Makes Winchesters, Campbells ask:
Who’s your family?
A panicked woman ran through her house, clutching her baby in bloodstained arms. When she desperately grabbed the phone in the bedroom only to find it not working, she hid under the bed with her baby, terrified by the sight of her brutally murdered husband. Hands grabbed her ankles and dragged her out screaming while the baby lay unmolested.
Moving with Lisa and Ben into a newly rented home, Dean checked the readiness of the loaded weapons in the Impala’s trunk before locking it up again, hiding the keys in his tool chest and covering the car with a tarp. Carrying a box into the kitchen, he saw Ben sitting glumly at the table and heard Lisa telling him to keep an open mind and check the place out before deciding to hate it. Ben sullenly agreed, then headed for his bike to check out the neighborhood, but Dean stopped him, saying it wouldn’t be cool to leave his mother to do the unpacking alone. Caught between Dean’s thinly disguised fear and Ben’s resentment, Lisa mediated a truce by saying they’d go out together for lunch. When lunchtime rolled around, however, Dean had pizza delivered, professing he’d forgotten they’d agreed to go out.
Sam checked out the murder scene in FBI guise, learning the dead couple’s baby was still missing but the cops didn’t think it was a break-in because the home alarm never went off. Finding no evidence of anything supernatural in his search, he reported to Samuel, concluding the case might be one for the police. Samuel insisted something was very wrong about four babies being snatched from four murdered couples in locked houses within days of each other, and when Sam didn’t react to the ugliness of the thought of either monsters or human psychos making “baby stew,” said he wondered about Sam sometimes. Sam agreed he wondered about himself. Samuel said he’d go through the information again to see if there was anything they’d missed, and Sam told him to check into the other victims possibly having had security provided by the same alarm company.
Dean walked into the garage to find Ben sighting down the barrel of a loaded sawed-off shotgun taken from the Impala’s trunk. Appalled, Dean took the weapon, locked it back up, and told him never to open the trunk. When Ben protested Dean had his own rifle at Ben’s age, Dean insisted Ben would never, ever, shoot a gun. Stung, Ben said he knew what was going on, that Dean thought something might be coming for them, and argued he could do what Dean did, that Dean could teach him to shoot. Dean shouted at him to shut up about the gun, and Ben backed away, frightened and apologetic, dejectedly leaving the garage even as Dean realized and regretted what he’d done. Some time later, Lisa came out to the garage to ask why Ben had locked himself in his room. Not telling her about the gun, Dean said it had been his fault; that Ben had gotten into his tools and he shouldn’t have gotten mad. Lisa asked if he wanted to talk about it – yelling at Ben, keeping them in the house – and when he said he was just trying to keep them safe, she told him she understood, but said she needed parameters. She pointed out they had moved despite Dean’s reassurance that he and Sam had killed the monster that had been after them, and asked whether the problem was a monster, or monsters in general. When he said he didn’t know what could come, she said she needed to work and Ben needed to go to school, and while she understood his need to protect them, he was scaring her.
Samuel called Sam with word that his hunch on the alarm company was right: all the homes had the same security, and the company records showed another couple with a six-month-old child. Checking it out that night, Sam found the couple newly dead. Following a trail of still-wet bloody footprints, he was jumped by a man in a security guard uniform who knocked his gun out of his hand. Pulling his knife, he cut the man, who reacted violently to the silver blade and fled. Hearing a noise from behind him, Sam went to check it out rather than pursuing his attacker, and found … something surprising hidden under a folding table in the laundry room. He called Dean insisting he needed his help. When Dean – who was salting the windows of the new house – told him he was out, Sam threatened to come to the house if Dean didn’t agree to meet him. Dean insisted on knowing what was nuts enough for him to threaten a drive-by, and then met Sam to find there was indeed a baby in a carrier strapped into the back seat of Sam’s car.
In the morning, Dean insisted on Lisa demonstrating a weapons drill with the pistol he left her despite her insistence they’d been over this before, and she promised to salt the windows and doors. When he still hesitated at leaving her, saying Sam could handle things, she told him he wanted to go and should go, and teased that she would shoot him herself if he didn’t. When he joked she was probably missing her boring ex, she laughed and told him to shut up, and admonished him to be careful. He kissed her goodbye and left.
Meeting Sam in the countryside and leaving his pickup behind, Dean asked what they were up against. Sam explained the creature’s speed and reaction to silver, which narrowed things down a little but not much, since those were traits of ghouls, zombies, shifters and a dozen other things. Dean noted he hadn’t seen baby-snatching in the profiles of any of the common monsters Sam named. Looking at the baby, Dean said they’d need some supplies, and when Sam assured he had an arsenal in the trunk, Dean said they weren’t that kind. The brothers wound up at a neighborhood grocery store where Dean picked up diapers, bottles, baby wipes, and other essentials, explaining Lisa had a baby niece and he’d been on a few milk runs. Caught unprepared and not knowing what to do when the baby started crying while they were in the checkout line, the brothers were at first grateful to the grandmotherly black lady who diagnosed a wet diaper and calmed the baby – whom Dean had called Bobby and Sam had called John, with Dean glossing over the confusion by saying his name was Bobby John – by holding him. Glancing to the side, Dean caught the silver flash of shapeshifter eyes in the woman’s image on the store security camera, and demanded the return of the baby. The woman ran and the brothers gave chase. Sam grabbed the baby and bolted for the car while Dean struggled to stab the shifter, but a store manager responding to the woman’s screams interfered and Dean had to flee. The shifter ran after them, memorizing the Illinois license plate on Sam’s car. The shifter’s next stop was a cop car; it killed and became the officer, and put out a call for info on Sam’s plates.
