Human monsters, an old-fashioned case and a dollop of the BMoL with their star-killer’s cameo, featuring insight into their twisted concept of their own superior ways and why they’re so much better than Sam, Dean and American hunters in general. What’s not to like?
Personally, I found this to be an interesting and new way to tell the story. From the “THEN” segment, it was pretty much a given that the killer in question was neither a ghost nor a witch in search of a promotion – despite the insistence of the stubborn brothers Winchester. What this story came down to wasn’t about what creature our killer was, but rather the why behind the psychic and motives therein.
Initially, I suspected Elijah, with his wide-eyed gaze, perhaps he was the one with the powers working to protect his family somehow. Once it became clear through some beautifully melancholic, tragic cinematography of Magda singing in low tones that she was alive, and was in fact our psychic with no controls, reaching out for help, desperately, the story became more interesting. When Sam and Dean first meet the family, they head in with some preconceived notions, given that the family has elected to sequester themselves from society and has kept from social services the details about the apparent death of their oldest daughter.
It only takes a few minutes of talking before the family comes across more sympathetic than expected. Abraham in particular was very likeable, motivating Dean to warm up to the appearance of strong family ties, even appearing to appreciate the decision to live the simple life. Sam’s interview with Gail starts off warm and kindly, relaying the story of what the family was like before (miserable) vs now since “God” has touched their lives – but Sam has no use for this since he feels the mother killed their daughter and knows God a.k.a Chuck could care less about whether they have cell phones or use electricity.
This is the one piece of the story that I have minor confusions about – and it relates as much to the “THEN” sequences as anything shown in the episode. Gail references the unhappy lifestyle of her family, the pills she was doing, the car accident (later saying it was caused by her daughter’s psychic powers) and her leg injury that resulted. She then says she was “lying in a puddle of her own sick” and alludes to some sort of promise to God and seeing the light so to speak, which motivated the family to make the change and her leg is healed as well, except for the scar:
Gail: And then one night, when things were at their worst, I was... lying in a puddle of my own sick. I heard a voice. It was God's voice. And he said, "Go, live a life of simplicity and humility, and all your pain will be taken away."
Sam: So has the pain gone away?
Gail: I get by, with His grace.
So, is the implication that she made some sort of YED-type deal? Is Magda one of “those” special psychic kids, like Sam was? Or just a psychic, period? In the “THEN” there was recall to a number of the YED psychic kids, plus the statement ‘we have no idea how many are out there’ – which seemed to imply, at least to this viewer, that perhaps in this episode we were encountering another one of these kids. In general, this was a touch on the murky side to me – from Gail’s so-called Heavenly encounter (drug-induced delusions or something else?) to the origin of Magda’s gifts – and though nothing was detracted from the episode, I did have to ask: am I the only one wondering this?
Villain of the Week: an entirely human person with a perverted sense of extreme right and wrong, coloured further by religious indignation. Very dangerous. While hardly the first time we’ve encountered someone at the far “right” end of the spectrum (even Sam and Dean have drifted up and down the scale over the years), this is the first of extreme religious pathology set on cleansing the “devil” from their child with Stigmata inspirations.
The commentary on human monsters has been presented on Supernatural before, and they are usually unique and intriguing characters (The Benders) – as Dean has said:
“…demons I get, People are crazy!”
In this case, Gail killed her husband, her son (and since she intended him to die via poisoning, I still consider the accidental stabbing an intentional murder) and tried to kill her daughter – who, despite all the nasty allegations made by her mother about the “evil” inside her, did not kill Gail given the opportunity. Evil is as evil does.
We also were treated to another encounter with Mr. Ketch, though still no face to go with the name. Through Mr. Ketch, and a phone conversation with BMoL headquarters, we have a clearer understanding of their methods (not that we were confused after Toni and Sam’s meet and greet): if it’s supernatural, it dies. No questions asked, soul, humanity and/or good v evil status be damned. Not only does this put them in the same category as Gail (only more calculating, less crazy) but the comment “I cleaned up the Winchester's mess. As suspected, they couldn't finish the job.” gives us the insight into why the BMoL believes themselves to be so much neater/better/more efficient at the job than Sam and Dean – and I can only imagine this will be a huge future point of contention. However, we’ve seen this attitude before (Gordon) and it always ends badly, with somebody getting bitten in the ass – usually by something supernatural.
Overall the story was a decent and refreshing perspective. It wasn’t about the what but rather about who and the why. One thing that matters in Sam and Dean’s world almost as much as the “what” is the motive – it mattered when talking Amara down from ending the world, and it will likely be the difference between the Winchesters successes and the BMoL ultimate failure in the future.
One minor commentary: the psychic Sam storyline. While it allowed for some great connections with Magda in this episode and some wonderful moments from Sam, as he recounted his experiences feeling like an outsider; we’ve walked that path a few times now and while it certainly has its place in Supernatural history – maybe let’s not have psychic powers in this season. If this season is going to be about the Winchesters v BMoL, let’s keep this old-school hunter style; at least for now.
Last week, Mary left the boys: Sam was devastated but accepting and Dean was crushed. We wondered if this week, Dean would display the usual visceral reaction to hard emotional situations – anger and suppression or something along those lines. Instead, although Dean was affected and Sam even called him out on his behavior, it certainly wasn’t as angry as we’ve experienced in the past. In fact, Dean was relatively okay – even acknowledging in two sweet moments his own apparent pre-teen-esque neediness. It was a good change of pace for Dean, reaching out to Mary even if it is a tad passive aggressive – and the utter glee at her reply.
The one issue with the case and the brothers’ approach overall: it was out of character in a big way for them to be so gung ho in their assumptions, without proper research when the signs didn’t add up properly for either supposed baddie. This seemed rushed and childish – “well, you think it’s that so it can’t be! You’re wrong, I’m right!” It was a forced way of splitting the brothers to let Sam get snagged by Mommy Dearest.
(Finally, just an observation, but I have doubts that a girl would be put on a bus across state lines by social services, alone, the night after watching her family slaughtered and being freed from who-knows-how-long captivity that involved severe beatings and open wounds.)
With a refreshing and singular case-only focus, the episode was an interesting take on the MoTW. Though we had a touch of both Cas and Mary (and some funny moments from Sam, who is obviously a fan of Vince Vincente, much to Dean’s disgust) this week was all about the case. Groundwork toward future BMoL relationship dynamics were also laid and implications about the group too, but all told it was nice to focus on one, single plot this week a la season one. American Nightmare also had some great guest actors, in particular one Beth Roberts. Played by Aliza Vellani, this was an enjoyable portrayal of an unsuspecting, overworked and interested social worker.
Questions we’re left with? What will be the reaction on learning of Magda's murder? What will it mean for the big picture if Ketch follows Sam and Dean around killing – it won’t take long for someone to catch on and/or for these dynamics to change one way or another. I’m game for that showdown – and as always, my money will be on our boys.
PS- did anyone else thing the motorcycle rider might be Mary, initially, when they stopped to look at the Impala outside the farm – especially given the reference to the bike in last week’s episode?