I’ve come to the conclusion that the last episodes of Season 14 and the entirety of Season 15 of Supernatural are going to be a master class in grief and loss. It’s impossible for me to experience the show, the conventions, the fandom or anything else related to the Show without the spectre of its ending coloring my reactions. That was very much in evidence at the convention in Chicago last weekend and in last week’s episode, the aptly named “Absence.” Supernatural’s absence? That’s pretty much all I can think about right now!
Coincidentally, I’m in the midst of teaching a graduate course in grief and loss to a bunch of counselors in training, so I’m immersed in current research and theory about what sort of things we experience as a loss and the myriad ways in which we grieve them. In a way, that’s making what’s happening with Supernatural and its fandom easier to understand, but in another way, it’s tempting me to grab onto one of the coping strategies for grief that sometimes comes back to kick you in the butt – denial, avoidance, intellectualizing, call it what you will. I’ve been doing a lot of all three, and let me just say up front that it probably influenced my reaction to this episode. As fandom used to say all the time back in the day to acknowledge and validate differing points of view, your mileage may vary.
In fact, my friend Laurena (who helms the Winchester Family Business) and I spent the con weekend together – and boy, did we ever have different perspectives on ‘Absence’! Then again, we’ve had different perspectives on Mary Winchester all along. And while we’re both mired in anticipatory grief about Supernatural ending, that meant we had a very different experience of this episode.
Let me say at the outset that I think director Nina Lopez-Corrado (whose work is incredible) and writer Robert Berens (who has written some amazing episodes) did an excellent job of taking the story where it needed to go. The actors all did an amazing job bringing the emotions that needed to saturate the story. That said, as a viewer, I was unusually reticent to go where they wanted to take me. (Laurena, on the other hand, fell down that rabbit hole and landed HARD).
I watched the episode on Thursday night after a long day of work, and then did a re-watch when I returned from the Chicago convention on Monday night. My second viewing was also impacted by having “Sammies with Sam” at the con – that is, a little meet and greet with Samantha Smith while we ate delicious PBJ sandwiches. I love Samantha and I loved hearing her insights about Mary and about the Show. It was quite clear that she too was grieving, and that shared grief changed my experience of the episode on rewatch a bit. Suffice it to say, this is an episode review that was extraordinarily complicated!
We start off with Sam and Dean returning from the events of 14.17, glad to be home and to share beers as they traditionally do. Dean expresses his relief about Sam being alive in typically minimizing fashion, making a joke about “another miraculous Sam Winchester survival” – when we know he was completely undone by those few minutes of Sam being gone. But that’s Dean.
Sam and Dean acknowledge Jack’s role in saving the day and say they’re glad to have a get out of jail free card, and if you didn’t know that Jack was on his way out before, you certainly did then. No show can have a consistent character who’s a get out of jail free card for long, since it dilutes the urgency of everything that happens. RIP Jack. (sobbing)
The opening scene is well done, the sense of dread slowly growing as the boys try to find Jack and Mary, and then Mary’s phone ominously rings at the other end of the table.
The brothers call around to see if anyone knows what’s going on, hanging onto hope and optimism that we, the viewers, know is tragically not going to hold up. Dean talks to Cas on the phone, and Cas finally tells him that he thinks something is wrong with Jack, and how he killed Felix.
Cas: I was going to tell you, but… I don’t think Jack is well, Dean.
Dean: Hangs up.
Nobody on this show will ever learn that keeping those sort of worries to yourself never ends well.
Meanwhile, an anguished Jack is having flashbacks of his time bonding with Mary after trying to outrun what he’s done by flying all over the world (but still carrying a cell phone lol).
Even more distressing, he’s also having hallucinations of Lucifer, much like Sam did back in the day. (Because Show will never let Lucifer be gone no matter what, apparently). It’s Hallucifer who confirms what we already mostly know.
Lucifer: You killed Mary Winchester. You can’t come back from that.
Jack insists it was an accident, but Lucifer just smirks.
