It's Christmas in July! What a better way to celebrate than to re-experience for only the second time the twisted, gory, heart-wrenching, fast-paced, cynical, and downright brilliant version of Christmas the Supernatural way. Kripke and Co. are a bunch of sick bastards, and we love them for it.
I tried in an exhaustive number of ways to get this review down to a reasonable length, but this episode contained an overwhelming attention to detail, and it's impossible to overlook most of these elements that made up one of the most outstanding episodes of the series. It went all out, beyond the usual great writing and acting, giving us several unique camera shots, extreme set decoration, a brilliant cast of supporting characters, loads of eye catching background details, and even a clever cover story as to why Ypsilanti Michigan was looking so lush in December.
The writer of this episode, Jeremy Carver, gives us his first solo script here, and I must wonder how many Andy Williams Christmas specials he's seen in his lifetime (I assume enough to drive him crazy). As with his other masterpiece, "Mystery Spot", this script is very diverse, offering snappy and outrageous (in a good way) dialogue, a multitude of jabs at the history of Christmas culture, a progression of scenes going at a wild yet seamless pace that blended laugh out loud moments, powerful emotional ones and very disturbing ones, and a compelling story involving Pagan lore that sucked us in from beginning to end. Plus, it ruined Christmas. What could be better?
The directing on this episode is phenomenal as well, this time coming from J. Miller Tobin. He's directed many TV shows, and this is his second time for Supernatural. Considering his first episode was the stellar "Born Under A Bad Sign", he's got an excellent track record with this show. What he did with this episode was nothing short of incredible.
I knew we were getting an exceptional program the second the old CBS intro "A Special Presentation" popped on the screen. That intro as a kid always let me know that something cool like Rudolph was coming on, causing me to squeal with glee. That's exactly what I did here too. The show didn't waste anytime going for the shock value either, starting as if we were watching a cheesy Hallmark Holiday special. The living room dÃ©cor took a page straight out of the Christmas edition of Martha Stewart Living, a pleasant flute played in the background the sweet sounds of "The Twelve Days of Christmas", and cubby cheeked little boy greeted his Grandpa with glee, for its Christmas Eve. I can picture the director telling these two "ham it up as much as possible," and boy did they run with it.
This All-American kid, now decked out in his reindeer jammies, peeks through the wooden rail of the stairs to see "Santa" putting presents under the tree, reacting with wide eyes and adorable lit up face. He gets very excited by the thump on the roof, but "Santa", aka grandpa, knows that wasn't good. Some soot filters down from the chimney, and we assume from the creepy music playing this will be grandpa's last Christmas. Judging by his chilling screams, being yanked up the chimney hurts. Then his boot falls to the floor. With blood on it. All while the boy watches. At least grandpa gave his grandson a Christmas he'll never forget.
Cue the special title card, a decked out "A Very Supernatural Christmas." Major kudos to the graphics designer on that one. That right there gave us a hint as to how much effort went into this episode.
It's next Christmas, in balmy Michigan, and Sam and Dean talk with a traumatized wife and daughter because dad is missing. Considering Sam found a tooth in the chimney, chances are he's reindeer food. By the way, Sam and Dean in suits make for the best Christmas present ever. They conclude dad couldn't have fit up the chimney in one piece, which is pretty accurate considering we saw proof of that.
Here's a prime example of what happens when great set decoration and directing collide. Sam's researching in this week's motel room, sitting on a dated forest green leather couch when Dean comes in, exposing the red leather retro table and chairs, ugly green curtains and loud yellow floral wallpaper. A standard room so far, right? After Sam and Dean exchange some theories, we get the full money shot, Dean standing in front of a hokey Thomas Kinkade mural covering the entire opposite wall, instantly throwing him into the center of a cozy holiday picture. I laughed hard and froze the frame, partly because it's the most absurd scene you'll ever see Dean Winchester in, and partly because Jared Padalecki has a film coming out someday where he plays Thomas Kinkade in a Christmas movie. Someone had way too much fun setting this up, and we all win.
The best idea Sam can come up with is evil Santa. Dean thinks the idea is crazy and reminds Sam there is no Santa, which opens up a nice gaping wound. "I know, you're the one who told me in the first place." Ouch! Nicely played Jared, for the resentment felt very real.
