Last week’s Supernatural episode, hopefully titled ‘Optimism,’ was one of those episodes that fandom didn’t agree on. And that’s okay. Like most episodes of this show, there were things I liked and things I didn’t. I’ll get to the elephant in the room thing in time, but first, a look at some of the things that worked for me and what didn’t.
Richard Speight Jr. directed the episode, and I tend to really enjoy his directing, so that was a point in this episode’s favor. I like his pacing, and his editing, and I really really like the way he embraces the quirkiness of Supernatural that has always been one of my favorite parts of the Show. Writer Steve Yockey is a good partner for that quirkiness, and the two worked well together here. From the first frame, the weirdly upbeat music presents the small town as too-good-to-be-true, including Harper, the perky town librarian. She’s got at least two quirky suitors, one of whom seems dangerously jealous and slightly unhinged, so we immediately are suspicious that something bad is going to happen to the too-good-to-be-true librarian.
Sure enough, it does. Winston, the nice guy suitor who Harper clearly isn’t into, saunters down the street feeling good about himself after Harper agrees to dinner, and the familiar strains of Stayin’ Alive start to play. Speight mimics the view of John Travolta’s iconic walk in the opening of Saturday Night Fever, which comes off as amusingly ironic when applied to Winston.
And also announces to us that poor happy Winston is probably not long for this world. Yep. Splat.
I loved that whole opening, and it had Speight’s directorial touch all over it.
Back to the bunker, where Jack is piling a ton of sugar into his coffee (ewww), and Dean is looking for Sam. We find out that Sam and Charlie have gone off on a stakeout because Dean was somewhere else and that means we’re not getting Sam and Dean hunting together for a little while. Not something that makes me particularly happy, but I’ll roll with it.
Jack about Sam and Charlie: They’re probably doing something really exciting…
Cut to Sam and Charlie, sitting in a truck and looking bored to death.
These are the edits that Speight is excellent at, the juxtaposition and Jared Padalecki and Felicia Day’s acting skills making just that little bit hilarious. It was the first time I laughed out loud during this episode but not the last.
Back to Dean and Jack. Sam isn’t there, but I appreciate that writer Steve Yockey addresses that fact and the fact that Dean would comment on it.
Jack: Sam wanted someone around when you came back. He’s worried about you.
Dean: (wryly) That sounds like him.
Jack tries to tell Dean what Sam tried to tell him last week – nobody blames him for Michael.
Dean: Yeah, well I blame me.
That was a poignant line, Mr. Yockey. That’s Dean in a nutshell. He’s not freaking out, he’s coping, but he still – deep down where he has trouble getting to it – blames himself for saying yes to Michael. He may even realize it’s a tad irrational, but it’s how he feels nevertheless. How often do we feel something and know it makes no sense, but it’s stuck there anyway?
Meanwhile, Sam and Charlie are still in the truck, and Sam is playing with – a fidget spinner?? I laughed, and Jared did a fabulous job making that scene funny with his great comedic instincts, but I also scratched my head. Sam with a fidget spinner?
We’ve never seen him struggle with boredom, that’s more Dean’s thing. So while I appreciated the moment and it was well done, I couldn’t help but see it more as Jared than Sam, and I saw a lot of other people comment the same. It threw me out of the story a bit.
Back to the bunker, where Jack has a case and is trying to convince Dean to let them work it.
Dean: Sam’s trying to keep you safe. He’s a smart guy.
Jack: But we could be hunting buddies!
Dean: Don’t call it that.
Jack prevails, though. He’s smart and perceptive, sharing his own feelings of guilt and responsibility for not killing Michael when he had his powers. Jack and Dean are both carrying the weight of that guilt, both feeling stupid for the choices they made. Jack has realized that, and he uses that knowledge to get through to Dean.
Dean: You didn’t do anything wrong.
Jack: Neither did you!
Touche, Jack. (And Yockey and Speight)
Back to the truck, where Charlie gives Sam some background on the people who went missing at the bus stop they’re staking out – and shows him the jar of black goo that she found. (That’s a lot of goo to scoop up from the ground – was it a pond?)
