This week’s episode started off with probably the most awkward conversation between Dean and Sam (and Ezekiel) to date, so it could really only go up from that point. Spoilers after the jump.
Although we start out in the bunker, this episode takes place mostly in a home for troubled boys in New England. When Dean gets a call from Sonny, the guy who runs it, asking for the hunter kind of help, Dean is forced to come clean to Sam that he once did a stint there after being caught shoplifting bread and peanut butter (to feed Sam while John was off on a hunt). John could have got him out of it, but figuring that Dean deserved to do some time for his crime, basically up and left him there. Dean and John had told Sam that Dean was off on a hunt during the two months he was gone, so this opens a new window into Dean’s past for Sam.
In a series of flashbacks featuring a new actor as young Dean (the other one had grown up too much, but god damn does this new kid have Dean’s mannerisms down pat), we find out that, although he resented it at first, Dean managed to have some of the first “real teenager-hood” moments of his life while at the home: a first kiss and decent parental guidance, among other things. He crushes on a girl named Robin, wins a wrestling competition at school, and is about to attend his first school dance when John shows up again—but it isn’t John’s wrath that makes Dean go back to the life, in the end; it’s his desire to protect Sam. There’s a depressing scene where teen-Dean chokes back tears so that he can present a stoic face to John when he gets back in the Impala. It’s a really sad look into Dean’s one brief chance at a decent childhood, and it’s super-Supernatural-typical that his one chance came because he got arrested for stealing to feed Sam.
Back in real time, the home is now being haunted by something that’s causing mysterious deaths. This isn’t really the meaty part of the plot; it turns out that the little nerdy kid at the house is being protected by his dead mom, who’s way past vengeful spirit mode and into chopping off bullies’ hands with lawnmowers. (Yes, this episode features some old-fashioned Supernatural gore.) The kid ends up dismissing the ghost himself by assuring her that he’s okay and that she needs to move on. A bit anti-climactic for Supernatural, but it fit with the more emotional tone of the episode.
One of the things that did get to me about this episode was that, except for the super-awkward Dean-talking-to-Zeke-while-Sam’s-conscious dialogue at the beginning, it was so generic in terms of long-term plot that the story could have easily been slotted into any season and still fit—which leads me to the most frustrating thing about this episode: the ‘continuity-what-continuity’ attitude of the writers. While Sonny seems to have been an important surrogate father figure to Dean in his flashbacks, we don’t really see any of that come through in grown-up Dean’s interactions with the man.
If you’re going to retcon something like this into Dean’s past, then we have to see the emotional follow-through into the present. This late in the show, it’s tricky to fit stuff in like that and not fuck up continuity—even the line where Dean says that John had been on a rugaru hunt when he got arrested falls flat, considering that in the only episode where we’ve seen a rugaru, Dean has never heard of one and thinks it sounds made-up. Dean’s such a fan of Sonny that Sonny still has Dean’s phone number, and since Dean is a Winchester, you know that number’s changed a million times. If that’s so, Dean had to call Sonny to give him the new number time and again, and if that’s the case, why haven’t we seen or even heard of Sonny, ever? It just doesn’t work for me.
Continuity weirdness aside, this was a feels-inducing and touching episode, and I liked it more than I thought I would. We’ve seen young Dean before, but we’ve never seen Dean really living a normal life—Lisa was pretend, and that was the only other time we’ve seen Dean out of the life, outside of djinn-induced dreaming. We got to see how his time at Sonny’s influenced all the aspects of his life with which we’ve become so well acquainted: his inexperience with Robin leads to his current false bravado with women; his love of diners is probably reinforced by Sonny and Robin; and, of course, his love for Sammy leads him away from anything resembling a healthy, non-self-sacrificing life.
We also got to see how Sonny must have differed from John Winchester as a father figure. Present Dean has internalized John’s shitty parenting—when Sam asks him why John hadn’t acted like a proper dad and just picked Dean up from Sonny’s, Dean angrily told Sam that he had made the mistake himself and it was his fault. And young Dean corroborates this: when Sonny tells him how proud he is of Dean, Dean looks at him, carefully, as if he’s never heard those words before. The last time we saw John Winchester as a dad was in “All Hell Breaks Loose”, years ago (although his bad parenting echoes through the later seasons), and I still hate him with the fire of a thousand suns. This episode goes a long way towards articulating why.
So, all in all, not a bad episode. (Four not-bad episodes in a row—is this some sort of record?!) Don’t worry, though—coming up next week we have a whole episode which looks to be based around virginity jokes. Goddamnit, Supernatural, this is why we can’t have nice things.