In the spirit of the holidays, WFB is giving you a great deal! We've got not two, not three, but FOUR reviews for the price of one in this Black Friday, "all opinions must go" sale.
Actually this being a midseason finale, we thought we'd do a little something different and have a group of your fabulous writers do a roundtable discussion on this episode!
1) This episode, how do you rank it overall? Positive, negative, or average?
Bardicvoice: Hard one; there was some brilliance in it, but it was too scattered and choppy for me to love it unreservedly. I'd come down with "average" because of the balancing factor involved. Loved the performances by Jensen and Jared, and the technical production work was top notch! (The Mark of Cain appearing in the stained glass window in the house where Dean lost it? What a great Jerry Wanek touch!)
Metamorphic Rocks: Average.
Pragmatic Dreamer: Positively average. I liked it.
2) Can you pick out one positive thing from this episode?
Bardicvoice: I can pick out more than one, but I can't go on at length! I did particularly love the brothers telling Castiel the anecdote about John in New York, and the way they told it -- kudos to Jared and Jensen! -- illustrated the complexity of their family relationship and showed the continual and ever-changing development of both of the brothers' attitudes toward John even after his death. There was nothing simple in the telling of that tale. Both brothers love their father, and yet they both also acknowledged they still resent him, too. They can see his flaws. They know his failings. They've learned over time how differently they each used to view him, and how each of their differing views captured aspects of him the other hadn't seen. But since his death, they've both, in different ways and with lots of stops and starts, also gradually come to terms with understanding and appreciating that he loved them both with all his heart and did his very imperfect best for them. And after making horrible mistakes with good intentions themselves, they've mostly forgiven John for how he hurt them, knowing he hadn't meant to. That was a treat of Winchester maturity I cherish. So thank you, Andrew Dabb, Jared, Jensen, and Guy Bee.
I did love the episode having a common theme -- parent issues, basically -- that touched all of the characters involved: Sam, Dean, Castiel, Crowley, Claire. Unfortunately, I thought packing all of them into it made it too busy and choppy overall. I was least invested in Crowley and Rowena; the Hell stuff was just too far removed from the rest of the action to be anything more than a distracting sideshow. Mind, I enjoy the characters and the actors, but I've never cared for the presentation of Hell. Hell, schmell.
Metamorphic Rocks: It was nice to see the story of Jimmy Novak's possession and the effects on his family revisited after all this time. The episode effectively delved into the guilt Castiel feels over taking Jimmy as a vessel, exemplified by his desire to make amends to Jimmy's daughter by guiding her at such a pivotal time in her life. We also finally got an answer to what ultimately happened to Jimmy's soul, so having that closure was an added bonus.
There were also some very well done, poignant moments in this episode - particularly Sam and Dean telling the John Winchester story, as well as Claire's disclosure to Castiel that she prayed to him to return her dad to his family.
Pragmatic Dreamer: Adored the John Winchester story. I really appreciated the mix of emotions from the brothers - love, grief, respect, anger, and understanding. Also really liked Cas telling Dean he was/could be a role model. I got annoyed over the years when Dean (and Sam to some extent as well) was always told to quit whining about the hunting life, and that his best qualities were his deadliest traits. Essentially, the only positive reinforcement he was getting was around the fact he was an efficient, skilled hunter. That's all rather ironic now, in light of the final scene. But in The Ketchup Scene I think Cas was trying to affirm that Dean is a good man and he needs to hear that. I also liked the brief glimpse of what a masterful manipulator Rowena is.
Nate: I liked that canon seems to be remembered and applied again. And when retcons are applied, they at least make sense in the show and don't break canon worse.
3) How well or poorly do you think the episodes since Dean's cure in "Soul Survivor" laid the groundwork for his MoC break in this episode? Why?
Metamorphic Rocks: There were some hints that all was not well regarding the Mark of Cain, but how Dean got from the subtle restlessness that made him want to keep busy with work to unleashing (unholy) hell on those thugs was a bit too much of a leap. Just like Sam's hallucinations in Season seven, I would have liked to see a little more of a progression in the Mark's influence on Dean. For me the issue isn't really one of story continuity per say, but rather what would have been more interesting to watch unfold on screen in these recent episodes.
