Supernatural is a versatile Show. It’s one of the things I love most about it; it’s part of what makes watching the Show live every week kind of like riding a rollercoaster in the dark. You can’t see the track, so you have no idea which way it’s going to toss you next. It’s both jarring and exhilarating, but it’s rarely boring. And yes, I love rollercoasters.
This week’s episode came on the heels of Robbie Thompson’s Meta Fiction, a ride so fast and furious that I was left hanging on for dear life, out of breath and bouncing from one thought to the next in a head-spinning fashion. (Which I thoroughly enjoyed). Robert Berens’ “Alex Annie Alexis Ann” was completely different, like the slower part of the roller coaster ride that lets you catch your breath, only to suddenly twist and turn until you find yourself upside down with an entirely different perspective. I know some fans found the slower pace jarring, especially at this point in the season, where they have a lot more story to tell and (to stick with the metaphor) very little track left on which to tell it. I welcomed the change, though – especially that change in perspective.
Before I get into the main reasons I liked this episode, a few quick notes. First, thanks for the attention to continuity, Mr. Berens. I love when the Show remembers its own past, as it did with Jody’s backstory and a mention of Dean’s time as a vampire (and thus his ability to cure Alex). And even Sam’s “How’s the shoulder?” to Jody – those little things are so important, anchoring viewers within the narrative. It brings a feeling of security, like we’re all in this together. It allows me to trust Show and let it take me where it will. So, thanks for that! Even though this was a dark and angsty episode, I also appreciated the couple of instances of humor, and especially that they didn’t come with that horrible cheesy “hey now we’re gonna do something funny” music that SPN is so fond of hitting me over the head with. Loved the Walking Dead reference and Sam’s smile in response, and that little moment of dark humor with the woodchipper was priceless.
Dean: Need a hand? Oh, I guess not.
Sorry, but I laughed way too hard over that.
Also, a quick shout out to Serge Ladouceur for the gorgeous lighting. Whenever I get Winchesters with flashlights, I’m a happy fangirl. Nobody does those scenes better than Supernatural, and they feel wonderfully old school.
Also, a bit of new-school Show that I heartily approve of? Winchesters wearing thigh holsters. Yum.
Both 9.18 and 9.19 made me think, which is probably my primary requirement from SPN episodes (other than occasional shower scenes and Winchester hugs). “Alex Annie Alexis Ann” didn’t have as much Winchester screen time as I always wish for, but there were some telling moments in which Berens conveyed quite a bit with some blessedly subtle dialogue, which both Ackles and Padalecki have the acting skills to convey. The brothers’ disparate answers to Jody’s simple question about how they’ve been said a lot.
Sam: Touch and go.
Dean’s repressing, Sam is still trying to cope with all his conflicting feelings. And now he’s clearly added worrying about Dean on top of the other things he’s struggling with.
In addition, the entire episode commented on the brothers’ history and how they ended up in the painful place they’re stuck now. That’s a long-standing Supernatural tradition, using a MotW story as a mirror to what’s happening with the main characters, and it worked well here with two gifted actresses playing the guest roles.
Unlike last week’s return of Richard Speight Jr., which caught most of fandom by surprise, most of us were anticipating Kim Rhodes’ re-appearance. In fact, much of fandom held its collective breath throughout the hour, crossing fingers and toes and whatever other appendages we could find that the Show allowed Jody Mills to survive the episode. I’m pretty sure the collective sigh of relief could be heard around the world – I definitely heard it on my twitter timeline.
There’s a misconception out there that Supernatural fans “don’t like female characters”, but the outpouring of love for Kim and Jody challenges that stereotype. In recent seasons, the Show has figured out how to write female characters in a way that its fans can relate to and appreciate – and in a way that fits them organically into the Show. There have been plenty of female characters in the past who didn’t work for one reason or another. Bela (and Ruby initially) as network inserts to add ‘sex appeal’ and bring in that elusive 18-44 male demographic always felt inorganic and shoe-horned into the narrative. Long-term romantic interests that involve the Winchesters settling down are not generally popular either, since most fans don’t watch the Show for a story about domestic Winchesters. (I’m still not over the whole Amelia thing….) But other female characters have worked very well, and have become fan favorites. Jo wasn’t popular when the Show thought she should be there mainly to hook up with Dean, but she was later reintroduced as a hunter in her own right and embraced by fans along with Ellen – I have never needed more boxes of tissues as I did when Ellen and Jo sacrificed themselves so tragically. Mary Winchester, in all her incarnations, is loved by fans. Feisty psychic Pamela was also a popular female character – she appreciated the boys’ assets just like we do, but wasn’t looking to settle down with them. And of course there’s Charlie, one of the most popular characters on Supernatural. She’s clearly not written as a romantic interest for any of the boys, but more importantly, she’s a fully developed and nuanced character, with a backstory and a personality that makes her relatable and real. And she’s a geek, which means a lot of us can relate to her (and the actress who plays her) on multiple levels.
