Four Days Later

I can’t believe that Supernatural season 13 just keeps getting better! “Advanced Thanatology” was another superb episode, extending the run to five in a row! Steve Yockey may have produced the best episode yet this year – quite an accomplishment considering my high opinion of the prior episodes. Billie returned as Death, and in a stunning, emotional scene, Castiel returned to his family. There were no distractions of an alternate universe (which I love but still takes time away from the bros), the stupidity of Heaven or Hell (or the associated cheesy depictions therein), no Princes of Hell or ridiculously fake drama, and no spinoffs to set up. Just Sam and Dean on a hunt, having deep conversations around the Impala.  Action, emotion and heart stopping (no pun intended?) surprises. It’s like Supernatural found its center again.

The impact of this episode came primarily from two powerful scenes – the return of Billie and her ensuing conversation with Dean, and the return of Castiel. The first encounter was prolonged, full of significant dialog, insights and foreshadowing. The second was just a few seconds long and not a single word was spoken yet it left us breathless.  I considerd solely discussing these scenes since there is so much to explore about each of them, but that would be doing a disservice to the story. The underlying hunt, with its messages of fear, death and grief, masterfully wove together threads of meaning as well. To understand this episode, we need to look at the story’s entire tapestry.

New Rules

Last week I theorized that season 13’s episodes contained several subtle indicators that there would be new rules in the Supernatural universe. My interpretation of “There’s a new sheriff in town” (and other phrases) was that Andrew Dabb and his new writing team were going to “clarify”, augment or outright change a few canon rules.  We didn’t have to wait long for them to come through on their promise!
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Billie: It's funny to hear a Winchester talk about the finality of dying. This reality -- it has rules, Dean. So many rules. And one of them? Kill one incarnation of Death, like you did, the next Reaper to die takes his place. So when Castiel stabbed me in the back, turns out I got a promotion. New job. New gear.
Dean: So you died to become Death?
Billie: This universe can be so many things, and sometimes, it is poetic.
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I’m thrilled to have Lisa Berry back in the show! I love Billie’s cold, independent, strong stance against the Winchesters. She was confused by them because they broke the rules she had sworn to uphold – the finality of death among them. But as Death now, she understands that rules don’t apply to every situation and sometimes a greater truth must be served. How very poetic indeed!
 
With Billie’s return, we close out the season 11 theory that Billie was the new Death. Speaking for myself, I envisioned that Julian Richings would forever be the personification of Death. I thought he was posing as Billie to be more clandestine around the dangerously unpredictable brothers Winchester, and that he’d reveal himself one day at an opportune, climactic moment.  Unfortunately, I think Billie’s promotion rules out Julian’s return so I have to admit defeat on that idea. Some of you may have foreseen her “promotion”, though. Claim a win if you did! Either way, we all saw a future for Billie as Death. I was stunned (and outraged) when she was killed by Castiel.  “Another fantastic female character bites the dust”, we thought and complained. Even though Julian will forever be the perfect horseman to me and I’ll miss him deeply in the show, I am very happy to have his successor be a woman, a woman of color, and a woman who has such a strong willed point of view. To me, she steals every scene she’s in. Season 13 continues its record of introducing intensely talented supporting actors! Dean’s introduction to Billie, and their ensuing intense, important conversation, was the centerpiece of this episode.

Mental Health and Thanatology (the title thread)

Thanatology -the scientific study of death and the practices associated with it, including the study of the needs of the terminally ill and their families.” – Google Search Dictionary
 
