Supernatural’s standalone episodes are at their best when grounded in reality.
It is this foundation that allows us to believe in the Winchester’s world. The use of local lore, of urban legend, or of historical text allows Supernatural to hang realism on a fantasy skeleton, giving us great and insightful metaphors for the world around us. We’ve seen that in cases such as the serial killer featured in “No Exit,” the Bloody Mary legend, and the very real town of Lilydale. The episode “The Things They Carried,” continues this tradition, weaving two realities into its text: that of zombies found in nature and the difficulties of soldiers returning to civilian lives. Through its discussion, we can also see it explore the season stories surrounding the Winchesters themselves.
“The Things They Carried,” is aptly named. Based upon a Vietnam story collection of the same title, we see Supernatural bring into its world the military issues of our current day in a refreshing way. Not only does the title refer to the items soldiers bring into battle in order to fight, they also talk about what they bring home with them upon their return. The Khan Worm monster used in this episode is a brilliant metaphor for PTSD and the struggles so many face when returning home from long deployments over the decade long wars America has waged. Stories often hit the news of former soldiers either committing suicide or of making attacks on others.
Bringing the military aspect into this episode also makes sense on another fundamental level. For the Winchesters, they have seen themselves as soldiers of a different kind. Those they protect during their hunts are seen as civilians. Sam and Dean adhere to some of their father’s military training even now—and easily fall into military language when working a case. It’s easy to see how the realities of military life can be a strong foundation for the lives the Winchesters—and other hunters—lead. They face some of the same difficulties, and as the military aspects of this case are explored, we can see how they apply to the Winchesters overall to continue the discussion illuminated within “The Things They Carried.”
Soldiers have faced difficulties post battle for as long as human beings have waged war, but modern war fare seems to bring with it a new set of issues that accompany it. World War I saw the first use of the term “shell shock” to explain why the veterans of this particular conflict reacted the way they did once home. Surrounded by bombs exploding day after day, combined with the heavy loss and casualties taking place nearby, many were left mentally overwhelmed for the rest of their lives to suffer what modern understandings label PTSD or Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. Flash forward to the Vietnam war—the last war that lasted nearly as long as the Iraq and Afghanistan wars—and we see the returning soldiers struggling to assimilate back into civilian life. Couple that with the anger of the civilian population aimed at them, and it isn’t hard to understand why Vietnam war vets have often succumbed to PTSD through out the years. The behavior that took place then led to the post-911 reaction of citizens viewing their soldiers as heroes only worthy of our thanks and praise. It’s seen in the various welcome home celebrations, the presentations prior to nearly every sporting event, and the constant acknowledgment of the military sacrifices of both soldiers and their families. And yet, we’re left to try and understand why soldiers continue to lash out violently at those around them.
The opener of “The Things They Carried” graphically shows us the extreme of this as a solider has tied up a woman, hanging head down. She struggles futilely and is brutally slashed in front of us for her blood while the soldier drinks. We later learn that he was a returned soldier from Iraq, that he had killed this woman and then himself, leaving his young wife to wonder why and if it could be prevented. On the surface, this case seems like another example of PTSD come to full horrific fruition—that something had happened while he was over that that forever changed him and made him unable to assimilate into civilian life or return to his family mentally sound. She tells them, “My Rick, when he’s home and good, I have to kill the spiders, ya know? Rick was a kind soul. He never took more life than he had to.” It sounds like a case meant for someone else—in the military or the police—rather than Sam and Dean until the wife tells them that her husband was thirsty and that his skin was so dry it bled.
It’s this unusual attribute that tips them off that this is more than a war hero snapping. They are also told of another soldier returned home from the same unit starting to exhibit some of the same symptoms. It lead them to question that soldiers wife, Jemma, and learn that he too is as thirsty, that he’s been staying out all night, and that he’s “different” than the last few times he’s returned from deployment. Jemma doesn’t know what is going on with her husband, but she wants to give him his space and allow Kit to find his way back to home life after seeing what he’s seen abroad.
