8.15 Man's Best Friend With Benefits: And Then Some Other Crap
Witch and familiar:
Partners in magic and love
Commentary And Meta Analysis
I didn't care for this episode at all. This poorly conceived monster-of-the-week outing did nothing to advance the brothers' story, and the whole witch story didn't work for me for many reasons. In this discussion, I'm going to speak mostly to my problems with the episode's witch lore, and look at what little it had to say about the relationship between the brothers.
Well, Here's The Thing: Uh, Witches – Not Real Fans
The show's take on witches, spells, and magic has always been inconsistent. The same words have been used to mean many different things. Since that inconsistency is rampant in the legends and stories on which the show's tales are loosely based, I can't fault the show too much for having done the same thing over the years, but it's still irritating. This episode just took it to idiotic extremes.
Our first experience with anything termed “witchcraft” in the show was Something Wicked, where the shtriga was identified as kind of Albanian witch. Nothing was revealed there about how the shtriga got its power, however.
The first mention of real substance came in Malleus Maleficarum, which adopted along with its title the medieval Catholic church's definition of a witch as someone who trafficked with demons or devils for power and was thus inherently evil and damned. In that episode, the suburban witches chanted spells from an old grimoire that called upon powers of darkness to do their bidding, and didn't even realize they were exchanging their souls for power in the process. Demon Ruby was revealed as having been a witch when she was human back in the Dark Ages, and told the brothers witches got their powers from demons.
That same concept appeared in It's The Great Pumpkin, Sam Winchester. In the context of the show, that actually made a fair amount of sense. A demon working through a witch would not only benefit by eventually harvesting the witch's soul, but could extend the reach of its own power without increasing its own risk of being forced back to Hell through an exorcism. Unlike people who made a deal with a crossroads demon, exchanging their souls after ten years for the fulfillment of a wish, a witch's pact could grant long life in which the witch both called upon and used the demon's power and did the demon's bidding. The witch could spread evil and chaos and recruit others to Hell's cause for years beyond the human norm, but if a hunter or a priest caught the witch, all that happened was the witch died and Hell got the soul; the empowering demon got off scot-free.
At the same time, however, the show posited the existence of magic and spells that worked like simple recipes for anyone using them and didn't require demonic assistance. Some of those simply called on the power of Heaven instead, such as the exorcism ritual and the process for making holy water, or relied on the concept of natural purity working against something evil or unnatural, such as salt being potent against ghosts and most demons or silver being sovereign against shapeshifters and their werewolf sub-species. Others, however, were vague as to their origin and the reason for their efficacy. Those include all the spells hunters and their allies have used, such as the juju bags Missouri had the brothers assemble to cleanse the house in Home, the recipe for goofer dust introduced in Crossroad Blues, the séance Sam conducted to draw Father Gregory's spirit in Houses Of The Holy, the divination ritual Bobby used to locate Lilith in No Rest For The Wicked, the spell Bobby found to send the witnesses back to rest in Are You There, God? It's Me, Dean Winchester, the spell work etched into an iron chain that allowed it to hold rather than temporarily disperse a ghost in Yellow Fever, the hex bags Sam learned to make from Ruby to prevent magical detection by demons – the list goes on and on. It's further augmented by such non-hunter things as the hoodoo used to block the little girl's ghost in Playthings and the spells Charlie, from Criss Angel Is A Douchebag, found in the old grimoire given to him by P.T. Barnum that let him use tarot cards to divert deadly fates to others and give himself immortality.
To make matters even more confusing, we met characters who were explicitly called witches but whose modes of operation didn't seem to fit with the demon-empowered sense of witches from Malleus Maleficarum, and who could cast spells that apparently didn't call upon a demon's name for power. For example, Patrick in The Curious Case Of Dean Winchester termed himself a 900-year-old witch, but his peculiar skill didn't seem demonic in origin. Rather than generally spreading evil and chaos, he focused on extending his life and the life of his paramour by playing cards with his marks, who bet years of their lives as stakes in the game. His power was evil in that he took years of life from most of his opponents, and anyone who chose to play with him had to play until they either lost all the years they had to bet or until Patrick decided the game was over. However, no one was forced to play, and we also saw him deliberately throw games to instead grant years to opponents whose causes appealed to him, such as the elderly grandfather who hoped to live long enough to see his granddaughter's bat mitzvah. If Patrick had gained his power through a pact with a demon, he was managing to screw the demon pretty royally, even occasionally doing good for others in the process.
