This episode, number 18 in the show’s first season, takes place in Fitchburg Wisconsin, which is now familiar to me not because I’ve ever been there or am likely to ever go there, but because this is a pivotal – and painful – episode.
We start out with a child saying their prayers, the dad tucking the little girl in with an affectionate “goodnight, monkey puss.” The little girl asks if her mommy is coming home and the dad says no, she’s at the hospital – with her sister. The dad leaves and turns out the light, and from the little girl’s perspective as she looks around her room, it’s like every time you’ve ever woken up at night in the dark and heard odd noises and your imagination has run away with you.
Sometimes this show does the scary and the horror so damn well, showing you just enough and not too much.
The wind howls, blowing at the window, lashing shadows of tree limbs against the glass as the little girl watches, frightened. She leaps out of bed and throws the curtains closed, but they’re transparent unfortunately. The tree branches almost look like hands as they creep along the glass…and then we see one branch actually IS a hand! It’s incredibly creepy and scary as it opens the latch on the window and the wind chimes in the bedroom rattle in the breeze. A shadow looms over the bed as the little girl hides under the covers. She screams, and the shadowy thing opens its gaping mouth…
Rock music plays as the Impala races down the road, and I remember in these early episodes, I’d just sit and grin every week when “the boys were back.”
Sam and Dean disagreeing about their dad like they often do – John threw a wedge between them again and again just by being John and raising them differently.
Dean: Are you sure you got the coordinates right? Dad wouldn’t have sent us coordinates if it wasn’t important, Sammy. Maybe he’s gonna meet us there.
Sam: Yeah, because he’s been so easy to find.
Dean: You’re a real smartass – I’m sure there’s something there worth killing.
When Sam continues to protest, Dean insists that he’s making the decision.
Dean: Because I’m the oldest, that’s why!
He smirks, unseen by Sam, but we all can see that he’s well aware of what he’s doing and that it’s not really valid. As much as Dean knows he’s the older brother and puts stock in that, he always respected Sam’s intellect and skills. And Sam’s little smile shows he kinda knows that too.
They roll into Fitchberg and Dean brings Sam a coffee, perhaps to make up for that comment. Sam asks what time it is, pointing out that school is out but there are no children at the playground. They talk to the one mom there and she says it’s a shame, all those kids getting sick… (And btw it’s the actress who will play the angel Hannah in later seasons, Erica Carroll! If you’ve read There’ll Be Peace When You Are Done, Lee Majdoub writes about also playing Hannah — as a non-binary character).
Also I’ll never get tired of seeing that iconic leather jacket again, with that perpetually popped collar.
Dean watches the one young child at play and his face darkens – he’s always very affected by something happening to children, and this episode helps explain part of why. Sam and Dean go to the local hospital to investigate, where Sam protests the ID that Dean provided for him.
Sam: Dude, I’m not using this ID!
Dean: (feigning innocence, which he is decidedly not): Why not?
Sam: Because it says bikini inspector on it!
Before Sam can finish his protest, Dean grabs him by the shoulders and spins him around to face the receptionist, advising him to just be confident. Of course, Sam’s luck being what it is, she asks to see his ID. Dean snorts in the background, enjoying the hell out of his brotherly prank; Sam glares at him. And both Jared and Jensen kill it with their subtle humor.
If looks could kill…
I love that they are such brothers in these early seasons, looking for opportunities to rib each other. You get the feeling that Dean is still all about making Sam laugh whenever he can too, aware that he’s still affected by Jessica’s death.
They head upstairs, and Dean sees an elderly woman in a wheelchair. When she turns to look at him, her eyes are white and creepy. Guest casting on this show, always top notch – as is makeup.
They meet with the doc, who’s surprised that the CDC somehow found out, but Sam and Dean are smart in Season 1 and have a ready answer that “some GP called Atlanta.” The doc says the kids aren’t responding to the antibiotics, that it’s like their bodies are wearing out. A nurse says it’s weird the way it spreads, working its way through families, one sibling after another, only the children getting sick. They talk to the grieving dad, who says he knows he closed the window before he put his daughter to bed, but it was opened somehow.
Sam: It will be a while before that guy goes home.
Smart Winchesters go to his house and check out the little girl’s bedroom. There’s no EMF, but Sam notices the open window.
Sam: You were right, it’s not pneumonia.