While the Winchesters are sniffing around this case, they’re not the only ones. Cole found out about this incident, too, and he doesn’t like it one bit that they’re there to investigate his friend. Kit and Cole had been raised roughly on the same military base, so seeing their familiar wheels outside Kit’s house sets off alarm bells in Cole’s mind. He knows they’re there to stop a monster and he’s bound and determined to prove that his friend—his brother in arms—isn’t one.
It’s Cole’s insertion into the case that allows Supernatural to take the monster of the week concept from exploring the reality of military pressures and PTSD and give it another layer. It allows the episode to explore both Sam and Dean’s stories surrounding the Mark of Cain—and perhaps give us insight into what the solution to it should and should not be.
First, let’s look at how Cole’s story reflects that of Dean—along with giving us insight into the Khan Worm’s metaphorical existence as PTSD.
Cole agrees to help the Winchesters on the case—in fact he insists on it so he can keep to them “like flies on roadkill” and stop them from killing Kit. He knows they’ll likely jump to that conclusion, so he looks into Kit’s last deployment, what he might have been doing before he returned home, and why he may be behaving a bit more erratically than normal once home. Cole has connections the Winchesters simply do not—meaning he can get to Military Intelligence files a lot faster than Sam and Dean could. One file shows his brother in arms, Kit, storming a scene with his fellow soldiers. They’re going into a cemetery to rescue a POW. It’s the prison that the militants use. This location tips both Sam and Dean’s interests.
In the video, the scene becomes chaotic, gruesome, and bloody. It doesn’t seem like the run of the mill mission. And as the video shows, the ending is abrupt and frantic. Dean quips that it didn’t end well, and Cole confirms. This video footage is a major clue, however, that there’s something more going on than the simple military incident. Whatever happened there is now working its way through this particular unit, and Kit is the next victim on its list. If anything, the Winchesters now want to talk with Kit more, figure out where he may have been going, and get answers that much faster—before someone else can end up dead.
They follow Cole back to Kit’s place to drop him off by his vehicle and drive off only to stop a short distance away. They know Cole’s going to be the one most likely to lead them to Kit, so they follow. It is here that Cole takes on Dean’s story as his own. In his confrontation with Kit, he discovers that the Winchesters were right. This isn’t a simple case of PTSD or a soldier facing a mental break after a hard and long deployment. Kit has been infected with something gruesome and menacing—something that will change him and his personality in a way that we know PTSD can and often does.
It is in this way we see another layer of reality laced into this MOTW. The Khan Worm mimics the very real zombie behavior found in nature—most notably in creatures such as the Jewel Wasp, or a worm that infests grasshoppers turning them suicidal. It has taken over a host—in this case a human one—and forced it to behave in ways that will get the parasite what it it wants. In this case, we know that’s liquid—water and such. Each victim it infects becomes almost a mindless slave driven to consume as much liquid as possible—violently if necessary. It’s no different than the examples of zombie behaviors found in nature—and it is this reality that makes this monster all the more compelling and powerful for its metaphorical elements.
As Cole and Kit end up in a wrestling match, however, the Khan Worm makes its way out of Kit’s mouth and drops onto Cole’s face, giving him the same disease. It’s intriguing that we see this infect Cole and not one of the brothers. Since the Khan Worm has been infecting other military, it allows the beautiful metaphor of PTSD to continue in a subtle manner throughout this action. Kit’s problem has now become Cole’s problem—something that we know can and does happen throughout military personnel at times.
Underneath that, however, we see Cole have to endure something that will start to change him as the Mark of Cain has been slowly changing Dean. He’s now forced to face the monster that has corrupted his friend, and see if there’s a way that he can be saved first before saving his brother in arms. Luckily, Sam and Dean have seen this particular creature before. A concoction of the Mother of All in her drive to turn all humanity into monsters, the Khan Worm entered the ear, twisted itself around the brain, and caused its host to do things by its mere presence—things they forgot doing later. It’s only weakness seemed to be electricity, something they had to test on everyone. Bobby was the one infected at the time, and as they used more charges to force it out, they discovered that it could be done and then killed.
Unfortunately, this particular version seems to have adapted. Cole is put to the test several times, already feeling the sinister creature move around, preparing to take root inside his body. He puts himself in a chair and allows Dean to electrocute him a number of times. Each time seems to have no effect on the Khan Worm. It doesn’t come out of his ear, there’s no evidence of black goo oozing out, and there’s no indication that it’ll do anything to make it appear. Instead, however, it does end up stopping Cole’s heart momentarily.
