“Well, maybe we should focus on the case and less of the Dr. Phil crap,” Dean retorts to Sam at the morgue. And yet, the case itself reflects the real problem the Winchesters have in “American Nightmare”: the inability or unwillingness to talk.From the family, to Magda, and to Sam and Dean themselves, each of them struggle with talking about the important issues they face. It is a problem they will have to resolve if things are going to improve or if they will finally put to rest some things that have lingered. Talking has always been a sore point for the brothers. It has always been a push and pull between them---and in the aftermath of their mother's departure it is a dragon they must wrest control of in the long run if they are to overcome some of their issues.
First, let's look at the case itself.
A woman enters a church, her hands and feet bleeding as she walks up the aisle towards the altar. She speaks in a foreign tongue imploringly as an invisible whip lashes open her back. As she falls to her knees and repeats her phrases, she falls over dead---a classic case of stigmata. The strangeness of the death draws the Winchesters and they question the priest. Their conversation with him is the first example of an unwillingness to talk. He tells them that he's talked about this enough---and that the Church doesn't want them to talk so “old fashioned” anymore. He knows what he saw and that no one--- “not even my bishop”---will believe him. This woman was possessed by the Devil---that he had come amongst them. Even so, that is all he knows and he refuses to say much more---although he confirms that it can't be a demonic possession as he didn't see the smoke or the smell sulfur. He's perplexed by the questioning and the brothers leave to follow the trail.
Throughout the early leg work of the case, Sam and Dean squabble. Dean is aghast to learn that Sam likes Lucifer's new vessel, Vince Vincente. He snaps at Sam when he's called out on being curt to the priest and to the coroner. He is waspish about stopping for a pit stop. Sam and Dean misfire on talking about their mother's exit---and at every attempt Sam makes, Dean finds a way to slap it away as moot. In his view, “She hates the way we were raised. She hates the fact that we're hunters. Maybe she starts walking and doesn't stop, you know? She obviously has zero interest in keeping this family together.” Talking will not solve things as far as Dean is concerned---it'll merely rub more salt in a fresh and re-opened wound.
Instead, he'd rather work the case and so they do.
They go to the victim's place of work: Child Protective Services. Olivia was the leader of the department and her replacement, Beth, a Wiccan, seems suspect to Dean. She might have done some witchcraft to get the bigger office. Before they can dig deeper, however, another victim---unrelated to Beth---falls dead. He delivers groceries to an unusually reclusive family that lives outside of town, isolated. Beth describes them as “Old old Testament,” and it's clear that there's something strange going on. Considering the religions nature of Olivia's death, it lead them to investigate the “Weird creepy off-the-grid Children of the Corn people.”
There, Sam and Dean are confronted with a family that has left behind the modern world as much as possible. They have no electricity, no phone, no car, and no computers. They've decided to live simply away from the distractions of modernity. It is this isolation that connects to the inability and unwillingness to talk, too. They've disconnected themselves completely from as much of the world---and Child Protective Services has largely been their only real connection from the outside. They choose to homeschool, to grow as much of their own food, and to live off the grid---and yet the sinister nature of what they may be hiding is a heavy weight hanging over the home. It is what they're not talking about that may be the most damaging or dangerous.
Sam is left to talk with the mother while Dean helps the father and brother with the buggy. Dean is happy to help them---it's almost rewarding. They've let him in a bit---and the father, Abraham, tells them why the modern world had to be discarded. He tells Dean, “The world out there. It's all distractions. Consumerism. Corporations. And the people, if they're not shopping or stuffing their faces, they're sitting in front of some screen watching fake people do fake things while the real world just gets more and more screwed up. Gail and I didn't want that for our kids.” Abraham seems to be convincing himself that it was a good idea to leave this world behind and return to a simpler life. He had been a computer programmer merely five years ago. While Abraham may seem rather content with this decision, it's clear in his body language and the way he says these things that he's doing this to appease his wife, Gail. He's given up a lot---and he won't really talk too much about it. Instead, he tells Dean, “The things you do for family.”
Dean needs to have this interaction. Here, Abraham is unwilling to talk about how he feels about this life or what it might have cost him. He buries his feelings about it behind duty and simply trying to figure things out. And yet, as the problem with the buggy wheel illustrates, Abraham isn't quite sure that he's on the right path. If Dean hadn't been there, they would have struggled perhaps for days or longer to get the wheel put back on. Abraham appears to be a fish out of water and unable to voice that perhaps he doesn't want to really live this way. It's easier to accept it than to fight about it. This is something Dean must notice. He tends towards the same thinking---and it can lead him to folly and resentment. It is in refusing to talk about his feelings---just as Abraham seems reluctant to do about his own---that could set up heartache for Dean in the long run.
