Supernatural Season 12, Episode 4
“American Nightmare” Posted by Dawn and Jaymee
Special Commentary by Rebecca
Remember how the main theme of SPN Season 1 was where’s dad, there’s dad, where’s dad, damnit dad? Well, so far season 12 seems to be headed straight into mommy issues territory. As you may recall, we had some Strong Opinions on Mary’s departure last week (especially from our guest writer, Reba, who is with us again this week), and those are going to pop up again this week. Strap in.
This week’s ep concentrated solely on the brothers. It was a Monster of the Week episode as well, but that ultimately tied into the aftermath of Mary’s
incredibly selfish departure. We’d like to give some props to first-time SPN writer Davy Perez, who previously wrote for the critical and audience favorite American Crime. His first effort with SPN gave us great “monsters” and some truly terrific call-backs to family dynamics that gave Sam a chance to shine. We’d also like to thank Perez for being terrifically active on Twitter during our East Coast feed live tweet of the show, including responding to fans and favoriting about a dozen of our tweets. That kind of interaction has long been one of the hallmarks of this show and its fandom, and long may that continue.
Since we only have one family to deal with this time, we’ll split this recap into two sections: The Good Stuff and The Problematic Stuff. But first, a plot recap, because it’s important this time.
There was a lot of religious symbolism in the ep, which was extremely reminiscent of Stephen King’s Carrie in many ways. We opened with stigmata, for Chuck’s sake, and it was terrific to see the story hit some of the darker aspects of the Judeo-Christian religion, which is something they often shy away from.
A social worker stumbles into a church, bleeding from stigmata wounds and being assailed by an invisible whip. She dies right in front of a priest, who talks to the papers – a clarion call to the Winchesters. We get a glorious return of the boys in clerical garb, thereby feeding priest fetishists for another few seasons. When asked what sort of priests they are, Dean’s intonation “The old fashioned kind,” is the frosting on that very yummy cake (the fandom no doubt responded THE HOT KIND, but we digress).
DAWN: As a former Catholic schoolgirl, I would like to personally thank Davy Perez for those outfits. Forgive me, Father, for I am about to sin. And when they called themselves Fathers Pacino and Penn, I laughed hysterically, because We’re No Angels is one of my favorite 80s movies of all time.
JAY: I was immediately thrilled with the opening of this ep. From the camera angles to the not overdone opening stigmata, it was almost elegant in its horror. The intro for our boys, the camera’s focus on the Bible to set the scene for the entire episode, all of it was well done.
Before long, a grocery delivery boy dies in the same way, so Priest!Winchesters revert to FBI!Winchesters. We mourn the loss of clerical collars, but we gain a new detail: the victims’ brains were turned to mush by whatever killed them.
Dean first blames witchcraft and suspects Beth Roberts, a Wiccan who got the first victim’s job; Sam thinks they should look at the Petersons, an ultra-religious family whose daughter, Magda, died from a curable illness and resulted in them being issued a social worker for their remaining child. Cue outfit change #3, which almost caused Twitter to combust: Winchester Sweaters.
The Peterson family is welcoming to their new social workers, if understandably cautious, and they relay their story of giving up a storybook life of comfort and privilege that hid issues from mild (no work/life balance for dad) to severe (drug addiction for mom), as well as what sounds like normal teenage rebellion by the kids. Instead, they withdrew from the world to live a life of privilege and apparent contentment on a huge farm. Their deep faith healed the family, but ultimately resulted in Magda’s death, which Momma Peterson puts down to God’s will. Sam is having none of that, which leads to him revealing more about his current state of belief than perhaps he intended.
Sam concludes the deaths are probably due to a vengeful ghost. Dean blames Beth. The boys argue and split up, back to the comfortable dysfunction that defines their core relationship. It’s interesting to note that Beth, in an earlier scene where she was talking about her job as a social worker, had a great line that rather sums that dysfunction up.
