Supernatural’s fourth episode of its fifteenth and final season reminded me of all the reasons I’m going to be a sobbing mess when the show wraps – and I don’t have this sort of episode to dig into and enjoy! Written by Davy Perez and directed by Jensen Ackles himself, ‘Atomic Monsters’ ran the gamut (as some of the most enjoyable Supernatural episodes do) from action hero sequence to humor to meta to tear-your-heart-out boys in the car conversation. In other words, exactly what I want from my Show.
I was bouncing with anticipation for the opening sequence after hearing Ackles talk about it so excitedly and hearing some of his original ideas (never doubt that the man can write), and then reading some of his interviews about the sequence. Jensen sent a full pitch to showrunner Andrew Dabb, who came back saying he loved it but it wasn’t possible unless they were doing a full length feature film. (Um, who’s on board to watch that film? Line up to the left).
Ackles and stunt coordinator Rob Hayter posted the two of them practicing some of the John Wick type moves in the studio. Jensen’s conversation with Rob: “Let’s go hard here. We’re gonna go big, we’re gonna do like a full Dean Winchester as John Wick.”
And that’s exactly what they did.
All the applause for triple threat writer/director/actor Ackles for creating the perfect showcase for the character he loves so much, making Dean badass (and bearded) and showing off his own smooth stunt moves in the process. He filmed the sequence red lit, much like the scenes of demon Dean tracking down his brother in the bunker, with the lighting giving it all a surreal feel and somehow accentuating the violence and desperation.
We get the feeling this is Dean, but not our Dean, as he takes down demon after demon, stalking the familiar halls of the bunker. The dread builds as he encounters a fallen comrade – and we realize it’s Benny.
I’ve complained already about too many characters being brought back in one episode, but this time it worked for me, in part because Ty Olsson was in a short but emotional scene. Despite his few lines, the chemistry between Ackles and Olsson was clear, as was Dean’s genuine affection for Benny, and the lines that he did have hit right in the heart. The show is understanding and leaning into the power of the call back this season, as we all try to prepare ourselves to wrap it up. Benny’s words to Dean echoed his words from many seasons ago, as Benny once again dies.
Benny: I’ll see you on the other side, brother.
Well done, Ty Olsson and Jensen Ackles.
Jensen also shared that it was he who wanted someone memorable to be killed in the fight sequence, and suggested Olsson. Although Ty was working elsewhere, he was able to fly in for just a few hours to do the scene, and he killed it. And we got another fan favorite character back before the show ends! Interestingly, in this sequence – which seems to be an alternate reality – Benny is human. But it seems like in every universe they’re in, Dean and Benny care about each other.
Our sense of dread builds as the body count increases, and when Dean finally demands “Where is he?” I think we all knew who he was looking for. It’s still shocking to see Sam standing there, lit in red, a halo of beautiful hair around that handsome familiar face – which looks totally unfamiliar because of the cold expression. All Sam’s empathy, which Jared Padalecki is so skilled at showing us, is gone. Erased. Sam’s voice is cold, even in the face of his brother’s pleading. Long before his eyes go black, we know that this Sam is not going to hear Dean. And that is profoundly terrifying, upending the one thing that we all count on for this Show. The Winchesters always, always care about each other.
Last week was the Season 14 finale of my favorite show, Supernatural. The last Supernatural season finale, ever; the next one will be the series finale. As season finales have done for over a decade, the ‘Road So Far’ was accompanied by the song that’s become the unofficial theme song for Supernatural, Kansas’ Carry On (Wayward Son). I immediately burst into tears, which isn’t the first time. I don’t even want to think about the state I’ll be in when Carry On starts to play a year from now and we all know it’s the last time.