There’s a very creepy hand print on the window sill, and Sam wonders – what the hell leaves a hand print like that?
We see the look on Dean’s face then – shock and recognition – and get our first flashback. The same hand print in a photo, John cocking his rifle and preparing to head out on a hunt, leaving his much too young sons behind in a tacky motel room.
I was so thrilled any time we got a flashback and a glimpse into the Winchesters’ early lives. It helps so much to understand who they are today, and I’m endlessly fascinated by who they are and eager to know more.
Have I mentioned the guest casting? Because Ridge Canipe was spot on as young Dean, with the same emotional vulnerability that we see in Dean even grown up and hardened on the outside at times.
John gives Dean instructions, and clearly not for the first time: Anyone calls, don’t pick up. If he calls, he’ll ring once and then call back.
Dean nods, impatient.
John: Come on, dude, look alive, this stuff’s important.
Dean: We’ve gone over it a million times, and you know I’m not stupid.
John is undeterred, saying it only takes one mistake. Dean recites that he should call Pastor Jim if needed, and lock the windows and doors.
John: And most important?
Dean: Watch out for Sammy. I know.
John leaves with a shoot first, ask questions later, and a heartbreakingly young Dean locks the door behind his dad, looking sad. A maybe four year old Sammy watches cartoons, young enough to be oblivious to how wrong the whole situation is. And we flash back to the present.
Dean: I know why Dad sent us here. He’s faced this thing before. He wants us to finish the job.
He swallows hard, clearly upset.
Sam knows something is up from the jump, senses Dean’s introspection and that something doesn’t add up. That’s how far they’ve come in getting to know each other since they’ve been back to hunting, all their years of having only each other when they were kids making a bond that deepens again quickly.
Back at the 2400 Court Motel, one of my Jerry Wanek favorites, on a rainy night, Dean casually explains some of what the thing is, saying it’s like a witch, he thinks. Sam says he’s never heard of a shtriga and it’s not in Dad’s journal.
Dean: Dad hunted one, seventeen years ago. You were there, you don’t remember?
Sam: No. If Dad went after it, why’s it still breathing air?
Dean shrugs and says it got away, but Sam is suspicious, knowing his brother well enough to know something is up, and asking Dean what else he remembers.
Dean insists he doesn’t remember anything else, saying “Nothing, I was a kid, all right?”
So true, and so relevant.
They check in at the motel, a young kid asking them if they want a king or two queens in a rather iconic Supernatural scene from the early years where the brothers were constantly mistaken for a couple and it was a running thing on the show.
Dean: Two queens.
Kid: (glancing at Sam waiting, skeptical) Yeah right…
Dean: Funny, kid…
The kid’s mom appears, laughing it off with “Oh yeah he thinks so.”
The running joke makes sense in the context of the complicated relationship the show is setting up between the brothers. The show painted their relationship as platonic but uniquely intense from the get go, and underlined that repeatedly for the audience to ensure that we became completely fascinated by the Winchesters. (And remained so!)
Michael goes to take care of his little brother, and Dean watches him pour milk for the younger little boy. We zoom in on his face as he remembers a similar scene from his own childhood (we get lots of these dramatic zooms in this episode, but I’m not gonna complain when they look like this…)
Flashback to the long ago motel, Dean pouring milk for little Sammy as he asks when their Dad will get back. Dean has cooked Spaghetti-Os on the little stove, which is heartbreaking because HE is so little, but Sam is a typical four year old and protests that he doesn’t want that, he wants Lucky Charms.
Dean: There’s no more.
Sam: I saw the box.
Dean: But there’s only enough for one bowl and I haven’t had any yet!
Sam gives his big brother the puppy eyes that apparently have been working on Dean forever, and Dean relents and pours him a bowl of Lucky Charms, impulsively dumping the Spaghetti-Os in the trash because he’s like eight years old and that’s exactly what an abandoned stressed out eight year old would do.
Sam pulls the prize out of the box and offers it to his brother and both of them are seriously breaking my heart.
Flash forward to the present, Dean lost in thought, sad music playing in the background in case it wasn’t already sad enough (it was).
Sam’s researching on the laptop and he says that Dean was right, that a shtriga is an Albanian witch that feeds off the “spiritus vitae”, the breath of life or the life force. That fits, since the doctor said it was like the kids’ bodies were wearing out. It prefers children and is invulnerable to all weapons.
