Ghost high school bully
Drives nerds to revenge on jocks;
Sam sees with new eyes.
Taylor, a pretty high school girl ostracized as a slut by the popular crowd, passed on the insult by lashing out at April, a plain girl who had tried to offer sympathy. The next day, April attacked Taylor in the girl’s bathroom and drowned her in a toilet – and ectoplasm leaked from April’s eyes. Sam interviewed her in a mental institution, and she told him that she thought she’d been possessed, because she could see what she was doing but hadn’t been able to stop it. She revealed none of the other tell-tales of demonic possession, however; no sulfur, no black smoke. Dean observed that kids could be vicious and there might not be a demon involved, but Sam said that they might as well check out the school – Truman High in Indiana, which the brothers had attended for about a month back in 1997.
In flashback, the brothers were dropped off at the school by John. Laid-back Dean, at 18, was content to know that they’d only be at the school for two weeks while John was off on a hunt; reluctant Sam, still small for his age at 14 and sick of always being the new kid, was disgruntled that this was already the third school they’d been in this year, and it was only November. Their experiences were immediately different, with cocky Dean disrespecting his female teacher, attracting interest from Amanda, the pretty blonde sitting near him, and dismissing his lack of books as irrelevant given his expected brief tenure and subdued Sam not wanting to attract attention but becoming an immediate target of Dirk, the class bully, when he reacted to Dirk tormenting Barry, the obvious class geek.
In present day, Sam, in his guise as a janitor, found no evidence of demonic activity, and he and substitute gym teacher Dean decided to leave. Before they could go, however, the school jock, pressuring another student in a home ec class to let him copy his Algebra homework, got his hand grabbed and shoved into a food processor by his would-be victim. Arriving on the scene, Sam found the boy unaware of what he had done and saw ectoplasm leaking from his ear.
Discussing the rare instances of ghost possession, Sam was bemused by the absence of any EMF evidence at the school. Breaking into the principal’s office, Dean reported only one death in the school: Barry Cook, the boy Sam had befriended and defended, who had later committed suicide in the bathroom where April murdered Taylor. When Dean asked if possessing nerds to attack bullies would have been Barry’s M.O., Sam remembered how Barry had been picked on in high school, and was simply enduring it while waiting for the chance to escape to college.
Flashbacks to 1997 continued to show the difference in the brothers’ high school experience, with Dean, necking with Amanda in the supply room, emphasizing the good things about his life – no curfew, an out-of-town Dad, and all the hired comforts of living in a motel room – only to find her troubled at how far from normal those things were. Sam, defending Barry but refusing to fight Dirk the bully, got punched in the face, and earned an approving nod from his teacher, Mr. Wyatt, who arrived to stop the fight and report Dirk.
Regretfully, Sam joined Dean in digging up Barry’s grave and burning his bones. Dean tried to persuade Sam that the boy’s suicide wasn’t his fault, pointing out that the coroner’s report noted that Barry had been on multiple antidepressant medications, and had been dealing with the breakup of his parents as well as the bullying at school. Dean said that he’d been glad they’d left the town because he’d hated the school, and when Sam said that it hadn’t been so bad, Dean asked how he could like it after what happened to him … which triggered yet another flashback to teenaged Dean reacting in protective anger to Sammy’s bruised face, and asking why Sam hadn’t defended himself and fought back, knowing that he could have taken the bully. Sam countered that he didn’t want to be seen as a freak. Asking if taking a beating was normal, Dean went on to say that Dad had called and said that the job would take at least a week longer, much to Dean’s discomfort, because Amanda was wanting him to meet her parents.
Meanwhile, Mr. Wyatt called Sam on what he had written in his essay assignment about his most memorable family experience, because Sam had written about his family killing a werewolf. Gently teasing that Sam had known that the assignment was supposed to be non-fiction, Wyatt said that he still had given him an “A”, and asked if he’d given thought to going into writing. Sam responded that he had to go into the family business, and when Wyatt asked him if that was what he wanted to do, Sam said that no one had ever asked him that before, and admitted that more than anything, he didn’t want to do that. Wyatt advised him that he didn’t have to do anything he didn’t want to, and said that there may be three or four big choices that shaped someone’s whole life, and that Sam needed to be the one to make those choices for himself.
