Children’s tea parties, kiddie pools, and mermaids all appear in Supernatural‘s “Just My Imagination,” a wacky humor episode that exposes so much more heart.
Underneath all the laughter, many key lessons are found as season 11 continues to unfold. The use of such childish imagery emphasizes the need for safe spaces—places where when it seems darkest we can retreat to until we feel ready to move forward. As it has been since the “Pilot,” Supernatural is also that of the hero’s journey—and it can come with its own trials, tribulations, and joys. Sometimes, heroes, too, need times to “tune up” or a safe space they can fall back on before they face their fears head on. And sometimes, they need their comfort zone rattled, as we see so clearly in this episode. “Just My Imagination” gives us that journey for both Sam and Dean in their own ways—showing that perhaps the need to “save people” doesn’t stop just at people after all.
The case itself is bizarre on its surface. The hilarious and silly situations the Winchesters encounter throughout the investigation draw lots of laughter and show just how daring the show remains in its storytelling. A little girl has called the cops because her invisible friend had been murdered in her room—and while to the outside world this seems like a troubled child calling for attention, she’s not making it up. Sparkle the Unicorn—or as Dean proudly dubs “Manicorn”—is butchered brutally in her room. The glittery and bloody evidence is spread all over the room—leading Dean to quip that, “Oh, oh yeah. That kid is gonna need all the shrinks. ”
But how do Sam and Dean even get entangled in this ludicrous case? When Sam was nine years old, he had a friend named Sully—an invisible friend. That invisible friend Sam thought he had made up turned out to be quite real. He is there to tell them about what happened to Sparkle and that he needs their help to stop the killer from striking anyone else. Sully knows what they are and what they do. He knows that if anyone can help him with this it’ll be a pair of hunters. After all, the cops the little girl Maddie called can’t even see the victim. He begs them to help—that they need to save the others of his kind—zanna—from facing the same fate. Sam is willing to help his former invisible friend, but Dean remarks, “No, something is dead. Fairy godmother getting capped, that ain’t our beat.”
Grudgingly, they take on the case anyways. Sam explains just why they should. He tells Dean, “As messed up and insane as this sounds, Sully helped me.”
They investigate Sparkle’s murder scene and Dean declares quickly that a blade had been used in this terrible crime. It’s a start. If other zanna—which is what Sully says they are—can see one another, it’s possible that whomever did this may be one of them. After all, adults can’t see them, so who else could have committed this crime?
As they continue on the hunt, another victim is taken. This zanna happens to be a mermaid named Nicky, and she has befriended a little girl. Once she’s coaxed her charge into going to her gymnastics class, the killer strikes her down in her kiddie pool, brutally slashing her to death. The fact that she also has a boyfriend— “because apparently invisible friends have boyfriends now”—gives them another lead to follow.
It leads them to Weems, the “clingy” boyfriend Sully says loves Nicky “too much.” If anything, he may have decided to show that love violently, and so they go in search of him. Instead, he’s attacked as well, but not fatally. He sees the attacker run—a girl—and she drives away in a car.
It finally gives the Winchesters something tangible to work with. Dean states, “No, this is a great thing. I mean, a manicorn, a fricking mermaid, what am I supposed to do with that? But a chick in a car? That’s Terra Firma. I’m home.” Before, they were merely following Sully’s emotional goose chase from one zanna attack scene to the next.
It turns out that this case is a reverse for Supernatural as well. Rather than the victims being killed by a supernatural creature being human, this time it is a human killing the supernatural creature. It’s a topsy turvy twist to an already topsy turvy episode—and it ties into the discussions the season has had on the Natural Order, on the threat the Darkness poses to it, and how everything is tied together beautifully. After all, the Darkness doesn’t merely threaten humanity and its afterlife realms. She threatens all supernatural creatures, too.
This switch also sets so much ground work for the discussion on the hero journey that needs to be had. It’s so often the other way around—he should be killing a supernatural being, not helping to solve murders in their communities.
