I have to admit, I went into this episode expecting some fun and games. Given that it was an episode which featured Charlie Bradbury, was written by the excellent Robbie Thompson, and was (I can only assume) named after the infamous “Pac-Man Fever” song, some fun and games ought to be expected, right? However, while the episode was indeed chock-full of the pop culture references and geeky asides that have come to characterize Thompson-penned episodes, “Pac-Man Fever” had an impassioned heart to its comedy that previous Charlie episodes lacked.
In the Winchesters’ Men of Letters-funded bunker, Sam, who’s obviously suffering from both a terrible hair day and the ill effects of the second trial, tells Dean about an email he’s just received from Charlie. She’s in the area and has a case for them—a man was found dead with his insides liquified. Seizing on the chance to bench Sam for the week, Dean says he’ll check out the case alone, but Charlie insists on coming with him. She’s read all of Chuck’s Supernatural books, much to the brothers’ horror, and she claims she’s well prepared to be a hunter. After an adorable dress-up montage, Dean and Charlie hit the road as FBI agents Hicks and Ripley. (I’m ashamed to say I had to Google this, but how cute is it that Dean and Sam are always classic rock musicians and yet Dean and Charlie are two characters from Aliens?)
At the morgue, they’re denied access to the body by a particularly strict coroner, and Dean tells Charlie they’ll just have to break in when the coroner’s no longer there. Before they can, they get a report of another victim, and despite Dean’s warning Sam to stay away from hunting until he’s feeling better (and maybe cuts his hair), Sam is already on the scene. The three of them head back to the bunker for research, where they deduce that the monster is probably an offshoot species of djinn.
Once this is done, Charlie slips out under the pretense of getting food, and returns to her apartment, where she’s doing something high-tech and decidedly illegal with money transfers (she also appears to have a multitude of credit cards and two passports under the names “Christine K. Le Guin” and “Anne Tolkien”; thank Thompson for the extra nerd fodder). While she’s doing this, the coroner from the morgue sneaks into the room and attacks Charlie. Sam and Dean, suspicious of Charlie’s behavior, follow Charlie to her home and investigate the computer she left behind. Their research reveals that when she was twelve, her parents were in a car accident. Her father was killed, but her mother survived and has been in a persistent vegetative state in a nearby Kansas hospital ever since. Dean, clearly thinking about his own mother and how he lost her too early, visits Charlie’s mother at the hospital and promises her that he’ll find Charlie.
Sam tracks the djinn to an abandoned warehouse (seriously, is having an abandoned warehouse part and parcel of the Djinn World Experience?) and Dean manages to kill the djinn, but Charlie still won’t wake up. Using some handy African dream root—and a little help from Sam’s fists of fury—Dean goes into Charlie’s dream to try and wake her from the inside. Charlie’s dreamscape is a recurring loop of a game she’d hacked after her parents’ car accident. In it, she and Dean have to protect two hospital patients from an outbreak of zombies. Charlie’s patient is, of course, her mother, while Dean’s, to no one’s surprise, is Sam. Charlie confides in Dean that her mother used to read The Hobbit to her as a child, resulting in Charlie’s love of all things geeky. On the night of her parents’ accident, she’d been at a sleepover and she’d gotten scared, so her parents had been coming to pick her up. Dean tells her that what happened to her parents is not her fault, and she has to let go or else she’ll be consumed by her grief forever. (Yes, the irony of Dean Winchester telling someone else “it wasn’t your fault” was not lost on me.)
Outside the dream, Sam is attacked by the djinn’s son, who tells Sam he’d just come of age, needed to feed, and had just screwed up–the mom had only been covering her son’s tracks, completing the trifecta of children who feel guilty for their parents’ deaths. The son is young and inexperienced, and Sam kills him easily. Inside the dream, Charlie finally lets go of her fears by refusing to continue playing the game, which allows her and Dean to wake up.
Later, outside the bunker, Charlie tells Sam that she believes he can complete the trials, and she tells Dean that she’s going to go to the hospital and say goodbye to her mother for the last time. She asks Dean, “What about you? You gonna let it go?” and Dean says “Never,” which, depending on your interpretation, either means that he’ll never let go of his own grief and self-blame over losing his mother, or he’ll never give up on his brother. I like the second interpretation better because it doesn’t smack of hypocrisy, but the obvious parallels between the djinns, Charlie and her mother, and Dean and his throughout the episode seem to imply the former. Charlie then heads off to the hospital, and the episode ends with Charlie reading the first sentences of The Hobbit to her mother.
My one complaint about “Pac-Man Fever” was that its plot was fairly hackneyed and predictable—who didn’t guess the coroner was the monster?—and I can’t think of a single other Supernatural episode that devoted so much time to so minor a character. In that sense, the episode did seem a little out of character for the show because it was all about Charlie and did little to advance the main plot lines or Sam or Dean’s emotional states. How much the average viewer likes this episode will probably depend on how much they like Charlie.
However, I love Charlie, and I not-so-secretly want her to become a permanent recurring character, so I thought this was a great episode. After Thompson killed off one of my favorites, Meg, in “Goodbye Stranger,” I was terrified that Charlie would be next on his hit list, so “Pac-Man Fever” was quite the pleasant surprise. I actually liked it better than “LARP and the Real Girl,” blasphemous though that might be, because this episode gave Charlie plenty of room for character growth, emotional development, and troubled backstory. Her parallel character arc with Dean’s own unresolved grief over his mother (and, to some extent, the djinn’s son’s grief), was just the icing on the cake. “LARP and the Real Girl” was fun and games, but “Pac-Man Fever” had an emotional punch that even Dean’s Braveheart speech couldn’t make up for.
Thompson has only been with Supernatural since season 7, but he’s already proven himself well-versed in Supernatural canon. Every one of his episodes in season 8 has included self-referential nods to past episodes, and “Pac-Man Fever” was no different–with djinns from season 2, African dream root from season 3, Chuck’s books from seasons 4 and 5, and even a mention of the ill-used Leviathans from season 7, Thompson helps shape continuity for a show that, sadly, is sorely lacking in continuity at the best of times. (Also, Charlie’s real last name may be Milton, and even though it probably won’t happen, it’d be amazing if she and Anna were related in some way.) And I can’t help but wonder if, in writing a suitably geeky role for Felicia Day, Thompson purposefully set out to create a stand-in character for the fans with whom they could actually identify. The majority of Supernatural’s fans are women, and Becky Rosen, the previous fan stand-in, was soundly castigated for being a caricature of the worst sort of fans–especially in Season 7’s horrendous “Season 7, Time for a Wedding!,” in which she drugged Sam in order to get him to fall in love with her. Charlie Bradbury, however, gets to be unapologetically nerdy, geeky, and dorky—and she’s able to fight alongside and hold her own against the Winchesters. Because she’s a lesbian, she’s never pigeonholed into being ‘the romantic interest’ for either one of them. Thompson never makes any Charlie episode just about her femaleness or her queerness, and that attitude is a breath of fresh air on any TV show.
Verdict: somewhat predictable, but another great Charlie episode. Truly, Robbie Thompson is the master of pop culture references. Guess I’ll have to start calling the bunker the hobbit-hole now!