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TV Review: ‘Supernatural’ – ‘First Born’

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First Born“First Born,” written by Robbie Thompson and directed by John Badham, continues Supernatural’s streak of awesome.

In this episode, Dean Winchester (Jensen Ackles) temporarily teams up with Crowley (Mark Sheppard) to search for Cain’s (Timothy Omundson) legendary First Blade, the only weapon that can kill Abaddon (Alaina Huffman). Meanwhile, Sam (Jared Padalecki) and Castiel (Misha Collins) are at the bunker, where Cas continues Sam’s healing regimen and discovers that extracting Gadreel’s residual grace may allow them to track the renegade angel. Flashbacks reveal Cain’s last encounter with Abaddon and her possession of Colette, Cain’s wife.

Though there’s a lot going on in this episode, the structure and pacing work well, and the multiple storylines are further distinguished by careful sound and lighting choices. Although the initial shift from Dean and Crowley to Sam and Cas (the PB&J scene) is jarring, I think that it’s supposed to be since the dissonance emphasizes the current situations of the characters. That said, beyond being endearing, Cas’s repeated suggestions to Sam that they call Dean remind us that Sam and Dean bear responsibility for their current rift and that it’s a mendable one.

Family is central to Supernatural. By season three, John Winchester’s insular concept of “family” was redefined, with Bobby Singer (Jim Beaver) stating plainly, “Family don’t end with blood” (3×16). And Show has reasserted family’s importance repeatedly: It’s the brothers’ bond that famously enables Sam to break through Lucifer’s control (5×22), and Dean’s ability to help those he loves (specifically, Sam, Bobby, and Cas) break through possession/mind control might as well be a superpower.

By its very title, “First Born” invokes the concept of “family” and, specifically, the responsibilities associated with birth order. The episode’s numerous and pointed references to John underscore where Dean’s understanding of his responsibilities stems from. We’re also reminded of how John’s programming impacts Sam and his self-perception: Early in the episode, some of Sam’s comments eerily echo season four dialogue, notably, “Dean’s gone. This is on me now.” Padalecki’s chosen expressions in this scene convey that Sam’s own struggles with self-worth and shouldering responsibility continue.

At the beginning of “First Born,” Dean is doing a fairly good impression of his father, complete with drunken leering, and it’s unpleasant to see him relying on old fallbacks to deal. When Crowley says, “I’ve been inside your brother. We’re practically family.” Dean explodes, slamming Crowley against a set of shelves, and I wonder how much of his response stems from anger at himself because Dean is, essentially, the reason that Crowley temporarily possesses Sam. Dean’s state of mind is further revealed when he describes himself as “a killer,” and even Crowley can succinctly identify the crux of Dean’s problem: “Nobody hates you more than you do.” We’ve been here before (8×14, etc.), so we can only hope that season nine resolves Dean’s self-hatred once and for all. If Dean has a healthier outlook, the brothers’ relationship will strengthen.

First BornIn stark contrast to Dean and Sam’s current dynamic, Cas and Sam’s interactions are comfortable and easy. From heaven’s early focus on the younger Winchester’s “demon blood” (4×7) to Sam’s threat to kill the angel (6×10) to Cas breaking Sam’s wall (6×22), the two haven’t always had a rosy history, though they’ve always been linked by their relationships with Dean and were, at the least, comrades-in-arms. They voice their amends in season seven, and in “Clip Show” (8×22), it’s Sam who encourages Dean to forgive the angel with the simple rationale, “Because it’s Cas.”

“First Born” gives us several great Cas and Sam moments. Sam commiserates with Cas’s disappointment over the PB&J, and later, he teases Cas much as a younger sibling might: “Sam, may I ask you a question?” “You just did.” Cas offers insight and protects, much like an older brother would, and Sam actually listens. Then, wonder of wonders, the two hug it out (albeit with a little coaching from Sam). I’m hoping that Cas and Sam’s dynamics foreshadow the positive changes to come in the brothers’ relationship. Meanwhile, their bonding lays the foundation for them to provide Dean unified support when the time comes (as it surely will).

