Last week’s “Supernatural” episode, the ironically titled “The Heroes’ Journey”, was one of those episodes that made me laugh at first, but then kind of disturbed me. Not simultaneously, luckily. I was tempted to just write up the things I giggled at when they were happening and try to shut off my higher cognitive functions to prevent any other feelings, but it turns out I’m just not built that way. So to everyone on twitter who advised me “not to think too deeply about it”, my apologies. Maybe just read the first part of this if you don’t want to think too much and just enjoy the amusing parts.
I really enjoyed the first part of the episode; I went into this one just looking to be entertained. Most of us knew the premise was something about Sam and Dean having “normal people problems”, which sounds pretty innocuous and has the potential to be funny. After all, Jared and Jensen are gifted at comedy, so maybe this would be a chance for them to exercise those comic chops as well as a chance for me not to gnash my teeth. And for a while, that worked. My first tweet of the night was “OMG I’m loving this episode!”
The beginning cage match sequence was unusual. It was impressively choreographed and the music and slo-mo and direction were interesting. The problem is, it was three whole minutes long out of the 42 we get in an episode, and I don’t give a damn about whoever those two monsters are, so I got antsy even as I could appreciate the artistry of the scene.
Then we’re following Dean to the Quik Mart with jaunty piano music that lets us know things are going to be weird. It’s clearly a terrible horrible no good very bad day as Dean’s Charlie-guaranteed credit card doesn’t work, he’s got a toothache, and he gets a traffic ticket at his habitual spot. Meanwhile, Sam is cooking dinner for them at the bunker and burns the whatever in the oven and then inexplicably tries to pick up a pot of boiling pasta without oven mitts and spills it all over. Dean comes home calling for Sam, and Sam trips up the stairs to the kitchen. Then starts sneezing his head off, snot everywhere.
Jared and Jensen pull this off like you’d expect, as in they’re hilarious, and I was amused – I thought it clearly must be a curse since it was so over the top, one thing after another far outside “normal”. Garth calls and asks for their help, and they start driving to his house – and Baby craps out. Noooooo not Baby! Dean, who it’s established knows how to take that car apart and put her back together again, seems to flood her and then doesn’t even look under the hood, which is….weird. But, again, cursed, right?
They get to Garth’s, and he and his wife have an older daughter and young twins (sort of like Ackles in real life!) Garth hugs Dean, saying “you smell so good” (this nod to Dean’s attractiveness is no doubt a meta-commentary – since it’s what everyone who has ever had a photo op with Jensen Ackles walks away saying)
Garth introduces Sam and Dean to his twins, Sam…. (“I named him for you, Sam”) and…. (Dean waits expectantly)…. Castiel.
What? That wouldn’t be part of the cursed thing, would it? Has Garth ever even met Castiel? He has always had a strong bond with Dean, so it would have made sense to name a twin after him. That seemed sort of unnecessarily cruel to Dean, and his little hurt face made me sad faced too.
Those babies are adorable though and the behind the scenes photos of Jared and Jensen juggling babies is beyond adorable.
The next scenes were the most amusing ones of the episode for me. Bess gives Sam a secret concoction to cure his cold, which turns out to be mostly cayenne pepper, and we get treated to Jared Padalecki rolling around on the floor and licking his own shirt sleeves. He really commits to making us feel the pain of the pepper but it’s also over the top hilarious.
Older daughter: Mummy, the giant’s crying!
The babies start to cry, and Sam pauses to reassure them, “Big Sam is OK!”
Meanwhile, Garth takes Dean to his basement dentist office and manhandles him into the chair.
Dean: You’re very strong…
(This is also a theme, stay tuned)
Dentist Garth diagnoses 17 cavities and puts Dean under with nitrous oxide – which means we get treated to a totally random but thoroughly enjoyable for me tap dance number with Dean and Garth decked out and dancing. I’d heard about this scene already, so I was expecting it, and maybe that’s why I could just go with it. I know there were quite a few people who found that scene either cringe-worthy or just completely out of place, but I went with it. Jensen and DJ both apparently busted their butts to learn the routine in no time at all, so that the dance stand-ins that they brought weren’t actually needed. I swear, Jensen Ackles can do EVERYTHING well. Including tap dance on the map table. It was a gif feast, seriously.
Then it was commercial break time.
So for the first part of the episode, I was going with it, and even smiling. Clearly Sam and Dean were cursed with horrible luck by a pissed off Chuck and Jared and Jensen are making the best of it for some comedic excellence.
Then there’s a discussion, Garth asking: Who did you piss off?
