Sometimes it’s downright painful being a Supernatural fan! But I don’t mean that as a complaint—this is part of what the Show has always been. Two weeks in a row that were painful is tough to take, there’s no doubt about that, but there was a lot to appreciate in this week’s episode. Even the painful was just done so well! Grudging admiration, Steve Yockey, for the writing, Richard Speight Jr., for the directing, and all the actors for conveying the pain so brilliantly.
Before I do an actual recap, here are some of the reasons for my grudging admiration.
First, I love when an episode is a mirror for the Winchesters. This is a tradition going back all the way to the beginning, something Kripke liked to do and made work extremely well. Sometimes the mirror is a little too large and obvious, but in this case, I didn’t think we were too pounded over the head with it – or maybe I just enjoyed the pounding. Which sounds really wrong.
Max and Alicia, the witch twins, were immediately seen by fans as a mirror of Sam and Dean in their first episode. Their closeness, the way they talked at the same time and finished each other’s sentences, the way they squabbled but clearly always had each other’s backs – all of that reminded us of the Winchester brothers. Sibling pairs often are used in the show as a mirror for the brothers, so that wasn’t a surprise.
It was a surprise to see them back in another episode! A very pleasant one. Even in the limited time they had onscreen in their first appearance, they made a big (and positive) impression on fans. So yay for Show listening!
There were several scenes where the parallels were made explicit, including Sam quoting Dean as he tries to convince his brother to come to the aid of Max and Alicia. The call back to the pilot made me smile, and had the intended effect on Dean too.
Sam: Their mom’s on a hunting trip and hasn’t been home in a week…
Dean: (in the pilot): Dad’s on a hunting trip and he hasn’t been home in a few days…
I know not everyone enjoys the call backs, but I really do. I do a lot of research on fandom and the psychological impact of being a fan, and one of the things that makes us feel good is the familiarity of our favorite shows. We respond emotionally to our favorite television shows differently than we respond to any old show – they have more impact, actually creating some of the same physiological and psychological reactions that we have when we sit down with an old friend to chat over a cup of coffee or a glass of wine. So all the small nods that reinforce our familiarity with a show increase that emotional impact.
The phone call that Dean makes to his mother is also a call back, to the early episode aptly titled “Home”. In that episode, one of the first times I noticed how unique this show is and how unafraid the actors were to really “go there”, Dean calls his Dad and pleads for a call back, his eyes watering and his lip wobbling as he admits he doesn’t know what to do. I can’t watch it without my eyes watering too.
In this episode, Dean doesn’t get as overtly emotional—his relationship with Mary isn’t as long standing and intense as his bond with John was—but he once again pleads for her to call him back and admits that he feels “spun out” and over his head. I’ve had many conversations with Jensen about how the emotion in those scenes is not something he has to create, it’s something that happens organically. That’s clear by the small, unconscious tells – like a hint of Ackles’ Texas twang coming out as he tries to hold back the emotion from his voice. Those little things, and the way these actors are fearless in letting their emotionality come through, are what make this show so special and so impactful.
Second and relatedly; the acting. Ackles and Padalecki knocked it out of the park with their empathy for Max and his repeated, brutal losses of his family—something the Winchesters can relate to with every ounce of their being. All three of the Banes family members were also incredible–Alvina August as Tasha, Kara Royster as Alicia, and Kendrick Sampson as Max. Alvina made us love her even in a short amount of time, which meant her children’s anguish over her death was incredibly painful. Kara showed us once again Alicia’s badass bravery but also her great love for her mother and her brother. And Kendrick Sampson nearly killed me by portraying Max’s devastation so powerfully that I could feel it in my gut. And it hurt! Sometimes I love this show so damn much even as I’m sobbing on the floor scrambling for more tissues. Not sure what that says about me.
The BMoL story line ran parallel to Sam and Dean’s throughout the episode, which can sometimes give me whiplash from going back and forth. In this case, director Richard Speight Jr. and writer Steve Yockey made it seamless, and actors Samantha Smith and David Haydn-Jones made it snap with tension and intrigue. There was never a second of this episode where I felt like I had a chance to catch my breath, let alone think about making a sandwich! Smith’s slowly dawning realization of the colossal mistakes she’s made, and Jones’ portrayal of Ketch’s complicated feelings for Mary losing out to his indoctrination and psychopathology were fascinating to watch. And yes, also painful!