Pragmatic Dreamer: I think they did an okay job, but I think it was too subtle. We saw Sam's concerns but I think we needed a few more overt signs from Dean? Some quakes or trembles like the DTs, some fighting to regain control, his nightmares could have been shown in a previous episode. We, like Sam & Dean suspected a problem. We should have known.
Nate: Very poorly. The rules for the MoC are very nebulous and ill-defined which means we have no context for much of Dean's actions. And while sometimes "is it him/is it the influence" questions can make for compelling stories it doesn't when there are no clues for "his" actions in the context of the story. It's just left up to the audience to make up whatever they feel like/prefer.
Bardicvoice: I've actually liked the subtlety of Jensen's portrayal of Dean being "off" ever since his cure. For me, the little hints were better than broader strokes would have been. Watching him, I've had the nagging sense in every episode that Dean, feeling off-balance, has been aggressively trying to "fake it to make it" -- all of his reactions have been just that little bit too much. The food, the sex, the laughter, the promises of reassurance to Sam: it's all felt to me like he's trying too hard to convince himself as well as his brother that he's okay and just being his normal self. And watching Jared's Sam always watching him with that little crease of worry between his eyebrows, always trying to justify Dean's words and actions to himself because he can't bear to accept the alternative -- I think the two of them have done a great job of skating on the unease. And that last moment, with Sam desperately trying to deny the truth even as Dean realized he had lost himself ... that was killer. And brilliant.
4) Do you think the three storylines in this episode: Sam and Dean and the Mark of Cain, Castiel and Claire, and Rowena and Crowley, all flowed together smoothly in this particular episode?
Bardicvoice: I didn't think the Crowley/Rowena storyline flowed at all. Oh, it resonated on the same theme, but to me it felt shoe-horned in, I think mostly because it didn't intersect at any point with either the Sam/Dean or Castiel/Claire stories, while the latter two braided around each other constantly. I'm sure the intent was to set up baseline understanding for future interactions by Hell's mother/son combo with the brothers, but in this episode, I found their story a distraction and thought the time needed could have been better used in developing the Sam/Dean/MoC line. On the other hand, I enjoyed the Castiel/Claire story because the connection to Sam and Dean made sense, it further developed the theme of Castiel seeking to discover the angel/human balance he needs to reconcile to select his future course, and we've so rarely revisited a non-hunter, non-monster to see the impact of supernatural trauma.
Pragmatic Dreamer: I thought they flowed quite well, although I wanted more brothers and less Randy. Like I said in a tweet "@pragdreamr: So tonight's theme is absent parents & the strength & weakness of the families we're born into & those we make #SupernaturaI". Families shape us, build us up, tear us down, they can support us or destroy us. The question for all the characters now is how their "family" (blood or not) is going to help or hurt them.
Nate: Cas-Dean, yes. The brothers have been aimless this season (hey, why not go seek out Cain? remember how you owe him a death?) so having them join in Castiel's quest make good narrative sense, especially when it involves someone they know. Crowley's... meh; even less tied in with the bros than Abaddon last season. Had Rowena appeared while he and Crowley were hanging out (and maybe she played a role in Dean escaping Crowley's "clutches" so she could have her boy to herself) maybe I would be more invested? At the moment my feelings towards his story is just curiosity, not investment.
Metamorphic Rocks: The episode obviously had family issues as its theme, just as many recent episodes have. However, the specific issues facing each of our central players - Castiel, Crowley, and of course, Sam and Dean, didn't necessarily gel together that well, or even that clearly. Castiel is facing the issue of how his actions tore a family apart; Sam and Dean are facing the issue of what might happen to what's left of their family (each other) because of the Mark of Cain; Crowley is facing the reality of his mother returning, and what that may mean for him and his kingdom. While all these storylines are of interest, putting them together in this episode didn't create effective parallels. Also, the crowding of several plots in the same hour relegated something as big as Dean's massacre of human beings to the last five minutes of the episode. It deserved a bigger spotlight than that.
