Reviewing episodes after seeing the rest of the season creates an interesting challenge. I try to judge the episode on its merits alone as if I was watching for the first time, but I can't avoid recalling post episode subplots that cleanly tie into the one up for review. "The Kids Are Alright" is one of those episodes. It sets the framework for Dean's season three character development, yet also carries over the sentiments first revealed in "What Is and What Should Never Be". So, forgive me, but this episode is going to be judged on how it bridges the gap between that stellar season two episode and the latter part of season three. It's a key piece to Dean's intense personal struggle, the one he tries to hide from the surface, but one that also defines him.
Before I start plowing through this better than average episode (a huge improvement over the season premiere), I would like to take time to honor this episode's writer, Sera Gamble. I like profiling writers as many of you have noticed from my previous reviews and somehow I've overlooked the show's head writer. As a writer myself I've learned throughout the years how to appreciate the precision and careful crafting that goes into creating a work of art such as a script. There's way more to it than meets the eye, and with a television script in particular, every word counts. There are only 40 minutes to tell the story, thus so much needs to be said with so little.
Sera Gamble is a master of her craft, and has consistently provided one gem after another that upon deconstruction gives us so much to ponder. Her strengths lie in the character development and bringing out the raw emotional elements of the relationship between the brothers. She wrote the tear-jerkers like "Faith" and "Heart", stories that exposed deep inner layers like this episode, "Houses of The Holy" and "Dream A Little Dream of Me", and explored deep character dilemmas in "Salvation", "Bloodlust" and "Time Is On My Side". Remember though, this is also the evil woman that killed Sam Winchester and made him kill his lover after his first hot night of passion in a while, so torture and despair isn't lost on her either. Come to think of it, she came up with the mellon baller to the eye socket too. Seems like she relishes in putting Sam through the ringer. It's all done in love though, I'm sure.
In this episode, she exposes that fragile heart of Dean Winchester, and we love it too. Of course, no Supernatural episode is complete without the standard GOTW (gore of the week) and yep, a gruesome accident with a table saw ought to do it. Luckily, as soon as the metal teeth of the saw blade started grinding, I looked away. I still to this day, even after watching the episode a few times, refuse to watch that horrific accident. I somehow have issues with human flesh and table saws.
Dean wants to go to Cicero Indiana. Sera always manages to work in some kinky references, but Gumby and Pokey? That earns a "boo" and a "hiss" from me. It's a good thing Lisa is a really hot chick, because Cicero isn't exactly a vacation paradise. I'm surprised that she would recognize Dean after eight plus years, so he must have really left an impression. Lucky girl. The birthday party surprisingly ended up being one of my favorite scenes of the season. Dean watches Ben, sees him get excited over the AC/DC CD, watches the way he eats his sandwich, notices the racecar cake, and witnesses first hand Ben's wandering eye with the "chicks". He does the math in his head and is off to talk to Lisa. Jensen's facial expressions in that entire scene were priceless. It's always wonderful to see an actor exceed the intended outcome on paper. He tries to ask Lisa in a round about way if Ben is his, but then just blurts it out. So well done, and so Dean. He's back in character, and I'm happy again.
Since Sam wasn't core to the story, I must admit, for casting him off to the side he was given a good subplot to work with. I liked Ruby from day one, and she won me over even more here. We could tell Sam was shaken by all that she said, but he played it tough anyway. It's too bad the whole "Mary's friends are dead" reveal wasn't picked back up this season. We all know the writer's strike was to blame for that, so we must eagerly wait for the answer in season four (hear that writers, season four). Also, I can't recall an episode that spent so much time focusing on the character-in-supernatural-distress than the terror we witnessed from a frantic woman only known as "Katie's mom". The anguish was so gripping and Katie was so skin-crawling creepy that I didn't mind that they took time away from the Winchesters. It was critical to the story, and showed us the strange things that can happen in happy suburbia behind closed doors. This show does love targeting suburbanites! They always make great fodder for horror.
We got some continuity in the next scene with season one's "Dead In The Water". Dean connected with the troubled boy in that one, and after seeing him and Ben bond so well in the park, it made me wonder why we haven't had more episodes with Dean and kids. He's a natural! Despite encouraging Ben to kick a bully where the sun don't shine, he's teaching the boy something about self defense that a single mom would never encourage. This is where I really, really wished Ben was his kid and that there would be periodic visits. Ben would grow up with Dean showing him the ropes about hunting. Throw in some influence from Uncle Sam (yeah, that does sound weird, doesn't it?) and we have a future hero in training who will one day carry on the family business. Of course it wasn't to be, which is okay, because Ben would probably have a hard time living down that whole "my uncle is the Antichrist" thing.