Sam is wearing the whippet shirt, which is well known in the Supernatural fandom, by the way. It’s one of the more distinctive pieces of clothing either of the brothers wears in the show.
Dean: No, that’s not right. She’s vulnerable when she feeds. If you catch her when she’s eating and blast her with consecrated wrought iron.
Sam: How do you know that?
Dean: (evasive) Dad told me, I remember.
Sam finds out that it uses a human disguise when not hunting, often a feeble old woman. They also realize that the hospital is dead in the center of where kids have gotten sick.
Dean: When we were at the hospital, I saw an old woman.
Sam: (hiding a smile) An old person, huh? In the hospital? Wow, call the coast guard…
Dean: Listen, smartass, she had an inverted cross on the wall!
They go to the hospital that night, walking in sync as they often do, and burst into the old woman’s room with guns drawn. She’s still sitting in her wheelchair as Dean slowly walks up to her and leans in to see her, almost right in her face. She suddenly turns her head, yelling ‘Who’s there?! You trying to steal my stuff?”
Dean nearly has a coronary, and Jensen is hilarious in that small moment, making the most of it. The woman insists she was “not sleeping, but sleeping with my peepers open.”
Dean facepalms. Literally.
Woman: And fix that crucifix, will ya? I’ve asked four damn times already.
Just a small scene, but so well done.
Back at the motel, the young brothers whose mom owns the motel are sleeping. Outside it’s windy again, branches against the window, and once again that creepy hand unlatches the window and opens it.
In the morning, the Impala pulls up to the motel, Sam still laughing about the “sleeping with my peepers open” and Dean insisting it’s not funny. Sam is thoroughly enjoying getting a chance to rib Dean in this episode, and I’d put money on the fact that Dean is secretly enjoyment Sam’s enjoyment.
Sam: Oh man, you should’ve seen your face.
I love every chance we have to see the brothers teasing each other and having fun – we didn’t get nearly enough of those moments in fifteen yeas!
Dean notices Michael sitting forlornly on a bench and goes over, always attuned to kids not being okay.
Asher sadly says that his brother is sick and it might be his fault – he should’ve made sure the window was latched. Dean recognizes big brother guilt when he hears it.
Dean: Listen to me, I can promise you, this is not your fault, okay?
Michael: It’s my job to look after him.
Dean nods, understanding completely, while Sam watches. The brothers are still learning so much about each other, and about how each of them conceptualizes their relationship. And for Sam, he keeps understanding more and more what their childhood was like for Dean as the older brother who constantly felt responsible. We learn in this episode that it wasn’t just young Dean’s imagination, either.
Michael begs to go with his mother to see little brother Asher, but she instructs him to turn on the No Vacancy sign, flustered and upset as she gets ready to head to the hospital. Dean steps in to help them both.
Dean: Hey Michael, I know how you feel – I’m a big brother too. But you gotta go easy on your mom right now.
He insists on giving the mom a ride to the hospital, a sad music score underlining the tragedy of what’s going on – and of what went on in the past too.
Dean turns to Sam before he gets in the car, determination written all over his face.
Dean: We’re gonna kill this thing. I want it dead, you hear me?
Damn. Do not mess with Dean Winchester when he’s this angry? Mmm.
Sam researches on old fashioned microfiche at the library where the Winchesters spent so much time in early seasons. Dean calls with bad news from the hospital that the kids aren’t doing well, and Sam has bad news too as he looks at old newspapers. Same thing happened around the time their father was at a different town, and before that every fifteen to twenty years, always a new town, and it goes on for months. Sam traces it way back to a place called Black River Falls in the 1890s, and then stops in shock.
Sam: Whoa. I’m looking at a photo now. One of the people is Hydecker.
The same doctor that Dean is looking at in the present.
Sam: This picture was taken in 1893.
Dean hangs up, looks positively murderous when he looks at Hydecker, the doctor seemingly tenderly stroking a sick child’s forehead, the distraught mother trusting him to save her child when he’s the one killing them. Dean barely holds it together; you can viscerally FEEL how much he wants to just pull out a gun and shoot him.
He returns to the motel and Sam instead.
Sam: A doctor is the perfect disguise.
Sam also is surprised Dean didn’t waste him on the spot.
Dean: (through gritted teeth) That sonovobitch! I wasn’t packing, which is probably a good thing because I probably would’ve emptied a clip on him anyway. Tonight he’ll come after Michael.
