by Mieke Trudeau
“I didn’t mean to”
I needed a few days and a rewatch or three, to figure out why this episode didn’t quite click with me. I think the main reason was that it didn’t feel like a mid-season finale. Usually the episode before the holiday hiatus is one with a “holy crap” moment at the end (see Arrow). It should take an arc that has been building and crack it wide open, provide a cliff hanger, or end on a shocking moment; one that changes the game, propels us through the hiatus and on to the second half of the season; eager to find out what happens next (again, see Arrow). What we got instead, was an episode that was slow and dare I say, boring.
Arguably, the biggest problem with The Things We Left Behind, written by Andrew Dabb, was that the final wow moment was quite literally spoiled in the foreshadowing opening minute. In addition, as is the irritating habit of the network previews, much about the episode had already been shown in the either over-revealing, or misleadingly edited promos. We knew months ago that Claire Novak was going to make an appearance and we had already been shown both Dean’s important nightmare scene, plus the restaurant scene with Dean and Cas, in its entirety, which robbed those moments of much of their impact.
I had been looking forward to Claire and Cas reuniting. I thought this could have been a rich, important moment in the angel’s story and in the Supernatural universe. So far Cas’ story has been meandering and bogged down in left over angel issues without much resolution. Granted, Hannah’s struggle with the morality of possessing a vessel a few episodes back may have been a little late in the game and probably should have come sometime in season 6, but I welcomed it nonetheless. It was a good lesson for Castiel, and one left unexplored for much too long. Count me surprised then, that the reveal that Jimmy Novak is indeed dead and no longer inhabiting the Misha Collins shaped vessel that now embodies Cas, was treated so casually and without building much on that morality issue. I would have thought that Claire would be a little more disturbed by Castiel’s presence and her father’s absence. Also, does Claire have no memory of being briefly possessed by the angel? Kathryn Newton did a good job portraying the angry teenager, but I felt that the storyline was left largely unexplored and the character painted as a one-dimensional stereotype. Claire rightly ripped Cas a new one for his role in messing up her life, but Castiel’s and even the Winchester’s reaction was strangely clueless and subdued. Cas seemed to want to assuage his guilt, but he didn’t really take any responsibility for his actions. The revelation that Claire had prayed to him every night and that the angel had ignored her all this time was especially egregious, yet Sam and Dean were not very sympathetic to Claire’s plight. What exactly was the lesson here? The theme of the episode seemed to be parenting, what with Rowena trying to exploit Crowley’s remaining feelings for his mother, and Sam and Dean’s reminiscing about John; but for the life of me, I can’t seem to tie that to the Mark of Cain, or Dean’s descent into its grip.
If this had been an episode placed somewhere else in the season line-up, perhaps the Claire and Cas story could have been given its due. Now it was only loosely connected to the Winchesters and not at all to Crowley and his long lost mother. I have been having an issue with the scattered ensemble style storytelling all season and this episode was a perfect illustration as to why it can be a problem.
Speaking of Crowley; I can’t help but love every moment Mark Sheppard is on screen, and I feel he has been woefully underused this season. His scenes with Ruth Connell as Rowena were fantastic. At this point it is hard to say who is manipulating whom more, and I loved seeing Rowena play with her Fergus with such campy glee. I can’t wait to see how this storyline plays out, but it is really time to tie the individual stories together, because right now it is as if we are watching three separate shows and two of them are not really Supernatural.
That brings us to the Sam and Dean portion of the show, consisting of perhaps about ten minutes of the whole installment, which, for the leads of the series, and a fall finale episode, is utterly inadequate. The few scenes they did have were important and managed to be the ones to move the main arc, the one about the Mark of Cain, forward, but they were treated like an afterthought and ended up buried in the clutter of parenting parables.
Dean was shown with food throughout the whole hour. Now, eating has always been one of Dean Winchester’s favorite pastimes, but this time, it was clearly meant to signal that something in Dean needed feeding. He was a little too exuberant laughing at the Three Stooges and even though that scene provided a sweet bonding moment for the brothers; it was heavy with Sam’s hovering worry. It seemed like Dean couldn’t be sated; eating not just his own, but Cas’ burger too and later devouring a hot dog at the Wiener Hut. Sam was doing his best to stay close and nurture his brother, his concern clear on his face and in his actions, but not even a lovingly made grilled cheese sandwich can cure what ails Dean. He is still insisting that he is doing fine, but of course he is not. He is having nightmares and gets Cas to promise to take him out, should he go darkside again. Dean doesn’t think he is much of a role model, he doesn’t think he can be saved, but he does know for certain that his brother loves him so much that he will do anything to try anyway; so he gets Cas to promise to stop him, should he again become “that thing”.
