It’s been a long time since a new episode of Supernatural didn’t inspire a whole lot of mixed reactions among its fans – from squee to sobbing to gnashing of teeth to threats to flounce from fandom all together. I’ve written elsewhere (http://www.winchesterbros.com/site/index.php/articles/10224-only-love-can-break-your-heart–or-what-fandom-wank-is-all-about ) that there are reasons for that range of reactions that run the gamut, and for the passionate disagreement that follows. As I was watching ‘Captives,’ I thought for a while that this episode might be an exception. For one thing, there was so much going on, I didn’t have time to dwell on the fact that Sam and Dean continue to ignore my desperate pleas for them to get back to being brothers. There were, as often happens in Cas episodes, two story lines running simultaneously, which always makes me feel a little disoriented every time we switch between them. This is far from unusual in a television show, but for many years Supernatural was an odd exception, with Sam and Dean (and the probably very tired Jared and Jensen) in every story line and nearly every scene. I still subconsciously hang onto that expectation.
For another thing, there were some delicious tidbits of consistency, which invariably make me smile foolishly at the tv. Castle Storage reappears, and I love that we’ve seen that distinctive sign in so many pivotal episodes. It even appears in our next book, Fan Phenomena: Supernatural, in the chapter by SPN’s brilliant cinematographer, Serge Ladouceur. That’s how iconic it is!
I also loved writer Robert Berens’ Star Trek Borg reference, which invested bad guy Bartholomew with even more sinister intent as he ominously intoned, “Resistance is futile!” And there were some nice switch-ups in the episode. For example, Dean gets to be the one conked on the head and knocked unconscious for a change, and Sam bursts in to rescue him. (Though Ackles tied to a post with bloodied face and splayed legs and friggen’ dress shoes was so distracting that I was sort of hoping Sam would take his time already.)
And I have to give props to Jerry Wanek for his directing, which brought out the best in all his talented actors. The opening scenes of the “haunted bunker” were gorgeous, showcasing that amazing set that Wanek designed. Having walked through its halls myself, I can testify to how easy it is to get lost in the MoL and forget that you’re on a set at all. It’s that real.
Of course, I ended up being wrong about this episode being an exception to the controversy rule, though that’s not necessarily a bad thing. The episode itself satisfied on many levels, even as it left me – once again, I should be used to this by now – reeling by the end.
Let’s talk about the Castiel story arc first, since it managed to distract me from the brothers’ heartbreaking situation for part of the episode. Knowing that Misha will be in an episode creates a slightly different sort of anticipatory fervor in fandom – Cas isn’t in every episode, so there’s an intermittent reinforcement schedule going on for Misha fans, and anyone who passed Psych 101 knows that gives an extra added zing of excitement when he is. Misha himself fanned the fire with some tweets and hashtag suggestions, and #CastielReturns was trending alongside #Supernatural for a while. I love watching any group of SPN fans get squeeful, so reading my twitter feed put me in a good mood. (I’m always in a good mood on Tuesday night, but there’s usually a sense of trepidation alongside which makes me smile and bite my nails simultaneously – no mean feat.)
I prefer my Castiel both conflicted and badass, so needless to say, this episode was relatively satisfying on that front. (Although I’ve never managed to care much about the whole angel war thing when it doesn’t directly involve Cas or the Winchesters, so those parts tend to fly over my head sounding like blahblah factions blahblah.) In this episode, writer Robert Berens anchors the angel war storyline around Castiel’s personal journey, so my attention didn’t waver. The Show is drawing lots of parallels between Cas and Sam this season, which has given me more empathy for both of them. God knows (well, actually he doesn’t since on SPN he left the building, but you know what I mean) Castiel has had his share of struggling with who he is and what his place is in the larger scheme of things. He’s made some terrible decisions and had to face his own flaws head-on, but he’s also learned from those mistakes and confrontations with selfishness and hubris. He’s not human anymore, but he was for a while, and his intimate knowledge of humanity has changed him. He cares about humans, and uses that caring as a reminder not just of what the angels’ mission was, but what it can and should be now.
Adam Harrington must have done an excellent job of portraying Bartholemew, because every time he came onscreen my blood ran cold. He was just so creepy! The more he tried to woo Cas, the more dangerous he seemed, as Bart made Cas complicit in the graphic angel torture and then tried to force him to murder. The fact that Cas has killed before, and not always for the best reasons, amped up the tension in those scenes until I was yelling at my television, “Nooooo Cas, noooo!” Luckily he listened. There was more than one comment that Cas and Bart’s fight scene was so full of tension that it verged on the dirtybadwrong kind of hot, for which I totally blame Adam and Misha. (Misha helpfully tweeted that Adam smelled (and tasted) like pickled turnip.) Hmm.
