Once in a while, it’s beneficial to look backward before going forward. Sure “After School Special” isn’t embroiled with the presence of angels and Ruby leading Sam toward the darkside, but it is welcome look back at Sam and Dean’s history. Thanks to crisp plotting that mixes all the elements of horror, drama, action, and comedy perfectly while giving thought provoking character studies, this episode is a big winner.
It’s taken me a while to wrap my hands around this one since there’s plenty to examine. That instantly earns kudos for Andrew Dabb and Daniel Loflin, the writers of this episode, for I love being challenged to think. Also worth noting is a brilliant first time Supernatural appearance for director Adam Kane (credits previously are Pushing Daises and Heroes). He offers a few new tricks that add huge depth to the unfolding of this very busy story.
This time the drama occurs in a high school cafeteria. For a minute there, I think I’m watching one of the other CW shows and had a sudden impulse to change the channel. I fight it off though, and as the teens at the table are taunting the so called slut, I keep repeating to myself, “This is not 90210, this is not 90210“¦” Slut sits with a fuller figured unpopular girl, because, well, I have no idea why. Unpopular girl tells slut they’re being jerks, yet slut is a bitch too and gets really mean. Yeah, this school obviously hasn’t put How To Win Friends And Influence People on the mandatory reading list.
Slut is in the bathroom, and unpopular girl comes up behind her. She’s pissed, and expresses her emotions by slamming slut’s forehead into the mirror, smashing it. Then she drags her over to the toilet and delivers the only fatal swirly I’ve ever seen. Unpopular girl throws the body on the floor, and goes over to the non-smashed mirror. Black goo oozes from her eye. Oh thank God, it is Supernatural!
There’s a long upward shot of an institution and it’s the clean white rubber room again. Sam’s talking to killer girl, and he’s in his white scrubs! How cool they brought those back. There’s something about that outfit that makes him look so angelic. In “Houses of The Holy,” that was probably the point. Here, he just looks great.
The girl has that chip on her shoulder. Yep, teenager. Girlfriend, if a gorgeous guy like Sam in those white scrubs wants to know what happened, claiming to be more open minded than most, what’s the harm in telling him? You’re in the looney bin. You aren’t dead. Eventually Sam coaxes it out of her. She remembers doing it, but it was like she had no control of her body. Then she asks Sam if he’s crazy when he asks if she smelt rotten eggs or sulfur or saw black smoke. Girlfriend, crazy isn’t even the start.
Sam leaves and I know instantly this is a new director, because we are getting great shots we haven’t seen before. Case in point, a viewpoint from the right bumper of the Impala, showing the long shot of Sam in scrubs, white shoes (awesome!) and jacket coming out and getting into the Impala. He tells Dean that she’s telling the truth, and they should go check it out. Dean doesn’t like the idea. Why, because it’s Truman High, home of the bombers. The school they went to for about a month. It doesn’t bring back fond memories for Dean. Sam convinces him it’s worth a look since they’re there. So how are they getting into the school? Sam has an idea.
Classic rock (remember that?) takes the story into the first of many flashbacks to 1997, when Sam was an undersized 9th grader played by Colin Ford and Dean was well built and very handsome 12th grader played by Brock Kelly. The way the numerous flashbacks are weaved into the main story is fantastic and the flow between both timeframes is seamless. One great example is when young Sam and young Dean are introduced to their new classes. It shows the sharp contrast, Dean is rebellious and disrespectful to authority, Sam is withdrawn and doesn’t say much about himself.
Sam instantly makes a friend, a geek named Barry, who has the whole horned rimmed glasses and bad haircut thing going for him. Barry’s being bullied by the thug Dirk behind him so Sam stands up for Barry, not hesitating to stare down the larger kid and ready to take on his wrath. Colin Ford from his first scene shows why he was brought back to play Sam after doing such an uncanny job in “A Very Supernatural Christmas.” The kid is a natural and has every mannerism down perfectly. These flashback scenes, just like in the Christmas episode, are often bridged with older Sam holding the same contemplative look as the younger version. It’s even better the second time. Brock Kelly in his performance is decent, but it isn’t as good a mirror as young Sam.
