Written by Jenny Klein and directed by John MacCarthy, Supernatural’s latest episode, “Rock and a Hard Place,” focuses on Dean Winchester (Jensen Ackles) and his brother Sam (Jared Padalecki) and Sheriff Jody Mills (Kim Rhodes) solving a case of disappearing virgins. After the hypothesis of “dragon” is disproved, Jody figures out that they’re dealing with Vesta (Lindy Booth), Roman goddess of the hearth. By this point, Dean has already been kidnapped, so its Sam and Jody to the rescue.
Kim Rhodes is the bright spot in this episode, and I loved seeing the return of the easy dynamic that Jody and Sam share, which hasn’t been spotlighted since “Time after Time” (7×17), when they rescue Dean from Chronos. Though Jody calls the Winchesters for assistance, she does much of the work herself, exhibiting a growing propensity for hunting. Not only is it her research that uncovers the link to Vesta, but Jody, after pulling Vesta’s stake from her own chest, is the one to stake the god and save Sam.
Aside from Jody and Sam, though, this episode is overwhelmingly problematic. I would like to think that its issues are being highlighted just so they can be resolved within the season-long narrative. But, honestly, “Rock and a Hard Place” has shaken my confidence in the show.
To contextualize my reading, let me offer a quick timeline of “the road so far.” (Know too that I’ve been a fan since season one, and I’m well aware of the show’s original structure in comparison to its evolution, and if it matters, I’m pro-evolution). The premiere episode left me giddy with excitement after its deft handling of the multiple (Sam, Dean, and Castiel) storylines and its setting of the season’s pace. Episode two, “Devil May Care,” had a few weak points but was satisfying overall, though the following week’s “I’m No Angel” suffered from faulty pacing and poor execution. In contrast, “Slumber Party,” with its complexity and layering, suggested that the season was back on track.
While I recognize and am grateful for the layers of “Dog Dean Afternoon,” I remain unappreciative of its cringedy elements. (Admittedly, that’s partly a matter of personal taste.) Episode six restored Team Free Will to our screens, though in separate storylines, exploring Dean and Castiel’s reunion in one and Sam and Kevin’s interactions with Crowley in the other; this episode and the premiere are my favorites thus far. “Bad Boys” then expanded our understanding of the Winchester family mythology. And then we have “Rock and a Hard Place,” which, quite frankly, lives up to its name for some viewers: How do we handle watching a show we love indulge in character assassination?
There is some explanation for the character inconsistencies, which I’ve discussed to a degree in earlier reviews. Sam is “off” because of Zeke, who’s manipulating him the-angel-only-knows-how. Dean is “off” because he’s wracked with guilt over his choices and actions. And Castiel is “off” because he’s adjusting to being human. Even the structural issues can be partly explained by the ongoing shift into ensemble format. However, other than 9×01, 9×03 (and I include that episode reluctantly), and 9×06, we’ve mostly seen the standard structure, which has a more narrow focus (usually Dean and Sam) and shoe-horns in references to the missing characters (usually Cas and/or Kevin and/or Crowley). However well-intentioned an episode may be, problems with character and structure easily create dissonance that’s difficult to overlook.
In terms of “Rock and a Hard Place,” let’s start with the brothers’ interactions: That Dean and Sam’s relationship is under scrutiny this season isn’t news to anyone, and this episode particularly highlights its deterioration. (In this interview, Ackles and Padalecki reference Jody’s line about “comfort” and identify problems with the brothers’ relationship.)
In the opening scenes, we’re reminded that Sam is not doing well, and that Dean is complicit – though his decision has kept Sam alive, is it a decision that can be justified? Then, while presumably on a job, Dean unbelievably ignores his brother’s phone calls. And if that weren’t enough, we’re given two other scenes that call the audience’s attention specifically to the dynamic:
When Jody tells Sam that she turned to church because she’d needed comfort, he responds, “Yeah, I guess we’re all looking for that.” Jody says, “… except those who’ve got it.” Sam gives her an odd look, and she continues, “Come on, you and Dean? That’s something special, don’t you think?” Judging by the look on Sam’s face, the answer is “no.” (I also base that interpretation off of the aforementioned interview, along with Sam’s behavior in season eight, when he wanted to untangle their relationship yet didn’t know how.)