I don't know about anyone else, but I'm still bothered by a sopping wet Katie, whom her mother just tried to drown, sitting in the kitchen with a chilling grin on her face asking "Can I have that ice cream now?" I just saw the episode for the first time on HD, and her face is way scarier on my plasma TV than the iTunes window I've previously viewed it on. This episode followed yet another primary rule of great horror, children are scary.
Ah, but Sam's done his homework and it's a changeling! I don't know how he managed to research changeling lore in between all those calls finding out about his mother's friends, but Sam must have great time management skills. He probably cut out the porn. I didn't buy into creepy Ben. Katie was much better at it. Still, it rattled Dean enough, which sets up the tense rescue in a nearby under construction house.
Sam Winchester with a flamethrower. Insert your incoherent babbling here. Dean was so wonderful with his concern over those kids. It was appropriate that he be the one to get them out and he even let Ben play hero by leading the other kids to safety. Okay, Ben can take over the family business anyway. After what he just saw, there's no more innocence to protect. The weaving of this scene with Not!Ben and Not!Katie terrorizing their mothers was brilliant editing. Alone none of these scenes would have had suspense, but piece them together in that way, I was on the edge dying to see how it would all play out. While the end result was predictable, who didn't love watching Dean smackdown that mother changeling right before Sam torches her? The Winchester one-two punch makes for all kinds of awesome.
Now we get to the scene that skillfully breaks through that rough Dean exterior and reveals for us his deep vulnerability. Dean wants so much for Ben to be his kid. Lisa at first thinks she's reassuring him by telling him he's not, and then sees what we all see, the painful disappointment in his eyes. He doesn't have to tell her he's dying, or describe the horror he faces everyday, she somehow knows. She tries to comfort him by saying that Ben wouldn't be alive if it weren't for him, but that's empty solace for Dean. That's the very reason he can't have a family, he has people to save, people that in the end don't matter to him except Sam. The chemistry between Dean and Lisa made us believe that Dean could indeed have this life, even more so than in "What Is and What Should Never Be" because this was real. In his lifetime this was the closest he'd been to being part of a real family since the fire. Sure, the moment was brief, but to him, it was all too genuine. We saw his deep agony and heartache when he forced himself to leave, proclaiming "this isn't my life." Walking away this time had to be much harder than when woke himself from the fantasy forced by the Djinn, because now he's living on borrowed time.
Did Dean leave because he believed he didn't deserve this life, or he shouldn't have this life because he has to save others? Did the decision to go back in "What Is and What Should Never Be" result in the same decision here? He has a year to live, why not settle down with Lisa and experience the life he's always wanted? Is this the low self worth talking again? We saw by Lisa's presence in "Dream A Little Dream Of Me" that he still clings onto this wish, this desire, this dream tightly and can't let go. Yet, he faces impending doom in hell and has people like Rufus Turner tell him that in the long run "there ain't no happy ending". To see Dean walk away this time, knowing the heartache sticks with him all the way to the end, it's even more crushing to watch. It's my opinion that at this time he doesn't feel he deserves this life and after all he's been through since then, if he gets another chance he won't let it pass.
Someone suggested to me once while I was doing Sam's character examination for "Mystery Spot" to watch "Bedtime Stories" and "Mystery Spot" together. The combination did give quite a reveal about the grief his character experiences. I suggest for a great Dean character examination watch "What Is and What Should Never Be", "The Kids Are Alright", and "Dream A Little Dream Of Me" together. What you see in Dean is eye opening.
While my heart was breaking for Dean, we go through the afterthought with Sam and Ruby and the whole "I can help you save your brother thing". We all know that's a point that gets thrown out again and again all the way to the finale, so I chose to ignore it here.
I've waffled throughout the season on the grade with this one, but I give it an A- because on the re-watch my heart crumbled for poor Dean more than before. That and creepy kids work. Kripke's starting to leak season four spoilers now (or as I call them, teasers), thus solidifying the fact that there's still way too much summer left. Next week is "A Bad Day At Black Rock", and a chance for me to rail at Bela. Good times.