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8.03: What’s Up, Tiger Mommy?: It’s About The Sacrifice

8.03: What’s Up, Tiger Mommy?: It’s About The Sacrifice

(Previously published on The Winchester Family Business)

What's the price of peace?
Mother's soul for her son's life;
Dean's Winchester guilt.

Commentary and Meta Analysis

I will apologize in advance, because this one’s going to be short and shallow given the current strictures on my time. I hope to be able to come back and explore more things later – for one, I already have a whole meta in process on the role played by Castiel throughout the show, something I began over a month ago, and I agree with Samandiriel’s comment on heart – but for the time being, I’m going to run very briefly just with the glimpse inside Dean this episode gave us.

What’s One More Nightmare, Right?

The Dean who returned from Purgatory really is a changed man. A year spent fighting for his life against an entire plane of monsters hardened him in deeply disturbing ways, graphically demonstrated by his easy return to using torture and his ready acceptance of sacrificing innocent lives and souls to attain a goal. Always before, he hesitated about concluding that the ends justified the means; now, it seems, he’s accepted that certain ends may demand certain prices, that even innocent souls may sometimes be a cheap price for a big enough win, and he’s set himself just to pay, move on, and deal with any fallout later. His heart is still there, I do believe, but it’s buried deep and scarred over.

We don’t yet know from the flashbacks we’ve seen how much time elapsed for Dean in Purgatory before he first encountered Benny, or how long after that he finally found Castiel. We gathered from seeing his meeting with Benny in We Have To Talk About Kevin that enough time had passed by then with Dean on his own for word to have spread around Purgatory about the human looking for his angel – the vampire Dean killed recognized him by the question he asked, and Benny rescued him because he knew a human could escape Purgatory and wanted to hitch a ride.

Throughout that first meeting, Dean was wary of Benny. By the time he interrogated and killed the monster who told him where to find Castiel, however, he and Benny were operating as a smooth team, suggesting they’d been together for enough time to form a certain bond of trust. The monster told them Castiel was three days’ journey away, so that much more time had passed. When Dean told Castiel that he’d prayed to the angel every night, I got the sense that a significant amount of time had passed since Castiel had left him, but I still don’t have any idea how long that actually was. It felt to me like less than the bulk of Dean’s full year in Purgatory, but I can’t say why. I look forward to learning how long it was, how much more time it took from their reunion to Dean’s escape, how closely they were hunted by Leviathan during that time, and what caused Dean and Castiel to lose their grip on each other in that closing tease.

Dean’s immediate and deep relief at finding Castiel warmed my heart. Despite Dean's anger at Castiel for his earlier betrayal and for the immense damage the angel had caused by bringing down the wall protecting Sam's conscious mind against his Hell memories, we had seen Dean finally starting to forgive Castiel at the very end of season seven, following the angel's genuine remorse and attempt to help Sam and the insanity Castiel experienced as a result. And while some fans might take issue with Dean's gradual warming to the angel, asserting that no forgiveness should have been possible after what Castiel had done, I disagree. Dean's humanity has always encompassed the ability to accept and forgive. I would point to his relationship with John as a key indicator of that. He finally admitted in season three's Dream A Little Dream Of Me to the incredible anger he felt about what John had done to both his sons, especially to him, but as evidenced by later events, even after his sense of betrayal upon discovering the truth about Jake in Jumping The Shark, he never stopped loving John.

Castiel was a different case, but no less a geniune one. He had rescued Dean from Hell on orders from his superiors, but the curious friendship the two of them evolved was nothing Zachariah had ever intended or Dean had ever expected when first they met, and it led to Castiel betraying the forces of Heaven – however corrupted – to take the humans' side. The angel's later mistakes, however extreme, couldn't cancel out his genuine underlying intent; Dean seeing through to that and seeking to reunite with Castiel in Purgatory spoke to me of much more than just Dean seeking out his only potential ally in a new hell; it showed me Dean still being human at his core, still being true to himself and to his friendships despite what he'd been through. Dean takes anything he perceives as betrayal very hard, but he is bound even more by his own loyalty to others; where his love and trust reside, they will return, if he had any cause to forgive.

My other reason for believing Dean's heart is still there despite his current diamond hardness was his reaction to Crowley's words -- I know we're not mates, Kevin, but one word of advice: Run. Run far, and run fast. Because the Winchesters, they have a habit of using people up, and watching them die bloody -- and his immediate understanding of what Kevin was thinking in taking his mother and running: He thinks people I don't need anymore -- they end up dead. Those thoughts both hurt him, right along with that memory of losing hold of Castiel. He dismissed them with the throwaway comment I used as the header for this section, but the truth is -- they hurt.

And because they hurt, I have hope he can heal. You can't feel pain unless you're alive; I firmly believe Dean's humanity is very much alive, however far down he's driven it. 