Lucifer: Sure, tell Sam and Dean it was an accident. It’s not like family isn’t everything to them…
Poor Jack. Alex Calvert has done such an incredible job of portraying Jack that I came to love him even though the writing has been on the wall since the beginning that he would eventually go darkside in some way and break everyone’s hearts, including mine. Jack’s character arc has been well done, playing out organically over time so that our affection for him feels genuine and earned. I’m not looking forward to what’s to come at all – in fact, I’m dreading it. Part of me is grateful that this Show can still make me care so much, but part of me is just plain dreading it. As Laurena and I discussed at length over pancakes yesterday morning, we are already grieving so much about losing the Show in real life that additional grief over the fictional narrative almost seems unbearable. It’s not like in previous seasons, where we were joyous about the Show continuing and the cons continuing and the fandom continuing. Now we’re dealing with real loss and grief, and I’m not so sure I want my heart to be ripped out by the Show too.
Everything is different now, and I don’t know if TPTB have realized that yet. Everything.
Sam and Dean try to track down Jack, thanks to Smart!Sam’s tech skills. In the Impala, Sam tries to defend Jack, saying that he must have thought he was helping (by killing Felix). Dean is already in lashing out mode, snapping that he doesn’t care about the damn snake and refusing to see the possible human parallels. The boys find Nick’s partially incinerated corpse, and then they find an ominous and large area of scorched earth. Director Nina Lopez-Corrado gives us a beautiful crane shot, looking down on the angelically produced wasteland area illuminated by Sam and Dean’s flashlights.
Meanwhile, Castiel is also having flashbacks of his own bonding time with Mary when he was hunting with her. I don’t even know when that happened (early on clearly, but did we know about it?) but it’s a nice, quiet scene in which Castiel tries to reassure Mary that Sam and Dean are glad she’s back.
Cas: They’re happy. Finally they don’t have to be so alone.
Mary: Castiel, they were never alone.
That was a beautiful little scene, showing both Castiel’s genuine empathy for the brothers and confirming what we all know – Sam and Dean have always had each other.
I wish we’d gotten to see more of Mary and Castiel, because I think they from what little we did see that they could relate in a unique way. Both were thrust into a world that they don’t quite fit in, and both had to struggle to find their place in it. It’s nice to see a flashback of that now, but it would have been a lot more powerful if we’d seen it develop organically, the way Jack’s story arc did.
Dean and Sam meet up with Cas in the cabin, and Dean says what most of us were thinking about Nick’s death.
Dean: He probably deserved it.
When Castiel comes in, Dean immediately turns his back on the angel, angry and in full lashing out mode. That’s Dean’s customary way of handling his grief at first, so I appreciated the character continuity, as well as the way Jensen Ackles makes it all thoroughly believable. Anger is a cover emotion for him, one that he’s more comfortable expressing than the incredible sadness underneath. One that he’s been socialized to express, in contrast to the sadness he feels so deeply but tries to hide.
He lashes out at Cas, needing someone to blame.
Dean: If he did something to her, if she’s…. Then you’re dead to me!
Sam looks shocked, even a bit protective of Castiel, and Dean justifies his outburst.
Dean: He knew and didn’t tell us!
Castiel looks almost as anguished as Jack himself about what’s happened, and Misha Collins does a great job showing us that.
Cas: I was scared… I believed in Jack. We were a family and I didn’t want to lose that.
Dean remains unmoved, and Cas looks close to breaking down.
Cas: I failed you. And I failed Jack, and I failed…
Dean: Don’t even say her name!
Sam doesn’t say anything here, but his anguish is just as clear. Unlike Dean, he doesn’t lash out and he struggles not to blame Cas (or even Jack), but it costs him because he has no defense, and his sadness shows on his face thanks to Jared Padalecki’s wonderful acting. All three actors did a wonderful (painful) job in this scene.
They call Rowena, who has transitioned to 90% ally at this point (which I’m fine with), and she yanks away their last bit of denial.
Rowena: I don’t know where she is, but Mary Winchester is no longer on this Earth.
Dean loses it, picking up a chair and smashing it. Sam flinches at that, looking close to tears.
Then he does what he knows to do when he feels lost. He turns to his big brother.
Sam: So what do we do?
Dean: What we always do when we lose one of our own. Fight to bring them back.
That is so true, but so often it doesn’t end well. And of course we know that it won’t this time, because there’s no way Mary Winchester would have so many emotional flashbacks in this episode if she was coming back.
