Asylum is a pivotal episode – I feel like I’m saying this about every Season 1 episode as we do this rewatch, but it’s true! It’s also the perfect time to post this rewatch review, because I just finished posting an interview with the episode’s director, Guy Norman Bee. This is his favorite episode of all the many Supernatural episodes he’s directed, and that doesn’t surprise me at all. It’s beautifully directed, gorgeous to look at, and deft in its exploration of the growing tension between the Winchesters.
It’s also one of the scary episodes, which Season 1 had a lot of. Just the idea of a deserted dark asylum with a disturbing history is scary enough, but Serge Ladouceur’s brilliant cinematography and Jerry Wanek’s set design make it even creepier. The episode starts out with the Asylum’s Keep Out sign and cops realizing that some local teenagers have ignored it. The place is apparently haunted with the ghosts of the abused patients, and if you spend the night, the spirits will drive you insane.
Of course, that has never stopped adolescents.
The cops explore by flashlight.
Cop #1: Let’s split up.
All of us watching: MISTAKE!
The first cop ends up in the boiler room because of course he does, and finds the kids – the requisite horror movie false alarm. Meanwhile, cop #2’s flashlight goes out and that is never a good sign.
Then a door opens by itself – also not a good sign.
Sure enough, cop #2 goes home to his wife and blows her away.
Meanwhile, the Winchesters. Sam calls around – and we hear names that will become familiar, like Caleb and Pastor Jim – but no one has heard from their Dad.
Sam: Maybe we should call the Feds…
Dean says no, Dad would be pissed if they did. Sam is angry, though, saying he could be dead for all they know. Dean insists he isn’t, but that leaves Sam even more frustrated.
Sam: So, he’s what? Hiding? Busy?
Dean’s phone rings at that moment, and he smiles – it’s a text message with coordinates, which means John Winchester is alive. In fact, the place he’s sending them, the Roosevelt Asylum, has an entry in John’s journal.
Sam: This is a job. Dad wants us to work a job.
He’s bitter, resentful that their father is ignoring them and staying away, but makes contact just to send them on a mission. He seems more drill sergeant than dad, and Sam isn’t willing to gloss over it like Dean is.
Dean: Maybe he’s there…
Sam: Maybe he’s not…
This episode is written by someone who I think was a one time writer, Richard Hatem. He gets the complicated dynamic that’s already there between Dean and Sam though, as Dean retorts that their Dad wants them there, and “that’s good enough for me.”
It is not, however, good enough for Sam. And that’s becoming increasingly obvious. Sam goes along, but not all that willingly.
The Winchesters pull a rather brilliant good cop/bad cop thing on the actual cop whose partner died, which works like a charm. It involves Sam giving the asshole reporter (Dean) from the Chicago Tribune a shove and telling him “hey buddy, why don’t you show the guy a little respect”.
After they leave, Dean turns to Sam.
Dean: Shoved me kinda hard in there, Buddy Boy.
Sam: Had it sell it. Method acting.
Dean doesn’t really buy that and neither do we. There are resentments brewing between the brothers that are about to come to a head, and that too-hard shove was just the beginning.
Oh, and there’s another location that I’ve been to in Vancouver – the Terminal Pub! Which I think is not there anymore, like so many locations of fifteen years ago. They returned to this location for “The Magnificent Seven” too. I’m so glad I visited when I could.
Back to the episode. But first, we get a badass fence flip.
I think this is it? Mesmerizing, isn’t it?
The Winchesters find out from Dad’s journal that the South Wing of the Roosevelt Asylum is where bad things are happening over the years. Apparently the place has been chained up for a while so the deaths stopped, but recently – as in all good horror movies – someone broke the chain. As the Winchesters and their flashlights explore the dark Asylum, Dean tries to break the growing tension between him and Sam (and his discomfort with Sam’s ESP) with joking.
Dean: Hey Sam, who’s a hotter psychic? Patricia Arquette, Jennifer Love Hewitt – or you?
Sam whacks him on the head from behind.
Dean: Let me know if you see dead people, Haley Joel. Ghosts are attracted to that whole ESP thing.
He finally gives that up with a muttered, “Yeah, whatever, don’t ask don’t tell” which is how he’s feeling about Sam’s visions. He wants to know, but he doesn’t.
