(This article originally appeared on blogcritics.org in 2009. It has since been removed from their archive. I'm posting it here to preserve the history!)
Once in a while, it’s beneficial to look backward before going forward. Sure “After School Special” isn’t embroiled with the presence of angels and Ruby leading Sam toward the darkside, but it is welcome look back at Sam and Dean’s history. Thanks to crisp plotting that mixes all the elements of horror, drama, action, and comedy perfectly while giving thought provoking character studies, this episode is a big winner.
It’s taken me a while to wrap my hands around this one since there’s plenty to examine. That instantly earns kudos for Andrew Dabb and Daniel Loflin, the writers of this episode, for I love being challenged to think. Also worth noting is a brilliant first time Supernatural appearance for director Adam Kane. He offers a few new tricks that add huge depth to the unfolding of this very busy story.
This time the drama occurs in a high school, an unpopular girl giving a mean girl the swirly of death in the girl’s bathroom. That gets Sam and Dean’s attention since the girl thinks she was possessed and the attack took place at Truman high, one of their old schools.
Classic rock (remember that?) takes the story into the first of many flashbacks to 1997, when Sam was an undersized 9th grader and Dean was well built and very handsome 12th grader. The way the numerous flashbacks are weaved into the main story is fantastic and the flow between both timeframes is seamless. One great example is when young Sam and young Dean are introduced to their new classes. It shows the sharp contrast, Dean is rebellious and disrespectful to authority, Sam is withdrawn and doesn’t say much about himself.
Sam instantly makes a friend, a geek named Barry, who’s bullied by the thug Dirk behind him. Sam stands up for Barry, not hesitating to stare down the larger kid and ready to take on his wrath. Colin Ford from his first scene shows why he was brought back to play Sam after doing such an uncanny job in “A Very Supernatural Christmas.” The kid is a natural and has every mannerism down perfectly. The flashback scenes, just like in the Christmas episode, are often bridged with older Sam holding the same contemplative look as the younger version. It’s even better the second time. Brock Kelly is the younger Dean and his performance is decent, but it isn’t as good a mirror as young Sam.
Hilarious moment yet again comes from Dean, whose cover is the substitute PE teacher. Dodgeball lives! Sam takes on the humbler and less funny role of janitor. The high school setting also doesn’t stop TPTB from bringing back the “hide behind the pillow moment” a la the garbage disposal accident in “Home” or the table saw mishap in “The Kids Are Alright.” All that’s needed is a working food processor and a hand in Home Economics class. Sam arrives after the hand puree to see black ectoplasm ooze from the offending kid’s ear. It’s a ghost possession!
I adore all the touches with the salt and burn scene, which happens after they find out Sam’s friend Barry killed himself in 1998 at the school. Clearly the act is not pleasant for Sam, and Jared is poignant in portraying Sam’s restrained sadness. The camera angles are incredible. A somber Sam sprinkles the salt, while a respectful Dean sprays lighter fluid. They both light the matches, and are shown side by side from the view of the burning grave and from within the trunk of the Impala. In those last two shots, the focus is on both the brothers and instead of cutting between one then the other, giving a greater emotional impact. I got goosebumps. Well done Mr. Kane!
Even back then, Sam felt like a freak. The next flashback has young Dean ranting, wanting to kill the bully hurting Sam. Sam wants to forget about it. Sure Sam could defend himself, but he doesn’t want to. He doesn’t want to be the freak, he wants to be normal. Again, Colin Ford has Sam down pat, taking Dean’s berating by blinking his eyes and looking away, exactly what Sam does constantly as an adult.
Again we get a big reminder of how superior the pacing is for this episode, for it’s another seamless yet radical shift. Sam in a reflective mood goes back to the school for some unfinished business with his old teacher Mr. Wyatt. He gives directions to a cutesy young girl in the hall, and she thanks him by name by stabbing him with a pen! Then she gets really dirty and kicks him square in the…um…tenders before delivering one last sucker punch. Jared and this girl must have had a blast filming this scene, for he’s so getting beat up by a little girl. Sam quickly pulls out the salt and covers her mouth and ghost goes flying. It’s not Barry.
