There are two stories running in Supernatural‘s ‘The Big Empty,’ both of them dealing with emptiness, either literal or metaphorical. There’s Dean and Sam, struggling with the emptiness left behind by too many losses and taking it out on each other (and Jack – who is also struggling with the emptiness of being orphaned and now knowing who you are). And there’s the literal Big Empty, where Castiel awakened at the end of last episode to find himself alone.
When this episode starts, however, Cas finds himself alone no longer. There’s an entity there with him that has his face and form, but it’s not exactly good company. In fact, it’s pissed as hell that when Cas woke up, he did too. The Empty is apparently the place where angels and demons go when they die, and they pretty much just slumber there, which means the Entity can slumber too. He loves sleep almost as much as I do, and that’s really saying something. That Castiel is now keeping him from his cherished sleep is making the Entity very cranky – which he takes out on Cas with a lot of physical abuse. Ouch.
Supernatural has played with characters confronting different versions of themselves before – Dean confronting future!Dean in ‘The End’ memorably comes to mind – so Cas confronting Entity!Cas isn’t unprecedented. I was caught off guard, though, by the way Misha Collins plays the other version. Because he’s very very different! I wasn’t sure whether to laugh at Entity!Cas or be chilled by him, or maybe a little bit of both. He seemed to have a little bit of Alastair and a little bit of Zachariah and possibly a little bit of Balthazar in him too. He almost seems friendly, or at least amusing, until he punches you in the stomach. Again, ouch.
I feel like Misha probably had a field day playing Entity!Cas, who’s different than any other version. Misha has had a lot of opportunity to stretch himself as an actor even though he’s been playing the same character for so many seasons, because there have been so many versions of Castiel. Human Cas (one of my favorites), original badass Cas (my absolute favorite), Leviathan!Cas, Lucifer!Cas aka Casifer, powered down Cas, etc etc. And now Entity!Cas. Misha has a gift for accents, and this one is just over the top enough to be creepy.
I had to admire Castiel’s courage and his refusal to just lay down and go back to sleep, even when the Entity tries to convince him that his life on earth basically sucked. He’s determined to hold out and keep trying, for both the Winchesters’ sake and I’m assuming also for Jack, who he promised to take care of. And I have to admire Misha’s ability to portray two characters who both look like him, and yet he makes them easy to tell apart, even without sound – they have different expressions, different mannerisms, convey different emotions. Even in a screencap, you can tell. And that’s good acting.
I can’t wait to hear the behind the scenes tales of filming those scenes because it’s got to be challenging to be playing off “yourself.”
So there’s Castiel, dealing with The Big Empty and trying to get back to help Sam and Dean.
The other aching emptiness in the episode is psychological. And what do you do when you’ve got aching psychological emptiness to deal with? Why you go to a psychologist, of course! I always worry a little when Show goes there, since in real life I’m a psychologist – but in this episode, I kinda loved the therapist they chose. They chose her because two of her clients have turned up dead, seemingly killed by their deceased loved ones – or something that looked like them. Turns out the doc is indeed a shapeshifter, but she’s also a pretty damn good therapist. It doesn’t take a PhD at this point to figure out that Sam and Dean aren’t exactly getting along, or that Jack (their “younger brother”) is depressed and longing for his “big brothers” approval. She calls Dean on his B.S. – and so does Sam.
The therapy session is fascinating because, while the Winchesters are ostensibly playing a part, nevertheless there’s a great deal of truth that makes its way into that room. The therapist immediately knows that they’ve lost someone.
Jack: My mom.
Oh Jack, sweetie. Dean admonishes him to be quiet unless spoken to, calling him “Mr. Spock” – which only served to emphasize his similarity to Castiel – but Jack’s loss is so uppermost in his mind, he couldn’t help but blurt it out.
Doc: You lost your mom suddenly?
And ain’t that the truth! Both times.
Doc: Did you ever journal?
Sam: (telling the truth again) Our dad did.
