There is an old Native American proverb about our inner wolves. One wolf is full of our worst feelings: envy, sorrow, regret, greed, arrogance, self-pity, guilt, resentment, inferiority, lies, false pride, superiority, and ego. That wolf also represents our fear. The other wolf is our best feelings: joy, peace, love, serenity, humility, kindness, benevolence, empathy, generosity, truth, compassion, and faith. The greatest feeling this wolf possesses is our hope. The question becomes which wolf will win out. The Wolf of Fear or the Wolf of Hope? The answer? The one we feed.
Supernatural explores this battle well in its storytelling time and time again. It allows us to experience this war in metaphor through its rich characters and their conflicts. Supernatural reminds us that fear can cripple us---but only if we feed it. The more we feed it, the more the Wolf of Fear will grow---leading us to be paralyzed. Yet, fear is also a necessary feeling. It can lead us to find courage, to take charge, and to try something new and scary. Sometimes hiding inside our fear is the Wolf of Hope, waiting to be released---to be fed.
"Pac Man Fever" explores this eternal battle between fear and hope through the multiple stories of Sam, Dean, and Charlie. Each one must confront and deal with their Wolf of Fear and find their Wolf of Hope hiding underneath. Each must endure it in order to become stronger. Each must feel it deeply in order to learn its lessons. It is in their separate and shared experiences that they also connect their feelings to one another---and therefore create the hope that they each will need.
The Wolf of Fear will do everything it can to confuse us. It will try to make us freeze with indecision. It can make us question reality. The Wolf of Fear can cause us to panic. It is often said that fight or flight are the two options when confronting it---and this is often true---but how does our fight take shape? Is it from our hurt or pain or is our fight against fear found in our courage? Is it motivating us to better ourselves essentially? Fear is one of our strongest emotions---one of our most primal. If we can learn to stare down our Wolf of Fear, we can muster the courage to find our Wolf of Hope.
At the beginning of the episode, we see Dean wake up in frightening surroundings. It is 1951. He is dressed in a military uniform, and a brutal attack is under way. Dean Winchester doesn't scare easily, but we can see that fear is playing a pivotal role in his reactions here. He is disorientated and slightly off his game as he wanders the halls to find out who or what is attacking. When confronted with what sounds like monsters, we see a flicker of fear cross his face only to be replaced by determination. Clearly, Dean knows how to stare down his Wolf of Fear.
As the clock winds back, we realize that it is a day earlier. Sam and Dean are safe in the Men of Letters Bunker, but something isn't right. Sam has slept for over a day and is wobbly on his feet. Again, we see fear etch its way across Dean's features, only to be denied and buried underneath quips. Dean tosses a beer to Sam, only to see it sail by his brother to smash on the floor. He brushes it aside by remarking, "That's why we can't have nice things, Sam," but this is a front. Dean's fear of the Trials has clearly fed his Wolf of Fear well---no matter how much he tries to deny it.
Sam, meanwhile, is just as afraid by what the second trial has done to him. His method of dealing with it is to use it as motivation. He is feeding his Wolf of Fear, too. Here, Sam is using his fear as fuel. He wants to get back out there, to find Kevin and retrieve the Demon Tablet so they can complete the Trials that much sooner. We've seen Sam use this technique in the past. Throughout season 7, Sam kept consistently on the move to avoid his hallucinations. Here, he wants to avoid the effects of the Trials so that he can finish them. He tells Dean that he's "playing through the pain." For Sam, it is his method of proving to his brother that things will be alright: thus revealing his Wolf of Hope hidden inside.
To slow his brother down, Dean insists that Sam prove that he is alright by firing at a target. If he can hit it, they'll go find Kevin. If he can't, they'll stay put. Sam powers through his fear and aims the gun, but we can tell that he isn't at his full strength. His hand shakes, his expression is tight, and as he fires the shots, they hit wide of the target. For Sam, his fear has been confirmed---as has Dean's.
The Trials frighten both brothers---as they should. They're changing Sam in ways that Castiel has declared that he can't heal. They are determined to see them through, however, but that doesn't mean the consequences aren't scary. The further along they've gotten into these Trials, the worse Sam's health has become. And yet, we see the brothers, despite their separate attempts to bury or to hide their fears from themselves, discuss them openly.