Two days later, I’m still conflicted about the episode – and damn, do I have a lot of questions! I was not alone in my split opinions. My timeline literally alternated between “Genius OMG!” and “Stupidest episode ever how dare you!” I had whiplash just trying to skim through Twitter. The confusing thing is, I get it. I get both reactions. As often happens to me, I’m caught somewhere in the middle instead of being firmly all in with one group or the other. You can look at this episode from multiple perspectives, and each sends me to a different emotional space. One thing is for certain – I still care about this Show just as much as I always have, because it kept me awake half the night and was the first thing I thought about when I woke up this morning. That in itself is pretty amazing.
So let’s walk (or run, really, because this was a fast paced episode) through ‘Moriah’, and see what worked and on what level – and what didn’t.
I love ‘The Road So Far’ in every season finale. This one recapped pretty much all of Season 14, from Michael to the return of John and the epic family reunion in the 300th episode. There was some epic VFX and some emotional moments, and then we pick up right where we left off – with Jack having blown up the Ma’lak box and escaped.
He confronts Sam, Dean and Cas, eyes glowing ominously.
Jack: You lied to me!
He throws them across the room, but at least he didn’t incinerate them. And then he’s gone.
Dean and Castiel are still very much at odds in this episode, Dean arguing that Jack is dangerous and needs to be stopped.
Dean: Now he’s just another monster.
Cas: (shocked) You don’t mean that.
Dean: The hell I don’t.
Fandom was still split about Jack and whether he’s still a misunderstood nougat loving boy trying to do the right thing or a soulless dangerously powerful being who’s killed people. Logically I think it’s pretty clear the latter is true, but emotionally the Show keeps making sure we remember the former version of Jack and thus feel for him. So Dean still comes off as pretty harsh, and very very angry.
Director Phil Sgriccia makes the emotional scene between Dean and Cas jump off the screen with its intensity, and Jensen Ackles and Misha Collins both bring it. They are both angry, both convinced they are right and the other is wrong – and that the stakes are high because someone (Jack or other people) will die if they don’t do what they feel they need to. Sam is the emotional core of the audience in much of this episode, cringing as the two people he’s so close to have it out but unable to intervene.
One of the things I haven’t liked in Season 14 is the lack of interaction between Dean and Sam, which is why I started watching the Show in the first place. In this episode, they actually get to talk, so that goes in the win column (though their conversation is uncharacteristically awkward). Dean wants Sam to know that he realizes how hard this is for Sam and what Jack meant to him.
Dean: Hell, he meant a lot to me too, he was family. But this is not Jack anymore. We have to do the hard thing, the ugly thing. Not like it’s the first time though, right?
At the time I thought that was an odd thing to say. In retrospect, I see that Andrew Dabb (who is both the showrunner and the writer of this episode) was trying to foreshadow the eventual reveal that the Winchesters have been manipulated their whole lives into doing all kinds of hard and ugly things – for the amusement of God. I mean, Chuck.
It was interesting that Dean continued to refer to Jack as “the kid” throughout this conversation with his brother, even as he’s trying to convince Sam that he needs to be killed. I saw this as evidence of Dean’s ambivalence. I said in my last review, Dean is not as certain about this course of action as he seems. It’s there in little tells like that. He likes to bluster and present his decision as something he’s absolutely certain about, but Dean is a much deeper thinker than that – and he feels things more deeply than he lets on too.
Meanwhile, Jack is hurt that he was lied to by the father figures he trusted, and hypervigilant for all the lying that humans do all the time – which of course he finds evidence of everywhere. Jack’s temper gets the better of him again, and he orders everyone to “Stop lying!”
Which they do.
Sam and Dean put on their fed suits (momentary detour to say that yes, the boys do look damn good in their fed suits) and head out in the Impala to look for Jack. They drive to a company called Mirror Universe which looks like it must be in California (and seems like some sort of call out to every science fiction episode ever that had one, including arguably Supernatural’s own AU). Either that or it’s a hint about what eventually happens in this episode.
Dean scoffs at the “nerds” but Sam isn’t having it. (Because Sam Winchester as we head into the last season has had it up to here with not speaking his mind, and he’s doing it – and I am here for it!)
