"I'm a Grade A Freak. But I'm managing it."
"The Girl Next Door" revives several issues that have been lingering since the Pilot itself. While the boys recover from the Leviathan attack, Sam investigates murders linked to a case he solved as a teenager. The monster this time is a kitsune, and they feed on human pituitary glands to survive. But as Sam says, "nothing in our lives is that simple," and that holds true for this very case.
From the start, Sam has been trying to be normal, to get that "apple pie life" without hunting. It really isn't until this episode that we see how comfortable he has become with his life as it is, not what it cannot be or will never be. This contrasts the trajectory Dean is now embarking and has been on since season 6 started more or less. Dean's difficulty with "the life" could be traced back as far as season 2's episode "Croatoan" in fact.
Sam's buying of cake instead of pie for Dean is also symbolic here of the unattainable for both brothers. The "Apple Pie Life" is just out of reach, impossible to keep, and doomed from the start every time a Winchester attempts it. Sam has accepted this more or less by this time, Dean has not. It is tugging upon a thread that has long woven through Supernatural's fabric, and one that will probably never be fully resolved for either brother.
In flashback episodes, where a young Sam is encountering first love, he meets a pretty blonde named Amy. They bond over the hardship of life on the road, agreeing that the World's Biggest Ball of Twine is highly overrated, and that they are always the new kid in school. Sam laments that everyone views him as a freak, and Amy agrees, stating, "Sam, you are a freak. But so was, I don't know, Jimi Hendrix and...Picasso. So am I. All the coolest people are freaks."
It's the first acknowledgment that being different, being the freak isn't always bad or wrong. Sam has fought his true nature and self for so long that it has exhausted him. It has always failed, too. No matter what he tried to do, Sam ended up back "in the life," back hunting and dealing with the monsters that lurk in the dark. Running never fixed the problem, neither did ignoring it. Sam has learned a very big lesson from this episode, one that Dean has yet to truly learn or embrace.
It isn't until Amy's mother returns in a hurry, panicked about the hunters in the "piece of crap Impala," that young Sam realizes what Amy truly is. She is a kitsune. Her mother is the monster they're hunting. In the present, Sam remembers and confronts Amy, who has resumed hunting humans for the brains she needs. He stays his hand to ask her why, to get answers rather than just outright stabbing her.
Reflecting the episode "Heart," Sam gives Amy the benefit of the doubt as he had given Madison so long ago. And yet, we can't help but feel that as Sam's fate had been sealed before he ever began to fight against it, Amy's is, too. She may be killing low life criminals in order to provide the needed glands for her sick son, but that doesn't mean she won't necessarily kill for pleasure later. Sam is willing to trust her to return to harvesting from the dead, but it is on faith he is doing so. It is a shade of gray that Sam has often tried to see through the series.
While Sam is investigating, Dean is freaking out. He calls Bobby in a panic, shouting, "Other shoe!"
After seeing Sam struggle with reality in "Hello, Cruel World," Dean knows that it is possible that Sam might have gotten himself into trouble. He states to Bobby, "Yeah, but his me-time ain't just him. I mean, for all we know he's road trippin' with Lucifer somewhere. Left me here like Jimmy friggin' Stewart."
The monster in this episode may be the kitsune, it may be a reference to Sam's history with demon blood and being Lucifer's vessel, it may be the Leviathan slowly chipping away at the Winchester's resources, but the true monster, by his own making, is Dean. He has every reason to freak out over Sam here, but his reactions and his statements as we go further into the story are really metaphors for himself.
Since returning from Hell, and after his history of torture down stairs was revealed, Dean has struggled with what he became because of those experiences. He has turned it towards Sam, an obvious target due to his ability to sympathize with monsters. He takes the black and white look to shield himself from dealing with his own issues. A monster is a monster is a monster in Dean's eyes, and therefore rather than debating on whether they have a right to live if they are finding "humane" ways to do so is pointless. They will kill. It is only a matter of time. He might as well be talking about himself, and when one reads between the lines, we find that he truly is. Dean is truly afraid that he will become the monster that he was in Hell for 10 years. Yet, he will not openly recognize this, much to his undoing.
When Sam returns, Dean's anger has fully boiled over. Upon opening the door, Sam is greeted with Dean's fist full force to the face, laying him flat on his back. Dean's anger is rooted in his paternal instinct, and also revives another issue that is left unresolved by episode end: that of trust. Sam may have left a note that he was taking the car and that he was fine, but he did not answer his brother's calls nor did he leave his GPS on so Dean could locate him if necessary. Sam isn't entirely trusting Dean here or he would have told Dean about this case and had him help. His argument for doing so alone is because he feels that it is his mess to clean up---and yet he leaves it undone.
His not finishing the job detonates the explosion that bubbled through the whole episode. Dean snaps, "Look, man, I get it, okay? You meet a girl, you feel that spark -- there's nothing better. But this freak?"