Sam tells Dean about the second trial, stating, "Felt the same. Till the next day."
It is in these discussions that we see Sam and Dean both nurture their hidden Wolf of Hope, even if it is buried inside their formidable Wolf of Fear. They are dealing with this together, as a partnership. Sam may be carrying the Trials, but he isn't doing so alone. Their fears may be trying to paralyze them---as Dean retorts back, "So, we're gonna sit tight. Keep an eye out until you get better," but this isn't the answer and they both know it. To sit tight, to hang back and allow others to find Kevin, to not confront it head on is going to put off the inevitable. They must feed their Wolf of Hope if they wish to succeed.
Before they can get into a deep argument, Charlie sends them an email, informing them of a curious case in the area nearby. They invite her to the Bunker to discuss it. She is impressed by the brothers and their new home. Dean offers to look into it alone---only to have both Charlie and Sam object. They both inform him that they're coming along. Sam gets up only to stumble back into his chair---while Charlie forces Dean's hand as she shoots perfectly in the gun range.
With the case underway, Charlie and Dean set out to figure out just what might be after the people in Topeka, Kansas. They encounter a coroner there that is a stickler for regulations. Posing as FBI agents, they demand to see the body. Jennifer is cool, calm, and collected in her refusal. She won't share the goods with them until they produce a signed copy of the chain of custody form. It leaves them empty handed and needing to form another plan.
However, time is short for the next victim. Another body turns up and they head to the scene.
Sam, left behind, has nothing to do but stew in his own fears about the Trials. He wants to be out hunting and watching his brother's back. He isn't do any good sitting alone at the Bunker. Taking his brother's test again, Sam fires at the target. He doesn't hit the human figure stamped on it, but he does hit it instead of the wall. Sam, here, is making his Wolf of Fear work for him. He may be afraid, but he refuses to allow it to slow him down. He has something to prove to both Dean and himself: that he can do this. A hard look of determination flits across his face and he declares, "Close enough."
As Dean forces Charlie to take the lead---yet another play on confronting fear---they encounter an officer at the scene. Charlie begins with a much more confident introduction, stating calmly, "I am Special Agent Ripley, this is my partner"”," but they've already been beat there---by Sam. He has already arrived on scene to learn what he can and informs Charlie and Dean that they're already too late to see the body. The coroner---probably Jennifer---already swooped in and claimed the body.
Only recourse they have is to talk to the victims and learn what they know. Dean has Charlie do that while he confronts Sam. Fear is clearly the motivation on both sides. Dean is afraid for his brother, knowing that it is dangerous for Sam to hunt in his condition, while Sam is afraid that if he doesn't he'll go stir crazy focusing on what the Trials are doing to him. With the matter unresolved, Dean gets into the Impala and drives away, leaving Sam and Charlie on scene. Sometimes Dean finds it easier to flee from his Wolf of Fear than it is to face it.
To figure out what might be killing these people, they must see the bodies, and that means breaking into the morgue. As Dean enters, he is stunned to find that he's been beaten to the punch yet again. Sam and Charlie are already there. It isn't long before they have company, however, and Charlie flees down the hall to stop Jennifer from finding out that they're looking into her morgue.
It is an act of bravery on Charlie's part. None of them are aware that the coroner is the monster they're hunting yet, but that doesn't mean confronting her will be an easy task. After all, she could easily call the cops on them and expose them as frauds. Charlie stalls for time by asking for the form requested earlier and then anything she can think of to keep Jennifer from making her way towards Sam and Dean. She's afraid, clearly in her body language and vocal tone, but Charlie uses that as her motivation. Here, Charlie faces her Wolf of Fear head on.
Once the danger has passed---after all Sam and Dean had already slipped out by the time the coroner made it to the morgue---they retreat to figure out just what might be the culprit killing people. So many of the creatures they hunt can be dismissed out of hand. It can't be Leviathan. It can't be dragons. There has to be something else responsible for these murders.
