‘Supernatural’ gets Psychological with Various and Sundry Villains

This week’s Supernatural episode, ‘Various and Sundry Villains,’ has inspired a lot of passionate discussion online, which says something about the way Steve Yockey wrote the characters and the story arc this week. It was also the week to honor female directors and filmmakers, so having Amanda Tapping back to direct was wonderful – and she did an amazing job. Not only did the humor come through, but Tapping filmed the emotional scenes in a powerful way – often in ultra close ups, evoking the intimacy of the moment we were witnessing. (And also showing off our very beautiful cast…)

Like most, I loved a lot about the episode, or at least I loved the overwhelming majority of the episode. Kudos to Jared Padalecki, Jensen Ackles, and Ruth Connell, who all turned in performances that were award-worthy.  There were some times when the episode felt like a roller coaster – or more accurately a Wild Mouse – because every so often it would lurch to a stop and leave me hanging onto the lap bar going wait, what? There was an unnevenness to it that was jarring at times, and that was confusing. Also, there was a TON happening. We’re back to multiple story lines, and that switch back and forth never sits entirely well with me. Every time I get deeply invested in what’s happening we switch to the other story line and I have a moment of irritation before I can make that mental switch too. It’s a common thing on Supernatural, but I don’t entirely enjoy it. My brain likes to go deep and then stay there, especially when my emotions are deeply engaged, as they were in much of this episode.

Some of the confusion may be because apparently there may have been some episode switching at this point of the season, or at least that’s the word on the street. Last week’s episode was maybe originally supposed to be this week’s episode – perhaps they moved it to keep the Wayward Sisters momentum going? I don’t know, but in some ways that makes sense, especially when we’re following Sam’s emotional journey. I loved that he expressed his feelings of doubt and helplessness in ‘Breakdown,’ but it did sort of seem to come out of nowhere, which dilutes the impact a bit. Jared did such a great job that he carried it anyway, but I scratched my head a few times and so did many other fans. If ‘Breakdown’ had come after ‘Villains’ revelations, Sam’s mental state would have made a lot more sense.

Let’s talk about Sam’s arc in these two episodes, though, because that is hands down the most amazing part of both. Jared Padalecki is getting a chance to show us what’s been inside Sam for a long time, and he’s killing it – I hope he knows what a fantastic job he’s doing. I know he’s been eager to do that for some time, so I imagine it’s been just as rewarding for him to be able to gain insight into Sam as it has been for us as viewers. In this episode, he gets two glorious scenes to really “go there.” Which, for a psychologist like me, is tremendously fulfilling to really dig into. First is the scene in the car with Rowena, who I’ll talk more about later, because Yay, she’s back!

Sam and Rowena have connected before, and you get the feeling that she has a special fondness for Sam that she maybe wishes she didn’t. Even when she’s scoffed and called him “Giant,” it’s been with some unintentional warmth. Like Crowley, she gives the boys nicknames that telegraph some affection for them. Sam, for his part, has always understood that Rowena is not one of the good guys or to be trusted – but this time, Rowena admits something that strikes a chord in Sam. Not of sympathy, but of empathy. Sam has been there too, right there standing in her shoes. He too has seen the true face of Lucifer and borne the true wrath of Lucifer. Despite the sassy quips and the artfully-messy-haired meatsuit Lucifer puts on, Sam and Rowena both know that is not truly Lucifer. They know what he’s capable of, and they have been the victims of that capability. And we all know that you don’t go through something like that and come out unscarred, emotionally and psychologically as well as physically. Both Sam and Rowena have alluded to the “things” that Lucifer did to them while they were helpless, and whatever those things were, they were clearly Trauma with a big T. They met all the criteria for the things that cause Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, and Sam and Rowena are dealing with the aftermath of that Trauma. Nightmares, hyper-vigilance, constantly looking over your shoulder, never feeling safe. Feeling like you’re back in that nightmare scenario in real life, o that there’s no real escape or refuge. A persistent sense of helplessness.

Rowena confides that Lucifer showed her his true face, and admits “I’m scared Sam. All the time.”

It’s clear just how much Sam relates to that as he says softly, “I’ve seen it too. It still keeps me up at night.”

Rowena: How do you deal with it?