Remembering Wyatt’s advice, Sam stopped at the school before leaving town to thank the man, but he was attacked by an earnest young female student who called him by name, stabbed him in the chest with a protractor, kicked him around with unnatural strength, and observed that he’d gotten tall. He forced salt into her mouth and expelled the ghost. As the brothers tried to figure out what was going on, since the ghost obviously wasn’t Barry, Dean noticed that all of the ghost-possessed students had ridden the same bus to school every day. The brothers guessed that the ghost was somehow on the bus, but that if it possessed a kid, it could ride the kid off the bus. Checking the bus, they found EMF evidence of a spirit, and Dean discovered that the bus had a new driver who had started just before the first possession occurred: the father of Dirk, the bully from Sam’s class. Sam remembered the day that Dirk had finally pushed him too far, when he’d intervened to protect Barry and used his hunter-trained skills to fight back after Dirk called him a freak, leaving the bigger boy bloody on the ground in front of the school. Sam called him “Dirk the jerk,” a name taken up by other students delighted to see the bully brought down.
Visiting Dirk’s father, they learned that Dirk had died when he was 18, evidently from alcohol and drug abuse. The view they got was very different from what Sam remembered, because the boy’s father recounted that other kids had picked on him, calling him “Dirk the jerk.” He revealed that Dirk had been taking care of his dying mother back when he was 13, something Sam had never known, and that all the anger of his helplessness and his family’s poverty had caused him to act out. He reported that Dirk had been cremated, but that he’d kept a lock of the boy’s hair, which was in his Bible on the bus.
The bus, with a substitute driver possessed by Dirk, was taking the school team to an activity when the Winchesters stopped it by puncturing the tires with spike strips laid across the road. Tying the ghost-possessed driver with rope soaked in salt water to prevent the spirit from escaping, Sam held him while Dean, pretending that his stint as a gym teacher was actually a cover for him being a cop, went searching for the lock of hair in the bus on the pretext that the bus driver was dealing drugs. The hair wasn’t in the Bible, and Dirk’s spirit taunted that they wouldn’t find it. He called them bullies, saying that they were always the popular jocks, and said that they were evil sons of bitches who would finally get what was coming to them. Sam responded that he wasn’t evil, but that Dirk hadn’t been, either; that all of them had just been scared and miserable in high school and had taken it out on each other. Sam said that things got better later and that he was sorry neither Dirk nor Barry had lived to see that, but Dirk, enraged, said that nothing would ever get better for him. He broke the ropes and charged Sam, who shot the driver with rock salt, and Dirk’s spirit abandoned the driver to take over one of the jocks on the bus. The jock attacked Sam, and when Dirk’s spirit didn’t leave when Dean shot the jock with rock salt, Dean desperately searched for the lock of hair, finding it hidden in the fallen driver’s boot, and burning it to destroy the ghost.
Back in 1997, the brothers’ stint at the school ended as differently as it had begun, with Dean kissing another girl and being caught by Amanda, who dismissed him as a sad, lonely little kid desperately trying to convince everyone he was cool. He protested that he saved lives and was a hero, but the kids who witnessed the scene just shook their heads and walked away. Sam, meanwhile, was hailed as a hero for having brought down the bully. John arrived to pick them up and Dean couldn’t wait to leave, while Sam waved sadly back at Barry, watching them go.
In the aftermath, Sam thanked Wyatt for his advice. He said that he had managed to do his own thing for a while and thought he had gone to college because of Wyatt, and while people grow up and responsibilities intervened, Wyatt had taken an interest in him, and that had mattered. Wyatt observed that the only thing that really mattered was that he be happy, and asked Sam if he was happy, a question Sam couldn’t find the right words to answer.
Commentary and Meta Analysis
Understanding the truth behind appearances is a key theme in Supernatural, and this episode served it up in spades. We saw other characters seeing the hidden truths of both Sam and Dean in the past, with very different consequences; Sam learning that what he remembered about the class bully wasn’t the full story; and both brothers remembering things long buried that nonetheless spoke to who they had become and why. And we saw, in the space of a single episode, a reversal in roles between Sam and Dean in the past that echoed through all the reversals we’ve seen from season to season across the course of the series. It’s all caught up in what I chose as the title for this review: a line delivered in the background by Mr. Wyatt, describing the essay assignment he gave to Sam’s class to write three pages on their most memorable family experience. In both their memories and their current experience, the brothers turned up brutal, funny, and painful truths.
That’s High School
The role reversals between Dean and Sam in this episode were fascinating to watch. Initially, in the present time, Sam appeared to be neutral on returning to Truman High while Dean was negative. Our first flashback immediately put them into reversed positions: young Dean was generally upbeat and really didn’t care about Truman High one way or the other, knowing that they would only be there for two weeks, while young Sam was already anticipating the dreaded discomfort of being the new kid in yet another place, a feeling only exacerbated by knowing that they’d soon be repeating the experience at yet another school. Dean exuded confidence and assurance, while Sam sullenly tried to stay below the radar.