Wondering what a shifter would want with a baby, and concerned the thing might have been following Sam right from the baby’s house, the brothers went to ground in a motel. To Sam’s amusement and surprise, Dean successfully changed the baby’s diaper and got him to lie peacefully in a crib. When Sam teased him about being father material, Dean demurred on the baby front, but acknowledged he’d had to become a father to Ben, observing that even though Ben wasn’t his son, he kind of felt the boy was. Thinking about the way they’d grown up, he thought he had the chance to do something different with Ben. Sam questioned whether moving Lisa and Ben around and keeping them on lockdown was any different from how they’d grown up. When Dean protested he wasn’t shoving anyone into this life and it was only temporary, Sam pointed out that John had always said it was only temporary, too. Sam asked how Dean could watch out for them without turning into John. While Dean mulled that over, Sam turned back to his research, and realized he had missed something: the father of one of the first babies kidnapped hadn’t been living at home when his wife was killed and his baby taken, so he was still alive. Realizing one of them had to stay with the baby, Dean told him to go investigate. As the baby started crying again, Dean dipped a finger in his whiskey and let the baby suck on it.
In detective guise, Sam questioned the man at the garage where he worked, noting he’d filed for divorce from his wife before her death. The man reported he’d caught his wife cheating on him, saying she claimed the baby was his even though they hadn’t had sex in a while. He said she’d claimed he’d come back early from a softball tournament and they’d made love, but he hadn’t. Sam realized the shifter must have been the baby’s father, and called Dean.
At the motel, Dean had already come to the same conclusion. Dozing off to the magic fingers, he woke to a loud splat and the baby crying, and found shed skin and fluids adorning the crib and the walls while the formerly white baby was now a black one, matching the picture on the box of diapers. While he was finishing changing the still-crying baby after having washed off the shifter goop, he heard a knock at the door. A voice claiming to be the manager asked if everything was all right, said there had been complaints about the noise, and asked him to open the door. When he refused, saying he’d just gotten out of the shower, the door jiggled and he heard noises at the lock. Putting the baby in the crib and pulling a knife, he attacked the shifter cop as it came in through the door. The shifter told him to get out of the way, that the baby belonged with its father, and when Dean joked about not seeing a resemblance – given that the shifter was now wearing the guise of a white cop – the shifter said he wasn’t just talking about himself, but about “our” father. He attacked Dean, and though Dean managed to score a cut across his cheek, the shifter threw him off across the bed and into the wall, and advanced on the crib. Sam appeared behind him in the door and shot him in the heart with silver, and the shifter dropped.
Fleeing with the baby in the car, Sam was surprised that the shifters were evidently breeding, saying he thought they were just individual freaks of nature. When he noted he’d never seen a baby monster before, Dean said the shifter was just a baby and being a shifter wasn’t its fault. Sam agreed, but said it was a shifter too. Noting they couldn’t simply drop it off at an orphanage, given its propensity for changing appearance, Sam proposed taking the baby to Samuel, and when Dean objected to taking a baby to hunters, Sam said they were family. He said he knew them, and argued not every hunter was a head case. He likened Samuel to Dean, who maintained he was a freaking head case and not a good argument, but couldn’t propose anything better.
Driving into the night, they came to a fenced compound in the country where two armed guards admitted Sam’s car. Inside, while Dean held the sleeping baby, Christian and Mark both fed him nonverbal attitude, while Gwen snarked about the baby being the best disguise a monster had ever worn and then told Dean she was only teasing. After that, Dean refused to let Samuel hold the baby, and when his grandfather asked what Dean thought he would do to it, said he didn’t want Dean answer that question. Christian asked who he thought they were, and when Dean said hunters, responded that he thought they were family. Sam intervened, taking the baby from Dean and giving him to Samuel to hold. Cradling the baby, Samuel observed it had been a long time since he’d held one, telling the brothers Mary had been the tiniest one. Dean asked what they would do with him, and Samuel responded they would raise him, observing he wouldn’t be safe outside. When Dean asked what would happen to him within the hunter community, whether he’d be poked and studied, Christian accused that just because Dean’s mind went straight to torture, he shouldn’t assume it for everyone, and revealed – as Sam ducked his head – that he’d heard what Dean had majored at in Hell. Samuel said they’d just raise the kid, and let him decide when he was old enough whether he’d like to help. Normally silent Mark volunteered that a shifter could make a great hunter. When Dean reacted with disbelief and demanded the baby back, Samuel asked him why he couldn’t give them an inch of trust. Looking at both Sam’s, Dean retorted that he seemed to be the only one who wanted to know how they were both back from the dead. Sam interjected he wasn’t the only one, but Dean said there was too much mystery about the family for him to get comfy. Samuel told him not to blame his discomfort on them, because all they were trying to do was invite him in. Then Samuel turned to Christian and asked if he and Arlene were still unsuccessful in having a baby but wanting children. When Christian responded in the affirmative to both, Samuel handed him the baby, congratulating him on having a boy – some of the time. Dean objected that Christian had no business raising anything, and Sam pointedly asked why: because he was a hunter?
