I love the title of this episode (thank you, writer Meghan Fitzmartin). In fact, I’m listening to Toto right now as I write this review. ‘Africa’, the lyrics of which inspired this episode’s title, is a pop culture phenomenon, but it’s also special to the “Supernatural” fandom, and nobody knows that better than Meghan. It’s so special that I broke my ‘don’t let yourself get onstage for karaoke at a “Supernatural” con’ rule and joined my friend Alana and her cousin for our karaoke version of Africa along with Kim Rhodes, Briana Buckmaster, Matt Cohen and Richard Speight, Jr. – who were all dumbfounded that I was up there doing it.
That’s the power this song has over me! Chris Schmelke plays it in photo ops regularly, and I’ve witnessed all sorts of people succumbing to its power, including Jared Padalecki and Jensen Ackles and impromptu waltzes. After ‘Carry On’, it’s one of the songs that is most reminiscent of this wild ride I’ve been on for fifteen years with this show, and it’s always going to bring both smiles and tears every time I hear it. So thank you, Meghan, for making it part of “Supernatural” canon.
This was one of those episodes that kicked up a lot of divergent opinions in the fandom – some people loved it, some people hated it, and a lot of people had conflicting emotions. You can probably guess that I’m one of them, as this show often leaves me feeling that way recently. There was a lot I enjoyed, and then there were a few things that drove me crazy.
I’m glad we got one more flashback episode, because frankly I could watch Weechesters for an entire spinoff tv series and be ecstatic about that. Amyn Kaderali always does a great job directing this show, and he did so here, setting up some truly scary moments while at the same time showcasing Jerry Wanek’s iconic motel décor beautifully.
There were scenes I loved and dialogue I loved. There were also a few things that made me jump up and down and start yelling at my tv screen, which is never a good sign when I’m watching “Supernatural.” I’ve said this before, but it bears repeating – every episode matters now. Every scene, every interaction, every moment, matters now. We have FOUR episodes left. Once again, that makes me cherish just having time with the Winchesters, but also grow frustrated quickly when something doesn’t quite work. Let me start from the beginning, which happens to be in the present.
The Rooster’s Sunrise Motel is quintessential “Supernatural.” “If I Didn’t Care” plays as adult Travis (Ryan Alexander McDonald) checks into a particular room – 214. Interesting song choice – If I didn’t care, I wouldn’t be trying to get past this trauma? If I didn’t care, I wouldn’t lie to you to try to protect you? There are a lot of options.
Anyway, the opening scene was scary as hell, Travis trying to talk himself into being calm and facing his fears, while we see the closet door slowly opening behind him. AAHHHH!!! A ghostly kid taunts and attacks him. Poor Travis.
Cut to Sam and Dean in the Impala.
Once again, we get one of those beautiful boys-in-the-car-at-night-in-the-rain scenes, headlights passing by, droplets glistening on Baby’s windshield. As must happen constantly throughout their lives, Dean asks how much farther and Sam gives him the bad news, both of them weary but driving on. It makes a lot more sense in retrospect that Dean is so reluctant to be heading back to a motel where they have history, to help an ‘old friend’ – of 25 years ago.
Sam: It’s not like we have anything else to do right now.
Which is kind of a strange thing to say considering they’re facing literally the end of the world, but it’s true that Chuck’s not around and Cas left for reasons that Dean knows but he’s not telling Sam. I groaned at Dean keeping this gigantic piece of news from Sam, after Cas specifically said that both Dean and Sam needed to know. (It begs the question of why Cas didn’t tell Sam himself, btw).
Cas texts Dean: Did you tell Sam?
Dean reads it in the car while Sam yells at him not to text and drive. He apologizes with a “my bad” – but still does not tell Sam. Castiel’s text and Dean’s lying and Sam’s confusion – they’re like children when they get stuck in these cycles, I swear. Did you tell him? No, I said I would when I’m ready! Who are you texting with??
They pull up to the motel, and we flashback to young Sam and Dean, as John drops them off at the same motel.
Sam is (lamely) hiding a college admissions book in his jacket for some unknown reason (why not in his duffel, that’s where it always is in fanfic?) Dean manhandles it out and makes fun of Sam, asking him “You think you’re gonna go to college?”
Sam: It’s what normal people do…
Dean laughs in that way that says nothing is at all funny about any of this and says that they’re not normal.
Dean: If you think places like that will even think of letting a dumbass like you in… This, Sam? This is our life.
