It’s a tough time to be a fan. I have two shows that I absolutely adore, and both of those shows delivered a gut punch last week that left me reeling. The Magicians season finale saw the death of one of my favorite characters (and half of my favorite ship) and it was both excruciatingly well done and absolutely heartbreaking (and maybe a bit problematic too). The very next night, Supernatural aired its penultimate episode of Season 14. I was already raw from the anticipatory grieving about Supernatural ending this time next year, and then The Magicians ripped me apart, so I went into watching “Jack In The Box” with more trepidation and dread than anticipation.
To those of you saying hey, why can’t you just watch the Show and love it? Let me just say that I would give ANYTHING to be able to do that right now. I DO love it, I will always love it. What I really want to do is squee about it all the time. But last week’s episode left me feeling sad and vaguely sick to my stomach, so there’s not a lot of squee to be had right now.
I always go back and do a rewatch before I write my review, but today I found every excuse not to. Have to run out and pick up the ham for tomorrow’s dinner. Have to grade some papers. Have to clean….and water the plants (we have lot of plants, that’s a 30 minute job)…have to…. Finally I couldn’t put it off any longer, and the rewatch made me feel every bit as sick to my stomach as the first watch did. I guess you can say that means the episode was well done, because it was clearly crafted to be upsetting (just as the episode before was crafted to be very sad), but when I don’t want to watch it, I’m not sure that’s the level of upset the Show was going for.
There were lots of times back in the day when fandom would all go online after a rip-you-apart episode of Supernatural and post tons of icons (predecessor of gifs) saying “Damn You Kripke!” The Show has never played it the easy way, and it has never been lollipops and rainbows. It’s a story filled with tragedy, but it has also always been a story with hope and with characters I loved fiercely, who were often heroic in the face of tragedy. Terrible things have happened to our heroes over the years, and they’ve had to make terrible decisions to save the world and each other, but this episode was particularly hard to swallow. I’m well aware that my emotions (like most of the fandom’s) are heightened because we know we have only 21 episodes left of this story that is so important to us. That makes every episode that doesn’t hit quite right for me seem even more upsetting than it would have before we knew the end was imminent. So with that in mind, here are my thoughts on ‘Jack In The Box.’
We’ve known the episode title for quite a while, so everyone knew that Jack was probably going to end up in that goddamn box, but I for one didn’t want to believe it. The Ma’lak box was so profoundly upsetting to the fandom when Dean was determined to get in it, and his nightmare so horrifying, that the thought of Jack in that box was almost unthinkable. So I guess I chose not to think about it. Still, as the ‘Then’ segment started, a chilling dread began to settle over me. Please Show, don’t go there. Please?
We open with a memorial service for Mary in the bunker. The AU hunters and other people who’ve hunted with her are there, her photo (or rather Sam Smith’s photo) and John’s journal on the table. Sam (Jared Padalecki), Dean (Jensen Ackles), and Cas (Misha Collins)join the group but only Dean speaks. He’s carefully composed, makes a joke even, while Sam stands silent, nodding in agreement.
Dean: We lost our mom once before…
It’s something important to remember when you look at Dean’s behavior in this episode. There’s this thing with grief that’s called the “fishhook effect”. A new loss “hooks into” all the old loss and pulls it up like a fish snagged on a line, so that the pain of the new loss brings up all the pain of the old one and it’s overwhelming. That’s what happens to Dean here, I think. Unlike Sam, he remembers the horrible pain of losing his mother as a four year old, something that has shaped his life ever since and left him with a reservoir of anger that he’s channeled into making him an often ruthless hunter.
Dean expresses their gratitude that they got to know her and what she was really like, a smart and stubborn hunter who couldn’t cook worth a damn.
Dean: Mom, you weren’t here long enough…. But we’re glad for the time we had.
There’s a weird and jarring moment in the middle of all this where AU Bobby suddenly appears and tosses a hatchet across the room to kill one of the guests, who apparently is a wraith, but WTF? It was all very odd.
AU Bobby says what we’re all thinking – that maybe Dean is like him, “bein’ teary in public’s not my style.”
That’s for sure because Bobby doesn’t seem very torn up at all for someone who was maybe kinda sorta having a bit of a thing with Mary.
At any rate, it’s soon clear that something is up with Dean. Sam suggests they open Ketch’s bottle of Scotch and hang out and talk about Mom.