Back to Dean and Jack, who get dressed up in fed suits and head out to Winston’s favorite spot, Dick’s Red Rooster Diner. I burst into laughter when I saw the sign – kudos Richard for that perfect name and for putting your stamp on this episode! (Cue lots of dick and cock jokes…)
They interview the uncooperative (and sassy) waitress while Jack is rather adorably awkward and clueless. Alex Calvert pulls this off perfectly, and Jensen Ackles’ reactions to it are equally on point.
Jack: What is courting?
Dean: What you do before dating.
Jack: And before the sex!
Sassy waitress: Sometimes you just have the sex…
In the middle of this discussion about sex, Dean surreptitiously angles the prominent red cock (rooster, rooster, sorry) in front of him on the counter away from him. I laughed out loud again, because Ackles’ expression and gesture were spot on.
Honestly, the humor was the best thing about this episode. All the actors are more than capable of comedy, and Yockey and Speight together infused little moments throughout the episode that kept making me laugh.
Dean and Jack find out more about the town librarian who Winston was courting; Speight does this in a crisply edited montage of their conversations with townspeople that I enjoyed very much. At one point, Dean looks over to Jack like he so often looks to Sam for corroboration, but Jack is just looking straight ahead.
A little thing, but a reminder that Dean is used to hunting with Sam and misses that familiarity (and I miss it too). Ackles is so good at those small nonverbal gestures.
Back to the truck, where Charlie and Sam are STILL sitting. Sam chews nervously on his fingernail, and Charlie tries to reassure him.
Charlie: He’ll be fine….your brother, I mean.
She says he must have other friends who can be his wingman, and Sam responds that she – Charlie – was his wingman.
Sam: That guy was you.
Charlie: No. It wasn’t.
That made no sense to me from what we’ve seen of Charlie and Dean’s history. It’s not like they regularly hunted together, and Sam himself is Dean’s wingman the vast majority of the time. I really don’t know what to make of that conversation, which left me scratching my head.
However, I really liked part of Charlie and Sam’s conversation, because it addresses one of the elephants in the room of this season – that the familiar people from the AU are not, in fact, the beloved characters who were killed off. I’m glad the show decided to acknowledge that and appreciate Yockey’s dialogue that tackles how difficult it is for Sam and Dean to not treat them as if they’re long lost friends instead of strangers. It’s also difficult for Charlie and Bobby, who keep getting treated like people they are not.
We get a little AU!Charlie backstory, including that she was also a programmer and lived with the love of her life, Kara. The original Charlie Bradbury, created by Robbie Thompson and beloved by most of the fandom, was important as a queer character as well as a hero, so it’s nice to have clarification that this Charlie is as well. Felicia Day is a wonderful actress, and she makes you feel for this Charlie as she tells the story of what happened in the AU. I find apocalypse stories like the one she’s telling truly terrifying – the reality of what would happen to a society if the food and energy and water did run out – so again I appreciated Yockey’s dialogue here. Charlie paints a Revolution-esque picture, perhaps as an homage to the creator of both shows, Eric Kripke.
That said, this is still not our Charlie, and I still don’t feel the same about her. Perhaps I’m not supposed to, but it also means I’m not as thrilled to have her on the show as I was about the original and I don’t care about her as a character the same way I did the Charlie I fell in love with. She gets some good lines though.
Charlie: It all falls apart.
Sam: Not here.
Charlie: Not yet.
Loved those lines. Nicely done. Nicely written, acted and directed.
Back to Dean and Jack, with Dean in full dad mode reminding Jack that pie is important and promising to give him “the talk” when they get back to the bunker.
Dean concocts a plan to get romance-novel-fan Harper (well played by Maddie Phillips) to see Jack as a romantic hero, but Dean gets more than he bargained for as Jack responds to Dean’s “back off, kid” with “No you back off – old man!”
Clearly, this wasn’t part of the plan, and Dean’s reaction is priceless. Ackles nails the comedic beats of Dean’s reaction, surprised and slightly hurt by Jack’s low blow. He goes out to the car and immediately inspects himself in the rearview mirror, muttering “Old man, my ass.”
Gotta say, I agree.