On first watch, I had to get up and pace around the room at this point, I was so upset. I have no trouble believing that Dean would instantly panic when faced with the prospect of losing his little brother, to a “normal life” or to anything else. I have no trouble believing that Dean teased Sam and taunted him and sometimes probably hurt his feelings, because a) brothers and b) teenagers don’t always have the empathy to know when they’ve gone too far.
But I still can’t believe Dean would call Sam a dumbass in this context – it was too much of a low blow. I don’t think Dean ever tried to make Sam feel less than, especially not in terms of his brains – otherwise Sam never would have had the self-efficacy to apply to college in the first place, let alone go!
I see where the writer was going, but that part didn’t work for me. Maybe it was partly the delivery too – it came out harsh, without the nuance of underlying fear or the affection usually underneath Dean’s teasing of his little brother. Dean can be mean when he’s hurt or threatened, as all of us can, but there was no lead up to that sort of cruelty that made it seem organic.
I think the young Sam and Dean actors (Christian Michael Cooper and Paxton Singleton) did a good job with this episode, but I also think I’m insanely spoiled by Colin Ford and Dylan Everett, who seemed to study Jared Padalecki and Jensen Ackles’ portrayals until they came to magically embody the characters somehow. This Dean didn’t quite have the empathy that both Everett and of course Ackles always bring through, so that line seemed extra harsh.
Sam unpacks his duffel after, laying out the gun and knife hidden in there next to the college book, next to the anvil… Okay, the metaphorical anvil. Yes, I get it, Show. Sam trying to decide what to do with his life.
Continuity points for Dean mentioning Sully, by the way – I do really appreciate the timeline consistency. I adore Jay Gruska’s ‘family theme’ but it didn’t quite work for me in this scene – it almost seemed like overkill with the heavy-handed Sam’s dilemma visuals going on.
Meanwhile, Dean meets Caitlin (Ellie McKinnon) and her little brother Travis (Liam Hughes) and shows them how to get some free candy out of the vending machine – that whole scene was back in character, as was most of the rest of the episode. I’ve seen a few people say that Dean was intent on impressing Caitlin because he was interested in some way, but I didn’t see that at all – in fact, that was one of the refreshing things about this episode. Caitlin was an interesting original character who I felt like we got to know a little even in this one episode, and I felt like Dean genuinely respected her.
In the present, grown-up Caitlin (Kelsey Crane) tells Sam and Dean that Travis had some PTSD from his trauma in the past. He went to therapy, which helped for a while, and then the therapist suggested “immersion therapy” which apparently meant he had to go sit in the motel room where his trauma happened. I admit, as a psychologist, I took that a bit personally. This was the therapist’s fault? It’s not exactly in line with what we call trauma-informed treatment. Anyway, Caitlin thinks “she’s back” – the monster that traumatized Travis when they were kids.
We flashback to young Travis trying to get candy out of the machine the way Dean taught him, only to be grabbed by a truly terrifying old woman inside the friggen machine!! An entire fandom started swearing never to put our hands in a vending machine ever again! Kudos to writer and director for bringing the scary once again.
Dean and Caitlin come running to save the day, but Travis looks terrified out of his mind (understandably).
“You think I’m crazy!” Travis says when he tells his sister and Sam and Dean what happened to him. To his surprise, Dean says no, that he believes him.
In a meaning-laden moment (that I liked a lot), Dean glances over at Sam. Sam nods, and Dean goes on, telling an astonished Travis and Caitlin that monsters are real.
Caitlin: Are you for real?
Sam: Yeah, he is.
That was a deftly written scene, showing that Sam and Dean are already a team, even before Sam actually joined the ‘family business’ and that Dean does not for a second think that Sam is “a dumbass”.
Dean asks if there’s anything else they want to tell him, and Caitlin mirrors Dean’s look to Sam by glancing over at Travis. The other younger brother also nods, and Caitlin tells the Winchesters about the missing kids in the town. They grab local papers and start researching, Sam and Dean using M & M’s to map out where the monster may be hiding out – the good old abandoned cannery every time! Sam doesn’t want Dean to go after it before they know what they’re dealing with (definitely not a dumbass) but Dean is in full protective big brother mode (and, I think, feeling bad about his dumbass comment earlier, or maybe that’s my head canon).
Dean: No, stay here – be normal.
He heads out alone.
Dean: I’ve got a gun, I’ve got a knife. I’m good.
Caitlin trails him anyway, the two of them making their way through a creepy abandoned cannery building by flashlight. Another well done scary scene. Dean eventually finds the monster’s lair, pulling up the tarp to find something that clearly terrifies him. He lies to Caitlin, saying he didn’t find anything.
