Lonely child ghost kills.
Drunken Sam forces Dean to
A sober promise.
Playthings was an uneven episode that suffered from a bad case of the shorts (when I deleted the commercials, what remained – including the prologue and the previews for the next episode – was only 39 minutes long!) but nonetheless packed yet another punch for the brothers Winchester, with an uncharacteristically stinking drunk Sam extorting a promise from Dean for his older brother to kill him if Sam turns into something he isn’t. The extraction of that promise and the morning-after realization that it hadn’t been forgotten and flushed with the rest of the binge will be the moments that keep coming back – well, along with the laugh-out-loud fun of the continuing gay joke, and Dean setting up Sam as a doll collector who plays with his collection.
Let me get my dissatisfactions out of the way up front. I think that, largely because this episode clocked in as the shortest one in the history of the show, there were things that felt as if they were built on inadequate foundations, with Sam’s drunken binge being the most blatant one. Especially after the reasoned and healthy attitude Sam espoused in the opening scene with the brothers – the intent to not give up on Ava, but to save as many others as possible – we needed a little more of a hint that this “healthy” attitude was nothing more than a façade covering Sam’s growing belief that saving people could be a way to redeem himself in advance and prevent himself going darkside. To have that suddenly come out full-blown from a binge brought on by the unforeseen and unpreventable death of a stranger felt wrong and unfounded. True, sometimes we’re taken totally by surprise by the reveal of a person’s true character, but it feels much more real if we can at least look back and see the clues in retrospect. Case in point is the way that absolutely everything Jensen’s Dean has done this season has contained and reflected the secret that John laid on him. We needed to see the pressure building, and there wasn’t enough time in the episode for us to sense any of the burden that Sam was feeling until the explosion had already happened.
Also because of the time constraints, I think, critical scenes weren’t given their full exposition. I was bothered by how fast Sam had gotten plastered, and Dean’s glance toward the room’s minibar, with its surface covered by emptied little booze bottles, went by almost too fast to apprehend at all. It wasn’t until I was able to rewind and freeze frame that I was certain of what I’d seen, and could come up with a justification for Sam having gotten three sheets to the wind before the wind was even blowing. Only in retrospect could I picture him doing his research, hearing the commotion by the hysterical maid, trying to go back to work as Dean checked things out, realizing what was up as cops and coroner arrived, trying to research, losing the battle to concentrate, feeling guilty, and then opening the minibar, lining up the bottles, and tossing them off one after the other in an effort to blot everything out and screw himself up to force a promise from Dean. Whew. That was a lot of effort! I don’t know how much of the disconnect may have been due to insufficiency in the script, how much to the director’s choices in shooting his coverage, and how much to the editor’s choices in cutting things together and pretty severely cutting time out, but I would like some answers to those questions. I get the sense that producer/writer Matt Witten did a better job with the script in No Exit, and while I liked what first-time guest director Charles Beeson (probably best known for productions on British television, including Afterlife and a favorite of mine, Second Sight with Clive Owen) did with the spooky dollhouse and the playground haunting, I wasn’t happy with his execution of the drunk scene.
Okay – I’m now putting my criticisms back in the box. On to the rest of the discussion!
We opened a full month after the events of Hunted, with the brothers having spent their time trying to discern what happened to Ava and how to find her. I loved that the map tacked up on the tacky hotel room wall was showing the starting locations of Sam and Ava, and presumably the other known children. I got the sense from that opening scene with the brothers that Sam had been giving Dean the time to think that he had pleaded for so desperately in Hunted, but also that Dean had given Sam time – as he hadn’t after the pilot, as alluded to in the very beginning of Wendigo – to search for Ava until Sam himself had come to the conclusion that the trail was cold, and that he’d exhausted the reasonable search options. That time was something both brothers had needed, and their increased comfort with each other reflected that it had been time well spent. They were both agreed on the time being right for a return to hunting, and that felt very satisfying.
I give very high points to the production designers and the location scouts for the inn and its contents. Both contributed to a very high creepiness factor for the episode, the inn for its atmosphere, and the contents – especially the dolls, including the perfect toy rendition of the character of Maggie, and that incredible dollhouse copy of the inn itself – for more superb attention to detail than I could hope to recount. I enjoyed the Maggie story, including its lack of resolution by the boys, especially for the parallels drawn between Rose and Maggie and the brothers
But it will be the brother moments I treasure and keep coming back to, even with my dissatisfaction with how the drunk scene was [not] set up. Sam finding funny (“You’re bossy. You’re – short!”) and maudlin truth in booze was memorable. I do think that he had to be drunk in order to force himself to extort that brutal promise from Dean; it wasn’t lost on me that, although he hadn’t forgotten it once sober, Sam at the end couldn’t bring himself either to say out loud what the promise entailed, or to meet Dean’s eyes again after making the point that Dean had promised, and had been sober when he’d done it. Sam had needed the Dutch courage of the Jager, the whiskey, the tequila, and whatever else had been in the multiplicity of bottles he’d drained in order to confront Dean eye-to-eye.
Jensen Ackles’s performance as Dean was spot-on perfect. Putting Sam to bed, pushing off his maudlin post-promise handling, and then sitting there dealing with the enormity of what Sam had forced him to commit: heartbreaking. Picturing Dean having dealt similarly with John after post-bad-hunt drinking binges just made it sadder.
One thing keeps nagging at me, though. Sam assumed from the moment he heard Dean confess the secret in Hunted that he understood John’s warning: that the warning means that Sam may turn into something dangerous, something evil, that will need to be put down. Most of the fandom has bought into that concept, that echo of themes from Star Wars and other archetypal tales.
I keep wondering whether the real danger may not turn out to be something entirely different. I’m with Dean, as expressed in his attempt to turn Gordon aside from hunting Sam in Hunted: “How does someone like Sam turn into a monster?” Gordon couldn’t answer that, and neither can I. I’m with Dean on believing that Sam is intrinsically good. Based on everything I’ve seen thus far, Sam is the only emphatic, tangible Good in which Dean does believe. Time and time again, we’ve seen Dean’s unfettered instincts about people proven correct. Where Sam is intellectual and analytical, Dean is a gut-jumper, acting on instinct and unconsciously processed information and details, and his gut is far more accurate than not. Apart from being possessed – something from which I think Sam will prove as immune as he was to the virus in Croatoan – I don’t see Sam going darkside. He interest in power is limited to the power to help and save others, and while that might be turned on its ear to encourage him to sell his soul much as John did, I just don’t see Sam buying into a promise from evil that doing evil could turn to good.
What is it that Dean must really save him from? I think we still may not know.
Next week promises to be fun and frightening, with the brothers confronting both another shapeshifter and the overwhelming forces of the law. I’m particularly delighted that this episode, Night Shifter, supposedly takes place in my hometown of