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TV Review: ‘Supernatural’ – ‘Rock and a Hard Place’

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Rock and a Hard PlaceWritten 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.

Rock and a Hard PlaceWhile 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.)

Rock and a Hard PlaceJody’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.

Rock and a Hard PlaceI 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.

Screen shot 2013-11-27 at 6.40.05 PMI 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.

Next week is the mid-season finale, airing Tuesday, Dec. 3rd, on the CW network. See photos and the preview for more details. Cas is back, and war is coming!

Other notes:

  • 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 KleinJared Padalecki, and Kim Rhodes live-tweeted their viewings.
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About L. Scott

L. Scott is a freelance writer and editor, among other things. Follow her on Twitter @Lyda_Scott.
  • sharonally

    I must confess Gerry I skipped over the Dean/Suzy scene but have read alot of different views on the scene and Dean . I honestly do not know how they will move forward with Sam and extract him from the Ezekiel situation ?.

    On a different note I love Jody and particually her connection to Sam , it is nice to see someone form a bond with him esp someone like Jody .

    • Lyda Scott

      Hi Sharonally – I wanted to let you know that this comment posted to my review instead of Gerry’s.

      For what it’s worth, I think you did yourself a favor skipping the Dean/Suzy scene, and I’m glad you enjoy the Jody/Sam dynamic too! I’m anxious to see how the Sam/Zeke situation is worked out too – stills from 9×11 (I believe it was that ep) show Jared and Curtis speaking to one another, and Jared’s posture seemed more Zeke-like than Sam… so, we’ll see. I hope it gets resolved soon, though.

  • Kirke

    Fantastic review, especially the analysis of the Dean/Sam relationship that never seemed healthy but took a really ugly turn – by Dean’s actions – in s8. I’m really looking forward to the big reveal in the next episode.

    I was really offended by the Suzy/Dean angle episode, I still can’t believe that a woman wrote those scenes, especially that Jody was simply fantastic and her chemistry with Sam was amazing.

    • Lyda Scott

      I’m both excited and anxious about 9×09 – I’m really curious to see how the different storylines are balanced out, especially since a few weeks ago (in a con video, I think) Ackles and Padalecki commented that it seems more like a season finale than mid-… so I’m thinking (hoping) we’ll get awesomeness *and* spn-brand pain?!

      And I agree that Jody is fantastic!! If she had been mis-characterized, there may have been rioting in the (online) streets. She is one of my absolute favorite recurring characters, and if it hadn’t been for her, this episode would have been a total loss for me. There were/are other ways to depict Dean’s downward spiral without causing offense and reinforcing problematic social beliefs/attitudes. Let’s hope that the good, bad, and ugly of the episode is acknowledged by those monitoring feedback for Show.

      Looking ahead to this week’s excitement, here’s hoping we get an amazing episode that will carry us through the holidays!!

  • Shelby

    I agree with some of your review, but disagree with other parts.
    Suzy is the one that came onto Dean first. I think Dean telling Suzy that her past wasn’t bad and she shouldn’t feel bad for it was something that Suzy wanted and needed to hear. Everyone else was shaming her for her past and that’s one of the main reasons she was feeling so bad, because of what other people thought of her.
    Also, Dean isn’t the only one who has shut his phone off to have sex, Sam has done it in the past.
    I do, however, agree with you on the brothers relationship. I think it’s interesting that Sam’s reaction is pretty much not agreeing with Jodie. I don’t think the brothers relationship has been good since Season 4, I think Sam’s words and actions damaged the relationship and it hasn’t been right since, and, in fact, things have spiralled on both sides.

    • Lyda Scott

      Hi Shelby, I think the next few episodes will be really interesting regarding the brothers’ relationship, especially based on comments made by Ackles and Padalecki in the recent conventions’ interviews. I believe Ackles said that things get even darker for Dean… and I’m anxiously awaiting to see just how far that goes for him, as well as for Sam! (I also thought his reaction to Jody spoke volumes!)

      The Suzy/Dean scene has certainly become a divisive point of conversation, hasn’t it? (at least, from what I’ve observed elsewhere online!) I’ve seen others make the argument that Suzy came onto Dean first, but I don’t see when that happens? Are you referencing when she makes the comment about (paraphrasing here) “you’re here now”? Or is it something else?

      Honestly, for me, the problem isn’t just in how Suzy’s portrayed – it’s how both Dean and Suzy are written here. When talking about gender and agency, I like to analyze how male and female representations interact/play off of one another. So while I take issue with Suzy’s representation, I also take issue with Dean’s. Dean gains his access to Suzy’s personal space through deceit (not a new one for the Winchesters) but he does so not with the primary intent to find out information, but (per his comments to Sam) to hit on the hot teacher; he sees her as a target for sexual conquest. If Suzy warms up to him, she only does so after he brings up her past. I’ve read others’ arguments that she does so after he’s helped her recognize the “good” in herself, but I have a problem with the use of the word “helped”: If Suzy needs Dean’s validation to see the good in herself, then her agency is being circumvented there too – by the narrative itself. I actually compared Dean’s words to Suzy to what he later says to Sam about how Sam’s okay, etc.(and compare to earlier eps when Dean assures Sam of his goodness – though, admittedly, there are also eps where Dean is not so reaffirming!). Oftentimes in the Show, Sam looks to Dean for external validation, and even when Dean gives it, it’s not enough because it’s Sam’s lack of self-worth that makes the younger Winchester falter at times. does that after he gains access to her personal space and her home under false pretenses. In both cases, it’s not Dean’s place to offer that validation; it’s internal validation that they need. And I think the too-brief camera shot of Honor and Suzy talking afterwards is a too-brief stab at reminding us of that. As I recall, Suzy’s tone was pensive, even regretful. (I don’t have my copy handy so can’t check the actual quotation – sorry!)

      This particular episode will likely always be a point of debate in fandom, and right now, I’m curious to see if the narrative was purposefully constructed with these elements that have created debate and if they feed into something that’s coming for Dean’s arc, or if the narrative is/was simply problematic… maybe we’ll find out this week? Thanks for reading and sharing!