The Morning After
Let me get this out of way right away – I HATE horror!! “Breakdown” was the creepiest, scariest, most disturbing, gruesome episode that Supernatural has aired since… well, season 12’s “American Nightmare”, which was also written by Davy Perez. That guy really knows how to write horror! When I talked with him as San Diego Comic Con I respectfully told him I would never watch that episode again because it was so distressing. He just grinned and said, “Well then I did my job!”
What made this episode so much more upsetting than the rest of the 250 plus hours of monsters we’ve endured on Supernatural? Monsters are imaginary, this horror was real.
The depravity of people being killed through unimaginable torture while other people watch for pleasure can happen in real life. Our new recap writer, Emberlast, drove the knife in a little deeper when she commented “There’s stuff like that on the dark web.” (By the way, I highly recommend you read her debut recap on this episode – it’s outstanding!)
My stomach was tying itself into knots watching a beautiful, young, innocent girl first get preyed upon by that leach of a clerk at Manny’s Diner, then watch her get out of her car, alone, on a dark deserted highway. Cell phone, girl! No signal? Put up the neon sign I always carry in my glove box that says “Send Help!” When she saw that her tire had been spiked, my entire body tensed. Then watching insane masked guy (did we ever find out who that guy was?) taunt and film her terror was so sick. But wait for it… later we are shown the video that is posted of him dismembering people. Well I won’t hear that dialog ever again because it will be on constant “skip scene” on my DVR!
Fear has been a consistent thread in season 13. Everyone was afraid of what Jack might become, then afraid of Jack’s inability to control his powers. Mr. Turner grew up afraid of monsters, and now he’s afraid that Patience’s powers will ruin her life or get her killed. Kaia ran away from Jack when he broke her out of jail because she was afraid to learn what he wanted of her. Claire agreed to not go with Jody and Donna to investigate the ship because she was afraid that Patience’s vision of her imminent death might come true. “Breakdown” was full of terrifying fear, on a scale not yet seen this season. Of course, Wendy Hanscum was petrified by the horrific reality of depraved murder she saw all around her. This brought to life the fear that had been only talked about or briefly glimpsed in earlier episodes. It made the fear tangible, transferring the intensity of that emotion through the television screen to our living rooms as viewers physically absorbed the fear felt by that killer’s victim.
“Breakdown” included its share of more subtle fears as well. Donna was scared of what might be happening to her niece, and later what might be happening to Doug. The truck driver was afraid that her selfish indifference to a young girl may have gotten that girl killed. Doug was afraid to take a stand against a reality he didn’t want to know existed.
Ironically, the words “fear” or being “afraid” were not in the script at all. Not once. Every other episode included subliminal reminders that our heroes, their family and friends should be afraid, and that Sam and Dean must face the things that scare us. The fear in “Breakdown” was brought to the fore, however. Rather than telling us about fear, and us perceiving it as we have all year, we felt it. This episode made us afraid rather than telling us we should be afraid. Where is all this fear leading??
Sam: Let him go. Donna, when you choose this life, anyone who gets too close, eventually, they get hurt, or worse. So let him go. He’ll be safer that way.
Dean: You were a little tough on Donna back there.
Sam: Was I wrong? I mean, when has knowing us ever worked out for anyone?
Dean: I mean, we save people, Sam.
Sam: Yeah, we also get people killed, Dean. Kaia, for instance. She helped us and she died for it.
Dean: Hey, look, I know you’re in some sort of a –
Sam: No, no, no, no, no, no, no, don’t — don’t. You keep saying I’m in a dark place, but I’m not, Dean. Everything I’m saying is the truth. It’s our lives. And I tried to pretend it didn’t have to be. I tried to pretend we could have Mom back and Cass and — and help Jack. But we can’t. This ends one way for us, Dean. It ends bloody. It ends bad.