Let me stop at this point and talk about where I was on first viewing, because by this time I was certain that the episode was Mary’s goodbye episode. Hence the black and white flashbacks. Knowing that did two things. First, it took away any suspense about whether they would succeed in bringing her back. Second, it gave me a handy dandy way to intellectualize about the episode so I didn’t have to feel too much. I usually roll with this Show and let it take me where it wants to, even if part of me knows where I’m being taken. This time, I didn’t want to go. And that meant I didn’t roll with it; instead, I felt vaguely emotionally manipulated and a bit resentful of that. It’s as though I dug my heels in and said no way, Show, I see what you’re trying to do, but I’m not falling for it!
Not the best way to watch an emotional goodbye episode, btw.
Part of my resistance was that I’ve been frustrated with how they portrayed Mary all along. I was excited by the potential of having the Winchesters’ mother back and all that would entail to explore, and I was on board with her not being the idolized version of ‘Mom’ that a son who lost her as a four year old or a son who didn’t remember her at all would have constructed. Sam and Dean struggling with Mary as a real person, flaws and all, was a great idea. Samantha Smith did a great job with a complicated character and worked hard to show all her sides. Unfortunately, Mary’s character arc sometimes went places that I absolutely could not follow, and thus I never came to love her as Sam and Dean’s mother. I see what they were going for in making her so freaked out by her abrupt return from Heaven that she couldn’t deal with her sons, but leaving them and joining up with their enemies was a bridge too far for me to travel. WHAT?
There are always practical constraints to deal with, including how many episodes Samantha Smith was hired for, and that meant constantly finding (lame) reasons for Mary not to be there with her sons and for her sons. I realize they’re grown men who don’t need to live with their mommy, but they were all hunters, and it would have made sense for them to try to protect each other more. Anyway, I didn’t bond with Mary. So when this episode suddenly decided to throw in flashbacks of times that might have made me bond with her, I just felt like it was too little too late. The flashbacks themselves were well done, but I can’t form a bond with a character organically in one episode when I already know you’re taking her away anyway! Sigh.
(Laurena, on the other hand, was totally on board the Mary Winchester train, so she went exactly where Show was trying to take her, and ended up in a puddle on the floor.)
On second viewing, understanding my own resistance, I watched the flashbacks just for what they were, and tried to allow the understanding that they contained to seep in a little more. I also knew that Samantha had struggled a bit herself, and had worked hard to understand Mary despite her flaws, and I respect Samantha so much that I worked a bit harder too. It’s not what I want to have to do, but there you go. It’s almost the last season, after all.
The Winchesters set out for Rowena’s to try something desperate, but Jack gets there first. Once again, Alex Calvert is magnificent. As he orders Rowena to try to bring Mary back, his desperation is very clear – and that starts to make him seem truly dangerous for the first time.
Ruth Connell is also amazing in this scene – we as the viewers watch Jack through her eyes, and as she becomes more and more concerned, so do we. Rowena is another character whose evolution has been gradual and organic. I believe her transition into someone who is allowing herself to care a little bit, after centuries of walling herself off to prevent being hurt or abandoned again. She cares about Jack and she cares about Sam and Dean and Cas, and that gives her the courage to go against even a Nephilim in order to try to help both him and them. She stalls long enough for Sam and Dean to get there, but Jack whisks her and the Book of the Damned away to the bunker to grab all the ingredients – for a necromancy spell. Oh Jack.
Meanwhile, Cas tries to contact Naomi to find out what happened to Mary, but Duma arrives at the sandbox instead.
Duma: Why would you want to bring Mary back? She is at peace. In Heaven. Mary Winchester is complete. You and the Winchesters may not be, but she is at peace.
Me: Shades of Buffy! Don’t do it, Cas!
Misha again did a wonderful job in this short scene. Cas knows that’s the right thing to do, but he also knows how much it will hurt Sam and Dean – and his expression shows all of that pain as he rails against accepting that Mary is gone and should not be brought back. He lashes out at first, but it’s from grief, knowing that she’s right.
Meanwhile, Jack is having more flashbacks about bonding with Mary, this time her teaching him how to handle a knife. Samantha said this was a great scene to film with Alex, because he really was fumbling the knife and she sort of hoped that he wouldn’t get too proficient with it, so it would play out as very real – and it did!
