This is Eric Kripke’s directorial debut, and it was penned by the still-missed Raelle Tucker, who has just the right touch of emotion to action and humor to darkness. This episode was a triumph for both director and writer. As for the lighting, music, set designers, well, they never miss a beat, ever.
Whereas "Mystery Spot" and "A Very Supernatural Christmas", Numbers 1 and 2, or 2 and 1 on my Top Ten list depending on my mood, are heavy at exploring Sam’s headspace – always a joy when that is done; "What Is and What Should Never Be" is all about exploring Dean’s headspace, which is pretty dark at this point in the season. Dean has been troubled all season due to John’s death, which was to save him, John’s final words to him about saving or killing Sam, and then Sam making Dean promise to follow through on that; it’s all coming to a head.
Here, Dean awakes in an alternate reality, one that is filled with many familiar things, yet altogether unfamiliar. Here, mowing the lawn is a novelty for him, while hunting is nowhere to be found. Here, many people’s first reaction to his, shall we say, quirks is to suggest that he’s been drinking. Here, Mary is alive, John died from natural causes, there never was a fire, Sam and Jessica are engaged, and Dean has a steady job and a steady girl, and, while the Impala remains steadfastly his car, she is a civilian. Sounds ideal, right?
At first, Dean is confused, but then he warms to this new reality, even as the hunter remains alert as he finds a professor to aid in his research on Djinn and their mythology. Dean seems very comfortable, almost happy in this life, except for a mysterious girl who keeps haunting him, at first seen in a clean white dress, but then, upon reappearances, the dress becomes dirtier and dingier until finally she is shown to be bloody as well.
When a bout of insomnia and late-night television reveals the true reality – all the people he and Sam spent the last year plus saving are now dead – reality hits fantasy head on, and Dean knows what he has to do. It isn’t easy though. In Season 1, Dean rarely struggled with the hunting lifestyle. His focus was saving people, hunting things; it’s the family business and he’s happily employed. Season 2 became rougher and Dean is beginning to question. The last time Dean was stuck in a sort of limbo, In My Time of Dying, he was adamant about Tessa returning him to the fight; his family needed him, and he needed to be in the fight. This time, however, he is questioning if it is all worth it. His ‘talk’ at John’s gravesite is Dean at a crossroads here – with an even bigger one coming down in the next two episodes.
While Dean is desperate for his family to be safe, he remains a hunter to the core and knows that he must get back into the fight. Also, while Sam is safe and happy in this world, he and Sam are estranged, and that is just too heavy a burden to ignore.
There is a great echo, if you will, to this episode many seasons later in Season 6’s The French Mistake. In that episode Dean remarks to Sam that maybe it’s not so bad, for Sam at least, that they are seemingly trapped in the realm Balthazar sent them. At least there’s no supernatural that can touch them. Sam, however, knows that it is not real, and despite the money, the acclaim, a beautiful wife, he tells Dean that their lives don’t really matter in this reality, and more importantly, he and Dean aren’t even brothers. Just as his estranged relationship with Sam troubled Dean here, Sam was troubled by the fact that he and Dean weren’t even brothers in The French Mistake’s alternate reality. That moment when they’re returned to Bobby’s house and Sam reaches out tentatively to touch the wall, and finds it solid, is very emotional, for Sam and for me.
The great thing about a long-running series is that there are moments to come that reflect on moments long past. For instance, it isn’t until Season 4’s "Death Takes a Holiday", when Dean admits to Tessa, after she returns to him his memories from "In My Time of Dying", that for the entire year after that he felt something was wrong, something was off. With that knowledge years later, there are moments in this episode that resonate even more upon subsequent viewings.
