This review is a little late because I was swamped at work, but the extra time to think over the episode turned out to be helpful in arriving at my final thoughts. Watching the episode the first time, I was put off by the on-the-nose writing of the comparisons between the Ghostfacers and the Winchesters, as well as the ease of guessing the killer. The plot felt like a Cole’s Notes of the Winchesters’ relationship woes, and I didn’t feel the need for the spoon feeding. Subsequent viewings, though, helped me realize the question of audience is crucial, and writer Jenny Klein constructed a play within a play narrative, with the Winchesters in the front row.
Klein plays with the idea of narratives being both true and false at the same time, which resonates for me in the way Sam and Dean’s narrative has unfolded. I understand Sam’s anger and hurt, but not the way he’s framing his issues. I understand Dean’s inability to see saving Sam as a bad thing, but not that he can’t understand Sam needs to hear him apologize.
I now think those points are supposed to rankle, both for me and Sam and Dean. The brothers haven’t been able to communicate to each other what they feel and why, because they haven’t yet really listened to each other. Each of them is reacting to his own perception of what the other feels, just as they were at the church in “Sacrifice.” Jeremy Carver said last season was all about perception, and I think that theme has carried forward to season nine.
In “Thinman,” Klein sets up a play within a play to allow Sam and Dean to get enough distance from their own feelings to get a clearer perspective on their issues. The episode begins by establishing the problem. Dean and Sam warily tip toe around each other as they decide to work together on a case. Dean illustrates his disconnect from why when he says to Sam, “I don’t know what you want.”
Sam is clearly frustrated to hear that. He’s tried to tell Dean what he wants. However, in his anger, he’s bundled together a lot of issues concerning Dean. Does he mean them all?
The rest of the episode places the Winchesters as audience to the Ghostfacers’ drama, which touches on all the Winchesters’ issues going back to the pilot. Klein places actual dialogue the brothers have spoken to each other in Ed and Harry’s mouths, a strategy which only works well when the Winchesters are the audience. Unfortunately, when Ed and Harry first confront each other about Ed’s lie, they are alone with us as the only audience
I think this scene is what really annoyed me on first viewing, as I don’t need to be reminded of the plot. Also, I love the Ghostfacers. I was so delighted to hear they were coming back. I love the actors, the characters, their dynamic—I was stoked for “Thinman.” I really didn’t like Ed and Harry being brought back just to stand in for Sam and Dean in an incredibly obvious set up. It felt like a waste of their talent.
When I watched the episode again, I realized that’s the only scene which is solely for the TV audience. The rest of the Ghostfacers’ drama plays out in front of Sam and Dean, and that’s where the episode gets interesting.
Sam and Dean have a lovely moment of connection when Dean reminds Sam of a childhood incident between the two of them. Sam fondly laughs along with Dean, but pulls back when he realizes Dean wants him to pretend all’s well between them. The connection becomes disconnection, perfectly punctuated by Ed’s knock at the door.
When Ed confesses his lie to Sam and Dean, both boys see the similarities to their own drama. Sam’s feelings burst out of him when he tells Ed, “Trust me here, secrets ruin relationships!” Dean hears Sam in a way he hasn’t previously, because this time he has enough distance not be triggered by Sam’s words.
Using Ed as a proxy works for Sam, too, as he zeroes in on what he needs Dean to understand. The lies are what he is having trouble forgiving, not Dean’s desperation to save him. I think the writing has been hinting at this distinction as the writers showed over and over Sam’s own desperation to save Dean when his brother was in danger. We see that scenario again in “Thinman,” as Sam screams when Roger is ready to kill Dean. Sam is no more able to stop being a brother than Dean is.
Sam has some alone time with Harry, during which he sympathises with Harry’s hurt and outrage at the lies Ed told him to lure him away from his relationship. Harry tells Sam he can’t go along with Ed’s wish to pretend nothing happened, and Sam understands that, too. Then the two of them get to the crux of the matter: what is forgivable? Sam tells Harry he has to work that out for himself, and of course, so does Sam.
