Makes monsters of two children
As Hell did to Dean.
In a farmhouse near Stratton, Nebraska, solitary Bill Gibson was watching television and eating dinner when the power flickered and went out. Trying to leave the room, he found the door locked, and then the closet door across the room opened and a pale girl in a filthy sack dress advanced on him. He recognized her and told her to keep away, then hammered again at the door, and died in a welter of blood.
With the Impala parked at night in a country lane, Sam, sleeping in the back seat, woke to find Dean using a flashlight to read in the driver’s seat, looking for a job even though they’d just finished one two hours before. Protesting that Dean had kept them constantly hunting for a month, Sam argued that they needed sleep and that Dean needed to stop running from what he’d told Sam about Hell. Avoiding the discussion, Dean recounted the report of Gibson’s death – man found hacked to death in a locked room in a locked house with no sign of forced entry – and the brothers agreed that it sounded like a ghost. Sam gave up and went back to sleep.
Arriving at the house, the brothers discovered the place cleaned out and spruced up for sale with a fresh coat of paint, with nearby power lines rendering the EMF detector useless. Something they didn’t perceive watched them from within the walls. A closed-up, painted-over dumbwaiter in the kitchen and a mutilated doll’s head sitting on the floor of an upstairs bedroom closet were the only things unusual or out of place that they saw. Their further examination was derailed by the arrival of the new owners, the Carters, a family moving out to the country in an attempt to rebuild from the tragedy of the oldest son’s death in a car crash. The brothers lied about asbestos contamination and a gas leak in the house to persuade them to leave, and then continued their investigation, interviewing Mrs. Carey, the woman who had cleaned for Gibson. She told them that he was very private, and said that his wife had died in childbirth and his daughter Rebecca had hung herself in the attic twenty years later, and both had been cremated, making it unlikely that they had left ghosts. She gave them pictures and reported sounds like rats rustling in the walls.
Unbeknown to the Winchesters, the Carters returned to the empty house after they left, and discovered that the story about asbestos and gas leaks was a fraud. They began to move in, although the daughter, Kate, was unsettled to see the pale, dirty figure of a dark-haired girl briefly in an upstairs window. Come nighttime, the boy, Danny, saw his closet door open and a ball roll out, and discovered a shy playmate hiding in the closet. Meanwhile, down in the kitchen, Brian, the husband, smelled a dead and rotten scent coming from an empty cabinet near the plastered and painted-over dumbwaiter, and Ted, his wife Sue’s brother, found the word “Go” scrawled in red crayon on another wall. Believing that Danny was acting out after his older brother’s death, they confronted the boy with the graffiti-marked wall, but he claimed that it was the girl in the walls who had done it, because she wanted the adults to go and him to stay. On the heels of that argument came a scream from Kate, who realized that something other than the family dog had licked her hand while she was lying on her bed, something that had vanished into her closet.
Altered by Kate’s scream, the boys, who had been watching the house from outside, confronted the family, and this time explained that they were in danger from a ghost and needed to leave. As they spoke, the lights flickered and the power went out, and they heard the dog bark and whine in distress outside. Running out to check, they found a blood trail in the grass, and the words “Too late” written in blood on the moving van. Deciding to leave, they grabbed things from the house and came outside again, only to discover two tires on each of the vehicles slashed. Sam found that the Impala’s trunk had also been emptied, with all the weapons taken. Kate glimpsed the girl standing by the woods, and the brothers chivvied everyone back inside, gathering them for safety in the living room behind a salt line, with a fire burning in the fireplace. Sam showed Kate the photos, and Kate identified Rebecca as the girl. Danny agreed that she was the girl in the walls.
Since the girl had killed herself up in the attic, Sam went in search of any clues while Dean stayed to protect the family. The girl came out of the living room closet and walked across the salt line, demonstrating that she wasn’t a spirit, and Dean fought her while the family fled. Sam’s arrival with a bright flashlight made the girl flee back into the walls. Realizing that they had only a human evil to deal with, the brothers encouraged the family to walk to safety, but Danny was missing and Sue wouldn’t leave without him. Dean sent the mother and Kate into the defensible shed to wait while he and Ted searched the house and Sam and Brian searched the yard for any sign of Danny. Dean found one of the girl’s ways into the walls and went exploring, discovering that she lived off of animals she had killed. While he was on his own, the girl surprised and killed Ted.