I believe the precedence was set all the way back in Wendigo, but now it’s broken for we get Dean in shorts. They’re bad PE teacher shorts too, complete with long athletic socks. I suppose if Dean is finally going to break that rule, he should go all out for the part. What’s even better is Dean is having a blast in this role as substitute PE teacher. I’ve recently been watching Smallville season four, and Jensen’s character of Jason Teague was never this fun in that coaches uniform. Probably because he looked so bad banging Lana.
Dodgeball lives! You know, when I took PE back in the, well, a few years back, we played Dodgeball. It was fun and I don’t EVER remembering anyone getting a busted nose from it. Sure it stung, but only for about 3 seconds. The sheer thrill of pummeling another kid as hard as I could with a lightweight rubber ball was too much of a rush. I had power in that gym.
Dean has power in the gym too, in the form of a whistle. “The whistle makes me their God.” He also has a quick put down for a teacher he’s never met, a female PE teacher, when a student protests that she never let them play Dodgeball. “Well, Mrs. B is in Massachusetts getting married.” Whoa, isn’t that typecasting? Ah well, it’s still funny and typical Dean. Sam, in a humbler and less funny role of janitor, checks in on Dean. He even throws in “nice shorts.” Ha! Even Sam has to comment over the breaking of the rule.
Sam has checked the school twice, no sign of sulfur. Dean doesn’t see a case, but doesn’t want to go until after lunch since it’s Sloppy Joe day. Again with the food jokes! Actually, I miss them. Sam winces, because the kid from earlier that didn’t want to play Dodgeball has been smacked in the face. “Walk it off!” Dean shouts. That actually does work with my kids. Dean is impressed with himself, but Sam shows his disapproving glare. I just absolutely love the looks these guys throw at each other every week.
The high school setting also doesn’t stop TPTB from bringing back the “hide behind the pillow moment,” a la the garbage disposal accident in “Home” or the table saw mishap in “The Kids Are Alright.” All that’s needed is a working food processor and a hand in Home Economics class. I could graphically describe the scene, but I’m hoping the words “food processor” and “hand” do the trick. The class runs screaming and boy responsible for the hand puree collapses to the floor just as Sam arrives. He sees black ectoplasm ooze from the offending kid’s ear. I think there’s a case.
Sam walks the hall with the EMF reader, and in full red sweatsuit comes Jason Teague, I mean, Dean. Since I’m back to the Smallville thing, I should note that I never thought Tom Welling was all that sexy until he dressed in black or navy blue. Damn! The red did nothing for him. Ditto for Jensen. Why can’t the Bombers have school colors of navy and black?
Dean came from the school assembly, where shoving a kid’s hand into a Cuisinart is not a healthy display of anger. Okay, tell me this. Why is Dodgeball not allowed but easy access to swirling blades in a Cuisinart is? Think about it. Dodgeball is a far better way to release anger. Parents these days are just messed up.
Sorry, back to the whole MOTW thing. Sam says its ghost possession, and it’s one seriously pissed off spirit. In a high school? No, that can’t be! Dean checked to see if anyone died bloody in the school, but not before he found out which three cheerleaders are legal. Sam rolls his eyes, and Dean has gotten his desired reaction. Dean tells Sam that a kid named Barry Cook slit his wrists in the girl’s bathroom in 1998. Sam is very sad, for that’s the kids he befriended all those years ago. The theory is Barry’s spirit is possessing nerds to go after bullies. Dean asks Sam if that was Barry’s MO. Time for another flashback!
Nerdy Barry is walking down the hall and has his things knocked out of his hands. Sam comes to help him and they talk. Barry has hope beyond school, where he’s going to Michigan State for a vet program. “Animals are nicer than people.” I’d agree there. Also, yay for the shoutout to Michigan State! My brother went there, as did many of my friends growing up. Way better than those maize and blue freaks an hour south.
Young Dean is making out with hot chick in the janitors closet. Yeah, even then Dean knew how to make friends quickly. Dean proposes a date to the girl involving large bucket of popcorn and a midnight screening of I Spit On Your Grave. Seriously Dean? That film is about a woman who’s gang raped and then goes back for revenge. The rape scenes are disturbing, graphic, violent, and something that would make any female barf. I know I did when the guys across the hall in college showed it to us. Is Dean so out of touch with women that he thinks that’s a date movie? What’s stranger is the girl objects to the midnight time of the movie since it breaks curfew and not the movie itself.