Dean: (snidely, defenses all up) Ever since I was a little girl…
Dean’s response is so telling, pure defensiveness and trying to deflect by being obnoxious on top of it.
Sam however, is not having it.
Sam: My brother, he’s not processing his grief.
Dean: (looking shocked that Sam actually went there, because it’s clear he’s no longer play acting) Really? No, I’m good — with death, closure, the whole friggen bottle of Jack…
Sam: Are you?
Dean: (lashing out) Yeah, because I know that mom’s dead and I know that she’s not coming back!
Sam: Ok I hear what you’re saying, I just wish…
The doc cuts him off, but it’s fairly clear to the viewer that Sam was once again about to say something real. Maybe even ask his brother for what he needs from him. Dean can hear it too, and he full on panics, lashing out again.
Dean: My brother’s delusional. (To Sam’s shocked look) You said you wanted to give this a shot, right? He won’t even admit that mom’s dead!
Sam: (clearly hurt) Stop.
Dean: Because if he admits it, then it’s real and he’ll have to deal. And he can’t handle that!
Sam: Oh, because this is so easy for you right?
Dean: No, it’s not easy…
Sam: (barreling on) Because at least you had a relationship with Mom! I mean, who did she always call? Who did she look to for everything?
Sam: You had something with her that I never had! And now I’m just supposed to accept that I never will have it?!
Sam storms out, and I reach for my box of tissues. Oh, Sam. It’s so true. He has gotten the raw end of the deal when it comes to his mother, every single time. I feel so much for Sam Winchester in that moment.
Dean turns to his flask, but the doctor doesn’t cut him a break either. She tells him she can see that he’s angry, and that’s his business if he wants to hang onto it. But meanwhile, he’s taking it out on everyone around him. Jack, who she points out is terrified of him. And most of all, Sam.
As much as Dean doesn’t want to hear it, he needs to. She’s a damn good therapist, and Dean starts to get a clue. When Sam asks him to take Jack with him to go check out a suspect, Dean only protests a little, and then gives in.
But before that, Sam realizes the therapist really is a shapeshifter, thanks to the bloody mess in the upstairs bathroom, which means we get to see badass Winchesters pull their guns.
While Dean and Jack are gone, Sam chats with the shapeshifting doc and figures out who the bad shifter is. He leaves to go confront him without even calling his brother.
Dean: Sam didn’t call me?
Doc: Can you blame him?
Ouch. Are you getting a clue now, Dean?
Rukiya Bernard did an amazing job as the shapeshifting doctor. Even though we only met her in this episode, Bernard invested her with so much emotion and so much passion that I was rooting for her, screaming at the Winchesters not to shoot her. She was a noble character, an example of a “monster” who is not only trying not to do “bad” but actively trying to do “good.” And Bernard sold that 1000%. And another person of color and another heroic kickass woman added to the Show. I hope somebody out there is giving Supernatural some credit, because they are clearly trying – and giving us amazing characters in the process!
The other great thing about the doc being a shapeshifter is it allows Jack some closure, and some of the understanding about himself that he’s so desperate for. She helps people with complicated grief, who didn’t get closure after a loved one’s death, finally say goodbye – even if it’s actually to the shapeshifter in the form of their lost loved one. Jack asks her to do that for him, which gives us the return of Kelly Kline (sorta – of Courtney Ford at any rate). She holds Jack, gives him that hug and that reassurance that he so needs. She mothers him, and it makes me cry to see it, because he needs it so desperately. She also doesn’t placate him with “you’re not a monster” – instead she reassures him that it’s not what you are, it’s what you DO.
Kelly Shifter: And even monsters can do good in this world.
We’ve heard Sam Winchester tell this to “monsters” before, that it’s their choice – just like it was Sam’s choice too. Demon blood didn’t define him; he’s a big damn hero because he chose that. Kelly tells Jack that he too has a choice.
