Goodbye Stranger: Demons, Dirt and Deviation
 

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It's been a while since my last SPN review here at the Winchester Family Business, and boy is it good to be back! So, without further ado let's talk about Goodbye Stranger. It was an odd mesh of characters, old and new themes and a good send off for some characters and mini-arcs even as it laid more key ground work for overall season storylines.  


Amoral Angels

The opening scene of this episode was an unsettling premonition. It's clear from the get that it isn't real, or at least not the real present and by this point having one of the Winchesters die is not exactly new. That being said, watching Castiel coldly stab Dean, literally through the heart, with zero regard for his friend's pleas not to, that is a hard thing to witness. It could have been a nightmare, or an opening that we then rewind back 24 or 48 hours on to see how we got to this point (a spell?).  Instead this is a real exchange - at least half of it is. Castiel is being reprogrammed by the boss lady Naomi and the casual stabbing of one of his best (and only) friends was a sincere act, even though Dean himself was a manifestation. The chilling cherry on top? The sea of Dean bodies that this scene closes on as the title card crashes into us. That's definitely one way to open an episode.

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Boys and Their Bunkers

The home base element added by the Man of Letters hideout has been a great addition this season. It gives us a grounding element much akin to Bobby's junkyard, even in terms of access to the reference materials. Sam can do his research while Dean sorts through and decrypts the old, confusingly labeled journals and enjoys the original Busy Asian Beauty prints. It's clear right away that Sam is still coughing blood and I immediately wondered why Dean hadn't noticed yet, given this has been happening since that hellhound got his vivisection. This was one thing bothering me and I felt was weakly handled recently, and though I'm glad Dean noticed the tissue in the garbage - didn't we get a deliberate shot of that tissue facing down without visible blood when Sam first tossed it? Oh well, leave the nitpicking to someone else. One really cool thing about the exchange while the boys discussed the case was the overhead shot of the lighted table with the inbuilt map.  

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Like the good old days of coordinate tracking in the Impala, the boys head out on the trail of a weird string of deaths in the paper to Lincoln Springs, Missouri where they talk find out about Anne. A murdered local who'd recently begun sneaking out at night, talking about an old orchard and stringing dirt bags from a park above a model version of the city. (Am I the only one who had flashbacks to Scarecrow when people started mentioning orchards?). Now, as much as I enjoyed the episode overall this part of the episode found the writing a bit flat to me. Certainly this half was meant as a push toward the Angel Tablet and the Castiel developments, nothing more. Thus, anything that wasn't particularly significant to our main characters felt hollow and less than compelling - for example, Anne's husband who was so emotionally unaffective about the entire experience.

Maps and Dirt and Lies, Oh, My!

We discover quickly that Anne was possessed and talking with another local, a PhD student with an old map of town. The quirky student doesn't last long after Dean and Sam find her as the demon gang tracks her too and want the map. Seriously - there isn't a city archive somewhere or an online version of this? Really? Also, we've seen in previous episodes that the angel wards give off certain energy so it is a little unclear why, if the not the demons, then even Team Naomi couldn't at the very least have narrowed the location somewhat more thoroughly before Megs helping hand.

Naturally, the Black Eyed boys don't last too long after Cas appears, though one manages to escape with the map to eventually inform the ever delightful Crowley about what's happening in town. Immediately Castiel seems off to both the audience and Winchesters - there is something baleful and more of a singular focus about him. Much closer in certain ways to the nature of the Castiel we met in the early days of season four but darker. From this point the episode begins the back and forth flashes between Castiel on Earth physically and Castiel speaking with Naomi in what seemed to be an internal psychic (of some type) discussion. This was a very strong element of the episode, in my opinion. It allowed for an insider perspective for the audience that we don't usually have when it comes to the enemy (the ilk of which Naomi absolutely is).

Naomi instructs Castiel to mislead the Winchesters as to his goal - to say that he and the demons are after a parchment - "demon decoder ring" - to translate Crowley's half of the tablet that is located in an old crypt Lucifer had in the town. Castiel goes to interrogate the demon he trapped inside the PhD student, leaving Sam and Dean to question his stability and prompting a great line I can't wait to try and fit into my own daily life:

"You know, I can hear you both. I am a celestial being."