Sam clenches his jaw tight, and snatches his jacket, intending to leave. Dean tries to plead with Sam, claiming that he "didn't mean it," but he clearly did. Sam's statements in response reveal his acceptance of his life and who he is, while Dean's reveal his shaky state, his feeling awkward. When he asks Sam how Amy is dealing, he asks in disbelief, "Is she? How?"
One can't but help notice that Dean is floundering. He is trying to understand who he is and what his place is. It was once a clearly defined place, as we see him in season 1, answerable to their father, defined again in season 5 as leader of "Team Free Will" resisting the apocalypse, but now that he has no real direction set entirely before him---Leviathans aside"”-he is trying to piece together his reasoning for being.
The things he's locked in his box are now leaking, and while he is watching Sam outwardly deal with his inner demons, Dean is hiding from his. The result is disastrous. His internalizing of his experiences in Hell and his resentment of the life thrust upon him, something we heard about as far back as "Skin," has now bubbled completely over. He projects onto Sam the feelings about his own character and self: that he IS the freak, that he IS the monster.
It's no more apparent than when Dean ditches Sam to track down Amy to her hotel room. He lies in wait for her, a knife ready. We know he views himself as a monster, a killer, from his speech in "You Can't Handle the Truth." We know that he feels hopeless about changing his identity or fate in that regard. He sees Amy as no different, again projecting his inner turmoil on her.
He states, his voiced cold and crisp, "I know. I know. But people... They are who they are. No matter how hard you try, you are what you are. You will kill again."
Even before he does it to her, before he stabs her and apologizes for doing so, before her son enters and threatens to kill him someday, we know Dean is referring to himself. He knows that he cannot change, and yet unlike Sam, he has not fully accepted who he is. It is a true role reversal for the brothers. Dean used to revel in being the freak. He tells Sam at the end of "Skin," "Well, I"™m a freak, too. I"™m right there with ya, all the way."
This is also mirrors the deep set trust issues the boys have to deal with. Just like Sam neglected to bring his brother into his hunt, Dean has gone and cleaned up what he felt was Sam's mess, all behind his back. This is after he promises to trust Sam. It should have been a red flag, the way it was for Amy's mother when Amy did not freak out over moving again. Sam's radar should have picked up on the fact that Dean wasn't pushing back here, and when, as Dean said through the episode, that other shoe drops, another fight will break out.
These crucial issues must be addressed between the brothers. They must take any fracture in their relationship and fix it. The Leviathan have taken away credit cards, unknown at this time to the brothers. They are using them to track the Winchesters. They must be a unified force in every way or they will die. These are long standing issues that may never fully find resolution, but must be at the very least acknowledged. Unlike the foes of the past, the Leviathan hold all the cards on the Winchesters.
Thus far, the Leviathan have taken away Bobby's house, a refuge for many years. They have taken away credit cards in this episode. They are pushing them into a corner, trapping them, and until they get a handle on the issues this episode brought up, they will fall into it each time. The Leviathan know all their aliases, their habits, their strengths, and their weaknesses. The tools they used to defeat the likes of Azazel and Lucifer will not work here.
What makes this episode such a treat is how intellectual it is. "Meet the New Boss," and "Hello, Cruel World," were romps through action and introduced us to the big bad of the season. This episode allows us to breathe a moment, gives us a chance to delve back into the heart and soul of the show itself: the Brothers Winchester, and gives us a lot to think about. We can recover some from what happened to Bobby's, the struggle Sam had with his visions of Lucifer, of losing their Angel ally Cas, and Dean almost quitting all together as he almost did in both the first two episodes.
It, too, has the first season flavor, all without ignoring how far the boys have truly come. The story of season 7 is still largely unfolding, but it is only getting better and better as we travel further down the rabbit hole. Seeing a blend of new monsters and conflicts emerging while old and long standing concerns be thrust into the front and center makes for good story---proving that there is still a lot of story left to tell in this series.
The directing done by Jensen Ackles, on this much darker episode than last year's "Weekend at Bobby's" was wonderfully done. His choice of filtering the flashbacks through a different lens color is a great choice, bringing us into that aspect of the story beautifully. That we do not see the monster in this episode make any actual killing on camera heightens the horror. The only actual killing on camera is Amy killing her mother and then Dean killing Amy. It is darker, and done by human tools like knives rather than monster attacks or claws. Even the Leviathan at the end pouring the cheese on his victim is done off camera. Allowing the viewer to fill in the blanks enhances the horror that is shown on screen all that much more. In an age where gore and blood fests are common and popular, it is nice to see a return to a much more subtle undertone as Supernatural has taken in this episode and season.
The suspense carried over from "Meet the New Boss," and "Hello, Cruel World," in the escape from the hospital before settling into the much more muted pace of "The Girl Next Door" was brilliantly executed. It certainly had my heart beating wildly! Seeing Dean get his leg set was hard to watch, mostly because of how much pain he was in. I held on tight, knowing in the back of my mind that they had to get away, but couldn't help but worry that they might have more of a fight to get out than they did.
