3.08 A Very Supernatural Christmas: We’ll Have to Muddle Through Somehow
Eat meadowsweet wreath buyers.
Sam gives Dean Christmas.
In unseasonably warm Ypsilanti, Michigan, two fathers were snatched from their homes as Christmas approached, with witnesses reporting seeing a warped version of Santa and hearing noises on the roof. Working from lore that maintained the existence of a dark alternate to Santa, one who punished the wicked rather than rewarding the good, the boys checked out a “Santa’s Village” that both of the victims had visited, and saw a Santa who matched the lore description of a limping man smelling like candy. Sam’s guess that the sweet smell might have been cheap Ripple wine and nothing supernatural was borne out that night when they broke into the man’s trailer home after hearing a woman scream, only to find the man smoking pot, drinking, and watching Christmas-themed porn.
At the third victim’s home, Sam noticed a wreath on the wall identical to one at the second victim’s house, and after consulting with Bobby, realized that the wreaths were made with meadowsweet, a plant used to attract certain pagan gods to their intended sacrificial victims. Tracking the wreaths back to their maker, the brothers found a saccharine-sweet couple, the Carrigans, and learned that they had moved to Michigan from Seattle early in the year, just after another rash of Christmas deaths in Seattle. Having learned from Bobby that evergreen stakes could kill the creatures, the brothers armed themselves and broke into the Carrigan house, finding horrible evidence of murder and cannibalism in the basement, but were captured by the Carrigans. The arrival of a neighbor with a gift interrupted the sacrificial ritual, however, and the brothers managed to get free. Stripping branches from the Christmas tree for replacement weapons, the boys killed the Carrigans.
Throughout the case, Dean advocated having a Christmas of their own including a tree and all the trimmings, but Sam refused, remembering bleaker times in their childhood, particularly an earlier Christmas when John was away hunting and Sam had first learned that monsters were real and Santa was not. Dean eventually explained his desire with the simple observation that it was his last year, and Sam based his refusal on that same ground, saying that he couldn’t pretend to be happy knowing that by next Christmas, Dean would be dead. Dean conceded and didn’t say anything more. As Sam remembered the rest of that earlier Christmas, when Dean had literally stolen a Christmas for him in an attempt to make him happy and secure in his father’s love, and when he in turn had given Dean the present he’d gotten from Bobby for John – the amulet that Dean has worn ever since – he decided to surprise Dean and gave him the shared Christmas he most wanted, despite the grief of knowing it could be his last.
Commentary and Meta Analysis
Supernatural is at its best when it focuses on the brothers and the relationship between them, and in that regard, this episode was a gem. It built on the moments fostered in Fresh Blood when Sam pleaded with Dean to drop the fearless act and just be his brother again, and when Dean let go of his uncaring, black-humored façade and took steps to share all that remains of his life meaningfully with his brother.
This meta will explore three elements from the show: how the brothers’ differing personalities affect their memories of the past and their attitudes in the present; the monster of the week and the nature of the horror in this episode; and finally, brotherly love.
Their differing views on and memories of their past really go to the heart of the brothers’ very different personalities. They lived through the same events, but saw them with very different eyes both because their starting points were different – Dean having known and lost a happy, normal life that Sam never had the opportunity to share, and having been made responsible for Sam at a very young age – and because their innate psychological and emotional structures and makeup are different.
Despite being incredibly emotionally damaged, Dean has a fundamentally positive outlook that colors his memories as well as his current existence. He tends to make the best out of whatever is handed to him, and the best is what he chooses to dwell on when he remembers things. I don’t think that he’s deluding himself about the past; I think he genuinely remembers things as being less dark because it’s simply his nature to turn on the lights, or at least to perceive everything in shades of light. John observed in In My Time of Dying that Dean had always taken care of his father and his brother and that he’d never once complained. Oh, we’ve seen him bitch a lot about little things, including the absence of recognition for the job as the pressures on him got steadily worse in season two, but with the exception of rare moments of introspection in such episodes as Children Shouldn’t Play With Dead Things and What Is And What Should Never Be, we’ve never seen him complain about his life and his burdens, about all the things he’s given up, or about always being a giver. In the extremity of grief and loss he finally did ask, Why? – but the answer was already within him, and inevitable: because he’s Dean Winchester, and it’s in his nature to give all he has. The way he deals with it seems largely rooted in his gift for making lemonade when life hands him lemons.