Dean heads off to shoot Beth (more on why this is so wrong later) and is surprised to find out that she didn’t want the promotion, hates having to do the job, and is still broken up by her mentor’s death. Meanwhile, Sam sneaks around the Peterson farm and is surprised to hear son and father talking about Magda in the present tense. Sam is knocked out, tied up (of course), and comes face to face with the very much alive Magda, a naive teen who has been convinced by her whack job mother that she is evil incarnate, specifically The Devil (delusions of grandeur much?), when really she’s just telepathic and telekinetic.
REBA: Sam wisely does not tell Magda that he’s personally acquainted with the devil and she’s not it, but I sort of wish he had, especially as we got his take on God earlier. Kudos to Perez for making us wonder if Lucifer made it out of the ocean that fast.
JAY: Perez plays in one of my true fears here. Personally, I find nothing more horrifying than what people are capable of doing to one another. It’s clear that the real monsters in this episode are people, just people, and their warped twisted views. I also really enjoy that we are giving Sam some time to really talk about his time with the devil to someone other than Dean. Someone who he can help through his experiences instead of just viewing then as a dark spot.
Since Sam was on the phone with his brother when he got captured,
Margaret White Momma Peterson knows Dean is on his way and therefore the family needs to go. But not, like, in the car. No, she spikes their food with rat poison. Dad dies and Magda appears to beg her to stop the killing. Crazy mom tries to stab her (Shades of Carrie!), but the son gets in the way. Cops arrive. Mom is arrested and the Winchesters are assured that Magda will be going to live with an aunt (we suggest the ones from Practical Magic). Dean ends up with Beth’s “personal number,” prompting Sam to note that Dean was going to shoot her, which his brother says is strange but also hot.
REBA: Seriously? This is not good at all. Don’t equate threatening a woman’s life with sexy times again, please. The idea that the guy you lust after might kill you is the opposite of titillating.
DAWN: Yes, there will be some words on SPN’s continued problems with writing women. I am one more ep from sending them my resume along with a strongly worded letter.
JAY: Just to play Devil’s advocate here, Beth didn’t know Dean was going to shoot her, so we can’t fault her for giving him her number. On the other hand, from a meta standpoint, it was definitely not cool and I agree with both Dawn and Reba.
REBA: Beth is in no way responsible for Dean’s actions or reactions, and I think it’s safe to say if she did know, she’d have run away screaming, not given him her number. She seemed very grounded and decent.
Alas, poor Magda does not make it to her destination, as she is executed by the mysterious Mr. Ketch, who checks in with the British Men of Letters to report that he finished the job the Winchesters wouldn’t. Special thanks to our Twitter friend @poptivist, who was kind enough to gif it and give us permission to reuse it via giphy but straight from her twitter account:
Oddly, Winchester family stuff was very secondary this ep, and it’s easy to sum up: they haven’t heard from mom; Dean is incredibly upset by this; Sam is weirdly not and tries to talk his brother out of being upset about this; Dean texts mom (heartbreakingly asking her if he should call her Mom or Mary); Mary fails to text back until the end of the episode; Dean doesn’t tell Sam about the text. And now, we react.
The Good Stuff
DAWN: As a long, long, LONG time Stephen King fan, the clear (at least in my opinion, since I couldn’t get Perez to confirm it) references to Carrie in this ep were particularly dear to my heart. Of course, some of that is also part of what I found problematic about this episode, but we will get to that later.
REBA: I am consistently impressed with the ability of the leads to convey emotions through body language. And a good thing, too, since Dean isn’t so great at talking about his issues. And he has so many issues they’re practically subscriptions. The twitchiness of both Winchesters, and their shared look when asked about whether or not they knew God, conveyed almost as much as the dialogue. Making the monsters human played into both the family dynamic storylines and echoed back to Dean’s proclamation in S4 EP 15 “The Benders” that he gets monsters, but humans are messed up.
