This week’s Supernatural episode was a mixed bag: a pedestrian Monster of the Week script elevated by excellent direction by Jensen Ackles and some meaty brother moments. Since brother moments are the core of the series, I enjoyed this one more than the monster story deserved.
Writers Brad Buckner and Eugenie Ross-Leming have a spotty record on the series (they penned the downright awful “Route 666″ and the not much better “Shut Up Dr. Phil.” “Slice Girls” was a better entry). “Heartache” is centered around an organ donation/Mayan god sacrifice plot. It’s done well enough to recall many horror show tropes, and the writers do find many ways to weave in thematic points about the many ways we can have our hearts ripped out. However, the script falls down in the area of clunky exposition and an unbelievable, if rather sexy, final fight scene.
In a show loaded with heart-to-heart scenes between Sam and Dean, it’s unfortunate the writers added a very long and static exposition scene between the boys and Eleanor. The brothers’ scenes are welcome and well done. But coming off these talky scenes, Eleanor’s confession drags.
The final fight scene pumps up the volume and who can resist Dean pinned to the floor by a dominatrix stripper? Sadly, the logic of the scene fails, as the baddies completely forget about the very large Sam while they hold down the about to be heartless Dean. It’s also just a little too convenient the knife falls right next to Dean and no one notices or cares.
Fortunately for the episode, director Jensen Ackles shows just how comfortable he is in the director’s chair. Unlike Jensen’s past director’s entries, Dean is front and centre in “Heartless,” but Ackles handles both his duties with assurance. The episode has many beautifully shot scenes, from the cutting back and forth while the boys read Brick’s letters to the set up for Randa ripping out Dean’s heart. And while there is nothing Jensen could do with the static confession scene, “Heartless” as a whole has excellent pacing.
Ackles also did a great job with casting (his dad Alan Ackles has a great stare down scene with Jensen), costuming, and location choices—the episode feels like a veteran is at the helm.
Jensen has a particularly deft touch with the brothers’ scenes, helped by the fact the writing is at its strongest in showing the shifting perspectives between Sam and Dean. The Monster of the Week may not be gripping, but the tension between the brothers is. On that point, well done, Buckner and Ross-Leming.
Since the SamNDean plot is the one that interested me the most, I’m going to spend the most time on it. I’m still undecided how I feel about Sam’s decision not to look for Dean, but I am very much on board waiting to find out how the story unfolds.
This week, we pick up with Sam and Dean at a new but favourite haunt of Sam’s: a farmer’s market. Despite being back with Dean to find Kevin, Sam still has one foot in his “real” life. Dean has no interest in these kinds of domestic activities and he still can’t believe Sam doesn’t consider hunting his real life. He snorts, “Are people supposed to die so you can shop for produce?”
Sam has no answer, so the boys take off to solve the case Dean found, but Sam is still . . . detached. Dean can feel there’s something a little off about his brother, so he tries his best to bridge the gap. He tells Sam, “Me, you, it’s all good.” Later, he makes his perspective even more clear: “I know where I’m at my best. Right here driving down Crazy Street, next to you.”
It’s the kind of scene that usually brings out an “awwww” from the audience—but not this time. Sam is very careful in how he replies to Dean, as he points out that perhaps he’s not needed in Dean’s definition of happiness. Quietly, he says, “Or maybe you don’t need me.”
Dean rejects the notion he doesn’t need a brother and he’s equally unsupportive of Sam’s contention he’s leaving hunting because he wants his life to mean something. But Dean doesn’t push on either position—probably because both point to an elephant in the room Dean isn’t willing to acknowledge yet.
Sam’s suggestion that Dean doesn’t need him because if he was hunting by himself he wouldn’t need to justify anything he did is pretty weak. Hunting is never safer alone and both brothers have needed the other in the past to point out flawed thinking. Sam and Dean’s strengths and weaknesses balance out in a way that makes them stronger as a pair. Sam knows this. What he’s really saying is maybe he doesn’t need Dean.
