Vamptopuses. Leprechauns. A pizza chain for kids. Unicorns that shoot rainbows out of its ass. Clowns. "Plucky's Pennywhistle's Magical Menagerie" is a whimsical episode breaking up the darkness that has comprised much of season 7. And yet, underneath its fun airiness, a tragic but hopeful undertone lurks inside the episode.
We start with Sam being chased. He is frantic, afraid, and ducks down behind a vehicle to hide from his pursuer. He repeats, in earnest, "If it bleeds, you can kill it." As he braves a peek behind the car, instead of seeing a monster or a demon or even a Leviathan, we see a clown. It brings us back to the season 2 episode, "Everybody Loves a Clown."
Time shifts, and a ticking clock begins to the moment we just witnessed. The case begins to unfold, and we learn quickly that fear is the weapon being wielded here. We are yet unsure of how, but everything seems to center at the local Plucky's.
The Winchesters begin their investigation by questioning the widow of the first victim. There, they tick off all their boxes, attempting to rule out and discern what they are dealing with. Demons are out, as are angels. Considering the strange death---by a giant Pacific octopus---the notion of a witch or someone deploying hoodoo quickly comes to mind.
Dean questions the nanny and learns that the little girl had a birthday recently---and that her parents were largely no shows at the party. Sam, meanwhile, encounters the little girl drawing on the sidewalk and notices that she's drawing a large octopus. Somehow, what she drew managed to come to life and killed her father.
Another victim is chased down and jumps a fence, only to be run through. As the camera pans back, we see that it is a unicorn. Its whimsy appears as we watch the beast run away, all the while rainbows shoot out of its ass. It's a nice shout out to the fans---referring to the episode "Houses of the Holy," and gives us some foreshadowing to events to follow---particularly Dean's pursuit of a rainbow slinky at Plucky's.
It isn't until after the would be whistle blower Saul is killed in the ball pit by a shark that the brothers start to put some of the puzzle together. Sam, nervous and disturbed by the clowns, resolves to play the role of bad cop and question the employees of Plucky's. The only way to catch their culprit is to catch someone in a lie or fluster.
Unfortunately, their target is unflappable and ready to use Sam's fake FBI card----and his own fear----against him.
This is where the whimsy falls away into its moving undertones. Not unlike comedic episodes in past seasons---such as "Mystery Spot," "Yellow Fever," and "A Very Supernatural Christmas," this episode dances carefully and beautifully between making us laugh and tugging on our heartstrings.
Time continues to shift, and we see Sam trapped with his fear in the flesh. He continues to repeat "If it bleeds, you can kill it." He is relying upon his "stone number one," trusting that Dean will give him the tools to fight back.
Firing his weapon at one of the two clowns assaulting him, he is appalled and dumbfounded that only glitter springs free. No blood. He is helpless and unable to kill it. The tables quickly turn on Sam, and both clowns descend upon him in a vicious beat down.
While these may be clowns, it's not hard to imagine that Sam is seeing more in this situation than the camera allows. We know, from Leviathan Sam, that he sees Lucifer all the time. His experience with these clowns is a strong metaphor to this, and to what he must have endured in the Cage. He has no weapons, he has no methods to fight back. He can only curl in upon himself and take the hits.
And yet, while this is happening, he's also facing his fear head on.
It is different than Sam's coping mechanisms throughout the season. He has spent it working, flitting from case to case to case. Sam must stop running. It will catch up to him, and he will be forced to face his hallucinations and memories. He can't outrun Lucifer anymore than he could these clowns. It's stark foreshadowing for Sam's up and coming storyline. Either he face it and overcome---or he dies.
As we go back in time, the brothers split up after shaking down Cliff. It is Sam's undoing. They determine that Tyler, the little boy Dean has befriended, and his mother are next to be on the hit list. Dean resolves to go into the boiler room to stop whomever is doing this, and Sam goes off to protect the intended victims.
As Dean enters and pokes around, he realizes that there is indeed black magic at work. Before he can figure out who might be doing it, Howard, the overly friendly greeter arrives. He points a gun at Dean and demands that he drop his. Dean is patient, getting him to tell him about his activities.
Howard, not unlike the writer in "Hollywood Babylon," has been passed over. He resolves to right the wrong by turning to hoodoo to inflict death on those he sees fit. Dean knows he must stop him, but it isn't until Howard states, "Like that FBI guy. He's your pal, right? I saw you chase Cliff down. Five minutes ago, his business card was torched. Along with something from my... personal collection," that he takes it personal. Sam is in danger, and he can no longer afford to dally.
Unlike the Dean of previous seasons to fly off the handle and attack at the mere mention of targeting Sam, a cold resolve settles over him. He starts to methodically figure out Howard's own problems. He picks up a clown doll and says almost in a off hand manner, "Well, hey, these are, uh, really nice dolls. Did you paint them yourself?" It is a trap, and he gets Howard, through a stoic expression, to provide his tell.
Dean has all he needs to reverse Howard's hoodoo---well almost. He looks over and spots some childlike drawings of a boy drowning and a picture of two boys. Swiftly, Dean gets Howard riled up by asking, "So, your brother. What happened to him?"
Howard plays straight into Dean's hands, and in his final dismantle, he tosses a harsh taunt, "I'll bet you still have nightmares. In fact, I'll bet you haven't been in the water since."
He's turned Howard into putty, and while he's protesting, he tosses both the clown doll and the drawing into the fire. In a call back to "Dead in the Water," a young boy spirit appears and forces Howard to drown---as he did.
Sam, at the same time, has been trapped in a futile fight with the clowns. He has curled in on himself, and prepares for the two to strike their big blows. Instead, they explode, sprinkling glitter all over him. He looks around, stunned and relieved.