Jody’s comment clues newer viewers in on the brotherly bond that has been ingrained for over three decades. For those of us familiar with early episodes, it reminds us of the Winchesters’ history and how appearances are deceiving. I immediately thought of “Jus in Bello,” when Victor Henrickson says to Dean, “you got nothing to go home to but your brother” (3×12), a moment some interpret as fanservice yet is actually a sad statement on the loneliness that Victor and Dean have in common. Then, in “Metamorphosis,” Travis remarks, “John would have been damn proud of you. Sticking together like this” (4×4). And there are other instances, I know. In Show, there is an undeniable pattern that outsiders see the Winchesters’ bond as something special. From the inside, though? Not so much. Instead, these adult, thirty-something men are unhealthily enmeshed in one another’s lives.
The final brother moment builds upon Dean’s growing awareness of his actions’ consequences. Puzzling over Vesta’s comments about him being “nearly dead” inside, Sam voices his Show-long insecurity, “What if there is something wrong with me?… I’m a mess…Maybe I’m never actually going to be alright…” Ackles clearly conveys Dean’s anguish over Sam’s worry. However, when Dean breaks and begins to tell Sam about what he’s done, Zeke, who is always listening, interrupts and promises that Sam will die if Dean reveals the angel’s presence. Once more, in the face of that threat, Dean complies.
I don’t think that it’s a coincidence that the camera follows Sam’s exit from the room, and from the back, with his shorter hair and backpack slung over his shoulder, he looks like a younger version of himself. This image calls back to the dynamic of their relationship in Supernatural‘s early years: Dean must protect Sammy. Only this time, in order to keep Sam alive, Dean is enabling Sam being “less human.” Considering how antithetical this is to Dean’s seasons-ago philosophy, we know that the storm is brewing, and it’s going to get ugly. (And I’m thinking specifically of Dean’s statement to Bobby in “When the Levee Breaks” that if Sam dies from demon blood detox, then at least he dies “human” (4×21).)
Beyond perceptions of the Winchesters’ bond, the issue with expectations takes an offensive turn when Dean and Sam infiltrate the support group, Abstinence Purifies Us. This is where the promo footage comes from, when Dean’s “wee bit of an overshare” turns truly awkward. Dean’s physicality and enjoyment of sex is canon, and his legions of fans (in Show and out) attest to the character’s attractiveness. But there is something vulgar and discomfiting about the episode objectifying Dean as the “hot guy” who manages to arouse nearly an entire abstinence support group in under five minutes. Based on the promo, I thought that Dean’s admission of “adios, always the adios” would lead to a significant character reveal, but that’s not what happened.
I take issue particularly with the scenes between Dean and Suzy Lee (Susie Abromeit), the APU’s chastity counselor. Supernatural’s treatment of gender and sexuality is, to put it mildly, controversial. Misogyny is a term I’ve heard (and used) more than once, and I’d suggest that we also consider the implications of misandry, particularly in regards to this episode. Articles and metas galore have been written about the complexity of Dean Winchester as a character; his purification in Purgatory added a new layer, and his evolution has continued. Part of Dean’s appeal is Ackles’s nuanced portrayal, and I fully recognize that in a lesser actor’s hands, Dean would not fare so well. Despite Ackles’s performance, however, “Rock and a Hard Place” does an injustice to Dean.