I do believe Mary’s bond with Jack, because oddly we saw that relationship evolve more than we saw her relationship with her actual sons.
The flashback transitions into Sam’s (which was odd – I had a moment of wait, whose flashback is this?) I think all of fandom gasped in joy to see the return of Sam’s beard of brotherly grief ™ – which Jared partly grew back in a weekend and then makeup filled in a bit!
We finally see a scene between Mary and one of her boys that has her explaining/apologizing for her erratic behavior when she returned, and a touching moment with her and Sam.
Mary: Things got complicated….I got complicated. Parenting is always something you feel like you’re failing at. But then you look at them and they’re amazing. The bravest, kindest, most heroic men on the planet.
She cups Sam’s face and Samantha Smith pours all the love that I wish we’d gotten to see from Mary all along into that gesture and that look, and Sam drinks it in, and it’s a lovely moment. (One I wish we’d seen more often from time to time during the past several seasons instead of in flashback in her last episode).
I liked the next short quiet scene with Sam and Dean, because it shows where they are right now as brothers and just how well they know each other. Dean is still lashing out, wanting to blame Castiel because he doesn’t know what else to do with all that rage.
Dean: Cas should have told us.
Sam: Dean, it wasn’t just Cas. We knew too. But Jack had a good heart, a good soul… And that’s on me too, I decided for him to bring him back and you warned me…
Sam’s admission, accepting some of the blame and quietly challenging Dean’s blaming of Castiel, is so gentle that it gets through Dean’s defenses. Sam knows his brother so well that he knows what will get through to him and what will not. And Dean hears him – and instinctively defends his brother (even from Sam himself)
Dean (sitting down across from Sam): You didn’t know.
Sam: He’d become our family.
Sam regrets that his own grief didn’t allow him to be there for Jack after Maggie and the AU hunters were killed.
Sam: I dumped Jack on Cas and just left.
Dean can now, after hearing Sam take responsibility, own up to his own part in this tragedy.
Dean: I did it too. With Donatello. It was a warning, I just couldn’t see it.
I got emotional at the end of this conversation because it was such a well written and well acted scene. The psychological dynamics were complex, but played out in such a genuine way between two people who know each other so incredibly well. Thanks for that, Mr. Berens.
While Sam and Dean work through their anger and grief and blame, self and otherwise, Rowena tries to convince Jack not to go through with the spell. Unfortunately, Jack’s alter ego in the form of Lucifer keeps nudging him in the other direction. (Admittedly Mark Pellegrino excels as Hallucifer, with all his snarky manipulations)
Rowena tells Jack that the last thing they need for the spell is Mary’s body, and Jack goes to a whole other level of desperate, knowing that Mary was incinerated. He insists on doing the spell anyway, though Rowena tells him that what he brings back won’t be her.
Jack: Then help me!
Rowena: (resolute) I won’t.
Lovely Rowena moment showing both her courage and her newly directed moral compass.
Jack zaps her back to her place none too gently, and she immediately calls the Winchesters to tell them what Jack is trying to do.
Rowena: I fear your boy will bring back something terrible.
Jack tries, and special effects gets some kudos for this scene, along with director Lopez-Corrado.
Eventually Mary’s body is lying on the ground, but we all have a very bad feeling about this by this point.
Sam and Dean arrive and run to the spot, Sam calling out for Jack. Jack turns to them, defeat and sadness written on his face.
Jack: It didn’t work.
Dean runs to his mother, cradling her in his arms and saying “Mom, Mom…”
It’s clear to him, and to Sam, and to us, that she’s gone.
Dean then has his flashback, a small and silent scene of him driving Baby, Mary asleep on his shoulder. Dean looks at her fondly, then turns his eyes back to the road, his expression saying entire pages of dialogue about how satisfied he is to have his mother there and be able to take care of her.
It’s all he ever really wanted, and it’s heartbreaking in its simplicity.
In the present, Dean looks to his brother, the only other person who will understand and share his grief.
The expression on his face killed me, helpless and almost beseeching, wracked with grief.