And there’s Jody Mills. She’s not a romantic interest for the Winchesters or Castiel either (except in fanfic…though I wouldn’t have minded her getting a little more quality time with Bobby…), and she’s also a fully fleshed out character with a compelling backstory. Kim Rhodes has the acting chops to make us all feel for her tragic history, as well as appreciate her guts and her refusal to let the crap she’s seen and experienced destroy her. Like Charlie, and Ellen and Jo, and Mary, and Pamela, she’s a woman we can both relate to and be inspired by. Berens wrote a wonderful script for Rhodes to sink her teeth into (vampire metaphor for a vampire episode, sorry) and she didn’t disappoint. I love Jody’s smarts – particularly how she’s the only one to question the name change and intuit its significance. She figures Mama out, and that helps Jody defeat her.
It’s a treat to have had a character like Jody appear in multiple episodes, which allows us both to feel an attachment to her and to care about her journey. Over the course of several seasons (and many years in canon), we’ve watched Sheriff Mills navigate the difficult process of recovering from a trauma – from shock and denial, to sublimating her feelings with work or religion or romance, to a tentative exploration of her own emotions. Anger, rage, sadness, grief – Jody seems ready to start feeling these now, and that’s a big step in her healing. It’s that step forward that allows her to begin to connect with other people again, a process she begins with Alex.
Jody: No, you were right about me. My judgment was clouded. You know working this case, it brought feelings back – feelings I’ve been trying to bury for years, you know, buried it under work, religion … even dating. We know how well that worked out. But, you know, it’s still there underneath, you know … the grief. I don’t know what that means for me, just that I’ve been fooling myself to think that I could ignore it.
At first watch, the mirror that Jody’s story held up to the Winchesters seemed to be all about the evolution of a hunter. Tragedy, loss, buried and sublimated grief – these are often the ingredients that push someone into “the life.” Jody even wears the traditional plaid shirt of the hunter, looking the part and acting it. She’s fearless, driven, determined. But she’s also unlike Sam and Dean. They have yet to take the step of recognizing, let alone expressing, their buried emotions. (Sam buried his grief by becoming absorbed with revenge when he lost Dean in Mystery Spot, and attempted to “fix” everything in sight after losing him to Purgatory – the dog he hit, the motel, even Amelia – as a way to avoid facing his grief. Dean just refuses to lose Sam again, no matter what, so he can literally avoid those feelings.) Thus, the Winchesters can’t reach out to connect emotionally with anyone, including each other.
Jody, on the other hand, is beginning to get back in touch with her emotions instead of repressing them. She’s protective of Alex, in whom she recognizes another child victim – perhaps, this time, one she can save. Her slaying of the ‘Mama’ vampire shows her to be every bit the capable hunter, but her warning to Alex to look away and not to watch shows that her empathy is front and center even as she’s killing. Contrast this to Dean’s sadistic, aggressive killing of one of the vampire brothers with a growled out demand, “Look at me, bitch!” The two scenes make a particularly powerful mirror, with the ‘look at me/look away’ dichotomy making it crystal clear. While Jody is accepting her emotions and realizing that she has to deal with them, Dean is furiously repressing his (with a little help from the Mark of Cain).
Alex is also a mirror for the Winchesters, especially for Sam. She too was raised in a family where she didn’t fit in, where she always felt different. She too struggled with the moral code of the family, the violence and constant moving around and lack of stability or safety. Like Sam, Alex loved her family – her parent, and her brothers – but eventually she wanted out. “It was time,” she said. She still wanted to protect them, but she wanted to live her own life, just as Sam did when he struck out on his own and went to Stanford.
Sam: Okay, you care about them, but, Alex … there’s a reason you decided to run away.
Alex: It was time … to move on and get out on my own.
The parallel is made clearer by the vampire brother complaining about what it’s like to have a whiny teenage younger sibling, something Dean could certainly remember. Alex, like Sam, is also burdened by guilt over the things she’s been forced to do and the people who have died as a result.
Alex: I couldn’t disappoint her again. I feel ashamed enough as it is.
Both Alex and Sam are strongly motivated by their need to not disappoint the people they feel they’ve let down in the past – Alex her mother, and Sam his brother. Sam’s acquiescence to staying alive in ‘Sacrifice’ was all about not disappointing Dean, his biggest confessed sin. All about his shame at his perceived failings and terrible choices in the past. Alex initially chooses to stay with her Mama because she’s disappointed her in the past by rebelling and running off, and can’t face doing that again, and because she’s ashamed of her own perceived failings.
