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TV Review: Supernatural – “Reading is Fundamental”

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Supernatural returned this week with an excellent episode written and directed by veteran writer Ben Edlund. Edlund is known for his excellent dialogue and intricate plots, spiced up with a side of whacky, and he’s in fine form with “Reading is Fundamental.”

I was disappointed with last week’s “The Girl with the Dungeons and Dragons Tattoo.” While Felicia Day did a good job in her role as a geek computer hacker Charlie, the episode felt more like a showcase for the actress and geek chic than furthering Supernatural’s multiple storylines that need to pay off. This week the focus is squarely back on what matters and that pays off big time.

Like last week, we get introduced to a new character in this episode, but unlike Charlie, Kevin Tran is woven into the fabric of the story, immediately fitting into the Supernatural universe. Our first introduction to Kevin shows him playing lovely haunting music on the cello, which then plays over Sam and Dean’s scene as they examine Dick’s treasure in their hide out. Edlund cleverly links the stories before the characters meet.

Kevin is a sixteen year old high achieving student studying for his SAT who is soon to have his world turn upside down. His conversation with his girlfriend is loaded with foreshadowing that avoids anvil status because it works so well with the characters. As Kevin worries he is so screwed about his SAT essay, his girlfriend tells him one day college won’t matter anymore. The audience nods along sympathetically, knowing “one day” is most likely today.

Osric Chau as Kevin TranSure enough, as Dean whacks away the clay surrounding Dick’s ancient artifact, clouds gather, thunder booms and finally lightning strikes—and Kevin is the “lucky” recipient. It seems he has been chosen as a new prophet, the Keeper of the Word. The Word turns out to be the ancient tablet in Dean and Sam’s possession.

The Winchesters learn about The Word from Castiel, who wakes up at the same instant as The Word is freed, because it sent a peal audible only to angels. Meg sends for the boys’ help, because Castiel isn’t quite the same Castiel who slipped into a coma when he transferred Sam’s hell damage to himself. The new Castiel is more concerned with what he thinks of as the big picture, rather than specific Leviathan problems. He also wants to avoid conflict at all costs and is amusingly difficult to focus on the current problems.

And that’s a problem for Dean. Dean has been conflicted about Castiel since the angel returned. His gut feeling when he first laid eyes on his friend in “The Born-Again Identity” was positive—to Dean, Castiel still represents someone he can count on. More than that, Dean’s careful treatment of Cas’ coat showed he still regards Castiel as someone who personally matters to him. But that episode also illustrated Dean has not forgiven Cas yet for his lies about purgatory or hurting Sam.

Dean is in an uncomfortable space, which we see when he and Sam enter the psychiatric hospital. The elder Winchester says, “I can’t say I’m fired up to see what’s left of the guy.” He worried about Castiel’s well being and he’s equally worried about his own feelings toward the angel. All that angst gets magnified when the two characters actually meet. Castiel may be awake but as Meg says, “He’s been like the naked guy at a rave since he woke up. Totally useless.”

Sam, Dean, Castiel and MegCas isn’t useless—he explains to the Winchesters the tablet is one of the Words of God. But when Dean asks, “Cas, please, we need your help. Can you not see that?”, the angel responds, “I don’t like conflict,” and disappears. Dean tracks him down, sure he can convince Castiel to help. As Castiel tries to distract him with tales of the beautiful patterns of bees and flowers, Dean reminds him of their own tale: “I want you to button up your coat and help us take down Leviathans! Do you remember what you did?”

Castiel does remember. He may look like he’s more focused on the universal, but Edlund seems to be suggesting Castiel is really unable to handle his own emotions and is fleeing from them, much as Sam did from his memories. Cas can only talk to Dean using the board game Sorry as a metaphor. It’s a complex metaphor, because not only does the game represent an apology, it also represents a universe created with arbitrary rules intended to breed conflict. Castiel wants Dean to realise the Winchesters shouldn’t expect fairness and that the odds are stacked against them. After sending all Dean’s game markers back to start, he tells Dean it’s his turn to move.

Misha Collins as Castiel with Dean (Jensen Ackles)Dean refuses to accept the game’s rules and instead tosses Sorry aside to talk directly to his friend. He tells Castiel the angel was not a helpless pawn of the “rules”—in fact, he made some of his own rules, which is why Leviathans are now roaming the earth. Castiel can only say he’s sorry. Dean refuses to back off, saying, “No. You’re playing Sorry.” Whether he likes it or not, the angel is part of the game and non-action is as much a move as action would be.

While Dean tries to reach Castiel, Sam tries to catch Kevin as the two race around the hospital grounds in a very funny scene. Kevin has been compelled to snatch Sam’s backpack with the ancient tablet inside and is horrified when a giant scary guy chases him down. He’s even more horrified when he realises Meg is a demon and then two angels appear, one of whom is full of righteous wrath.