Dean tries humor again once they’re inside to smooth things over, doing his best Jack Nicholson Cuckoo’s Nest impression, but it again falls flat with Sam. There’s a flash of hurt on Dean’s face before he covers it up, and Ackles makes it hurt to see it.
Sam finally snaps.
Sam: Dean, when are we gonna talk about it? About the fact that Dad’s not here.
Dean says never, that Dad’s given them an order.
Sam: So what, we have to always follow it?
Dean: Of course we do!
He adds, “that attitude right there? That’s why I always get the extra cookie.”
I feel bad for Dean, because he’s trying so hard. But Sam is also right. Dean’s perhaps initially secure attachment to his parents was destroyed when his mother died violently, and further impacted when his father was too overwhelmed to care for him, putting too many expectations on his firstborn way too young and not shielding him for very long from the monsters out there. Dean ended up with an insecure attachment and all the anxiety about relationships that come with that. Sam, on the other hand, had Dean. He had someone whose priority was to protect him and make him feel safe, so Sam grew up with a more secure attachment – and that means he’s not afraid to question his dad or his brother or anyone else. He knows he can count on Dean’s love and protection, and that allows him the space to be independent – to be a young twenty-something doing what’s developmentally appropriate for young twenty-somethings.
The gap between the two of them, and the way they see the world, at this point is striking. Also? That asylum set is super creepy. No clue why they’d have a dismembered doll lying around but it sure adds to the scary!
The Winchesters find an old nameplate of Sanford Ellicott MD before they leave, and more research ensues – Sam makes an appointment to see Ellicott’s son, also a psychiatrist. He tries to get Dr. Ellicott Jr. to talk about the incident in the South Wing, but the doc insists they’re there to talk about Sam. What has he been doing?
Sam: I’ve been on a road trip…with my brother… we’ve met a lot of…interesting people…done a lot of…interesting things…
I laughed out loud. I mean, that’s true, technically.
Eventually, after more questions about the Asylum riot, the doc gets serious.
Doc: Cut the bull. You’re avoiding the subject. You tell me something honest about yourself first – this brother you’re roadtripping with, how do you really feel about him?
Now there’s a loaded question – and the theme of the episode, neatly packaged.
Dean waits impatiently outside, perhaps wondering the same thing, and tries to get Sam to tell him what happened in the session.
Sam doesn’t give him (or us) any personal information about what he admitted to the doctor, but they now know that the patients rioted and took over the Asylum, killing Dr. Ellicott. His body and others were never recovered for some odd reason. Horror movie trope strikes again.
Sam and Dean head back to the Asylum that night to salt and burn the bodies, but they’re not the only ones. A guy and girl break in – going on the world’s worst date. Gavin is kind of a jerk, eager to explore and ignoring his date’s reluctance. When they separate, a girl who he thinks is his girlfriend walks in and grabs him for a kiss, but then he hears his girlfriend outside the room calling for him and realizes – that is not her!
Sam and Dean, armed with flashlights and EMF meter and salt guns, look for those unrecovered bodies to burn them. As the boys walk through the dark, we see a truly creepy ghost flickering under a table. The sense of danger is palpable as Sam and Dean keep walking, Sam looking for ghosts through a camera.
He turns around and there’s a ghost in the video right on top of him.
Sam: Dean! Saltgun!
Dean: Sam, get down!
Big brother to the rescue! He blasts her away, but Sam is confused – she didn’t attack him or try to hurt him, and he wonders what she wanted. They hear something hidden behind an overturned bed, and horror movie fake out again, it’s Kathryn, who has had it with Gavin.
Kathryn: My boyfriend thought it would be fun trying to see some ghosts. I thought it was all pretend, but I’ve seen things… I heard Gavin scream…
She still refuses to leave without him though, so they split up, Dean with Kathryn.
Dean: Seen a lot of horror movies? Next time you see one, pay attention. When someone says the place is haunted, don’t go in!
Guy Bee’s direction is wonderful throughout, the scary scenes full of tension and truly creepy, and the little bits of humor perfectly rendered.
Sam finds Gavin, who says that he saw a ghost girl who kissed him.
Sam: But she didn’t hurt you physically?
Gavin: Dude she kissed me, I’m scarred for life. She whispered something in my ear and I ran like hell.