The conversation ended abruptly as a dog started barking outside. Ordering Gwen to check the door, Samuel took the baby and gave him back to Dean, telling the Winchesters to take the boy down to safety in the panic room in the basement. Sam ushered Dean downstairs as the cousins and Samuel assembled their weapons, including tranquilizer guns. When the door crashed open, however, the shifter who walked in wore Samuel’s face and said he knew the baby was there, because he could feel him. Gwen discharged her shotgun twice into the shifter’s back, but he didn’t hesitate in turning on her. Mark intervened, stabbing the shifter in the chest with a silver knife, but the shifter grabbed him by the throat and broke his neck even as Mark urged her to run. Gwen tried to run past, but the shifter grabbed her by the neck. Christian and Samuel fired multiple tranquilizer darts into the shifter’s back and the thing staggered, releasing Gwen, but as Samuel told Christian to bring the silver nets, the shifter recovered, straightening up and popping the darts right out of its back.
In the panic room, hearing the sounds of a battle overhead, Dean tried to soothe the baby while observing it didn’t sound good. Sam decided to go upstairs and help, but as he reached the door, he saw the shifter outside – wearing his face. The shifter ripped the door off the room and threw Sam into the nearest wall. Morphing into a copy of Dean, he advanced on Dean, who protectively held the baby and refused to hand him over; he grabbed Dean by the throat and choked him unconscious, letting Dean drop to the floor and carrying the baby away.
In the aftermath of the shifter’s escape, picking up the pieces, Samuel and Sam, discussing the lore they’d uncovered, told Dean they suspected their attacker had been the Alpha shifter, the first of his kind and father of all the others, stronger and more powerful than the rest. Samuel said his connection with the baby – his ability to feel or sense it – was in the lore too. Dean asked how they would kill it, and Samuel admitted he didn’t know if they could.
Leaving the compound with Sam, Dean noted the shifter in the motel had referred to a father just before Sam killed it, and asked if Sam had heard what the shifter had said and known the Alpha was out there. When Sam equivocated, Dean asked if Sam had deliberately used the baby as bait to draw out the Alpha. Sam said he hadn’t, that he’d just thought Samuel’s compound would be the safest place, but Dean didn’t look convinced.
With the brothers gone, Samuel talked on the phone with someone he never named, angrily saying he hadn’t captured the shifter; that it had killed three of his people – presumably the two outside guards as well as Mark – and he’d shot it full of elephant tranquilizer only to have it chuckle. He admitted he wasn’t sure he wanted to find it, but said grudgingly they’d find a way to catch it. Responding to another unheard comment, he snapped that he’d bring it gift-wrapped; then disconnected the call looking frustrated and upset.
The next day, back home with Lisa and troubled by his fear on learning Ben was out on a bike ride, Dean confessed he didn’t know what to do. He told her if he knew the safest thing – stay and protect them, or go as far away as he could – he would do it. He admitted being scared that in yelling at Ben and behaving like a prison guard, he was acting the way his father always had, when he’d sworn he’d never be like that. Lisa told him she knew he wasn’t a construction worker: that he was a hunter, and that now that Sam was back, things were different and he didn’t want to be in the suburban life. When Dean protested earnestly that he did, she smiled ruefully and agreed, but pointed out that he also wanted to be out hunting with Sam. She told him he was white-knuckling it, living as if he was some bad, awful thing. She assured him he wasn’t, but also said she wasn’t going to have this same discussion every time he left. Since it was just going to keep happening, she said she needed him to go. When he said he couldn’t just lose her and Ben, she told him she wasn’t telling him to hit the road; instead, she said she and Ben would be there, and he should come to them when he could. All she asked was that he come in one piece. He asked if she thought they could pull that off, and she told him it was worth a shot.
Decision made, he changed into his usual hunting clothes, pulled the tarp off the Impala, and smiled as he took her in.
Commentary and Meta Analysis
To me, it appears the theme for this season is family – and not just for the Winchesters and the Campbells, but for all the monsters they confront. What makes a family, what does it mean to be family, what are you willing to do and to sacrifice for family, how can you be both who and what you are and part of a family; all those things are on the table. In this discussion, I’ll look at Supernatural families; explore Dean’s crisis of family and fear; probe further into Sam’s disconnection; and speculate on the mystery of Samuel and the Campbells.