So, putting that aside, I love how Dean describes his ideal life to Amanda. Dad is gone for a few weeks and they have a great setup at “The Pines.” “HBO, magic fingers, free ice, it’s great.” She’s shocked that he doesn’t think there’s a problem. That’s a fantastic reminder to those of us loyal viewers that the Winchester brothers did have one jacked upbringing. Amanda asks the obvious question. “Don’t you miss your dad?” Dean doesn’t have an answer for that. It’s funny how in this episode it’s the simple questions that trip up the brothers.
Dean passes Sam and Barry in the hall, and bully Dirk approaches them. Sam tells Barry to leave and stands up to Dirk, declaring he won’t fight. Dirk pulls the whole chicken thing, punches Sam and he falls to the ground. Then Sam gets this really pissed off look in his eye, and we know he’s ready to go off on this bully. A teacher interrupts though, and the fight is postponed for now.
We go from young Sam to older Sam, who is obviously thinking about Barry as he sadly sprinkles salt on the grave. I adore all the little touches with this salt and burn scene. Jared just kills when Sam is in somber mode. Dean is respectful as well as he squirts the lighter fluid. These two really know how to set a mood. Dean lights the book of matches and I love the camera angle from the viewpoint of the flaming grave, looking up at a somber Sam and Dean. I read in one review this was reused footage from another episode. If that’s true I don’t mind, for it’s perfect here and I can’t tell.
The next shot from within the trunk of the Impala is great too, for we see the faces of both brothers at the same time. Sam is still very sad, Dean has moved on. The focus on both of them and instead of cutting between one then the other gives a far greater emotional impact. I got goosebumps. Well done Mr. Kane!
A rainy night in the Impala and Sam’s gaze is a mile away. Dean asks if he’s alright, and Sam’s bothered that they had to burn Barry’s bones. Sam feels guilty, wondering if he could have helped Barry if they had stayed longer. Dean knows that wasn’t likely, for Barry was pretty messed up. Dean also admits that he hated that school, and Sam admits didn’t think it was all that bad. Really? Dean has the same reaction, especially after “what happened to him” there. Another perfect segue to flashback land.
Grown up Sam stares grimly, and then the scene swipes to young Sam with the same look. I love that! Dean is having a fit, threatening to “rip his lungs out.” Sam thinks Dean is overreacting. Sam doesn’t need Dean’s help. Dean knows that, asking Sam why he didn’t tear him apart. Sam doesn’t want to be the freak. He wants to be normal. Dean doesn’t see how taking a beating is normal. Oh come on, you have no idea what normal is either.
Dean’s also upset because John is going to be gone another week. He’s anxious to leave, because it’s getting a bit too serious with Amanda. She wants him to meet her parents. “I don’t do parents.” Young Sam flashes his eyes in response, and man that’s uncanny to what grown up Sam does when Dean says something he doesn’t agree with. This young actor is going far.
Young Sam is asked by his teacher, Mr. Wyatt, to stay behind, and this is how one normal conversation with an authority figure becomes a life altering event for Sam. It seems Sam’s essay made quite an impression on the teacher. He asks Sam if he knew it was a non-fiction assignment. Sam says yes. “So you and your family killed a werewolf last summer.” Uh, Mr. Wyatt, you really don’t want to know. I have three seasons of DVDs you can borrow. Sam avoids answering, moving his eyes around like adult Sam does when avoiding an answer. “Why would you write something like this Sam?” Uh, because it’s the freaking truth??? Sam has a better answer. It doesn’t matter, for they’re leaving as soon as John gets back.
The teacher is giving him an A because it’s great writing. “Aside from the werewolf, is that how you really describe your family?” Sam nods. The teacher is impressed how much of a character Dean is and how driven John is. Driven is a diplomatic word, isn’t it? I guess he can’t say “obsessed bastard.” He asks Sam if he considered pursuing writing. Oh, this is where the kid breaks my heart. No, because he has to go into the family business. He uses the word “mechanic.” Okay, I guess that’s one way of putting “ridding the world of supernatural evil.”