As the brothers reunite after the case, Sam allows Dean to laugh at him and the mess the clowns have made all over him. In a sweet and touching moment, he withdraws the rainbow slinky---much to Dean's delight. He says to Dean, "Exactly. And now what else could a clown possibly ever do to me? I feel good."
Sam has faced one fear---but we know the real fear that is lurking and bubbling under the surface. All the whimsy in these clown attackers is merely a mask for the darkness and cruelty of Lucifer. He is waiting, patient and ready, to pounce on a vulnerable Sam. And yet, as Sam faced his coulrophobia, he too must face the fear and mental anguish the Devil surely provides.
It gives great hope that he can and will. He will have to rely upon his "stone number one" as he did here, and even when the phrase did not work, we know that it was due to Dean that Sam survived. It is this that lurks at the heart of this charming episode. The brothers, as they always have, rely upon one another and pull each other from the brink---be it darkness, Hell, or despair.
Somehow, they must do so here again---for their well-beings are forever entwined.
Jennifer Spence plays the new manager of Plucky's. She embodies the true spirit of many workers in fast food and retail well. She shows friendliness to the customers, and yet we know she views the place with disdain. Her explanation of the placements is a treat. Her off the record mention that she thinks that it's a load of "hooey" made me laugh. Even better was her description of Billy's dad having a "full frontal douchebag." She's also a red herring. Considering her attitude towards Plucky's, it would be easy to spot her as the villain. In her interrogation scene, while Sam tries to trap her, we see Spence play up confusion and concern. Upon being released, she immediately goes out back to smoke.
James O'Sullivan is the ill-fated janitor killed in the ball pit. He is skitterish and nervous about talking to Sam about the case, but wants him to know what's going on. If he hadn't had to clean out the ball pit, he may have gotten to Sam before Howard could deploy his attack. Even so, his fear in the ball pit was played perfectly.
Caroline Cave and Jakob Davies gives us the mother and son tandem in the story. Libby works hard and is often exhausted and exasperated, and Tyler feeds easily off of this, making things worse. Davies instantly connects with Ackles, and we see them share a day at Plucky's, fending off bullies, eating pizza that "tastes like butt," and bonding over treating Tyler's mother nicer. Dean seems to have an instant effect on Tyler, and Davies brings that out in his performance. Libby, through Cave, is shocked and taken aback when Tyler says sorry about the robot picture. It's endearing and oh so ordinary tucked inside this fantastical episode.
Dagan Nish is the local druggie. He panics in Sam's interrogation, convinced that the Feds have caught onto his meth lab. He flees the room, and both Sam and Dean give chase, giving the episode one of its funniest moments. Nish is convincing and hilarious. He delivers the line "Have you ever shroomed in a ball pit?" with such delight one can't help but laugh. When he denies it, the whole situation becomes even funnier.
Michael Beck brings to life the enthusiastic but sinister Howard. It is often said about a murderer after a vicious crime, "he always seemed so nice," and Howard, with his over the top "howdy friend!" fits that bill. Beck, once Howard is exposed to Dean, quickly turns from friendly and bubbly to pathetic and tragic. He sells Howard's pain almost, but not quite, drawing the line at allowing us to feel sorry for him. On one hand, he was a little boy that happened to witness his brother's drowning, and on the other he's a vindictive little man playing God. It's almost a shame that he chose his path the way he did, and we know that it can only have one ending: his death.
Jensen Ackles brought out Dean's funny, childlike, and fun side in this episode. His enthusiasm for the slinky, his bonding with Tyler, and his juvenile glee at making Sam say "ball washer" over and over was a much needed treat. Dean shines most when Ackles is allowed to uncork Dean's inner child, and this episode is no exception. He also shows how Dean can turn on a dime and go from playful to calculating. His skillful portrayal of a protective Dean, stepping up to save Sam, gave me chills. It's captivating, moving, and a stark shift from Dean from the rest of the episode. It quickly returns, however, when the brothers are reunited, and his breathless line, "I'm sorry, you look like you got attacked by some PCP crazed strippers," gives us the chance to laugh at the shadows this episode hides. Ackles knows how to tease out little nuances and gestures that convey Dean's inner feeling, and we see childlike wonder written all over his face when the little girl walks by with the giant rainbow slinky. He also knows how to convey Dean's displeasure with a pinched look as Howard denies his money to buy one.
Jared Padalecki stole the episode. We see him exhibit Sam's fear expertly. He plays a bad cop Sam with relish. His best scene has to be when Dean calls him on the phone, trying to get him to visit Plucky's. The way Jared's voice gets higher and higher as he denies that it has to do anything with clowns is hilarious---yet like the undertone of the episode itself, tragic. Comedy often hides the darkness and conveys it better than drama, and this episode is no exception. When Sam snaps the word, "quiet," at Howard, we can tell that he, through Sam, is enjoying that moment. Sam Winchester, who has faced down monsters, demons, Leviathans, and Lucifer himself, hesitates to help Dean chase down Cliff upon the sight of a clown in his path. Jared shows that well between the grimace and the bouncing on his toes before shooting to the side. His first entrance to Plucky's eludes to Sam's inner turmoil as he tenses and flicks his gaze around. Sam hasn't said anything, and yet Jared gives us all we need to know for how he feels.
It would seem that this whimsical treat, while a delightful breath of fresh air, sets up Sam's downward spiral. And yet, the hope that one shall overcome lingers. Considering that it would seem Lucifer is back front and center to taunt Sam starting this week, he will need to draw upon that reserve now more than ever.