Dean discovers that there is a branch of djinn that kill in this manner, and that means they now know what to hunt. With the break through made, Charlie offers to get snacks. While the brothers have been focused on the case, they also have noticed something different with their friend. Dean asks, "She seem a little off to you?"
As we watch Charlie alone, we can tell that she isn't making a food run. She is busy hacking into another bank account and transferring funds, but to what end we aren't certain yet. But she isn't alone. Charlie is confronted by the coroner from earlier---and Jennifer is the Djinn they're hunting.
The brothers, alarmed that Charlie isn't answering, track her phone to the small apartment she's renting. It's easy to see that the room is ransacked, meaning that a struggle took place---which means the clock is ticking. The brothers divide up the case when they realize that Charlie's been making donations to a patient. Dean will learn more about Gertrude while Sam keeps on the djinn hunt. This situation allows them to push aside their own fears about the Trials. It is still present, but they can now use it as fuel to help Charlie.
As Dean visits Gertrude, he learns that she is Charlie's mother. It's why she's in the area at all, and it's why she's been acting differently. Her mother is in a permanent vegetative state with no hope for recovery. Charlie disappeared shortly after the car accident, on the run ever since. The nurse tells Dean that someone has been visiting Gertrude, reading to her, but no one has ever signed in. Dean knows it must be Charlie. It's a tragic find.
When Sam and Dean reconnect, they exchange their finds. It turns out that Jennifer owns an abandoned warehouse. It's the logical place that a Djinn would hide their victims. After all, it's where the djinn that captured Dean in "What Is and What Should Never Be" held his victims. The brothers quickly rush to save Charlie before it is too late.
Charlie, confronted with the djinn, learns why she's been selected as the next victim. Fear is a powerful emotion, and it is what this creature craves most. She knows that Charlie is afraid---and has been since she arrived with Dean on the case. Jennifer tells her, "Oh, but you are worth killing, sweetheart. Yeah. You see, my kind, we prefer a more bitter taste to blood than the run of the mill Djinn. We prefer the taste of fear. And when I caught a whiff of you at that morgue, ooh, such delicious fear inside of you, I followed your scent."
Here, the djinn represents the Wolf of Fear as a tangible monster. She feeds on fear, the more she consumes the more powerful she becomes. She needs Charlie at her most frightened---her most vulnerable. She must feed Charlie's Wolf of Fear until it is full so it can overpower her. As she puts Charlie under her spell, forcing her into a dream state, she can manipulate Charlie's fear against her. It is why fear is one our most powerful feelings. Here it cripples. Here it can destroy. Charlie has no way to fight back---not like this---against what is being done. She will only be allowed to live a vicious cycle of fear until it kills her.
The brothers arrive to find Charlie tied and unconscious. They aren't alone there as Jennifer is waiting to attack. She wants nothing of their interference. If she can make them into her victims, too, she'll take it. Sam, weakened as he is, fights hard but ends up cornered. We can't help but notice, however, that as he crouches by the fence that he is luring her in. She is so certain she has him where she wants him. Perhaps he is merely waiting to strike, but Dean delivers the killing blow first. It is a close call nonetheless for Sam, making him afraid of how the Trials' effect may have had on him in the field.
Quickly they administer the antidote in order to snap Charlie out of it. It fails, and the brothers find themselves afraid that they're too late. Fear changes again here in the episode from being a weapon to being that of motivation. They must not allow their Wolf of Fear to control them here or they will lose Charlie. Thinking quick on their feet, Sam and Dean think of using dream root to enter Charlie's dream. It's the only thing they can try.
Dean volunteers, and after a couple punches from Sam, he ends up in Charlie's dream---only to discover that it's more nightmare. It is filled with vicious solider vampires and dreary 1950s hospital hallways. It is dark and creepy. He runs into Charlie, dressed more like Rambo than her usual novelty t-shirt, in the process of fighting the garish creatures storming down on him earlier in the episode.
He learns that this is indeed not Charlie's dream. This is a recurring nightmare of hers---a manifestation of her guilt and fear about being caught for pirating the game "The Red Scare" when she was 12. She has been trapped in the same level repeatedly, only to end up at the beginning again with less weapons and faster enemies. The loop is never ending, but it will have only one outcome: her death. In video game terms, it is the ultimate kill screen.