While Sam adjusts to life post-possession – and thank Chuck that we have Sam back! – Cas adjusts too. Though re-angeled, Cas hasn’t lost his humanity; he’s expressive, and his general appearance is different, from his altered trenchcoat to the white shirt with the top buttons undone (thanks for that, Dean) to his tanned skin. More than ever, he empathizes, and he appreciates the small things, like a PB&J. Cas’s conversation with Sam during the grace extraction is especially poignant and made more so because it’s set to the family melody. Cas questions why the “pig-headed” Winchesters must “run towards death”? Sam counters that his life isn’t worth more than anyone else’s. But when Sam is on the verge of death, Cas halts the extraction anyway, saying, “Nothing is worth losing you… I can relate now, to how you feel…the only person who has screwed things up more consistently than you is me. Now, I know what that guilt feels like, and I know how it feels to be sorry, Sam.”

Cas voices what both Sam and Dean need to fully understand: The ends don’t always justify the means, and neither death nor running away cures guilt. As a counterpoint to both Sam and Dean, Cas articulates hope, “…angels can change, so who knows? Maybe Winchesters can too.” Sam takes Cas’s words to heart and later tells him, “You were right about everything.” But even at episode’s end, Sam refuses Cas’s suggestion to contact Dean. As Cas walks away, the younger Winchester is framed in a beautiful shot in front of the bunker’s telescope, head bowed contemplatively over the table where they’d worked the tracking spell.

First BornWhile Cas and Sam may be progressing along their “Who am I?” arcs, Dean is spiraling. Tara vocalizes her shock at Dean working with the King of Hell, and if there was any doubt, “First Born” confirms that Crowley is, indeed, a threat. He purposefully leads Dean into a trap, endangers Tara (Rachel Hayward), expresses no remorse upon learning of her death, and orchestrates Dean taking on the Mark of Cain. Crowley wants Abaddon dead, and the ends justify the means, whatever they may be – “omelets, broken eggs, etcetera.” To Dean, Crowley’s actions are reprehensible, yet he also understands them, at least to a point. After all, would Dean, who discerns Crowley’s machinations yet plays along, continue working with the King of Hell if part of him also didn’t believe that the ends justify the means? Isn’t that how Dean justified enabling Gadreel’s possession of Sam? Isn’t that why he kicked Cas out of the bunker?

As dark as Dean has gone this season, he has the potential to go much darker. Like John and Azazel, Sam and Lilith, and Cas and Raphael, Dean is currently singularly focused upon revenge – namely, killing Abaddon and Gadreel. Dean’s behavior, though, differs from John’s and Sam’s: He separates from his family rather than “drag [them] through the muck,” and he fully understands that the demon on his shoulder is playing him. Dean taking the Mark of Cain without regard to consequences echoes Cas consuming the souls to defeat Raphael, but I wonder if Dean, unlike Cas in season six, will ask for help before it’s too late?

First BornCain actually remarks, “Since when does the great Dean Winchester ask for help?” It’s a rather snarky comment made before the demon fight, but I’m hoping that it’s also foreshadowing. Considering how entrenched the Cain and Abel connections are in-Show (5×13, 6×20), Cain’s interactions with Dean warrant scrutiny, as do the extraordinarily blatant parallels between them: Each has made a deal to save his brother; both have people (Colette and Cas, respectively) who don’t judge them for past actions and unconditionally believe in them; and neither can see past his own self-recrimination. We see evidence of this in Cain’s prayer to Colette and Dean’s all-too-ready acceptance that he’s worthy of the Mark because he’s a killer.

I’m anxious to see how these parallels play out and how Cain’s mythology, along with the lore of the First Blade, is developed. Omundson’s Cain is already a compelling character, one I really like, though I wonder if he’s as genuine as he seems. For instance, he praises Dean more than once with a delivery that reads as guileless and sincere. Yet, is it? Or did Cain manipulate Dean so that “the Winchester” would accept the Mark?

After the transference, Cain extracts a promise that, when he asks, Dean will use the First Blade on him. Dean asks why, and Cain answers, “For what I’m about to do.” He then takes on the gathered demons, killing them all. This scene is telling: Father of Murder or not, Cain now equates all killing as the same. Supernatural often brings up the questions of “who’s the monster” and whose lives are worth saving. If the previous bearer of the Mark considers killing demons an act punishable by death, then what’s in store for Dean? Will he find himself struggling with more guilt now that he carries the Mark? Or will killing become easier?