Dean finds out the previous victims visited Santa's village, and now I wonder if Jeremy Carver's warped childhood involved too many family visits to tacky tourist traps. Santa's Village is as awful as we imagined, with the weathered and in desperate need of paint entrance topped with an evil looking Santa, wooden buildings that looked like rotting shacks instead of toy workshops, the unenthusiastic elf and guy in reindeer suit standing among the tacky wooden cutouts of a manger scene that gets banned by most neighborhood associations nowadays, and ugly reindeer made of logs that Amish places try to sell at a premium. The set designers must have had every one of their Christmas fantasies, real and surreal, come true.
Dean uses this bizarre backdrop to suggest that he and Sam have Christmas this year. Sam hates the idea, claiming their Christmases weren't exactly loaded with "Hallmark memories." Whose is? My memories of Christmas include being bored stiff with my new toys after an hour and nothing but crap on TV, all while the adults broke into the egg nog early. These were the days before the Internet, DVD's or even VHS, and my video game choices were Pong. At least when I get drunk at Christmas now, my kids have the GameCube.
Somehow a goofy reindeer triggers a memory for Sam, him and Dean in a motel in Broken Bow, Nebraska in 1991. The sign says the Cicero Pines Motel. Isn't that the exact same sign from "The Kids Are Alright?" There aren't many pine trees in Nebraska either. This eight year old Sam is a drastic improvement the one in "Something Wicked", but thankfully we get the same Dean. Sam's wrapping a gift with the comics page that Uncle Bobby gave him to give to John. The point is clearly coming across that these boys have nothing, for not even a Christmas tree can be found.
How long did Dean think he could avoid Sam's questions? I have a six year old who leaves nothing alone. Young Sam is uncanny with every mannerism, down to the puppy dog eyes and sorrowful glare. The scene cuts to adult Sam with the exact look of despair, and it's remarkable how they pulled that off. We honestly believe it's the same person just years later. Now the editors get the applause.
Sam and Dean see gross Santa acting shady with children complete with dirty wig and beard, a limp, and smelling like either candy or ripple. They have their anti-Claus. Instead of moving on with the investigation, the rollercoaster plotting takes us elsewhere, blowing the whole expositional formula to smithereens in a great way. A cheery elf interrupts them, asking if they want to escort their child to Santa. Cue the "Dean throwing Sam in a humiliating spot" scenario, which usually stretches Jensen and Jared into natural goofball territory and often with great results. Dean tells her it's a lifelong dream of Sam's to sit on Santa's lap, and Sam fails big time in getting out of the lie by saying they just want to watch. Her face sours and she gives the appropriate "ewww", and once again we have a bit that will be often brought up in "funniest moments" discussions. Add perverts to the list of stereotypes.
Sam and Dean stalk evil Santa outside his trailer, and there's a classic car sighting! From what I can tell given the back only angle, it's a mid 1970's Cadillac Eldorado, and of course, it's in red. It's Santa's muscle car sleigh! Dean again brings up the Christmas thing and Sam has another nickname to add to his growing list, "the boy who hates Christmas." I'm going to have to do a separate list someday of all the nicknames these two have thrown at each other. They hear screaming coming from the trailer, and go in with guns pulled. The irony of having to blow away Santa isn't lost on Sam, but Santa is nothing more than a degenerate porn addict with a huge bong and a bottle of Johnnie Walker Red. Why not pretend to be carolers? It might have worked if they actually remembered the words to "Silent Night". Sam and Dean hopelessly fumble through the song while drunk and stoned Santa laughs at them. There's a memory to record in the Christmas scrapbook.
The episode takes another complete shift and goes back to very creepy, and again, it's done to the maximum. On comes another ideal holiday home, and this time our innocent child is a sweet, curly haired boy who's eager to great Santa. Except it isn't Santa, its some dude in a bloody red leather suit who goes upstairs, knocks out mom and drags dad down in his sack. The bewildered boy, with those huge dark eyes, watches scary Santa take out his dad, step toward him, reach out, and grab a cookie on the plate behind him before going up the chimney. Yeah kid, I'm stunned too. Sure, this boy's scarred for life, but maybe he's a new prospective hunter. All hunters got into hunting somehow.
When talking to the emotional victim, Sam asks "Where did you get that wreath?" Oh Sam, I know it's the link to the cases, but couldn't there have been a better way to find out? He grabs his collar as both Dean and the woman stare at him in stone silence. "Just curious." Ha! Back at the motel room, Sam delivers the message from Bobby. "Uh, we're morons." The anti-Claus thing is a stupid idea, and Bobby proves he's really smart by identifying ingredient in those wreaths as meadowsweet, the most perfect plant in Pagan lore. Ooh, Pagans! I got a religious magazine in the mail once that gave exhaustive detail as to why we're all Pagans for celebrating Easter. Apparently Pagans love all Christian holidays. Those with the wreaths are telling the Pagans to come eat them, and Pagan sacrifices are rewarded with mild weather. Very clever guys, but Ypsilanti still isn't that green in December, even with mild weather.