However, it is Gail that represents much of Dean's own inability to talk in the episode. Her story is a metaphor for him. Instead of being openly angry or off putting or shutting down, Gail has another defensive mechanism she uses. She has turned to religion---in particular a very fundamentalist view of Christianity. She tells Sam about the accident that led to this new way of life---skirting around how it made her feel. The family portrait looks happy, and yet she points out that no one was happy at all. She states, “The father was working 80 hours a week to barely pay the mortgage and what little time he did spend at home he spent in a bottle. Children were on four different kinds of behavior enhancing medications and barely spoke. Could text up a storm, though. And the mother---she was the worst. She was so pilled up she could barely think straight. God showed them a better way---Go. Live a life of simplicity and humility and all your pain would be taken away.”
Sam asks if that is true---and Gail deflects, “I get by with His grace.”
It is clear, here, that Gail has a difficulty with actually talking about what had happened or how it truly made her feel. She may not appear angry on the surface---but it boils just beneath. She's buried herself in religion to avoid talking about it. And that becomes clearest when she is confronted about her daughter, Magda's death. Sam tells her that Magda didn't have to die, she protests, “God does not---,” Instead of facing this harsh reality---or the secret she's truly keeping---Gail chooses to hide behind God and avoid it. This is repeated in her vicious abuse of Magda. Her anger needs an outlet, and so she visits her daughter in the basement, forcing her to whip herself and confess her sins. Rather than talking about her own difficulties with the car accident, she will punish Magda. Rather than facing the differences within her daughter with understanding, she will blame them on the Devil.
For Gail, it's harder to look at her own faults or her own issues and deal with them. Instead, hiding behind God and religion allows her to deflect the inner turmoil. Dean has a tendency to behave in a similar fashion---and while religion is not his choice, he will avoid talking whenever possible by deflecting the subject from himself or his own issues to outside concerns. He'd rather bury himself in the case or talk about someone else or examine facts. Anything that avoids his own emotional turmoil will suffice. Gail has chosen to live this simpler life, cut off from the rest of the world just as Dean has built his own emotional walls to keep the rest of the world out, too. If they don't penetrate this, neither will have to actually face the truth of their own problems.
In this manner, she reflects Dean's inability to talk himself. He is curt and rude to Sam because he knows that his brother wants to talk. He wants to avoid it. His defense mechanism here reveals a truth that has lingered for Dean all series long. Having Mary returned has simply amplified it---and now with her leaving again, it has made the oldest wounds rawest. In so many ways, Dean must confront the four year old boy he was once was---the one that lost the ability to speak for a time. Sure, Dean talks now all the time as an adult---but he still abhors “talking.” It's much easier for him to avoid it or bury it.
Dean also doesn't want to confront the truth. Perhaps Beth at Child Protective Services is right. Perhaps Sam is right. Sometimes, what's best for a family is to split them up. It doesn't have to be forever, but sometimes a bit of space can help. This concept makes him bristle. To have his mother returned to him after all these years only to have her leave has left him angry and confused. His abandonment issues have long history---dating back to Mary's death. For a four year old boy, that death must have seemed as if his mother had abandoned him. Sam's departure to Standford amplified matters. John's tendency to leave the brothers alone while on hunts while growing up or his disappearance at the start of the series only added to that fear. It's another topic Dean normally dances around or outright ignores when possible. Talking about that hurts and is hard. And so, when Mary walked out the door, the four year old self reared its head once more. Dean retreated and built his defenses through anger and churlishness. It kept Sam from prodding too much and it prevented him from talking when he needed to most.
Dean, needing to prove himself right, insists on hunting Beth. She's Wiccan so she must have used witchcraft to take down Olivia. He doesn't agree with Sam that it might be Magda's ghost. Besides, her statement on family and space and splitting them up is the bigger motivation. In a way, he's also reflecting Magda's isolated and impotent fury. She's unable to speak to outsiders and has reached out with her powers to those she hopes to reach---only to kill them in the process. She lacks an outlet just as Dean does. Her lashing out unintentionally mirrors Dean's intentional lashing out at Beth. He's certain he'll shoot Beth for being a witch---but really he's using that anger to mask his unwillingness to talk about his own anger. He confronts her at the office and learns that she hates the job. Dean realizes the longer she tells him that “If somebody screws up, that's on you, if somebody blows a deadline, that's on you, and if somebody's photocopying their ass in the break room you have to adult and act all mad even though it's kinda hilarious. Being the boss sucks. I don't know how Olivia did it, ” that he was wrong about her.