I like the theme of free will which continues to run through the Show, as part of Castiel’s arc and something the Winchesters continue to struggle with too – free will means that sometimes we make good decisions, but sometimes we make very bad ones, and then we have to deal with the consequences. That tension permeates the last few seasons, along with the question of whether the end justifies the means. Maybe sometimes it does, and sometimes it doesn’t. Kevin seems to recognize the good that came from Gadreel’s possession as well as the horrible – Charlie is alive, Sam is alive, Cas is alive. Both Castiel and Sam seem to be important to the larger scheme of things. Does that excuse Dean making the choice for Sam or make up for Kevin’s death? Of course not, but Supernatural has never implied fairness when it comes to life and death. Would closing the gates of hell have been a good thing after all, with Heaven also closed and all the souls caught in the veil? Who knows. I like that, so far at least, Show isn’t giving us any simplistic or black and white answers, because really, are there any? This Show has never come down to “Dean is wrong and Sam is right” or “Dean is right and Sam is wrong” any more than Castiel’s journey can be seen in such concrete terms. The Show exists in shades of grey, and I like it that way (even if it drives me completely stark raving mad at times).
I also like where Cas is now – the reluctant hero, the leader who attracts followers because he doesn’t seek them but inspires anyway. Now I’d like to see him fighting for something viewers care about emotionally, which isn’t the angel war – but Metatron? Oh hell yes, Cas, get your BAMF self up there and get rid of the dick responsible for the death of Kevin Tran!
And speaking of Kevin. I was inadvertently spoiled for his return by that infamous promo, which ruined the power of that reveal (and why did they think that level of spoiler was a good idea?) Nevertheless, it was wonderful to see Osric Chau back, even if it is as a ghost. Chau struck just the right notes as Kevin struggled to manifest, still maintaining his sense of humor and his ability to see things clearly (even when the Winchesters can’t).
Kevin is once again proving both his smarts and his hero chops by acting as a leader amongst all the souls stuck in the veil – and he’s a nice parallel for what the Winchesters have gone through as he searches single-mindedly for his mother, determined to find her at all costs. Linda Tran and her tiger-mommy protective love for her son provides a mirror for Dean and Sam’s relationship – Dean has always seen himself as a parent to Sam as much as a big brother, and he demonstrates that same all-encompassing no-holds-barred protective love for Sam. One of the things I loved about Berens’ script is that we finally get to see the Show’s perspective on the Winchesters in this episode. The Show tells us that Mrs. Tran’s fierce love for Kevin, even to the extent that she’s determined to do some ill advised things (like take home a ghost), is not wrong. That passionate love for family has always been a theme of the Show, and I loved seeing it reiterated here. It’s never been a blanket justification for what the characters have done, which has sometimes been wrong and sometimes right, but the love itself is valued.
I had to tweet Berens during the scene where Sam finds the captive Mrs. Tran. Lauren Tom did a fabulous job of making us feel every second of Linda Tran’s rollercoaster emotions. Terror, hope, devastation, determination. You could read every emotion on her face, hear it in her voice. The silent conversation during which Sam lets her know that Kevin is dead broke my heart and had me reaching for the tissues. As Mrs. Tran squared her shoulders and soldiered on, using the skills she’d learned from her son to help break them out, I was floored by her courage. And then I was floored by the realization that Berens had managed to write a female character who isn’t 21 and who and is tough, smart, flawed, and human. And awesome.
“FangasmSPN: There’s so much badassery on my television right now. And not all of it is hunters or angels. Love you @robertberens.”
There was a lot to love in the Winchester scenes of this episode too. Sam and Dean keeping watch over the coffee pot, hoping for Kevin to communicate. Dean taking the coffee pot with them to the woods, and tacking the radio to a tree to speak to Candy. Sam snarking to Dean that maybe Crowley “just isn’t that into you.”
Actually that snarky comment was telling. Neither Sam nor Dean does well with the other partnering with someone else. Sam’s fears in the church in Sacrifice were all about letting Dean down – and Dean replacing him with another brother substitute. Dean working with a demon is so problematic I don’t know where to start, considering the Winchesters’ history of demon deals and partnerships. So Sam’s attitude makes sense, but it’s as much about Dean working with someone else as it is about the fact that Crowley’s a demon.
The ending of ‘Captives’ at first was very satisfying. We get the Show’s point of view on the Winchesters’ current drama again, as we did through Cas a few episodes ago. And Kevin once again stands in for fandom as he confronts the Winchesters about their ongoing fighting – “The drama, the fighting. It’s stupid — get over it.”
I started yelling “YESSSSS” and then closed my mouth abruptly as Sam instantly agreed. What? That wasn’t what I – oh. OH. It was so clear that Sam didn’t mean it, that it shocked me into silence mid “Yes.” Dean’s more tentative agreement sounded as hopeful as it did serious, aimed at Sam instead of Kevin. And then Dean turned around to talk to Sam, and Sam had left the room. Without a word. I had foolishly thought that I wasn’t going to have my heart skewered in the last two minutes for once, but no. That did it. We see Sam pause at the door to his bedroom, pulling up a brief moment of hope in my battered heart, and then he goes inside and closes the door, shutting himself off from Dean.