Sam: Takes one to know one.
He proceeds to prove it by rattling off all the totally nerdy things that fanboy Dean does, including watching Jeopardy every night just like me; Dean doesn’t deny any of them. Jared and Jensen were gold in this entire scene, their expressions on point and their brotherly chemistry lighting up the screen.
Dean beelines for the attractive woman at the desk, assuming he can charm her (not a bad assumption).
Dean (flashing his badge per usual): I’m Dean Winchester and I’m looking for the Devil’s son.
He tries to correct himself and blurts it out again, ending with “And this badge is fake.” Ackles and comedy never cease to amaze me.
The formerly peaceful employees of Mirror Universe are also suddenly unable to lie, which results in confessions of affairs (and unexpected voyeurism), accusations of yogurt theft with resulting violence, and someone walking around exclaiming “I hate everyone!”
Dean proves that they can’t lie either by demanding that Sam tell him who his favorite singer is, because he knows Sam is lying when he says Elvis. (In fact, I’m pretty sure he knows what the real answer is, he just wants to hear Sam say it).
Sam says Celine Dion every time he tries to say Elvis, which I admit annoyed me. Celine Dion? Oh come on, really, Show?
It’s a tough time to be a fan. I have two shows that I absolutely adore, and both of those shows delivered a gut punch last week that left me reeling. The Magicians season finale saw the death of one of my favorite characters (and half of my favorite ship) and it was both excruciatingly well done and absolutely heartbreaking (and maybe a bit problematic too). The very next night, Supernatural aired its penultimate episode of Season 14. I was already raw from the anticipatory grieving about Supernatural ending this time next year, and then The Magicians ripped me apart, so I went into watching “Jack In The Box” with more trepidation and dread than anticipation.
To those of you saying hey, why can’t you just watch the Show and love it? Let me just say that I would give ANYTHING to be able to do that right now. I DO love it, I will always love it. What I really want to do is squee about it all the time. But last week’s episode left me feeling sad and vaguely sick to my stomach, so there’s not a lot of squee to be had right now.
I always go back and do a rewatch before I write my review, but today I found every excuse not to. Have to run out and pick up the ham for tomorrow’s dinner. Have to grade some papers. Have to clean….and water the plants (we have lot of plants, so that took alot of time)…have to…. Finally I couldn’t put it off any longer, and the rewatch made me feel every bit as sick to my stomach as the first watch did. I guess you can say that means the episode was well done, because it was clearly crafted to be upsetting (just as the episode before was crafted to be very sad), but when I don’t want to watch it, I’m not sure that’s the level of upset the Show was going for.
There were lots of times back in the day when fandom would all go online after a rip-you-apart episode of Supernatural and post tons of icons (predecessor of gifs) saying “Damn You Kripke!”
The Show has never played it the easy way, and it has never been lollipops and rainbows. It’s a story filled with tragedy, but it has also always been a story with hope and with characters I loved fiercely, who were often heroic in the face of tragedy. Terrible things have happened to our heroes over the years, and they’ve had to make terrible decisions to save the world and each other, but this episode was particularly hard to swallow. I’m well aware that my emotions (like most of the fandom’s) are heightened because we know we have only 21 episodes left of this story that is so important to us. That makes every episode that doesn’t hit quite right for me seem even more upsetting than it would have before we knew the end was imminent. So with that in mind, here are my thoughts on ‘Jack In The Box.’
We’ve known the episode title for quite a while, so everyone knew that Jack was probably going to end up in that goddamn box, but I for one didn’t want to believe it. The Ma’lak box was so profoundly upsetting to the fandom when Dean was determined to get in it, and his nightmare so horrifying, that the thought of Jack in that box was almost unthinkable. So I guess I chose not to think about it. Still, as the ‘Then’ segment started, a chilling dread began to settle over me. Please Show, don’t go there. Please?
