When I first heard about “The Purge,” I cringed: Supernatural doesn’t always have the best track record when dealing with body politics. This episode is surprising, though. Yes, there are a few fat jokes and stereotypes thrown out there, but on the whole, the episode works. If nothing else, the storyline about the “Peruvian fat sucker” mirrors the issues that season nine is grappling with so well that it overshadows any problem points for me.
“The Purge” is about extremes and the difficulty of finding a balance, which are core themes in Supernatural. Written by Eric Charmelo and Nicole Snyder and directed by Phil Sgriccia, the episode engages in the same deflection and narrative misdirection that has distinguished – at times, frustratingly so – much of season nine: Though brothers Dean Winchester (Jensen Ackles) and Sam (Jared Padalecki) reunited at the end of last week’s episode, they’re still not reconciled. I expected standard MOTW fare shoehorned between book-end scenes of the brothers talking, and from one angle, that’s exactly what “The Purge” is. But the episode can be more productively read as completely about Dean and Sam with monsters (or is it “monsters”?) squeezed in.
The case itself harkens back to the good ol’ days of Supernatural when a random news story would send “the boys” on a monster hunt. An insomnia-driven Dean discovers the case: mysterious deaths where people have had all of the fat sucked from their bodies. Sam agrees to investigate, and off they go. This particular case varies strikingly from early seasons for many reasons, particularly because “the boys” are no longer boys. To drive the point home, the episode even goes so far as to joke about 35-year-old Dean (born Jan. 24, 1979) lying to a waitress about being 29.
The episode begins with Dean and Sam in opposing corners, so to speak: Dean’s been up all night drinking, watching television (Rudy and Unforgiven, both of which can be mined for their connections to Dean’s storyline), and researching. Sam, ever the more physically health-conscious brother, has gotten a good night’s sleep and comes into the kitchen to eat breakfast. A few sentences of dialogue remind us of Gadreel, Metatron, and Mark of Cain and the heart-splitting closing scene in “Sharp Teeth.”
This week, dialogue entirely neglects Castiel (Misha Collins), even though a single-sentence reference could have easily established continuity. While I suspect that Show is playing off of Dean being in self-punishing mode so he’s denying himself contact and Sam being in punishing mode so he’s denying information, the narrative offers no concrete reasoning. Hopefully the next episode explains the Cas oversight because, otherwise, the gap seems more a narrative fault than not.
As with “Sharp Teeth” and “Dog Dean Afternoon,” among other episodes, “The Purge” employs mirrors to reflect facets of the season’s themes. For example, there are three scenes in the episode where Dean and Sam listen to someone else’s relationship issues: Mol (infidelity and marriage), Sheriff Donna Hanscum (loneliness and divorce), and Maritza (sibling and marriage). As in “Heartache” (8×3), the camerawork establishes parallels for us to note, zooming in on Dean and Sam’s individual reactions, and emphasizing their communication (or lack thereof) with the women and with each other. For example, when the two are speaking with the Sheriff, Dean’s sympathetic look when he hears about her husband leaving her is clear; Sam’s expression appears detached and less empathetic. The juxtaposition is interesting considering Sam’s loss of Amelia in season eight.
After Dean and Sam speak with Maritza, Sam shows his sympathetic side: He expresses sorrow to the woman who’s lost her family, and he defends her to his less-than-sympathetic brother, drawing connections between her monster-status and his possession by Gadreel. (I found this odd, though, as his connection to her seems stronger, in my mind, through his addiction to demon blood.) During her interrogation especially, Maritza functions as a mirror for Sam; she wanted to live where she wouldn’t be a monster. Behind the façade of the spa, she’s able to co-exist with humanity by “just eating enough to get by.” She’s willing to make that sacrifice, unlike her brother Alonzo, who, she says, grew hungrier the more he was deprived.
“The Purge” also uses blatant socio-cultural coding to emphasize Dean and Sam’s differences. It’s most clear in the bunker scenes, where Dean is ensconced in the kitchen and not the research area where Sam is usually seen. In this episode, their interactions with others reinforce this dichotomy, with Sam handling formal situations best while Dean does better with the informal. Show’s association of Dean with blue collar stereotypes and Sam with white collar ones isn’t new, but “The Purge” creates such a contrast that I felt uncomfortable when Sam acts embarrassed by Dean’s behavior, as he does during the powdered donut scene and the job interview. In the first instance, Dean doesn’t seem to pick up on his brother’s discomfort, but he certainly does during the second. And we might shrug off this coding except that the spa owners also note the difference, offering Sam the job that requires him to work directly with clients and Dean the position in the cafeteria.