Caitlin: You’re sweating. Are you scared?
Dean: (clearly lying again) No.
Meanwhile, young Sam and Travis play a game of Boggle at the motel while they wait, Sam reassuring Travis that “whatever it is, my brother will kill it.”
Another scene that I loved – Sam’s already deep faith in his brother and his acknowledgment that Dean is doing something important (perhaps for the first time), despite his continued wish for normalcy.
It was also once again scary, as the boggle game spells out frightening messages and then shakes and explodes, the boys jumping up.
Sam screams a warning too late, and the monster grabs Travis and starts pulling him backwards.
At that moment, Dean bursts in the door, yelling for Sam to get back. He slashes at her with his knife, chopping off her fingers and then stabbing her. She goes up in smoke, severed fingers flying and then disappearing too, leaving only a large garish ring behind on the floor.
Oh. The ring.
In the present, however, Dean doesn’t believe Caitlin this time. Sam and Dean check EMF etc and find nothing, and although Caitlin protests that her brother was not suicidal, Dean insists that the monster isn’t back – because he killed her.
Sidenote: Didn’t all the things that they killed come back thanks to Chuck at the beginning of the season?
Hmm. Anyway, it’s clear that Dean needs to believe that he killed it, just as I’m sure he needed to at the time. This incident would have come after the similar events of “Something Wicked” where Dean learned the terrible consequences of not “finishing the job” – something that haunted him his whole life. The idea that this could be something similar must have been unbearable, and still is, even for present-day Dean.
Nevertheless, as Dean walks down the motel hall alone, something flits by behind him – a well-done horror movie type scare. Then he’s confronted by the monster, whatever it is, taking the form of teenage Dean. The image tells him ominously, “you know what you have to do. You failed.”
The guilt Dean is carrying makes him even more vulnerable to the monster’s suggestion.
Dean drops to his knees and pulls out a knife, or seems to, preparing to stab himself, when suddenly Sam is calling his name.
That pulls him out of his trance, because it’s Sam and of course it does.
Dean: She’s right. Caitlin’s right.
He apologizes for not believing her, clearly feeling guilty for not killing it like they all believed he had.
Sam: Second chance then.
It’s a theme of the past few episodes – it’s been mentioned more than once. Will the idea of a second chance somehow play into the final episodes and whatever the resolution will be with Chuck? Hmmm.
Dean comes clean about all the things he didn’t tell them (including Sam) that first hunt. That he found her nest – full of dead kids under that tarp. The same age as they were at the time.
Sam: Dean, why didn’t you tell me?
Dean: I’d never seen anything like that before…had nightmares for years. I shoved it down the old memory hole. I’m sorry, I should’ve told you. He flashes back to that night, remembering the trauma.
I don’t know that the first part of what Dean said is much of an explanation, but it does make sense to me that Dean a) was traumatized by what he saw, and people who experience trauma often have a very hard time talking about it and instead try to compartmentalize it and shove it away, and b) Dean was all about protecting Sam, even back then. He thought the case was over, the kids were gone, why would he want to traumatize Sam too?
Of course, it plays as an indictment of what Dean is currently keeping from Sam in the present, especially when Sam absolves him of the earlier omission, saying that “you were just a kid – we used to keep a lot of secrets from each other”. Back then, is the implication, but not now.
The episode is in part about Dean’s tendency to lie sometimes, mostly because he’s trying to protect someone – often Sam. He doesn’t lie for his own personal gain, he’s not a narcissist. It’s an organizing principle of who he is to protect others, from all kinds of harm, physical and psychological. He knows how much it scarred him to see those dead kids; he doesn’t want to inflict those nightmares and PTSD on Sam and the other two kids. It’s still gonna come back to bite him in the butt, but that protectiveness is a part of Dean’s character that I appreciate. Not saying he should do it, but it doesn’t make him the ‘bad guy’.
Sam hits the laptop for research while Dean goes to the local diner to get them food.
More kudos for Meghan because I loved this little scene – Dean orders a veggie burger meal for Sam, even reluctantly asking “because I know my brother’s gonna ask” if they have arugula salad, or kale? Now that is totally in character for Dean.
Billie suddenly pops up beside him, the counter allowing a pregnant Lisa Berry to stay partially hidden.
I almost inappropriately laughed when Billie was like, “working a case? Now??”
Fandom: Right? With five episodes left??