Let me just say at the outset that all the actors outdid themselves. They all played their parts incredibly well and every one of them made me genuinely feel. It wasn’t always what I wanted to feel, but feel I did. Robert Singer directed (and had a cameo as a doctor) and that was also as well done as always. The VFX was on point and the cinematography and set dec were often breathtakingly beautiful. I appreciate my Show even when I’m reluctant to go where it’s taking me.
We open with a memorial service for Mary in the bunker. The AU hunters and other people who’ve hunted with her are there, her photo (or rather Sam Smith’s photo) and John’s journal on the table. Sam, Dean and Cas join the group but only Dean speaks. He’s carefully composed, makes a joke about Mary’s cooking even, while Sam stands silent, nodding in agreement.
Dean: We lost our mom once before…
It’s something important to remember when you look at Dean’s behavior in this episode. There’s this thing with grief that’s called the “fishhook effect”. A new loss “hooks into” all the old loss and pulls it up like a fish snagged on a line, so that the pain of the new loss brings up all the pain of the old one and it’s overwhelming. That’s what happens to Dean here, I think. Unlike Sam, he remembers the horrible pain of losing his mother as a four year old, something that has shaped his life ever since and left him with a reservoir of anger that he’s channeled into making him an often ruthless hunter.
Dean expresses their gratitude that they got to know her and what she was really like, a smart and stubborn hunter who couldn’t cook worth a damn.
Dean: Mom, you weren’t here long enough…. But we’re glad for the time we had.
There’s a weird and jarring moment in the middle of all this where AU Bobby suddenly appears and tosses a hatchet across the room to kill one of the guests, who apparently is a wraith, but WTF? It was all very odd.
AU Bobby says what we’re all thinking – that maybe Dean is like him, “bein’ teary in public’s not my style.”
That’s for sure because Bobby doesn’t seem very torn up at all for someone who was maybe kinda sorta having a bit of a thing with Mary.
At any rate, it’s soon clear that something is up with Dean. Sam suggests they open Ketch’s bottle of Scotch and hang out and talk about Mom.
Dean: (almost coldly) Talk about Mom? Isn’t that what we’ve been doing?
He boxes things up with steely motivation, like he thinks he can just box up his grief over losing his mother (again).
Courtesy of that grief and loss course I’m currently teaching, Dean and Sam struggle to understand each other in this episode or to be there for each other because they have two very different styles of grieving. Sam is an intuitive griever – he wants to express his grief and share his feelings, eager to take in the comfort of others. Dean, on the other hand, is an instrumental griever. He keeps his feelings to himself and tries to DO something instead – like plan a memorial and box up his mother’s things. Neither can help the other right now, and that’s heartbreaking.
Cas, Sam and Bobby break out the Scotch as Sam looks at one of the very few (only?) photos of him, Dean and Mary when they were little.
They disagree, however, about what to do about Jack.
Cas: We need to find Jack…and help him.
Bobby: I liked the kid… but if his human side is gone, he’s an unstoppable monster who don’t know right from wrong, and he needs to be put down!
Bobby sets off to do just that, and Dean takes off saying he needs to get out of there.
When the next scene opens, we see that Dean has parked the Impala in the woods and is sitting alone on a fallen log. He looks around one last time to make sure nobody is watching him, and then he finally breaks down. Jensen Ackles can make you believe grief like no one else, and he sobbed for real here. I can’t help but wonder if he was crying real tears knowing he will be losing Dean Winchester soon, the way so many of us keep crying. At any rate, it was a heartbreaking scene. Ackles talked about it at a recent convention, saying that it was a brutal scene to film because it was cold and pouring rain and they needed to shoot from above so there couldn’t be any shelter for him. It sounded like it took a long time to film, so it’s sort of a shame it was so short. It got the point across though. Dean is hurting – BAD. He just can’t let anyone know it.