And third, some big kudos to Richard Speight for the brilliant directing and gorgeously shot scenes, Serge Ladouceur and his team for the beautiful lighting throughout, Jerry Wanek and his team for infusing the twigs and twine theme throughout the episode (even in the wallpaper!) just so we could be even more creeped out than we already were, and the special effects wizards for making those violet eyes and all the other effects look anything but cheesy. And to Lou Bollo and his team for pulling off another epic fight scene worthy of the epic fight scenes in this show that have come before.
So yeah, I really liked this episode even if “enjoyed” wouldn’t be quite the right word. Let me walk through what happened, so I can point out more of what worked and possibly a few minor quibbles (because when does a review not have quibbles??) Unless it’s a Robbie Thompson episode. Then I plead for your indulgence.
The episode begins right where we left off last episode, with the boys waking up the next day and trying to figure out what the hell happened with Cas (pretty much the way I felt after the last episode too). Dean draws a line between Castiel’s profession of faith in Lucifer’s child (and presumably his decision to knock Sam and Dean out and leave them in a playground) and the things Cas has done before with good intentions—for the right reasons, as he says. If you read my last week’s review, Dean and I were clearly on the same page.
Dean: Last night, I didn’t recognize him.
The boys are clearly worried about Cas.
Meanwhile, Sam unwraps the broken Colt – and I actually leapt up to my feet and screamed! I was so devastated by its seeming loss last week, and so ecstatic to see that the boys haven’t given up hope on her yet.
Dean: Can you fix it?
Sam: I hope so.
At first I was surprised that it wasn’t Dean trying to do the fixing, since he’s the mechanical wizard who’s always taking apart the guns and putting them back together. But I assume this isn’t exactly a mechanical problem. Go, Sammy!!
We’re re-introduced to Max and Alicia, and immediately the parallel is set up with Sam and Dean. They’re bickering, lovingly, as siblings do.
Max: You’re being dramatic.
Hah! I just talked about that same accusation being thrown at Dean by his sibling in last week’s review. Maybe it really is a sibling thing. (Actually that accusation might have been thrown at me by my brother a time or two, come to think of it…)
Sam convinces Dean to help them by quoting Dean’s way of convincing Sam in the pilot, and off they go.
Before he leaves, Dean makes that poignant phone call to Mary, leaving a voice mail just as Dean did for his dad in ‘Home’.
The next scene of all four siblings together is awesome. Max is already one of my favorite characters, in part because Sampson pulls off both being a powerful witch and being a charismatic person. Max is also another queer character for the show, happily announcing that he got the hot bartender’s phone number. Remember the early seasons when Dean might have been uncomfortable (and we were uncomfortable with Dean’s discomfort)? Dean and Sam join Alicia in their affectionate ribbing, and then Dean wants to do some male bonding with Max over the grenade launcher. Seems like such a small thing, but I don’t think it is. I loved that scene so much, and love Sampson’s portrayal of Max.
Alicia and Sam have their own bonding moments, which I got distracted by for a few moments by Jared’s glorious hair tossed by the wind. Anyway, we find out that the twins are hunting a borrower witch, which yay for Yockey keeping canon! Alicia and Sam connect over feeling like their siblings shared a special bond with their single parent.
Alicia: Magic, it’s their thing.
Sam: Dean and my dad had that bond with hunting.
It was also interesting to have an outsider pov on Mary from Alicia, who wryly notes that Mary “doesn’t seem like much of a hugger.”
The foursome arrive at the place they track Tasha to, which is a beautiful Vancouver house or something standing in for a bed and breakfast. This show has ruined me for idyllic bed and breakfasts in the countryside – I’d just be waiting for someone to kill me!
I need to give Yockey and Speight some love for the wine scene too. And probably Ackles, for holding his wine glass in his fist so awkwardly, making it crystal clear that Dean isn’t used to drinking wine without ever saying a word. And Sam giving his brother his own glass of wine when he goes out to grab the food from the vegan restaurant.
Sam: Dean, drink.
(pats his brother on the knee affectionately—again one of those small nonverbal moments that say so much, and that every single person in the fandom picks up on. And appreciates)
(pours Sam’s wine into his own glass happily)
That was just such a Sam ‘n Dean scene—the kind I’ve been missing so badly all season. Thank you Steve Yockey!
We already know at this point that Tasha isn’t really Tasha, but I have to say, that twig doll was pretty damn real! She had all of Tasha’s memories, and she certainly seemed warm and loving and wise. I liked watching her and Dean observing Max and Alicia squabbling, both of them with such fond looks on their faces. Dean is so wistful, it hurts my heart. He loves knowing that Max and Alicia had what he and Sam never did—a loving mother with them to raise them. And you just KNOW that he’s wishing that for Sam, most of all. Oh, Dean. Where are my tissues?