Here I’ve Been Thinking We’re Family
Family has been at the heart of Supernatural from the very beginning: the opening scenes of John, Mary, little Dean, and baby Sam revealed the tragedy that killed Mary, turned John into a hunter, and prompted him to raise his boys to hunt so he could protect them and they could protect each other. The story has always been about the Winchester family, including the faithful family car and the closest friends who became part of the family unit. Bobby Singer captured the essence of that concept in No Rest For The Wicked with his true and simple observation, Family don’t end with blood, boy. Family bonds of love and trust ultimately saved the world in Swan Song when Dean’s steadfast love and the Impala’s store of lifelong family memories gave Sam the strength to seize control from Lucifer and the resolve to sacrifice himself to save his brother and his world. Family was the whole point of it all, hammered home through the Winchesters’ very human mirror being held up to the more dysfunctional family unit of God and His angels.
I submit family is still the point. In this episode, we saw the concept of family from many different viewpoints. Sam and Dean together looked back on their own family history as the disquieting counterpoint to Dean’s crippled attempt to fashion a different kind of family life for himself with Lisa and Ben. We got more tantalizing hints about Campbell family life beyond the core of hunters when we learned Christian had a lady named Arlene who apparently kept his home fires burning amid the dream of having children of their own. We saw tension about the Winchesters being welcomed into the Campbell family on the surface at the same time as they both were kept apart from truths at the clan’s hunter core. We saw something of the Winchester’s closeness missing from the Campbell clan in the absence of Campbell grief over the loss of their own. We saw victim families being either killed or ripped apart by encounters with the supernatural. And we saw monsters choosing family goals over any simple desire to kill.
Before I get into the Campbells and the Winchesters, I want to look at the shapeshifters. I think it’s worth pointing out that the Alpha shifter wasn’t the first monster to claim family ties and make the Winchesters and us think about what family means. For example, we saw concepts of family in vampires from our very first encounter with them in Dead Man’s Blood, when John said vampires mated for life and Kate meant more to Luther than the gun. Lenore referred to her collection of vampires as family in Bloodlust, and we saw the vampire Dixon in Fresh Blood trying literally to recreate the family he had lost.
I think vampires were the first monsters we were shown as having concepts of family, but they weren’t the last. Think of the husband and wife pagan gods in A Very Supernatural Christmas living their conjoined lives through millennia, the ghouls in Jump The Shark seeking vengeance for their father’s death at John’s hands in the murder of John’s sons, and the djinn in Exile On Main Street again seeking vengeance against Winchesters for the death of their father in What Is And What Should Never Be. Even Azazel claimed fatherhood and revenge for lost children in Devil’s Trap, although since we later learned demons were nothing more than human souls warped by Lucifer or Hell, it seems most likely to me he made his son and daughter demons by warping fallen souls to fit his perverted image of family, much as Dixon tried to do in creating vampires. Still, the concepts of families and blood feud seem as strong in some monsters as in the mafia, or between the Hatfields and McCoys. (Many of the ghosts we met carried over their human memories of family as part of their motivation for clinging to the world, but I’m leaving them out of this monster discussion precisely because they were essentially human, just – dead.)
In this episode, we were re-introduced to shapeshifters not as the lone occasional “freak of nature” monsters we thought we had encountered in Skin, Nightshifter, and Monster Movie, but as members of a single family bloodline traceable back to one initial Alpha shifter, who – like Figure, the prepotent foundation stallion to which all Morgan horses trace their heritage – bred true offspring that shared his shifter genes. We learned the Alpha and his offspring, including the shifter Sam killed in the motel, who implied he’d been this particular baby’s daddy, were breeding sons and daughters on human women and stealing the babies, possibly to raise as family. (Curiosity question: are all shifters genetically male [my personal guess], or could a female shifter produce a child with a human father? Could male and female shifters breed with each other? [I’m guessing not, or humans wouldn’t still be in the equation …]) If all shifters trace back to this single Alpha, with each generation in turn breeding subsequent generations, then presumably the maladjusted ones we met before – particularly the individuals in Skin and Monster Movie, who both held themselves out as lonely, singular, persecuted, and misunderstood – were babies neither the individual shifter fathers nor the Alpha had been able to collect and raise themselves in shifter families. There’s a mystery: why were they left out of the shifter family circle, since the Alpha evidently had the ability to sense and find them? They seemed to know as little about their place in the shifter community as the Winchester brothers had known about the hunter community, at least until after John’s death. Perhaps the Alpha needed to be within a certain proximity to detect his descendants, or perhaps the fathers of the abandoned ones were killed by hunters before they could either alert the Alpha or collect their children themselves.
We’re also left to wonder how many other monsters may have a similar source – one unique individual, whether a spontaneous human mutation, or something like the tulpa of Hell House brought into being through some metaphysical or magical quirk, or a being deliberately purpose-bred like Jesse, the demon/human hybrid antichrist from I Believe The Children Are Our Future – that could make or breed variations on itself. And we’re further left to wonder what family feeling such beings may have for others of their kind, especially when we think about the Alpha shifter’s absolute focus on obtaining the child, even to the exclusion, once it had the baby, of exercising the minimal effort it would have taken to kill the incapacitated hunters who had stood in its way. I wonder if part of the shifter’s restraint was its recognition – down in the panic room if nowhere else – that Dean, Sam, and even the Campbells had intended to protect the baby, not harm it. I wonder if we’ll ever know.