Bess: I’m sorry, what??
Garth says he knows what’s wrong with them.
Dean: We’re cursed?
Garth: No. Normal.
Garth talks about how it sucks to be a hero, using as an example “Fifty Shades,” which he and Bess apparently love.
Sam (wryly): Who’s the hero in that?
Honestly, that was the best line of the episode. Jared delivered it perfectly and I literally laughed out loud, because GOOD QUESTION!
My brain started to kick in around this time though, stuck on ‘wait, they’re not cursed, this is supposed to be… normal? This is Sam and Dean as they normally are? Not knowing to use oven mitts or look under the Impala’s hood?’ Is that supposed to mean their skills were just Chuck all along and not them? Wait…
Hurt werewolf dude wakes up and Sam turns the puppy eyes on him to get him to tell them what happened.
Werewolf dude: Wow, look at those puppy eyes. That never actually works for you, does it?
Sam looks so hurt, and Dean looks shocked.
By this time I was getting more and more alarmed, because is Show really trying to tell me that Sam isn’t even capable of using the puppy eyes he’s used forever without Chuck making it work on people? That was never Sam being a skilled interrogator? (And a natural with the puppy eyes, which he’s probably been using on his dad and Dean forever)
Sam and Dean insist on going after the monster fight club without Garth, since he has a family to take care of, though Garth is worried about “normal” Sam and Dean being able to do anything. And rightly so, since apparently now they are beyond helpless and have retained none of the skills that John taught them or that they’ve used to save the world a time or two.
As helpless and bumbling as they’ve been rendered by evil writers, however, the Winchesters are still hanging onto their courage.
Dean: This is our job, it’s what we do.
Sam: What he said.
Those are the sort of things that Sam and Dean have said before, and I love it when they say them, but it started to not ring true in the context of this episode. Is it what they do? Or is it what Chuck has made them do – or even worse, what only his added powers allowed them to do?
Dean eats seven grilled cheese sandwiches and then doesn’t think to take all the weapons in the trunk into the monster haven because apparently a lot of the Winchesters’ smarts were also just Chuck pulling the strings and suddenly this is not nearly as funny as it was.
Dean does have a bit of fun with the grenade launcher, which I did enjoy – mostly because I bet Jensen Ackles enjoyed it too. I’m grateful for those moments, and again, gif bonanza!
Sam’s exasperated face though. Honestly, I’m laughing just looking at Ackles and Padalecki in these caps and the faces they made in this episode!
But then as soon as they walk in Sam trips over a bucket. Really? After all the times we’ve seen them sneak around seamlessly, silently and efficiently, communicating with just hand signals and being totally badass? You want me to believe that was Chuck and not them? That without him manipulating them like puppets they can’t make it across a warehouse floor?
Then Dean gets sick and just drops his weapons and runs off to find a bathroom. Dean who has kept on fighting bloodied and broken and half dead, but now he’s sick to his stomach and he runs away?
So, they get caught — because apparently they would always have been caught if not for Chuck. The fight club proprietor says they’ll fight the Mighty Maul, but together.
Guy: I don’t wanna break up the team.
He says this sarcastically, and it comes off like a jab at fans, who sometimes complain when the Winchesters are separated. This is a meta episode, after all.
There’s an ad for the fight between Maul and the “merciless Winchesters,” which was creatively done.
But apparently the merciless Winchesters can no longer pick a lock.
Dean: I broke a nail!
Me: No really, WTF? Who are these people?
By this time, my amusement had faded, as you can probably tell.
Sam: Could we ever pick locks, or was it just Chuck all the time?
As both Winchesters sit there looking glum, Dean breaks out one of his inspirational pep talks. Again, it played very differently than it usually does in the context of both the meta and the current reality the Winchesters are living in – in which it doesn’t make a whole lot of sense the way it usually does.
Dean to Sam: Not everything we did was because of Chuck. It was us. The blood, the sweat, the tears, man. That’s us. We’ve been doing this our whole lives. We’re the best in the world. So I say we go out there and kick some ass!
It’s the kind of thing Dean Winchester has said many times – and because this is a fantasy genre show, we believe it when he does. We are meant to believe it. That’s part of what makes this show so powerful and so inspiring to real people who count on that in this messed up world. But by telling us that actually the Winchesters are not capable and competent and highly skilled – that they are not the big damn heroes we believed them to be – Dean’s speech falls flat. We don’t believe it – why would we? We’ve been shown that they’re not able to succeed without Chuck. They don’t even know how to use oven mitts! Sam nods, but he clearly doesn’t believe it either.