Oh, Sam. Why must you break my heart so? Let’s take a minute and talk about Sam, shall we? He too is alone and cut off, still obviously hurting and angry. We don’t get to see Sam’s pain as often or as clearly as we see Dean’s, but Padalecki shows us Sam’s emotions in small glimpses, movements, expressions. His empathy when he decides to tell the truth about Kevin to his mother, with his own horrific history of loss showing clearly on his face. His guilt about Kevin’s death. His hesitation outside the bedroom door, as longing for closeness with his brother wars with the hurt that’s still so raw.
In almost every recent episode, including this one, we’ve still seen Sam’s love for Dean and his own streak of protectiveness, as he runs through the bunker yelling his brother’s name and brandishing a sword to take out whatever is hurting Dean.
But Sam is still hurting, and still expressing that hurt by cutting his brother out of his emotional life. Sam’s been through a lot in three decades. He’s been abandoned, one way or another, by just about everyone he’s ever allowed himself to care about. He was essentially orphaned after his mother’s death and his father’s immersion in hunting, despite young Dean’s attempts to take over the role of parent. That has become an integral part of Dean’s identity, but Sam hasn’t really accepted Dean in a parental role. In fact, he often specifically rejects Dean’s parenting, protesting “Don’t try to be my protector!” I’ve theorized this in terms of Sam’s interrupted attempts at individuation, and his need to be independent and able to take care of himself, but there’s another explanation too. Humans who lose a parent are angry as well as hurt – so they tend to reject anyone who tries to step in as a replacement. It’s as though by accepting a replacement, they’re letting the parent who left “off the hook”, saying that it doesn’t matter, things are fine now because so and so is now my parent. That’s a lot to ask of a child, or of an angry adolescent, or even a man who still carries a ton of conflicted feelings about his parents and their various means of abandonment. That’s a lot to ask of Sam Winchester. He loves his brother, but he wants to see him as just that – a brother. No wonder he puts so much emphasis on that relationship and the significance of that term, because it’s invested with deep meaning for him. And he doesn’t give out that title lightly.
It’s frustrating that the Show lets us see the level of Dean’s hurt, but sometimes doesn’t show us as much of Sam’s. It’s there, it’s just not as obvious. He’s so traumatized and unable to trust that he can’t even settle into the bunker and call it home. He’s never believed that he had his father’s or his big brothers’ approval, and he still yearns for it. Sam has repeatedly sacrificed himself (or tried to) in order to make up for his perceived failings, even if most of them are only his perception. He’s tired, so so tired – it’s obvious just to look at him.
And then there’s Dean. Oh, Dean. The last shot mirrors the first, Dean once again alone in his room behind another closed door. There’s no mistaking his loneliness and pain – the Show lets us hear it in the song he listens to.
Lonely is the night
When you find yourself alone…
Dean has his headphones on but his gaze is far away, blank. It’s the look in those green eyes that has haunted me for the past two days. There’s a world of hurt there, but it’s locked behind a blankness that I’ve seen all too often in real life, in real people who’ve been through real trauma and found it to be too much. There’s a deadness in Dean’s eyes that wasn’t there before, and the implications of that are chilling me to the bone. There’s no one to pull him back from self hatred and despair without Sam there. What will a Dean who is no longer anchored to his humanity or able to feel any hope be like? Is this the Mark of Cain asserting its influence, isolating Dean and taking away from him any human connection? The possibilities of that scenario have me terrified.
Brilliant fan vids like this one that explore Dean’s head space just frighten me more. Is this where Dean is headed?
I woke up this morning shaking my head at the fact that I’m this afraid for a fictional character.
That I’ve already had a dozen conversations in the past two days with a dozen fans about a fictional show and its fictional characters and where it’s going and why and OMG why do I do this to myself and… yeah, I know, who am I kidding, I’ll never walk away.
Talk about a captive audience.
Meanwhile, fans weighed in with their artistic commentary on Sam and Dean’s ongoing drama.
And various creative and production side tweets kept the viewing experience meta, as we’ve all come to expect from Supernatural.
Robert Berens complimented the acting: Jensen’s peeved, offhand “Bunker’s haunted” is perfection.
Misha Collins complimented Lauren Tom (Umm, I think…): nice work @LaurenTom9000! anyone ever tell you you look hot in chains? (Sorry @OsricChau to talk about your fictional mother that way).
Guy Norman Bee chimed in to compliment the directing and the music choice: Lonely is the Night! Great song to end the episode! Great job @JerryWanek! #SPN #billysquier
Lauren Tom said what many fans were saying, watching Kevin and his mother: This is so hard to watch, I love you @OsricChau!
Osric live tweeted and then hosted a video Q & A after the episode, chatting with fans.
And director Jerry Wanek seemed to echo one of the themes of the Show itself: Tonight’s ep is dedicated to my brother Randy who taught me “if you work hard enough anything is possible!” Love you big brother!
Let’s hope the Winchesters are listening.
What did you think of 9.14? What are you hoping for from next week’s episode?
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