As Dean and Kathryn keep looking for Gavin, Dean’s flashlight suddenly goes out (uh oh) so he lights his lighter. Kathryn gets grabbed and pulled into a room, the door slammed shut. Dean tries to pry it open but can’t manage it, when Sam shows up — and tells her to calm down and listen to it, that it’s not gonna hurt her.
Sam: You’ve gotta face it.
Kathryn (who I kinda love): YOU face it!
She does, though, and then the door unlocks and opens. She tells them that it whispered in her ear: 137
Sam and Dean in unison: Room number.
All of us in unison: Winsync!
Dean goes to find Room 137 while Sam takes Gavin and Kathryn outside.
Kathryn: Why would you do a job like this?
Sam: I had a crappy guidance counselor…
Unfortunately the ghosts don’t want them to leave, as Sam finds out when all the doors are locked.
Dean searches Room 137, finding a panel loose in the wall and reaching in (EWWWW) to find a satchel.
Dean: This is why I get paid the big bucks…
It’s an old journal, splattered with blood.
Dean: All work and no play makes Dr. Ellicott a very dull boy…
Shout out to Guy Bee’s direction and Serge Ladouceur’s gorgeous lighting throughout these darkly lit scenes. I love the look of the first season, so dark and moody and creepy. I miss it in the later ones.
Sam picks up his phone and it’s Dean asking him to come down to the boiler room, which sounded suspicious even before I knew it was indeed suspicious. Sam asks if either of the teenagers can handle a shotgun (of rocksalt) and Gavin looks incredulous.
Kathryn: I can.
He leaves them with Kathryn armed and goes down to the boiler room, looking for his brother. The door opens on its own and Sam walks in anyway, because he’s Sam Effing Winchester. We see a shadowy figure moving behind him, behind a curtain. Sam throws it back, but there’s nothing there. Horror movie fake out again!
He turns around and is grabbed by the very creepy ghost of Dr. Ellicott, who says “don’t be afraid, I’m gonna make you all better…”
Meanwhile Kathryn to Gavin: If we make it outta here alive, we are so breaking up.
Dean finds them and she almost shoots him. They tell him that Sam went to the basement after Dean called him.
Dean: I didn’t call him.
Dean, alarmed, goes to the boiler room, calling “Sammy? Sam?”
Sam appears out of nowhere, insisting he’s all right and lying, saying he hasn’t seen Dr. Ellicott.
All of us: Yeah, this is not good.
Dean says Ellicott was experimenting on patients, working some extreme rage therapy thinking if patients vent their anger, they’d be cured. So his spirit is doing the same thing, making them so angry they become homicidal (with the implication that some anger was there already, as with the cop and his wife who had been having an argument earlier). Dean says they need to find Ellicott’s bones and burn them, and starts searching for the hidden procedure room where he worked on patients. Sam stays oddly still, not really helping, and that, again, is not good.
Dean: You feel that? (a draft) There’s a door here.
Sam: (ominously) Dean. Step back from the door.
His nose is bleeding.
Dean: Sam, put the gun down.
Sam: Is that an order? Because I’m getting pretty tired of taking your orders. For once in your life, just shut your mouth.
Sam is scary, practically spitting with rage. Dean points out that the saltgun that’s pointed at him won’t kill him, still trying for cocky although Sam’s words have clearly cut him. Sam fires, and Dean collapses to the floor.
Sam (standing over him): No, but it’ll hurt like hell.
Me the first time I saw this episode: OMG HE SHOT HIS BROTHER!!!
Dean’s not giving up, still trying to get through to Sam, saying they have to burn the bones and get back to normal as he tries to catch his breath, but Sam’s not having it.
Sam: I am normal, I’m just telling the truth for first time. ‘Cause you follow dad’s orders like a good little soldier.
The contempt in Sam’s voice is absolutely chilling. It hurts me to hear it, thinking what it must be doing to Dean.
Dean: This isn’t you talking, Sam.
It’s what Dean desperately needs to believe – it’s too painful to think that’s how Sam really feels about him.
Sam: I’m not pathetic like you. I’m sick of doing what you’re telling me to do. We’re no closer to finding Dad.
Dean looks anguished, lying on the floor with the breath knocked out of him by Sam’s saltgun blast and even more, by his words. He looks up at his brother.
Dean: Well then, here, I’ll make it easier for you.
