Oh damn show, you got me this time. My usual tough exterior crumpled like a Kleenex after that beautiful act of catharsis. You know, that really should have been the name of this episode. There was quite a bit of emotional release in the end on both sides of the screen.
This week’s episode, “The Big Empty” ended up being a pleasant reminder that great and long neglected narratives can be done in a simple Monster of the Week story. It addressed many of the shortcomings I exposed in my review of last week’s episode, “Patience.” For the record, I’ve been avoiding a lot of spoilers this season, so I’ve been going into these episodes with little to no expectations. My only criteria is it should be a good story. After “Patience” I was seething mad, after this episode I’m fanning away the tears from my face and marveling how much better I am inside after all the feels.
So what worked so well with “The Big Empty?” For one, it was written with a ton of heart. Often when pursuing dark themes the writers forget to expose those hidden layers with the characters that make them heroic and sympathetic. Or even normal human beings. Too much focus is put into the plotting. This week the theme turned to healing after the loss of a loved one and all three boys were feeling that sting. Through the outstanding dialogue and subject matter the actors could open up so much with just a few sentences. These character do feel pain and loss on the inside and this time I felt it with them. This was wasn’t a generic “feel the loss” lecture like we hilariously got with “Clap Your Hands if You Believe.” The pain was deep and real and the whole encounter poignantly drew that out into the open for all of us to see and experience. As a fan feeling dragged down by the recent episodes, not to mention most of last season, I needed that small glimmer of hope that the characters that I’ve grown to love aren’t just wooden and robotic in their actions and emotions.
The story was relevant to exactly what was happening with Dean, Sam and Jack. The use of a shapeshifting grief counselor couldn’t have been more brilliant. Too often monsters are grim and one dimensional. It’s nice to see there are those out there that want to make a difference and use their gifts for good in extraordinary ways. Well, at least the ones that aren’t killed in the end. We needed to see that hope, that boost of confidence in this crappy world. Sam and Dean got to bring to the surface grievances that were lingering from last week’s unsatisfying ending while Jack in his sweet innocence got a gift that no orphaned child could ever hope for. The scene with “Kelli” and Jack destroyed me, aka busting into tears and everything. I’m the mother of a teenage boy and it captured the special bond between a mother and son perfectly. No wonder Jack feels so lost and alone. That reminder is crucial to growing our connection with the character. He is human after all and that’s going to be impossible to forget now.
This episode addressed some very long complaints I’ve had recently about Sam and Dean as well. I absolutely love that Sam finally got to openly reveal his need to have a relationship with his mother. The relationship he never had and silently craved. It’s about time that came out into the open! Sam’s emotional needs are so rarely addressed in this show so his outburst in therapy was damned refreshing. Too often Sam is portrayed as this super human machine that tries to save the world just because that’s what he does without us truly knowing what’s going on inside. HIs sentiment is also very fitting now considering Jack has the exact same need.
As for Dean, wallowing too much in his pain to see Sam’s needs or motives is very in character. I also adored that the therapist saw right through all that anger and hurt. I’m really happy though that Dean eventually apologized to Sam. How often does that happen? Most of the time these things are brushed under the rug never to be addressed again. I’m still worried about Dean, but at least I’m not super pissed at him for being an asshole. Now I can relate again. This episode didn’t leave him in a much better place though. It’s a small step forward. Sure, he’s not lashing out at Jack anymore and that’s good, but something inside of him has broken. He’s lost his faith and ability to care. Sam and to a lesser extent Jack are going to be needed to draw him out of those dark places, but that can only go so far. This is a guy that’s lost so much he can’t take it anymore. I’m not exactly sure how it can be fixed.
I also wasn’t so lost in the plot and pacing that I felt compelled to spend time nitpicking continuity errors or questioning character actions during the episode. Everything that happened felt organic and sucked me in completely. For example, instead of dragging out Jack’s doubt that Sam’s intentions were genuine, they got that conversation out of the way early. It was simple, honest, and it ultimately saved Sam’s life! That eliminated any chance of contrived and false drama coming from that. It ultimately won favor with Dean as well, even if it took until later in the episode. No, I didn’t have any doubt that Jack would save Sam with his powers, but it was still nice to see.
Then, after all that, there was Castiel’s ordeal, which actually made some sense as well as being interesting to watch. The main weaknesses of the plot was trying to shoehorn that very different story into Sam, Dean, and Jack’s adventure, but while the two stories didn’t blend well, but both were great individually. I’m intrigued that the empty is controlled by an entity that just wants everything to be restful and dark. Think about it, no wonder God decided to create a different universe. It kind of makes Chuck a dreamer, no? I even liked the entity’s weird voice! Misha must have a lot of fun playing these alternate roles. The dialogue he was given was very entertaining. It also makes sense that Castiel would be the first being to wake up in the empty because of his connection with Jack, another very unique being. At first I questioned how easy it was for Castiel to get back to Earth but at the same time, what sort of adventures could happen with a trench-coated angel in blackness where no one else is awake? It would have gotten dull fast. Worse yet, under lesser writers, a terrible camp fest would have ensued.
As a side note I’ve read theories that the person at the end wasn’t Castiel but perhaps the “Entity of the Dark” (insert your nickname here). Sorry, but I don’t subscribe to that. If there’s one thing I’ve learned with Dabb and company, they don’t like pulling any tricks. If it looks like a duck, it’s a duck. If Castiel does come back very strange, I’m blaming it on his connection with Jack or his new found appreciation for life. Otherwise, this is the angel we know and love and he’s back.
So yes, overall, this was a very satisfying hour. A shapeshifter story that for once delivered some much needed hope and a good amount of relief instead of cheap horrors. It brought to surface some brotherly issues in an honest and genuine way but didn’t get too overly dramatic in process. And it made me fall in love with Jack even more. A big win for any fan in a desperate place to connect with the characters again.
Overall grade, an A-. There’s a small ding for the weak teaser that should have focused more on the grieving widow than the quick show of a homicidal ghost, and the choppy nature of integrating the Castiel scenes. Otherwise, I’m super impressed. Thank you Meredith Glynn for getting to the heart of story rather than just showing our heroes work a case and kill the bad guy because he/she was there. Thank you for showing us why these characters mean something to us. This is what “Supernatural” is all about.