As has been the case for the past several weeks, the episode’s title refers to both the obvious story being told and its underlying messages. This week, “Advanced Thanatology” implicates the psychotic doctor whose specialty was death versus psychiatry. An underlying layer of the episode actually deals with serious mental health issues, though – death via suicide, and grief.
AT11
Dean: Look, we can't talk to 'em on this side of the Veil, so I'm gonna go to the other side. I'm gonna work my way through all these Caspers until we find out where this freak hid the bodies.
Sam: Dean, you're talking about killing yourself.
Dean: Yeah? Well, it worked before.
Sam: That's an insane risk to take.
During my live commentary of the episode, I was engaged in a side conversation with one viewer who issued a trigger warning about the suicidal themes of the story. I hadn’t detected them while I was focused on all the story’s drama and action, but to someone who is sensitized to the topic, the theme was unmistakable. Shawn and Evan’s deaths would both have looked like suicide to their parents since being forced by a possessing spirit to kill yourself isn’t something that would have been readily believed. Shawn’s mother portrayed the unspeakable grief of not only losing a son, but losing a loved one to suicide. Then, of course, Dean did actually kill himself. In the adrenaline of the moment, he may have justified it to himself as a selfless act, but Billie called him on it.
Dean: So am I dead?
Billie: You killed yourself.
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Dean then goes on to express the defeated thoughts of anyone who no longer believes in themselves, their value, or their purpose in life. 
Billie: You've changed. When you bargained with me just now, you could've asked to go back, to live.
Dean: Well, I figure with you in charge, there's no getting back for me.
Billie: That doesn't sound like the Dean Winchester I know and love. The man who's been dead so many times but it never seemed to stick. Maybe you're not that guy anymore, the guy who saves the world, the guy who always thinks he'll win no matter what. You have changed. And you tell people it's not a big deal. You tell people you'll work through it, but you know you won't, you can't, and that scares the hell out of you. Or am I wrong?
Dean: What do you want me to say? Doesn't matter. I don't matter.
Billie: Don't you?
Dean: I couldn't save Mom. I couldn't save Cass. I can't even save a scared little kid. Sam keeps trying to fix it, but I just keep dragging him down. So I'm not gonna beg. Okay, if it's my time, it's my time.
Billie: You really believe that. … You wanna die. Dean, every notebook on this particular shelf tells a version of how you die. You specifically -- heart attack, burned by a red-haired witch, stabbed by a ghoul in a graveyard, and on and on. But which one's right? That depends on you, on the choices you make.
Dean: Well, I guess I made my choice.
Billie: But unfortunately, none of these books say you die today.
Dean: Come again?
Billie: Since I got this new job, I stand witness to a much larger picture. Do you know what I see? You. And your brother. You're important.
Dean: Why?
Billie: You have work to do.
I’ve read many fan’s objections to Dean’s motivations here. “He would never leave Sam, he would never abandon his brother!” they claim. In his right mind, that’s true, but Dean told Sam he didn’t believe in anything anymore. The depth of his despair wasn’t clear though – he didn’t even believe in himself. Billie gave him purpose again. They have work to do! Everyone’s life matters and even when they can’t see it, there may still be things they need to accomplish on this earth, things bigger than them that must remain a mystery to even those who converse with cosmic beings. To me, that was the more important lesson of this episode, and maybe the most important theme that Jared preaches continuously – Always Keep Fighting, even when you can’t see the bigger picture.
 
There are several other subtle layers in this conversation worth noting. First, one possible death for Dean is being killed by a red haired witch. That was not a throw-away line! Rowena! Depending on the choices (Free Will Thread) Dean makes, Rowena and he may be in a face-off sometime in the future. What do you think?
 
The next layer was a meta message from Andrew Dabb. Substitute him for Billie as she talks about her promotion. Since he got his new job, he sees and must be true to the much larger picture – a vision of Sam and Dean being important and still having work to do. That’s extremely hopeful as I see it. He knows these boys cannot rest even if they’ve been doing this for 13 years and are tired. They are important, and their work isn’t done. That’s just as hopeful for Supernatural fans as Billie’s words were to Dean!

Lastly, even though I haven’t been tracking it, I also roughly recall “mental health” being specifically mentioned in one or more of the prior season 13 episodes (do you remember it, too?) The suicidal theme definitely underscored a mental health focus, and Sam pointedly referred to it while explaining his research to Dean:
People would come to him for help with mental illness, but no matter what they had -- depression, anxiety, whatever -- the cure was always the same.
Listen to see if the obvious emphasis of Jared’s (and to some extent Jensen and Misha) past several charitable campaigns is further emphasized this year. 