For Dean, this case is bonkers. It is utterly out of his comfort zone. He’s grudgingly dragged into it. As far as he’s concerned, they have much more important things to do, they have actual people to save, and they have no reason to really go on a silly hunt because Sam’s one time invisible friend begged them to help him. He’ll go grumbling the whole way if need be. They’ve done a lot of weird things and seen a lot of weird things, but this took the marshmallow nachos for Dean. At every turn, he’s expected to treat this like a normal hunt, as if the victims they’re talking about are somehow equal to the people they normally save.
And yet, despite all of his grumbling, Dean does it anyways. He goes with everything Sam asks him to do. When it comes time to investigate Sparkle’s murder scene, he goes with the pretext of child counselors, even if it means wearing a sweater vest. He quips, “Good. The Bert and Ernie pretext, awesome.” He buries the mermaid, even though he snarks that they should just find a toilet big enough to flush her. When they finally track Weems down and he’s faced with the quandary as to why children like this guy, he’s more than impressed with the zanna’s ability to air guitar—perhaps envying the fact that he hadn’t had this one as his invisible friend as a child. He retorts, “He’s no Clapton” to cover some of his approval, but he’s still impressed.
At every step of the way, Dean’s struggling to cope with how odd this case really is for him. This really isn’t their usual beat. He’s exasperated when Weems cries that their whole “posse” has been nearly killed. And yet, when it turns out that their killers turns out to be a distraught, grieving young woman, Dean truly accepts what this case has been about all along. It wasn’t so much about protecting zanna or helping Sam’s friend Sully out. It wasn’t about the wackadoodle situations they kept being thrust into—this was about saving people as much as any of their other cases.
Reese manages to get the jump on Dean—mostly because he’s not expecting her to come at him in the dark. She ties him up and lures Sam and Sully to a pre-approved location—all so she can confront the one person she feels wronged her and her sister the most. She’s an angry woman who has done some violent things to the zanna they’ve encountered in “Just My Imagination,” and yet she’s still very much the little girl that Sully remembers. She’s torn up by what had happened when she was a child—and she blames Sully for all of it. After all, she had to try and explain to children psychiatrists that “Audrey’s dead because of the invisible man.”
As Sam and Sully arrive in answer to the faux text she sent, Reese immediately charges Sully. She has the same zanna killing blade in hand, and explains to him, “So I got obsessed with folklore. I studied abroad in Romania and then I found out that he’s a zanna.” It turns out a witch gave her a spell to expose Sully and his kind to her so she could exact her revenge upon them. Her motivation is from anger and grief, but it also centers on saving other children from the same fate as Audrey. What happened has driven Reese’s actions for years. She’s been hell bent on revenge, determined to finally right what she felt Sully had done wrong. It consumed her and twisted her grief and even though she has her knife held to his heart, killing Sully won’t make things better in the end.
Dean can see that from his bound spot on the floor. He can understand her feelings as she struggles to understand the pain she’s carried since childhood. In many ways, Reese reflects Dean’s own pain and suffering from the loss of first his mother at four and then his father. Her story captures so much of what Dean endured in his own drives for revenge—against Azazel and against Dick Roman. It’s no mistake that we see the other parallel, that Reese is doing this to avenge her sister—as Dean has done so many things to protect or save his brother. Her narrative embodies so much of the struggle he has had to carry for so long—and the vulnerabilities that he tries to hide behind the gruffness and the grudging help he provides Sully in this episode. Reese has her heart completely on her sleeve here. She is more vulnerable now than she’s ever been and she needs someone who understand her pain now more than she ever has. She needs that more than she’ll ever need to actually kill Sully, too.
Reese screams at Sully, “You weren’t just Audrey’s best friend. You were mine, too. And after she died, Sully, I never needed you more!”
Dean gets it. He knows how to handle this. In the strange twisted route this case took from the jump, this is the heart of what he does and the very portion that will ground him. He recognizes that Reese is driven by her pain to take it out on zanna and especially Sully. And he knows that if he doesn’t stop her from following through that she will suffer even more for it in the long run. She will not only have lost her sister, she’ll be responsible for Sully’s murder. While he may not be a human being, he’s still living, and it is a burden Dean doesn’t wish on her for one moment.