Dean: (almost coldly) Talk about Mom? Isn’t that what we’ve been doing?
He boxes things up with steely motivation, like he thinks he can just box up his grief over losing his mother (again).
Courtesy of that grief and loss course I’m currently teaching, Dean and Sam struggle to understand each other in this episode or to be there for each other because they have two very different styles of grieving. Sam is an intuitive griever – he wants to express his grief and share his feelings, eager to take in the comfort of others. Dean, on the other hand, is an instrumental griever. He keeps his feelings to himself and tries to DO something instead – like plan a memorial and box up his mother’s things. Neither can help the other right now, and that’s heartbreaking.
Cas, Sam and Bobby break out the Scotch, but disagree about what to do about Jack.
Cas: We need to find Jack…and help him.
Bobby: I liked the kid… but if his human side is gone, he’s an unstoppable monster who don’t know right from wrong, and he needs to be put down!
Bobby sets off to do just that, and Dean takes off saying he needs to get out of there. When the next scene opens, we see that Dean has parked the Impala in the woods and is sitting alone on a fallen log. He looks around one last time to make sure nobody is watching him, and then he finally breaks down. Jensen Ackles can make you believe grief like no one else, and he sobbed for real here. I can’t help but wonder if he was crying real tears knowing he will be losing Dean Winchester soon, the way so many of us keep crying. At any rate, it was a heartbreaking scene. Ackles talked about it at a recent convention, saying that it was a brutal scene to film because it was cold and pouring rain and they needed to shoot from above so there couldn’t be any shelter for him. It sounded like it took a long time to film, so it’s sort of a shame it was so short. It got the point across though. Dean is hurting – BAD. He just can’t let anyone know it.
And what is the most common ‘cover’ emotion when someone is hurting that badly? You guessed it. Anger.
When Dean returns to the bunker, Sam tries again to talk to him about their shared loss.
Sam: How’re you feeling?
Dean: What’re you working on?
He avoids, evades, won’t go there.
Sam tries again, saying that he can’t stop thinking about Mom. Sam is trying to work things through, come to some kind of terms with Mary’s death. He wants to take solace in knowing that Mary is in Heaven – in a great place. With John.
Dean: (coldly) Know what else? There wasn’t even enough of her left to try to bring her back.
Oh Dean. You’re in a bad bad place right now.
He’s clearly grieving – we KNOW he’s grieving – but it’s all channeled into anger right now. He keeps thinking of his mother incinerated, and you can see what it’s doing to him.
Sam is also in a bad place, trying to come to terms with the loss of the mother he finally got a chance to know, only to have her taken away again too soon. He keeps trying to reach out to Dean, but Dean just can’t express his grief or even hear Sam’s.
And that hurts.
Meanwhile, Jack sits alone at a train station, perhaps as a metaphor for how badly he wishes he could escape and get away from the disaster that his life has become. He begs his mother to tell him what to do, but all he has is Lucifer tormenting him, telling him that Sam and Dean never loved him and that they hate him now.
I complained last week that I wasn’t able to ‘go there’ with Show when Mary died, because they just hadn’t given me enough time with her or reason to feel a bond with her. I know some people feel that way about Jack, and in truth, I at first was doubtful that I’d be able to go there with him either. We got more time with Jack and saw a bit more reason to feel affection for him (or to understand the Winchesters’ affection for him) but it could have been more. I didn’t entirely buy the swiftness with which the Winchesters accepted him as “family” – they toss that term around too easily these days, it seems, and Lucifer’s son was an unlikely adoptee. I questioned bringing in a younger actor, as though somehow Sam and Dean and Cas were too “old” and the Show needed a teenager to be on the CW. They mostly traded on Alex Calvert’s ability to make Jack appear naïve and eager to please, but Calvert did such a nice job of making Jack appealing that I ended up buying into Jack despite feeling a bit manipulated into it. I was at times aware that the Show was almost certainly setting us up to accept Jack so they could turn him darkside, but apparently not aware enough to be totally prepared for it.
Cas goes to Heaven looking for Naomi’s help in finding Jack, only to discover Dumah is in charge with Naomi locked up because she let the Empty invade. (Heaven is just seriously full of assholes, honestly.) Cas tells her about Jack, which is probably a terrible mistake (It is).
Dumah goes straight to Jack, telling him everything he wants to hear (the accident wasn’t his fault, he can still make the world a better place and even save Heaven and then Sam and Dean will be happy with him.) It hurts to see how badly Jack wants to make things right, how naively he just believes Dumah and how coldly she manipulates him for her own gain. Angels really are dicks.