5. I've found the last few seasons to really blur the lines around killing monsters & saving people. For instance, there's no real agonizing about stabbing a demon's vessel, which is a person. But Dean just committed "can't-explain-it-away-even-though-he-has-the-mark-of-Cain" MURDER x 4. How do the brothers deal with that? How does the audience?
Nate: The show's been running on protagonist-centered morality for so long I wonder if the audience will even react, though don't forget he did commit similar murder last season in #THINMAN, though it was just 1 person. And don't forget the body count of soulless!Sam. I would HOPE that this moment leads to the brothers realizing why they had a "no kill human" rule no matter how problematic it might get for them and a return to their classic form and morals. Based on experience... I'm not betting on it.
Bardicvoice: I hope the brothers DO address it directly and consciously decide to strive to return to the "don't kill people, don't kill non-killers" standard they used to have. I'll note that rule was always weaker for Dean than for Sam -- look at Dean's arguments for action in Faith and Nightmare, for example -- because he translated anything "evil" into "monster," but what he did here was monstrous and he knows it. Even without the MoC, the danger for hunters has always been slipping over the line into becoming in practice as bad or worse than what they hunt, with no defensible moral line remaining: remember Travis from Metamorphosis, for example. What the brothers do has always involved moral conflict and ambiguity; I think it's time for another piece of the soul-searching that used to feature prominently in their action assessments, such as Dean's anguished questioning in Bloodlust of the "kill all monsters" hunter ethos he'd absorbed from John. If the brothers and all of us aren't questioning their actions, we are all losing our humanity.
Metamorphic Rocks: I think it was actually x 5 (Dean killed the four thugs plus Randy). I have often been bothered that the brothers no longer even mention the humans that die when they stab a demon's meatsuit (that specific point was in an article I wrote last season). It seems like it's done to save time with the storytelling, but I would love for the boys to make a statement here and there regarding their regret in killing a human being; Or better yet, let them do some more exorcisms - that would be fun to see again.
Because they have killed so many humans in the past (especially Soulless Sam, as Nate pointed out), I'm not sure that Sam or Castiel won't just explain it away with the infamous "it wasn't you." Also, Dean was in danger, as he was outnumbered 4 to 1 (I think Randy was still tied to the chair), and he had just been kicked in the face by the loan shark, so he most likely started out defending himself and lost control. So, I think there are ways for the brothers to justify it to an extent, but clearly the Mark issue needs to be addressed in an urgent way. The point is, I don't think it's something that Dean can't come back from, judging by the show's history with killing humans.
As for the audience, because we've seen it so often, I think we may be desensitized to the human casualties of demonic and angelic possession. Also, these were criminals who were going to hurt Dean (and one who tried to assault Claire), so the "they had it coming" philosophy is in play here. I don't believe the audience will judge Dean too harshly.
Pragmatic Dreamer: I got nothing except maybe Gavin being alive in 2014 will somehow cause a ripple in the time/space continuum and it will be like this never happened!
6. So this season seems to be rebuilding the stable of secondary characters SPN had after so many have been eliminated (at least until Andrew Dabb gets a hold of them). Are you liking this effort or not? Is there any [not dead] character you'd like to see brought back or a character type/proposal you want to see created?
Bardicvoice: I didn't like the "strip everyone away" decision; I always thought that took too much away not just from the brothers, but from the show's world overall. I particularly loathed the way the entire Campbell family was simply swept off the board after supposedly surviving for hundreds of years; that felt like such a waste to me. Oh, well. I'm glad to see the brothers slowly rebuilding their contacts in the hunter network and having more secondary characters survive. I love the rich depth of Jody Mills, and the idea that hunter-savvy cops could help provide the brothers with legal cover and support. Given his careful introduction and the attention paid to his background, I'm currently wondering whether Cole might become the core of a new spin-off attempt. I'd be interested to see what Linda Tran chooses to do next, if Kevin has indeed made it beyond the veil.