As their stay at the school extended, we saw the brothers’ positions begin to shift. Sam found his place, first accepting Barry’s tentative offer of friendship, then defending Barry, attracting Mr. Wyatt’s interest and approval both for his attitude and his work, and ultimately fighting back against Dirk, showing himself to be unexpectedly physical and strong, and winning the accolades of others for making the bully the object of ridicule. By the time he left Truman High, he had more than found a comfort level; he’d won a place and become accepted, and saw the rewards of being normal. Dean, on the other hand, lost his place, because the longer they stayed, the more uncomfortable he became with the uncertainty of John’s extended absence on the hunt and the more Amanda could see through his façade of bravado to the sad reality beneath. No matter how he tried to put a happy face on his living situation, she cut to the devastating core truth: Don’t you miss your Dad? When she caught him kissing another girl and struck back by exposing her understanding of him in front of her friends, the corrosion of her pity attacked not only the image of cool he projected to others, but the image of self-sufficiency he clung to in order to protect himself. Dean’s hate for Truman High wasn’t for Sam having been bullied and beaten up there, or even for Amanda having struck back at him with such perfect aim: it was for having had the pathetic core of his life laid bare not just to others, but to himself. Hunting, saving others, was the only thing he could claim that gave his life value, but it wasn’t a value that anyone else could see or credit.
The reversals didn’t end there, however. Shifting into the present, Sam’s generally positive memories of his victory at Truman High turned to dust first through his realization that Barry had committed suicide sometime after he left – a suicide he might have been able to prevent, had he been able to stay and grow the friendship they’d begun – and second through learning that Dirk’s situation was more complex and tragic than he’d seen as a kid, and that his actions and Dirk’s perception of them had been the catalyst for Dirk becoming an angry spirit. Dirk’s hard situation of living in poverty and taking care of his dying mother didn’t excuse his choice to become a bully and torment Barry and others in order to get his own back against the unfairness of life, but it did raise the question of how different things might have been if someone had realized his situation and reached out to him the way that Wyatt reached out to Sam.
The brothers’ reactions and approaches to high school reflected the differences between them. High school was largely irrelevant to Dean because it was irrelevant to hunting, and given the way he was raised, hunting really was the only thing to which he aspired. It was all part of the same thing: saving people, protecting Sam, and being with his Dad. I suspect that Dean never had a Mr. Wyatt, but also that it wouldn’t have mattered if he had. I would posit that Dean internalized his mission at such an early age that he could never have seriously considered anything else even if it had been offered. Having lost so much when his mother died – comfort, home, Mom, and even the gentle and happy Dad he’d known – Dean was content with very little, so long as that little included the security of having his brother and his father. With his father removed from the equation for longer than he had been told to expect, he began to fray at the edges and had a harder time keeping up the façade. In the present, with his father gone, his sense of self violated by his guilty memories of Hell, and his brother on the line, the hunt is all he has left, and he can’t see it ending happily or well.
Sam, on the other hand, had been protected longer than Dean, and from his more secure position, could perceive how little he had compared to the ordinary kids around him. School represented all the things he didn’t have and thought he couldn’t attain: stability, friends, education beyond just what was useful in the hunt, creativity, opportunity. When Mr. Wyatt asked him what he wanted to do, and he realized that no one had ever asked him that before, it said a lot about what John’s single-minded focus – and Dean’s automatic acceptance of that focus – had done to his own outlook. Wyatt’s question planted the seed that nurtured Sam’s resentment of the life he’d been forced to live and grew into his college rebellion. It cast his life in a different light, making it, for the first time, something that he could control and shape.
In the end, Sam’s dreams were brutally overtaken by other forces set in motion long before by the yellow-eyed demon, but I would bet that Wyatt’s remembered advice and his final question – Are you happy, Sam? – have just reinforced Sam’s desire to confound destiny and escape again. Right now, with everything that he and Dean face, happiness seems unattainable – but if there’s a way to win, a way to put an end to all of it? This episode may have seemed years and worlds away from last week’s Criss Angel Is A Douchebag, but I think it’s far closer and more on point than it may have appeared.