She tells Dean that their world is the only one left, and sternly tells him he needs to have his house in order and be ready. Dean is angry about the Jack news, asking her how she talked him into doing it. Billie insists that she told him the truth – that the only way the Winchesters will forgive him for Mary’s death is if his sacrifice frees them from the “hamster wheel”.
That’s a pretty awful manipulation and Dean bristles, but he also doesn’t say it’s not true. He reluctantly agrees to go along with the plan because he “wants – needs Chuck dead.”
Dean: I don’t have to like every part of the plan.
Dean doesn’t like it; in fact, he clearly hates it. But he thinks there’s no other way to save the world, and so he’s resigned to it. Ackles lets us see every bit of that fury at having no other choice, along with the steely determination to do what needs to be done. This is a man who was willing to do the exact same thing to take out Amara, resulting in his own death, so I can’t judge him as harshly as I might want to for being willing to go along with it, especially since Jack (Alex Calvert) himself is deciding to do it.
(Though knowing Billie’s psychological manipulation makes it a little harder to swallow that Jack really is making the decision himself.) Sam, on the other hand, is the one always insisting they’ll find another way. The only one who, Dean knew, could have talked him out of the Ma’lak box. It’s why Dean is so reluctant to tell his brother.
I feel like Dean is often painted as the ‘bad guy’ this season. His anger has been completely pathologized even though it still seems mostly normal to me – the rational response of a rational person to an impossible and horrible situation — and now Billie is using his anger as a guilt trip to push Jack into sacrificing himself. This whole episode seemed to be about Dean ‘learning a lesson’ about telling the truth couched in the guise of ‘maturity’ and ‘change’.
And while I think we all agree that lying does in fact come back to bite you in the butt every single time, I also have a lot of empathy for the situation Dean is in and the impossible decision he has once again been set up to have to make. I’m so angry at Chuck and Billie and the other cosmic players at this point, I’d like to jettison them all into another universe! (If only there were any others left…)
I empathize with Dean here, is what I’m saying, as much as I empathize with Sam in the ending scene too. Billie’s “so this is on YOU, Dean” seemed completely unfair.
Jack’s decision was made because Dean was angry and hurt about his mother’s death? I mean, who set that up? That’s Billie being manipulative in the worst possible way, and I feel for both Jack and Dean as pawns in her power play.
Dean is constantly feeling like it’s all up to him – no wonder he impulsively went after the monster as a teenager before they even knew what it was. He felt like saving them all was on his shoulders; after all, that’s what his dad taught him. And he’s still trying to do that today, resulting in the lies that are inevitably going to come between him and his brother.
Meanwhile, Sam researches, and Caitlin says she’s sorry that this is his life now, asking ‘don’t you want to be normal?’
Sam doesn’t even hesitate. He points out that they help people, save them. Sam’s journey these past few seasons has been all about that, from understandably wanting and longing for ‘normal’ to embracing who he is as a hunter and finding satisfaction from that, as difficult and sometimes traumatic as it clearly is. It’s the equivalent of Dean’s “I’m good with who I am; I’m good with who you are.”
Sam continues to be the furthest thing from a dumbass, figuring out that the monster is Baba Yaga and the power is in her ring (that Travis was wearing around his neck. Oops) (My friend Alana insisted on making me watch the Baba Yaga scene from Ant Man and the Wasp and now I can’t even say the word without laughing. Damn it, Alana!)
Sam does have a bit of a dumbass moment, however, when he sits there exclaiming about the Baba Yaga staring the laptop and doesn’t notice that Caitlin has run out of the room — and therefore doesn’t manage to catch her as she goes to the parking lot, finds that the ring is no longer in Travis’s effects, and then gets attacked by the Baba Yaga in the form of poor dead Travis. I think trained hunter Sam Winchester would have noticed her leaving the room, right?
Dean returns with the food and pauses to steel himself outside the door, clearly planning to tell Sam the truth (clear to me anyway) but when he opens the door, Sam tells him it’s the Baba Yaga.
Dean: The Baba Yaga?!
Sam: Yes, the Baba Yaga.
Me: (cracking up) Thanks, Alana…
Sam fills Dean in – ring source of power, feeds on her victim’s worst fears, makes them hallucinate. Destroy “the precious”, destroy the Baba Yaga.
Dean: Let’s split up.
Me: What? How is that a good idea, when this thing makes you hallucinate when you’re alone with it??
Sam follows the proverbial horror movie red herring, which turns out to be the desk clerk (Bernadette Beck) with a bong in the storeroom.