“We Need to Talk”

With those words, Billie shockingly reentered the Supernatural world! Beyond their classic impact, that phrase also shined a spotlight on a previously undetected season 13 thread, “talking”.  The talking thread first became apparent through the conversations surrounding Shawn’s home visit:

Mom: Shouldn't you talk to them?
Sam: We did, but we'd like to speak with you as well. And Shawn.
Dean: Something wrong?
Mom: Shawn, he won't talk. He can't.
Sam: What do you mean?
Mom: The doctors say he's okay physically, that it's psychological. You know, trauma, like he saw some something so awful.
 
Dean: Shawn? Hey I’m Dean. I heard you had a rough time. You want to tell me about it? 
 
Mom: … they’re inseparable.
Sam: Has anyone spoken with Mike?
Mom: Everyone. He says he doesn’t know what happened but
Sam: But you don’t believe him.
Mom: They do everything together
 
Dean to Shawn: You gotta talk to me. 
Sam: So he didn’t say anything?
Dean: Not a word.
Sam: I say we talk to his friend Mike in the morning.
 
Like Shawn, Evan and Mike, the Winchester “boys” also are inseparable and do everything together. Sam introduced this case to Dean with a pitch of “when's the last time we worked a case, just you and me?” so the three young boys’ story is an analogy for Sam and Dean’s journey.

Shawn’s inability to share his trauma and reach out for help when it was offered resulted in his death.  Recognizing that, Dean regretted not pushing harder to get Shawn to talk when he had the chance. Conversely, Sam hasn’t let up on his big brother. Sam has been pushing Dean to open up and talk since the first season 13 episode with “can we just talk about what happened back there”.  Shawn’s inability to talk about his trauma paralleled Dean’s usual strategy of withdrawing within himself when he experiences pain that’s’ just too much for him to handle. Until last week, he had been entirely silent about his deepest reactions to Castiel’s and Mary’s “deaths”.  He lashed out in anger and blame but couldn’t talk about what he saw or felt until Sam really pushed him.
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One of the climactic conversations this week was at the end of the episode when Sam asked how all the ghosts disappeared.
Dean: We can talk about it later.
Sam: We won't talk about it later. You know that.
Sam’s insistence and Dean’s truthfulness is the juxtaposition of what happened to Shawn.
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Perhaps Sam pushing Dean hard enough to finally be truthful about his encounter with Billie will have the opposite effect of saving Dean’s life in the future. In a powerful confession, Dean finally talked to Sam – the conversation Sam asked for 5 weeks ago:
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Sam: You okay?
Dean: No. Sam, I'm not okay. I'm pretty far from okay. You know, my whole life, I always believed that what we do was important. No matter what the cost, no matter who we lost, whether it was Dad or -- or Bobby or… And I would take the hit. But I kept on fighting because I believed that we were making the world a better place. And now Mom and Cass.. and I-I don't know. I don't know.
Sam: So now you don't believe anymore.
Dean: I just need a win. I just need a damn win.

In a stunning ending to the episode, Dean got his win when Castiel returned!

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That reveal was worthy of a mid-season cliff hanger moment. Absolutely captivating! I’ve replayed it many times already! 

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The emotional impact of those few seconds made the entire rest of the episode melt away into nothingness, and as we’ve seen, there was a lot of depth to the story that deserved to be analyzed. Yet “Pow”, right in the heart. 

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Roll Credits.

Superb television.

I acknowledge that the moment could have been improved and would have been absolutely perfect had the camera focused on Sam’s reaction for just a few seconds. He was there too. He felt the grief of Castiel’s death too.

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That may have been the decision of the director or the post production editing team, but this story was about Dean’s loss of faith, and passing that cross over into the land of the living was Dean’s journey, so the shot made sense. Yes, it ignored Sam but only for a split second. I hope beyond hope that this coming week picks up exactly in that alley again, and we get to see both brothers’ emotional reunion. I want hugs all around!! I want to hear Castiel’s voice and be reassured that it’s really him. What can I say? I’m a sucker for emotional moments (had you guessed that by now?) and this is a biggie!