This is the moment Cole transforms. He takes on Dean’s story of the Mark of Cain here as we see him revived back to life with a swift and hard whack to the chest. As he comes to and realizes that Dean’s attempts to get the worm out have failed, he’s finding the symptoms of this parasite to be all that much stronger. Without seeing the earlier stages for Kit or the first soldier infected, we’re not able to know if this parasite “killed” its host before reviving them to wreak more havoc—furthering the natural zombie metaphor. We do know, however, that Dean died with the Mark, stabbed by Metatron fatally, before reviving as Demon Dean. As Cole is struggling to recuperate from his ordeal with the electrocution, he’s finding himself growing thirstier already.
It gives Dean an idea. If they can’t shock the monster out, why not deprive it of liquids—water or anything else? Why not make it sweat? To do that, they’ll have to make Cole sweat. The longer they do this, the more apparent it becomes the monster infecting Cole—the Khan Worm—is trying to make him get the very things it wants. It wants him to drink water. It wants him to quench its thirst on anything he can find, and it will drive him crazy in order to get what it wants. Cole stands strong, resisting it. He stokes the fire up, he sits closer to it, and he endures sweating as much as he can in order to force this entity from his body.
But much as Dean has resisted the Mark of Cain, we can see that Cole is starting to crack, too. He’s eying the water Dean drinks a little too long, he’s watching the elder Winchester closely, and he knows that he has to given in sooner rather than later if he’s going to stop the incessant thirst consuming his body. In many ways, the Khan Worm is taking a man that values heroism and standing for your country the way Cole does and turning him into a vicious and mindless monster out for nothing more than his own needs—in this case quenching his thirst.
Cole even asks Dean to tie him up, to make sure that he can’t do any harm—and while the surface of this request seems rather earnest, his action in attacking Dean shows just how far gone he is to the Khan Worm’s pull. It comes out clearest when he tells Dean, “I appreciate the talk coach, but honestly all I can think about is slicing open your wrists and drinking you like a fountain. I guess that makes me a monster, don’t it?”
Blood thirst. The Khan Worm takes the layer of PTSD as metaphor here and adds in the concept of blood thirst. To commit to battle, to be a solider, it takes someone willing to kill someone else—all under the guise of duty. The Khan Worm, and what some soldiers in any conflict may succumb to, amplifies this nature and makes it one of blood lust, one where they become driven to quench their thirst for killing by spilling more blood. Here, it becomes literal as both the solider in the opener drank his victim, Kit drank blood from the store clerk he sliced, and now Cole wants to do the same to Dean.
This blood thirst also points straight to the Mark of Cain, showing how it has twisted Dean and made him feel some of the same things. He has killed before acquiring it yes—but he did so much as military do in the line of duty. Since the Mark, however, Dean has done so due to the insatiable need to kill. It’s driven him to go too far, to relish in those moments, and to crave them again and again. Cole’s experience here points to that very nature that has been growing within Dean throughout the season, becoming something that Dean will have to face head on before long.
And yet, Dean has also acknowledged that this is a chronic or terminal disease, that what he’s enduring has no cure despite where they’ve looked. He admonishes Sam for looking at the same slew of websites, for poking around for answers they’ve not been able to find, and for grasping at straws. It makes his interactions with Cole seem contradictory in response, then. Cole, convinced that he will go the way his father went—Dean Winchester killing him for becoming a monster—tries to get Dean to promise to be the one to actually do it.
Dean tells him, instead, “That road? That means giving up. If you think that’s where your headed, then you’ve got it ass backwards. You’re gonna fight, harder then you ever have. You understand. ” This points to a truth that Dean needs to hear just as much. As much as Sam wants to save him, Dean has to want to be saved. He’s expressed that he wants the Mark gone, that he wants its power removed from him, but since learning there is no cure, after chasing after answers they can’t find, Dean has also stepped back from that. In part, this is to reclaim his life from the drumbeat of a disease he feels he can’t beat. And yet, as we see him help Cole face down this monster threatening to kill him and take Dean with him, we see Dean also come to the realization that he does indeed want to be saved.