Current Dean is pissed in a perfect copy of the flashback scene a few minutes before. Touches like that make this episode so exceptional. He gives Sam a cold bottle of malt liquor for the injury down there. Seriously? That works? Tell me guys, I don’t know. I guess it can’t hurt. After making the connection that all the kids ride the same bus, their search of the vehicle finds the bus driver is the dad of Dirk.
The next flashback fills us in on the real story. After being pushed outside by Dirk, Sam gets those crazy eyes of anger (adorable!) and shows Dirk how well trained he is. It’s very interesting the trigger word is “freak.” Sam shows no mercy with his quick moves to beat Dirk to a pulp, even tagging the fallen kid as “Dirk the jerk.”
However, there are always consequences for actions. Dirk got into drinking, drugs, then too many drugs before dying at 18. Kids picked on him, calling him “Dirk the jerk.” Turns out Dirk was acting out over his mother’s death when Sam knew him and was a good kid who took care of his mother. I’m loving this director now, for only simple touches are needed to show how Dirk’s story is ripping Sam apart. The shot of the normal kid’s picture on the mantle in his happier days in the background with Sam’s guilty profile in the foreground, it’s really powerful.
Dean in a not so subtle way gets the dad to admit he keeps a lock of Dirk’s hair on the bus because he was cremated. The ghost bus is then seen bringing back football players from something at night. Bus driver has black stuff coming out of him. No fear though, for Sam and Dean use strategically placed tire shredders to stop the bus. I’m wondering where you find those at a moments notice. I can never seem to find them at the Home Depot when I need them.
This next scene is so well done, and not just because of Sam’s heartfelt attempt to get through to Dirk. Again the direction rules. When Dean listens to Sam, he’s shown from an upward angle in a wider shot, giving the message he’s a distant observer. The shot slides in closer, as if to show Dean getting sucked in by Sam’s words, and we’re getting sucked in by Dean’s somber face. Again Jensen’s incredible strengths are capitalized by him just standing in the background.
Dirk doesn’t buy into Sam’s wisdom, so Sam shoots him with the rock salt. Dirk goes into another kid, who comes out of the bus and tackles Sam, pounding the crap out of him. Dean finds the hair on the now Dirkless bus driver and burns it. Time for another clever shift as the intense action turns funny. The ghost is expunged and the big kid collapses onto Sam in a very compromising position. Sam struggles for air while Dean winces, knowing the proper name for the position.
Despite the fact that this is a Sam focused episode, much about Dean is revealed and in the end who couldn’t help but feel sorry for him. We understood Amanda’s shocked perspective when Dean tells her of his great life living from motel to motel with Dad not around. “HBO, magic fingers, free ice, it’s great.” Seeing this from the perspective of an outsider accents for us how abnormal Sam and Dean’s lives are.
Any stay longer than two weeks is a problem with Dean. By staying that long, he’s gotten cozier with Amanda. He jokes about how he doesn’t do parents, but there’s obviously more to it than that. He doesn’t do relationships. Letting anyone get too close and finding out who he really is proves to be damaging to his psyche.
The final flashback is the most revealing. After Amanda finds Dean in the closet with another girl, she’s figured out who he is and tells him so in front of a large group. The whole coolness thing is an act, and underneath it all is a sad, lonely, little kid. She feels sorry for him. Dean reacts with anger, calling himself a hero, but everyone thinks he’s chump. Somehow, this side of Dean makes sense. We’ve seen his struggles with self-worth most of the series, and they apparently go much deeper than we thought. I just wanted to give him a big hug.
Sam has always been an enigma, so any episode that opens his layers is earth shattering. Sam rarely chooses to openly defend himself, so his words with ghost!Dirk outside the bus are jaw dropping. “I’m not evil Dirk. I’m not.” Oh, there’s hope for you Sammy. He’s seen real evil and they were just scared kids that needed to take it out on each other. He tells Dirk it gets better. As Dean watches, he reflects what we’re all thinking. Has it gotten better Sam? Young Sam left that school getting high fives and gaining new hope for his life, but as the two scenes with Mr. Wyatt show, it wasn’t enough.