I have so many questions about the ramifications here: Is Dean still entirely human? What exactly transferred with the Mark – only the ability to control the blade or were other powers included? If only the First Blade can kill Cain, does Dean have the same protection? Why is the Mark causing Dean First Bornpain? When is he going to truly consider what he impulsively signed up for? And what are Sam and Cas going to say when they find out? (I anticipate, at the least, varying degrees of bitchface and smiteyface.)

So far, I’m loving Supernatural’s second half, and I’m looking forward to next week’s episode, though I’m nervous about the return to the Monster of the Week format. “Sharp Teeth” brings back DJ Qualls as Garth Fitzgerald IV and reunites Dean and Sam; in previews, Dean’s still sporting scruff while Sam’s in FBI-mode, so I’m guessing that their collaboration is accidental. The clips also show now-werewolf Garth talking to Dean about the love and family he’s found, so I expect that the episode will draw heavily on the season-thematics of love, family, and identity.

Watch the “Sharp Teeth” promo here.  Supernatural airs Tuesdays at 9 pm EST on the CW network.

Other Notes:

  • “First Born” is Supernatural’s most-watched-episode in years; see here and here for more about the ratings.
  • Thompson watched “The Song Remains the Same” (5×13) and “The Man Who Would Be King” (6×20), among other episodes, in preparation for writing “First Born.”
  • When 9×11 was filming, Omundson tweeted about Ackles filming that amazing fight scene for over nine hours. Let us never forget that Dean effectively uses a dishtowel to fight demons.
  • Omundson’s beard is amazing – and the fight scene when he’s rolling up his sleeves? Well, those demons should know better…
  • Sheppard ad-libbed the entirely appropriate, “You’re good, but I’m Crowley.”
  • I’d attend “Hunter’s Hogwarts” — wouldn’t you?
  • Did anyone else think that Tara resembled an older Mary Winchester?
  • There could be a drinking game based on how many times the Show comments on Dean being “pretty.”
  • Both Tara and Cain tell Dean, “Good luck, you’re going to need it.” Hmmm… I’m thinking that more trouble is headed Dean’s way; what about you?
  • Honeybees! So Cain is a beekeeper who keeps bees in his home and even has stained glass honeycomb-and-beehive windows. He says, “They’re such noble creatures…without bees, mankind will cease to exist.” This is another not-so-subtle reminder about the interconnectedness of the universe. It’s also a callback to Cas’s fascination with bees (7×23), and since Cas knew Cain and Abel, I can’t help wondering if he and Cain ever had tea while waxing philosophically about the merits of bees and honey.
  • How is Abaddon going to react to Dean carrying the Mark of Cain? She did call Cain her king, after all, and we already know she admires Dean’s vessel…
  • Does anyone else think that there’s more to the Enochian that Cas translates than this episode revealed? (“The departed shall remain, and the remains shall be the departed.”)
  • The scene of the Mark’s transfer is eerily similar to when Benny boards Dean’s “soul train” (8×7), but while Benny glows red, like the Mark’s essence, he uses Dean’s left arm; Cain clasps Dean’s right.
  • spn9x11-twitterOnce more, the Supernatural fandom took Twitter by storm with #Supernatural, #Crowley, #Sastiel (the portmanteau for Sam + Castiel), Team Free Will, PB&J, and Cas and Sam all trending. (Let me know in the comments if I missed other terms – there were a lot this week!) The attached screenshot shows terms trending at 9:48 pm EST.
  • Supernatural’s Jared Padalecki, Misha Collins, Mark Sheppard, Timothy Omundson, Osric Chau (#KevinLives), Kim Rhodes, Robert Berens, Adam Glass, and Robbie Thompson live-tweeted before and/or during the episode. Sleepy Hollow‘s Orlando Jones’s also joined the Twitter party, and his contributions were, as always, especially entertaining.
  • There’s so much still to discuss about “First Born.” What did you think of the episode? Share comments and speculation below!

 

 

 

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About Lyda Scott

Lyda Scott is a freelance writer and editor, among other things. A good day is one spent over-analyzing film, television, and literature. Follow her on Twitter @Lyda_Scott.
  • Kate

    This is such a great review, and thank you so much for giving all of the characters their due!

    • Lyda Scott

      Thank you for reading! I love writing about these characters; I don’t think I could bear to leave one out!