Sam wants to get Michael out of there, but Dean has another idea – to use him as bait.
Dean: Dad didn’t send me here to walk away.
Sam: He sent US here.
Dean shakes his head.
Dean: This isn’t about you, Sam. I’m the one who screwed up.
Sam doesn’t understand.
Sam: How is it your fault? You’ve been hiding something from the get go. Since when does Dad let something get away? Talk to me, man, tell me what’s going on.
And finally, Dean does. Even though he’s fighting through debilitating guilt that he’s repressed for a very long time, he opens up to Sam and tells him the truth. Damn, there was so much evolution in these characters just in one season, so much growth in their relationship. Don’t ever tell me they didn’t change in 15 years, they did – and it wasn’t easy for them.
Dean tells the story: Fort Douglas, Wisconsin, third night in this crap motel room. I was climbing the walls, needed to get some air.
In the flashback we see Sam asleep, and a heartbreakingly young Dean in charge. He locks the door and goes to play video games in the motel office right across the parking lot. When the motel owner tells him they’re closing up, he reluctantly walks back to the room. He sees the door to the bedroom cracked open and, alarmed, slowly approaches, picking up the shotgun their Dad has left a small child with. He raises it to shoot, cocks it, and the Shtriga attacking Sam looks up.
The determination on little Dean’s face here, the terror that he refuses to let stop him – and he’s so young! I love this character so much.
Suddenly John is there, yelling for Dean to get out of the way. He shoots the thing, but it gets away, escaping out the window. John runs to Sammy, cradling him protectively as a sleepy Sam asks what’s going on.
John: You all right?
He kisses Sam, strokes his hair. A traumatized Dean comes in, looking shaken, not even sure he should come in and join his family, eyes wide as saucers.
John glares at him, asking what happened, and Dean looks even more stricken.
Dean: I just went out…for a second… I’m sorry…
John: WHAT? I told you not to leave this room, not let him outta your sight!
The look he gives Dean is burning, and Dean tears up, guilty and stricken.
And yes, John was probably overloaded on adrenaline and looking for someone to take it out on, guilty himself even if unconsciously for leaving his two young kids alone and vulnerable. But Dean doesn’t know that. All he sees is John loving and comforting Sam, and telling him that this is his fault; he screwed up. He was more traumatized than Sam at that moment, and desperately needed his father’s comfort. Ouch.
In the present, adult Dean continues the story, looking as guilty and stricken as he did then as a little kid.
Dean: Dad just grabbed us and booked, dropped us off at Pastor Jim’s three hours away. The Shtriga was long gone, never resurfaced til now. Dad never spoke about it again, and I didn’t ask. But he…uh… he looked at me different, you know? Which was worse. Not that I blame him. He gave me an order and I didn’t listen – and I almost got you killed.
It’s Sam’s turn to look stricken, realizing in that moment that he hasn’t understood his brother’s need to blindly follow their father’s orders at all.
Sam: You were just a kid.
Dean: Don’t. Don’t. Dad knew this is unfinished business for me, sent me here to finish it. It’s gotta get close enough to feed. Believe me, I don’t like it, but it’s gotta be the kid.
Sam doesn’t want to use Michael as bait, but he goes along with Dean asking him if he’s willing to be.
Dean, fresh off telling Sam the truth, tries the same approach with Michael, saying that the same thing attacked his brother once too. Michael saw it the night before, but says he thought it was a nightmare.
Dean: I’d give anything not to tell you this, but sometimes nightmares are real. We need your help. We can kill it. Me and him, it’s what we do. But we can’t do it without you. It’s gonna keep hurting kids unless we stop it.
Michael refuses and leaves, and the brothers lament that went crappy – unsurprisingly.
But they’ve underestimated both Michael’s love of his little brother and Dean’s ability to get through to people. There’s a knock at the door.
Michael: If you kill it, will Asher get better?
Dean: Honestly, we don’t know.
Michael: You said you’re a big brother. You take care of your little brother? Do anything for him?
Dean: Yeah, I would.
The camera is on Sam, listening and realizing just how true that is, and how much of Dean’s identity is tied up in that.
Michael: Me too. I’ll help.
Dean looks at Sam for his agreement, and Sam nods. A small moment but shows vividly how much they are becoming equal partners, and how much Dean does not treat Sam like a child anymore. They set up a night vision camera and instruct Michael to stay under the covers and then roll off the bed when Sam and Dean come in with guns to shoot it. Michael is understandably concerned but Dean reassures him.