So, Dean manages to break free from her ropes and confronts her. He talks directly to her, calm and empathetic. He needs her to step away from this precipice. Dean is focused on saving Reese. This is what he does. This is what he needs to do now to show his full commitment to “saving people.” He’d be saving Reese not from a supernatural creature—he’d be saving her from her grief and giving her a chance to cope with it and move on in a way that didn’t require violence.
He pulls Reese from that edge when he gently says, “Reese. Trust me, revenge ain’t gonna to make you feel better. Listen, I have seen more than my share of monsters. I mean real monsters — bad. These guys, these are Sesame Street Mother Teresas, but when I wasn’t there for my little brother, Sully was. Now look, I’m not saying he didn’t make a mistake, but you know there is not a monstrous bone in his body.”
It shows his growth and his portion of the hero journey brilliantly. While he was the reluctant one on this case, he still managed to not only find fun—in the way he is gleeful about the manicorn or his awkward “family that showers together” comment—he managed to find the sole purpose as to why he does what he does, too: to save people and to perhaps not always hunt the things.
But what about Sam? How does this story show him his hero’s journey—and what about the safe space imagery this episode invokes? How does it play a role in Sam’s story?
In the beginning, Sam is befuddled and then startled by Sully’s sudden reappearance in his life. After all, he tells him “You’re not real.” Sully confirms that he was indeed real, however, and then lays out the case before him. Sam remembers his time with Sully when he was a child—and he remembers the safe space that Sully provided with fondness and gratitude. After all, for a time, Sully was all Sam had while both Dean and their father were off on hunts. He feels obligated to pay back this long lost friend of his—even if he isn’t human.
In that regard, the safe space imagery of this episode sets so much of the stage for Sam’s own story—both in the past and in the present. There’s a childlike innocence in both that allows the hero journey to unfold alongside brilliantly, too. Sam must confront the difficult road ahead, and yet he also needs the “tune up” that Weems mentions, too. Sully may have dragged Sam in on this case, asking for his help, but in return Sam is getting so much back from Sully.
In the flashbacks to when Sam was nine, he is stuck alone in a hotel room with a ringing phone. Sully encourages him to answer it, telling him gently, “Go on, bud. Whatever happens, it’s cool beans.” Sam answers, only to have Dean tell him that their father won’t let Sam join in on their hunt this time. He’s been aware of the hunter’s life for only about a year at this stage, and his education seemed to have been rapid. Young Sam rattles off, “I’ve been shooting. I can run two miles. I know silver kills werewolves.”
Left alone to sulk, Sam falls back on Sully, then. They play a game of “Have You Ever,” comparing notes about what they’d done or would like to do. Sully asks if Sam’s ever thought he could fly. Sam asks if he’s ever thought he could eat as many waffles as he wants. The exchange is sweet and idyllic, a quiet and small moment in Sam’s life as he struggles with his abject loneliness and feelings of rejection as he’s left behind. It turns even more serious when he says, “Have you ever thought about running away?” Sully, baffled at first, thinks he means running away from Sam. Sully is truly committed to what he does, however, and has no concept of running from Sam. As Sam explains that he means the hunting life, Sully tells him, “Sam, I want you to listen to me. You can be whatever you want to be. You’re not Dean, you’re not your dad, you’re Sam. And Sam is awesome.”
What Sam chooses to do here is totally up to him. This is is his hero’s journey as a child beginning. He must choose to either flee and leave all of this behind or simply wait until their father will allow him to fully join the family business. Knowing that it’s unlikely he’ll be taken along on a hunt anytime soon, Sam eagerly chooses to run at first. He wants to go to school. He wants to escape this dreary existence of waiting in nameless hotel rooms. Sully supports his decision, knowing that he’ll support Sam’s decision as long as it is his alone to make.
And yet, just as they’ve made their way out the door, the phone rings yet again and Sam is gleefully packing—but not to run away. He’s packing to join his family. Sully, shocked that Sam would turn so quickly, questions if this is what Sam truly wants. After all, he’s witnessed Sam’s struggle with being left behind more than a few times and knows that it’s highly likely he may see it again. He also feels that Sam may not be making this decision quite on his own—after all, the phone call with Dean or their father may have convinced Sam enough to throw away a chance at perhaps finding a way out of the hunter’s life and onto something better.