Sam, having found Rebecca’s diary, realized that she had been the victim of incest and given birth to a child, and that her nameless daughter had evidently been kept in the walls by the deranged Gibson. Dean opened the dumbwaiter, which he figured Gibson had used to feed the girl. He found some of his weapons scattered across the floor, and then found Danny underground, tied and gagged but unharmed – apart from being traumatized by the girl having eaten a rat in front of him – but Danny barely had time to warn him that the girl had a brother before the boy attacked him. Danny escaped, pulled up out of the dumbwaiter by his father and Sam, and Sam went to help Dean, arriving to find that Dean had been forced to shoot the feral boy to save his own life. Meanwhile, the girl attacked the shed, threatening Kate and Sue, but Brian pulled her away and had to kill her with her own knife to stop her.
The family gave the brothers a head start to leave before summoning the cops. Stopping later, Dean admitted that he had felt for the murderous kids, turned into monsters by a lifetime of torture. Seeing his guilt, Sam tried to excuse him, noting that he’d been in Hell and while he may have done things there, he wasn’t the same as the kids, who’d been barely human. Dean agreed, but said that he was worse, because the warped kids had just been animals defending territory. He confessed to Sam that when he’d gotten off the rack and started torturing others, he’d liked it; that he’d enjoyed dealing out pain after having been on the receiving end for so long, because while he tortured others, his own pain went away. He told Sam bleakly that no matter how many people he saved, he could never change that, or fill the hole inside himself.
Commentary and Meta Analysis
The abiding joy of Supernatural is that even monster-of-the-week episodes designed to satisfy horror audiences and serve as standalone stories essentially independent of the series’ mythology never forget that the Winchester brothers and their relationship are the core of the show. Nearly every episode across the run of the series has managed to connect the case with the brothers’ own situation and their internal demons, and Family Remains was no exception. The ambiguity of the title served it well: we saw the shattered remains of three families, but also saw that family can endure – that family remains.
I had issues with the episode, but I loved its call-back to the style and essence of earlier seasons, and the way in which it twisted earlier conventions to make new shapes. In this meta, I’m going to look at what this episode said to me about family, about Dean’s estrangement from himself and Sam, and about the way that perceptions and preconceptions led to wrong choices.
It’s Just A Hillbilly Bitch
In this situation, the Winchester brothers’ history and preconceptions actually worked against them and even led to bad decisions that contributed to tragedy. They were predisposed by experience to assume that they were up against the supernatural, specifically a ghost: all of their early tactical and strategic choices were based on that assumption, and most of them were wrong.
When the power went off, they never stopped to think that a human hand might have tampered with the circuit box; they never even checked, far too accustomed to electrical interference from spirits to consider and remedy another simpler cause. They were initially right in insisting that the family leave in order to be safe, but when Kate saw the girl outside, they jumped to the wrong conclusion that the ghost must have unusual power and play by different rules, and would hunt them if they left. Staying in the house and seeking refuge behind salt was precisely the wrong move to make. Ted, with his more normal and human assumptions about crazy people, was right this time; they were just up against a girl, and leaving before she could hurt them would have been the right choice. The brothers’ mistaken insistence that they stay led eventually both to Danny’s kidnapping and Ted’s death.
The moment the girl crossed the salt line and they knew she wasn’t a ghost, the right choice would have been to have the family leave the house together on foot and not look back, although Dean couldn’t be blamed for how they scattered instead. From that lost moment, which led to Danny’s disappearance, staying together or at least staying close for safety would have made more sense than splitting up, but that would have violated horror movie conventions.
This was a story about three families: the Gibsons, the Carters, and the Winchesters. All three of them were damaged and dealt with it in different ways.
Judging from the photos on display in Bill Gibson’s living room in the very beginning of the episode, the family may have been normal once. Smiles were not in evidence, but the pictures of a young husband and wife, a baby, and Rebecca growing up at least hinted at memories of normality. The difference between those photos and the brutal reality of incest and the abuse of the children of incest marked the disintegration of a family. Bill Gibson evidently was scarred by the death of his wife; at some point, looking at the grown daughter who so resembled her mother, he went over the edge. He became a monster first in abusing and having sex with his daughter, and then in what he did to the children who resulted from that incest. He reaped the rewards of what he sowed by being murdered by the girl who was both his daughter and grand-daughter.
We met the Carters running from their own tragedy, trying to cope with the death of their oldest boy in a car accident. The death of a child can either bring parents together or drive them apart: Sue and Brian were clearly on the cusp, but were trying to stay together not only for themselves, but for the sake of their two remaining children. Evidently unable to cope in their usual setting, they followed the advice of a marriage counselor and tried to start fresh in a new place, making everything new, even to the point of going from a suburb or city out to the country, four hundred miles away from the past, dealing with the strangeness of planning vegetable gardens and having no cell phone reception or close neighbors.