Metamorphic Rocks: It's always a good idea to expand the Winchesters' universe and give them other people to care about, but those secondary characters have to be interesting. I like Jody because she is multi-layered; On the other hand, Donna and Kate didn't work for me. Donna felt like a caricature, and I had no investment in Kate at all. I'm ambivalent about Charlie - she's not one dimensional any longer, but she is sometimes written a bit over the top. It was great and sweetly nostalgic to see Chuck again.
I don't know that there is a specific "not dead" character I would like to see again (though there's a bunch of dead ones - Bobby, Henry and John Winchester, for starters), but rather old storylines that I would like revisited: Sam's demon blood addiction, Croatoan, The Thule Society, and many others that have the potential to produce exciting, compelling episodes. I don't think we'll see it happen, because TPTB seem to want fresh material (even though this new material can fall short - ex: Bloodlines). What they don't seem to understand, however, is that a good portion of the audience (especially those that talk about the glory days of the show) would enjoy seeing some of those older storylines pop up again. That's why I thought having an episode that connected Castiel back to his vessel's family was a great idea. However, it turned out to be the (somewhat) wrong execution and bad timing (mid-season finale) of the right idea.
Nate: I'm still wanting to see the young recruit type come into play (which I was hoping we'd get with Cole or the Bloodlines guy after the series tanked) and them reform the MoL or a hunter organization.
Pragmatic Dreamer: This is a GREAT idea. I always appreciated seeing the brothers through another's eyes. (My brother through another - could it catch on?) I like seeing how Sam & Dean interact with & build a relationship with characters that return several times. That being said, it's Season 10 and it's unlikely the show will be on another 10 years (blasphemy, I know) which means we'll never get the aged and long-term relationship they had with someone like Bobby. Am I wrong or do Jody & Crowley now rank as their oldest acquaintances/friends? Both were introduced in Season 5.
I still miss Bobby and that wonderful fatherly realistic supportive bind. Still think killing him was a major misstep. Rufus, at the time of his death, was becoming a nuanced character. And Kevin was just too young and Gabriel was just too snarky to die.
Standard response but it's how I feel tonight.
7) Did the lack of Supernatural elements in this episode - and the resulting reliance on character and dialogue - help or hinder it? Why?
Bardicvoice: For this story, I thought the Mark of Cain was a sufficient supernatural adversary. I'm actually glad there wasn't another supernatural component, because for me, that would have diluted the story's emphasis on humanity and family. I don't think it worked as well as it might have because so many stories were shoe-horned into too small a space, but I believe having a monster story in the mix would just have muddied the waters even more.
Nate: I would disagree that this episode lacked supernatural elements as its main focus is the quest of a “monster” [angel] to make amends for the wrongs it has done to others. While it is Castiel and we may forget that he’s not human sometimes (especially since he is human once in a while) it doesn’t change the fundamentals, and that he must struggle to accomplish something that humans know almost instinctively. While true nobody’s born a parent, and we all have to struggle to be one, Castiel’s story is a chance to highlight things we take for granted by being human beings. I would like to see him bring Claire to the Bunker so we could get “3 men and a little lady” shenanigans for a time.
Pragmatic Dreamer: Except for Mark of Cain turning Dean into a Psycho Natural-Born Killer. And Claire seeing the Angel who possessed her & killed her father. I didn't miss an overt Monster. Randy & the Good (bad) Fellas made for an interesting human-as-monster comparison.
The near-rape bothered me because it's too much like real-life. Big topic of discussion here in Canada & the US right now. Watching that scene I was acutely aware that an incident like that was likely playing out in real time somewhere and the tragedy is there wouldn't be any Winchesters coming to the rescue.
Metamorphic Rocks: Supernatural had another episode that was entirely about human actions in "The Benders," so this episode followed in a similar vein. However, "The Benders" had far superior characters and dialogue. The Bender family was truly scary, and the police officer Dean interacted with was strong and complex (very much like Jody!), even for a one-off guest. That episode proved that powerful characterization and gripping dialogue can be just as compelling as cool action sequences or creepy supernatural elements. With "The Things we left Behind," I was initially very curious to see what became of Claire, but I thought her character trope was very overused (rebellious teen with a heart of gold), and the dialogue between her and Castiel was mostly just average. The brothers got very little dialogue (with the exception of the John Winchester story), so we didn't get any new character beats from them. Regarding Rowena, she has the potential to be a fun character, but right now she isn't doing much of anything - actually the same can be said for Crowley, who is an interesting, multi-layered character and even gets great dialogue, but just isn't being used effectively right now. And listening to the stilted dialogue of the other demons around Crowley is actually painful. They need to move the King of Hell out of that warehouse (or wherever they are).