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Patchwork Plot

The interrogation is where the writing starts to get shaky for me. Castiel has always lacked finesse so his incredibly "bad cop" (more like blatantly-obvious-dirty-cop) behavior is far from discrete which was to be expected, however in this case it was just plain sloppy on all accounts, ridiculously so. In terms of Castiel and Naomi, she is either desperate or stupid or both to have Cas just stab the demon mid-confession while Sam and Dean are right there; this will undoubtedly create further suspicion of Cas in the very least. From a writing standpoint, it is just forcing a character like Naomi whom until this point had been menacing, clever and calculating (with her clever and undetectable manipulation of Castiel in the killing of Samandriel) into one who is now just shoddy. Granted, this would have just been a blip if not for the fact that immediately following this, we find Meg whom Naomi and Castiel allow to reveal the truth because she could be helpful. The whiplash here is overwhelming. The erratic nature of the writing during this bridge was bothersome and a bit of a hodgepodge, seeming almost as though there were too many cooks in the kitchen. Despite this it seemed once we crossed the bridge there was also a turning point toward the better in the episode.

Of Unicorns and Retirement

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Before we get to that, I have to talk about those weird "Megstiel" flirts that could not be avoided. Personally, I'm not sure where I stand on this dynamic, but to be honest I'm not leaning toward it. Romance does not typically work on this show because it's driven by familial/friendship relationships, not romantic ones. This is ironic given how John and Mary each became embroiled in the mess in the first place I suppose; but the foundation is family not lovers and it's what tends to work. Back to the Meg/Cas thing. I wouldn't even bring it up if not for the fact that Meg made a point of referring to Castiel as her "unicorn" and in doing so likening him as to what Amelia is for Sam (which I'll come back to later). That didn't work for me at all. Castiel and Meg had some relationship and I can buy they developed a rapport of sorts, a grudging affection maybe - but not on a romantic or sexual tension level. Hello, Forced Subplot Police? Yeah, I need to make a report"¦.

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Speaking of Meg and unicorns, let's talk about her chat with Sammy. As Meg and Sam are securing they're position against demons, they chitchat and this prompts him to talk about his time with Amelia. One line here from Sam bothered me a lot. Now he knows that it - the non-hunter life- is possible? Hmm. I get what the writers were aiming at with this statement but I'm not sure I agree all together. Sam knew this was possible before, even strived to achieve it. Somehow it seems to me Sam would be more inclined to say he'd forgotten what it was like, or maybe he meant he didn't know if he could ever fully leave hunting again. As in, after all he's seen and learned since he left to go to college last time. Though Sam didn't really leave very long during his time with Amelia and he was emotionally devastated by all that had happened, so really there is nothing to say he wouldn't have gotten pulled back in. Amelia herself says to her father that both she and Sam are clinging to one another basically to stop from being consumed by the tragedy of their previous lives. You can't do that forever, or build a life on that foundation. In fact, Sam did get pulled back in. If he'd stayed with Amelia when Dean was back from Purgatory and everyone was scrambling for these tablets and Dean was still in the life, would he really be able to stay out entirely? So soon after losing Dean and getting him back again? I just don't know. So the statement that he now "knows it's possible" just doesn't feel right. (I've got a longer diatribe piece in the works on this one already"¦.) Thoughts?

Reveals, Deliverance and Montage

The final pieces of this episode were the strongest overall for a number of reasons. Let's break them down:

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First, was anyone else relieved with a) that they had the Sam "illness" (for lack of a better term) revealed and b) how they did the confrontation about it? This could have dragged on for a long time. It could have been exposed at zero hour with hugely devastating consequences in the moment leading to guilt, pain and suffering. These are all classics with a secret of this nature - yet none of those tropes were employed. Thank you. Furthermore, the confrontation wasn't really a confrontation so much as it was an admittance of facts and knowledge and a pledge between both for no more secrets. Dean was hurt/concerned by the lie, Sam apologized. They moved forward. If that doesn't demonstrate character growth I don't know what does.