Why Can’t You Give Me An Inch Of Trust
The present-day Campbells presented another interesting wrinkle on family. Their extended family structure, while more inclusive, seemed much less cohesive than the bonds between the Winchesters; witness their muted reaction to the deaths of Mark and the two guards outside the compound, and the absence of any visible reaction in Exile On Main Street to the death of the watcher Samuel had set outside Dean’s house. They seemed bound by some ties of mutual affection – Gwen in particular clearly was shocked by Mark’s death – but appear much less emotionally invested in each other than the Winchester brothers are.
Part of that may be a limit to their shared experience. We don’t know how long the three cousins and other family members we didn’t meet by name had known and worked with each other. I think they all were part of the overall Campbell relation, given Samuel’s comments about not trusting other hunters and about the family turning out to put all hands on deck, but that indicates the family has to be a very large one. When Samuel said in Exile On Main Street that the cousins hadn’t known about the Winchesters until he brought them all together, it wasn’t clear whether he was talking just about linking the Winchesters to the Campbells, or if he’d literally been the connection between them all, including bringing distant relations together following the demonic decimation of the clan we learned about in The Kids Are Alright. I’m curious to know.
Another part of their relative distance could be an acceptance or expectation engendered by growing up knowingly in a hunter culture where occasional violent death is a basic, regrettable fact of life, but where their introduction to the hunter world wasn’t an overwhelming personal tragedy, as it had been for the Winchesters – something traumatic that could either rip a family apart or weld it tightly together – but rather the prosaic routine of a family business complete with petty resentments, irritations, and automatic assumptions. Still another contributor may have been growing up in a much bigger, broader circle of family. Sam and Dean only had each other, their father, and a very limited circle of contacts, a circumstance designed to force them into tighter bonds of interdependence than would be likely among a broader range of choices. And finally, some of that emotional distance could well have been the self-protective result of having lost a lot of relatives recently and wanting to minimize further pain. That kind of effect shows up often in war zones. Many members of air crews in World War II, for example, constantly having to replace losses, tried to minimize forming friendships and attachments because the likelihood of death and loss was so very high.
For all that Samuel and the cousins told Dean they were simply trying to invite him in to the family, they did nothing to put him at ease or dispel their persistent and suspicious aura of mystery. We know that Dean’s instinct to distrust – his perception that there are secrets within secrets hiding beneath the family veneer – is well founded; we’ve been shown that Samuel and the cousins are deliberately withholding things from the Winchesters, even though we don’t yet know why. I’m inferring from what we’ve seen that Sam, for all he’s been hunting with them for a while, hasn’t been cued in to the Campbell’s current mission where possible to take some monsters prisoner rather than kill them, or to know that Samuel is taking direction from someone else outside the immediate family structure Sam already knows. Remember Samuel’s orders to the cousins to take away the captive djinn before the brothers would get back to the house in Exile On Main Street, and him sending both Winchesters down to the panic room before arming up not with shifter-killing silver bullets, but with shotguns, tranquilizer darts, and silver nets. If Sam knew about the “capture” mission and agreed with the rationale for it, I think he’d have shared that intelligence with Dean to set him at ease; that he hasn’t leads me to suspect Sam’s been kept in the dark as well. And I wonder if Samuel is answering to and knows more about whatever brought him back to life than he’s admitted.
If There’s Some Rule That Says This All Has To Be Either/Or, How About We Break It?
Sam pointed out something Dean had been willfully trying to ignore: that in the conditions he’d established around Lisa and Ben from the moment the supernatural had begun hunting him, he was unconsciously falling back on his own childhood and repeating John’s mistakes, imitating his flawed father as the only familiar template he had for mixing hunting with family. Sam couldn’t offer anything different because his direct experience had been the same, and his every attempt to break the pattern – with Jessica or by himself – had ended in failure. His implication to Dean was that family couldn’t successfully mix with hunting, cueing Dean’s pain at the thought of losing what he had with Lisa and Ben.
In running up against that wall of consistent Winchester family life failure, however, both of the brothers failed to note other examples they’d seen that suggested things could be different. Lisa’s challenge to Dean to break the mold and think outside the pattern held more hope than she realized. She had no real examples to draw on; only the desire to find a way to make things work. We and the Winchesters, however, have seen other hunting families, and while none of their situations were perfect, what family life is?
The most obvious and detailed example was the template we saw in the Campbells of the past. When we met them In The Beginning, Samuel, Deanna, and Mary were living an apparently grounded, stationary life with all the normal small-town trappings, but with a heritage of hunting overlaid on their seeming normality. Deanna kept a lovely home while maintaining hunter skills; I had to laugh at her brisk efficiency in chopping fruit salad and loved her ability to put dinner on the table while discussing the possible demonic omens in weather patterns and chiding her husband for being inhospitable. Mary resented Samuel’s expectations that she would carry on the family business and hunt, instead craving safety, innocence, and peace for her own marriage and children, but even that conflict of desires reflected the frequently typical rebellion of a child against a parent’s lifestyle or value system. The Campbells were a refreshingly normal family unit compared to Dean’s twisted childhood experience. Hunting ultimately brought them ruin when Azazel crossed their path, but ordinary life is no guarantee of peace, either; families are senselessly ripped apart every day by circumstances ranging from tragic accidents and illness to the criminal malice of strangers. The only real difference here was that the Campbells knew about specific dangers to which most people were blind, and because of their knowledge and their resolve to fight the evils they saw on behalf of others, they did run a greater and ultimately fatal risk of bringing that danger home.