He holds out his actual gun, and the first time I watched this episode, I was SCREAMING. Is Dean so hurt by what Sam said that he’s suicidal? Not wanting to live if that’s how his brother really sees him?
Dean: Take it. Real bullets will work a helluva lot better than rock salt.
Sam raises the pistol, holds it on Dean.
Dean: (anguished) You hate me that much. You can kill your own brother? Then go ahead, pull the trigger.
Looking at the hurt on his face, I can believe that if Dean thought Sam really hated him, he might not be able to stand it.
Me the first time I watched this episode: He won’t do it, no way will he do it.
Dean: Do it!
Sam fires, and I still gasp, even though I know what’s going to happen.
There are no bullets in the gun, and the distraction gives Dean time to tackle Sam and overpower him because Dean Winchester in Season 1 is smart like that.
Dean: I’m not gonna give you a loaded pistol.
He punches Sam in the face and knocks him out.
Dean: Sorry, Sammy.
I was so upset by this scene when I first saw it, and even now, knowing that Sam and Dean ultimately stick together and always end up working things out, it hits hard and makes me sad. Maybe even moreso now that we know how much Dean doubted that Sam really wanted him around, that he half expected that Sam would tell him “to get lost…or get dead.” This scene was so close to what he feared back then, and Sam pulling that trigger must have reinforced all Dean’s doubts and fears. He desperately needed Sam to stay and search for Dad with him, and it hurts so much to see the times when that fear and desperation weren’t based on nothing.
Dean Winchester is seriously such a badass, though, because he takes that in stride (at least outwardly) and goes right back to searching for Ellicott’s body, while the doc’s ghost keeps walking by behind him, scary as hell.
He finally notices some hair sticking out of an old cabinet (which apparently incompetent police didn’t find when this all went down) and opens it to find Ellicott’s decomposing body crammed into it.
Dean: Oh, that’s just gross….
He salts it, and his flashlight goes out. Uh oh.
He pours lighter fluid on it, gagging (an Ackles adlib perhaps?) Ellicott attacks him from behind, grabbing his head like he did Sam’s and telling him the same creepy “Don’t be afraid, I’m going to help you, make you all better…”
Dean reaches for his lighter, finally manages to grab it and light it up, torching the body. It goes up in flames and Ellicott’s ghost disintegrates.
Sam comes to, rubbing his chin.
Dean: You’re not gonna try and kill me, are you?
Dean: Good, because that would be awkward. No more asylums, okay?
Dean again tries to make light of what just happened, but that’s not Sam’s way of dealing.
Sam: Hey Dean, I’m sorry, man. I said some awful things back there. It’s like I couldn’t control it, but I didn’t mean it.
Dean looks skeptical: You didn’t, huh?
Sam: No, of course not. Do we need to talk about this?
This time it’s Dean who shuts the conversation down. He’s more hurt than he’s letting on, clearly.
Dean: No, I’m not really in the sharing caring kinda mood. I just wanna get some sleep.
Avoidance at its best; it’s something Dean is good at a lot of the time. Not always, he’s way too multifaceted for that and he cares too much. But sometimes. I think this time he was genuinely shocked and hurt by what Sam said to him, and that Sam actually pulled that trigger. I remember feeling shocked too, and hurt on Dean’s behalf. I was already invested in the brothers’ relationship and I hated that Sam was able to actually shoot him – with what he thought was a real loaded gun! I get that was the point of the episode, that the crazy doc compelled them to do that, but I like to think that the Winchesters will always be the exception, like they eventually were with Chuck’s plan to get them to do something like that.
Not this time.
The brothers crash at a motel, getting some much needed sleep, when Dean’s phone rings. A sleepy Sam picks it up, opens the phone…
… and sits up, suddenly wide awake.
What a flipping great ending!
Also, why does Dean never sleep shirtless ever again??
This was an amazing episode. I always end the rewatches in awe of just how good this little show is, and unspeakably grateful that we got fifteen seasons of it.
Be sure to check out our chat with director Guy Bee here on the blog, and stay tuned for more episode reviews, interviews, photo essays and news as we keep on celebrating Supernatural Spring Break!
You can read the actors’ thoughts on the
show and Supernatural’s legacy in their
chapters in Family Don’t End With Blood
and There’ll Be Peace When You Are Done.
Links on the home page or at