Supernatural newcomer Katherine Ramdeen did an amazing job as Alex, portraying both her stubborn teenage withdrawal and her guilt-ridden ambivalence subtly and powerfully. She made me believe that Alex loved her Mama even as she was rebellious and fearful, and that added an unexpected emotional pull to Alex’s struggle with divided loyalty.
Alex’s story in this episode was all about choice, which is also one of the major themes of this entire season. Of course, as Dean gravely warns, there are consequences to leaving your family, no matter what the reason.
Dean: You didn’t think this out, did you? What would happen? Who might get hurt? Your brother for one….Because of a choice you made. These are the consequences.
For Dean, the consequences of Sam’s leaving – and Dean’s strong emotions around it – have never been explored or fully expressed. Those emotions and that sense of abandonment is still a powerful influence on Dean’s behavior, right up through the present. It’s an integral part of Dean’s decision to allow Gadreel to possess Sam, the cause of that spike driven between Dean and Sam that’s hurting them both. Dean no longer believes about Sam what the captive vampire said about his younger sibling: “When the chips are down, she’ll always choose us.”
This is what Dean desperately wants to believe about Sam – that when it comes right down to it, if forced to choose, that Sam will choose family. Will choose Dean. After their agonizing conversation in the bunker’s kitchen, Dean now believes that’s not true, and it’s killing him. He’s coping with his usual refusal to feel the pain, and with some self deprecating oh-that-doesn’t-bother-me-at-all comments. When Dean freed Sam from being duct taped to a chair and drained of all his blood and muttered “yeah, I know, you wouldn’t do the same for me,” I had to grab for the tissues, because OUCH. But Dean? He said it so matter of factly, my annoying little psychologist voice started yelling “defense mechanism much?” in my head. Oh Dean.
Dean, of course, is struggling with guilt of his own, about his decision to allow Gadreel to possess Sam, and the tragic consequences (the death of Kevin and Sam’s estrangement as a brother). I’ve seen quite a few reviews express skepticism about how the Mark of Cain story line will work if it’s all about turning Dean dark, because Dean Winchester has never really been all rainbows and puppies, let’s face it. He absorbed his father’s lessons about the family business and has always been more black and white about killing things than Sam. He doesn’t want to think too hard about the nuances, as evidenced by his killing Amy behind Sam’s back (which I still find hard to swallow). He’s been dark before, hardened by his father’s death, his stint as a torturer in Hell (obviously) and his kill-or-be-killed time in Purgatory. So it’s not like Dean is starting out all empathic and touchy feely. Is the Mark turning him even darker and more murderous? Will we even be able to tell?
Not like it’s a new thing, but how badass was it when Dean didn’t even move when the vampire viciously kicked him as he played unconscious? *fans self* And when he yanked the captured vampire brother’s head up by his long hair and growled “What I asked was, where are they?” his barely restrained aggression was…. striking. It certainly struck me anyway.
Dean has been killing with more relish recently, and less hesitation. There’s no question that he enjoyed killing the vampire who had been draining Sam – savored it, even. He prolonged the moment, delivered the command that would establish his dominance, waited for the eye contact that demonstrated submission, before he finally killed. That should have been horrifying, and it was. It was also very well acted — and ridiculously hot. Fandom reacted immediately, tweeting:
Dean making a pleasure kill – most of fandom faints
Dean beheaded someone, oops there goes my panties
Talk dirty to me, Dean
Okay, where was I?
Sam had a more reasonable reaction (apparently missing the whole hotness thing). “Look at me, bitch?” he asks incredulously, saying that Dean enjoyed the kill a little too much. Dean defends himself by saying he’s allowed to take pleasure in killing the bad guys, but it’s clear to Sam (and to us) that Dean was getting off on the violence and the domination. If Tumblr gifs are correct, Dean’s eyes briefly flashed black during that scene, marking his descent into darkness. (Btw, the use of the word ‘bitch’ often rankles, but in this case, Dean uses it not as the ‘good guy being badass’, but as someone out of control and becoming addicted to violence, with the implication that it’s not an okay thing to say. So this episode managed not to use bitch as a misogynistic slur, and to pass the Bechdel Test – I sort of want to hug you for a really long time, Robert Berens!)
The criteria for a television show passing the Bechdel Test is that it features at least two women who talk to each other about something other than a man, and that the two women should be named. This episode passes with flying colors, as not two but three fully rendered female characters (Mama, Jody and Alex) interact with each other while the Winchesters are unconscious or duct taped to a chair.