Dean walks by motel room doors, pausing outside when he hears sounds of a woman having some fun-sounding sex. In another moment I loved – because this is not a time when Dean Winchester would indulge some prurient interest – he instead rolls his eyes and walks on. Thank you, Meghan, for getting that right!
As he walks by 214, the door swings slowly open.
Dean: I’ve seen this movie before.
The door closes behind him and he’s suddenly in the cannery, walking down the scary stairs and into the room where as a kid he found her lair. This time, he pulls up the tarp, and instead of the neighborhood kids’ bodies, to his horror he sees young Sam lying there dead.
Dean: (horrified) Sam!
Dean’s worst nightmare, seemingly come to life before his eyes. Ackles sells Dean’s absolute horror so well it hurts. He backs out of the room, no doubt trying to unsee yet another traumatic image.
The Baba Yaga confronts him as adult Travis, answering Dean’s “aren’t I a little old for you?” with saying she’s starving after so long, and attacking him.
Dean goes down struggling. Luckily Sam is walking by the door (similarly unimpressed by the sounds of lovemaking in that other room) and hears a commotion.
He bursts in and stabs the Baba Yaga, saving Dean. She comes after them again, but Dean manages to get the ring off and smash it with the butt of his gun. Up in smoke she goes. Dean looks over to be sure Sam is okay, both of them collapsed on the floor, Caitlin reviving on the motel room bed.
Dean hugs Caitlin goodbye, in the present and the past. In the present, she asks him again if he was scared, and this time he tells the truth.
Dean: Always am.
She points out that he’s changed, and that part of growing up means you understand that lies don’t make anything better.
She points out that, I’d like to point out that Dean’s jeans are … nice.
Dean is really getting it laid on heavy in the midst of his lying to Sam.
In the past, Dean also hugs Caitlin goodbye, leaving her with his number in case anything ever happens again.
Sam: What are we gonna tell Dad?
Dean: That I handled it.
He pauses, smiles at his little brother.
Dean: With a little help.
I was hoping all through the episode that we’d see Dean take back the ‘dumbass’ comment in some way, and luckily we do. Sort of.
Dean: Sam, about the college thing… I don’t know… but we make a good team, right?
Sam: Yeah, we do.
It’s a nice call back to the pilot, where Dean uses the same phrase to let Sam know how much he wants his little brother with him as his partner.
I might have teared up a little.
They get into the Impala, John at the wheel (alas, sans Jeffrey Dean Morgan).
In the present, they drive away in the same car, night again. Sam calls Castiel, and Dean suddenly tells him to hang up the phone. Dean comes clean, in fits and starts, like it always happens when someone reluctantly tells the truth after lying, knowing how hurt and angry the other person is going to be.
Dean: Billie paid me a visit…It’s go time. Chuck’s done with the other worlds. And there’s something else.
Sam: (incredulous) Something else?
Dean: Jack’s gonna die. He’s known this all along and he’s ready to sacrifice himself.
He admits that Cas told him before they even left, laying it all out finally.
Sam is beyond incensed.
Sam: What the hell, Dean?! I thought we were past stuff like this!
Entire fandom: So did we, Sam!
Dean gets defensive, saying that Sam couldn’t handle it.
That part made me go huh? Sam can’t handle it? It’s not a matter of Sam “handling it” and I don’t think Dean sees it that way. That part doesn’t even fit in with what he says next, so I’m gonna hand wave it and just go with the rest of it.
Dean: You questioned going after Amara, raised ‘ethical questions’…
Sam: And I shouldn’t?!
I think I was so riveted to the television at this point that I was barely breathing – Sam Mother Effing Winchester is back! It’s like Sam, who has sometimes felt relegated to the background recently, suddenly came back to life so vividly that I fell in love with the character all over again.
The family theme begins to play and this time it’s lethally, brutally perfect, as the brothers go at it and try to hash their way through what is familiar territory for them – and all the more hurtful because of that.
Dean: Sorry, Sam, you don’t get a choice. WE don’t get a choice.
Sam: Oh, WE…
Jared and Jensen floored me with their acting in this scene. It was so real I could barely watch it, the emotions so raw and so believable and so painful. Give those two a scene to really dig their teeth into and they will KILL it every damn time!
Sam eventually looks away, too upset and angry to even listen, telling Dean to just stop – to essentially just shut up and drive.
Sam (turning away, toward the window): Just drive.
Dean looks equally devastated.
They drive into the night, leaving me with my box of tissues, sniffling.
Okay, I love my Show. I guess this episode mostly worked for me after all. Most of what I ask is to be able to feel something, after all.
Four more “Supernaturals” to go with Unity 15.17 next….