At the end of the case, Sam talked about the end of his and Dean’s story. He sounded horribly depressed, alone and resigned to fate. He is without hope. He wasn’t thinking of how he and Dean will meet their end, because he accepted that a long time ago. Besides, Dean’s told him many times that “this ends bloody” (was the last reminder at Asa’s wake?). Rather, Sam was projecting that “it ends bad” for everyone in their lives. Just as Donna was afraid when everyone she loved came under attack by monsters (both human and supernatural), Sam feels helpless to save his mother and his surrogate son from whatever fate is befalling them. Sam never gave up hope of finding Mary, but holding onto that vague hope was easier and more merciful that living with the reality Jack showed him of how wounded she is now. Sam also never stopped thinking about Jack. When Kaia saved Sam in “the bad place”, his first words to her were “Where’s Jack?”
How can Sam possibly rest knowing an innocent, unprepared teen that everyone wants to use, capture or kill is alone in a world that would treat Sam’s mother so cruelly?
Surprisingly, Sam’s dire warning was the only time the word “bad” was used in the script. In contrast, “good” was mentioned ten times! It mostly categorized people and their motivations as either good or bad:
Sam: The cure is good.
Dean: Doug, you’re a good guy. And you’re gonna be there for Donna. So, you know, just trust her. (the “Trust/Truth” thread)
Donna: I mean, the Bible doesn’t have much good to say about them. But the Pharisees and the lawyers rejected God’s purpose for themselves, not having been baptized by John. Even the good book’s got lawyer jokes.
Agent Clegg about Donna: She’s good.
Dean to creep clerk: And you feel good about that?
Dean to Doug: Be nice to have another good guy on our side.
Donna and Doug are good folks; Vampire leaches and people who reject God’s purpose are bad.
Donna’s interpretation of the “good” book was an interesting, supposedly throw-away, line. Since it didn’t end up on the cutting room floor, it may be important. A long time ago, Sam and Dean rejected God’s purpose for them, at least the purpose the archangels told them God planned for them. Sam and Dean rejected bringing the apocalypse down on earth, choosing instead to find their own purpose. When they actually met God/Chuck in person, he told them their purpose was to protect the earth, that he could take an extended vacation because they could protect his children. Death told Dean his purpose was to continue his work, that he still had work to do. So people who reject God’s purpose are bad people, but the catch seems to be that one has to learn God’s true purpose for them. So Sam and Dean rejected the wrong interpretations, and ultimately found out that saving people is what they were always meant to do. That makes them “good” people.
Doug rejected an opportunity to help people. Does that make him bad?
Doug: Maybe you all can live this life, but I can’t. I just wanna go home. I’m a cop ’cause I like helpin’ folks, but Vampires? That’s – I’m not…
Donna: Doug, I’m sorry I lied to you but I can’t give this up.
Doug: I know. Donna, you kill monsters. You’re a damn hero. But that’s – It’s not me. I’m sorry. I love you. I’m sorry.
He became a cop to “help” people but saving people is one step too far. He wasn’t “baptized by John” into the hunting life and he isn’t strong enough (or brave enough?) to take it on. His purpose on this earth is to be a “good guy.” He recognized his limitations and was true to himself. Really, no more can be asked of him. I for one think Donna is better off without him. He simply isn’t good enough for her. Even the vampire who made my skin crawl could see that Donna is out of Doug’s league. Donna is a strong woman who shouldn’t, can’t, be held back by a simpler man. I don’t want to call him weak because he was honest with himself and her. That takes strength and courage. He just doesn’t have enough to spare to share with others. Not everyone can be a hero. Sadly, that revelation broke Donna’s heart.
Ripping out our Hearts
Season 13 has repeatedly “Ripped” out our hearts with emotional distress. This thread was most prominently used in episodes 4 (“The Big Empty”) and 5 (“Advanced Thanatology”), but it seems to have been resuscitated for “Breakdown”. The word “ripping” doesn’t actually appear anywhere in this story’s script, but “hearts” are frequently mentioned as the action builds to the gruesome auction for Sam’s heart.
First, the preacher can be heard evangelizing in the background of the diner:
Preacher: If I regard wickedness in my heart, the Lord will not hear me. Psalms — It’s not just poetry.