Meanwhile, Sam is left alone on guard. He is weaker and not at 100% by any means. But he has to combat his fear---use it as motivation here---to keep his brother and Charlie safe while they're vulnerable. As Jennifer's son storms in and attacks, Sam fights him off. The boy gets the upper hand momentarily. If Sam isn't careful he'll end up like his brother and Charlie. The boy is furious that they killed his mother, and he wants them to pay for it.
Sam may be suffering under the weight of the Trials, but he is still strong and determined. Here, we see Sam feed his Wolf of Fear differently. He takes from it the courage to fight back, using that flight or fight response to his advantage. He manages to overpower the boy with smarts, making his way behind him to kill him before its too late. In doing so, he has also fed his Wolf of Hope. After all, he has proven that he can still fight and win in the field---despite what the Trials have done to him or how they frighten him.
Dean and Charlie, however, must find their way through the maze that is Charlie's nightmare. There are patients to save, and they must get to them quickly. As they near the hospital beds, Dean recognizes Gertrude. He instantly realizes that this game isn't Charlie's fear---she's not afraid of being caught again by the game manufacturer or the law. She's afraid of confronting what has happened to her mother. She breaks down and tells Dean, "She's why I'm in Kansas. I sneak into the hospital whenever I can, and I just... I read to her. She used to read me to sleep at night when I was a kid. Sh"” she'd read me The Hobbit. She's the reason I love the stuff I love."
Her fear is in control of her---and it has paralyzed her utterly here. She must face her Wolf of Fear before it kills her. But what if doing something is exactly what will kill her? Sometimes the best method to dealing with fear is to let it go. Just as signs in National Parks read, "don't feed the animals," Charlie can't continue to feed her Wolf of Fear. She must starve it. It is the only way to break the cycle and find the Wolf of Hope waiting patiently behind its snarling brother.
Charlie is frantic, wanting nothing more than to save her mother. She refuses to stop, to deal with the real issue in front of her. Yet, she's not the only one. Another hospital bed appears---and to Dean's horror it is Sam that occupies it. Dean has been just as afraid since the start, too. He has been trying to deflect that fear, deny its existence, and deal with it by being over-protective of Sam---but much like Charlie his Wolf of Fear is snarling in his face, demanding his attention. Unlike Charlie, he must acknowledge it or be crippled by it.
They must break the cycle and soon. Dean might not be ready just yet to face his own fear, but he knows what Charlie must do. He tells her, "Listen to me. This poison, it's designed to put your mind into an endless cycle, while your insides turn to mush, okay, and its fuel is fear. Now call me crazy, but I think the only way to break the cycle is to let go of the fear and stop playing the game."
Charlie rejects this and cries, "I just wanna tell her that I'm sorry and that I love her. And just have her hear it again. I just need her to hear that one more time. But she can't. She can't."
But Dean's plan works. The monsters disappear, and the Wolf of Fear is starved. As they wake up, Charlie shatters into tears. In the real world, Charlie must now face the fear of losing her mother. But in doing so she also has hope. The hope buried inside her fear is strong---and it is the gift that she passes onto the Winchesters. She told Dean earlier, "If it's any consolation, having read your history, there is pretty much nothing the Winchesters can't do if they work together." and she tells Sam, "You know you're gonna be okay, right? Those books portray you as like, one tough customer. If anyone can get through the trials, Sam, it's you."
Charlie's story may be tragic. She may have lost her fight for her mother, but not all is lost. Sometimes, even when it is hard, we find hope in saying goodbye. Charlie has been running in fear from that for many years. Her Wolf of Fear had convinced her that holding on tight would be best. However, her mother wasn't going anywhere, and her Wolf of Hope could wait patiently for Charlie to feed it. The hope here is closure. This situation has haunted Charlie for so long, dogged her steps long before the brothers encountered her at Roman Enterprises. It has dictated her life, and it is time that she acknowledge it in order to move on. This is her hope---saying a proper goodbye to her mother---and knowing that while she may face this she doesn't do so alone.