The present-day Campbells suggest that knowledgeable-but-normal lifestyle continues. We learned that Christian has a wife – or at least a partner committed enough to want to have children with him – who isn’t on the front lines of the family fight, but to whom he returns. For there to be a constant presence of Campbell hunters throughout history, the existence of such family units would be essential. There have to be mothers, children, brothers, sisters, uncles, aunts, and cousins living quiet lives and breeding up not just future hunters, but family members in supporting, non-hunter roles – different facets of the family business, as it were. Samuel suggested as much when he said they’d pitch the shifter child the choice when he was old enough, and welcome him if he decided to help in the fight. I’m curious to discover more about these extended relations, and I wonder if Dean will think about Christian and his relationship with Arlene as he himself grapples with trying to keep a home base with Lisa and Ben, even if he can’t live there on anything close to a daily basis.
Even before we knew about or met the Campbells, though, we knew about another hunter family. We just never got to see them intact or learn many details. I’m talking, of course, about the Harvelles.
We never learned in the show how Bill Harvelle got into hunting, or whether Ellen had ever gone with him before Jo was born. But we did learn in Everybody Loves A Clown, No Exit, and Born Under A Bad Sign that Bill hunted even after his daughter was born, and that Ellen understood exactly what was going on with her husband and kept the Roadhouse running and protected while he was gone. Bill died on that last fateful hunt while his daughter was very young, but not before she’d learned enough of what he did to hero-worship him and want to be just like him – something Ben is displaying now with regard to Dean. Ellen’s subsequent determination to keep Jo safe by keeping her out of hunting – an attitude Dean is reflecting with Ben – backfired in the end when Jo rebelled at her autocratic over-protectiveness, a lesson Dean would do well to learn. But my point here is that Bill and Ellen made it work for as long as Bill was alive; he was a hunter, but a hunter with a family and a home. I’m certain Bill and Ellen had some spectacular fights about the life and the danger, but they also clearly had love, and they were raising a daughter together. They made it work until death intervened, and that gives me hope that Dean could learn to do the same.
The specific supernatural dangers confronting hunters are unique, but families face danger and deal with the fear of loss every day. I don’t think so much of the analogy of soldiers on deployment as I do undercover police officers, fearful of bringing home threats from gangs, drug dealers, or other criminal elements; or just families living in neighborhoods made dangerous by poverty, crime, drug, or sectarian violence. Knowing a danger and standing up to it always entails risk – but families still exist and can endure, and I think that could be as true for hunter families as for others.
Sometimes I Wonder About Me, Too
We saw more examples in this episode about Sam’s relative dispassion, his disconnectedness from strong emotions he definitely would have felt and reacted to in the past. His humor engine was definitely engaged – watching him react to a baby, and particularly to Dean with a baby, was hilarious – but many of his other reactions were muted. I found it telling that he agreed with Samuel, saying he sometimes wondered about himself, when Samuel commented on his lack of reaction to the concept of monsters or deviants snatching babies for presumably nefarious purposes. Sam knows he’s not the same as he used to be; I’m just wondering how much he understands why that’s true. As I’ve said before, I’m betting it traces back to whatever happened to him in Hell, and I do trust we’ll learn about that in due time as he continues to assemble the logic pieces into a full picture of the emotional puzzle.
In the interim, however, his “dispassionate observer” status produced some very interesting results. He saw and understood very clearly what Dean was doing in his relationship with Lisa and Ben and why, and pointed it out almost clinically, although not without compassion. At the same time, however, he used the information to argue subtly that Dean had to give up the normal life and return completely to the hunting one; he saw the situation in very black and white, either/or terms, without allowing for alternative approaches or fully human flexibility. That’s not the approach he would have taken in the past. It’s as if, having perceived the need to have Dean back in his life in close proximity to restore the missing aspect of his emotional makeup (It’s just … better with you around, that’s all.), Sam is now using every argument he can find to produce that result. It’s very logical, but also very … not-Sam.
Another thing that struck me was Sam’s reaction when Christian revealed he knew about Dean’s experience as a torturer in Hell. It’s entirely possible the Campbells could have learned about that from demons – I could imagine a demon taunting that scions of the Campbell family started the whole apocalypse thing – but the way Sam looked down and away at that precise moment made me think he’d told them without consciously realizing until Christian spoke that Dean in his guilt and shame would consider that revelation a betrayal. When Dean had struggled to bare his soul to reveal those ugly truths in Heaven And Hell and Family Remains, Sam had shared the agony of it right along with him; now, however, he just seemed slightly embarrassed at Dean’s discomfiture. That reinforces my belief that Sam’s emotions are being suppressed, and the absence of his normal feeling is affecting his judgment and behavior.