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 Ripping out our Hearts

The numerous mentions of “ripping” last week continued in “Advanced Thanatology”. On a symbolic level that probably only I imagine, my interpretation is that season 13 is going to remain deeply emotional and continue to rip at our hearts - in a good way (thank you! finally!!!). There’s a more literal, more obvious interpretation, though:
Sam: They had to hold him down to rip it off. 
Then later when talking to Billie:
Dean: Lucifer's son. Jack. When he was born, it created a little rip.
Billie: Little rip?
Using the word “rip” reminds viewers of the rip in the fabric of the universe that leads to the AU, plus it’s a quiet message that the writers haven’t forgotten about Mary and Lucifer!

Fear

 AT4
Evan: Someone's scared.
Shawn: I'm not scared.  Mike punked out. At least I showed up.
Evan: Good. If you're so brave, let's look around.

Later, when Mike talked to Sam:

Mike: I already told the cops.
Sam: Right. Of course. … You know, I'd like to believe you, Mike, but, um here's the thing. You ever see those detective shows where, whenever somebody lies, they dart their eyes to the side?
Mike: That's a real thing?
Sam: Oh, yeah. So if there's anything that you forgot to tell the police, I need you to tell me.
Mike: They, um, they were going to the old Meadows place, out on Night Hawk Drive. Evan dared us to go, and it was stupid and creepy, and I didn't. I got scared.
Being scared was mentioned at least twice more, once when Dean was talking to Shawn’s ghost and again when Billie was figuring out Dean’s game. This season 13 emphasis on fear is interesting. In this case, acknowledging and acting on a healthy fear instinct saved Mike’s life. Shawn felt the same fear but unfortunately died because he ignored his feelings. Is that the point? One must acknowledge and act on their feelings/instincts to remain alive and healthy? Is the thread simply a subliminal reminder that Jack is to be feared in general, or is it that Dean should not ignore his instinct that he needs to fear Jack? Interesting options to consider!

Animals

Sam: he's catching up on all my old fantasy DVDs --Red Sonia, Beast Master, Beast Master II, you know, with the time traveling ferrets.
The 4.5 star (LOL!) strip club outside of town was the “Clamdiver”, and the killer’s house was on Nighthawk. Did you hear other mentions of animals? 

Right vs. Wrong, Truth vs. Lies

I highlighted several occurrences of these threads in “Thanatology” but there were several more. Listen for them!

Scooby Doo

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I looked for it and didn't find it but that's why we do this together! Xoferew noted the "What's up Doc" line by Dean to the ghostly doctor! Bugs Bunny and Scooby Doo are both owned by Warner Bros!

 

Curiosities

  • I need to nit-pick something. Dean was chowing his continental breakfast of bacon and more bacon when Shawn’s mom called them. Hotel complimentary buffets usually end around 10am. Giving maybe an hour to drive to Shawn’s house and talk to his mom puts it at about 11 am when Sam and Dean determined that they needed to go to the Meadow’s house to rescue Shawn. When they finally pull up to the house though, it’s totally dark. They’re trying to save a life, time is of the essence, so they wait 6-7 hours at least? The house had to be in walking distance from Shawn’s so even changing clothes (which they also wouldn’t bother to do) and driving there takes another hour.  I think that was a directorial continuity error.  

Despite its title and the corresponding heavy overtone of death throughout “Advanced Thanatology”, it actually contained a great deal of hope. Its impact may have come from its numerous exhilarating, captivating scenes and the return of beloved characters but its lasting significance will come from its emotional resonance. It reset the story and the tone for the year. Here’s hoping there’s more of this caliber of Supernatural in our future.

 

 

Transcript quotes courtesy of: https://www.springfieldspringfield.co.uk/

Additional Screencaps courtesy of: http://www.homeofthenutty.com/supernatural/

Time Warner Cartoon image appeared in https://www.theverge.com/2017/3/8/14852940/boomerang-cartoon-streaming-service-launching