Sam: I guess I don’t deal with it, not really. I pushed it down and the world kept almost ending…I don’t really talk about it, not even with Dean. I could, he’d listen… it’s not something I know how to share.

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Oh Sam, you broke my heart there. And Rowena too, because she’s taking it all in and it’s just making her feel more desperate and more helpless.

Sam: Even if you do get your power back, it won’t matter. You won’t be able to change what happened, how helpless you feel. That feeling never goes away.

Rowena: (brokenly) Never?

Sam: Never.

Clearly it never has for Sam, so why would he be dealing with it well? He’s never taken the time to really process those feelings, he’s just coped by trying to swallow them and shove them down. Partly so he can keep doing what he does – saving people, hunting things. Partly because no one has ever told him that it’s okay to have those feelings. That’s what he tries to do for Rowena – validate the fear, the desperation, the sense of being damaged. Sam, despite his own ‘dark place’ and his own struggle, reaches out and gives that to Rowena. It was a tremendously unselfish and courageous thing to do, and you could see what it cost Sam to bring it up and put words to it. It’s never an easy thing; in fact, it’s the hardest thing in the world. But it’s the only way to start to heal.

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Ruth Connell is a perfect scene partner for Jared in this scene, because I believe in Rowena’s pain and fear and helplessness as much as I believe in Sam’s. Even if she is ultimately trying to play the Winchesters (and she usually is), I have no doubt that her emotions were real. She is feeling all those things, and that’s why she’s willing to do just about anything to make them stop. Rowena has shared before that what she loathes more than anything is feeling helpless, and that is exactly where Lucifer has put her. I know it’s probably going to be a bad thing, but I couldn’t help but root for her to get out of that helplessness. Perhaps because she’s a woman, I don’t know, but seeing her regain her strength and sense of self and feeling of empowerment after what Lucifer did to her (and what life did to her early on)? It kinda felt good.

The one thing that bothered me in all of this wonderful stuff is that Sam hasn’t opened up to Dean about what he’s feeling. I love that Yockey included the line ‘I could talk to Dean. He would listen.’ Because we know that he would. We know that Dean loves Sam more than life, and when he knows that Sam is suffering, he wants to make it better with every fiber of his being. Sam knows that too. That Yockey explicitly acknowledged this is so appreciated. Too often, we as fans make assumptions about what the characters are feeling, but we don’t get to SEE it and HEAR it. In this episode and to an extent in the last, we got that. And it felt like a precious gift, to be honest. I don’t just want action scenes (though sometimes they rock), I mostly want to know what Sam and Dean and Cas and Jack and the other main characters are FEELING. Sam has been traumatized by his experience with Lucifer for years and hasn’t had a chance to really talk about it – until now. Please, Show, don’t forget that next week and just let it drop?

I couldn’t fault Sam for letting Rowena get out of the car to “collect herself” or for giving her the spell from the grimoire, not really. It may be a mistake in the end, but it was coherent writing in this episode.

The other scene that will make this episode one of my lasting favorites was the scene in the bunker kitchen near the end of the episode. I’ve said this repeatedly, and it’s one of the things that Season 13 will always be loved for – because this is Season 13, Sam and Dean have a conversation. AGAIN! This time it’s in their home, in their kitchen. The domesticity of that setting makes the emotional resonance of the scene even greater, as does the use of the family theme music. Every time I hear those first few familiar notes, I want to give Jay Gruska a big hug. (I co-wrote a chapter in the newly published Supernatural Psychology about how the music of Supernatural enhances the emotionality and characterization, and this was a great example).

I love that Sam has been thinking about what he said to Rowena – that he knows he could talk to Dean, that Dean would listen. So when Dean confronts him (gently, so gently) about the missing page in the Grimoire, Sam really does try to explain.

Sam: If Rowena does see Lucifer again, I hope she makes him suffer…

Dean: You gotta get out of this dark place, whatever’s going on in your head…

Sam: Honestly?

Dean: Yeah, how about honestly.

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It is clearly so hard for Sam, after all this time. He must feel like every trauma survivor feels, that fear that everyone will be like, what, you haven’t gotten over that yet, it happened so long ago?! Cognitively, he knows that Dean gets it, that he won’t feel that way. But those fears aren’t exactly rational, so they don’t always respond well to what our brains know.  I think that’s why he confides in Dean about part of what he’s feeling, but he stops short of really laying it on the table about how terrified he is of Lucifer, and has been this whole time. I loved Sam Winchester so much in this scene – it’s not just his bravery in fighting monsters that is inspiring, it’s his bravery at times like this. It is so hard for him to not just shove his feelings down once more, even with Dean – but he tries so hard not to. And he succeeds, he tells Dean some real stuff, just not all of it. Eventually, Sam stops himself.