Berens takes his time letting the relationship between Jody and Alex unfold, so that by the time Alex decides to save her, we understand why. He also gave us enough meaningful dialogue from Mama that I felt some empathy for her, which made Alex’s choice even more poignant. I’ve always loved when Supernatural comments on the gray areas, especially when it comes to ‘monsters.’ The vampire family apparently liked snacking on the most unappealing and downright creepy humans, so it was difficult to see them as the embodiment of evil (though the brothers were a bit creepy themselves, and they did kill the nice Greyhound lady without hesitation, so…). But emphasizing the importance of family and brotherhood to the vampires, themes that are integral to Supernatural, made the whole story less black and white and more difficult to dismiss as cut and dried the way the Winchesters wanted to. Humanizing the mother vampire, allowing us to understand her possessive love for her daughter, was one of those twists and turns of the roller coaster that I didn’t see coming. As a mother, I got it; as a viewer, it mirrored Dean’s possessive love for Sam, and that made my stomach swoop with trepidation as we careened around the curve.
This episode left me thinking about the history of Supernatural and its female characters, which in my book is a very good thing. I initially expected that teenage Alex would eventually be saved by the Winchesters – but in fact, she saved herself (and Jody). And then Jody turned around and saved her. The two women didn’t need the Winchesters to save them – they saved themselves. As SPN fan Orlando Jones tweeted:
@TheOrlandoJones: Jody Mills is a BAMF. @kimrhodes4real is a BAMF. That is all. #Supernatural
Meanwhile, where have we left the Winchesters? I’m still intrigued by what’s happening with the Mark of Cain, and a little incredulous that we have only four episodes to find out. The lure of the Mark seems to be as much about Dean’s need to repress his feelings of guilt and loss as it is about killing Abaddon (who has been conspicuously absent from the narrative for way too long, btw). The mother vampire offers a similar reprieve to guilt-ridden Alex, assuring her that becoming a vampire will take away all the guilt and sadness. Of course, that offer comes with a price, just as we all know the Mark will.
Mama: Don’t you see? These things you’ve been feeling – all the guilt and suffering – those are human feelings. It ain’t too late. I can take the pain away, and then we can stay together, as a family. Like none of this ever happened. Wouldn’t you like that?
Right now, I think Dean would. He’s so burdened by guilt and shame and the conviction that he’s “poison”, that I don’t think he wants to feel anything. And he’s trying very hard not to. Both of the brothers have endured so much loss and tragedy, and have been mired in violence for so long, that it’s a wonder they can feel at all.
“Losing your entire family, everything you’ve ever known or loved. No one can understand that.” Jody says to Alex, understanding.
Alex: “You can.”
Another mirror for the Winchesters. Sam and Dean have also lost their entire family, except for each other. That is both their shared tragedy and the thing that often gets between them. When there is only one person left who ‘gets it’, that person becomes very important. And it’s that very importance that creates so much friction between them, with Dean willing to do anything to hang on, and Sam struggling under the weight of that importance. Again, Jody and Alex serve as a mirror for what love and acceptance can look like once you’ve worked through (and talked about!) your own genuine feelings.
Jody: Whatever you want from me, I’ll give it. I’m here.
I think, deep down, that’s actually how Dean feels about Sam and what he wants to give him, and what Sam wants from Dean. I also think that’s how Sam feels about Dean and wants to give him. But Jody is right when she says there are no short-cuts. You have to stop running from your own emotions and face up to them, even the painful ones.
I cling to the little moments of hope (as did most of Tumblr – thank you!) that tell me the brothers will never give up on each other. Again, Berens made those moments subtle, with not an anvil in sight. The brothers in the darkened vampire nest communicating with unspoken glances and hand signals, working seamlessly. The way Dean instantly dropped his weapon when the vampire had a shotgun pressed to Sam’s back. The way Sam leaned on Dean as they made their way down the stairs, trusting his brother to support him. Sam’s willingness to speak up and question Dean, and his constant worried glances in his brother’s direction. Dean calling Sam “Sammy” and Sam responding like the affectionate brotherly nickname is the most normal thing in the world. (The idea that names — what we call ourselves and each other — carry a lot of meaning, was another theme running through this episode, much to my delight).
I’m along for the ride, as I’ve often said, and I’ll stay buckled up for all the twists and turns I know are ahead of me – I’m stocking up on tissues though. Unlike all the emotions that Sam and Dean tend to bottle up, mine are front and center when it comes to this Show.
Four more episodes – what do you think is gonna happen? And what are your feelings about next week’s spinoff episode? I admit I’ll be a bit frustrated if it derails the story line that I’m so desperate to see played out. We need some build up to the season finale that includes the big bads that Sam and Dean and Cas are supposed to be fighting! Where are Abaddon, Gadreel and Metatron???
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