Mr. Wyatt suddenly blindsides Sam. “Do you want to go in the family business Sam?” “No one’s never asked me that before. More than anything, no.” This is where Mr. Wyatt blows his mind worse. “You don’t have to do anything you don’t want to do.” Come again? Seriously? “There maybe three or four choices big that shape someone’s whole life and you need to be the one that makes them, not anyone else.” Wow, you mean like deciding to give into evil powers and having a physical relationship with a demon? The scene goes back from young Sam thinking to adult Sam in the Impala thinking. Oh Sammy, you’re killing us.
It’s time for another great glory shot of the Impala, this time a front grill close-up at ground level in front of the school. Sam is going inside to talk with Mr. Wyatt. Dean isn’t sure why, pulling a Dead Poet’s Society reference. That is one of those films by the way that after I saw it, I wished I had that part of my life back. It was too heavy-handed for me. Adult Sam is nervously walking down the hall, and the scene swipes to young Sam nervously walking down the hall. Young Sam runs his hand through his bangs, and then adult Sam does the same. Jared’s hair though has a far better wave to it.
Sam is about to open the door and is stopped by a cutesy young girl asking for directions. Sam gives them to her with all his niceness (yes, I could hear Sam giving directions all day) and she thanks him by name. Sam gets that “something’s not right look” but he’s too slow and she stabs him with a pen. “You got tall Winchester.” I’ll say! Then she gets really dirty and kicks him square in the”¦um”¦tenders before delivering one last sucker punch, which flings him into the lockers and he falls to the floor. Jared and this girl must have had a blast filming this scene, for he’s so getting beat up by a little girl. Quick thinking Sam pulls out his flask of salt and puts some in his hand. He throws the salt at the girl and covers her mouth. A black streak goes flying out of her and disappears into the ceiling. Sam looks around to see if anyone saw that. He obviously didn’t want anyone seeing he was beat up by a girl.
Dean fishes out a 40 oz bottle of malt liquor out of the cooler. “Trust me, this will help.” Sam reluctantly puts it “down there” and it does seem to help, especially compared to that smaller ice pack he’s holding. Dean is pissed. “I’m gonna rip its lungs out!” Hee, it’s about time we got a young and adult Dean parallel. Sam, still able to talk despite the obvious pain he must be feeling, observes the thing knew his real name and it can’t be Barry. Dean has a file, and suddenly realizes “Martha Dumptruck, Revenge of The Nerds, and Hello Kitty all rode the same bus.” Martha Dumptruck? As in Heathers? Aww, Dean and his pet names. So much more clever than “pookie.”
New theory is that ghost is from the bus, and rides its victims before abandoning them and going back for more. They search the bus and the EMF if off the charts. Dean waves a shotgun. Oh, I’m sure that’s not suspicious at all on a school bus loaded with windows. Something on that bus has to be tying the ghost to the bus. They find the operators license of a new bus driver from two weeks ago. Dirk McGregor Sr. Sam knew his son. Dean can’t believe it. “You know everyone at this school?” No, only the pathetic losers.
Flashback and it’s time to get the real story. Outside after school Dirk pushes Barry down. Sam stands up to the much bigger kid, telling him to leave him alone. Dirk pushes Sam to the ground like before but Sam isn’t going to take it twice. He doesn’t lose it at first though, taking one insult after another, until Dirk calls him “freak.” Uh oh, that’s the trigger word. Sam pushes him, Dirk swings, Sam ducks, and then through a furious series of punches and knees to the midsection Sam takes the boy down. Dirk has had enough, on the ground looking at Sam with humiliation, but Sam goes for the jugular, punching him one more time, taking him down for the count. He calls him “Dirk the jerk.” Dirk runs away.