JAY: I just cannot say this enough. From the writing to the filling to the always stellar acting by Jensen and Jared this episode was fantastic. With the subtlety of the family’s dysfunction to the in your face mothers gone wrong themes this episode very neatly knit together. Lot of hot button topics that we have been discussing. Compared to the previous episode this one has revitalized me for the rest of the season. If they can do for Castiel in 12×12 what they did for Sam in “American Nightmare,” I feel we are in for a serious treat. I haven’t felt much of a connection with the younger Winchester until this episode. It was nice to see him save himself both emotionally and physically.
- The Mythos
DAWN: Excellent, excellent job of giving us a throwback to Sam’s past as one of Yellow Eyes’ demon children, a storyline that was part of the very beginning of how this show rarely forgets itself and brings things back at the right time. It made Sam the perfect person for Magda and arguably the first person in her entire life to offer support instead of abuse and blame. Jared Padalecki shone in this episode, perfectly embodying helpful, empathetic Sam. And. AND. Sam laying the smackdown HARD on the Petersons:
The performance and the writing was strong in this aspect, and cast, writer, and crew should all be commended for that.
REBA: This really was Sam’s story writ small, and his pain and compassion came through in both voice and action. It was subtle and gorgeous and heartbreaking. The way Magda held herself so still and tight was like seeing into Sam’s internal conflict that, despite his powers being gone, still defines him. And can we take a moment to admire the strength of Paloma Kwiatkowski’s performance as Magda? She managed to embody the mythology of Mary Magdalene (herself having hosted seven demons before Christ cast them out) and the tribulations of a martyr, enduring horrors out of a deep faith her suffering is necessary—all delivered quietly yet with power.
JAY: I have to say it was really nice to get a Sam-centric episode. We have spent a lot of time seeing everything from Dean’s POV, having this episode be almost void of Dean was both refreshing and shocking. Watching Sam work specifically through his issues with the idea of being a Devil, in a sense of helping someone else who also has been wrongfully insinuated as a devil. As Sam was/is the chosen vessel for Lucifer, it was a whole new perspective on how he might be mentally healing or dealing with his own past.
- The Comedy
DAWN: This ep was dark, for a lot of reasons. But Perez knew exactly when to add moments of comedy to get us through. The boys’ priest names were Chuckdamn gold. Lines like “I’m a 13-year-old girl” (Dean) and the conversation about Lucifer having jumped into a rock star’s body and Sam’s embarrassed fangirling over the fact that it’s Vince Vincente, Dean clumsily climbing over the gate and Sam’s look of “Really?” when he was smart enough to just walk around it, the response to “Do you believe in God?”, and more gave us respite when we needed it.
If Sam was our emotional protagonist this ep, Dean was our Shakespearian clown, and Jensen Ackles nailed it every time.
REBA: The fence scene was perfect, not least because it appeared that merely putting on the clothes of a preppy social worker rendered Dean incapable of something he’s done so long and well it’s almost a superpower.
JAY: As for comedy, I can’t say enough about the one-sided conversation we got of Dean talking to Cas about his partnership with Crowley. This one conversation highlights the development of the relationship between the Winchesters and our angel. The last time Cas partnered with Crowley, he got an earful from Dean and a specific request to notify the brothers the next time the two get together to go off and kill stuff. Much like we requested in the last recap, Dean is on our wavelength with the angel/demon team-up being all sorts of strange (and wonderful).
- The Winchester Dynamic
DAWN: For all Dean’s posturing to be the opposite, this show never lets us forget that Dean is the emotional basketcase and Sam does his best to be the voice of reason. Stoic Dean never wants to talk, and Sam rarely lets him get away with it. Sam is the closest thing to a shrink that Dean is ever going to get (or, let’s face it, allow) and that has been vital since the beginning.
REBA: Since the one time they told the truth to a shrink, they were institutionalized (S5 Ep11 “Sam, Interrupted”), I can see why Dean might want to avoid them, despite how very desperately he might need one. Sam has always provided emotional stability, and I wonder if the loss of Mary struck him so hard in part because if she’d stayed, he could have stepped back from keeping Dean centered long enough to actually deal with his own deep hurts.