A second brother scene is at once sweet and also somewhat awkward. As the boys try to explain to Castiel why Claire may not be so quick to forgive the angel for his role in her father’s demise, they reminisce about an incident from their youth when a teenage Dean got a little in over his head during an illicit outing to CBGB and had to be rescued by his father. Dean declares that he loved John with “everything he had” and Sam says he loved him, even if it wasn’t always easy. The boys declare that their father was always there for them when they needed him, and John’s speech to Dean that night that: “It’s not my job to be liked, it’s my job to raise you right” seems to be the moral of the story.
Let me say up front that I love John Winchester. I think he was a deeply flawed man, who faced unbearable circumstances and made many mistakes, but I find him a compelling character without whom we would not have the Sam and Dean Winchester we all know and love. I also understand that by now, Sam and Dean have forgiven their father; they have declared as much more than once. I love when the brothers have a moment that reaches back to their shared past; the childhood that informs so much of their deeply complicated bond and character. Yet, it did not feel quite genuine. Perhaps it didn’t because it was so obviously meant to stir our emotions, or because some of the sentiment was a bit of a retcon of John’s role (he clearly wasn’t always there when the boys needed him) or maybe because it was too hard to find and connect it to the thread of the episode overall. I was also a little taken aback by Cas’ statement about his own distant father. I remember that for quite a few seasons, most of Castiel’s actions were motivated by his desire to either please, find or replace his father. The angel’s daddy issues run pretty deep and it would have been interesting to see him empathize with Claire on that level.
When Sam, Dean and Cas set out to rescue Claire from Randy (Roark Critchlow, a blast from Jensen Ackles’ Days of our Lives past), a Fagin type character who gets teenage runaways to steal for him in return for room and board, the proverbial shit hits the fan. A group of gangsters, there to collect a debt from Randy, manages to separate Dean from Sam and Cas, who are hurrying out to remove Claire from harm. As Dean gets cornered we see something in him change, and as we get more of the by now ubiquitous flashbacks to Dean’s previous Mark of Cain fueled outbursts, he warns “You guys don’t wanna do this” and we all know what is coming. Sam realizes it too, once he figures out that Dean isn’t right behind him coming out of the house, as he expected him to. When he storms back in, he is too late; Sam finds Dean on his knees, knife in hand, surrounded by brutally bloodied bodies, just like in the nightmare we saw at the beginning of the episode. As Cas stares on in horror, comforting Claire (that he brought her back into the house proves he’s not father material), Sam drops to his knees in front of Dean, cradling his face and begging him to say that this bloodbath had nothing to do with the Mark of Cain, that it was only self defense that made him lash out. As Dean mutters “I didn’t mean to”, fear clouding his face, it’s pretty clear that’s not the case, even though I have to point out that these rapey bad guys more than had it coming.
Jensen and Jared managed to eek every bit of emotion out of this closing scene, as did Misha Collins, but it still fell somewhat flat in the overall narrative. One, because we had seen the exact scene before, right at the beginning of the episode, and two, because what should have been a meaningful resolution to a building arc got only a few disconnected minutes in a crowded hour.
In the end the whole episode left me underwhelmed. The Cas and Claire story should have been given its own time, with more depth and complexity and it should not have been bogged down by the responsibility of delivering an episode that structurally has to be a series crescendo. So much of the story was centered on Claire, a character we do not have much emotional connection to, even though the young actress gave the material all she had. The fall finale should have been all about the Winchesters and the Mark of Cain. The secondary storylines and characters should have lifted that story to its “holy crap” moment, instead of burying it. I understand that the “big bad” this season, besides the Mark of Cain, is the individual personal development arc for each character, and we have seen some really stellar episodes this season within that framework, but there is a risk of turning the show into a bit of a soap opera.
The preview for what appears to be the next two episodes at least, shows glimpses of a very dark Dean, slugging not only Metatron, but what looks to be Charlie. Has Dean indeed been lost to the Mark of Cain? Will we finally see an explanation for why Cas is not working on opening up heaven? Or why he can zap open doors with his angelic powers, but still has to run and drive everywhere? Will we finally get some of Sam’s own personal arc? Give me your thoughts and speculations below and I will see you on the other side of the hellatus!