New writers this season Andrew Dabb and Daniel Loflin, who previously collaborated on Yellow Fever, impressed me a lot more with this episode. The emotional beats between the brothers, both grown-up and as teenagers, were beautifully done. The episode played on a frequent theme in Supernatural – that things and people often aren’t what they appear to be on the surface – and served it up in multiple ways at the same time. Character reversal between Sam and Dean is a feature of the show, but I don’t recall any other episode where we got to see a complete reversal within a single episode, and I particularly applaud them for pulling that off here. Having teen Dean and present-day Dean react to an attack on Sam with exactly the same line was funny symmetry. There were a few things that made me tug on my earlobe – the boys endangering lives by blowing out the tires on a loaded bus for one (although, with a driver possessed by a ghost who had it in for jocks, something bad was likely on the menu anyway), everyone staying quiet and on board the bus during all the gunfire and shenanigans with the driver for another, teen Dean’s final outburst about being a hero for a third, and the overwhelming vocal support for little Sam on his final walk through the 1997 high school for a fourth – but they didn’t in the least interfere with my enjoyment of the episode. And I chuckled for the historical accuracy and political incorrectness of the Truman High athletics teams being called the Bombers.
Adam Kane is a first-time director on the show, and based on his work here, I hope that the crew liked him and that we’ll see him again. He has a cameraman’s eye that found new and exciting ways to shoot locations that the show has already used numerous times – I’m thinking particularly of the Riverview asylum and the Lu Lu Island trestle bridge – and made them appear different. The walking 360 shot that intercut young Sam with present-day Sam walking into and through the school and running his hand through his hair was pure delight. So was the high crane shot capturing the final dissipation of the ghost and the jock’s “full cowgirl” sprawl on top of Sam. Kane’s previous credits most notably include being cinematographer and director of photography on a few episodes of Grey’s Anatomy and the pilot episode of Heroes. His jump into the director’s chair is recent, but his resume is already respectable and indicative of a fresh and creative eye, given that it includes directing episodes of the visually unique Pushing Daisies. I really liked the way he visualized and then realized scenes in this episode, especially as he shifted perspective between past and present characters.
While I’m talking direction, I also have to point out one bit that really caught my eye and made me sad. Mind, this is no reflection on Kane or on the production as a whole, but it is a commentary on the very limited budget that the CW has provided for this show. All television shows reuse footage to save money on shooting, especially when it comes to stock-type footage; just think of all the times we’ve seen a long shot of the Impala on some wide-open, empty road, and then count how many of those shots were actually the same shot, just carefully treated in post production to vary the color, the light, the tone, or the sky.
This episode, however, is the first one I can remember where the show reused a piece of actual emotional dramatic footage in something other than an episode recap, a memory flashback, or a tiny action clip (by which I mean something like the “Sam hunting alone” montage in Mystery Spot, for example). The scene in which Sam and Dean burn Barry’s bones – from shaking the salt and spraying the accelerant through Dean lighting the book of matches, dropping it in, and both boys watching the flames leap up in the open casket – is actually the full scene from Hollywood Babylon in which the boys burn the starlet’s bones, just flipped to reverse the image. I might not have noticed, except that it struck me on a rewatch that the boys’ hands were wrong – that Sam was shaking salt with his left hand, and Dean’s silver ring was suddenly on his left hand as well, and he was using his left to light the matches.
Reusing a shot saves the considerable money that the show would otherwise have had to spend on setting up and shooting a new version of the scene. If that particular piece of reuse allowed Kripke and company to buy the rights to use Foreigner’s “Long Long Way From Home” in the scene where John dropped the boys off at school, then I definitely applaud the production’s economic creativity. Hell, I applaud the creativity anyway – but I deplore the reason for it, because I would have liked to see Jared’s current take on supplying Sam’s reaction to having to burn the bones of a boy who, however briefly, had been his friend. Flipping the image helped to disguise its origin (I didn’t notice it the first time around), but it couldn’t keep it hidden.
The acting in this episode was top notch all around. In present time, this was Jared Padalecki’s show, giving us a look inside Sam’s heart and memories. The conflicted look on his face at the end of the episode spoke more eloquently than any dialogue about Sam’s feelings; “happy” is so not in it, but there are no words that Sam could use even to approach explaining to Mr. Wyatt the state of his life and the complexities surrounding his choices. His reaction first to learning that Dirk was more than what he had appeared to be, and later to Dirk’s accusation that he was evil and a bully was also heartbreaking; his first “I’m not evil” was confident and direct, but his second, “I’m not” sounded as if he was trying to persuade himself.
Colin Ford as young Sam was absolute perfection. He nailed little Sam in A Very Supernatural Christmas, and he more than did it again here. The dangerous edge he gave to Sam’s response to Dirk’s bullying was brilliant, from the direct challenge of his willingness to volunteer to take Barry’s place as the target of Dirk’s malice, to the simultaneously calculated and physically violent fury of his response to being called a freak. This was a facet of young Sam that we hadn’t seen before, the maturing of anger that would eventually lead to Sam walking out on John, and a foretaste of how deadly and vicious he could be once he was pushed to his limits and beyond, and Colin sold it absolutely. At the same time, he kept the yearning innocence that still lurks within adult Sam, and showed us the first flowering of Sam’s dream of making his own decisions and abandoning the family business.