JAY: I’ve honestly never seen Dean so blinded before about a hunt. He seemed to be taking the easy way out. From the first scene with the Petersons everyone except Dean fans included, could tell something was hinky. I’m so curious as to what was really going on in Dean’s mind, aside that it was just convenient way to remove him from the episode to focus on Sam.
- The Sweaters
DAWN: Twitter went BALLISTIC over the sweaters. Absolutely ballistic. I think the fandom found the sweaters hotter than the priest outfits, to the point where #WinchesterSweaters were a trending thing. Personally, it didn’t trip my particular triggers, though Dean in the cable knit cardigan was pretty damn adorable. Neither sweater seemed particularly “Winchester” to me, though they were the perfect outfits for visiting an ultra-conservative Christian-fringe household, so the wardrobe department gets credit for that.
REBA: As a denizen of the Midwest, I can attest that those sweaters would grant you access to a fine Christian home. They would not, however, grant you access to the party favors of most women hereabouts. I think perhaps that particular sartorial choice is appealing to those who haven’t been raised with old men who dress that way. On the other hand, they accentuated the physiques of the Winchesters, which their regular attire does not, and those men have particularly attractive bodies, so sweater madness makes some sense. Sweaters: Winchester kryptonite, fangirl catnip.
JAY: I would just like to point out that the last time both of our boys wore sweaters, in S11 Ep8 “Just My Imagination,” they wore the same colors—Dean in grey and Sam in maroon. Dawn and Reba have got this section covered. I just had to add that it is adorable that Dean and Sam have their own particular sweater preferences.
- SPN and Wicca
DAWN: When it comes to wicked witches, this show never fails to deliver. While I know some of the fandom is divided on the topic, I love Rowena like crazy and I think she is one of the strongest female characters the show has ever produced. Wicked witch antagonists on the show have generally been done well, but when it comes to Wiccans and “good” witches, things always fall short. Modern Paganism has been a recognized religion in this country since the early 1980s and it’s utterly ridiculous to think the Winchester boys wouldn’t have a significant base of knowledge in that fact. Once again, SPN writers, I’m happy to send in my resume, because y’all need a Neopagan consultant.
REBA: Considering that they have no problem using a witch’s assistance to prevent the end of the world, and they let the most powerful witch in the world walk away, the witch hate is a tad inconsistent. Also, Sam has explained multiple times that Wicca is a religion that does not condone using magic to harm people and is about as effective as any other religion when it comes to faith changing anything but the faithful, yet Dean clings to his prejudice anyway.
- SPN really needs a regular female head writer on staff
DAWN: It’s a huge understatement to say that the writing of female characters on this show has been uneven. Yes, we have had our amazing Lady BAMFs Ellen, Pamela, Charlie, Rowena, Sheriff Mills, and Sheriff Donna. But we’ve also had to suffer through Jo, Lisa, Bela Talbot, and countless single ep guest characters that made us grit our teeth, at best. We had a huge bone to pick this time and I am once again preparing my freaking resume because seriously, folks. But since she said it best when we were chatting about this episode before writing, I am going to let Reba take over now.
REBA: I don’t know if the writers were purposely trying to creep us out by having Dean say that he found it arousing to get hit on by someone he almost killed a hot second ago in an episode featuring a textbook case of both emotional and physical abuse, or if they were truly unaware of how closely those two things align in the real lives of victims of domestic violence. Either way, it was incredibly tone-deaf. Considering that the last episode sent the two strong, fierce, older women off stage to do…whatever… it’s unfortunate that the only women in this episode were the virgin, the witch/whore, and the madwoman. And all three face death, with one assassinated in a rest stop bathroom, probably because there was no available fridge.