Production Notes

I mostly enjoyed this episode, although I will confess Dabb and Loflin are my least favorite writers on the current Supernatural team, and the weaknesses in their script were at the heart of the things I didn’t like. They can do remarkable things – witness Dark Side Of The Moon – but they are also the least mature writers, displaying a sophomoric sense of humor, abysmally shallow research skills, and a ham-fisted approach both to interweaving humor with darker emotion and to delineating character. Do I really need to mention their Season Seven, Time For A Wedding? Didn’t think so.

I may as well get the irritations out of the way early, so I can concentrate on the delightful things about this episode. I cringe whenever Dabb and Loflin deal with non-Christian deities because, well, I said it before in my review of Hammer Of The Gods: “... their gods were a carelessly overcooked, apparently unresearched and utterly meaningless mess. Given the way Supernatural has always touted its use of things you could look up – even though the show’s writers always put their own distinctive stamp or twist on creatures of myth and legend – the failure of the gods either to be or do anything remotely resembling their source material or to serve any thematic purpose beyond uninspired cannon fodder spoke of embarrassingly lazy writing.” I’ll stand by that here as well, especially with regard to Plutus and Vili. And I still can’t forgive them for having totally ignored the established show canon of Dead Man’s Blood to write Dean hunting vampires in their pre-series comic book tale Supernatural: Beginning’s End. That was careless and foolish, done simply for expedience to serve their story rather than the universe of Supernatural, and has made me distrust their attitude ever since.

The short shrift given by the show to non-Christian gods isn’t just a Dabb and Loflin thing – I despised the depiction of Osiris in Adam Glass’s script for Defending Your Life, for example – but they excel at making “little-g” gods absurdly cheap plot devices. I didn’t enjoy the whole concept of the Word of God and other supernatural artifacts being put up for auction on Earth with mostly random supernatural entities bidding ridiculous things just for their joke factor. Okay, I did laugh to see Sam wielding Thor’s hammer Mjölnir – Jared Padalecki definitely has the right physique and flowing hair to play Thor! – and I get that the whole point was to find a new, non-demonic way to get Mama Tran to sell her soul for her son, but the usual basic narrative setup of greedy, backstabbing, duplicitous, juvenile, human-devouring gods just felt trite to me.

Another thing I didn’t care for at all was Sam’s suddenly newfound, unexplained ability to force a demon back into its host simply by reciting an exorcism backwards. Say what? Talk about something making absolutely no sense. Dabb and Loflin (and most viewers, for that matter) may not understand Latin, but an exorcism isn’t simply a string of random words: it’s grammatically correct language that calls upon the power of God to command a demon to depart. Reversing the words or phrases just transforms powerful language with direct meaning to nonsense syllables. Their attitude seems to be that if saying something one way produces an effect, saying it in reverse would cause the opposite to happen, so – do the brothers now have the solution to every spell cast their way, because they could undo it simply by saying it backwards? Scrambled speech for Yoda worked, but for magic theory, much so not. And just when in his non-hunting year did Sam learn this amazingly convenient little trick? Sorry: that was a major logic fail for me, a grossly lazy writer’s save to avoid the plot hole of an escaping demon carrying the alarm to Crowley too soon.

Okay; enough bitching. On to what worked!

I loved John Showalter’s direction and the work he did with editor James Pickel, who is new to the show, in intercutting Dean’s interrogation of the monster in Purgatory with his parallel current activities on Earth. That was an amazing piece of work, and really sold the impact on Dean of his Purgatory year. And speaking of Purgatory, I can’t get over Serge Ladouceur’s evocative lighting of the woods. The scene with Dean and Benny finding Castiel by the stream was visually beautiful.

I'm really happy with the show's decision to recast Lauren Tom as Kevin's mother. Her feisty, kick-ass character was perfect in oh-so-many ways: for establishing her character with the spunky dialogue they provided, I can forgive some of Dabb and Loflin's other failings. I actually liked the way the brothers reacted to Linda Tran's determined decision to trade her soul for her son. They both knew from direct personal experience what that would mean, but they didn't interfere with her decision or sugarcoat their understanding of what effect it would have on her. Their genuine interactions really came home for me. Osric Chau continues to delight as Kevin.

Jared Padalecki didn't have a lot to do this week as Sam, but he still managed to convey a lot of subtle nuance that I appreciate. While clearly taken aback by Dean's ferocity in interrogating the bus station thief, Sam still trusted Dean not to go too far. And his smile early on when he clearly knew Dean would cave to Kevin's request to check on his mother spoke to his heart-deep recognition that his brother was still the man he knew and loved, despite his tempering in the Purgatory forge. Jensen Ackles just keeps bringing new depths and complexity to Dean.

Hate to say this, but I'm out of time for the moment. I hope I can do better justice to the next episode – the one Jensen directed!

Tags: dean winchester, episode commentaries, haiku, jared padalecki, jensen ackles, meta, philosophy, psychology, sam winchester, supernatural, supernatural university, television production, winchester family business

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