Sam, fed up with Sully’s inquisition, snaps, “I’m a Winchester. I hunt monsters. Why would I want anything else?”
In the present, Sam finds out that this truly shook Sully. He was already committed to working on the case, understanding now that this “friend” he thought he had made up turned out to be real needs him. But Sam also needs the safe space that Sully provides. Sully listens patiently. He is concerned more about everyone else around him than he will ever be for himself—and it is a quality that Sam recognizes. He can sense that Sully is struggling with what has happened to everyone—and it goes beyond the somewhat exaggerated reactions Sully has to both Sparkles and Nicky’s deaths.
His burden of guilt, while not open and obvious, calls to Sam, too. He can see its weigh heavily on Sully, and as the truth about what happened after Sam chased him away becomes clear, he knows now that Sully is struggling to face something as he himself is. Sully must rely on him as much as Sam is relying on Sully for a safe space—and he admits that what happened with the little girl that chased after him into the street is crushing. He tells Sam, about what happened between them, “You know I’m not gonna lie to you. When you went off to hunt, I considered that one of my biggest failures. Just seemed so clear to me that you wanted something else. But, I was wrong. It all worked out, didn’t it?”
To Sam, it’s important that he hear these words—and recognize that someone else wanted the very best for him, even if it did end up being hunting anyways. It had to be Sam’s choice, had to be Sam’s decision, and Sully can see now that Sam has followed his heart as Sully had tried to convince him to do all those years ago.
In turn, Sam finds the voice he needs to tell Sully about his own growing fears. He isn’t feeling particularly heroic nor is he feeling brave. He is confused, afraid, and struggling to comprehend the visions God has sent him. The Cage and Lucifer still haunt him—the scars of his time there are still healing and run deep. Sam isn’t sure he can truly do what God is asking. He’s not sure that he is ever going to be ready to face this head on—even if it should mean he can save the world from the Darkness. This might be asking too much.
He tells Sully, “I think God wants to help us fix it, but I don’t think I can do what he’s asking. There’s this Cage in Hell and it’s where they keep Lucifer, and I’ve been in it, and it’s—and I think God wants me to go back.”
Sully asks him if he ever thinks about running away anymore, gently pushing him to talk his way through this problem. Sam pauses, and his response gives him the answer he so desperately needs. He says, “I did, and I have, but not in awhile. Not anymore.”
Sully knows that while he’s no longer Sam’s zanna, he also knows that a hero can stumble, can be scared, and may need a shoulder to lean on sometimes. He tells Sam, “Sometimes they’re scared. But that just means the thing that they’re facing is super important. Nobody else is going to go for it because nobody else has got the balls.”
In a way, Sully is simply reiterating to Sam what he said all those years ago. Sam isn’t his brother. He isn’t Lucifer—for the thought of facing the Cage or Lucifer makes Sam fear he’ll be forced into something by the Devil, and therefore not his own choice. He’s Sam and Sam must make this choice for himself. He must find a way to either turn away from whatever these visions show him or he must find a way to face them come what may, but it must be Sam’s choice.
Sam is grateful beyond words to Sully for what he’s encouraged in Sam. He knows that these are things he needed to hear just at the right time. In his struggle to become the hero—no matter how imperfect—he needed to know that this was his fight and his choice.
In his efforts to save people, too, Sam also knows they scored another win. While they couldn’t save either Sparkles or Nicky, the zanna Reese killed, they managed to save Reese. They managed to find a way to reach through to her and give her the same option and choice that Sully has now returned to Sam. She can choose to use her knowledge to kill Sully and those like him—or she can move forward and try to bring good to the world.
In the end, that’s a win—and it proves that they’re on the right path.
As they drive away, Sam confronts Dean again on the need to discuss looking into the Cage and Lucifer. He’s not seeing any other way to do this—that if this is what God requires, perhaps then he must stop squirming or running away—he must once again choose this life and to face it as hero would.
After all, maybe no one else but the Winchesters will have the balls to face this important task head on anyways.