Brock Kelly had a bit of a harder time with teen Dean, given that he was playing a character closer in physical age and appearance to Jensen Ackles’ Dean, but he did very well. Physically, he made a convincing 18-year-old Dean, still growing into John’s leather jacket, and he definitely pulled off the cocky attitude and the protectiveness. His voice missed the accent, but nailed the vocal range. Watching his young Dean becoming steadily more uncomfortable as the time wore on was very effective; we saw how easily Dean could adjust to a situation he expected, but how the expectations of normality chafed on him as the escape he expected was deferred. He portrayed those cracks well, and if his vulnerability in the final scene with Amanda and the surrounding teens was a little strained, I think that more of that belonged to a small issue with the script. The story gave Amanda more maturity and insight than I could generally buy in a teenaged girl discovering her boyfriend canoodling with someone else; Amanda uncovering and publicly exposing Dean’s defense mechanisms and daring to pity him instead of just dumping anger all over him was simultaneously more insightful and more viciously calculated than I would have expected of a teen. That very unexpected attack was the only reason I could come up with that would account for teen Dean’s protestations of heroism; I’d have expected him to stop with the “You don’t know anything about me” line. I was also a little bothered by Dean’s arrogant insouciance toward his instructor, given that not attracting attention was part of the Winchester family motto, but I guessed that his intent was to get his teachers to write him off as incorrigible and then ignore him, and that attitude certainly seemed to work. I loved Brock in all of his scenes with Colin, because his big brother vibe came across loud and clear.
I continue to love everything that Jensen brings to Dean. His concern for Sam’s sadness and guilt first over Barry and then over Dirk was quietly real, and his flashing anger over anyone or anything that would hurt Sam is one of the traits that makes Dean irresistible. At the same time, his horndog nature and social awkwardness – witness his inappropriate coach persona, his checking on the legal ages of the cheerleading squad, and his clumsy interrogation of Dirk’s father – create the equally irresistible urge to smack him upside the head. Something I enjoy about Jensen’s performance of Dean is exactly that he portrays all of Dean’s facets equally, both the sterling qualities that make him admirable and the failings and weaknesses that make him reprehensible. In the end, Dean comes off as being entirely human, and that’s a combination of the writing and the performance. I particularly enjoyed the subtlety of his early distaste for returning to the school, which played on the surface as anger for what happened to Sam there, and only later was revealed as discomfort for what Dean had lost when Amanda stripped his cool illusion away.
Among the guest cast, I also particularly appreciated Canadian actor Chad Willett, who played Mr. Wyatt. He came off as the perceptive and caring teacher all of us wish we had, and some of us – including me – are lucky enough actually to remember. He and the makeup crew did a lovely job of portraying Wyatt in timeframes nearly twelve years apart.
Having the rock music back for the opening flashback sequence was a joy; we’ve been missing that classic rock a lot, and again, that’s a function of the budget. I also loved the plaintive piano underscore by Jay Gruska during Sam’s retrospective moments. In the production end, I liked the color saturation difference that set the past scenes apart from the present; all of the scenes in 1997 had a warm tinge to the light that contrasted with the harsher light of the present day, and subtly reinforced both which time period the story was in, and the relative innocence of the earlier time compared to the stark and painful present. The only thing missing from the total experience was what Jeffrey Dean Morgan would surely have brought to even a brief appearance as John, but I’m sure that budget considerations and JDM’s own schedule precluded us getting that particular treat.
The episode closed with two “in memoriam” notices appended to the end credits: one for Christopher F. Lima, and one for Tim Loock. I wasn’t familiar with their names from the show’s credits, and went looking. According to tv.com, Mr. Lima was a rigging electrician, and Mr. Loock was an online editor. I don’t know the circumstances of their loss, but I extend my condolences to the Supernatural production family. I knew about and grieved the death of director and executive producer Kim Manners, but hadn’t known that the production had lost two additional crew as well. Every loss is hard; three in a short span of time is brutal.
However sad, this was also a salutary reminder that the show’s credits tell only part of the story: it takes a lot more people whose names we never see to make an episode, and every single one of them – from the technical film crew to the drivers to the people who keep the paperwork in order and the office running – counts in what we finally see on screen. Before I miss the chance with anyone else, let me take this moment to thank everyone in the Supernatural production family for contributing to the joy that this show brings me. People, you rock – and what you have created in this show is going to be remembered.
That’s what happens with brutal, funny, and even painful truths.
(I'm sorry this is so late ... work life is currently imitating a vaccuum cleaner and sucking mightily.)