And yet, while he realizes after the case is over that he may have been wrong, Dean has only taken the smallest baby step. Throughout, he's been texting his mother and waiting for her to respond. Her silence has added to his whirring emotions and he's furious that she's abandoned him even more. Upon getting the text from her, however, that states that she hadn't had a charger and that she'll always be MOM, he doesn't tell Sam that she also said, “tell Sam I love you boys.” Instead, he states, “It's nothing.” In a way, Dean's brushing off his own embarrassment that he's somehow driven his mother away like a “thirteen year old girl” and so really it isn't a big deal. On the other, he's holding back a message from their mother---perhaps because he's not quite ready to talk about her absence even if he's admitted that “sometimes you need space to figure things out.”
In a way, perhaps that's what it is. Dean may need to take some more space and allow himself to sort his emotions out before he is ready to truly talk. The problem he'll have, however, is the longer he drags his feet on that the harder it'll be in the long run. Dean's not been good about talking and he's even worse about starting the conversation. At some point, Dean will have to look in the mirror and face the four year old boy that he's run from his whole life---and if he has any hope of growing past his own inability or unwillingness to talk, he'll have to put to bed the pain and anger his four year old self must have felt.
This is a first small step on that journey---and it will take a long long time before it's truly resolved.
Sam, too, had to face his own inability to talk---but in a different way. This case will dredge up personal pain and history for Sam. And as much as Dean is hurt by their mother's abrupt exit, Sam is smarting somewhat, too. He understands. He expresses this when he tells Dean, “Well, you know sometimes families do better with a little time apart.” He may agree with Mary's decision, but she is still his mother and he misses her. He is still reeling from this as much as his brother---and that pain will manifest in its own way.
It comes out full force when he questions Gail about the delivery boy's death. She seems calm and collected about it, stating a simple and quiet, “I see.” The seeming nonchalance Gail exhibits incenses Sam. This was a person. Someone has died and this woman doesn't seem bothered by that news. He knows that the case file states that their daughter, Magda, died of pneumonia a few years earlier---mostly because they hadn't taken her to a doctor and acquired the necessary treatment. In some ways, Gail's negligence with Magda---a mother to a daughter---rubs salt into Sam's fresh wounds about Mary's departure. He hasn't had an outlet to express that pain---and Dean has shut down at every turn about it.
And so, Sam unloads it onto Gail. He retorts, “So what happened to your daughter, was that God's plan?” and “She didn't have to die. She was sick, if you had taken her to a doctor.” and “God doesn't care what kind of life you live. Trust me. And God didn't kill your daughter. You did.” Sam has had some of this bottled up inside and now he has to find a valve release. Confronting a mother that has killed her child through sheer stubbornness seems a good start---and that's before he's discovered the awful truth.
When he stays behind to investigate Magda's ghost, he overhears Abraham and Elijah talk about Magda. She's not as dead as they think she is. Elijah expresses concerns about Gail hurting Magda. Abraham deflects this by stating, “Your mother's doing God's work. Son, the Devil's a deceiver. Don't let him sow doubt in you. If anyone found about Magda, they'd come for her. And if that happened, I love your sister, but you know what she can do. Magda, Magda's our cross to bear.”
Sam creeps around the house, looking for any proof as to where they may be keeping Magda. He sees through a window into the basement Gail and a young woman. Gail is circling her, speaking in Aramaic while Magda flagellates herself viciously. Sam is stunned to realize that they've kept this secret so long and that they'd do this to their own child. He's appalled and stares in as Gail continues to punish Magda.
Before he can sneak away and get backup, his phone rings and the vibration draws Gail's attention. As he answers it, Elijah confronts him with a gun and Abraham knocks him out. When Sam comes to, he's in the same basement as Magda, confronted by a sorrowful and beaten young woman. He calls her name and she retorts that it isn't her name. Instead, she says, “I'm the Devil.” Sam knows that this isn't true---after all, he knows the real Lucifer all too well and personally.
He tells Magda, “No. No, you're not. You're really not.”
She tells him about her powers, that the Devil whispers in her head and lets her hear other people's thoughts. He asks her to show him. The wooden cross hanging on the wall starts to move as Magda concentrates and Sam realizes that he's facing another psychic---like he once used to be. Sam tells her, “Magda. You're not the Devil, you're just psychic. There are others out there like you, like-like me. I have powers too. I get visions sometimes and I can move things with my mind.”
As she takes in his words---doubt on her face---Sam speaks the words he needs to say most---both for her and himself. He says, “But it didn't make me the Devil, it just made me who I am.”
Magda tells him, “Then you are evil. Mother says I am evil cause I hurt people.”
This is the conversation that Sam has avoided his entire life. He can see that Magda isn't evil. He can tell that she's scared and confused and has been tortured. Sam can see himself in her---perhaps as he was once over a decade earlier. He, too, felt his powers made him evil. He, too, felt he needed punishment for what they brought out in him or what they eventually led to. His powers, believed to be brought on by Azazel's demon blood infection, may not be so simple. And they most certainly don't make him anymore evil than Magda's make her.