That Sam is looking to a domestic life for meaning rather than his place in the shadow world he and Dean have lived in for so long is another red flag for Dean. With the kind of stakes Sam has been involved in—literally saving the world—it’s hard to see what kind of job could offer him more meaning. Like the reaper said to Bobby, Sam’s life has already has the kind of meaning most people’s never do.
So what kind of meaning is Sam looking for? It appears to be centered on relationships. He wants a life with meaningful relationships. He wants a girl and a dog. He wants an ordinary life. He doesn’t want a life centered on his brother. That relationship doesn’t give his life meaning.
This is shocking stuff for a show centered on family and particularly on the bond between Sam and Dean. I’m not sure I feel Sam’s about face on his bond with his brother has been adequately explained yet. Yes, in season one we saw Sam trying to leave his family behind and live a safe quiet life with Jess. But we also saw in all the seasons to date that Dean’s love grounds Sam. In season four, turning away from his brother led to disaster. In season five, Dean kept Sam connected to his humanity as he fought Lucifer. Does Dean no longer serve this purpose for Sam? If not, is there any compelling reason he should ride shotgun in the Impala rather than rejoin Amelia?
We’ve also seen that Sam’s desire for a different life had more than one reason behind it. Yes, Sam and Dean are different people. Yes, Sam has always had more interest in integrating with the community at large than Dean has. But why?
Over the seasons, we learned Sam has always felt different from everyone else. Not only did he not fit in his family, he had to hide aspects of himself to fit in anywhere. He was willing to share his intelligence, empathy and kindness with Jess, but not the power, anger and arrogance we later found he also felt. He was willing to tell Dean he didn’t like hunting, but not that part of the reason was he was afraid of who and what he might be. To me, Sam’s journey through the seasons has been about accepting all the sides of himself and redefining what that adds up to, rather than running away.
That last point is one that really sticks out to me as not yet addressed in the current arc. Sam’s desire to be anyone but Sam Winchester that we saw in the pilot and “Dark Side of the Moon” never struck me as a sign of Sam’s real nature. Rather, it was a sign of his discomfort with himself. He wasn’t running so much from the hunting life as from his fear of what is inside him. He was so desperate to be someone else he didn’t care if he even liked the family he tried to join for Thanksgiving. They had a Hallmark worthy family celebration, so he wanted to be part of the picture.
I’m curious to know if Sam’s Hallmark memory of the picnic with Amelia follows this story line. The memory is so lovely, it doesn’t particularly smack of reality. Rather, it recalls Dean’s dream of a picnic with Lisa in “Dream a Little Dream.” In Dean’s case, the dream was not close to the later reality of trying to build a relationship where everyone involved, Dean, Lisa and Ben, had competing needs that could not all be reconciled. Should we be questioning the accuracy of Sam’s memories? After all, I can’t believe Jess didn’t celebrate special occasions with Sam.
Come to that, I don’t believe Dean didn’t make Sam’s birthdays special in whatever way he could. Sam has actually had people in his life who went out of their way to show him through their actions they cared about him, which is the basis of gift giving. But in Dean’s case, the memories were far from Hallmark approved, because he was a child living a tough life himself. But doesn’t the feeling count most of all?
I couldn’t help but feel Sam’s joy at Amelia’s surprise takes something away from the lovely scene at the end of “A Very Supernatural Christmas” where Sam and Dean share very ordinary presents that nevertheless mean so much. I don’t question Sam’s right to love Amelia’s picnic, only the way he seems to feel it contrasts with what he’s shared with Dean.
I know I’d have less resistance if I didn’t know Sam did not look for Dean. Dean’s disappearance seems to have felt like a release for Sam, not a hole in his life. Dean’s reappearance seems to feel like a problem, not a joy.
These are all just ruminations as I think over how I felt about this episode with all that was said and not said between Sam and Dean. As I said, I am very curious to see how the season develops and hope the writers find ways to tie all this together in a way that feels real and satisfying. I’m enjoying this season very much, so Carver is off to a good start.