It’s significant that Sam isn’t as successful working with the clients as he assumes he’ll be. He can project and sustain the image better than Dean, perhaps, but he misses social cues, a failing that’s successfully mined for laughs during the yoga scene. Though he might not admit it to his brother, Sam knows that just because he can assume a role doesn’t mean he can successfully play it out. This is something that harkens back to issues “the boys” had in season one. And it seems to me now, just as it did then, that Sam places some blame on Dean for his own inability to adapt and fit in; it’s a very child to parent response.
In comparison to Sam, Dean has always been a more fluid character, one that, despite his superficial posturing and overcompensation (“Playthings” 2×11), slips into different roles and crosses boundaries with greater ease. In the director’s commentary for “Everybody Hates Hitler” (8×13), Sgriccia talks about Dean’s “potential for love in all places.” It’s a statement that’s been scrutinized by fandom; I use it to illustrate that Dean isn’t simply the reductive, blinders-on, macho hunter he often postures as. Though he teases Sam for his knowledge of fairy tales in “Bedtime Stories” (3×5), his expression indicates that he well knows who Princess Jasmine is in “The Purge.” He informs Sam and the cop that “all women lie about their weight and age,” and when Sam points out that he lied about his age, Dean simply responds, “Uh-huh.” He doesn’t care that he’s engaged in a “feminine” behavior.
Dean’s a contradiction, though. At times, he embraces ambiguity, but when conversing with Sam, he often resists it. When working the cafeteria job, his complaint to Sam is, “Why do I got to be the lunch lady?” His association of the job with the feminine, his role in the kitchen, and his grammar all code Dean differently than Sam, and he, essentially, doesn’t like it. This makes me question how much of Dean’s image is influenced by his perceptions of Sam and how much of Sam’s identity stems from his perceptions of Dean. And whether intentional or not, I read the salted caramel pudding as another instance of Dean’s duality: Sam is unimpressed by the flavor, while Dean responds enthusiastically, albeit druggedly, “Yeah, man. Best of both worlds. Salty and sweet.” Though Dean sees that there can be a “best of both worlds,” his actions don’t support his words; Dean has to figure out how to balance his life, to hunt yet not be consumed by hunting.
Until he figures it out, Dean has a lot to work through. The storeroom scene offers yet another clue to how their dynamic became so complicated when Dean identifies roofies by sight and is surprised that Sam doesn’t know what they are. Dean explains his knowledge away by noting he didn’t want “to end up in a hotel bathtub” missing a kidney, and that’s presumably the end of it. What’s left unsaid is that Sam didn’t worry or know about roofies because Dean’s spent his life trying to protect his brother from needing to know things like that. In past seasons, this imbalance forged a strong bond between “the boys.” Now that they’re thirty-something men, they have to find a new way to relate to one another.
There isn’t a simple reading of the brothers’ situation, and the parent/child dynamics are just one part of this tangled web. Dean’s made decisions for Sam all season (and in earlier seasons), often assuming by forced circumstance or by choice a degree of authority that he shouldn’t hold. He’s circumvented Sam’s agency more than once, and part of that comes from his engrained desire to “take care of Sammy.” And in assuming that role, Dean unconsciously ensures the inequality of his and Sam’s relationship. For example, in “Sharp Teeth,” Dean came to terms with Garth and his decisions, and the two parted warmly and respectfully. With Sam, though, his interactions are sarcastic and passive aggressive. (“I was just being honest.”) The two are so mired in this dysfunction that they can’t meet in the middle, listen to one another, and work things out (or so the season’s narrative is telling us). Instead, it’s unfortunately taking something cataclysmic to break the cycle.
The final scene of “The Purge” doesn’t mince words. Since Sam didn’t look for Dean when the latter was trapped in Purgatory, the truth Sam drops isn’t exactly revelatory for some, but it certainly seems to be for Dean. The elder Winchester has held onto his perception of “little brother Sammy” so tightly that he supposedly can’t imagine life without him and assumes the reverse is true as well. This is, however, simply Dean’s perception, and while valid, it’s subjective. As is Sam’s.
Supernatural has always played with perceptions and realities. There are a multitude of episodes whose scenarios fit into this category, including Dean’s djinn-dreamworld in “What Is and What Should Never Be” (2×20), the Winchesters as Dean Smith and Sam Wesson in “It’s a Terrible Life” (4×17), and Dean’s altered memory of leaving Cas in Purgatory in “A Little Slice of Kevin.” Season nine has taken this to an entirely new level, and in writing this review, I’ve found myself re-evaluating the past twelve episodes. In how many has the dialogue told us one thing while characters’ actions have told us something else? In “the real world,” how often do words obfuscate and misdirect while actions reveal truth? I think we’re seeing this here, and if I’m right, it explains, in part, the perceived unevenness of the season. Not only is Dean, our usual point-of-view lens, off-kilter, but so is the narrative as a whole.