Hester and Anais are from Castiel’s old garrison and their job is to track down and protect Kevin the prophet. But they also represent the disarray heaven is in since Castiel left. Anais is delighted to see his former captain again, but Hester is furious. She demands to know why Castiel attacked heaven, but he can give her no more satisfaction than he can give Dean. Castiel cannot face his past and his attempts to escape it look very much like insanity to everyone else in the room.

Dean uses to the angel-banishing sigil to do just that to all three angels and gathers together the motley band for a road trip to Rufus’ cabin. Meg has to plead her case to be included, because while Cas is quite taken with his new nurse, Sam and Dean remember very well the ways Meg has behaved in the past. The show rarely allows good and bad to be statically defined, however, and the Winchesters decide Meg can come along, as for now they appear to be on the same side and she has the best connection to Cas.

Meg tells Cas to join the family road trip and with the car loaded with competing agendas and hurt feelings, Dean drives to what he hopes is a safe haven for Kevin to translate The Word. But there are even more players waiting to join the board: Sam finds out the FBI are looking for Kevin, who is presumed kidnapped, while Meg realizes two of Crowley’s demons have recognized her. With Leviathans, angels, demons and the FBI in pursuit, the Winchesters get Kevin to the cabin.

Kevin understandably falls apart as he tries to process everything he’s learned. Dean tries to be sympathetic and talks the boy through a panic attack, but he’s struggling with his own issues. He tells Kevin he shouldn’t expect the angels to care about his life, saying, “The angels, they don’t care. I think maybe they just don’t have the equipment. And it seems like when they try, it breaks them apart.”

The sadness in Dean’s voice is unmistakeable. The angel who cared and is now broken is Castiel. And he cared for Dean. Dean may be having difficulty forgiving Castiel, but as usual, he’s also having difficulty forgiving himself. He asked Castiel to “fall” and turn away from everything he’d known and believed and Castiel did so because he believed in Dean. Even when Castiel stepped on to his road of good intentions last season, he partnered with Crowley because he was unwilling to pull Dean out of his new apparently happy life. Dean may sometimes be hard on other people, but he judges himself hardest of all. His feelings about Castiel have so many layers, he can’t find a way to reach him.

Fortunately, Sam has much clearer feelings about the angel. Castiel and Sam have never had the same kind of relationship as Castiel and Dean. Castiel had problems trusting Sam because he was Lucifer’s vessel, and he manipulated the younger Winchester when it suited the angels’ plan. When Castiel finally rejected his role in the Apocalypse and joined the Winchesters, he and Sam learned to deal with each other and Castiel protected Sam as much as Dean. But they weren’t really friends.

That was one of the problems with Castiel’s character once the Apocalypse story line ended. He was too powerful and he didn’t have a real relationship with Sam. I think it is a wonderful move by the writers to not only bring Cas back in a way he can offer help occasionally but can’t be counted on, but also to use similarities in experience to forge a stronger bond between Sam and Castiel.

Sam knows all too well how easy it is to make terrible decisions when blinded by pride. He also knows exactly what Castiel took on when he transferred the hell damage to himself. He is in a much easier head space to offer forgiveness to Castiel and tell him the Winchesters will find a way to heal him.

The problem is Castiel doesn’t think he needs to be healed. Sam and Dean will have to look past the angel’s arguments and realise he is using Sam’s damage to avoid looking at his own. Castiel cannot bear to own his actions and he won’t be able to heal until he does. When Hester and Anais track down Rufus’ cabin, Castiel refers to himself in the third person when he supports Dean’s request to allow Kevin to finish his translation. He says, “The angel brought the Leviathan back into the world. They begged and begged him not to do it.”

Dean is in a very different place. He’s already shown he feels he is part of the reason Castiel is now so damaged. Hester takes his worst fears and ups the ante. She tells Dean, “The very touch of you corrupts. When Castiel first laid a hand on you in hell, he was lost!” Dean has even more guilt to add to the load he already carries, and it’s unlikely to help him sort out his feelings about his friend any time soon, even when Castiel reminds Sam and Dean he is “always happy to bleed for the Winchesters.”

The episode ends with Sam and Dean looking for all the ingredients in the tablet’s “In case of emergency” instructions about killing Leviathans, while Anais and two fellow angels return Kevin home. Unfortunately, Edgar the Leviathan is there before them and he shows Leviathans trump angels in a fight. Meg is lying low after killing two demons and Hester. Castiel doesn’t know what he’s going to do and couldn’t be more delighted. I doubt he’ll end up watching bees for too long as we pick up speed to the finale.

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