A bout of ill health got in the way of last week’s “Slice Girls” review, but I’m still so intrigued by that episode, I decided to do a combination review this week. “Slice Girls” and “Plucky Pennywhistle’s Magic Menagerie” sit on opposite sides of the writing room spectrum. “Slice Girls” is a character-driven episode, giving us a lot of meaty exploration on Sam and Dean. “Plucky Pennywhistle” is a piece of writer’s room whimsy, with a lot of call outs to previous episodes and funny set ups, but little substance. Both episodes have a lot to recommend them.
My preference, though, is for “Slice Girls.” I loved so much about it: the direction, the brotherly talks as Sam and Dean actually discuss their feelings about Bobby’s death, the fact that Dean finally drags himself away from the computer, even if it is to a bar. But most of all, I liked the character exploration for the boys we got through the deliberate call back to Amy’s killing in “The Girl Next Door.”
Referencing anything Amy can only be called a ballsy move on the writers’ part, given the split and heated reaction to Dean killing her. But the writers knew then and know now what they are doing with this story line. It is part of a character study of both boys, layered on top of an examination of when it is acceptable to kill. Many episodes over the years have touched on this theme, but the one that springs to mind immediately is season six’s “Mommy Dearest.”
In “Mommy Dearest,” Castiel brings vampire Lenore to answer some questions for Sam and Dean. Lenore was part of an earlier shift in Dean’s attitude toward monsters. His usual thinking is monsters cannot change what they are and must be killed if they hunt humans. In an earlier episode, a combination of Sam’s fear of that attitude (due to his own demon blood) and Lenore’s pleas that she and her friends could successfully control their need to kill humans convinced Dean to agree with Sam in letting her go.
Catching up with Lenore in season six evolves the situation even more. Lenore agrees to cooperate with the boys, but she also updates them on her decision not to kill. Eve’s return to earth has sent a call out to all her children. And that call is to kill. She tells Sam and Dean, “You don’t know how hard it is not to give in . . . Everyone gives in.”
The brothers are horrified and try to convince Lenore she can continue to fight. Sam reminds her she doesn’t want to kill and Dean tells her they’ll find her some kind of protection from Eve. Sadly, Lenore says she’s already killed. “I’m dangerous. I’m exactly like them. I’ll do it again. I can’t stop.”
Neither Sam nor Dean wants to kill this sad woman, vampire or not, but Castiel has no doubt about what needs doing. He kills her swiftly, chiding his friends for getting hung up on this problem. The writers complicate the picture even more for Sam and especially Dean, as they introduce two small children, brothers, into the story. Castiel sees them as a distraction from their real mission, but Dean has a hot button about children in peril, especially siblings.
Dean was never allowed to be a child, having to care for Sam, both as a quasi-parent and as a hunter, since he was very young. He not only had too much responsibility given to him too young, he also felt he never quite measured up to John Winchester’s demands. Dean is a hardened hunter in many ways, but a child in distress triggers his need to make things better, to do it better this time. Despite the obvious need to concentrate on their mission to kill Eve, he tells Castiel, “What I’d like to do right now is save a couple of kids, if you don’t mind.”
Castiel does mind. He sees Dean’s hot button as a “crippling and dangerous empathetic response.” He thinks Dean is not thinking clearly. And he’s right. Eve set the boys as a trap for Sam and Dean and it works. The elder Winchester has to live with the painful knowledge that his experiment in saving Lenore’s life ended in failure and Castiel’s criticism of his empathetic response to the children had some merit.
He also gets to hear Eve’s defence for her killing spree. She says, “After all, a mother defends her children.” Eve’s children are being slaughtered and she’s come to their defence. Dean has no difficulty deciding she doesn’t get a free pass on murder, regardless of her motives.
There is a strong continuity in theme between this episode and “The Girl Next Door.” Only this time, Sam has the “crippling and dangerous empathetic response” and Dean decides he’s not thinking clearly. Sam’s hot button has always been a monster trying to change its nature. He has had to struggle with his own demon blood and sense of fate. The younger Winchester wants to believe in redemption and free will for monsters, because he’s been afraid of his own nature since he was a boy.
Sam sneaks away from Dean to track down Amy, the monster from his youth he let get away, because he feels both guilty and protective. Amy not only gave him his first kiss, she killed her own mother to save him. On the other hand, she’s also a kitsune and needs to eat human brains—and the trail of kills she’s leaving behind show she is doing just that.
Sam easily tracks Amy down, but deciding what to do with her is much more complicated. His childhood friend pleads with him to let her go, as she says she has figured out a way to live without killing people. She’s an undertaker and eats dead brains. She tells Sam the only reason she started killing again is because her son is sick and he can’t get well on dead brains. They are not nutritious. She had to give him fresh kill.
Amy’s story touches off Sam’s empathetic response and he lets her go. The brothers’ ability to still have responses like this, despite their terrible lives, is something to be valued. But does Castiel’s point stand? Is Sam’s hot button blinding him to the full picture?