  • l g

    This episode was AMAZING. And I think it set-up and foreshadowed some really interesting things for the characters and their relationships.

    lbr though any episode that explores dynamics we don’t usually see (dean and crowley, sam and cas) is gonna feel exciting and new and interesting.

    • Lyda Scott

      It *is* a GREAT one! And I’m with you on the new dynamics – it was so much fun to see them all in different situations this week. Here’s hoping the ratings and positive fan response encourages more of that in the future!

  • Karrie_B

    Great review! Just like the other reviewer already said, it’s nice to see this review focused on pretty much all the characters, their own arcs, but also their relationship with each other and gives them their due attention. Plus it isn’t wanky, unlike so many other reviews I’ve seen…

    • Lyda Scott

      Thank you! I love to look at how these characters play off of each other – they’re so interesting!

  • Lucy

    I do not think Dean did impulsively, but as punishment. Dean is punishing himself at accepting the Cain’s mark and hopefully we can see how it affects Dean at long term, as so often we seen happen with Sam and Cas.

    I just hope that after years without Dean having any history about his own, this Dean arc lasts more than a few chapters -as usually happens – and does not become another repetitive angst about kill or save Sam.

    It’s high time to join Sam and Cas to support Dean once and Dean finally can get help to fight against his own demons.

    • sharonally

      I think Sam should be allowed to work through his own issues which means structuring scenes for Sam that explore those issues like they do for Dean . As much as you want a mytharc that runs for more than a few episodes for Dean , I want a structured pov story for Sam that gives as much weight to his issues/feelings as the writing has given Dean’s and that the Gadreel possession storyline as not just been about given Dean the Mark of Cain sl.

      • Lyda Scott

        When I was deciding what to focus on about Sam in the review, I kept thinking of SDCC and how excited Padalecki was to tackle the role(s) he’d be playing this year — I think it’s ironic that so little of what he’s done has been “Sam.” It’s been odd to write about the Show week after week and realize that I’m rarely talking about 100% Sam! So, I’m glad he’s back. I’m also hoping that the second half will give us well-constructed storylines/personal growth arcs for all of our characters. I think recent ratings and fan response show that’s what most (if not all) want!

      • Lucy

        Believe me, you’re not the only one who wants POV for Sam, I want this as I want to be Dean in the centre of the mytharc for once, just as I want Cas get more screen time.

        The greatest spn’s sin to me is the lack of balance between the characters.

        POV for Sam. Screen time for Cas. And a real mytharc for Dean that not dropped in the middle of the way or be given to Sam, Cas or any other surprise character.

        If they do this a big part of the problems that afflicting spn for years and years can be repaired and perhaps with it a lot of fans who gave up and left can come back to spn.

        About Gadreel, when a Sam’s sl was taken off or given to Dean? Don’t worry, it never happened and never gonna happen. Carver and Singer never gonna let it happens.

    • Lyda Scott

      Dean’s decision to take the Mark is definitely, in my mind, connected to his self-loathing/etc. I’m excited to see how everything plays out too. Ackles already makes Dean an amazing character, and it’ll be great to see how he interprets/plays this storyline.

  • dottweets

    Thanks for the thoughtful episode write up. I like the way you examined Sam, Dean, and Castiel’s issues and how they’re linked. I do think that the healthier mindset doesn’t just rest on Dean, we’ve seen Sam’s issues at play in S8 and the follow-up in S9. But after his conversations with Castiel, and his cryptic remark at the end of Road Trip, Sam seems farther along in awareness than Dean is. I’m hoping this mark of Cain story will be a means to help Dean find his sense of self and self-worth, and that Team Free Will won’t stay separated so often with so much internal conflict.

    • Lyda Scott

      Thank you for reading! I agree with you – both Sam and Dean need healthier mindsets, and I’m really curious to see just how far those moments you mention go with Sam. Maybe we’ll see in the next ep? If their paths cross like they did in “The Mentalists” (7×7), then Sam’s behavior may be an indicator… And, oh yes, I’m pinning a lot of hope on the Mark storyline and what it’ll accomplish myself, including how/when TFW reunites!