Though I avoid others’ critiques and reviews until I’ve written my own, I’ve been unable to avoid some online comments that this Dean is “classic.” And perhaps his plan to seduce Suzy would be typical of 26-year-old, pre-hell, pre-purgatory Dean, but even in those early seasons, I can’t recall a time where his actions were just plain creepy. Quite honestly, Dean’s behavior at Suzy’s apartment is repulsive, and I question why he was depicted in this way – Is it to show us the depths of Dean’s spiraling? Is it meant to glorify Dean’s younger, immature self? Is it to emphasize that Dean enjoys sex with women? What is going on?
We are supposed to accept that Dean Winchester, patriarch of his makeshift family and avowed protector of those he loves, consciously chooses to pursue a woman in spite of – or because of? – her vow of chastity. He walks her home, discovers her porn star past, and then intentionally, and without finesse or consideration, calls her out on it. In this moment, Dean doesn’t see Suzy as a person who has a library of chastity resources, who counsels others, and actively works to move beyond her past. No, she’s simply a porn star whose skills he has…. admired, let’s say.
Suzy responds to Dean with embarrassment and an explanation that she has tried to start over because “that girl was horrible.” However, Dean assures her that she’s “the good dreams,” and with that, off we go. Awkwardness, flat dialogue, and discordant music end with Dean and Suzy breaking their pledges. It’s seems that part of this is tongue-in-cheek – of course, Dean Winchester is so irresistible that he can seduce anyone, and Suzy, apparently, is willing to participate. But what do these assumptions and characterizations say about Dean, not to mention Suzy? And let’s not forget that Dean never intended to keep his vow of chastity when, by all indications, Suzy did. Objectification runs amok here.
I rewatched the scene today, and all I could think of is the line from “Sacrifice,” where Dean tells Cas, “Holy crud, this is like the first five minutes of every porno I’ve ever seen” (8×23). I would hope that the “porno” elements in Dean and Suzy’s scene aren’t intentional, but perhaps they are. I’m rather at a loss trying to reconcile Dean’s earlier admission about “the adios” with his actions, unless the narrative is, in fact, emphasizing once more that Dean’s actions and beliefs are not always in agreement. However, even if that’s the case, there are ways to explore that concept without damaging Dean’s character development.
While “Rock and a Hard Place” is officially on my least-favorite episodes list, right up there with “Route 666,” I do love Supernatural, and I want it to have nice things. That said, I’ll continue to root for season nine to fulfill its potential, and I hope to Chuck that our remaining episodes work towards that goal.
- When Dean and Sam sign their purity pledges, they sign their real names, which makes no sense to me.
- Dean to Bonnie/Vesta before he signs his pledge, “You had me at clean slate.” I find that ironic, considering he returned from Purgatory “purified,” yet it seems that he already feels tainted again.
- The portrayal of the APU’s group members runs the gamut in terms of stereotypes. In addition to Suzy, the reformed porn star, and Bonnie/Vesta, there’s Tammy, who’s overly concerned about bake sale integrity and gossiping with Sam about how dishonorable Honor is. There’s also the woman who Bonnie/Vesta polices for stealing food from the pastry table.
- Throughout the episode, there are times when the name “Honor” becomes symbolic, such as when the male captive argues, “Give it Honor. It might save the rest of our necks…” I can’t help wondering if Dean’s refusal to give up Honor is foreshadowing that he’ll retain his own honor in the end?
- It’s interesting that Vesta reveals to Sam that he’s “all duct tape and safety pins inside.” This directly parallels Veritas, goddess of truth, revealing soulless Sam’s missing part.
- In the final scene, Dean tells Sam, as he told Cas in the season premiere, “We’ll work it out.” The repetition of phrase this season has to be intentional (surely). Dean reassuring Cas, whom he assumes is involved in breaking heaven by what he did or didn’t do, is an interesting parallel to Dean’s own situation: He is responsible for Sam’s current state of being, only there is no one there to reassure him – he can’t even pray to Cas anymore.
- Jody Mills is such a great character, and I hope we’ll see her again soon!
- Jenny Klein, Jared Padalecki, and Kim Rhodes live-tweeted their viewings.