Sam: I know what Rowena’s feeling…she’s not the only one who…

He pauses then, looking at Dean almost imploringly, but then he doesn’t go any farther about Lucifer specifically, finishing with “feels helpless.”

Dean knows too, and I think in that moment he genuinely wants Sam to open up to him, to show him Sam’s truth even if it will hurt them both.

Dean asks, so quietly: ‘What do you mean?’

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But Sam can’t yet answer, not when it comes to what Lucifer did.

Sam: I had a plan…and it kept me from spinning off the rails…

That’s the truth, it’s just not the whole truth.

That scene, like the scene with Rowena, worked so well because Jared tapped into all the emotion he needed to and let us see very bit of it, and Jared’s scene partner was instrumental in making it work. Jensen showed us a Dean who was able to put aside his own not-always-functional coping strategies in order to try to give Sam what he needed. Dean shoves things down too, and then covers them over with snark and teasing and not taking serious things seriously because it’s too uncomfortable and feels too dangerous. He’s afraid, always, that Sam will fall apart – that the terrible things that he knows have been done to his little brother will take their toll and Sam won’t be okay once again. It’s happened before, and Dean was so desperate to fix Sam that he let Gadreel inside to do it, with horrific results. Dean too is struggling with his own helplessness, and yet he too is courageous and puts his own feelings aside for Sam. Thanks to the writing and to Ackles’ intimate understanding of both his character and Padalecki’s, he shows us a Dean who is almost muted in presentation, a striking contrast to Dean’s usual persona.

Sam needs him to listen; so he does. Even his body is quiet, and his eyes don’t leave Sam’s, calmly telegraphing acceptance as much as he can. He asks questions and they come out without a hint of judgment or defensiveness, just pure ‘help me understand, I want to.’ Dean could have been a therapist right there, with his open ended questions and his evident empathy. He doesn’t try to offer Sam platitudes – he knows that won’t work. He doesn’t make up some bullshit reason why everything is gonna be okay and he doesn’t dispute Sam’s reasons for feeling as hopeless and afraid as he does. Instead Dean tries to get Sam to lean on him, to take some of Dean’s newly invigorated belief that things will eventually be okay. It’s not a false promise, it’s Dean needing to believe it and wanting to convey some of that hope to Sam.

Sam: Dean, we don’t have a plan, we don’t know what to do, so how…

Dean: I don’t know, but we will. You and me.

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It’s indescribably tragic that Dean’s heartfelt reassurance doesn’t work. As a psychologist, I know what that feels like, to share the experience of someone who is hopeless and struggle to find a way to help them rediscover hope. I felt for Sam so much, and I felt for Dean so much too, as Sam gives it a “yeah” that neither of them believes and retreats while a despondent rendition of the Family Theme plays in the background and keeps my eyes wet.

Oh my god, this show. Sometimes it hurts unbearably to care about these characters so much and see them in such pain.

My one quibble with all this is that sometimes Show has trouble treating the brothers equally simultaneously. We’ve needed to hear about Sam’s pain for a long time, but I can’t forget that Dean has also been severely traumatized. He was tortured in hell for decades, and then tortured by his own capitulation into torturing others. Dean DOES have empathy for Sam, because he does get it. I’m not suggesting he should have responded to Sam with a callous “oh yeah I know what you mean, remember I’ve been tortured in hell too” because that would be the opposite of validating and Sam would never open up again. But I would have liked to see some acknowledgment myself that Dean has also been there. I know we saw him fall into hopelessness for a while this season too, but we didn’t get this – we didn’t get it explicitly tied to his own trauma history the way it surely must have been. And I want that!

Maybe in some subsequent Season 13 conversations??

Another little quibble. I’ve said this before, but I feel like Supernatural would be unbelievably amazing to watch unspoiled – imagine how the scene in which Rowena steps back into the picture (literally) would have played if we all didn’t know she was coming back! I would have totally lost it if I’d believed she was dead, and then we’d have that soon-to-be-iconic moment when she saves the day and we see those pointy red boots and then hear the ‘Hello boys.’ I mean, can you imagine?