In Repo Man we met Nora Havelock, a so-called “white witch” generally operating within contemporary Wiccan beliefs using herbs and talismans for good purposes, who – compelled by the insane, formerly possessed Jeffrey who wanted to get his demon back – located the summoning spell Jeffrey used to call back his demon. In Shut Up, Dr. Phil, we met Don and Maggie Stark, both 800-year-old Romanian witches married to and feuding with each other. The origins of their powers were not disclosed, but their nature, judging by the rampantly callous, destructive characteristics of their powers, was definitely evil.
The show's confusing tendency to paint multiple different types of characters with the name of “witch” has created a host of discrepancies no single meta could organize. The witches in this episode seemed to fall mostly in the same bin as as Don and Maggie from Shut Up, Dr. Phil – not a surprise, since the same writers were responsible for both episodes. In the only piece of consistency I could find, the spell the brothers used in this episode to destroy Spencer was apparently the same one that failed in Shut Up, Dr. Phil because the chicken feet in that episode had spoiled before they were used; forewarned this time, the brothers evidently got it right with properly chilled feet. There was no indication here that James had traded his soul for demonic-fueled powers; instead, Portia indicated only that he had studied sources looking for power, including black arts and witchcraft, since his previous encounter with the brothers had cued him in to the reality of the supernatural.
This was also the first time the show touched on the common idea of witches having familiars. In story and legend, familiars have generally been animals linked to witches. Often, the witch gained the power to use the familiar's senses, either being able to ride along with the animal and perceive what it perceived, or even being able to take the familiar's form. In exchange for its bond, the familiar often gained long life, increased survivability, and augmented intelligence that let it converse with its witch, often telepathically. In stories, the reciprocal bond between a witch and its familiar often meant that injury or death done to one affected the other. This episode introduced the idea that a witch's familiar could appear as either animal or human at will, and that the familiar chose what witch to serve, but it gave no sense of what advantage, if any, having or being a familiar would give to either the witch or the familiar. Instead, James having female Portia as a familiar was seemingly played purely for prurient interest, with Portia falling in love with her witch and Spencer deciding to destroy James just because he was jealous of Portia having chosen James over him. Phillippe the cat indicated he couldn't refuse a direct order from his master Spencer, and Spencer killed Phillippe with no hesitation or repercussion whatsoever, which argues the relationship between witch and familiar was hardly two-way or balanced.
Particularly in this episode and in Shut Up, Dr. Phil, witches played the role of mere plot devices, conveniently able to do whatever the writers wanted and nothing more. Given what we understand about the nature of Leviathan, imprisoned in hidden Purgatory since before the creation of humans and demons, it made no sense whatsoever that a witch like Don would have recognized Chet's Leviathan nature, much less had casual access to a spell powerful enough to immobilize him. In this episode, despite having only recently become a witch – and evidently not through a demon connection – James had the skill and strength to be able to take Sam and Dean on an astral projection walk with him, but had no ability to sense when another witch was accessing or influencing his mind or to block that kind of attack. Portia the familiar could communicate telepathically with James except when she couldn't, because as soon as she linked with him, she could tell his murder memories weren't real. Convenient.
For me, the worst aspect of this episode's take on witches was its utterly silly creation of an entire organized witch community hanging out at a fancy witch bar jazz club. The idea that there were so many witches in St. Louis, Missouri that they would have their own classy public hangout – while their existence was, of course, absolutely secret from the world outside – was ludicrous. And what made it even more galling was the assumption that every different type and stripe of witch or spellcaster contemplated by the show would mingle there on an equal footing – black magic evil, nurturing white Wiccan, hoodoo priest and more all side by side and drinking together – and would somehow all share the same moral code condemning any sexual relationship between a witch and a familiar. On top of that, despite their communal organization, the witches in the bar, apart from Spencer, had no clue about the information Bobby had uncovered about the existence of a spell that would let one witch plant false memories in another's mind. And just to make things even dumber, there was also a seedy underbelly to this witch community, characterized by the existence of the witch snitch Drexel. Really?