Look at the hope on his face when he thinks he can redeem himself.
Jack turns the anti-Heaven pro-rationalism professor into a pillar of salt, clearly feeling good about what Dumah tells him is doing good. It makes it very very clear that Jack really is horribly dangerous, and yet the emotion I keep feeling is sympathy for him anyway, I can’t help it. He really doesn’t get it. That, of course, doesn’t make him any less dangerous.
Dumah installs him on his father’s throne in Heaven and tells him to listen for people who want to be angels.
Sure enough, he hears a congregation who is praying about going to Heaven and appears to them with the news that he can do that. They’re appropriately in awe of Jack and his shadowy wings – but then the not-quite-as-pious pastor comes in and tries to shut it down, and Jack shuts him down. Once again, Biblically – this time infested with worms that come popping out of him and EWWWW.
Rationally, this is clear evidence that Jack is capable of doing unspeakably horrible things to people. He has no empathy for the tormented man, just looks pleased that he did what he’s “supposed to do”. It’s crystal clear that he has to be stopped, but once again, I also feel bad for how badly he’s being manipulated and how his desire to do what the Winchesters would approve of is making him so vulnerable to that manipulation.
He gleefully makes angels out of the congregation, which was confusing – how come he could do that? All he needed were vessels? Angels true form isn’t human anyway, so I don’t…. Head scratch.
This whole story bit is reminiscent of Cas’ Godstiel stint, where he too thought he was doing the right thing by playing God. In this show, everyone wants to be God. Except God!
Back at the bunker, Castiel tells the Winchesters that the angels will help them find Jack. Dean is understandably skeptical. Smart!Sam finds the professor turned into a pillar of salt, and then Show makes me pissy.
Dean: Why does that sound familiar?
Really, Show? Dean absolutely has known about the story of Lot in the past, and has even referenced it. Grrr.
They visit the poor worm-infested guy, and both Sam and Dean are clearly impacted by the horror of what Jack did. Also, tiny shallow detour – the boys look nice in their Fed suits.
That leads into one of the scenes that was so hard to watch. Dean tells Sam that he knows what they need to do – put Jack in the Ma’lak box.
Me: Oh God, they really are going there…
Sam doesn’t want to, protests that there’s no way Jack will go along with that, but Dean persists and tells him why Jack will. Because they’re going to lie to him.
Despite his rage, it’s not that Dean is entirely okay with this either. You can see him close his eyes and steel himself for this, both what they’re going to do to Jack and I think also that he’s going to try to convince Sam of something he knows that Sam will not want to do.
Dean to Sam: Because you’re gonna be so damn sincere.
Sam: What? Why me?
Dean: Because you’ve always been in his corner.
It’s the truth. And that makes it horrifying. Sam clearly does not want to go along with this plan, but I also don’t think he can think of any alternative (and neither can I). They know from what Jack is doing, as well as from how he killed their mother, that he can’t be out there ripe for manipulation and capable of doing very awful things. And Dean is so sure that this is the only way, I think Sam goes along with it because he just doesn’t know what else to do. They are also both unbalanced with grief – entire lifetimes of grief – and raw from the loss of their mother at Jack’s hands. It’s a recipe for disaster and questionable decisions.
Meanwhile, Castiel forces his way back into Heaven and has it out with Dumah, realizing how she’s been manipulating Jack. Unfortunately instead of just yanking Jack out of there as would have made sense, he leaves the room to confront her.
Cas: You’re using Jack to solidify your power!
Dumah: I’m saving the world, I’m saving Heaven.
What is it with everyone getting power hungry and wanting to run heaven?? I don’t even really see how Jack is solidifying her power, but anyway, she makes the mistake of threatening to snap her fingers and take away John and Mary’s heaven if Cas doesn’t step down.
And Cas pulls out an angel blade and kills her. He can be as steely cold and determined as Dean when he believes it’s the right thing to do.
I really liked Cas in this episode – he was closer to early seasons Castiel than he’s been in a while, badass and full of conviction. Misha Collins likes to joke that they made Cas less of a badass because he’s not one, but in this episode he absolutely brought it – this is not a Castiel that I would mess with! I was thoroughly convinced of his genuine loyalty and love for Jack and his willingness to do what it takes to try to save him.