Having heard Jensen discuss his directorial style, I can clearly see his touch about having a motivation for his character's movement. It was clearly all over this episode, from the way Dean went about cutting his cast off, to young Sam's method of diffusing those targeting Amy, to the Leviathan pouring the nacho cheese on its victim at the end. Each movement the characters made had purpose in this episode, and it helped enhance the story as it unfolded. No movement was ever done without reason. It clearly speaks to the fact that an actor was in the director's chair. It also brought the story much more fully to life on screen, sucking us in and holding us there until the very end. While it didn't have the massive blows and twists of the first two episodes, it really didn't need to with such attention to the littlest details.
Acting wise, Jensen was spot on, seen much more in this episode than his directorial debut. He gave us a frustrated and bored Dean, a frantic and fatherly Dean, a confused but dejectedly resigned Dean, and a cold Dean. Each facet of the character was brought to full life on the screen. His anxiety at a missing Sam, his anger when Sam strolls back into his hotel room and their subsequent fight, all gave us insight into Dean mostly through Jensen's body language and diction. I can't imagine it is easy to direct one's self, but he most certainly handled the dual hats for this episode really well. While I don't entirely agree with Dean's actions in this episode, I give Jensen kudos for showing us Dean's thoughts just through facial expressions and movement. The dialogue gave us insights, of course, but it didn't tell the whole story.
Colin Ford, more than anything, was the star of this episode. Somehow, he's managed to capture Jared Padalecki's style, and translate it onto the screen flawlessly. His mannerisms, his speaking style, everything reflected the way Jared presents us Sam as an adult. It really showed in the library scene most, seeing him look through the map, putting the trail the kitsune was taking together. Seeing that paired with Jared giving us adult Sam doing the same only highlighted how well Colin pulled this together.
While Colin's Sam has not endured everything Jared's Sam has, we can sense the sorrow that hangs around his character. We, perhaps because we know what is yet to come, feel heartache at seeing Sam receive his first kiss. It is the tragedy of Sam's life. Jess. Madison. Ruby (even if she wasn't technically a true love interest). And now Amy. Each one has met a dark end for entangling with Sam.
Young Amy, presented to us by Emma Grabinsky, is a mirror of Sam in every way. She doesn't enjoy the road, wants to be normal, and is at odds with her mother as Sam is with John Winchester. Emma played off well from Colin. Her version of Amy seemed tough, but vulnerable. Despite her matricide, in order to save Sam, there is a sweetness to her that appeals. Again, sorrow hovers over her character, and while we're uncertain until Dean kills the adult Amy what her fate will be, we know that it will not be good.
Jewel Staite gives us the same Amy Pond, older and desperate. She is the mother now, trying to care for her son. She continues to reflect Sam's old desire for normalcy, and while Sam caves and lets her go, he has to know that she will break this word. Jewel, famous for her stint on the short lived Firefly, fits seamlessly into the Supernatural fabric. We can almost sense that if she had lived she might have been an ally of sorts, already soft for Sam. Sorrow marks her character, too, and Jewel gives us this in the way she delivers her lines with desperation. Her expression of shock at first meeting Sam again and later when Dean stabs her is executed brilliantly. It is a shame that we didn't get to see a bit more of her in the episode, as she seemed to have great chemistry with Jared.
Jim Beaver, less in this episode than the previous two, gives us smart ass Bobby. Sure, his house burned down, sure he lost his "one of a kind" library, but this is Bobby! The way Beaver gives us the line, "Yeah. That's why I stashed copies all over the place," makes us smile. Bobby may have lost everything he had more or less for being a Winchester ally, but he is amused at outsmarting the enemy that probably doesn't know that about him. He continues to give the boys a much needed fatherly figure. Since season 1, no other character has been through as much with them for as long and lived. It is hoped that we get more chance to see him on screen as the season continues!
Jared gives us a determined and focused Sam. While there is a brief taunt in whispers from Lucifer, it seems that Sam has adjusted somewhat. Jared shows us a Sam of old here. He's the one that sets up the hunter's wall with efficiency, tracking his prey. He gives us a Sam that wears the struggles of the past well, while giving us that niggling edge that "the other shoe will drop." We see it in the way he spaced out with Lucifer's taunts. Jared also gives us an accepting Sam, all through much more relaxed body language until provoked by Dean's exclamation that Amy is a freak, therefore making Sam a freak. Jared shows us a patient Sam, listening to Amy's explanation with sympathy, this portion of the story told through his eyes.
As we go further into this season, so far it hasn't disappointed. We're encountering a mix of old and new, issues that trace their origins to season 1 while heightening the concern of season 7's big bad in the Leviathan. It's only a matter of time before both issues intersect and explode beautifully on our screens. I am certainly looking forward to seeing how they twist these two together. The story has certainly shifted back towards the boys themselves, and that is only good for Supernatural.