Let’s look at “The Purge” for an example: Sam reiterates to Dean at the beginning of the episode his intention that they just work together, without brotherhood or friendship. Sam’s words are heartbreaking for Dean (and for many in the audience). But are Sam’s actions in the episode those of someone who’s just helping a co-worker? Once he knows Dean’s in trouble, he searches the spa until he finds his drugged brother. Then, he flings a chef against the wall, threatening him until he learns the ingredients of the pudding that Dean had consumed.
So what Sam says isn’t necessarily in line with what he believes, proving that he is, after all, more like Dean than he knows. How many times have Dean’s words and actions not matched? I’ve personally lost count, but to use an example from this episode, when Dean says he would make the same decision that he did 9×1, is that true? After all, Dean is prepared to “end” Sam in “Road Trip” (9×10) and actively gathering the tools to do so; it’s Cas’s strategizing that offers him another way, and he happily takes it.
“The Purge” is a catharsis, stripping away a lot of the Winchester bull that shrouds Dean and Sam’s lives. There’s still truth to be revealed and progress to be made for both brothers. For instance, Sam points to Dean’s fear of being alone as his motivation for saving him, but what’s left unsaid is that for Sam to believe that, then he must also underestimate his value to Dean, which is yet another callback to the scene in “Sacrifice” (8×23). However, this week’s conversation is a solid step forward towards a more balanced relationship (and one that will ensure fresher storylines rather than the same retread of self-righteous and protective Dean vs. tempted and often-mentally-altered Sam). And after this week’s episode, I’m more confident that Carver & Co are delivering.
That belief makes it a little easier to watch the final scene of “The Purge,” which is damn near unbearable otherwise. Between Padalecki conveying Sam’s sad frustration and Ackles emoting Dean’s grieved disappointment — well, it’s a heart-clenching moment. Charmelo, one of the episode’s writers, responded to a fan comment with, “Break down to rebuild.” That buoys my hope that we’ll soon see a reconstruction of the relationship that’s central to Supernatural’s premise.
I’m looking forward to seeing how the next episode portrays the brothers’ relationship. Since voicing his desire for emotional distance from Dean in “Sharp Teeth,” Sam already behaves more independently, making decisions and even giving Dean orders occasionally. The narrative seems to be resetting him to pre-Lucifer, pre-Hallucifer, pre-Souless, pre-Gadreel Sam, which is a relief. Dean’s situation, however, isn’t reassuring in the slightest, and he remains on the brink. He’s drinking too much (notice the very large and nearly empty bottle of Hunter’s Helper in his first scene), and we’ve seen him engage in other regressive behaviors all season. I’m fairly certain that we’ll bear witness to more pain as Dean’s spiraling worsens.
Supernatural returns Feb. 25 with a brand new episode, “Captives.” (And Cas finally returns from wherever he’s been!) See the most recent promo here.
- I would like to request that Dean keep his scruff forever. I get that it’s symbolic, etc., but… maybe he just trims it instead of shaving it off entirely? Hmm?
- Also, has Dean’s voice permanently dropped even deeper? Someone get Ackles a hot lemon tea, stat.
- I would also like to thank everyone involved in Supernatural for *not* rendering Sam unconscious this episode (even if Dean still had to save him).
- The song playing as Carol works out in the gym scene – “Up Where We Belong” – is yet another musical iteration of this season’s emphasis on “love…and love” (9×2).
- Okay, the gym scene: Someone knocks Carol down, and then something crawls under her shirt before latching on and killing her – but the angle’s weird, and it doesn’t look like something’s detached. When Dean cuts off Alonzo’s fat sucker, it’s not that long…Are we supposed to assume it elongated and slipped under Carol’s clothes like a snake? Huh?
- “The Purge” garnered solid ratings for the CW.
- It was a quieter week for Supernatural Twitter trending, though Cas fans should check out the hashtag #WheresTheAngel. (If I missed any trending terms, please share them in the comments below.)
- Supernatural was #4 on the Nielsen Twitter TV Ratings.
- Eric Charmelo, Robert Berens, Robbie Thompson, Adam Glass, and Osric Chau (#KevinLives) tweeted before and/or during the episode (mostly during the West Coast airing). Jared Padalecki chimed in a few times too before facetiously blaming the director (Misha Collins) of the currently-filming 9×17 for his inability to live-tweet the entire episode.