If and when that emotional dam breaks, I think we’ll see fireworks over a river in flood.
How Do You Do That, And Not Turn Into Dad?
Something that really struck me about Dean’s dilemma – how to be a hunter, know about the supernatural, and protect Lisa and Ben without turning into an obsessed, fear-driven autocrat – was its relationship to the world in which we all live. Confronting fear, terror, rage, loss, and the unknown, John lost his balance. In his desperation to protect his sons, he turned from a loving father into a rigid drill sergeant, overwhelming his older son with duty and repressing his younger son into rebellion. In his focus on gaining revenge for his dead wife, he lost opportunities to live life with his sons. With the best intentions, he let fear take the wheel and steer him into darkness, taking his sons into deadly places he’d never meant to go. I love John dearly and I don’t blame him for having been overwhelmed given the immensity of what he faced, but the truth is, in his desperation to keep his boys alive, he forgot to let them live, and to live himself.
Every parent knows the fear of letting their child go into the world alone. We want to protect our children and keep them safe from harm, but we have to let them go or they can’t grow. It’s bad enough to know that accidents and disappointments we can’t always anticipate lie in wait for them; it’s terrifying that there are also monsters. And even without the supernatural in the mix, monsters do exist: they just happen to be human ones. Despite that, we can’t fence our children in for safety without crippling them, or live perpetually in fear without crippling ourselves. Denying the fear and the danger would be no better, because that would leave us unprepared to take the good and reasonable steps we could to protect and defend ourselves and those we love. Life is a balance.
And it’s a balance we often forget when we’re threatened and afraid. In pursuit of safety, we take steps we would never even have considered before something scared us badly. Think of the impact isolated terrorist attacks have had on societies worldwide, on the ways we travel, enact and enforce laws, and even look at each other. Think of how much worse it is in places where danger is constant, where gangs or criminals or terrorists or governments stage assaults on the ordinary every day. And look at how much of ourselves we are willing to give up in exchange for even a promise of safety, whether that safety proves real or not.
What Lisa proposed was something different: an attempt at balance. She knows the danger; not as well or as intimately as Dean, but she’s had direct and terrifying experience of the supernatural and the threat it can pose both to her and her son. Understanding both that and Dean’s need to protect them, she went along with taking the precautions Dean felt necessary. They moved at least twice we know of – from the house they were in at the end of Swan Song to the one they inhabited when we first saw them in Exile On Main Street, and then again to the new house in this episode – and we know there are devil’s traps under the entryway rugs and salt for the windows and doors. Lisa’s obvious familiarity and comfort with the pistol drill spoke volumes about the practical steps she’s taken to learn to defend herself and Ben, and the number of times she’s gone through that particular exercise to reassure Dean of her readiness. It’s clear she understands the truth that just because you’re paranoid, it doesn’t mean they’re not out to get you, but it’s also clear she appreciates that there’s no such thing as perfect safety or zero risk, and you can’t put life on hold while you wait to be secure. You have to be willing to take chances, to accept risks, or you miss opportunities for happiness, love, and growth.
And those are lessons we all need to learn to have the courage to live our lives.
I loved this episode! As the first Supernatural script by new writer Adam Glass, it bodes well for his future on the show. He comes most recently from a stint as both a writer and producer on Cold Case, and earlier worked on The Cleaner, Blue Collar TV, and The Andersons. He definitely caught the flavor of the show’s mix of humor and gravitas, and started to bring back the banter we’ve missed between the brothers. The quick invention of a baby niece for Lisa was convenient, but he needed some way to give Dean legitimate (if limited!) baby experience. We’ve all known since Dead In The Water and Something Wicked how good Dean is with kids, particularly given his experience virtually raising Sam, but it would have stretched credulity for him to have had direct baby-care memories from his childhood; Dean was only four to six years old while Sammy was in diapers, so he wouldn’t have been doing any baby-changing!
Director John F. Showalter previously brought us Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid. I loved what he did particularly with all the funny and emotional beats between the brothers and the beautiful exchanges among Dean, Lisa, and Ben. I also appreciated all the challenges about shooting with babies. If you want to understand what I mean, take a look at how all the scenes with the babies were shot, and appreciate how often you didn’t see a baby but simply accepted it was there. The time limit rules on shooting with children are rigid, and especially so when you’re working with babies, so a tricky part of Showalter’s job was figuring out how to get all the baby shots he needed in the short time he’d have an actual baby available. One way to cheat is to use multiple babies – remember the commentary on the pilot episode, with Eric Kripke laughing about playing “count the babies” for that opening scene? – but knowing exactly how to shoot a scene to avoid needing to have a baby physically present is vital. (If you want a bit more on this point,drop by my account of spending an evening on the set of Angel back in 2001 – if I hadn’t had that experience, this particular facet of the shooting techniques Showalter used on this episode wouldn’t have jumped out at me!) I wonder if there are out-takes from this episode of the guys playing around with stand-in baby dolls … *grin* And whoever cast the baby in the car seat who smiled back at Dean gets a lollipop from me, because I swear that kid looked like a baby version of Eric Kripke! The art department gets a special nod for the baby art on the diaper box matching the baby the shifter transformed into.