Courtney Ford tweeted a behind the scenes photo of her and Alex and said that the “Kelly part of my heart” needed that. I love that all the actors on this show are so invested in their characters, that she also felt she needed that bit of closure.
Alex Calvert once again did a bang up job portraying Jack’s longing for Sam and Dean’s (especially Dean’s) approval, and his intense grief over the loss of his mother. Thanks to Calvert’s acting and the amazing writing this season (this time by Meredith Glynn), we see Jack as quintessentially human. He shows us Jack’s emotions so vividly that there can be no doubt – and thus he has all my empathy.
‘The Big Empty’ was all about loss, especially mother loss. Jack and Kelly, Sam and Dean and Mary. Samantha Smith (Mary) was not in this episode, but it was all about her anyway. The ways in which she shaped her sons’ lives, by her loss when they were young and by her interaction with them when she came back, and by her loss once again. Interestingly, the episode aired on the anniversary of the night that Mary Winchester died, burnt to death on the ceiling of Sam’s nursery. How fitting that it was the night Sam started to come to terms with all he’s lost – and all he’s never had – when it comes to his mother. And Dean for the first time started to understand the depth of his little brother’s loss and longing.
I have gushed over Meredith Glynn’s writing before (including in person because she came to the book launch party for Family Don’t End With Blood and I sorta fangirled over her – okay, not sorta…) But I have to gush some more here. What I’m loving so much about this season, and what was so very evident in this episode, is that Sam and Dean are back to being Sam and Dean. Brothers. They’re talking, and not just about the weather or if the bunker needs supplies. They’re expressing their feelings to each other, and they’re prioritizing each other in the way that Sam and Dean do, the way that made me fall for this show in the first place.
Their argument about Mary being dead in the beginning of the episode was so hard to watch. Especially Sam’s soft spoken “So you want to move on from Mom?”
And Dean can’t even say it, can’t even let himself go there.
He’s caged in, cut off by his defenses, as this brilliant shot shows.
Dean: Right now I wanna go kill some guy’s dead wife.
When Sam suggests they take Jack along, at first Dean is adamant that the answer is no.
Then Sam pulls out the big guns.
Sam: Do it for me?
Dean’s utter inability to say no when Sam says “for me,” this is the show I fell in love with. You can see the effect that has on Dean. He can’t not say yes, not when Sam is asking that way. And Sam KNOWS it. That special bond that they have is right there on my tv screen, and god damn that makes me happy.
This episode showed a great deal of evolution in Dean’s relationship with Jack, which I welcomed because it’s been breaking my heart to see Dean keep hurting Jack. We also got more of Sam being absolutely wonderful as a father figure to Jack. Instead of secrets and lies, we get Jack telling Sam that he heard Dean’s accusation that Sam is just using him (thank you Meredith Glynn!) And miracle of miracles, Sam does not get defensive or try to deflect. Instead, he sits down and explains to Jack that what Dean said is partly true, and confesses that he should have been more honest with Jack about that part. He explains that they are trying to save their mom, and if there’s one thing that Jack understands, it’s the pain of losing your mother. Sam’s honesty and his willingness to actually talk it through with Jack make all the difference. Jack understands and believes that Sam can both care about him and also hope that Jack can be useful in saving Mary. It’s amazing what can be accomplished with actual open communication, isn’t it, Show?
I love that Sam once again has the guts to actually apologize to Jack. And it just about broke my heart how hopeful Jack looked when Sam said that the way to impress Dean is with effort – and how crestfallen he is every time it doesn’t work.
Dean and Sam take Jack along, and though Dean gruffly tells him to ‘Sit. Stay’ ie wait in the car; Jack is eager to help and disobeys. That gives Sam an opportunity to instruct him in the ways of EMF meters while Dean rolls his eyes, which is all kinds of adorable.
Even Dean has to admit that Jack’s helpful in digging up graves. Did they really let him do that all by himself??