Jealous Miles confronts Harper and Jack as they leave together, and Dean follows Miles while Jack goes to Harper’s apartment. This whole Harper and Jack romantic interlude could have been played seriously, and I think that would have turned my stomach. Instead, Speight plays it tongue in cheek and a bit over the top, with cheesy music and an apartment decorated with a gigantic ‘AMORE’ sign on the wall. Jack is adorably awkward once again, spilling holy water all over as he plants a silver coin on the floor to test her, and then mutters “Christo” under his breath.
Entire fandom: WHAT THE HELL, DID HE JUST SAY CHRISTO?? FROM SEASON ONE??
I’m not sure how I feel about that. On the one hand, the fandom has been asking why the hell they don’t ever use that anymore ever since Phantom Traveler. On the other hand, the fact that it’s now back on the show makes it difficult to explain why it took them 13 years to remember to use it!
Meanwhile, STILL in the truck, Charlie tells Sam she wants out of hunting. She hates it, only did it because she had no other choice. She tells him this is her last case, that she plans to get away from both monsters and people and live on a mountaintop somewhere.
Personally, I don’t blame her one bit after what she’s been through! The post-apocalyptic disaster, Kara’s death. Why would she want to stick around and keep risking her life? It’s not hunting that the AU people really are driven to do, it’s killing Michael. For them, it’s personal.
Sam and Charlie somehow figure out that what they’re hunting is a “Musca,” a man-fly hybrid male who abandons his nest when he can’t find a mate, which makes him sound like some incel weirdo – and oh yes, he uses human bodies to nest. I’m not really sure how they figure that out from what they know, but okay. And just at that moment, up to the bus stop strolls a man in black with a giant box on his head. Sam and Charlie stare … and do nothing.
Me: Ummm, guys, that looks kinda suspicious, don’t ya think? And also oddly amusing.
Weird guy intimidates two elderly women into getting up and leaving, then strolls away. Sam and Charlie …. Do nothing.
More head scratching. Head scratching is usually not a good thing when I’m watching Supernatural.
Back to Jack and Harper, who are bonding over their shared trauma history and attempts at staying optimistic nevertheless. Dean keeps calling Jack on the phone, because when he followed Miles it was to find Miles dead (Weirdly, when Dean first hears Miles scream, he starts to walk away instead of going over to investigate. Head scratch.)
Calvert and guest star Maddie Phillips had great comic rhythm together. They both do awkward and quirky so well, and their (faked in Harper’s case) earnestness is the icing on the cake.
Harper: Do you believe in love at first sight?
Jack: Do you … mind if I use the bathroom?
This is one of my favorite moments; Jack holed up in Harper’s bathroom telling Dean that he thinks Harper is in love with him.
Jack: So I need to know everything about sex. Go!
I laughed out loud again. Alex Calvert has a real flair for comedy, as does Speight for directing it. Their phone call gets interrupted when Dean gets attacked, and Jack reappears from the bathroom. More awkwardness ensues, then Dean comes bursting in the door followed by a Riverdale-esque zombie (also Harper’s ex-boyfriend).
Jack and Harper make a run for it, while Dean confronts the zombie dude (who he calls Archie, because Riverdale…)
Dean: Let’s dance.
I liked that scene, and that was a typical Dean thing to say. Dean smashes him with a chair, but zombie dude just turns and leaves, clearly more focused on Harper and Jack than Dean.
Meanwhile, Sam and Charlie are STILL in the truck.
Sam is oddly focused on trying to convince Charlie not to be a hermit.
Sam: You can’t just go live on a mountain. People need people. It’s not so easy to walk away.
It’s clear to all of us watching that Sam is in a sense talking to himself. There was a time when he thought he could walk away and he wanted to walk away, but that time is long past. Sam has come to terms with being a hunter and accepted that as his identity, and it gives him pride and satisfaction and a sense of doing good in the world that’s of utmost importance to him.
That part of it I get, and it’s nice to get that confirmation about Sam. But it rubbed me the wrong way that Sam tried so hard to talk Charlie out of leaving the hunting life. It works for Sam and Dean, but that doesn’t mean it will work for everyone. They were happy to see Jesse and Cesar retire from hunting – why isn’t it okay for Charlie? She’s been through a lot; maybe she deserves time to heal. She certainly deserves to make her own decision about it. I just didn’t feel like Sam would try to influence her like that.
Box-on-head guy in black returns to the bus stop, and once again Sam and Charlie do nothing.
Me: WTF? No really, WTF??