Adult Sam and Dean are talking with Dirk’s father, claiming to be “friends.” With friends like that who needs enemies? Dirk passed away when he was 18 from drinking and drugs. As Sam and Dean empathetically listen, Sam is shocked with Dirk’s dad mentioned the kids picked on him because he didn’t have much money. They even had a name. “Dirk the jerk.” Oh, that’s gotta hurt, huh Sammy? Dirk was acting out over his mother’s death when Sam knew him and was a good kid who took care of his mother. I’m loving this director now, for only simple touches are needed to show how Dirk’s story is ripping Sam apart. The camera shows Dirk’s picture on the mantle in his happier days in the background with Sam’s guilty profile in the foreground. It’s really powerful.
Dean asks where Dirk’s buried so they can pay their respects. He’s been cremated. Dean then awkwardly asks, “All of him?” Even Sam looks at him like he’s lost it. Dad admits he kept a lock of his hair. Dean says that’s nice, and then dares to ask where that’s kept. Way to be subtle there Dean. The father, even though disturbed by the question, says he keeps it on his bus in his bible.
The ghost bus is seen bringing back football players from something at night. Bus driver has black stuff coming out of him. No fear though, for Sam and Dean use strategically placed tire shredders to stop the bus. I’m wondering where you find those at a moments notice. I can never seem to find them at the Home Depot when I need them.
The bus stops and the driver gets out to inspect. Sam comes up behind him with a shotgun. He asks if Sam is going to shoot him. No, because Dean sneaks up behind and throws a rope around him soaked in salt water. That give them plenty of time to catch up, see what’s been happening all these years. Dirk’s been an angry spirit apparently. Dean goes on the bus to inspect and the coach asks if he’s the PE teacher. “Not really. I’m like 21 Jump Street. The bus driver sells pot.” Wow, he just nailed every single episode of that series in one line! I watched because I thought Johnny Depp was hot.
Dean checks the bible, no hair. Sam gets rough with Dirk, demanding to know where it is. Dirk goes monologuing, because that’s what villains do, calling Sam a bully and popular, always thinking they were better than everyone else. Now they’re gonna get what’s coming to them. “I’m not evil Dirk. I’m not.” Sam pulls the gun off of him, and we see how personal he’s taking this. “Trust me, I’ve seen real evil. We were scared, and miserable and we took it out on each other, us and everybody else.”
While Sam is saying this, the director takes this moment to play to Jensen’s incredible strengths. Dean listens to Sam and he’s shown from an upward angle in a wider shot, giving the message he’s a distant observer. The shot slides in closer, to show Dean getting sucked in by Sam’s words, and we’re getting sucked in by Dean’s somber face. Incredible how just looking at Dean sells Sam’s heartfelt plea.
Dirk doesn’t buy into Sam’s wisdom and busts out of the rope, so Sam shoots him with the rock salt. Dirk goes into another really large kid, who comes out of the bus and tackles Sam, then pounds the crap out of him. Sam yells at Dean to find the hair. Now, I know this is TV, but Sam is taking some really loud and hard hits here. From the first punch until the last, when Dean somehow thinks to check in the Dirkless bus driver’s boot and burns the lock of hair, there are 18 hard punching sounds. If Sam isn’t dead, then he should be in a coma, his face all black and swollen like a balloon.
However, Sam can take punches because he’s a machine so we’ll drop that thought. Time for another clever shift as the intense action turns funny. The ghost flies from the large teenager and bursts into flames, then the large young man collapses onto Sam in a very compromising position. Sam struggles for air while Dean winces, knowing the proper name for the position. “Ooh. He’s giving you the full cowgirl.” Sam gasps on the ground, not finding it funny. Me, I think it’s hilarious.
Time to wrap up the flashbacks, and we start with Dean, who’s in the closet now with a different girl. Amanda catches him. Dean runs after her and in the hall, in front of everyone, Amanda decides to speak her mind about who she thinks Dean is. “You spend so much time trying to convince people that you’re cool but it’s just an act. We both know that you’re just a sad lonely, little kid. And I feel sorry for you Dean.” Dean goes off, not appreciating her candor. “Don’t feel sorry for me. You don’t know anything about me. I save lives. I’m a hero.” Everyone looks at him like he’s pitiful.