Jack also helpfully fetches the boys’ lunch, which gave Jensen Ackles a chance to mess with him as they filmed the hotdog eating scene. How Alex and Jared didn’t break repeatedly is a mystery to me – actually, they probably did. Repeatedly.
Jack, following Sam’s example (A+ parent, that Sam Winchester!) then tells Dean that he and Sam talked, and that he understands that they need him to try to save their mother. Dean may not be ready to get on board, but it’s clear he’s both surprised by all that honesty and starting to question his snap judgment of Jack just a little.
The real evolution comes after Buddy the bad shifter almost kills Dean and Jack – and then almost kills Sam. First, we get a moment with Shifter!Dean, which gives Jensen Ackles a chance to play bad guy for a minute, and it’s probably a lot hotter than it should be. Like a glimpse of Demon!Dean that I didn’t get anywhere near enough of.
Shifter dean: Well that was too friggen easy.
With Dean tied up and helpless and the bad guy’s gun aimed at his unsuspecting “baby brother,” Dean is frantic and asks Jack to help.
Dean: Sam believes in you. And when he believes, he’ll go hell for leather.
I don’t even know what that means, but it sounded really good in that moment.
Dean also gets to see the Shifter Doc offer to sacrifice herself to save him and Jack, another emphasis to the “it’s not what you are, but what you do” idea that contributes to Dean’s eventual change of heart about Jack. Or at least the first glimmer of one.
When Jack manages to tap into his powers and Sam is saved, that’s the turning point for Dean. (Also, how awesome was it that the shifter had been Dean, so he calls Sam ‘baby brother’? Very. Thank you, Meredith Glynn!) Jack saving Sam? There is nothing in the world that Dean Winchester values more. Save his little brother, and you just gained about a billion brownie points in Dean’s book.
I sobbed through the scene in the kitchen at the end, Jack not even daring to look at Dean, just a quiet and not-even-hopeful ‘hey.’ Dean watching Jack out of the corner of his eye, some internal struggle, and then he finally relents.
“You did good today, Jack.”
Jack’s face, OMG. The camera stays on it as Dean leaves the kitchen, the smile that slowly brightens Jack’s entire expression. It means so much to him, that Dean complimented him. That Dean, even a little bit, accepted him. It’s what every child longs to hear from their parent, some affirmation of their goodness, of their effort, of their success. Jack drinks it up like it’s the sweetest life-giving nectar. And actually? Back to that psychologist thing again, it really really is.
Have I thanked you often enough, Meredith? One more time then. Thank you for all that psychological complexity and realism, and all that Sam and Dean emotional interaction.
Sam and Dean’s relationship has also undergone some evolution in this episode. Eager to put their disagreements aside after almost losing each other (again…), Sam and Dean both try to come over to the other’s way of thinking. Sam admits that he’s having a hard time accepting that Mary is dead, and Dean does an about face and tells Sam to hang onto his hope and optimism. For the first time since the season began – for the first time since the loss of Mary and Cas – Dean admits that he’s broken.
Dean brings his brother a beer, Winchester for “I’m sorry.”
Dean: I was outta line. I’m sorry for being a dick lately.
Sam thanks him, but then both brothers question their stance and try to understand where the other is coming from. Sam questions that maybe Dean is right about their mother being dead.
Dean: Don’t say that.
Sam: That’s what you’ve been trying to get me to say.
Dean admits that he needs Sam to hold onto hope and faith for the both of them, because right now he’s having a hard time believing in anything.
Oh, Dean. Oh, Sam. And yet, I’m a contented fangirl because they’re having this amazing, open, honest, undefended conversation with each other. And that’s mostly what I ask of this show.
Wait, did I thank Meredith enough??
The episode ends on an intriguing note. Cas falls to Earth, gets up and turns his face to the sun, soaking it in.
But is it Cas??? Or is it Entity!Cas, finding another way to escape the annoyance of having Castiel awake in the Empty??
I guess we’ll find out. In just a few days!