I also don’t think Sam would let box-on-his-head guy just sit there on the bench while a bus came by.
Sam: We don’t wanna tackle some guy for his weird fashion.
Charlie (and me): Don’t we?
I mean, YES! Is there really a chance this could be a coincidence that he’s at this very bus stop with a box over his giant head when they’re looking for a fly-man??
Of course not. They belatedly get out of the truck and run after fly-man and the hapless guy at the bus stop who he took thanks to Sam and Charlie waiting so long.
There’s a search by flashlight scene and a tiny discussion of how a brass nail dipped in sugar water will kill the fly-man, but they don’t have that, so they’ll have to “get creative.” What?? Getting creative turns out to be stabbing and then shooting the fly-man, which seems way too easy. What’s the point of lore if you can just blow something away with bullets?
This episode was two separate story lines and two separate cases, and Sam and Charlie’s was definitely the less fleshed out one. There wasn’t enough build up for me to feel much sense of fear as they tried to find it, and when the fly-man himself finally popped up, instead of being scared, I burst into laughter. It was a little too B movie and camp for me to take seriously – I’m not sure if that’s how I was supposed to feel? Maybe, because Sam gets gooed on and then when he blows its head off, Charlie gets splattered with a ton of the black goo. Ewww.
This is the scene that Jared talked about at a convention recently. He has a thing about spit and can’t stand being spit on, so he had to have a stand in do some of this scene for him. Can’t say I blame him – it was pretty disgusting!
The other story line plays out with Harper opening the library door to let zombie dude in, which I didn’t see coming until a little while before that point. Dean and Jack get much longer to wrap up their case, with a nice scene of zombie dude chasing Jack through the library while Harper waxes poetic about love (and makes a confession in the process) on the PA system. Seems she’s been the mastermind all along, a necromancer who killed her boyfriend to keep him with her and then brought him back so he can kill her other suitors and eat them. Lovely. Dean hatches another plot to try to make Harper fall in love with Jack so that zombie boyfriend will turn on her. It doesn’t entirely work, but Dean gets zombie dude restrained in silver handcuffs anyway. Harper escapes.
In her final scene, we see her writing a love note to Jack and planning on coming to find him – so I guess maybe Dean’s plan worked a little too well? Also I find it hard to believe that Dean didn’t try harder to find her – she was pretty much the evil mastermind here, so….. yeah. Head scratch.
Sam and Charlie are back in the truck and have a little more conversation, feeling good about saving bus stop guy.
Sam says he feels kinda bad for the Musca, that he didn’t have to go out on his own…
Charlie: Your nifty metaphor has holes.
Me: I’ll say!
While they talk, we see the rest of the Musca come and scoop up fly-man’s body. I assume this is supposed to be a commentary on community, but it’s also just plain B movie weird.
Sam: Not all people are good, maybe not even most of them. But if we help people, then maybe they’ll help other people… it’s worth it.
Again, he’s talking to himself and about himself as much as to Charlie. This has been Sam’s journey, and he 100% believes it now.
Charlie: Let’s be clear. I am not like the fly monster. But I’ll think about staying.
I’m not sure how I feel about that, because I don’t think she should stay if it’s not what SHE wants. I think the Show has decided that it should bring back some of the popular characters it killed off because it wants to make Supernatural more of an ensemble show, and that worries me. That’s not the show I particularly want to watch, no matter how much I love Felicia Day or Jim Beaver or DJ Qualls or whoever.
At any rate, that ends the Sam and Charlie story line of this episode.
Dean and Jack are back at the bunker, once again sitting across the table.
Dean: You did good, kid.
I do love the way Dean has taken to calling Jack “kid.” He’s a natural nurturer, drawn to kids and to mentoring. He likes to use nicknames, same way he calls his 6’5” brother “Sammy.”
Jack: I was right (about hunting).
Dean: It’s not about being right. You’ll make mistakes; I make them all the time. It’s how you learn from them.
Jack: And how to not beat yourself up for them.
Dean: Jack, you’re pretty smart sometimes.
It’s true. Dean gives in, promises that when Sam gets back, they’ll talk about some hunts.
Nice moment over, Jack has a coughing fit and collapses on the floor, bleeding.