It's time for another shift in this perfectly plotted episode, and it's hilarious. Sam and Dean enter a crafts store, and Dean again tries to humiliate his brother, this time pulling the gay card. His story involves Jenga at the Walsh's. That image in my head is both funny and disturbing at the same time. Sam, on the spot but not missing a beat, describes the wreath in a deadpan tone, "it was yummy." What's even better is the clerk plays along, when Sam mentions the meadowsweet. "Well, aren't you a fussy one." We get the mother of all of Sam bitchfaces, while Dean laughs and agrees. This clerk is fantastic by the way, and I wonder if this actor does comedy a lot. He mentions that he sold all the wreaths, even though they were given to him for free, because "it's Christmas, people pay a butt load for this crap". "That's the spirit," Dean wittingly observes, and I'm dying. When Jensen and Jared are allowed to go all out, the results are always amazing.
But now the funny turns to sad. I feel like I'm watching short attention span theater. Sam and Dean enter the motel room and take their spots on the edge of the beds. The camera angle is different, for they're shown from behind instead of in front. This experiment works, and the end result is nothing short of remarkable. Dean fondly remembers the beer can wreath that their dad found, and Sam doesn't understand his sudden love for the holiday. Dean confesses his reason, it's his last year. Sam's face falls, and with sad music he admits in heartbreaking fashion he can't pretend everything's okay. The lines in this were good, but Jensen and Jared made it perfect. I feel as devastated as Sam (still sobbing!). I've gone from laughing hard to tearing up in two minutes. I love this show.
Speaking of tearing up, another flashback to 1991, and who as a kid wanted Funyuns for dinner? Lucky Sam. This time it's young Sam's turn to be emotionally heartbreaking. He's found John's journal, and knows everything. He finds out Santa isn't real, and monsters are. That monsters got their mom. That monsters can get them. He cries himself to sleep, finding no solace in the fact that his older brother says their Dad is a superhero. This is how all the animosity began. Dad lied to him and Sam will never able to trust him again. It's quite devastating to see young boys go through this, especially when Dean promised it would all be better, and we saw how empty that promise was.
Another shift to the lighter side again, for Sam and Dean approach a cozy Dutch Colonial, complete with Poinsettias, a sleigh, a snowman, a lighted train, a Santa, and strings of holly everywhere. It looks like a giant Christmas store threw up on the home (since its Michigan, I say Bronners). To the door comes Ozzie and Harriet; perky, sweet, overly charming, and a little too perfect. These actors are incredible, for they've sold me on the whole act. The Pagan vibe must have been there, because we learn nothing smells finer than meadowsweet (a couple of times), the wreaths are fine, and the holiday trimmings all over the house are a little too overdone. Edward, complete with cardigan and pipe, fits the stereotype of every 1950's TV dad in America. They're evil alright. Sam and Dean go back to the motel and sharpen wooden stakes.
Dean comments, "Are they hiding a Pagan God under their plastic covered couch" and next scene we find they actually have such a couch! Again with the little touches. Sam and Dean walk through the scattering of snow globes, Santa figurines, a giant gingerbread house, a perfectly trimmed real tree, a table full of holiday cookies, and oh, some carved up bodies in the basement. Yep, it's a Pagan house.
Back to the horrifying, and this gets intense. Sam and Dean investigate the dark basement, finding blood and bones everywhere, an eye out of its socket, bloody saws and bone fragments, and Sam wincing in repulsion. Sam spots a blood spattered bag on a hook and cautiously approaches, then it jumps, forcing me to spill my beer everywhere. He's grabbed by the neck and hoisted on one arm up the wall by none other than saccharine Mrs. Pagan God. Watching her easily handle someone as enormous as Sam was both really scary and very amusing. Mr. Pagan God takes out Dean easily, and they both give a happy smile after knocking Sam unconscious. I'm going to think twice about my perky neighbors.
Now we get to what I think is the most ingenious scene ever done on television. These four characters brightly deliver some of the best dialogue imaginable without missing a beat, combining hilarious lines with outright spine tingling torture courtesy of the most outlandish villains ever to be on this show.