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Ruth did a great job keeping mum about whether or not Rowena was truly dead for a long time, which I give her a lot of credit for, but then the Show spoiled itself before the episode could air. I am mystified about why this is seen as the best way to make the show great – surely one ‘tune in tonight and see X’ teaser doesn’t end up netting you as many fans as ‘wow Supernatural has amazing reveals’. Right?

So they spoiled the reveal and thus some of the impact of that scene, which is a shame because it was awesome. Amanda Tapping directed it perfectly (including the intended surprise reveal…) and Ruth Connell nailed every minute of it. It’s no secret that I love both Rowena and Ruth, so I was gleeful to have her back. Then when she was given an emotional arc too? Whoa. I’ve been longing for more insight into Rowena for a while, so it was wonderful to get some, even if it was intentionally confusing.

As is often the case with this episode, my glee came with some disappointment too. I’m not over the death of Crowley or the way he (or Mark Sheppard) exited, so part of me was very happy to have that acknowledged on the Show. I have long believed that Rowena and Fergus, despite their anger at each other that at times seemed like only hatred, was in fact covering up a love that was still there – and perhaps fueling a lot of that hatred. We got hints of that in the one phenomenal scene when Rowena admits that if she didn’t hate him, she might love him, and she can’t tolerate that vulnerability. And then we never got much more! When Crowley was killed off without us ever getting that, I was truly disappointed. So I was glad to see Rowena ask about her son and show her emotional reaction to finding out he was dead. Again, I don’t think it was all for show to manipulate the Winchesters by guilt tripping them. Connell shows us too much in her eyes, in her voice. She did love her son, I think – her only child. And she is grieving him, and angry about his loss too. Screw being a hero if it gets you killed – how often would real people want to say that? I’d rather have a living son than a dead hero.

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On the other hand, I’m still bitter that we never got to see what could have been such a fascinating story arc play out between Rowena and Fergus/Crowley. I feel cheated out of that by Sheppard’s exit, and by the loss of a character who I cherished and who no one else can ever play. Don’t even try that, Show, I’m warning you.

I do like that Sam and Dean are now acknowledging Crowley’s sacrifice, saying he died to save them and telling Rowena she would have been proud of him. This episode was noteworthy for SAYING things that too often do not get said on Supernatural. That frustrates fans a great deal, so it was nice to have them right there said out loud and part of canon.

Kudos to Ruth for showing us so much of Rowena in this episode. I love the complexity of the character – she’s not good but she’s not entirely evil. She’s frightened and vulnerable and grieving but she’s also powerful and determined and in the end, victorious over the ones who tried to beat her down and destroy her. She’s emotional – she feels things I think deeply — but can be hard as nails, cold as she watches the sisters stab each other to death or walks away from Sam and Dean stuck to the sidewalk.

The witch sisters (Jordan Claire Robbins and Elise Gatien) were interesting, though sometimes caused me to shake my head. (Bludgeoning a guy in a parking lot is the best way not to attract attention? Hmm) Anyway, another thing I’ve written about Season 13 as a change that I like a lot (and a return to the way the Show did things in earlier seasons) is the use of characters-of-the-week as nearly explicit parallels of Sam and Dean. That was clear here because they were sisters, and codependent sisters at that. We’re shown from the beginning scene that they are not the good guys at all, as they bludgeon a hapless love-bespelled guy to death in the middle of a parking lot, but they do have a familiar reason for at least a little of that violence – they just want to bring back their mother. Now that’s something a Winchester could relate to for sure. I’m not entirely sure what Show was trying to say, because I became momentarily sympathetic to the sisters as they grieved their mother, then veered quickly back to nope nope nope.  The ending was nevertheless shocking, as they’re forced to kill each other.

supernatural witch sisters try stabbing dean winchester supernatural 1312 witch sisters bleeding eyes image dean winchester reacts to supernatural witch sisters images supernatural sam winchester deals with witch sisters 1312That was a potential tragedy that Supernatural teased might happen back in the day as they put Sam and Dean at each other’s throats. Would they (either as themselves or as Michael and Lucifer) eventually kill each other? It was tragic seeing it happen for the sisters even though they clearly couldn’t have been allowed to go their merry way. Maybe it’s just a reminder that being so close also carries with it vulnerabilities, because that has always been true for Sam and Dean.