The family theme, Jay Gruska’s brilliant iconic musical score that I love beyond measure, plays in a weird guitar variety – and it doesn’t land. It almost seems like a parody of what that theme usually means and the emotions it usually evokes. And that kinda broke my heart.
The main event is announced, the Mighty Maul versus – “You know them, you don’t like them – the Winchesters!”
Proprietor guy: Oh, and boys? Shirts off!
Another meta nod at the fandom, who often clamor for Sam and Dean (and Jared Padalciki and Jensen Ackles) to show some skin. It could be an affectionate poke, but at this point it doesn’t feel like it. It feels like the writers are tired of hearing that (and the ‘don’t break up the team’ and a few other things I could guess at).
Garth arrives just in time to save the day, and breaks Sam and Dean out of their cages.
Dean (again): You’re so strong! So strong…
So, in case you didn’t get it clearly enough, without Chuck’s extra added mojo, the Winchesters are comparatively weak, and they are not the heroes here.
Garth blows up the entire warehouse, which was surprising to me. I mean, he’s a werewolf and Sam and Dean and all of us are okay with him living. Where is that nuanced understanding when it comes to the other ‘monsters’ in there? I don’t have any great fondness for anyone who thinks cage fighting is a great way to spend an evening, but apparently they were doing it voluntarily for the money, including Bess’s cousin. So why blow them all up? Did they have humans in there being held against their will (other than Sam and Dean, who walked right in to shut it down)? I guess I will assume that they did but we hadn’t been shown that, so I was a bit surprised. I thought they were going to take down the organizer dude but not blow up the monsters fighting because they needed the money.
Anyway, Mighty Maul survives. Dean can’t remember his name and calls him all sorts of names that start with M and it reminds me of all the times we couldn’t remember the name of that random young woman from the tunnels who inexplicably became the leader of the AU hunters. Another fandom call out? Maul tosses Garth across the parking lot, and Dean and Sam face off against him. My heart went out to them – nearly helpless and yet they’re still standing there, fists up.
Dean: Sam, did you believe me when I said we could win this thing?
Dean: Me neither.
Me: Ditto. Also? I hate that nobody believed it – including those of us watching.
Sam and Dean are woefully outmatched, ineffectually punching with no effect. Dean gets kicked in the nuts and choked (and tries to tap out, which actually works!) Ackles made that moment funny, and my guess is that was an adlib. At least Jared and Jensen were clearly enjoying being able to make fun of themselves in this episode.
Finally, Garth saves the day again and kills Maul.
Dean grabs his crotch and waddles away: Does my voice sound higher?
Back at the house, Sam and Dean hold Garth’s adorable babies, Dean saying that “this Cas keeps looking at me weird.”
Sam: So kinda like the real Cas.
Sam adorably waves goodbye to the kids, and Garth walks them out.
In case you needed it spelled out:
Sam and Dean: You saved us, Garth. That’s being a hero.
Garth: I guess I learned from the best.
Me: Apparently not! These guys are apparently not the best after all.
They decide to go to Alaska to look for the cure for bad luck, which didn’t make a whole lot of sense after the episode kept telling us that they were not cursed with bad luck, but just reverted to their normal selves sans Chuck help. Which is it, Show?
They look back to see Garth and Bess dancing to “Werewolves of London” which was a nice sendoff for DJ Qualls and one of the memorable characters “Supernatural” has brought to life.
Dean: I always thought I could be a good dancer if I wanted to be.
Sam (thoughtful): You were awesome at the Macarena.
They drive away….sort of… as the Impala craps out again.
I did like part of this episode, and I really wanted to just enjoy all of it. After all, I’m one of those people who has liked the so-called meta episodes in the past – and the ones played for laughs. Adored The French Mistake, liked Changing Channels, I think some scenes in Bad Day At Black Rock are laugh out loud funny (Sam setting the motel room on fire, anyone? I lost my shoe?) Jared and Jensen are gifted at comedy. And some of this episode, particularly the earlier parts where we didn’t know yet what the apparent explanation was for what was happening, made me laugh too.
But here’s the thing — there’s a big glaring difference between those episodes and this one. While they all in some way traded on Sam and Dean being laughably incompetent, it was in the context of another universe or another reality entirely. It was an AU, or it was a rabbit’s foot curse, or it was a Trickster setup. We could laugh at our heroes without feeling uncomfortable about it, because in their own universe (the one we’re invested in too), they remained utterly competent and heroic.