The next scene with Sam and Dean was hard for me to watch. Even on rewatch, when I knew what was going to happen, I found myself wanting to fast forward through the scene of Sam reaching out to Jack and manipulating him just like Dumah and everyone else has been. Everything Sam says to Jack should be the truth – it’s almost like he’s spouting the message of the Show itself – except it’s all a lie. And that HURTS. I hated hearing Sam do that so much, it made my stomach turn.
He tells Jack they forgive him, that they’re family. That they need to see him – it’s what their mother, and his mother, would want.
Sam: We just want things to be the way they were before.
It’s exactly what Jack wants, and Sam pulls it off perfectly, and my skin crawls to hear it.
Jack appears (smiling proudly): I’ve been making angels. I really missed you guys.
He tries to explain about killing Mary, and his lack of a soul makes it all come out very very wrong.
Jack: I regret it. The accident.
Dean and Sam both flinch when he refers to their mother’s death in the unemotional and impersonal term “the accident”.
Jack: She kept pushing…before I knew it, it was all over.
Dean: It being the accident…
That was a chilling conversation. This is the only time I felt like maybe this was the only answer, because Jack is so off here. It veers close to the classic abuse scenario, the whole “she wouldn’t shut up and I just snapped” non-explanation and Jack’s simultaneous regret but lack of emotion about it. Without a soul, he truly is scary. They maybe should have played that up a little more if they wanted me to go along completely with what comes next.
Let’s take a second to talk about how incredible all three actors were in this scene.
If Jack had the capacity for empathy at that moment, he would have seen clearly that Dean Winchester’s eyes are cold as steel. He keeps his voice carefully modulated throughout this awful conversation, even forces the corner of his mouth up in an almost-smile at times, but there is zero warmth in his eyes. They are the eyes of someone who wants to destroy you, and if I were Jack I would be effing terrified.
I don’t even know how Ackles manages it, but you can see Dean’s every emotion as he carefully maneuvers his way through this delicate negotiation with Jack. He’s like a panther sizing up his prey and planning his every move, careful not to give away his intention too soon, lethal strength tightly coiled until it’s time to spring. It was absolutely chilling to watch, and because it was directed at Jack, it left me shaking I was so upset.
The tension in this scene is brilliantly depicted by all three of the actors. Jared Padalecki is equally amazing as he manages to make Sam’s slowly breaking heart evident even as Sam resolutely sticks to the script and forces himself to keep going. He still does have empathy for Jack, and ironically it’s that remaining bit of genuine affection that convinces Jack that Sam and Dean are trying to do what’s best for him. And that, more than anything, got to me.
Jack believes them. Alex Calvert was also brilliant, making Jack appear vulnerable and human as he wrestles with his anxiety and doubt and decides to trust the men he’s looked up to so much. He climbs in, lies down, goes along with it all. As soon as he’s in, Dean springs into action, locking the cover in place. He looks to Sam then, maybe for validation. Sam closes his eyes, agony written all over his face. Even Dean looks a little shocked by what they’ve done.
I think Sam leaves the room then because he can’t stand what they’ve done. The door closes and Jack is truly alone.
Inside the box, the inevitable panic sets in, and Jack plaintively calls out for the men he’s come to think of as fathers.
Jack: Sam! Dean! Are you guys still there? Sam?
I was a sobbing mess at that point, but even worse, I was sick to my stomach. The Show has done way too good a job at making me care about Jack to allow me to feel like lying to him and tricking him into a box all alone for the rest of his existence is okay. Even if the logical part of my brain can see that it probably IS the only option, all my emotions are railing against it.
Neither Sam nor Dean are unaffected, but they also do not go back in the room to reassure Jack.
I guess it’s pretty clear I was that mom who wasn’t very good at not going back in the bedroom to reassure my crying babies when they were supposed to be going to sleep either, isn’t it?
Dean pours them drinks. It’s not in celebration, it’s in an attempt to drown the sadness. Sam doesn’t touch his.
Sam: So what do we do now? Go on with Jack locked up in there forever?
Dean: We have to.
Sam: I don’t know if I can do that.
I’m clinging to that one small bit of dialogue, that Sam hasn’t given up, that maybe he’s determined to try to find a way to fix Jack’s soul – or something! I find it hard to believe that Sam could live with knowing Jack was in there terrified and alone forever, soul or no soul. I mean, I can’t live with it!