Second, the short but always amusing appearances of Mark Sheppard. Neither Heaven nor Hell got the tablet in the end but the last we see of Crowley is him making an offer to Naomi. An offer with terms we have no clue about and also don't know if it was accepted (or how it was sealed - I'm damn curious how the HBIC of Heaven and the King of Hell seal a deal). That's a hell (excuse the pun) of an unanswered question to leave us wondering at.

Third, the death of Meg. It was neither grand nor subtle but it served her character just fine. Meg manages to stick Crowley and ends on a clever bit of sass. I, like many viewers, took issue with Rachel Miner's Meg initially. In fact, Meg really wasn't my cup of tea in any incarnation to be honest. Having said that she's grown on me over the last few years and even as I was watching this episode I was thinking so long as they keep her appearances sporadic and delightfully snarky, well I'd be okay with that. Maybe with less of the Megstiel romance hints though. No need to worry one way or another I suppose.  Personally, I don't think this was a bad ending for this character. Like I said, she was starting to grow on me but I could also see her teetering on the edge of bad stereotype sidekick character territory. Meg served her nostalgia purposes over the years and filled out her potential long ago for the most part, so it's just as well that we wave goodbye this week.

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Fourth, Castiel breaks free. We open on Castiel killing Dean in an old empty building. Next thing we have Castiel revealing how truly ill Sam is and insisting Meg stay behind, leaving just Dean and Cas trekking alone into the old empty building. Hmm. Way to manipulate those elements Cas. Ultimately Castiel and Dean find the angel tablet and everything of course does come to a head as we flicker between Cas and Dean and Cas and Naomi. This part was a bit confusing for me, I'll admit. Until the end it was unclear that Castiel was being out and out puppet-mastered by Naomi. While I enjoyed the back and forth scenes, it would have been more functional to the story to underscore the fact of her absolute control of his vessel - particularly given that one minute he's making Cas comments about the pizza man and the next he's pummeling Dean but also begging Naomi to let him stop. I did find his ultimate break from her control a well done scene, if a little rushed. Misha acted the struggle deftly.

The parallels between this moment in the crypt and the exchange between possessed Sam back in Swan Song are undeniable. The difference here being we got to witness the internal struggle to take back physical control. It was an interesting moment of poetic symmetry despite seeming a little hastily done. What felt particularly rushed were some of the emotions on Dean's side of the exchange (not the acting, the writing). I love Cas and his relationship to Dean but nonetheless Dean's words - "We're family. We need you. I need you" - though sincere, felt just a tad shoved into the moment. (Also - one small side nitpick about these scenes. If Naomi was controlling the vessel and she did want Dean dead, simply, then why waste time pummeling him? Just stab him!)

Fifth - the close out. It's not often we have a truly happy ending on this show, but I'd say tonight we came pretty damn close by Supernatural standards. The bad guys were left empty handed, Castiel was restored, Sam and Dean laid everything out between them and closed out with a laugh and fitting drive song montage.

Final Thoughts

Overall, I enjoyed this episode. It had good writing where it counted, some interesting emotional depth and put our characters into new positions going forward towards the end of the season. Many truths were dealt with and laid on the table finally, in particular the Castiel thread which has been bothering me since poor Samandriel's untimely demise. Further, the relationships in this episode were nice to see as well. Season eight has been a relatively quieter season as compared to the last few years and more of an introspective look at the characters and how those years have changed them; yet the storyline has moved along well all the same. Reflecting overall on the tone, mission and the way the pieces are moving around the board, season eight feels in many ways, for better or worse, like the early years of Supernatural. This episode was another example of those elements coming together. This episode also had numerous touchstones to "the good old days" from the humour of Dean's BAB leanings to the "on the road again" feel to the parallels with the classic Swan Song scene to Meg's casual referral to the YED. Goodbye Stranger leaves the show in a strong position to delve deeper into the tablets, the trials and machinations of Heaven and Hells menacing intentions over the next few weeks.