The horror of dealing with the Gibsons’ tragedy complicated the Carters’ lives tremendously. The first steps drove them even further apart, with the accusation that Danny had put the graffiti on the wall and that Kate was imagining things. As events developed, however, the family drew together, supporting and defending each other. Brian spoke against Sue’s despair when Danny was missing, reminding her what Danny had said about the girl in the walls wanting him to stay; Sue moved instinctively and actively to protect Kate when the girl attacked the shed; and Brian ultimately killed the girl with her own knife to save his family. At the very end, Sue acknowledged that they weren’t all right – far from it – but that they were together. Getting to that point, she had to accept not only her brother Ted’s death, but Brian having killed the girl. They still face confronting the police over three dead bodies and coping with the mental stress of the horror they each experienced – but so far, it seems they may be able to do it together.
We’ve known the Winchesters’ family story from the beginning, and just keep adding chapters. This one started with the discovery that Dean, rather like the Carters, was trying to cope with tragedy by running from it, hunting non-stop in order not to have time to think or brood about his memories of Hell, what he had told Sam about them, and what Sam may have thought about him. His need to hunt echoed the need to save others that Sam had voiced all the way back in Playthings, but where Sam had been desperate to save enough people to offset the chance that his destiny would be to turn evil, Dean was trying unsuccessfully to expiate his guilt for what he had done and felt in Hell. Sam was as helpless now to reassure Dean as Dean had been to reassure Sam back in seasons one and two. Neither of the brothers has ever really been able to penetrate the other’s despair, except by simply staying close and refusing to judge or let go – but both of them are still experts at that.
All three of these families wound up in pieces for different reasons because of tragedy. For the Gibsons, because of Bill Gibson’s monstrous choices, it meant total destruction; nothing remains of them but their story. For the Carters and the Winchesters, however, in despite of tragedy, misunderstandings, disagreements, and uncontrollable events, family endures together; family remains, and that provides hope.
Twice in this episode, in commenting on human evil, Dean deliberately harked back to the first season episode The Benders, where he famously said, “Demons, I get: people are crazy.” Throughout the series, the Winchesters have always been able to understand supernatural evil, but have been confounded when confronting humans who became monsters because they chose to do evil.
The added dimension that this episode brought, however, was the realization that Dean was really struggling with not understanding himself any more.
For the first time, Dean found himself sympathizing with creatures he would never even have understood before. Sam’s immediate response was to excuse him, to try making the case that his situation was different because of what he went through in Hell, but Dean wasn’t persuaded, not only because of what he did in Hell, but because of how it made him feel. He confessed that he had enjoyed torturing others, that he had enjoyed dealing out pain after having experienced it for so long, and because of that, it’s clear that in his own mind, he now feels himself on a par with the very humans he’d always professed not to understand – those monsters who chose evil.
This is particularly significant because Dean has always maintained that choice is what matters. Several times during the second season, in episodes like Simon Said, Playthings, and Born Under a Bad Sign, when Sam was struggling with his fear that the yellow-eyed demon’s plans for him meant that he was destined to become evil, Dean argued that there was no such thing as fate, and that Sam would never choose evil. Through his own death and beyond, Dean discounted the demon’s influence and the demon’s blood, believing in Sam’s ability to choose. His anger on discovering in Metamorphosis that Sam had been using his powers was anger born of fear because of Sam’s choice to use the power despite Dean’s dying wish, and for his choice to lie about it.
Dean now cuts himself no slack because in Hell, he chose – and not only did he choose evil, but he enjoyed it. It doesn’t matter to him that the choice was born only of decades of torture and unremitting agony, and that the enjoyment arose from the relief of the absence of pain; it only matters that it was the wrong choice, the violation of everything he had believed about himself. He doesn’t know who he is any more, because of that. In Malleus Maleficarum, Ruby said, “That’s what Hell is: forgetting what you are.” For all that Dean is back on Earth and now remembers everything that happened to him in Hell, he still hasn’t remembered who and what he is, because what he remembers, he can’t recognize or reconcile with himself.
His despairing acknowledgment that he could never make up for what he did and felt in Hell was so empty and bleak that it was beyond tears. Sam had no words to counter that self-judgment, and words would never be enough for Dean in any case. I could argue that Heaven’s decision to rescue Dean and free him from Hell demonstrates that his judgment of his guilt isn’t the same as God’s, but until we learn what Castiel and Heaven expect from him, we won’t know for sure. For all we know, Heaven may be counting on his willingness to sacrifice himself to expiate his guilt, and his willingness to sacrifice Sam to save him from Hell.