I love all the little touches in this episode: From Kripke’s re-creating scenes from the "Pilot" -- Sam and Jessica sleeping, with Dean breaking in, the boys’ fight, Dean saying “I was looking for a beer.” We get a great “Bitch/Jerk” moment that Dean just says so naturally only to encounter an extremely confused Sam. I love all the heartbreaking moments as well: Dean leaning into Mary’s hand as she strokes his cheek, his enthusiastic embrace of Jessica, as well as trying so desperately to have his relationship with Sam be what it is in the real world, and finding it so much less.
I love the Sam of this reality willingly coming along on the hunt, even while wondering how the two of them are even related, but unwilling to let Dean go and do something stupid – because you’re still my brother. Of course I love the moment when present-day Sam finds Dean hanging in the warehouse and rushes to check if he’s still alive, and then the end of the episode when Dean reveals all that occurred and Sam tries to comfort him and reassure him that what they do is important, and that he’s glad Dean is with him.
There are small touches of humor laced throughout the episode, the various photos lined up on Mary’s shelves, a mixture of Jared and Jensen’s real-life photos intermixed with some photo shopped ones (I’m looking at you, Christmas sweaters!) There’s humor in the running gag that Sam, Mary, and the professor all think Dean has been drinking based on his actions and/or comments, and watching his expression go from frustration at Sam’s “drunk dialing” comment, to insisting on his innocence when Mary asks the question, to casual dismissal when the professors asks.
If you haven’t pulled this one out to watch in a while, may I suggest you watch it first with the accompanying commentary by Kripke himself. His enthusiasm for the show, directing for the first time, and the creative process is still infectious all these many years later, and then watch the episode without the commentary on; it will enrich the experience.
There you have it, my thoughts on my third favorite of all time Supernatural episodes. Feel free to sound off in the comments about this episode – especially if you liked it! ;-)
As always, thanks for reading, Elle2.
I am loving these retro reviews. Thanks Elle2.
Glad you're enjoying the reviews. I'll slowly keep doling out my Top Ten reviews a bit at a time.
you fit about 100 episodes into your top ten? ;) If I really counted them, I might find even more, as there are over 200 now to pick from.
Come back, Raelle Tucker, and bring with you Cathryn Humphries, Ben Edlund and even....Kripke! Those, along with Sera (shame on you for Bobby) gave me my ration of emotional feels entirely without overdoing any. And what are you doing right now anyway Kripke?
Jensen was superb, especially knowing how much a fish out of water he felt without his usual Sammy by his side. He got it so right and beautifully so. His love for his mom needed no words and his confusion with Sam also. His face conveys his emotions with no needs to speak. How does he do it? It is something wondrous. I can never watch this without shedding tears in complete empathy.
I love this one and never tire of watching it again and again. One of perfect episodes that deserved many rewards and that are
continually overlooked by the PTB! Shame on them!:(
Funny you should ask regarding my top 10. I have been working on an outline of articles for the upcoming summer hiatus/hellatus YIKES and was looking at my list and drafting and redrafting it. I think when it is finally done, there will be 10 episodes with 2 honorable mentions. I'll have a rationale for why I made a top ten and then how the two honorable mentions fit in -- they do make sense when they are seen, or revealed. Interestingly enough, many of then are alternate reality type episodes. They just speak to me! I like to crunch the episodes into various criteria, such as the Comfort Food eps, the Top Ten, and there are some others that will get explored during the upcoming time that shall not be spoken of twice in this post.
I love reading your thoughts on this episode. It is a great episode. I would love all the writers you've mentioned to return, even Sera -- although that Bobby killing is a major ding against her, but her writing is superb!
I think I'd split my top tens into categories, as I could never squeeze all my favourites into just one. For instance, drama, comedy, emotional punch, meta, family, brotherly angst, best MOTW, AU, best written, best acted and on and on LOL.
Like you, Chuck's voiceover re Baby in "Swan Song" gives goosebumps. Thank you Eric Kripke for this amazing show! So many PERFECT hours you have given us.
Now if only we could get back Gabriel and Chuck. If Chuck is God, maybe we could get back Bobby before the dreadful end? Don't like to think about the end.Nonononono!