Young Sam walks through the hall, and everyone is giving him congratulations and handshakes. Dean walks through the hall where everyone eyes him with shame. A stark contrast to when they got there. Sam’s look of confidence is especially refreshing, since we see so little of Sam savoring in a triumph. Dean gets the call and John pulls up in the Impala. Dean can’t wait to leave, Sam looks sad. Sam looks up in the window to see Barry somberly waving goodbye. Sam waves back, and then we see the Impala leave from Barry’s point of view.
Adult Sam finally gets his word with Mr. Wyatt, and Sam doesn’t look bad at all for a guy that just took 18 punches to the face. He has one bruise under the corner of his mouth and a small cut over his left eye. Sam reminds him he was a student of his once and thanks him for some advice he gave him. Mr. Wyatt remembers, he wrote that horror story. “Yeah, I did. It’s kind of been one long horror story.” Sam then brushes that comment off. It’s sad how much Sam needs to talk with someone other than Dean in his life and can’t.
Mr. Wyatt asks what advice he gave him, and Sam tells him about the family business thing and making his own choices. “So you’ve managed to do your own thing then, huh?” Sam pauses. “Yeah, um, for a while, yeah, I think I went to college because of you, but ya know, people grow up, responsibilities and”¦but still, um you took an interest in me when no one else did. That matters, so thank you.” Oh Sam, things really haven’t worked out, have they? So now Mr. Wyatt delivers another sucker punch by asking a simple question. “Well, the only thing that matters it that you’re happy. You happy Sam?” The camera focuses in on Sam, whose somber face screams that he’s not.
The credits roll, and episode is in memory of Christopher F. Lima (rigging electrician) and Tim Loock (online editor). Wow, on top of Kim Manners this has been a tough year for the crew.
Character Study Galore
Despite the fact that this is a Sam focused episode, much about Dean is revealed and in the end who couldn’t help but feel sorry for him. Any stay longer than two weeks is a problem with Dean. By staying that long, he’s gotten cozier with Amanda. He jokes about how he doesn’t do parents, but there’s obviously more to it than that. He doesn’t do relationships. Letting anyone get too close and finding out who he really is proves to be damaging to his psyche.
The final flashback, after Amanda humiliates him, is the most revealing. Somehow, this side of Dean makes sense. We’ve seen his struggles with self-worth most of the series, and they apparently go much deeper than we thought. I read tons of complaints by people who said this wasn’t the Dean we got to know after the last four seasons. No, it isn’t. It does explain Dean in the pilot though, and we have seen him grow such much since then. If anything, seeing Dean’s insecurities back then makes him look so much more inspirational now.
Sam on the other hand has always been an enigma, so any episode that opens his layers is earth shattering. Sam rarely chooses to openly defend himself, so his words with ghost!Dirk outside the bus are jaw dropping. As Dean watches, he reflects what we’re all thinking. Has it gotten better Sam? Young Sam left that school getting high fives and gaining new hope for his life, but as the two scenes with Mr. Wyatt show, it wasn’t enough.
The first scene with Mr. Wyatt is likely one of the few times Sam’s openly shared his thoughts about his family and he didn’t care if anyone believed him or not. He knew it was the truth. Mr. Wyatt gives Sam the first glimmer of hope he’s likely ever gotten about his future. That explains a lot Sam’s behavior over this season. He’s soul searching and making his own choices. Now there’s a clue where that came from.
Adult Sam’s return visit to Mr. Wyatt at the end of the episode leaves us worried though. Dean is the only one Sam has ever been able to talk to and most of the time he isn’t a great listener or empathizer. For one, Dean has never had a problem with the life. It’s very sad to see Sam forced into a life of secrecy, knowing he longs to be normal and have decent relationships with people. Mr. Wyatt is the closest he’s ever come to that.
Just like the first time, Mr. Wyatt at the end asks the most simple yet most complicated question to Sam. Sam can’t answer. He didn’t really take his advice after all. It hasn’t gotten better. This ending coincides perfectly with last week’s and opens great possibilities for Sam’s future direction. Sam is ready to make the tough choices in his life, and he wants to be the one that makes them. He’ll either be happy or die trying.
Whew, that was a tough one to recap! My grade is an A, this time due to the fantastic directing, great writing and episode pacing, and an usual, the awesome acting.