Sam and Dean are tied to chairs, while the joyous Pagan couple, decked out in their loudest holiday garb, are virtually tap dancing over the fact they get to eat two more people this year. The feast can't happen until rituals are followed, and it's not pretty. Mrs. God even goes through the trouble of putting napkins on their laps for torture. Isn't that thoughtful? The meadowsweet is hung around their necks, and I'm having trouble counting all the Sam bitchfaces.
Mr. God has a knife, and with delight slices Sam's arm open, catching his blood in a bowl. Mrs. God does the same with Dean, and he responds to his pain by yelling "you bitch!" Mrs. God's reaction is priceless, chastising his language by telling him he should put a nickel into the swear jar and use the word "fudge", all while waving a very sharp knife at him (this might pinch a bit dear). Dean, while wrenching in pain, delivers THE best line of the series. "If you fudging touch me again I'll fudging kill ya." I have to pause the TiVo now, for I'm on the floor in laughter.
But wait, this show has a way of going from extreme laughs to jaw dropping horror with the snap of a finger. While carving up the boys, the Gods recount how they aren't revered like they used to be and fell into suburban life. They "assimilated" (Star Trek reference!). Judging by the flashing lights on Mrs. God's sweater, they're not going out of their way to stay unnoticed. Mr. God joyfully grabs the rusty pliers next, and goes for Sam's hand. Sam has the right for freak out, for in very graphic detail, his fingernail is ripped clean off! Wow, this is a Christmas episode? I don't remember this happening on Rudolph. While Sam is writhing in agony, pliers go to Dean next, for they need a tooth. To further prove the incredible timing of this scene, the doorbell rings, and Dean insists to these polite killers they should get that, all while the pliers are still in his mouth.
At the door is a neighbor with an obnoxious reindeer sweatshirt and a fruitcake. Why don't they want to eat her? After an extreme exchange of good neighbor holiday wishes, the Gods behind closed doors roll their eyes and step on the cake. Even Pagans hate fruitcake! Sam and Dean have escaped, and find their impromptu stakes by tearing apart the Christmas tree. Mrs. God is pretty pissed about that, for she loved that tree, and smacks Sam across the room. Sam gets up and lunges with stake, taking out Mrs. God with a chilling, ruthless kill, digging into her multiple times. Dean does the same to Mr. God, but his turn is a little quicker. In yet another perfect touch, the camera pans to the stake sticking out from Mr. God's heart, and it has a big blue glass ornament on it. Even the weapons are decorated, just in case we forgot this is a holiday show.
But that isn't even close to the end of it. It's 1991 again, and it's the tale of two Christmases, both evoking the same amount of tears. Young Dean lies and says their dad came back and brought presents and a tree. Young Sam opens them, and finds it's a Barbie and baton. Seems that Dean stole the presents up the road and Daddy Winchester never showed. In both disappointment over his dad and appreciation for his brother, Sam gives Dean the gift he meant for John. He unwraps it, and its none other than the amulet that adult Dean is never seen without. It was a Christmas gift from Sam? Aww, how can I hold up from that?
Now the double whammy. The scene shifts from young Sam to adult Sam, same pensive look, and Dean walks through the door, camera focused on said amulet. Rosemary Clooney's "Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas" plays in the background, and I'm emotionally wrecked before the scene plays out. Dean finds Sam has decorated for Christmas, complete with tree of air fresheners and fishing lures. Dean wonders why he finally changed his mind, but Sam can't answer and serves him some heavily spiked eggnog instead. I read in an interview the eggnog actually had a crazy amount of rum in it, put there by Jared, so the choking reaction was genuine. They exchange the meager presents from the nearby gas mart, Sam getting porno magazines and shaving cream, and Dean getting motor oil and a candy bar. Both gaze at these items as if they're the best gifts they've ever gotten. That's the traditional "it's the thought that counts" message all holiday specials have.
Many have speculated why Sam stopped himself after saying "Hey Dean" and suggested they watch the game instead. It's the same reason why he couldn't answer why he changed his mind. He wanted to tell him thanks for all he had done, for looking out for him all these years, for being there when no one else was. In the end, he didn't need to say it, for being together was all Dean ever needed.
What's a closing to a Christmas special without the sentimental holiday portrait? The camera pans to an outside window shot of Sam and Dean watching TV, the Thomas Kinkade mural in the background, and falling snow on the Impala, with colorful Christmas lights reflecting off its shiny body. Yep, the final emotional zinger that left us wrecked for the rest of the holiday and beyond.
Wow, I'm exhausted. What an impossible episode to recap, but a really great one to watch. My grade is an A+ easily. One of the best of the series. Speaking of best of the series, next week I'll put out my best episodes list. After all, it's Christmas!