Dean drops to his knees, looking up helplessly like he’s done many times before over a fallen Sam or Castiel. (Speaking of Cas, I’m confused as to why Cas hasn’t noticed Jack’s illness, since they’ve been hunting together?)
Some of the gravity of that scene was also impacted by the stories I’ve heard Jared, Jensen, and Misha Collins tell about how when Alex had to collapse, they all dogpiled on top of him – and then Ruth Connell climbed on top. Poor Alex!
So that’s where we end. I was hoping for an ending scene that wrapped up the two story lines and brought their messages – and the brothers — back together, so I was a bit disappointed. I’m not averse to Sam and Dean spending time with other characters, since that’s part of how we get to know them better, as Eric Kripke explained early on in one of our first conversations with him. But Kripke also wrote the Winchesters as each other’s hunting partners who always have each other’s backs – that’s the show I fell in love with, and that’s the dynamic that has kept me watching. Will they sometimes hunt with someone else? Sure. But when that happens, it doesn’t feel as much like Supernatural to me. I miss the dynamic that hooked me on the show and keeps me watching.
People watch the show – any show – for different reasons. For some viewers, Sam and Dean not hunting together or interacting during an episode was a change – that part is just a fact – but not an unwelcome one. Maybe you have a favorite character, and as long as that character is onscreen and you’re getting some insight into that character, it’s all good. Maybe you love being scared so you watch for the horror, or you love having to think hard about a complex mystery so you watch for the make-you-think twists and turns. Maybe you like to imagine a romantic relationship between two characters and that’s the lens you watch through. Maybe you like the dynamic and chemistry between two characters and that’s why you watch, so of course, you want to see that. For that last group, if those two characters are Sam and Dean, the change in this episode was a bit difficult.
Here’s why. When you find a show that ticks whatever psychological and emotional boxes that need ticking, you understandably don’t want that show to change and those boxes to become un-ticked. That takes away the very reason you enjoy the show so much. If you watch for the dynamic between the brothers and it doesn’t happen, un-ticking happens! Nobody likes un-ticking.
On the otherhand, if a show only ticks your boxes every now and then, you understandably want more of those box-ticking times, so you’re all for change when it makes that happen more often. None of those feelings are incorrect or bad or wrong, they’re just different. They are also sometimes mutually exclusive, or at least they seem that way when you’re very passionate about getting your own individual boxes ticked (and we all pretty much are). Wanting change isn’t wrong. Not wanting change isn’t wrong. Change in and of itself isn’t always good or always bad, even in real life. Sometimes it’s healthy, sometimes it’s regression or dysfunction or avoidance. In fiction, even that consideration isn’t relevant. There’s no right or wrong, there’s only what ticks your boxes. So all those invectives hurled around of wise up or grow up or shut up make no sense.
I’m well aware I have my own boxes that want ticking, and anyone who’s going to review the show should probably do some soul searching if they aren’t aware that they have them too. We all do, or we wouldn’t be fans. It’s a lot easier to understand someone else’s box-tick-driven emotions (and not lash out) if you’re not defensive about your own. I started watching Supernatural when the show was all about Sam and Dean Winchester. That unique relationship and the chemistry between Jared and Jensen hooked me on the show and has kept me watching for 14 years. I don’t want it to change; it doesn’t feel like Supernatural to me when it’s not about Sam and Dean working together to save the world.
That said, there are other characters who I’ve come to love and who enrich the narrative and deepen my understanding of Sam and Dean as Kripke intended, especially Cas and Jack (and Rowena because look, she just ticks my boxes, okay?). In a practical sense, I’m also well aware that there are real life realities that sometimes don’t line up with my desire for fiction that ticks my boxes. A writer gets a cast of characters to play with for an episode, and actors who are only available for X days, and you do what you can with the chess board within those parameters. So I’m not going to judge an episode solely on whether or not Sam and Dean had any interaction, but I’m also well aware that I didn’t feel as satisfied as I do when I get to see the Winchesters hunting together like they have for fourteen seasons. Your mileage may vary!
So congrats to Richard Speight Jr. on another well-directed episode and to writer Steve Yockey for some priceless scenes, and to the best cast ever for always bringing it. I did enjoy this episode, despite some lack of box-ticking, and am hoping for more of that when we return in two weeks!