JAY: Honestly, my two wonderful counterparts have surmised my thoughts on this matter so perfectly that I’m just going to say please see above. And then ::slow clap::
- Mary Winchester and her boys
DAWN: Look, my almost irrational rage regarding John Winchester’s failings as a parent have been well-documented in a number of recaps on this site. But now Mary is hitting my anger buttons. Yes, Mary, there can be no doubt that coming back from the dead is one hell of a shock to the system. I get it. But to nope the fuck out because your imaginary Heaven family was easier than your real one, easier than your REAL sons who need you FOR REAL, is a giant pile of bullshit and bad parenting. How dare you, lady? And then you apparently can’t be bothered to keep in touch? Oh, HELL no. And now we talk about the boys. I loved Jared Padalecki’s performance in this episode. Loved it. BUT. When Mary closed the door behind her in last week’s episode, Sam’s ENTIRE BODY flinched. The look on his face during that entire goodbye scene was that of a child, a young, terrified child who is incapable of understanding where Mommy is going. So his sudden understanding of her leaving in this ep was jarring. Is it possible he was hiding his own turmoil because he knew someone needed to be strong for Dean? Absolutely. It’s happened countless times before. Or maybe it was easier for him to get past it more quickly because he never really knew what it was like to have a mother. I don’t know. But I am going to need some kind of closure on that, because it really seemed off.
And another thing. Crazy Christian mom felt like a really heavy-handed way of being like, “Hey, look, Mary’s not so bad! Not compared to this mom, right? RIGHT?” Um, no. That’s not even comparing apples and oranges. It’s comparing apples and grenades. If I hate apples, seeing a grenade doesn’t make me hate apples less, even if I do bother to think that they are vaguely similar in shape. One is a shitty apple. One is a grenade. I can dislike them both, thanks.
REBA: My take on Sam’s sudden recovery is twofold: he understands the need to run away from this madness and figure out who you are, and he is the master of suppressing his own pain and masking it with an appearance of calm rationality. His default response to this turmoil is to focus on Dean’s inability to express his feelings, as if that will somehow make it easier for Sam to process his own reaction to being abandoned by a mother who was built up to be this nearly saintly figure, and with whom he got to spend precious little time before the reality of her humanness became painfully clear. Like Sam, I wish we’d had enough time to get to know Mary better before she buggered off to find herself. Furthering my ire with the whole situation is the text exchange between Mary and Dean, which Sam is left out of completely.
If Mary could figure out texting, she could figure out group messaging. And what possible reason could Dean have for lying to Sam about hearing from her at the end? I thought the boys had come to terms with each other, but throw a bad parent into the mix and suddenly they revert to their earlier destructive patterns of secrets and lies.
DAWN: I am going to play Devil’s Advocate about the text. The subplot of this entire episode was Sam trying to talk Dean off the ledge about Mary. So while I am normally all about the “Stop lying to each other, FFS” bandwagon, this didn’t strike me as that. It simply felt like that text “belonged” to Dean, like it was the summation of everything Sam had already been telling him, so therefore why bring it up. I am also 100% certain that Dean will have told Sam “off screen,” so I saw no need to bring it up right then.
JAY: I have to agree with Dawn here. We all know Dean has serious issues confessing his emotions. However, it is possible he is better through text. I agree that this method of him reaching out to their mother is all Dean and that if Sam desired to, he could reach out in the same way. They are all adults; they need to act like it and stop holding each other’s hands. If they want to talk to their mother. they should just do it and stop being 13-year-old girls about absolutely freaking everything.
REBA: It would have taken two seconds for Dean to reply “It was Mom. She’s okay.” But in point of fact, I may be sensitive about this because I have grown sons, and good luck getting them to respond to texts in a timely fashion, so I spend a lot of time wondering if they’re okay when they could fix that in an instant. Hence, Dean keeping that tidbit from Sam seems mean.
So that’s it for this episode. Some of it was great, some of it wasn’t, but overall, season 12 is shaping up very, very well. We missed the Laurangel and Hardemon Show (aka Castiel and Crowley), of course, and seriously where the hell is Lucifer? Also who is this Mr. Ketch and why does it seem like the London Chapter of the Men of Letters are genocidal? Curiouser and curiouser, Supernatural. But damn, we are glad to be going back down the rabbit hole.