I can’t tell you how overjoyed I was to sit down and completely be drawn into an episode of Supernatural without any caveats or niggles or hand waving. “Pac-Man Fever” is Robbie Thompson at his best and that’s saying a lot about one of the newer but more consistent writers on staff. I still look forward the most to a Ben Edlund episode, but Thompson is nipping at his heels.
“Pac-Man Fever” is not exactly a myth arc episode, and that’s a gutsy choice this late in the season with one trial still be figured out, never mind completed. But the story’s center is the ties of family, which allows it to resonate so much more than a throwaway episode like “Man’s Best Friend With Benefits.”
Thompson strengthens that resonance by picking up threads from previous episodes from both this and earlier seasons. Unlike the plot holes and outright continuity errors seen in “Taxi Driver,” this story weaves in djinns and Moondoor with equal ease. Most importantly, Thompson connects the emotional threads of this story to the large tapestry of the show’s history, which makes it a very satisfying stand-alone episode.
Sam is in rough shape from the last trial. He’s taking 24 hour naps and still waking sick and off-balance. There’s no question of hiding anything from Dean any more, even if Sam still wanted to. The question instead is what to do. Sam intends to fight through the pain, while Dean firmly says, “We’ll do what we can from here, while you get better.”
Given the urgency of finding Kevin, Sam finds his brother’s position frustrating. He’s not willing to revert to big brother/little brother dynamics at this stage, even though he knows his brother is worried about him. Sam took on the trials to show Dean the Winchesters are allowed to have hope, but instead Dean is taking care of him. I have no doubt in true Winchester fashion, Dean’s care and Sam’s hope will be inextricably entwined, but for now, the boys are pulling in opposite directions.
Dean knows the urgency of finding Kevin, but he also knows how big the price may be to complete the trials. Past quests have demanded more of Sam than anyone should have to pay, from leaping into the cage with Lucifer to taking his fatally damaged soul back into his body. In season six, Dean had to make a choice on behalf of his brother’s soul. He gambled and lost that Sam could heal from the hell damage and then had to watch his brother slowly and agonizingly approach death.
Dean had to wrestle with his guilt over deciding Sam’s soul was worth his life, if necessary. It’s not the sort of choice anyone should make for another person, but given Soulless Sam lacked the essence of Sam, Dean had to act. But to now have to watch again Sam slowly and painfully deteriorating triggers Dean’s fear of gambling with his brother’s life. He’s in full big brother mode and willing to override Sam’s wishes.
Enter Charlie, played by the marvelous Felicia Day. This is Day’s third episode and one that allows her to peel away layer after layer of her character. The actor has already brought Charlie’s humour, sexuality, intelligence and quirkiness to life. Revealing the loss and sadness underneath deepens our understanding of and our attraction to the character. And that, in turn, allows Charlie to illuminate parts of Sam and Dean they don’t want to acknowledge.
Charlie has decided to take the bull by the horns and learn about the supernatural, since it keeps sneaking up on her and pouncing. She wants to take action, so she’s happy when she finds a case to take to Sam and Dean. Reminding them they promised to return to Moondoor for the mid-year Jubilee is just gravy.
Her real focus is learning how to survive in the Winchesters’ world, which she now knows a lot more about since she found Carver Edlund’s books, now online. Dean is resistant, but Charlie shows him he’s underestimated how useful her gamer skills can be. Soon Charlie is trying on adorable but inappropriate FBI get ups for Dean’s approval.
We saw in “LARP and the Real Girl” Dean finds it easy to talk to Charlie, so he explains to her why he’s being so tough on Sam.
“Sam’s a tough son of a bitch, but Cas was saying these trials are messing with him in ways that even he can’t heal.”
Clearly, Cas’s words have been ringing in Dean’s ears since he heard them, and all he can think about is how to keep this quest from destroying Sam, the way the Apocalypse quest and the damaged soul so very nearly did.
As Sam pointed out, Dean does not see much cause for hope. He’s focused on his fear. Charlie, however, has the big picture of averting the Apocalypse clearly in mind, having just read the books. She reminds Dean, “If it’s any consolation, having read your history, there’s pretty much nothing the Winchesters can’t do if they work together.”
Dean isn’t convinced and feels the best way Sam can work with him is to stay in the bunker and rest. Sam tells his brother, “You cannot take care of the both of us!” As much as Dean would like to protect his brother, the Winchesters are not a functioning team if Dean doesn’t believe in Sam’s strength.
This part of the story should sound familiar—it parallels both Sam’s and Dean’s dilemmas in season five. Sam had to find the strength to fight the pull of his demon blood and Lucifer’s possession, while Dean had to believe in that strength. And though he did, the events of seasons six and seven have left Dean afraid for his brother all over again and guilty about causing him pain. Sam almost died because Dean believed his brother could withstand his soul’s damage.
Dean teams up with Charlie as he tries to bench Sam, only to find Charlie has her own painful past. The bond the Winchesters felt so quickly with Charlie is explained when the boys find out she not only was essentially orphaned at twelve, she feels guilty about causing her parent’s accident. Unlike Sam and Dean, she has a constant reminder in her brain-dead mother, living on life support because Charlie cannot let go.
When the djinn they are chasing poisons Charlie and sends her into her worst nightmare, Dean follows via dreamroot, a nice callback to season three. Both Dean and Charlie end up in a video game in which they have to rescue patients from zombie vampires—and the patients not so coincidentally happen to be Charlie’s mother and Sam.
Charlie is caught in an endless loop of apparently winning the level, only to be returned to the beginning. She defends her mother against attack after attack, just as in the real world, she sends money time after time to keep her mother alive, hoping she will wake up enough to hear her daughter tell her she loves her.
Watching Charlie fight her hopeless fight, Dean realizes the only way to survive is to let go of the goal of the game and stop fighting. Charlie has to let her mother go in order to move on. Given how close Charlie’s issues are to his own, Dean knows what a difficult thing he is asking her to do. But he’s right, and Charlie is a strong woman. She puts down her gun and releases the two of them from the game. Far from resenting Dean, she accepts his shoulder in support, knowing she has to follow through in the real world and allow her mother to die.
Charlie has something to give Dean in return. She has a message ostensibly for Sam when she says goodbye to him.
“You know you’re going to be OK, right? Those books portrayed you as, like, one tough customer. If anyone can get through the trials, Sam, it’s you.”
The words are timely for Sam, of course. He ably took care of the second djinn, but he’s scared of what the trials are doing to him. No doubt it helps to know Charlie’s takeaway, having read his history, is that he’s strong. But the words are equally timely for Dean.
Charlie has no personal knowledge of the level of Sam’s strength. The vision of Sam Charlie read in the books is Dean’s vision. He was the one who had to decide what was at the core of his brother, Lucifer or no Lucifer. He’s already had to make the decision to let Sam go because he believes in his strength and is willing to support him to the end and beyond. Charlie’s words are an echo of his own in “Swan Song.”
DEAN: “You’re not a kid anymore, Sam, and I can’t keep treating you like one. Maybe I got to grow up a little, too. I don’t know if we got a snowball’s chance. But… But I do know that if anybody can do it… it’s you.”
Charlie helped Dean remember he knows Sam is both his little brother and a strong man who can make the decision to do the right thing, no matter the cost. The Winchesters are such a formidable team because they fit together, each with strengths and weaknesses, but somehow more than the sum of their parts. Dean has offered hugs to the people he cares about this year, but the one he gives Sam is especially resonant, because Sam expects to be judged, not loved. But it was love that stopped the Apocalypse and it’s love that unites Sam and Dean back into a team, whatever heaven and hell throw at them.
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