The best Supernatural episodes are able to make both humor and serious emotionality work in the same episode, and this one did that. Most of the humor worked very well for me, with a few of those headdesk moments tossed in.

When I saw the preview, I wasn’t at all sure about this episode. It immediately brought back memories of what is, in my opinion, the worst Supernatural episode of all time – Season 7, Time For A Wedding. I hate that episode for its problematic messages and for what it did to the character of Becky, destroying what Eric Kripke originally wrote as an affectionate poke at fangirls. When this episode actually referenced Becky, half of me was like OMG the writers remember the show, and half of me was like oh no please don’t go there. The other negative association was to Dean under a love spell and lusting after poodles, so yeah, didn’t want to go there either.

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It turned out that Ackles and Padalecki are such comic geniuses that they made what could have been an annoying premise into a feast of delightful gif fodder. Sam knows something is wrong with Dean immediately (when is he ever that carefree and happy?) and arrives just in time to save his brother from meeting a fate similar to the poor convenience store guy. But Dean isn’t exactly appreciative, and that means we get Sam tackling Dean and the boys wrestling on the hood of the Impala and me laughing my head off. The call back there was to the brothers’ wrestling on the bed in Tall Tales, and this was similarly priceless. You get the feeling that Jensen and Jared enjoyed every moment of filming that scene, letting their inner five year olds out to play with abandon. And guess what? I enjoyed it just as much!

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I also loved seeing protective Sam coming to Dean’s rescue when he was under the spell with a threatening “Leave him alone!”  And the fact that even under the spell, Dean is apologetic when he feels he has to knock Sam out, promising to come back with some ice, and apologizes as they’re wrestling too. A spell that turned another guy into someone who could murder a friend can’t entirely break through Dean and Sam’s loyalty to each other.

Nevertheless, the mixing up of a love spell played in part for comedy (the dark implications of which are obvious when you think of the Becky episode, which was more clearly about losing agency and being helpless and abused) with an episode that starts acknowledging  in a very serious way Sam’s and Rowena’s loss of agency and being helpless and being abused is an odd combination.

In terms of humor, Jared and Jensen also shone as Rowena sticks their feet to the parking lot, as they go through all sorts of machinations to try to reach the hex bag. (Though why they didn’t think of taking off their jackets and using that to scoop it in is beyond just about everyone). Still, Ackles trying to launch himself and going nowhere was a treat. Was his “come on Sam, you’re like eight feet all” an ad lib? Stay tuned.

The other comedic scene that I absolutely loved was thanks to scene stealer Angela Moore, as Brenda the store clerk. We all could relate to her as the nasty witch sisters treat her like crap, and then she shows her smarts by correctly assessing Dean and rewarding his willingness to give the witch sisters some payback. Even better, though, we all could relate to her as she leaned forward to admire the view as Dean walked away. I can’t thank you enough for this character, Steve Yockey, and I can’t say enough about how well Angela Moore brought her to life even in a few minutes! She may not have been portrayed as a fangirl, but we all felt like she was US anyway.

I also liked Rowena’s flirty little comment about fifth base, and Dean’s affronted reaction. I get the feeling Rowena knows things about that particular subject that even Sam and Dean don’t.

Not all the humor attempts worked though. Dean can reel off perfect Latin incantations and can’t read the title of a book in French? Really?? Even I can pronounce ‘jour et nuit’, and my French teacher in college did nothing but keep telling me to stop pronouncing French like it was Spanish. I’m not ever going to like the humor that tries to dumb the boys down, because it’s just not believable. Getting into a wrestling match on Baby when one of them is bespelled? Absolutely. Dean being anything but smart? Nope.

Dean’s smarts have returned by the end of the episode though, when he realizes that there’s a page missing from the book and knows Sam gave it to Rowena. So I felt a bit better. Also we did get Sam speaking French, which yum.

There was an unintentional (maybe?) humorous moment in the other story line too, when Lucifer says to Cas “let me tell you something about my dick…”  He absolutely pauses before he adds “brother” and I for real thought he was actually doing to tell Cas something about his dick for a few seconds. I don’t know if Pellegrino did that on purpose, but I know I wasn’t the only one who paused for a moment like What?? After all, Lucifer had just spent quite a while trading dick jabs with Dipper. Anyway, I did laugh at that little pause.

