearing that, right out, explicit. Sam doesn’t think about leaving, and he doesn’t think about running away. The Winchesters are well and truly in this together. (Even if they are probably still capable of doing things on their own that they think are for the best…)
The climactic scene was incredibly powerful, and guest actress Anja Savcic was also fabulous. We get Dean overpowered (perhaps too easily) by a young woman, and tied to a pole, which allows us some gorgeous close ups because getting hit over the head and tied to a pole always looks good on Dean Winchester.
And then we get Nate being so effing good, showing us a heartbroken and regretful and guilty Sully who is willing to die for the mistake he made and how much it messed up the child in his care. His tearful “I’m so sorry” absolutely broke me. And Reese’s reaction, when she gritted out “I’m still so mad!”, was one of the most realistic depictions of the rage that childhood trauma can leave behind that I’ve ever seen.
While some felt the change in Reese happened too easily, to me was spot on. If you’ve never seen the power of validation and apology, maybe it would seem that way, but it’s more powerful than just about anything. Reese, in those few moments, was validated and apologized to and forgiven – and it made all the difference. Maybe – probably – okay, for sure – the Winchesters wouldn’t have let her go if she was killing humans. And it was still tragic and horrible and not okay. But I could accept that they let her go because she was changed. It was like three minute intensive therapy and sure, in real life, that doesn’t happen in three minutes. But it does happen.
What happened between the Winchesters during that scene was equally moving. Dean finally freeing himself, and instead of trying to overpower her physically and take the knife, he decides to speak. And he’s every bit as genuine as Sully is. Dean Winchester knows a thing or two about revenge, and what it gets you and what it doesn’t. He also models the same sense of responsibility that Sully does, essentially apologizing to Sam for not being there – and finally able to express gratitude that when he couldn’t be, Sully was. That is huge for Dean, and it’s clearly huge for Sam too. Look at his expression; he’s focused on Dean the entire time. Dean is talking to Reese, but he’s also talking to Sam. That whole scene, after all, was all about siblings and how much losing them impacts us. If there has ever been a Supernatural theme, that is it. And this season has been all about the sibling relationships.
I started to cry as soon as Dean said “When I wasn’t there for my little brother, Sully was.” Jay Gruska’s iconic musical score started to play and I sobbed harder. There were tears in Dean’s eyes, and Reese sobbed too, and that whole scene left me way more emotional than I expected to be. Kudos, Show. All of you, kudos.
Sully’s parting words to Sam and Dean were so well done. Seriously, Jenny, you outdid yourself with the dialogue.
Heroes aren’t perfect. Sometimes they’re scared.
And Sully to Dean, saying some of the things I always long for Dean to hear: Thank you for looking out for Sam. You’re not a germ at all.
Dean plays it off, in true Dean fashion, but those words must sink right into his heart, because that is what Dean Winchester needs to hear more than anything else. That he HAS looked out for Sam. That he IS okay – not a failure, not a fuck up, not a bad big brother. I wish Sully had gone so far as to tell the other Winchester brother that he too is a hero who has saved the world, that he too is “awesome”, but this is a step in that direction. And a lot more than Dean usually gets to hear!
Dean’s “you’re a good weird” back is both typical Dean and actually a really nice thing to say. I would consider that a lovely compliment, personally. Pretty sure that’s the theme of ‘Fangasm! Supernatural Fangirls’.
We end the way we always should, in my humble opinion, with the brothers in the car driving off into the night. But oh, their conversation leaves me filled with dread.
Sam’s going back to the Cage, isn’t he? With or without Dean.
Dean, typically, gets protective and tries to shut the possibility down.
“Not happening. Good talk.”
Sam’s not having it though. He pushes, challenges Dean, who keeps saying they’ll find another way, there’s always another way.
Sam: Then tell me, what’s the other way?
Dean can’t answer. And that says so much.
And here is where I dissolved into inappropriate giggles.
Me: Well Sam, if Dean just turns the car around, to the left, you’ll see that there actually is another way…
Impossible to have watched the boys’ gag reel moment of going off script and turning the Impala around while director Richard let it happen, and not start laughing at that moment. Sorry, Jenny, I know it was a serious scene full of impending doom. But damn, that little vid was funny!
Here’s what Jensen had to say about filming that:
Jensen: I had a line that was something like “There’s always another way,” but I messed up and said “There’s another way.” Jared and I, we know each other so well, not a lot of people can do that, but when we mess up, the other one just goes back and feeds the line again.
Apparently Jared threw him the line again, Jensen messed it up again – -and again – and then Jared was just like ok, now we’re gonna make it a bit.
Jensen: We do that a lot… It was during Richard’s episode, and he didn’t yell cut – probably because he was like, what are they doing?? – and then it was just us being stupid. That also happens a lot.
Thankfully! Richard said that he knew they were cooking up something, so he let the camera roll – and we’re glad he did!
In our interview with Richard, he talked about how Supernatural is this incredible collaboration. That, as a first time director on the Show, he felt like they all linked arms to provide a safety net for him so he could succeed. That’s the thing that’s so special and unique about this Show, especially after eleven seasons on the air. The writing, the acting, the cinematography, the art direction, the costuming, the music, the editing – it all came together.
And when the episode aired, the SPNFamily was there to support them.
Other guest actors tweeted their congrats. Even Ben Edlund and Eric Kripke took to twitter to tell Jenny and Richard how proud they were.
Kripke: I knew the ep would be nutty; didn’t count on it being so touching and true to the boys. Well done. Proud of you.
Not gonna lie, that made me tear up. Getting the creator’s blessing is a big thing. SPNFamily, y’all.
Jensen and Jared tweeted a photo of their frowny faces from set: Guess who’s NOT watching…because they’re MAKING Supernatural? These guys!
John Barrowman: But I’m watching.
Me: Oh this is awesome!
I guess I should stop writing now – told you this would be long! Thanks to everyone for this great big beautiful collaboration that is my favorite Show.
Read more about Richard’s experience directing the episode in yesterday’s post here. And stay tuned for our chat with Matt Cohen, and more from the last convention at Pascon!
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