Then the old song that played in the background while creepy, serial killer, masked guy prepared for his work, mentioned a “sweetheart”. Besides that lyric, other words are equally interesting, plus it is sung by Lon Rogers & The Soul Blenders. The name of the song is “Too Good To Be True”:
I’m in love with you And I’m crazy ’bout the things you do
You’re more to me than any pot of gold
You make me feel good deep in my soul
Oh Sweetheart, a girl like you
if you ever depart from me, I’ll live on in misery
Souls, dying, living on in misery – either Christopher Lennertz or Davy Perez found the perfect song to drive home the episode’s messages!
Of course, the horrific auction was the climax of the story’s focus on hearts:
And now, ladies and gentlemen, let’s begin the auction for Sam Winchester’s heart! $50,000. … Folks, there are many pieces to Sam Winchester but only one heart.
Ripping Sam’s heart out of his chest and offering it to monsters as a triumphant meal was the perfect literal representation for Sam losing faith in himself and his brother’s work.
Figuratively, Sam “lost heart” as he despaired over being responsible for Kaia’s death, Jack’s disappearance, Mary’s capture and Castiel’s on-going mishaps at the hand of monsters. Even though Dean saved Sam from death at the last moment, the monsters have still eaten away Sam’s heart, at least temporarily. He is broken, despite his denials to his worried brother.
“Breakdown” – The Title Thread
Wendy: Your card thing is broken. Tried it a couple times, but it’s not working.
Dean: Breaker, breaker 1-9, this is 67, the Midnight Rider. Looking for the 4-1-1 on my Alice in Wonderland. She’s redhead, brown sedan. She’s family. Breaker, breaker.
Woman: Breaker, breaker, Midnight Rider. Okay? Felix the Cat here.
Dean: Breaker, breaker, Midnight Rider.
Dean to Sam: Now look, when I was — when I was broken up, you were there for me. Well, I’m here for you now. And I’m telling you, the only way out of this is through. Now when everything goes to hell, what do we do? We put our heads down and we do the work. We’ll find Jack. We’ll save Mom, we will. But right now, Donna needs our help…. Why don’t you hang back in case something else breaks?
Sam is broken right now. He’s “moping” in his room, he didn’t want to go help Donna, once there he didn’t want to take the case and help Agent Clegg find the serial killer.
Sam’s final reaction to Doug’s exit was the beginning of beautiful (and very welcome) insights into Sam’s “breakdown”. Was it Kaia’s death that broke him? Another innocent young person killed while trying to help the brothers? Kaia was born with her dream walking ability, just as Jack was born with Nephilim powers. Both were fated to deal with the supernatural, so their life paths were partially set before they intersected with the doomed Winchesters. Sam shouldn’t take that on. Kaia may eventually have been killed in her “bad place” after all. Still, she died, Jack got transported to an apocalypse nightmare and Mary got sucked into Lucifer’s vortex trying to help the brothers. It’s hard to not feel like people would be better off keeping their distance. Sam’s heart feels like the scales have tipped to the brothers having done more harm than good lately.
Donna also nearly reached her breaking point but she is one tough cookie. Even though she was in anguish over her niece’s disappearance, she held it together enough to examine the crime scene then shrewdly interrogate the preacher, outwitting everyone else to learn valuable information. Her real resilience, though, was watching the live feed of her niece hanging from a hook, being auctioned off for parts to the highest bidder. That took nerves of steel.
She even stayed clear headed enough to breach the torture chamber, overcome and kill the knife-wielding crazy killer, and save Wendy. After all that, she was rewarded by having her heart crushed by Doug’s break up with her. That thrust her one level deeper into a hunter’s life.
I want to take a moment to consider Donna’s portrayal in this episode. “Heartbreak” was Donna’s showcase episode. She is no longer the victim who has to be saved, the naïve local cop dealing with an “unusual” case, or the friend Jody calls for backup. This episode positioned Donna as a hunter in her own right.
She is now someone who can survive monster attacks and who knows enough about the supernatural to give “the talk” to the uninformed.