Of all the legendary, mythical things on which the show has chosen to put its own stamp, I must confess that when it comes to its conveniently haphazard, hopscotch take on witches, I'm right there with Dean: not a fan.
The Only Way We've Made It Through It All Is By Hanging Together
The episode made a hamfisted attempt to address the brothers' continuing story by showhorning in three brief minutes of awkward dialogue. In the beginning, Dean mentioned Sam having just killed a hellhound and – following a Three Stooges conversation pointing out their humor wasn't meant to be subtle – unsubtly showed Dean still wanted to complete the trials in Sam's place. Jump to the midpoint of the episode, as Dean assembled the ingredients of the witch-killing spell and said he was concerned about having the odds as much in their favor as possible. Asking if Dean was talking about the witch-killing spell or the trials, Sam said he finally realized it wasn't that Dean didn't trust him, but simply that Dean couldn't trust anyone but himself. Jump to the end of the episode. After a taste of Spencer's mind mojo, Dean said he realized the only way they'd made it through all the pain they'd survived was by sticking together, and concluded that if Sam said he was good, he trusted Sam and was behind him 100 percent. Cue Sam saying he's good, and then coughing up a little blood, looking worried, and not mentioning it.
Sorry, but that didn't work for me, mostly because I think calling the decision of which brother performs the trials an issue of whether one “trusts” the other to succeed doesn't make it so.
Earlier in the series, there have been legitimate questions of trust, particularly when each brother doubted the other's resolve and ability to say no to Michael or Lucifer as things got dark in season five, and when Dean questioned whether soulless Sam even was his brother in season six because he did things soulful Sam could never have done. Trust was at the core when the brothers deliberately hid things from each other precisely because they feared the other's reaction would be rejection, revulsion, or condemnation: remember Sam hiding his visions way back in season one and his demon blood addiction and partnership with Ruby in season four, and Dean refusing to share his shameful memories of breaking and torturing in Hell in season four and concealing having brought vampire Benny out of Purgatory as a friend and partner at the start of this season.
With regard to the trials, however, it's not trust that's the real issue at all: it's pain and loss and most of all fear. The only trust issue the brothers have right now is one they've always had: they each can't trust that the other won't die. They're both lying about being fine. They're both afraid to share with each other their own fears, doubts, and uncertainties because they don't want to increase the burden of potential worry the other is carrying. And neither wants to be the one possibly left behind to grieve and mourn and feel helpless and alone.
The issue isn't whether or not Dean trusts that Sam could succeed at the trials, or vice versa. It's each one believing and fearing he may lose the other to the trials without being able to do anything about it. It's Dean wanting to be the protector he's been all his life because he loves his brother and wants no harm to come to him. It's Sam wanting to prove his strength and worthiness to his brother and himself, and to spare his brother pain because he loves him. It's neither one of them wanting to lose the other or see the other in pain or danger his brother can't alleviate. It's Sam being afraid Dean would die precisely because Dean clearly expects the trials to be a suicide mission whether the one performing them succeeds or fails. It's Dean being afraid Sam will die because Dean believes the trials can only end in death, and that would leave Dean alone believing he failed to save his brother. It's Sam wanting to keep Dean from worrying about him and doing something reckless. It's Dean wanting to carry the cross in his brother's place. It's each one fearing the other might not be lucky or strong enough to survive both to and past the finish line when the entire load is on his shoulders. It's each one preferring to be the sacrificial actor rather than the one forced to watch and wait and hope and fear and do nothing.
This time, trust for and in each other has nothing to do with it. Fear and love are all there is.