Dean thinks so. In his eyes, Amy has already shown she will put her son’s needs above her prey’s. Her dead brain solution is elegant, but ultimately unsustainable, as the brains are not nutritious enough. Dean can see no reason why her son will not get sick again–or Amy herself. And when that happens, humans will again turn into prey rather than fellow citizens. When push comes to shove, Amy is a kitsune. That she also was Sam’s friend makes this a very hard kill, but when his own hot button is not involved, Dean can make those kills. In his eyes, he is looking after Sam, not hurting him.
The kill he cannot make is Amy’s young son, who walks in on the terrible scene of his mother’s death. The writers nicely show Dean’s own issues snap into play. He can kill Amy because she had killed people and he doesn’t accept the mother justification. But he can’t kill the young kitsune because he is also a frightened child who has not yet killed. Despite the boy pledging to kill Dean, the older Winchester lets him go.
The story line went on to explore Dean’s guilt over lying to Sam, not because he felt guilty about killing Amy, but because he didn’t trust Sam’s mental health enough to tell him. The through line that connects with “Slice Girls,” though, is the crippling empathetic response which both makes the boys very human and very vulnerable.
In “Slice Girls,” it’s Dean’s turn to feel a strong bond with someone logic tells him he should kill. Dean finally tears himself away from obsessively researching Dick Roman and realizes he feels the need for human contact. He wants to be touched. Sam is rightly worried about Dean’s drinking, but I think the bar represents more than that to Dean. In the bar, he can be anyone. And he can make connections to people that simply tell him he is attractive and interesting and funny without any strings attached to save the world. It’s a place for Dean to just be Dean and not a Winchester.
Unfortunately, he’s attractive and interesting and funny enough to attract the attention of an Amazon on the hunt for a mate. Even more unfortunately, the resulting fast growing child has to kill her father. The set up is perfect to test Dean’s resolve about killing murderous monsters.
The girl, Emma, shows up at Dean’s door, with a heart breaking story about not wanting to kill him. She calls him father and with trembling lips she inherited from Dean, tells him she knows he doesn’t want her. Dean already had to walk away from Lisa’s son, Ben, who understandably felt rejected. His daughter could not have used a more perfect tactic to arouse Dean’s protective instincts about someone he has just met.
Like Sam with Amy, Dean is not blind to the danger. But he wants to give Emma every chance to show her human side, because he’s lost so much family. And Dean just plain wants to protect children, not kill them. Like Sam’s compassion, Dean’s protectiveness is a wonderful trait that may get him killed.
Sam refuses to take the chance. He takes the decision away from Dean and kills the young girl. While the situation with Amy is not an exact parallel, the writers do compare the way Sam and Dean both have weak areas based on their personal damage and that both recognize it in the other, if not in themselves. The brothers look out for each other in so many ways and knowing when to kill is one of them.
I love the way Sam and Dean are allowed to have blind spots and vulnerabilities based on their history, and that their weak spots are very specific to their characters. The situations with Amy and Emma are not exact parallels because Sam and Dean have different triggers. This story line has been wrenching to watch at times, but very well crafted.
On that note, let’s move on to “Plucky Pennywhistle’s Magic Menagerie.” This episode is unabashedly light, with its main reason for being to allow the writers to use a unicorn shooting rainbows out of its ass. “Plucky Pennywhistle” is chock full of allusions to previous episodes as we revisit Sam’s fear of clowns. It’s like a game of “Spot the reference!”
Besides clowns, we get Sam running in terror down an alley, much like Dean in “Yellow Fever” (and yes, these are the same writers). We get a man drowning from the inside like “Red Sky at Morning.” The writers clearly had a ball writing a script full of inside jokes. Jared Padalecki had a ball showing Sam alternately trying to hide his fear and play the bad cop. There are many laughs to be had.
I didn’t find “Plucky Pennywhistle” to be among Supernatural’s best out of the box episodes, though. There is no emotional through line from “Slice Girls” for the boys, and it doesn’t advance the Leviathan arc, either. An episode like “The Real Ghost Busters” managed to be funny and whimsical and yet still tie into the main arc and the brothers’ personal journey.
And for a standalone story, “Plucky Pennywhistle’s” plot doesn’t stand up to much inspection. I don’t know where the villain acquired his magical mojo or even if he was killing because he felt guilty about his brother, as opposed to having neglectful parents. The plot is just a vehicle to deliver funny moments, which I think is a bit wasteful.
I did like the ending where Sam allows Dean to laugh himself silly at Sparkly Sammy. Dean’s laughs have been few and far between this season and I think it is a sign of his healing that he could let go so completely. I also liked Dean’s apology to Sam over dumping him at Plucky’s. But I would have loved a bit more exploration of where both brothers are right now, as we gear up for the final arc of the season.