Tasha and Dean talk about mothers too—a theme of Season 12.
Tasha on moms: You think they’re perfect, then you grow up and realize they’re just people.
This was one of the few times in this episode that I scratched my head. Show is really wanting us to go down that road, I guess—of saying that Mary is imperfect because of course all of us, moms or not, are imperfect. I’ve been worried about this all season, that they took us so far in the opposite direction that it’s going to be very difficult to spin us around and make us say oh well, Mary was pretty awful to her boys but hey, no one’s perfect. Why did you make it so difficult, if that’s where you wanted us to end up, Show?? I honestly don’t know if I can go where you want me to. And it’s not because I think moms have to be perfect—god knows, I’m not, just ask my kids. But this went so far away from perfect! Moms don’t have to be perfect, but they don’t have to be callous and hurtful either.
We get another nice little slice of “yes these are the Winchester brothers I know and love” when Sam returns with the takeout and motions Dean to come with him.
Dean: I know that look. What’s up?
Nothing more Winchester than nonverbal conversation and reminding us that’s how well they know each other.
Sam and Dean check out the basement where that creepy guy emerged from as they arrived (and I forgot to say how much I adored Jared’s awkward little wave—he has so much talent for doing comedy that doesn’t get used very often! I laughed out loud and had to replay that moment a few times).
Nothing funny about this scene though—they find Tasha’s dead body.
That’s horrible enough, but what happens next absolutely broke me. Max sees the light on and comes down the stairs. Sam and Dean (breaking my heart in pieces) try to shield Max from seeing his mother, instinctively wanting to keep him from that unbearable pain even though of course he’ll have to know. And oh my god, Max’s face when he does see her. Kendrick Sampson acted the HELL out of that scene!
Max (brokenly): I… I just…
He breaks down in sobs, and so do I. Sam and Dean, watching, are clearly devastated too, remembering their own traumatic losses, including their dad. Jared and Jensen were amazing in this scene too, again with all those little seemingly inconsequential nonverbal reactions that are anything but. At separate times, each of them scrubs a hand over their face, like they can’t quite decide how much emotion to let show there. Again and again, they look at Max and then turn away, like it’s physically too painful for them to watch his pain and empathize with it so thoroughly.
God, that was a hard scene to watch. And absolutely masterful –from all involved.
Dean and Max confront the witch, while Alicia tries to help her “mother” and Sam gets beat up by the twig doll hotel guy. The witch needs time to do some serious exposition, so she puts Dean and Max under a spell that freezes them. Dean looks distractingly pretty during this time, so I don’t mind so much that there’s a lot of exposition going on. Max, on the other hand, looks devastated—he’s forced to actually see his mother murdered. That trauma contributes, I think, to him considering taking the witch’s deal, but Dean tries to talk him out of it.
Dean: No, your mom is gone. It’s awful and it sucks but…
The witch silences him, though Max does hesitate.
Meanwhile, for some unknown reason nobody has told Alicia that the twig doll is not actually her mother, so she’s not much help to Sam as he gets tossed around like a ragdoll and then strangled (shades of early SPN!) She finally comes to his aid, only to be stabbed to death by the twig doll that’s not really her mother. How heartbreaking was it that when she saw her “mom” stand up, Alicia happily said “Mom!” right before she killed her. I gasped out loud when Alicia went down, truly horrified.
Dean managed to break the witch’s spell long enough to shoot her with witch killing bullets, and when she dies, the other twig dolls disintegrate. Too late to save Alicia though.
Sam yells for his brother, his anguished “DEAN!” ringing down the hall.
And then Kendrick Sampson destroys me all over again, as Max sees that his beloved sister is dead.
It was such a call back to All Hell Breaks Loose Part 2, the scene that kept me crying for literally an entire week when Sam dies in Dean’s arms. Max has such a similar reaction, rushing to his sister’s side and leaning over her sobbing.
Max: Please, no, hey hey, no no no…
It’s what the Winchesters say when one of them dies too –they always say “hey, hey” when trying to talk the other one out of leaving them, so when Max said the same I totally lost it. Nobody told me I’d need THAT many tissues!
Sam and Dean are thinking the same thing; they look at each other pointedly as Max cries.
He sends them away, and they respect his wishes and go. In the car, Sam tries to reassure his brother that he did the right thing, that he saved Max (his soul anyway).
Dean: Yeah, he seemed super saved.
