“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.