As sometimes happens when we get to the we-gotta-tie-this-up part of the episode, things unraveled a bit at the end. Rowena gets herself bested by zombie mom, and Sam and Dean arrive to save the day and then instead of shooting the witches, helpfully explain that their guns are loaded with witch killing bullets. I mean, what did you think would happen then, boys?? I’m getting a bit tired of Sam and Dean never being able to beat anyone at anything – okay, the witches are juiced up strong, but still – no wonder Sam is feeling so hopeless. When do we get to see smart badass Winchesters swooping in and saving the day? That’s what Sam needs, but it’s what I need too!

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The other storyline we jumped back and forth to followed Castiel and Lucifer imprisoned by Asmodeus and taunted by a nasty guard who we knew was eventually going to meet a violent end. I’ve said before that I don’t think I can swallow a Lucifer redemption arc, which seems a little more doubtful now that Sam and Rowena are mentioning his true face and showing the very real results of his terrorizing and abusing them. So that’s good.

I liked that once again Yockey remembers his canon, as Cas refuses to share his grace, calling it cannibalism, and Lucifer fires back that he seems to remember someone snacking on angel grace in the past, so kudos to Show for remembering that bit of its history.

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I’ve also said before that my favorite flavor of Cas (Misha Collins) is early seasons Cas, when he was a mysterious badass angel and his very presence inspired awe in the other characters – and a bit in the fandom too. There is still speculation that this is not exactly our Cas, that his experience in the Empty at the very least changed him and at the very most is a different Cas all together, but at any rate, we got some of that badass Cas back in this episode.

First we get smart Cas, as he taunts Lucifer into losing his temper and tapping into his own power in doing so. That smug little smile on Castiel’s face? Priceless. And the way he uses Lucifer’s genuine feeling for Jack to get him going? Smart!Cas is back!

Cas describes Jack as all the things that Lucifer probably does not want him to be.

Cas: He’s thoughtful, emotional, remarkably intuitive… he loves movies; fantasy movies. Movies with heroes that crush villains.

Me: So Jack’s a Supernatural fan then?

I also had to talk to my television when Castiel tells Lucifer that Jack doesn’t even look like him, he looks like his mother.

Me: Nope, he actually looks just like you, Cas…

It’s the last straw when Castiel tells Lucifer (Mark Pellegrino) that Jack would rather kill him than hug him, which sort of gave me a pang of ouch before I remembered we were talking about Lucifer. Lucifer’s anger is the motivation for getting enough of his power back to break both he and Cas out of their cells.

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We get more badass Cas as he and Lucifer break out and then fight their way through some of Michael’s troops before emerging into the outside of the AU. Lucifer tries to cajole Castiel into sharing “some” of his grace, and of course then tries to take it by force, but Castiel really has changed, it seems. I jumped out of my seat when Cas whirled on Lucifer and stabbed him with an angel blade – I totally did not see that coming!

Cas: I trusted you, when we fought the Darkness…and then you betrayed us. Fool me once… [stab] This is me, learning from my mistakes.

Me: YES!!! About time!

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I’d rather have badass Castiel than amusing Castiel most of the time, honestly. I’d like to think that the Show is getting back to the character’s roots, that maybe something of his experience in the Empty changed Castiel? And I loved that scene. I enjoy Collins and Pellegrino together, but I don’t think it makes sense for Cas to trust him. We are again spoiled a bit, knowing that Cas did not in fact kill Lucifer despite his red eyes flickering out, but I’m looking forward to seeing what this newly badass version of Castiel has planned. He was definitely upset when Lucifer kept talking about Mary being tortured, so my guess is he’s off to try to save her – and Jack is still out there too, trying to do the same thing.

Rowena gets the ending scene, as she performs the spell to unbind her magic and then turns her eyes upward in triumph – as they glow a brilliant blue.

Kudos to the special effects wizards for making those scenes not look cheesy like they might have. I love that Rowena is back and I can’t wait to see where Show takes her.


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Thanks to @kayb625 for the beautiful caps

Check out next week’s Supernatural trailer for 1313 The Devil’s Bargain.