  • Ginger

    After watching this episode, I haven’t been this excited about a storyline since the S3 “will Dean go to Hell.” It opened up so much potential, so many possibilities, and so many open questions to speculate about. I so hope this writers don’t throw any of that away and take the easy route out, as they have in the past.
    Is Dean immortal? I believe Cain was immortal because he was a demon, not because of the Mark of Cain.
    Will Dean go off the rails now? I don’t think we will see much of that. What I expect to happen is that there will be a bunch of one-offs and comedies (Garth the Friendly Werewolf and a Hollywood spa, for instances), each containing a reference to Crowley not having found the First Blade yet.
    Abaddon and Dean: Perhaps with Sam’s tattoo gone, Abaddon will possess Sam, Dean will not kill Sam ever, so the quest for Abaddon will go unfinished, much like the trial quest was let go. I hope not. I am jonsing to see Dean and Abaddon go head-to-head, but it fits with the theme that the end doesn’t always justify the means.
    Is the Mark of Cain a curse or a blessing, and what is the cost? I want to know…now, please.
    Crowley is the one person/demon/angel who has never under-estimated Dean, so I can’t wait to see what his reward will be for playing; not only Dean, but Cain, too. If there is a God, Crowley’s days should be numbered, but he is a sly one.
    I really was in the mood for a good fight scene. The last good one we saw was in Skin. I love Dean playing for keeps, but I was disappointed with the interspersed scenes and felt the director should have had some slow motion in it. It went by so fast, that I can’t see all that was going on, even on re-watch.
    I loved Tara and found her to be a believable female hunter…finally; unlike Daisy Duke and Jo. Note to SPN writers: You always do better with the older actresses.
    Timothy O. can just stay forever please. He was so good and, my goodness, his and JA’s scenes were excellent. I would really like to see these types of believable SPN characters and less of the Garth, Charlie, and Krissy ones.
    I wasn’t cracked up with the Sam/Cas story, but you brought out some very good points that I had not considered; specifically that it will probably take both Cas and Sam to pull Dean back from his reckless path. He is one stubborn guy and he is dealing with issues he has had since four years old. Sam always pulls back into himself when he is spiraling, and Dean always goes reckless and impulsive.
    Too much to talk about. I’ll just end by saying that I loved bringing John into the episode again. I took Dean’s reaction to be more of him thinking that John would be disappointed in him working with Crowley and how his life has turned out. I took it that Dean, despite still having his own issues with John, is clearly still influenced by his father’s opinion of him, still doesn’t see himself as being as good a hunter and man as John close to his heart and that he knows John would not be happy with him right now.

    • Lyda Scott

      This episode (last week’s too, I thought) really are “rich” — and i love having so much to discuss!

      Tara *was* great – wouldn’t it be nice to find out the demon lied about her being dead? If only…

      And Omundson — he was amazing, and I’d love to see him back!

      I think you’re right that Dean still struggles with John’s influence. The narrative definitely seems to be gearing up to do something with that – I’m anxious to see what and how it fits with the rest of Dean’s storyline.

      Excited is definitely the word for this episode – and it seems like most of fandom reacted that way. I’m hoping Show takes note and we get more material like this! And I second your hope that none of this wonderful potential is wasted. I think Fandom will breathe a collective sigh of disappointment (and perhaps start dialing up crossroads demons) if it is.

  • Robin

    Great review. I too am very excited/scared to see where they go with Dean’s Mark of Cain storyline. I’ve been waiting for 9 season for Dean to get a story that is truly his own and now that he has one I’m reminded of the old expression “be careful what you wish for”

    I agree that the multiple references to John is a foreshadowing of Dean’s single minded quest for revenge and while I don’t think the resolution of Dean’s story will be the same I think it will parallel in some fashion. Dean plead with Sam not to kill John when he was possessed by Azazel I think Sam will also be the reason/means that Dean doesn’t sacrifice himself trying to Kill either Abaddon or Gadreel.

    • Lyda Scott

      My jaw dropped when I realized where the episode was heading (with Dean taking the Mark)… It is SO exciting to see him take the (potentially) “dark” path — though I think that Dean being so unbalanced is part of what’s contributed to S9 feeling “off” for so many viewers. And I can’t wait to see how the revenge plotline works out and how Sam and Dean come to terms with each other – thank you for reminding me about J’s possession by Azazel; that’s a very good point!

      Thank you for reading and commenting!