And what is the most common ‘cover’ emotion when someone is hurting that badly? You guessed it. Anger.
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.
My review of last week’s Supernatural isn’t exactly what it would have been if I’d written it right away. That’s because the world of every Supernatural fan careened off its axis on Friday when it was announced that the Show would end after one more season. Most of us have been very emotional since, and when I went back to re-watch this episode, it was through a very different lens. A lens that has me wanting to cherish every last second of the Winchesters and company that I can get before this wild ride is all over. This may not have been one of my favorite episodes, but it gave me Sam and Dean on a hunt and an emotional story with Jack, and I’m feeling grateful.
‘Don’t Go In The Woods’ was directed by John Fitzpatrick and written by first-time writer Nick Vaught and veteran writer Davy Perez, both of whom are avid horror fans, so we knew this episode would be heavy on the horror tropes. It started off like so many horror films do, with a young couple making out in the woods and hearing spooky noises. Which, for some inexplicable reason, they always think is the wind. When does the wind sound like that?? Instead of a monster rapping on the car window, we get the horror trope curve ball, since it’s the boy’s gruff dad – who’s also the town sheriff because of course he is. The young woman decides to give them space and go off to the bathroom, which is a shack in the middle of the woods and OMG WHY WOULD YOU DO THAT YOUNG WOMAN??? Even if it wasn’t scary as hell I wouldn’t sit down on the toilet seat like she does, btw. But she does, and the eerie whistling starts, and then we see the deformed clawed hand reach over the stall door. Cue screams!
That scene was nicely done, scary and disgusting and we didn’t get to see the monster which is always scarier anyway. The entire episode that took place in the woods was very dark, like old school Supernatural, and that added to the scary factor.
Cut to the bunker, where Sam is researching and starting to feel maybe a little bit better, though it’s clear the guilt over the AU hunters being killed is still there. Dean walks in to find Sam hunched over the laptop, and I get unexpectedly emotional because that’s such an iconic Winchester scene and SHIT we’ll only have 24 more episodes to get more of those! Where are my tissues?
Dean: Whatcha looking at? Porn? Sex tapes? Nip slips?
Sam: The internet is more than just naked people, you know that, right?
Dean: Not my internet.
Iconic Winchesters. I smile through my tears.
Sam shares the case and offers to go get Cas, but Dean explains that Cas left that morning, feeling too cooped up and needing to stretch his legs. Sam asks about taking Jack, but Dean says no, that he’s gotten them in trouble before with his powers and he just got them back. Much to Sam’s disagreement, Dean doesn’t tell Jack the truth though, instead making up a fairly lame story about Jack needing to be there in case Mary comes by (why?) and them needing him to go on a supply run.
Jack, still trying his new strategy of not worrying Sam and Dean, agrees to do the supply run.
Me: Wait, so you think he’ll be less likely to get into trouble going into town ALONE??
But this is a horror movie, so I guess the bad decision fits, and we all know that what’s coming can’t be good.
Jack looks so eager to please as he says “I’ll do it” and it breaks my heart.
Somewhere out there, there’s a clip of the gag reel that shows what was really on that list, and makes me feel great empathy for Alex Calvert trying to keep a straight face. Just another day on the Supernatural set…
Next up, Winchesters in FBI coats and fed suits, and once again I’m hit by a wave of anticipatory nostalgia that I have to swallow down. The Sheriff (Adam Beach) isn’t nearly as moved as I am, not exactly wanting them there but reluctantly allowing them to examine the body of the murdered young woman.
This scene is also scarier than these scenes usually are on Supernatural, because as soon as they pull out the drawer, her arm falls off the side and hits Dean, who jumps back like he’s been electrocuted. Sam makes a face, incredulous.
Dean insists he has cat-like reflexes, can’t help it.
Me: Ohgod, I can’t lose them, this is painful…
Also the body is seriously scary because her eyes are OPEN. *shudders* Nice work, someone.