This week’s Supernatural is one of the “off the reservation” kind of episodes the show typically does very well. “Hunteri Heroici” is written by Andrew Dabb, who usually writes in partnership with Daniel Loflin. His solo effort gets a lot of things right, but also highlights where some of the issues of the season are. As we approach the fall Hellatus, those issues are beginning to cast a very large shadow.
The main story involves Sam, Dean, and Castiel having to deal with Fred Jones, an older and sick hunter who has retreated into his own mind. Problems arise because this hunter—guest star Mike Farrell—has psycho-kinetic powers of a magnitude that can change reality. And since Jones loves cartoons, he creates a bubble of cartoon physics around him. Hilarity ensues.
And for the most part, it does. The episode allows Jensen Ackles to show off his excellent physical comedy skills, as he dodges dropping anvils and runs into frying pans while chasing Dr. Mahoney, the nursing home thief who is tapping into Jones’ bubble of weird. Dabb weaves in many references to classic cartoons—he knows his Looney Tunes. It’s no small feat to make a talking cat (voiced by executive producer Robert Singer) work in a dramatic series.
Dabb also weaves in some emotionally potent scenes to balance the cartoon mayhem. Dean and Cas have a lovely scene where Dean not only tells Cas he is glad he’s back, he then looks past an angry outburst from his friend to ask what is really wrong. Instead of the kind of angry and often distorted communication we saw between Sam and Dean in “Southern Comfort,” Castiel shares the depth of his shame at his killing spree on Earth and in heaven. He’s cut himself off from heaven so he doesn’t feel driven to kill himself in remorse.
This is interesting stuff, because of course, Cas is not as cut off from his former home as he imagines. He’s an unknowing double agent controlled by mysterious angels in a part of heaven he knows nothing about. Cas ends the episode realizing he cannot escape his past, but not yet realizing he needs to escape Naomi’s clutches.
Escape is also a theme for Sam. Every mention in the show of escaping reality in a dream triggers a flashback for the younger Winchester, finally giving us another perspective on Sam’s relationship with Amelia.
There are a few nitpicks. I’m not sure why the first victim was sneaking around with his girlfriend at a flea bag motel when he had no need to sneak at all. Surely he would have trusted the sheets more at Olivia’s house?
I also found it odd that Sam and Dean are so casually familiar with a hunter with the kind of psychic power that can shape reality. Dean seemed extremely freaked out in season one when Sam developed his own powers and that was before he knew anything about the demon blood. Dean had a very hard time accepting Sam shared something many of the monsters they hunt possess. He was worried whether that made Sam less than human and he was worried other hunters would think the same. I’m not sure why he was so freaked if he grew up knowing a hunter like Fred Jones.
Most of the references to previous seasons work better in the episode—I loved all the mentions of John, who had such a huge role in shaping his boys. We’ve gotten a lot about John’s impact on Dean over the years, but not a lot since season one on John’s impact on Sam. Here, we are reminded that Sam’s original stint at Stanford was as much an escape from his dad’s life and demands as they were a genuine desire to go to school. As Sam said to Dean in “Skin,” he didn’t fit in at Stanford any more than he did at home. His journey has always been about figuring out who he is.
Sam’s flashbacks finally lift the sparkly veil and show us that Sam is actually holding on to Amelia because he’s running from Dean’s loss, as she is holding on to him because she is still reeling from Don’s loss. Far from the mature move to what he really wants, Sam has found someone with the same dysfunctions he has. Amelia’s best defence of her move in with Sam is that they are both messes together. And they are.
Sam told Dean he wants to make his life count, but he’s using his formidable skill set to fix radiators. He’s chosen a partner whose relationship issues are less about grief and more about social skills passed down through the family—her dad uses the same kind of nasty jabs to manipulate Sam that Amelia used when we were first introduced to her. Alcohol appears to be problem with Amelia and may be another issue passed down by her father. Sam seems all too ready to follow Amelia down the alcoholic rabbit hole, which is no surprise from a man with an addictive nature.
What is surprising is that when Amelia gets a call that reveals Don is not actually dead, Sam is not triggered to examine his own assumption on no evidence that Dean is dead. We know he’s going to leave Amelia by sneaking out in the middle of the night—but why? Because she’s torn between Sam and Don? That possibility strays into soapy territory yet again and is simply not interesting to me. I don’t have any investment in Sam and Amelia and would prefer to move past this part of the story into the interesting part: Sam’s feelings about losing Dean and his identity issues.
Almost halfway through the season and after four flashbacks in one episode, all we’ve arrived at in Sam’s arc is his relationship with Amelia is not healthy and he ran away from Dean’s disappearance rather than facing it. Since this is how I’ve viewed the relationship from the start, I think Carver needs to focus Sam’s arc and in a hurry, so we get the kind of interesting movement in his personal arc that we’ve gotten in Dean’s and Castiel’s and even Benny’s. I do not want to watch Amelia deal with two partners. I want to see Sam deal with the loss of his brother.
Sam’s arc has been frustrating because his perspective on not looking for Dean and seeing Amelia as a mature step away from a life he doesn’t want have never been convincing. It’s nice to finally see we are not supposed to accept Sam’s perspective—but unlike Dean’s flashbacks, what we learn from Sam’s doesn’t illuminate the present. Sam hears Amelia’s dad’s fears about his need to run, but in the present, he is still convinced he needs to leave hunting to pick up a life at college and he’s cyberstalking Amelia.
He tells Amelia’s dad he knows he ran from losing Dean, but upon finding Dean again, tells him he should think about hunting alone, because he loves his brother, but does not need him. The flashbacks are jarring because Sam is running just as hard in the present.
The flashbacks are just as jarring structurally in the episode. A story which has to flow between a cartoon world and reality, as well as heaven and earth, does not need to fit in four flashbacks as well. It doesn’t take four separate scenes to show us Sam has been running and he and Amelia are a mess. What we need is to see Sam actually grapple with what that means in the present. I’m much less invested in the return of Don than I am in Sam and Dean finally talking to each other honestly the way Dean is talking to Castiel.
Sam’s flashbacks have been the weakest part of the season so far. With any luck, they are over and next week’s episode can show Sam actually processing what his flashbacks this week revealed. Getting Sam’s story on track will help this season really fire on all cylinders, instead of hinting at an unravelling core. Getting back to the main story line won’t hurt, either. We need to get invested in this race with Crowley before Hellatus strikes.