I must admit, I'm not a fan of the writing team of Brad Buckner and Eugenie Ross-Leming. I liked Route 666 more than most fans, I think, simply because I appreciated what it set out to do, but I thought Shut Up, Dr. Phil was singularly bombastic and weak, and I had issues with Heartache and The Slice Girls, particularly in terms of the brothers' relationship and dialogue. I consider Of Grave Importance their best offering, and A Little Slice Of Kevin mostly worked, but in my opinion, this team has a tendency to focus their stories on the guest characters, not the brothers, and I sense they don't handle Sam and Dean well because they just don't seem to feel the brothers with any depth. I've already gone on at length about my issues both with the witch storyline and the absence of real substance in the script's treatment of the brothers' relationship, and all of those criticisms come down squarely on the story and the script. Hate to say it, but this episode was a writers' room failure for me. And Dean's absurdly sudden allergy to cats came out of nowhere. He'd have been sneezing his head off in Veritas's home in You Can't Handle The Truth if he had a feline allergy.
The episode also fell societally flat for me in part because of how it was costumed and cast. The collar was an obvious device to show the identity between dog-Portia and human-Portia, but under the circumstances, it was an unfortunate choice. I thoroughly enjoyed the strength, intelligence, independence, and beauty Mishael Morgan brought to the role of Portia, but a woman – especially a lovely black woman – wearing a collar and calling a white man “master,” saying she belonged to him? That was more squick-worthy to me on a cultural level than any insinuation of potential bestiality in the sexual relationship between Portia and James. Perhaps my fondness for science fiction has made me more generally accepting of pan-species relationships than most, but I didn't really consider the familiars to be simple animals, so the dog/woman line didn't really matter to me. It was a flip of the gender/species situation in All Dogs Go To Heaven, but bothered me much less here because both James and Portia understood who they were and defined for themselves the parameters of their relationship, while Lucky hid his dual nature to ogle Mandy as a dog with a man's libido and insinuate himself into her life. I just really didn't like the slavery callbacks and male dominance games played by witch masters with familiars, and Portia and James stealing the opportunity to have bondage sex just made me roll my eyes. The whole plot devolving into a jealousy-driven love/power triangle with the jealous witch using the jealous cop to set up his witch-cop rival felt like a misplaced piece of soap opera.
And now someone will ask how I really feel … *wry grin*
On a technical level, the episode was well executed. I must say, the high-class witch club was a stupid idea, but the set was gorgeous. Director John Showalter had fun and saved money by using clever camera work to cover Portia's transformations between dog and woman instead of employing visual effects. Whenever Portia flipped species, there was a quick pan or quick cut, or someone conveniently blocking the camera for just an instant. Showalter covered the familiar transformation from the effects standpoint simply by giving us a glimpse of Phillippe's eyes changing to cat's eyes, punched up with some assistance from the sound FX folks.
I also enjoyed the handheld camera work sped up and combined with VFX to give us the astral projection vision from James's point of view, and I liked the camera in the trash can trick, revealing James' discovery of his bloody shirt from inside the kitchen trash. Perspective can be fun!
The VFX crew did some particularly lovely work in this episode, not only in the astral projection area but also in the light in Sam's and Dean's eyes when Spencer held them in thrall; that effect is stunningly beautiful. And while James may have thought Spencer's magic broke Phillippe's neck, we know it was the VFX crew in concert with the actor and the sound FX guys.
I laughed out loud when I saw Christian Campbell's name in the credits. The only thing funnier would have been to have a Sam, Dean, John, or Henry Winchester guest-starring! (And no, I didn't forget Adam, but he never used the Winchester last name.) He made James very likeable, and he and Mishael Morgan made a good couple. It wasn't their fault I thought their bondage sex scene overwrought and silly; they played what the script gave them.
For me, this episode went to the dogs – and while the multiple Dobermans playing dog-Portia were beautiful and well-trained, they just couldn't pull this dog-story to Heaven.
Again, apologies for being so late posting this here. It went up on The Winchester Family Business back on Wednesday. WFB always gets at least a 24-hour exclusive; when I encounter interface problems or real life busyness, delays take hold. Sorry!