It is this hope the brothers couldn't see for themselves---even though it had been staring them in the face all along. If they do this together, if they face it as a team, and if they take the hope hidden within their own fears and cultivate it, they will emerge on the other side the victors. Their fears cannot be allowed to paralyze them. They were close to allowing it to do so. Instead, they must use it as the motivation they know it can be. They must feed their own Wolves of Hope.
As Dean enters the Bunker, Sam starts to apologize for going out into the field. Instead, Dean pulls him into a tight hug, wordlessly passing the hope that Charlie has shared with them onto Sam. He knows that he can't protect Sam forever---and that they must see what they've started all the way through. As he pulls back, he tells Sam, "Let's find our prophet."
Their experience with Charlie has renewed for them why they do this---despite the darkness of fear. It may shadow things, it may tempt them to cower away from their path, but there is that light at the end of the tunnel---that light Sam told Dean he'd lead him to if he'd only let him---and that light is hope hidden under the disguise of fear.
We're left with Charlie, sitting quietly by her mother for the last time, reading the book she loves to her, and while her loss is palpable, we can't help but sense the hope burning. She may have to let her mother go, she may have lost, but in letting her go she knows that she can now do what she has never been able to do before: move on. She may have reminded the Winchesters to have hope here---but they also passed that gift onto her as well.
On a personal side note, I was deeply moved by this episode and in particular Charlie's story. As a child, my father read The Hobbit to me. It was my bedtime story, my time with him, and I will always treasure that. This book is so special to me that I even got a new copy for my father for Christmas. Perhaps we might not read it together as we did, but that book is a tangible piece of the love we share. It was also difficult watching Charlie struggle with her mother's health. My father's health isn't exactly the best, so seeing Charlie confronted with that issue was an emotional moment. What makes me so loyal to Supernatural is not the science fiction/fantasy of this show---it is the human story---and this episode had it in spades. In many ways it became a personal episode for me, one that I know I will return to when I need to see the hope in my life. I, too, must learn to feed my own Wolf of Hope.
Oh, and one more side note, raise your hand if you are going to re-read The Hobbit? I know I already am!
Lynda Boyd played a wonderful Jennifer O'Brien. She had a nice edge throughout, especially in her maneuvering around Charlie and Dean's attempts to sneak into her morgue. Boyd had a nice smugness about her that was understated in that scene. It isn't often that the Winchesters encounter resistant locals while on an investigation---at least not in a few years. Boyd made us both like Jennifer for her witty responses---and instantly suspect her. In her encounter with Charlie, Boyd makes Jennifer seem patient, going along with Charlie's line of questioning about professional wear for women. She doesn't tip her hand just yet---and her tight performance made us question if we had the right suspect. Once she captures Charlie, Boyd shifts gears, making Jennifer more menacing. She is dark and cruel in the delivery of her lines, playing a perfect foil to Day's bright Charlie. Boyd makes Jennifer an irresistible villain here, even if she is only a monster of the week.
Felicia Day is becoming a favorite guest star of mine. She brings such heart and wit to Charlie. She is unapologetically geeky---all while remaining effortlessly cool. Day shows Charlie's enthusiasm about Sam and Dean and the Chuck Shurley books in a subtle style. She's a "fan" but never over the top or explicitly intrusive. Often, much like her theme song, "Walking on Sunshine," Charlie brings a bit of light to the show through humor and her happy personality. Here, however, we see another side of Charlie---one that is more somber and heart-wrenching. Day gives us a powerful performance here, showing us that while Charlie may be a wiz at hacking and aliases all the while reigning as the Queen of Moondoor, she's still a scared little girl that misses her mother. Day puts all of that emotion into her voice, making us believe and feel deeply for Charlie as she admits to Dean what happened---and what her mother read to her as a child. She conveys some of the inner pain of Charlie best, however, with just a look and a crumbling facial expression. Day's most powerful expression is upon realizing that Charlie's mother is truly gone and that she must let go in order to break the Djinn's control. Yet, Day also makes certain that we see Charlie's hope in her interactions with both brothers. She tells Dean that "If it's any consolation, having read your history, there is pretty much nothing the Winchesters can't do if they work together," and Sam, "You know you're gonna be okay, right? Those books portray you as like, one tough customer. If anyone can get through the trials, Sam, it's you." The lines may have been written with hope as their intent, but Day makes it tangible in her delivery here. It's partly why her own personal story in this episode is so powerful. Charlie hopes against all odds. It'll be interesting to see how Charlie returns at a later date---probably in season 9.