The first scene is in the past. Mr. Wyatt is impressed by Sam’s werewolf story, even though the essay is supposed to be nonfiction. It’s likely one of the few times Sam’s openly shared his thoughts about his family and he didn’t care if anyone believed him or not. He knew it was the truth. Sam is easily thrown by the most basic question. “Do you want to go into the family business Sam?” “No one’s ever asked me that before,” a stunned Sam answers. No, he doesn’t. He REALLY doesn’t.
Mr. Wyatt tells Sam he doesn’t have to do what he doesn’t want to do, and this is likely the first glimmer of hope Sam’s ever gotten about his future. “There are maybe three or four big choices that shape someone’s whole life and you need to be the one that makes them. Not anyone else.” That explains a lot Sam’s behavior over this season. He’s soul searching and making his own choices. Now there’s a clue where that comes from.
Adult Sam’s return visit to Mr. Wyatt at the end of the episode leaves us worried though. Mr. Wyatt remembers Sam’s horror story, and Sam admits “it’s been one long horror story.” Here again is Sam’s desire to open up with someone, just like with the werewolf essay, but he stops himself from going farther than an offhand comment. Sam tells Mr. Wyatt he for a while he managed to make his own choices and went to college because of him. Then, responsibilities and life happened. “You took an interest in me when no one else would, and that matters.”
Dean is the only one Sam has ever been able to talk to and most of the time he isn’t a great listener or empathizer. For one, Dean has never had a problem with the life. It’s very sad to see Sam forced into a life of secrecy, knowing he longs to be normal and have decent relationships with people. Mr. Wyatt is the closest he’s ever come to that.
Just like the first time, Mr. Wyatt asks the most simple yet most complicated question to Sam. “You happy Sam?” Sam can’t answer the question. The camera closes in on his thrown back expression, and it all hits him. He didn’t really take his advice after all. It hasn’t gotten better. Sam’s heart sinks into his stomach, and what a way to end an episode.
This ending coincides perfectly with last week’s and opens great possibilities for Sam’s future direction. Sam is ready to make the tough choices in his life, and he wants to be the one that makes them. He’ll either be happy or die trying.
The episode is in memory of Christopher F. Lima (rigging electrician) and Tim Loock (online editor). Wow, on top of Kim Manners last week this has been a tough year for the crew.
Sam’s white scrubs have returned! When he wore them in “Houses of The Holy” I thought he was meant to look angelic. In this episode, I took it to mean he isn’t evil. Of course, chances are I’m reading way too much into a likely accidental discovery in the costume department.
The classic rock is back! Foreigner’s “Long Long Way From Home” is a great choice to bridge present with past.
I played Dodgeball in school and never got hurt. My kids are missing out. Schools allow kids to work with swirling food processor blades but not allow them to play Dodgeball? Also, did anyone catch the “Mrs. B’s in Massachusetts getting married” line? Oh snap! I’m surprised there wasn’t a ton of outrage over that. It’s a brilliant underhanded joke.
(Nice shorts there coach!)
Plenty of great Dean quotes. “The whistle makes me their God.” “Three cheerleaders are legal. Guess which ones?” Whose jaw didn’t drop at him telling of all people his brother, “He’s giving you the full cowgirl.” The things that come out of that boy’s mouth.
A 21 Jump Street reference. The bus driver sells pot. Hee! Dean just described the plot every week. I only watched because Johnny Depp was hot. Still is.
Teenage Dean wanted to watch I Spit On Your Grave? A story about a woman who’s gang raped and then goes back for revenge? Some stupid friend made me watch that in college and it’s the worst thing I’ve ever seen. It wasn’t horror at all. It wasn’t even bad enough for cult status. Ah well, to each his own.
Another magic fingers reference! For bonus trivia points, name the other episodes that show or mention the magic fingers.
Whew, that was a tough one to recap! My grade is an A, this time due to the fantastic directing as well as outstanding character examination. Next week’s review will be late. On Thursday, instead of watching “Sex and Violence,” I’ll be traveling to NYC to cover the New York Comic Con February 6 – 8th. I’ll be posting daily reports, including my coverage of the Friday The 13th panel with Jared Padalecki and others associated with the film. Enjoy the next episode without me!