That is not what happened in this episode, and that’s why it eventually didn’t work so well for me. Instead, the Winchesters were rendered incompetent in their actual world – their past competence and heroism was recoded to be not something real, but instead something that Chuck manipulated them into. It wasn’t their years of childhood training and hunting experience that made them the badass heroes we love them for being – no, it was just Chuck handing them their successes on a silver platter. Making it easy for them. What does that do to every heroic thing they’ve done? To every time they went up against all kinds of monsters and managed to prevail? Even worse, what does that do to Sam and Dean being the inspiration for real people in real life to “always keep fighting” like the Winchesters? All that is in jeopardy if Chuck was just making it happen.
The meta episodes of the past also worked so well because they stepped outside the universe of the show somehow to comment on it – The Real Ghostbusters was a fan convention, but for the book series “Supernatural” not the television show, allowing that distance so all the meta-commentary could be made. Same with Hollywood Babylon – they could comment on the business and the show from within the make-believe film set and show. In this episode, there was no displacement – this was Sam and Dean, in their usual environment. Just as incompetent people.
At first glance, the premise for this episode seems pretty witty – call Sam and Dean out for being unrealistically quick at picking locks or defeating five monsters when there’s only two of them or driving across the country at light speed. Or having perfect white teeth and always gorgeous hair even when they’re living out of the Impala for days on end. The problem is, we all know the show is not realistic – this is a fantasy genre show, after all. But you mess with that from within the canon of the show, and what does that leave you? A tattered suspension of disbelief, which is what allowed you to be inspired by the show and the characters to begin with. Nobody thinks it would be a good idea to examine Luke Skywalker and Han Solo’s realism on all those insane flight runs because that would have destroyed their heroism that we agree to buy into when we fall in love with a show like this one (or that one).
If we really go along with what this episode seems to want us to believe, nothing about the Winchesters (or their dad or their mom or Cas and their other friends) is special. Without Chuck pulling the strings, they’re too stupid to use oven mitts or know how to drive the car they’ve rebuilt from the ground up (because clearly that was just Chuck’s knowledge). Even Sam’s puppy eyes aren’t his own brilliant invention – that’s Chuck too.
Making Garth the hero who has to save the rather bumbling Sam and Dean is also a departure from most of the show’s canon. It’s almost like the goal is to knock down these preternaturally heroic and handsome main characters that everyone is crazy about (in real life). (It’s totally what Freud would say about this episode’s underpinnings). Hah! They’re not really so special, that was all Chuck. Instead, it’s Garth, the not preternaturally handsome or physically imposing man, who turns out to be the strong one, the victorious one (both in the fight and in getting the girl).
I like Garth and love how DJ Qualls plays him, and I enjoyed him in this episode, but that puts Sam and Dean in the stereotypical position of the jerk of a football jock who ends up being shown to be kinda pathetic and who we’re all supposed to hate (or laugh at) while we cheer for the Garth-esque character. There are countless shows with this exact plot. The problem is, I don’t want to feel that way about Sam and Dean – they are the GOOD guys. I’m uncomfortable watching them be ‘taken down a peg’ like this. And I honestly wonder if we can put them back up where we had them before.
Here’s how I’m going to do that. This episode would have worked fine if the boys were under another curse, similar to Bad Day At Black Rock. It could have been hilarious without the undercurrent of disturbing. Chuck could just leave them in a perpetual state of having a ‘no good very bad day’ and the results would have been the same – but it wouldn’t have negated the entire basis of the show so far. I’m going to head canon that this is exactly what’s happened.
Chuck didn’t take away his bestowed skills and good fortune – that was all the Winchesters – instead, he cursed them with constant bad luck. So now they have to deal with that and STILL be the badass competent hunters we know them to be. They’ve never had it easy – they’ve learned everything the hard way – so that would totally work. I’m going with it for now, that Chuck wanted them to think they were reset to “normal” and that all their successes and skills so far have just been granted by him.
What has always been inspiring about the Winchesters is that they are ordinary human beings who have managed to do incredible things because they’re well trained since childhood, extremely competent and skilled, and they always have each other’s backs. That’s the whole point of the show and why it has been so powerful for so many people. I’m not walking that back and I really hope I never have to.
And who knows, maybe that’s what Show is eventually going for anyway. Sometimes they like us to tear our hair out and gnash our teeth, only to find that the worst case scenario isn’t what actually happens. Fingers crossed!
Let’s just smile at this…
And now I’m just gonna go watch that tap dancing scene a few more times. We have less than 8 hours left to spend with these characters, and I want to enjoy every second that I can. Now, let’s see what “Supernatural” 1511 The Gamblers has for us!