As Harry says, the situation is complicated. I loved the way Klein illustrates the shades of grey by having the play within a play include elements that are true to the Winchesters’ story and elements that are not, just as Roger and the deputy were doing with their constructed Thinman narrative. The scenario was fake; the murders were real.
Harry and Ed’s narrative has the same mix of resonant and distorted elements compared to Sam and Dean’s story. The most obvious distortion is the difference in stakes. Ed was saving the partnership. Dean was saving Sam’s life. There’s also the point that Dean accepted Sam’s right to choose his relationship in season eight, and Sam made his own decision to return. There are even more discrepancies between the two stories.
Ed and Harry do what they do for a different reason than Dean and Sam do what they do. While the Ghostfacers do want to help people, the motivation that drives most of their actions is the desire to be famous, to attract followers, to get on Dr. Phil. Ed pleads with Harry that they could just keep the Thinman lie going for the fans, because without Ghostfacers, they are just two ordinary joes.
Dean and Sam’s motivations for why they do what they do are very different. Neither is in it for the glory—there’s no glory to be had, only loss and heartache. They do what they do because they believe they make a difference. Sam may see Dean as selfish right now, and certainly his choice to save Sam had selfish aspects, but Dean’s desire to save people is not selfish. His vision of Sam as someone he wants to hold close because Sam helps him to be the person Dean wants to be is not selfish. We all have people we hold close because of what they bring out in us. The situation, as Harry says, is complicated.
Dean’s Mark of Cain comes back into the narrative in “Thinman,” as Dean coldly kills Roger in a way he can later cover up. Dean’s killed a human before, but this time was marked by the same cold calculation FutureDean showed when he used his friends as cannon fodder to distract Lucifer. Dean’s manner is not that different from Soulless Sam’s, either. Sam notices something is off, though he can’t quite put his finger on it. And that’s not surprising, since what is off is the lack of Sam for Dean.
Dean has always been a difficult mix of hunter and caregiver, able to torture but also driven to protect. John raised Dean to be both the perfect hunter and the perfect stand in parent, no quarter given for any failures. The elder Winchester has worried before how far he’ll go to protect his family, and that’s clearly a strong thread in this season’s arc. But he’s also worried how far he’ll go as a hunter, as we saw in “The End.”
Dean didn’t ever want to be FutureDean and he was sure Sam was his key to finding his balance, because he knows his love for Sam is at his core, not his ability to kill. If he loses the sense of family he has with Sam, that leaves Dean very vulnerable to the Mark of Cain, because he is capable of dark deeds.
At the end of “Thinman,” Sam and Dean look equally sad and thoughtful at Harry’s vision of only one chair on the porch, not two. I think both brothers are taking a hard look at what their dispute is really about, because Ed and Harry’s story didn’t just bring the issues to the surface, it also projected a possible end if things don’t change. Sadly, I think just as Sam’s feelings are clarifying, Dean is falling under the sway of the Mark. He now has a better sense of what Sam needs than he did at the start of the episode, but he’s losing a sense of himself.
Sam now has to decide what he can forgive. I think the Ghostfacers have one more parallel to offer the Winchesters. Harry is furious at Ed, but he kills to protect him when Ed puts himself in danger to save Sam. I suspect this is foreshadowing a choice Sam will also have to make in the not too distant future.
I hope Sam’s journey will be helped by Dean giving him the apology for the lies, even if he can’t for saving Sam’s life. My guess is he will, as Dean does notice the similarities between Ed’s situation and his own. There is a difference in his tone when he says to Sam, “Got a bead on those tire tracks if you wanna . . . “ He’s less big brother bossy than usual. Dean had a front row seat to more than one narrative, and unlike the Thinman videos, the Ghostfacers’ story offers hope for a more lasting sense of connection between the brothers.