Sam's never talked this candidly about his own experiences---and he's sorely needed to. He's danced around it in the past or beat himself up over it, but he's never openly stated that they're simply a part of him. His powers---just like Magda's---don't make him evil. They don't make him the Devil. They don't make him hurt anyone. He's not the danger that perhaps Gordon Walker once saw him as. He's not simply Lucifer's vessel, either. Instead, his powers rather they're gone or dormant, simply made him Sam.
In many ways, Sam's empathizing with Magda is a second chance. Once, when confronted with another psychic child, Max, Sam didn't succeed. Max had been beaten and abused and tortured for what had happened to his mother. He had discovered his powers and decided to free himself from his father and uncle and step mother. Sam had tried to convince him this was the wrong answer---and in the end Max had killed himself rather than kill his step mother or Dean. Sam had been emotionally scared himself---uncertain about what his own powers meant or what they'd lead to. He had no idea they were being manipulated by a demon at the time or that it would lead to Cold Oak or to Lucifer. Sam had simply wanted to save someone that he saw so much of himself in---someone that had crossed lines and blurred into being a monster by his actions---a fate Sam feared so much for himself. In his drive to save his brother and to stop Max, he had lost. Max didn't make it and Sam feared that he'd end up dying in a similar fashion.
Now, years later, Sam is confronted by another psychic child---one unrelated to the group Azazel fostered and used. He has many years of experience under his belt. He has survived Azazel's cruel manipulations, Ruby's manipulations, Lucifer's possession, soullessness, and so much more. He's confronted his destiny to become evil and overcome it. Sam has matured enough to know that what Magda needs more than anything is pure understanding without his own real issues wrapped in it. His empathy here may be much more selfless than it was even for Max---but in the long run Sam is opening the door for himself to finally talk about his biggest issue: his fear that he is indeed evil and that he will become a monster.
As Magda and Sam are dragged upstairs and he watches in horror as Gail prepares to kill the entire family, he is forced to witness a near identical replay of Max and his step mother. Gail successfully poisons Abraham to death and then angrily tries to force her children to eat. They will all enter Heaven as a family. And yet, as Elijah fights the command and his fear of dying, Magda takes action. She hurls the spoon and the bowls aside with her powers. Gail is furious at this action and accuses Magda of being the Devil. She stabs Elijah as she charges, trying to strike her daughter instead. After he falls away, Magda states, “No, you're the Devil.” She turns the knife on Gail with her powers, pointing it straight at her chest, forcing it there. Just like Max had once held a knife to his step mother's eye, Magda is preparing to plunge it into her mother's chest. History is once again repeating itself before Sam's eyes.
Sam pleads, “Magda, stop. You don't have to do this. You can control it. Magda, no body else needs to die. Please!”
It stays Magda's hand and the knife is cast aside. Sam has succeeded this time. He saved Magda where he couldn't save Max. He's willing to give her a second chance. Magda hadn't realized what she had done. She hadn't meant to do those terrible things to anyone. She simply had tried to reach out---finding her own way to talk when she had no real other way.
As she's checked over by paramedics and Beth prepares to send her to family in California, Sam sits with her. He tells her, “Magda. I know it doesn't feel like it now. But, you're gonna be all right. You can do this. You will do this. Just remember. That power, it doesn't control you. You control it. If you ever need anything. Anything. Call, me okay? I'll be there.”
In so many ways, Sam is speaking to himself. He needs to say this---to talk about their shared powers---so that he can remember that he, himself, is not evil. He's no more the Devil than Magda. He's matured enough since Max to know this and now he can finally get over his own inability to talk about it. He may not have accessed the powers since saying Yes to Lucifer---but perhaps they're still there. He had told Dean that he had felt unclean when undergoing the Trials. Sam has struggled with this aspect of his nature for so long, burying it and avoiding it and wallowing in the darker emotions rather than addressing it.
Now, finally perhaps he can finally talk about it. Maybe he can wrest control back---and realize that he's simply Sam. They make him who he is---and that is not a monster.
Perhaps, too, Sam and Dean may learn to talk about this and their other concerns. Perhaps that is the greatest lesson from Magda's story.
Unfortunately, Sam's attempt to save Magda fails ultimately. Mr. Ketch, sent by the British Men of Letters, undoes his good work. She is let off the bus for a pit stop and the executioner follows her in, shooting her viciously and reporting that he's cleaned up the Winchester's mess. Magda was never a monster---she was never evil---and yet just like her mother, Gail, this group has chosen to see her as nothing more than something to exterminate.
In the end, it leaves us wondering which shall triumph: a black and white world view or one that recognizes shades of grey?
After all, as always, the greatest monster on Supernatural may just be humans---and not the supernatural creatures at all.