The weakest part of Family Remains was the sloppy plot logic, a characteristic often typical of horror as a genre, and it was extremely weak here. It really didn’t make practical sense that, after the circumstances of Gibson’s death, the local cops wouldn’t have discovered the passageways in the house walls and the existence of his children, assuming he truly had been able to conceal them until then. Even if the cops were incompetent and missed them, any home inspector would surely have noticed and investigated the stench from the walls and cellar, given that the kids had evidently been living off rats and other kills once Gibson was dead, and so would the contractor who closed off the dumbwaiter and painted the walls. Gibson’s abusive neglect also didn’t correspond with his nearly feral kids having learned to write, not to mention knowing how to disrupt power to the house. Further, if their intent once Gibson was dead really had been defending their territory, it didn’t make sense that they would have disabled the vehicles; getting the invaders to leave would have seemed preferable to trapping them at the house. I also can’t accept that the boys would have entered the house that night carrying no weapons at all, especially not since the show had long established that Dean in particular felt naked without a gun and knife. They may have discounted a lot of their normal weapons as being ineffective against ghosts, but they would at least have carried shotguns with salt rounds! Writer Jeremy Carver confessed in recent interviews that writing a purely horror episode was a departure for him; I think he made the mistake of consulting too many bad horror movies for his inspiration, and the episode suffered as a result, employing all the overdone plot clichés of the genre. It required a lot of willing suspension of disbelief to get past the logic issues.
That said, however, his moments between the boys were golden, from Sam’s weary opening attempt to get Dean to admit the reason for his obsession with non-stop hunting through the funny (“Know-it-all.” “What?” *innocent look* “What?” *snarky unseen smile*) and uncomfortably real (“Like you know what Hell’s like.” “I – didn’t …” “Forget it.”) brother beats in the house, and ultimately to Dean’s final admission of the true depth of his depravity in Hell. Sam clearly wants so desperately to help Dean, and is so helpless to figure out how to do it. Sam is innately verbal, but he hasn’t been able to find the words that will reach his brother. All he’s been able to do so far this season is to be there, to stay close in silent support, and it’s killing him; it hurt to see the pain on his face as he watched Dean and saw how badly the disappearance of the boy and the death of the uncle tormented him, and then heard Dean’s self-condemnation. Jared Padalecki did a great job of conveying with his face and his body all the things that Sam couldn’t manage to say with words, and Jensen Ackles sold Dean’s desperation and ultimate self-condemnation.
Director Phil Sgriccia’s choice of both high and low camera angles and shots through windows, screens, cracks, and vents helped to heighten the spooky, off-kilter mood of the episode. The darkness of most of the scenes and the use of flashlights to light scenes went straight back to the unique look of the first two seasons of the series. I liked the little subtle touch of Dean closing and blocking the closet door when he and Sam went back into the house to discuss Rebecca’s diary: that was finally a logical defense action, and I applaud whoever added that little move, whether it came from the writer, the director, or the actor.
The set dressers get points for three different views on the house – as Gibson’s cluttered cave, as an empty, newly refurbished home, and as a moving-in work in progress. The two stick figures drawn in blood on the wall underground were a particularly nice touch; in hindsight, they were clearly a forewarning that there were two children, but because the drawing looked fresh, my initial take on seeing it was that it might have suggested the girl’s hope for a companion in Danny. Sneaky artistry, guys!
Eric Kripke doubtless rubbed his hands in glee over one aspect of the show. I remember listening to him in LA, when asked about urban legends he particularly liked, talking gleefully about the “licked hand,” a story in which someone lying on a bed or sitting in a chair thinks that the family dog is licking his or her hand – until they see the dog just coming into the room, and realize that something else entirely has been taking liberties! I wonder whose idea it was to include the licked hand in this particular tale? *grin*
On balance, this episode didn’t quite work as a standalone horror story for me because of all the distraction inherent in the sloppy horror story logic. What did work for me, however, was the sense of continuity in Dean’s story – his progression from trying to cope through drinking to trying to cope through obsessive hunting – and the realization that he hadn’t shared the worst of Hell with Sam even during his confession in Heaven and Hell. And the other thing that definitely worked was the quiet comparison and commentary on family.
For the Winchesters, in despite of it all, family remains, and it’s pretty much all that remains.
My apologies for how late this is: I'm getting back in the swing, and at the same time, I was celebrating the inauguration. About which ... wheeee!