Dean: We won’t shoot you, we’re good shots. But the gun shot will be a lot louder than in the movies. Cover your ears and don’t come out til we say so. You sure you want to do this? It’s okay, I won’t be mad.
Have I mentioned how much I love Dean Winchester? He desperately wants this chance to get the Shtriga, but he puts the child’s feelings and wishes first anyway, respecting him in a way that his own father often couldn’t or didn’t.
Also this is an aside, but I had forgotten that Dean warned Michael about how loud the gun shot would be because it wasn’t relevant to me at the time. But this time when I heard that line I had to smile, because it brought back a very fond memory. When I was on set for the filming of ‘Beat The Devil’ in Season 13 (the one in the tunnels), there’s a fight scene in the tunnels where Dean fires a gun. Even though obviously it’s not loaded, the sound I guess is the same. I have no knowledge of guns whatsoever and Jensen likely assumes that – he very generously warned me to cover my ears because gun shots are way louder than most people think they’ll be. And he was very right!
So I had to take a second to smile when Dean was just as considerate to Michael.
The brothers stake out Michael’s room as the wind picks up outside his window and they watch through the closed circuit camera.
Sam: Hey Dean, I’m sorry.
Dean: For what?
Sam: You know, I’ve really given you a lot of crap for always following Dad’s orders. But I know why you do it.
Dean has to deflect, Sam’s understanding and empathy hitting way too close to what he very much wants from his brother – and what he needs to start healing from the past.
Dean: Oh god, kill me now.
Just then, the Shtriga appears at the window, creepy as ever, Michael watching as it slowly opens the latch and the window. He lays there staring at it, Sam and Dean with guns at the ready.
Dean softly cautions Sam to wait, saying not yet, not yet. The thing advances on Michael, the camera glitching a little, Dean holding steadfast. Michael whimpers in fear (fabulous acting from this young actor, Colby Paul) and the thing opens its mouth to feed – the Winchesters bust in and Michael rolls, and Sam and Dean shoot it together, many times.
Dean: Michael, you all right?
He says yes, and Dean tells him to just sit tight as he walks over to check and see that the Shtriga is dead. In the best horror movie fashion, it most definitely is not, getting up and grabbing Dean.
Sam yells his brother’s name and tries to distract it, and it knocks Sam down and pins him to the floor, opening its mouth in a last ditch effort to feed on him – again. The Shtriga grabs Sam’s face, opens its mouth and forces Sam’s mouth open, starting to drink his essence, thinking Dean is taken out. But Dean manages to raise his gun.
He shoots it and this time he gets it. For good.
Dean: You okay, little brother?
Well, that’s the show right there, isn’t it? Oh, my heart.
Sam gives a thumbs up.
Dean shoots the Shtriga again, and again.
Bang bang bang.
Its essence oozes out as it lies on the floor and Dean tells Michael it’s okay to come on out. Michael looks as proud as Dean feels.
The next morning, the Winchesters are packing up when the Mom comes by. She says Asher is going to be fine, and so are the other kids. No one can explain it –it’s a miracle, some other doctor said, since Hydecker wasn’t in.
Mom: He must have been sick or something.
Sam and Dean: Yeah, must have.
The mom takes a grinning Michael to see his little brother, and Sam and Dean finish packing up the Impala.
Dean: Too bad.
Sam: They’ll be fine.
Dean: Not what I meant. I meant Michael. He’ll always know there are things out there in the dark. He’ll never be same, Sam, you know?
Sam says sometimes he wishes he could have had that kind of innocence. The brothers share a look over the car as they watch the mom and Michael drive off.
Dean: If it means anything, sometimes I wish you could too.
He means it with every fiber of his being, and Sam needed to hear it. The brothers are more on the same side than ever now, with a new understanding of each other that helped them get there. They get in the car and rock music plays as they pull out, Ozzy Osbourne singing about the ‘Road to Nowhere’ — “I’m still looking for the answer, I’m still searching for…”
The search continues as the Winchesters drive away.
God, I love this show.
Stay tuned for more Supernatural rewatch, and more interviews and articles as we celebrate May, the birthday month of Family Don’t End With Blood and There’ll Be Peace When You Are Done (and check out our giveaway of both books on Twitter too!)
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