“What’s Up, Tiger Mommy?” continues the strong opening to Supernatural’s eighth season established last week with the premiere. Writers Dabb and Loflin return to form after their lacklustre season seven episodes with a script that continues to set up the myth arc, but does so while beautifully balancing humour and pathos. The writers use foreshadowing deftly and delve further into Dean’s personal arc, as we learn what he has both embraced and hopes to escape. Castiel returns to the story as a key player in this arc.
We pick up with Dean and Kevin arguing over whether they should check on Kevin’s mom, given Crowley’s anger at losing the prophet. Kevin is focused on his personal fear Crowley may have twisted his mom into a pretzel. Dean is focused on the big picture of closing the gates of hell and feels Crowley will be equally focused that way and view Mrs. Tran as a valuable hostage. Sam tries to mediate between the two—and thus everyone’s thematic positions are revealed.
Dean’s experience in Purgatory has left him hardened to making tough decisions. He tells Kevin, “She’s bait, man. You want to swim up and bite the hook?” But Kevin doesn’t back down, asking Dean, “Can you really not understand why I want to make sure she’s okay?”
Of course Dean can—he’s been in that position with loved ones many times himself. With Sam siding with Kevin, he gives in. Taking off to the Tran residence, they discover Mrs. Tran is currently fine, but surrounded by disguised demon spies. Sam and Dean quickly and ruthlessly dispatch the outside guards—they’ve long since gotten used to ganking the human hosts along with the possessing demons. Mrs. Tran and Kevin are taken aback when Dean is equally ruthless about killing Eunice the neighbour—but they accept it when Dean points out the escaping demon would have warned Crowley and endangered Kevin. It turns out Mrs. Tran is no pushover herself.
When Sam and Dean try to dissuade her from accompanying the motley band to find the tablet, she shows her steel. To Sam’s warning that if Crowley can find a way to separate her from her soul, he’ll take it, she replies, “It’s not my soul I’m worried about; it’s my son’s.” On this show, soul talk is seldom throwaway, but to the writers’ credit, I did not see how this foreshadowing was going to play out before it happened.
In addition to the nicely done foreshadowing, I really liked the way Dabb and Loflin in a later scene cut between Dean’s memories and his current actions. Mrs. Tran is very useful in helping the boys and Kevin track down a thief who stole the tablet from Kevin’s hiding place. The thief is wily, forcing Sam to negotiate hard for the tablet’s whereabouts. The situation triggers memories of Purgatory in Dean, and we learn he interrogated many monsters in his search for the missing Castiel. Unlike Sam and in fact unlike Benny the vampire, he is utterly ruthless, putting all his hell-gained torturing skills to work as he extracts information.
The memories goad Dean into taking control of the present interrogation as well, and he shocks Sam with his ferocity as he threatens to choke and stab the thief. As the scene cuts back and forth between Purgatory and the present, we clearly see the impact Purgatory had on Dean, who no longer has the issues with torture he had when asked to extract information from Alistair in season four.
At the same time, we also see Dean track down his friend and promise Castiel he will not leave Purgatory without him. Surviving Purgatory by living in the moment and leaving behind his emotional baggage allows Dean to let go of his anger at the angel. The protective loving side of Dean has not disappeared, even if it is much less evident than his fighting spirit.
The episode does not shy away from the darkness of these concerns, but the writers weave in several lighter moments to keep the story balanced. From Mrs. Trans’ shocked concern that Kevin has been watching television to the way she impresses Dean by using tax evasion threats to extract information, Kevin’s mom adds a humorous touch. Sam has a great moment when he’s able to pick up Thor’s hammer, presumably being found worthy as much due to his long flowing locks as his morality.
But in the end, the focus is on the struggle between individual pain and the needs of the bigger community, which is fitting in a story about heroes. When Mrs. Tran and Crowley get in a bidding war over the tablet at an auction held by a god, this loving mother does indeed put up her soul to save her son. Dean, though appreciative of her sacrifice, is pleased to be moving forward on the plan to close the gates of hell. Sam is taken aback when Dean tells him in his mind, “We got off cheap.” It’s especially ironic given Mrs. Tran has just turned down help from Alfie the Angel in favour of the Winchesters.
When Crowley finds a way to bribe Plutus the god’s right hand man, the demon manages to possess Mrs. Tran and take the tablet. Dean foils his attempt to grab Kevin and chases down the King of Hell. But in Kevin’s eyes, Dean is far from a hero when he makes a real attempt to cut the possessed woman’s throat in order to kill Crowley.
Dean’s actions resonate with a warning Crowley makes to Kevin, when he points out friends of the Winchesters usually die bloody. His advice to the boy is simple: “Run.” And run Kevin does, with his mom.
While Kevin is making up his mind to escape, Dean and Sam are outside the room talking about Dean’s actions. Sam asks his brother if he really intended to cut Mrs. Tran’s throat. Dean is blunt: “Yes, I was. Wish I had.” He tells Sam, “Yeah, it would have sucked and I would have hated myself, but what’s one more nightmare, right?”
When he realizes Kevin feels the same need to run from him as he does from Crowley, he is not as sure of himself. Sam is dumbfounded Kevin took his chances on his own, but Dean understands. Quietly, he says, “He thinks people I don’t need any more, they end up dead.” Disturbed at the look on his brother’s face, Sam replies, “Dean, that’s not true, you know that.” However, Dean has been keeping some secrets from Sam—and this one is linked to a big one.
Sam’s statement has the opposite effect he intends. Rather than reassure Dean, the elder Winchester has another flashback. The episode ends as we see Castiel stretch out his hand, screaming Dean’s name, but appearing to fall back into Purgatory. We’re left wondering how exactly Dean and Benny escaped and why Castiel did not. How much did Purgatory change Dean?
I love this meaty story line for Dean. I think the success of it will depend on whether we can follow Dean’s journey and understand why he feels as he does. In season four, Sam made some very poor decisions, but as we followed his thought process every step of the way, his decisions were believable and most viewers did not lose sympathy for him.
So far, that is where I am with Dean. Yes, he is hardened—but he’s been tempered in a terrible fire. To my mind, it didn’t start in Purgatory. Dean knows exactly how Kevin feels because he too was torn between his personal need to save someone and his hero’s responsibility to save the world. His personal arc has always had these two impulses at odds with each other, coming to a head in season five.
In that season, Dean’s personal hell came to pass—he had to not only allow, but actually help, his little brother destroy himself in order to avert mass destruction. The personal cost of being a hero is horrific—but Dean had to pay it, as, of course, did Sam. Having faced the pain of helping his little brother throw himself into Hell to be tortured by Lucifer for eternity, Dean knows how to focus on the big picture even when there is a personal price to be paid. Kevin has just started down his fateful road. Sam and Dean have travelled it for a long way.
But the side of Dean that is protective, that reaches out to people, is still there to stir his conscience—and to prevent him from turning into the kind of monster Gordon became even before he was turned into a vampire. Being able to see the big picture is necessary for Dean, but not at the expense of cutting him off from his humanity. I suspect his arc this season will explore how Dean finds a balance between the two.
I’m loving the start of this season so far. I’d love to hear what you think!