She has now lost “family” because of being a hunter. This episode was her right of passage from the fun loving “you betcha” sidekick to a hard line hunter. Throughout the episode, I just couldn’t decide if I was convinced, though. As I observed in the “Wayward Sisters” Threads review, her characters seems like it has one foot in each camp still. She’s trying to be sweet and tough at the same time.
I’m not getting a solid understanding of her yet. I’m all for nuanced characters, but that’s twice now that it didn’t come across successfully to me. Honestly, I got the impression that Briana is still struggling to redefine Donna as well. In some scenes, Bri was sly and expressive, but in others she seemed stiff to me, like she was holding back or not quite able to lose herself in the role. She honestly looked self-conscious, like her mind was so burdened with the importance of this episode to her character that she couldn’t shed that weight and just be herself, or rather Donna. Perhaps she, like me, is also confused by how to reconcile the Donna who has an effervescent smile, really is the sweetest person on earth, and says “H-E-double hockey sticks”, “what the cuss?” and “Douggy Bear” with the Donna who kicks ass and takes names. The monsters didn’t break her but love did. She’s innocent but still a hunter. How does one write, portray or understand such a conflict? Maybe the point was that the monsters couldn’t break her or Sam but their hearts are still vulnerable. I got that with Sam but it didn’t work as well for Donna. This is only her second episode trying to portray the new incarnation of this character so she has time to figure this out. I truly LOVE both Donna and Briana (as I said last week), so I want to see much, much more of her, but did anyone else sense a struggle to strike the golden stake into the ground to connect the two Donnas?
Insanity – Again, the word wasn’t used at all in the script but we were clearly shown insane behavior in both Clegg and the actual killer.
Self-Preservation – This came up once before in 13.7 “War of the Worlds”. “Breakdown” revisited this concept through Doug, who chose to walk away rather than uproot his life to save others, and the truckdriver who just kept driving.
Impostors/Disguises – Also in “War of the Worlds” and its predecessor “Tombstone”, we discussed people wearing disguises and pretending to be someone other than themselves. The serial killer never took off his head mask, and Clegg wore a pig face to go on camera as the auctioneer instead of the FBI agent who protects society. The dialog also included phrases like “It’s not me” and “pretending”. Curious that this device to hide identity came up again. Anyone still thinking about Castiel and the Empty Entity?
The Dark Place – “I am in a dark place.” Sam’s words could easily imply that Castiel is actually still stuck in the Empty with the imposter here on earth in his body.
Doors – A multitude of doorways were featured in “The Bad Place” both physically and energetically. Searching/walking through corridors to find the right entry was repeated in “Breakdown” when Donna and Dean were chasing down the sounds they thought would lead them to saving Wendy. They got the wrong door at first (and “universe”, i.e. building), just like Sam and Dean went through the wrong door to the bad place.
Manners – “Please” and “I’m sorry” were uttered frequently throughout “Breakdown”. Continuing the season’s thread of teaching Jack the polite thing to say at awkward or difficult moments. Wendy pleaded, Donna and Doug apologized to each other, and others were equally civil.
Vampires – Again with vampires roaming free in the US! Didn’t Sam, Mary and the BMoL get anything accomplished in their nationwide purge?
Many of you have asked why I continue to watch Supernatural if I dislike horror so much. I’ve thought about that a lot since my friends and family have asked me the same question. Most of them can’t get past the woman in white in the pilot! The obvious answer is that I watch it for Sam and Dean. I love those boys, and the unbreakable bond they share. I am also not frightened by make-believe monsters because I can tell myself they don’t exist in my world, and I know Sam and Dean will save the day. Human cruelty is real though. I won’t rewatch this episode for that reason, just as I won’t comment on whether it was good or bad, or whether I liked it or not. It was an excellent example of showing, rather than telling, what characters are feeling, thinking or believing. It was also a study of Donna and Sam’s hearts, and an exploration of what it takes to break a hero. I’ll keep coming back for that, hoping that their next case involves make believe monsters.
Quotes taken from https://www.springfieldspringfield.co.uk/
Special thanks to http://supernaturalfansonline.com for getting the screencaps done in record time!