Another particularly fun technical piece combined Showalter’s direction with Ivan Hayden’s visual effects crew wizardry: the shifter morphing into the brothers and confronting each of them. I particularly want to hear all about how they shot and finished the shifter version of Sam fighting with his real self because of how close and tight that piece was shot. Here’s hoping someone asks Jared about that at the Chicago convention! I liked the visual conceit that this Alpha shifter automatically morphed into a copy of whoever was the alpha personality in the room, so he took on Samuel’s face upstairs, initially reflected Sam in the panic room – Sam being the decisive alpha at that specific moment, with Dean focused on the baby rather than the fight – and morphed into Dean as soon as Sam was out of the effective equation. Making him so powerful as to shift at will and without shedding skin was a pretty dramatic rewrite of our previous knowledge of shapeshifters, but since the show had already laid the groundwork for a speed difference by making the Nightshifter version so much quicker on the change than the (presumably younger) shifter was in Skin, I didn’t have a problem with accepting those next steps.
I give kudos to Jared Padalecki for giving a very nicely nuanced performance as a Sam Winchester who is recognizably Sam, but also subtly changed and oddly different. I’m really looking forward to learning exactly what is going on inside Sam’s head, but while I wait for the season arc to get around to revealing that, I’m appreciating all the little things Jared is doing to deliver Sam/not-Sam, and I wonder what’s going to come pouring out when all finally gets revealed.
Dean’s inner conflicts are also getting Jensen Ackles to root around in new corners inside Dean, with beautiful results. Dean’s uncertain desire for what he never had butting up against his convictions concerning who and what he is – including brother to Sam as well as hunter – came through loud and clear. The closing moments of the episode, with Dean sliding back into his hunter skin and reveling in the Impala’s freedom, made me cheer for something I had badly missed, but my cheer was all the deeper for that not simply being a return to the Dean of old, but for him accepting his essential self while granting permission to be more.
Cindy Sampson has made me wish that I could meet Lisa. She’s strong, she’s brave, she’s loving, and she’s wise – I like her a lot, and Cindy makes her real. I really hope that Lisa and Ben do not get killed off as plot devices, because their characters create such incredible opportunities for Dean in particular to grow. Speaking of Ben, it was a treat to see him come across as such a typical kid. Sullen about having to move and live within restrictions, he reminded me of young Sam; wanting so desperately to be able to take control and do important things, he reminded me of young Dean. I’m glad they got Nicholas Elia to reprise the role; it’s fun to watch young actors growing up on the job.
I still love the ambivalence Mitch Pileggi brings to Samuel. You know there’s more going on with him than meets the eye, and yet you want to give in to Grandpa Campbell – that’s a fine line to walk. I’m also enjoying Corin Nemec as Christian. He gets under my skin as much as he gets under Dean’s, but being flint to Dean’s steel, he’s supposed to strike sparks, so he’s doing his job. Learning about Christian’s lady Arlene opened up whole new dimensions to the character, and they were right there on his face; very nicely done. I’m waiting for Jessica Heafey’s Gwen to be given any script dimension; I’m sorry, but her constant snark so far just makes her a totally unsympathetic character to my eyes. I was more sorry to see David Paetkau’s mostly silent Mark bite the dust than I would have been to see Gwen fall.
There were so many moments about this episode that I appreciated, from Dean looking for the off switch on a crying baby to Sam marveling at Dean’s daddyness, from Lisa and Sam seeing into Dean to Dean looking within himself, and from Dean poking irritated fun at Sam’s car to displaying his deep joy in his own. I loved Dean humming “Smoke On The Water” to quiet the baby and the song itself playing for the unveiling of the Impala, especially since, having once been his ringtone, it played almost as a pager call for Dean Winchester to answer the hunting phone again. The callbacks to the past, especially to seeing Sam again discovering and appreciating things about his brother he’d never fully parsed before and seeing Dean confronting the echoes of his childhood in the unfamiliar persona of his new family, were nicely done. I can’t wait to see the Impala on the road again, and the next chapter in the family life of hunters.
My last comment is just an observation on the title. Plotwise, this was more 3 Men And A Baby than Two And A Half Men, but the main inside joke of the title was just too good to pass up. Several years ago, Eric Kripke gave an interview where he laughed that the Supernatural writers’ offices on the Warner Brothers lot in LA were across the hall from the production office for the show Two And A Half Men, and he joked that he always wanted to do something horrific to that half man. It took until after he gave up his showrunner reins, but I guess he finally got his chance!
My apologies for being so late with this one. Real life kicked my ass, what with a couple of work fire drills, meetings outside the office, and a full day last weekend dedicated to working as a volunteer at the Flyin’ and Cruisin’ Festival out in Winchester, VA (at least I was in Winchester!). I promise to try to do better this week!
And thanks to everyone who gave feedback on my little poll about the detailed episode synopses in my commentaries/reviews! I’ve decided to keep them in, so if you like them, yay! And if you skip them, well – you can keep skipping them. It works for me!
Oh - and the lovely icon on this is by kasienka_nikki . Thanks!