As Dean finally faces down Cole, as he’s finally falling totally to the Khan Worm’s thirst, we see him manage to shove the solider aside and the Khan Worm fall to the floor, ready to be stomped out. Cole has been saved—and in doing so may have given Dean even more reason to find a way to save himself.
But Cole’s story also points out Sam’s story.
In the beginning, when we see him first confront Sam and Dean, he’s desperate to stop them from killing Kit. He knows they’ll do it. Both brothers try and tell him that it’s not Kit anymore, that the monster that is walking around doing these things—killing clerks at convenience stores for instance—isn’t the hero that Cole wants to save. He’s not that anymore. He’s something sinister and deadly. “It’s the job,” Dean tells him. This is business, not personal. And yet, it is deeply personal for both brothers in ways they will not fully understand until the case concludes.
Cole is determined that they’ll try everything they can first. They’ll find out what really happened—the video shows somewhat what went down in the mission. They’ll track Kit down not to kill him, but to talk to him. They’ll figure out, if there is a case here, how to stop it without killing him. Cole tells them, “Look I know what you two are thinking, but we are not going hunt my best friend, who happens to be a frickin’ war hero by the way. We are going to find him, and that’s the difference.” To Cole, Kit is as much a victim as anyone else connected to these events. It doesn’t matter if he’s the one committing these atrocities. Instead of simply killing him, they should help him and listen to him.
In this way, we see Sam exhibiting much of the same things surrounding Dean. At the start of the case, we see him looking into more information on Cain, on the Mark, and anything they may have missed. He’s desperate to find something they haven’t already, anything that might help his brother. He won’t give up hope no matter what. Even when Dean confronts him about his not so sneaky searching, Sam does not waver. There has to be something they just didn’t find out there, something that he can use to save Dean from this. He will not rest until he’s done so.
Cole also wants to protect Kit from what these hunters will do to him, so he tries to mislead them. He will go after Kit alone, confront his brother in arms without the two “machete brothers” waiting to slice and dice his friend, and find out the truth. He’ll learn if Sam and Dean were right, and find a way to help Kit. To contemplate any other answer is to do a disservice to his friend. Cole won’t stand by and allow that. And even when it gets him infected, Cole is still trying to find a way to save Kit. He does so in part to show his solidarity with his fellow soldier, feeling he deserves far more than being put down.
If they can save Cole, why can’t they save Kit? As Sam is sent back to keep tabs on Kit, talk with his wife Jemma, and wait for the soldier to return home, Cole keeps questioning if they’ll be able to do the same thing for Kit. Cole is determined and desperate. Even though he’s facing his own monstrous infection, even though he’s consumed by its own blood lust and its unquenchable thirst, he’s as consumed with his concern for his friend. Kit must be saved. It is priority number one.
And yet, we are shown a possible foreshadow in the confrontation between Sam and Kit. Sam is there to protect Jemma as soon as Kit arrives. He attacks his wife, going after her to slice her throat and drink her the way he did the clerk. Kit’s so far gone to the monster at this stage that he isn’t even mentally there in his physical body—his zombification is nearly completed. He’s succumbed fully to its drives—calling again towards the MOTW metaphor of PTSD and the seasonal metaphor of the Mark of Cain—and now he must be stopped. Luckily for Jemma, Sam is there to whack Kit in the back of the head to perhaps buy some time for Cole and Dean to find a cure and for Sam to talk to Jemma.
This conversation gives Sam some food for thought, too. In it, he’s forced to see his situation with Dean through another’s eyes. He’s coming to a dark conclusion, one that he’s been greatly trying to avoid. Since Dean’s death at the hands of Metatron and his revival as a demon—and since Sam cured him—Sam has been trying to do what he couldn’t in the season three closer “No Rest for the Wicked.” He’s moving mountains to save his brother. He’s doing whatever it takes to stop the Mark’s advance. He stopped them from hunting briefly, he made the first few kills when they resumed, and he’s physically pulled Dean away from potential victims such as Metatron to keep the Mark from exacting its dark prices. Sam has also convinced his brother to reclaim his life by doing what they do, to replace the Mark’s bad with the good of the family business.