Jensen Ackles gives us a concerned and empathetic Dean. Faced with Sam's struggle, Dean tries to shoulder the burden in his own way: by being protective. Ackles shows us this tendency best in the gun range when Dean has Sam shoot at the target. Dean may have dictated to Sam that they were not going to hunt, but here we see him back it up with action. He'll yield if Sam can fire at the target successfully. We see him cover his concern and fear for Sam with a smug expression as he's proven right. In his interactions with Day's Charlie, we see Ackles put Dean's empathy squarely on the outside, mentoring her in the field himself. We sense a fondness in their interactions as they work together. There's banter and a tangible likemindedness that makes these two click easily. Ackles and Day have a chemistry that makes them translate well on screen. We see Ackles pull on Dean's gentleness when confronting Charlie about letting her mother go. But Ackles really shines in the final scene with Padalecki's Sam. He doesn't have to say a single word as Dean pulls Sam close. Ackles conveys all of his character's love and devotion with this single gesture---and its organic nature makes it al the more powerful. The expression on his face says everything we need to know, and when he finally does pull back to state, "Let's find our Prophet," we can hear all of those feelings in Ackles' voice. It is one of his greatest talents, showing us just what his character is thinking and feeling in such a human gesture.
Jared Padalecki shows us Sam's inner strength all episode long. The second trial has hit him hard, but Sam refuses to quit. Padalecki shows us that struggle through his body language and the shakiness of Sam as he stumbles. He shows us this best when in the gun range first with Dean and then again alone. Padalecki has Sam's hands shake subtly. We can tell that he's having Sam try to suppress this, fight it back, all the while failing in the slight wobble and unsteadiness of his hands. Even so, Padalecki makes sure we see Sam's sheer determination etched all over his face. It's a testament to this character that Padalecki makes us both see his struggle and his inner steel. Regardless of Sam Winchester's history as the boy with demon blood or Lucifer's vessel or even Soulless Sam---all supernaturally influenced on some level---he's still human and it shows here best in his unfailing doggedness to see the case through. This no more true than when he delivers the killing blow to the second Djinn, saving both his brother and Charlie in one act. Padalecki also tugs on Sam's subtle humor, teasing Dean each time about being late to the scene by quipping "What took you so long?" He shows us Sam's fondness for Charlie in soft smiles and expressions when interacting with her---and in calling her "Your Highness." There's a tangible chemistry and affection between these two here, and Padalecki delivers on his end completely. Much like Ackles, however, he shines best in that final moment between the Brothers Winchester. He is open and honest that he had taken a potentially unnecessary risk, sincerity in Padalecki's tone to show just how Sam feels. We see him hesitate as Dean hugs him, but Padalecki makes sure we see that it isn't because Sam doesn't reciprocate Dean's emotion, but because he's bewildered by the encounter. As Sam's arms raise to embrace Dean, we see him return that love a hundredfold. It is the bond between them that will allow them to win in the end, and it is what is most powerful here. It is as if in this single act we see hope blossom between them---and it is only tangible because of Padalecki's chemistry with Ackles.
Best Lines of the Week
Dean: That's why we don't have nice things, Sam.
Charlie: Son of a pants suit!
Sam and Charlie: I hate that thing. I want one.
Sam: You should really come back and dig through our archives. You are definitely a Woman of Letters.
Charlie: I am a wee bit obsessive, if by a wee bit you mean completely.
Charlie: I love you.
Dean: I know.
Charlie: She's why I'm in Kansas. I sneak into the hospital whenever I can, and I just... I read to her. She used to read me to sleep at night when I was a kid. Sh"” she'd read me The Hobbit. She's the reason I love the stuff I love.
Next week leaves us worrying for Sam---as the Trials continue to take their heavy toll on the younger Winchester.