So, the reliance on character and dialogue certainly didn't have to hinder this episode, but because it was all average, it did. The last five minutes of Dean's massacre of the criminals was needed to infuse the episode with a little excitement. Like a bland meal, it needed something more to spice it up.
8) What did you *expect* from this episode, and why? If you were disappointed in the episode, how much of that was due to the episode not matching your expectations?
Metamorphic Rocks: I usually don't have any expectations regarding what the episode will be about, because I've learned over the years that promos and even sneak peeks can be very misleading. I still have expectations about the quality of each episode (whatever the storyline), but I have even changed those to a degree, because this show has changed quite a bit over the years, so I don't expect it will be like the Kripke era - which wasn't perfect but was generally of very good quality.
Having said that, it is still annoying when the quality of an episode dips below my (even lowered) expectations. I thought this was an average episode, but it could have been made better without the characters doing uncharacteristic things to serve the plot (which the show is very guilty of doing in recent seasons). For example, having Jimmy's wife Amelia take off and abandon Claire (not even returning when her daughter was bouncing around group homes - you think they would have learned from John Winchester in "Faith") was a sloppy way to serve the story; If they wanted to get Amelia out of the way they could have just as easily said she was dead.
Even worse, however, was having Sam get in the car and shut the door knowing Dean was alone with four criminals. Not only was it grossly out of character, but it was the extreme dumbing down of Sam in order to get Dean alone with those guys. Quite frankly, I would rather Sam have been knocked unconscious (for the billionth time) in order to take him out of the equation. Also, Castiel was made to do something inexplicable by returning to the house with Claire, just so he could react with horror at Dean's actions. It's these kind of glaring things - which happen way too often - that affect the quality of the overall story and still disappoint me.
Nate: I had actually forgotten that the mid-season finale was coming up since this season has been much like S1 & S2 in its structure of no real arc (normally I’d be mad at the lack of arc but given how badly the ones in S8 & S9 worked out, I’m forgiving). The obvious answer would be “advancing things with the MoC” which it... kind of did. Though in my opinion it is way past time for the show to return to Cain himself. Dean has a promise to keep and he’s the one that can give them answers so why isn’t finding him top priority? All he told Dean was that the “Mark came with a price” so it’s past time for him to arrive and spell out the details of said price.
Pragmatic Dreamer: I don't go into episodes with huge expectations. I want to be entertained or distracted from my real life and generally it delivers. There are some writers or concepts where I cross my fingers and hope for the best.
But I have to admit Supernatural is my only appointment TV show. It's the only show I have to watch - same time, same channel - every week. So my expectation is that it Be There!
Bardicvoice: I expected more focus on developing the story of Sam, Dean, and the Mark of Cain, both because that seemed appropriate to a mid-season finale, and because everything in the promo and sneak peek addressed the Mark. I was a bit disappointed because the expectations I'd formed didn't correlate with the episode as it aired. At the same time, I loved some of the unexpected things that emerged, especially gaining more insight into the brothers' maturing relationship with their memories of John and seeing Castiel learning about fatherhood from the Winchesters. Getting something other than what I expect often isn't a bad thing! Trying to manage my expectation bias is why I try to avoid most spoilers.
9) My only question might be around Crowley. He's Rowena's son, yet he could talk about Mesopotamia with Naomi & he seems to know more than your average uneducated Scot from the 1600/1700. Is there more going on? And just what kind of advantage or extra tricks etc. does he have access to, because he's not only a sonuvabitch but he's the son of a witch!
And with that pun, the entire staff of WFB have quit. Until January 20th, everyone!