Dean is so sad about how things went down, saying that they had a loving family, “the kind we should have had.”
Dean: Sam, we do terrible things all the time to save each other, that’s what you do for family. Who am I to stop him?
That’s pretty much Supernatural in a nut shell, and it’s why I love this Show. Hearing Dean say that just made me even MORE emotional.
There’s a great music cue as Max does the same, putting his sister’s heart in the twig doll and bringing it to life. Alicia’s body burns as the twins leave, twig doll Alicia as mystified about what’s happened as Sam was when Dean sold his soul to bring his brother back to life at the end of Season 2. Oh, the call backs, my heart can’t take much more of this!
Meanwhile, in the second story line, Ketch is torturing what at first looks like Mary but is in fact a shape shifter. Mary is watching, and her phone rings.
Mary: It’s Dean.
That sets up the beginning of the end for Mary and Mr. Ketch’s unlikely romance, if you can call it that. He takes every bit as much pleasure in torture as we would have expected him to, and Mary sees that side of him for the first time-the brutal side that his charming exterior has covered up. It’s telling that Mary refers to the shifter as “he” and Ketch corrects her to “it.” That’s what the BMoL – and every torturing regime ever—does in order to be as brutal as they are. They dehumanize, see anything other as “it” so they can torture with impunity and without regret.
Mary is as put off by seeing this as Dean was when he was hunting vampires with Ketch. The Winchesters can be ruthless, but most of the time (if they’re not demons at the time or whatever) they don’t take pleasure in it.
Afterwards, Mary is angry. Ketch, on the other hand, wants to jump into bed and work off all that adrenaline. (Ewww). Mary shuts that down pretty quickly, and Jones does a good job showing us, again with those subtle nonverbals that all these actors excel at, that Ketch is hurt by the rejection. And for someone as ruthless as him? That is not going to be a good thing.
He taunts Mary that she’d better call Dean, or “he’ll think Mommy doesn’t love him”.
Ouch. On the nose there.
Mary finally gets Dean’s message, and leaves Dean the voicemail she should have left him way back in Episode 2 or 3, telling him that she’s sorry she hasn’t been there for him and Sam.
Mary: But I want to be. I will be. I miss you boys. I love you.
Me and everyone else watching: uh oh, that sounds like the sort of voicemail people leave when the show is about to kill them off.
Ketch has been careful, even sending emails as though they were from Mick so Mary won’t get suspicious. But Mary is a hunter, and she’s smart, and soon enough she finds Mick’s body in a storage container and a room full of hunters’ photos and stats that make them look like the next intended targets.
Ketch tries one last lie about Mick.
Ketch: An accident, with a werewolf.
Mary: (incredulous) A werewolf shot him in the head?
Ketch: It’s not impossible…
Me: actually laughing out loud. Nice dialogue, Steve Yockey!
We then get one of those epic fight scenes that Supernatural is known for, thanks to Lou Bollo’s amazing stunt choreography and the willingness of the actors to always give it their all. They throw each across the room, get in punches and kicks.
Ketch is still not entirely ready to give up on her, which really says something about the effect she had on him. He says he can keep her safe, if only she plays nice.
Mary: I don’t play nice.
I’ll say. Mary breaks his arm and brass knuckles him in the nuts, leaving him on the floor as she walks out. Nope, not that easy! Ketch tasers her and she falls flat to the floor.
Meanwhile, Dean and Sam are driving away. Sam falls asleep, leaning against the window in the passenger side while Dean drives and keeps an eye on his brother, just like in all the best fanfic.
Then Dean checks his voicemails. He gets to hear the one from Mary, which I’m glad about; so often in this show, the most important voicemails never get heard. Then he hears the one that tells him to call her, that they’ve got a problem.
Dean to sleeping Sam: Sam, wake up, it’s mom, something’s wrong. SAM!
Me: Why is Sam not waking up??? Is something wrong with Sam?
(Probably not, this was just a fitting transition to the next scene, but it worried me)
We end with a splash of water on a bound Mary’s face as she comes to.
Ketch: (ominously) Remember Mary, I gave you a chance.
And then we see the person NONE of us ever wanted to see again (but expected nevertheless).
Lady Toni (with her goddamned notebook again): Now Mary, let’s begin.
Talk about callbacks!
This episode may not have been enjoyable—in fact it was downright painful to watch at times—but it was incredibly well done. Kudos to all—writer, director, cast, crew. I’m full of trepidation as we start careening toward the finale, but that’s just Supernatural, isn’t it?
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Check out next week’s Supernatural 1221 There’s Something About Mary.