Sam is very different. He’s been damaged in different ways than Dean, but he always had the benefit of Dean’s love and strength as a buffer between himself and the world. His character and personality are in many ways the opposite of Dean. Where Dean simply accepts orders, circumstances, and events and concentrates on dealing with them and moving on, Sam is prone to question things, to probe for motives and reasons and to search for something better. Sam can’t leave well enough alone. It’s not in him to accept anything without question or to be satisfied with an imperfect answer. I think that precisely because of Sam’s questing nature, it’s much harder for Sam to be happy than it is for Dean. Sam isn’t content, and without contentment, there’s not much room for happiness. Dean is much more willing to settle for what he’s got and to draw satisfaction from the good he can see in it, rather than pursuing the nebulous possibility of something better. Dean’s happiness comes from within, from his willingness to find the good in what he already has, while Sam looks for happiness outside himself.
Look at their differing memories of the beer can wreath that John had once brought home. Dean’s memory is delight – it was fun, it was clever, it was cool, and Dad brought it home to them. Sam’s memory is a perfect flip – it was junk, it was ugly, it was stupid, and Dad stole it. It’s the same wreath, seen through different personality eyes.
I find it sad but not surprising that Dean, despite being the less sheltered and more broken brother, has seemingly taken more joy in the life he’s been living than Sam ever seems to have done, precisely because he never looked for anything better. While growing up, Sam saw the potential for a different way, a different life, and in yearning for it, he discounted the chance to be happy where he was. When Sam compares his life against the ideal in his mind, his life comes up wanting. Knowledge is sometimes the enemy of happiness, when it makes us too aware that we have less than others and teaches us that contentment is beyond our reach.
Horror and the MOTW
While I’m certain that Eric Kripke was delighted with the amount of gore and violence he got past the Standards and Practices folk in this episode (and Sam losing that fingernail was a positively stomach-turning moment for me), the real horror in this episode went way beyond torture and a basement full of the evidence of cannibalism. The real horror was understated, but always there: the knowledge that other families, like the Winchesters, had been shattered by something supernatural from which they would never truly heal, and that it happened in a time meant to celebrate peace, hope, and family. The child who saw his father murdered by the warped image of a figure meant to delight; the wife whose husband was dragged from their bed; the little boy the year before who saw his grandfather vanish up the chimney – these were casualties the Winchesters could not help.
What made it even worse was the randomness of it. Rather than punishment being meted out to someone evil – as would have been suggested had this been an anti-Santa – it fell on whoever made the mistake of buying a pretty and unusual decorative wreath. The victims were innocent, their families were innocent – and none of them will be innocent again, even though they’ll never know the truth.
And that brings me to the Monster of the Week. Mind you, I thoroughly enjoyed the Carrigans. Having been born in the 1950’s, I grew up on Ozzie and Harriet and Ward and June Cleaver, and this episode’s send-up of those idealized, too-cheerful, too-perfect, totally swearword-free families had me in stitches. (Hey, we didn’t swear in my house either. My Dad decided that to keep us from picking up bad habits, he would consciously not bring those words home. But since he sometimes just HAD to say something, he did his cussing in Polish when he absolutely felt the need. You see where this is going, don’t you? Yep – we can swear in Polish …)
As gods, the Carrigans left a bit to be desired, though. One usually thinks of a god as being all-powerful and all-knowing, or at least being more powerful than a demon, and the Carrigans didn’t seem to fit that bill. My way around that in the Supernatural context would be to posit that the main difference between a demon and something supernatural in origin referred to as a “god” in lore and legend is simply that the god acquired worshippers somewhere along the way who believed in it as a deity. Most legendary gods’ powers also tended more to the elemental – for example, the weather control exerted by the Carrigans to make an unseasonably mild winter, and the fertile soil and beneficial weather produced by the spirit of the tree in Scarecrow – leading to their identification with nature and natural elements. So, a “god” of legend wouldn’t necessarily be any more powerful than a demon – it might just have had a better public relations agent to beat the worship drum.