Cas returns and tells Sam and Dean that Jack was being manipulated by Dumah, that he was trying to do what he thought would please them. He says they have to find Jack, and Sam answers that Jack is already there.
Dean: He’s in the Ma’lak box.
Dean: And that’s where he’s gonna stay.
Cas: Sealed in a living death??
Dean: I think deep down he knows it’s best….
Cas: No! You’re like Dumah…. Manipulating him…
I was pretty much team Castiel here. Although I think Dean’s comment is telling. He’s not as unfeeling as he seems – he’s already trying to rationalize his decision, telling himself that even Jack probably knows that it was the only way. After all, he was willing to get in that box himself if it kept the world safe, so it’s not a huge leap to convince himself that’s the best thing for Jack too.
At that moment, perhaps predictably, in the box, Jack hallucinates the ever not helpful Lucifer. He goads Jack, telling him he got played, that he can’t trust the Winchesters and they don’t trust him. Jack looks so vulnerable here, a kid with his cell phone clutched in one hand… I know he’s not a kid, he’s a powerful Nephilim without a soul, but…
Jack accesses all his power, and the bunker begins to shake, bathed in red light as the intruder alarms go off. Cas, Sam and Dean run through the bunker, walls shaking, to find the Ma’lak box exploded. Through the smoke, a shadowy figure with glowing eyes appears.
It’s a reprise of that very first scene where Sam found Jack huddled in the dark in the corner, only his glowing eyes visible.
Fade to black. One more episode left.
The fandom was ripped apart by this episode almost as much as my heart was. Some people attacked Dean, going so far as to call him a monster who had locked up a naïve child in a box. Some people attacked the writers, saying that Sam in particular would never go along with such a plan. Other people attacked those people, saying that anyone who turned on Sam and Dean had not been paying attention all these years – that the Winchesters can be ruthless when they need to be and that they had no other choice.
I just felt sad. And still a bit sick. These are not my favorite writers, and some of the dialogue particularly between Sam and Dean was so disjointed it barely made sense. I don’t know if it was writing or editing or both, but they didn’t even seem to be talking to each other at times. Talk about not being on the same page – perhaps it was a bit of that literally.
I’ve feared that Jack was going to be the “Big Bad” of the season all along, but I really did not want it. I don’t like seeing Dean Winchester, the fictional character I’m crazy about, so cold and calculating, even if it makes sense. I don’t like the thought of anyone or anything trapped in that effing box for all time. I don’t like Sam calling Jack family as a trick and a lie instead of with the genuine affection he has had before for Jack. It’s all so horrible, and on top of the grief I’m already dealing with, it honestly felt like too much. I’m not sure I’m ever going to want to watch that episode again, and I rarely say that about this Show.
I don’t think Sam and Dean are monsters. I think, as always, they did what they had to do. I don’t think what they did wasn’t close enough to in character to be believable – I think they saw this as their only option. I think the depth of their grief hasn’t begun to be explored, and that’s partly why this seemed so hard to swallow. They just lost their Dad for the second time too, after one blissful night of their entire family being together. Now their Mom is gone for the second time as well, and it’s just too much. And this isn’t the first time they’ve had to make an impossible decision to do what they thought would keep the world safe. Or the first time they did whatever it took to go after a ‘monster’ who killed their mother. It’s just that this time, that ‘monster’ also saved Sam’s life, and Castiel’s life. That makes things a lot more complicated than the YED, who definitely was not trying to “do the right thing”.
I don’t expect the Winchesters to be perfect. But much like when Dean killed Amy Pond, and when he locked Sam in the panic room, I don’t have to like what he did. Do I have another idea? Nope. But I still hated this one. And I don’t appreciate that the Show signed on for a Supernatural story line that has so much of the fandom furious at one of the characters who makes this Show the amazing thing it is. Yes, I’m protective of a fictional character, what else is new?
Can we go back to me 100% rooting for the Winchesters and Team Free Will to fight off something like the YED who we all can happily root against??
I’ve never gone into a season finale worried that the Show will take me somewhere I genuinely do not want to go. And I’m very aware that it’s our last “season finale” – the next one will be the series finale. I so want to have a last hiatus that makes me full of anticipation for the next, and last, season.
Usually my favorite shows are my solace, my go-to place when I need to escape from the stresses and the sometimes horrible stuff of real life. Right now, Supernatural and The Magicians aren’t able to be that. Here’s hoping next week changes that at least a little.