Sam drops to his knees beside his devastated brother and wraps his arm around Dean, his other hand anchoring Mary. The little family cling to each other in their sadness, another crane shot making it a powerful tableau of loss and grief.
So much of what this Show is all about.
Jack, meanwhile, sits alone slumped on the floor, only Halllucifer for company.
Lucifer: They’re never gonna trust you again. And that means you can’t trust them…
Oh Jack Jack Jack, I hate where this is going.
Flash forward and Sam sits at the bunker table, sorting through the few family photos that the Winchesters have. There’s Mary with young Dean and baby Sam, and young Sam and Dean (which fandom knows is actually a behind the scenes photo of Jared and Jensen between takes).
Castiel joins him and tells him the truth, Dean listening from the doorway.
Cas: She’s in Heaven. And she’s at peace.
He tells them that Duma let him in, let him see. There’s a great shot of Mary’s two lifetimes on the door to her private heaven.
Cas: She’s with John. There’s no sorrow, no guilt. Just joy.
Sam also has an update. Jack apparently brought back a shell, a replica, incapable of holding life.
In other words, this is really the end.
Sam again turns to his big brother.
Sam: So what do we do now?
Dean: What we always do.
The pyre burns at the hunter’s funeral.
Sam steps forward and puts the photo of Mary he’s chosen in the flames.
Dean stands apart, stoic.
Cas tries to go to him to offer comfort, but Sam puts out a hand and stops him, shaking his head. Sam knows Dean, and when he needs space as he’s struggling not to fall apart. In a sense, Sam protects them both, also keeping Castiel from being hurt unintentionally. I never cease to be amazed by Sam Winchester and his capacity for empathy.
The camera pulls back to show the brothers and the angel and the Impala flanking the pyre.
Then we get a montage of Mary moments (which again struck me as manipulative on first watch, or maybe too over the top, even though it made sense to include them here)
The remembrance of the 300th episode did get to me – that one single night when Sam and Dean had both their mother and their father there, eating dinner like a “normal” family. It’s once again heartbreaking in its simplicity as what Dean has always wanted most.
Cut back to the bunker and a close up of the table where Dean and Sam carved their initials – and there is now another set of initials there.
I’m sure that was conceived of as the final tear jerker of an ending, but for me, that also didn’t work. The ‘DW SW’ initials are iconic to the Show and to the fandom. I know countless fans who have that tattoo. It means something, and part of that meaning is from the discussion Sam and Dean had when they carved them, about their legacy. It took on even greater meaning when Jared and Jensen said that they too were emotional during that scene, thinking about their own legacy as actors in a show that has changed people’s lives. It’s based on the initials that the brothers carved into the Impala as children, and symbolizes the way they’ve had to live their lives, with only each other to depend on for the majority of the time. I understand that Sam and Dean would want to memorialize their mother in some way, so maybe it even makes sense for them to want to add her to the bunker table as a grief ritual – but for an already grieving fandom trying to prepare for the loss of everything that’s iconic about this Show, that felt like a knife in the heart. And not in the way it was intended.
Jensen and Jared spoke about the initials a little bit at the convention this past weekend, saying that they also were surprised by that (they weren’t in the scene and so I’m not sure they knew it was going to happen). They understand that the initials are iconic as well as the fandom does, so I think it was also a bit jarring to them. At least that was my take from what they said in their panel. But after all, the actors aren’t the ones writing the show.
All in all, the episode worked better for me on second viewing, when I was in a head space that allowed me to go more willingly where Show wanted to take me. The acting was, as always, masterful. The cinematography and set dec, especially of the beautiful bunker and the gorgeous Vancouver landscape, were striking. There were moments that came through with a gut punch as intended. Even if it didn’t work completely, the sadness and emptiness — the absence — certainly came through.
I was left with a feeling of trepidation that’s way deeper and more real life than I’m usually feeling as we get ready for the penultimate episode of Season 14. Please, Show, you don’t have to mess with iconic things in order to get an emotional reaction out of us right now – we have enough real life loss to deal with already. Can we keep that in mind as we head into the final season?
I think somewhere I hear Andrew Dabb laughing…
Caps by kayb625
You can remember what’s so special about
Supernatural forever with a copy of Family
Don’t End With Blood, written by the actors
and the fans! Links on the home page.