For me, the best moments of this episode were the two major scenes between Sam and Dean in the motel room that further advanced the ongoing appreciation of both their brotherhood bond and of the strain being placed on it by the demon deal and Dean’s upcoming death. This episode moved the ball further down the field. Having abandoned in Fresh Blood the falsely jocular front he’d put up earlier in the season, Dean avoided verbalizing his reason for wanting to celebrate Christmas until Sam pushed the issue, and then he delivered the truth with a calm, matter-of-fact simplicity: Well, yeah – this is my last year. Sam’s reaction was equally open: I know. That’s why I can’t. I mean, I can’t just sit around drinking eggnog pretending everything’s okay when I know next Christmas you’ll be dead. I just can’t. There was too much pain there for them even to face each other – both of them, whether speaking or listening, mostly looked away, staying in touch only with the occasional fleeting glance. The situation hurt both of them, and each hurt the other by having to deal with it. By the end of that conversation, Dean looked away and looked down, and he nodded, and I knew that he would never even bring up the topic again because of how much it obviously hurt Sam.
Seeing the flashbacks just cemented their relationship even more. The cruel contrast between the life they led and the festive family-oriented holiday around them was emphasized by the production design of totally desaturated color and the trashiness of a motel room even less attractive than the ones the adult brothers stay in now. In that environment, Sam’s questioning and Dean’s dodging acceptance were both clear, echoing from the future to the past and back again. I suspect that when Sam started pushing Dean to tell him what was going on, he had already read parts of John’s journal – that what he was looking for from Dean was confirmation and direction, since we know that what’s written in John’s journal is fragmentary at best and insane on its face. Sam eventually pulling out the journal and thus putting his knowledge in the open was exactly the kind of push that his grown-up self constantly uses on Dean to make his brother confess what Sam already expects he knows.
Sam remembering Dean’s desperate attempt to make Christmas happen for him and to patch up his faith in John led straight into remembering Dean’s reaction to the present of the amulet, and that, I think, is what tipped the scales on Sam ultimately deciding to give Dean the Christmas he so plainly desired. In trying to fake that Christmas for Sammy, Dean hadn’t gotten any presents for himself to help build the illusion that John had passed through; all his focus was simply on getting something for Sam. When Sam turned around and gave Dean the present he’d originally intended for their father, Dean was first so tentative – Are you sure? – that his subsequent delight in the amulet was stunning in its intensity. He gave Sam a gift of his own in the depth of his gratitude. One gets the impression that Dean never got many gifts, and this one, so from the heart, went straight to his, so much so that we know he never takes it off.
I think Sam measured his pain against Dean’s happiness, and found no contest. In giving Dean Christmas, he created a memory of joy for them both, and that memory, that joy, will exist no matter what happens after. The gifts they gave each other were inconsequential, but still spoke volumes. The skin magazines perpetuated Dean’s jokes about Sam and porn; Sam teased Dean’s gluttony with the chocolate bar, but extended love along with the laughter in the gift of motor oil, coming so soon after he’d been taught to work on the Impala’s engine for the first time. Sam’s uncertainty about how Dean would react when he walked through the door into Christmas was painful to see. Dean’s delight was immediate and unfeigned, but his first concern was for what had prompted Sam to do it and whether he would gain more happiness or more pain from giving Dean the gift of Christmas. Neither of them could have reduced feelings to words, and I’m glad that they didn’t make a mawkish attempt. I loved Sam watching Dean and glancing away, and Dean contemplating the tree, looking away from it only to look at his brother.
When memories are all you have, it’s important to make good ones. This was a very good one.
Production Notes and Parting Comments
Jeremy Carver is a new writer on Supernatural’s team this season, but after what he delivered both in Sin City and in A Very Supernatural Christmas, it’s safe to say that he’s a most welcome addition. He’s another one who understands that the most essential things the boys say to each other are often said without words, or through words seemingly unrelated to their meaning. A case in pertinent point came at the end of the episode, where Sam’s, Do you feel like watching the game? really translated into, I love you so damn much.
J. Miller Tobin is rapidly climbing into the top ranks of my favorite directors. For one thing, he appeals to my infatuation with the Impala, finding delightful ways to keep the Impala in the picture and to emphasize her beauty. But more importantly, he has a fine hand for shooting the boys in original ways that reinforce and beautifully illustrate their relationship. The scene in the motel where Dean admits with devastating simplicity that he wants Christmas because this is his last year, and Sam admits that he can’t do it for precisely the same reason because he can’t bear to think of Dean being dead by next Christmas, was masterfully done. Shooting the boys in tight close-ups from slightly behind them meant that we saw them only in half- to three-quarter-face with formless shadows behind them, getting much the same view that each of the brothers had of the other during their stolen glances. No background distracted from their facial expressions and speaking eyes. And the pullback at the end of the dialogue, showing them sitting on their respective beds with that space between them, not looking at each other, captured and reflected their separation, the gap between them that existed both because and in spite of their love for each other. That was beautiful, subtle direction.