However, as he listens to Jemma’s horror on seeing what was happening with Kit—and explaining to her that it wasn’t her husband anymore, we see Sam start to crack. He is reliving his worst nightmare—one that truly began in the horrors of the Mystery Spot—and he isn’t certain that he’ll be able to stop it this time as he was unable to stop it then. What if Dean is too far gone to the Mark? What if he is too corrupted by its presence on his arm? What if there truly is no new answer out there that will give them the ability to stop the Mark from destroying Dean?
Sam has been aware of these issues since he brought Dean back from being a demon. He knows its something that could happen. It’s one reason why he’s been stuck to Dean, facing everything alongside his brother steadfastly, and has been driven to push harder to find answers more than ever before. It is in this confrontation, however, that Sam is first facing the fact head on that he may lose. He may not be able to save his brother as badly as he wants to. Much as he told Cole to prepare for Kit’s change, that it may be far too late, Sam, too, must acknowledge the same truth in regards to his very own brother—following his brother’s advice that, “there’s always that-that point where we have to face the truth, right? Even if we don’t like it. Well truth is, there’s no way around this.”
As Kit revives from his knockout, he quickly makes his attack. He ends up pinning Sam down to the floor, choking him. The gun is knocked aside, and Sam struggles to breathe and keep the Khan Worm from claiming him as its next victim. Much as the Khan Worm reflects Dean’s Mark in Cole, the Khan Worm trying to claim Sam here reflects the dark prophecy Cain gave to Dean about killing his brother—-and turning it perhaps on its head. The brother to commit fratricide may not be the one possessing the Mark of Cain. The moment that Sam reclaims his gun and points, shooting Kit between the eyes is the moment Sam knows that he may have to do the same to his brother to stop him from succumbing to the Mark fully.
As Sam and Dean discuss the end of the case, and Dean quietly admits to Sam that you can’t save them all, we see Sam’s reaction. He is shattered by not only his failure at saving Kit—he’s facing the ultimate nightmare anew of not saving his brother. However, as we watched Cole’s transformation complete itself upon the event of his heart stoppage—and know that Demon Dean emerged after Metatron’s stabbing—we’re left to wonder if perhaps this is the answer. Is killing Dean the final destination on Sam’s road? Is this how he will stop his brother from falling to the Mark of Cain’s evil—perhaps in a desperate moment to save himself as he had to from Kit?
This brings us back to the reality foundation this episode built its structure upon. In it, we saw the issues of military PTSD, of soldier violence, and of soldier suicide brought out. These issues were present and had great weight within in the story—and more importantly made us think and talk about them. It gave us awareness of their existence. If, perhaps, instead of putting soldiers on wait lists for the VA, or of waiting until the tragedy has occurred we talk about these things, maybe we can stop them from happening at all. Perhaps we can save lives if we address them, face them, and realize they do exist. Rather than hiding from them or simply white washing the military experience with fancy parades or ceremonies, we can finally do something about these things if we actually do the real work necessary to make our soldier’s lives easier.
Just as the Mark of Cain, too, works like the zombie parasite the Khan Worm, Sam must not allow it to further infect his brother—or infect him adjacently. If he should see it as he saw the Khan Worm, he will inevitably fall to its corruption, too. While Sam may not be directly impacted—he, after all, cannot bear the Mark—he can, however, be pushed to do things he wouldn’t otherwise due to it. Sam will have to fight hard against his own dark prophecy—one that has haunted him since at least the Mystery Spot. He will have to resist the urge to allow the Mark to corner him or to make him do the unthinkable. In many ways, he will have to resist simply because that may be the very thing the Mark wants—after all, it can break free much faster if Dean dies. In others, he’ll have to resist for his own sanity—adopting perhaps Dean’s old mantra of saving his brother rather than killing him.
Perhaps, it should mean that Sam doesn’t give up—and that when our own lives become hard, we shouldn’t, either. Perhaps it means Sam should “fight harder than you ever have.”
After all, it’s the only way that he and Dean will win against the Mark of Cain.
Has this episode made you more willing to talk about the issues facing the military—or that of Jared’s “Always Keep Fighting” campaign? If so, why?