Without being able to watch as they shoot an episode, we can never know – unless someone spills the beans in a commentary track or an interview – how much of the feel, blocking, and pacing of a scene came from the actors, and how much from the director, but I’d love to learn about the mix that produced the final scene. That one, along with the earlier motel scene, goes into the steadily expanding bin of my absolute favorite performances from both Jensen Ackles and Jared Padalecki. I loved the way that, from the first moment he came in through the door, Jensen kept Dean’s eyes returning to the Christmas tree through the entire scene. When Dean wasn’t looking at Sam, his eyes were on the tree; every time Sam spoke to him, we saw Dean’s change in focus, leaving the tree for his brother. Even when Sam turned the TV on, there was just one glance for the screen, and then those eyes tracked back to the tree, and to Sam. Marvelous. Jared was brilliant with Sam’s initial nervousness about how Dean would react, and his ultimate inability to speak about what he felt, that swirling mix of love and terror, joy and grief, anger, peace and despair – I may wear out my DVD repeating that scene. And of course, Tobin’s pullback to include the snow-dusted, Christmas-light-reflecting Impala in the picture with the boys against the backdrop of the motel room’s almost Currier and Ives wallpaper has become my snapshot image of the episode.
Ridge Canipe and Colin Ford did a wonderful job with young Dean and Sam. Colin in particular nailed Sam’s mannerisms, right down to the way Sam flares nostrils when he’s irritated. I laughed at that, and at the way both boys perfectly captured the patented Winchester line delivery in their back-and-forth exchanges. The awed delight on young Dean’s face as he held Sam’s present in his hand and then put it on just sold that moment. The bleakness of the motel set and the bleached flashback colors made a sharp contrast to the bright, colorful, happy holiday going on beyond their doors, and made me ache for all the things they didn’t have.
And about that amulet: so Bobby gave it to Sam to give to John, and called it something really special. I wonder: was that puffery, to make Sam feel good about the gift he could give, or does the amulet have a virtue we still don’t know? And I really wonder what Bobby thought the next time the Winchesters passed his way, and he saw Dean, not John, wearing the amulet. I suspect we haven’t heard the end of the tale! But all the virtue that amulet needs is that it was given and is worn in love.
I can’t leave this blog without giving props again to the set designers and dressers. Once again, the motel room was perfect cheese, and hanging tree-shaped car air fresheners as ornaments on the tree was inspired. After all, what else could Sam have gotten at the gas mart? (But you have to wonder what the room smelled like, with so many different air freshener colors opened up at once … *grin*) And the Carrigan house made me laugh out loud precisely because I do know a few people whose decorations actually are that over-the-top. The contrast between that display and the seedy “Nearly the North Pole” Santa village was a hoot – especially comparing the Carrigan’s excessive cheer with the exchange of greetings between the bored reindeer and equally bored elf at the village gate. And the old CBS “Special” opening, the exploding gold ornament, and the neon, jingle-bells title card? Inspired!
My last comment is on the music. Funny as it was to hear Christmas songs in a Supernatural episode – especially that fractured rendition of “Silent Night” (and yes, having them sing off-key and not know the words made it funnier, but we all know that Dean, at least, can sing respectably when it comes to rock!) – my abiding memory of this episode, flavored by Jay Gruska’s softly melancholy underscore in the motel scene midway through, will be “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas.” That song, written by Hugh Martin and Ralph Blane in 1944 for Meet Me in St. Louis, has always been my favorite secular Christmas song. It’s a wish made mostly for others, not the singer, and it has a wistful, yearning quality that makes it bittersweet. I’ve cried both hearing it and singing it in years when things weren’t going well because acknowledging loss and the imperfect present is very much a part of the song – but the core of it, as with Christmas itself, is hope. The song is hope for better days, hope for being together, and underlying that hope, the belief that we’ll somehow find the way to get through pain and loss to reach happiness and contentment again. Singing that song, we’re making a promise to ourselves and to each other to keep going, to not give up, and ultimately to be happy and together again.
I can’t imagine a better anthem for the Winchester brothers right now.
Have yourself a merry little Christmas, and enjoy your Supernatural present.