The Morning After
Well that was exciting… and tense... and surprising! On the surface, “First Blood” was an action drama that tested the wills and skills of two opposing camps of warriors. Of course we all knew that somehow Sam and Dean would get out of the secret ops prison. The tension and art of this episode hung in learning whether their capture was part of an elaborate plan or a stupid screw up, whether they would be rescued or escape on their own, how it would all happen, and whether the people involved were who they said they were. Down to the last few seconds of the episode, the tantalizing, teasingly slow revelations to all these mysteries made captivating storytelling.
While the story and execution were riveting, the character study that was beneath the surface was another interesting aspect of this episode. In addition, the thematic threads woven into the dialog of “First Blood” were less obvious than usual, but they were still present. Let’s take a look at how both intertwined to deliver the more subliminal messages of the storyline.
Last week, the dialog seemed to be saying that the season was harboring a secret. This theory was reinforced this week, beginning with the early conversation between Sam and Dean’s two jailers:
Warden: By probably, you mean maybe. And by maybe, you mean I don’t know. So next time just say, I don’t know.”
This dialog stood out for me. It was significant enough that “Probably. Maybe. I don’t know” were repeated a second time in the same conversation. It didn’t’ seem that relevant to what the authorities were discussing, so it left me wondering who instead should be asking those questions. What doesn’t the audience know? What don’t the brothers, Mary and Castiel know? Is there something that the British Men of Letters don’t know? The emphasis fueled my suspicion that something “secret” is going on in the overall season 12 story (more on that later).
There was other dialog as well that didn’t fit the context of the story:
Warden: When I leave, that door closes and it stays closed, you’ll be in the dark.
This didn’t make sense because the brothers weren’t in the dark. Their cells had lights yet the words “in the dark” were very precise. In addition, Castiel credited Crowley with having “spies”. Mr. Ketch, the James Bond clandestine agent, also added to this thread:
Mr. Ketch: Do you have any idea what sort of trouble we’re walking into?
Mr. Ketch: Oh, good. I do like a surprise.
Even the best line of the episode, one of the best lines of the series, and probably one of Dean’s best lines of his life, spoke of words meaning something other than expected:
Dean: Well, what we have here is a failure to communicate. ‘Cause we’re not trapped out here with you. You’re trapped out here with us!
(I’ll pause a moment for those who might need a moment to catch their breath in response to that badass, take charge, moment! Wow. What a line!! )
Dean is right, though. We are trapped. We’re trapped in our love of this story and at the mercy of the writers. We’re always in the dark, trying to figure out what ambush lies around every twist and turn. In this case, I suspect they are planning something special. Do you have a similar feeling?
Even if all these teases do have a double meaning, they still have to fit into the context of this story as it unfolds. For example, the “warden’s” sarcasm about the secret service agent’s lack of intelligence on POTUS was clearly meant to criticize or humiliate the gung-ho guy’s handling of the case, but why? Since both agents were killed, they were short-term characters. Why take the time to develop their viewpoints or character traits? The warden was also shown out of breath and out of shape, giving the younger, more fit agent a chance to return the ridicule:
Agent: Long time since you’ve been in the field, huh? I mean, if you need to head back…
Why were we supposed to care about the relationship, or relative skills, of these rather stiff, shallow characters? In fact, neither characterization made sense. The agent was so unilateral in his assessment of the brothers, I truly kept waiting for him to be revealed as a demon of Lucifer’s – someone LOTUS kept around as a back-up plan. It was perplexing when nothing like that happened and the agent was killed by Mr. Ketch. I also couldn’t understand why we cared that the warden hadn’t been out in the field much.
Then the characters’ secondary purpose became clear – bureaucrats versus hunters, desk jockeys versus field agents. The differences distinguish Mick from Mr. Ketch, British Men of Letters from American hunters. When attempting to recruit an American hunter, Mick pitched,
Mick: If you work with us, you’ll have support in every sense of the word. You need lore? Our libraries are the biggest and the best. You want money? We have money. You need weapons? We have gear you can’t imagine. Now what I’m saying Wally, is that you need people like us and we need hunters like you. All we ask in return is that when we call, you go where you’re told and you do what you’re told. For the greater good.
In response to this offer that Mick thought was logical and attractive, Wally instead ridiculed Mick’s lack of field work:
Wally: You ever hunt anything?
Mick: I’m more tactical. Long term strategy.
Wally: I ain’t looking to take any orders from anyone. Especially some limey paper pusher.
The two different approaches of the British intellectuals versus the American hunters was summarized by Mick:
You American hunters, you’re a different breed than our sort. You’re surly, suspicious. You don’t play well with others. You don’t trust people you don’t know, even when they come bearing gifts. Now I can’t help that, but I can help you. And if word were to get out that we did our part to save Sam and Dean Winchester, well, that’s just good business, innit? And who knows? When all this is over, we might even be friends.
The dichotomy of brain versus brawn that is being explored can be said another way – as a thread we’ve been tracking this season.
Smart vs. Stupid
In the morgue, the guns-blazing agent criticized the psychological approach to interrogation:
Agent: Great plan…That really worked. Yeah, nice job.
On one level, the agent was a juxtaposition to Dean. A younger, brasher Dean often suggested killing “the bad guys” because it was a cleaner epilog to a hunt. Sam’s influence and insistence on saving all the people has changed Dean’s approach, though. They spared the lives of the soldiers and the guys in charge. Similarly, the warden was calm, practical and patient. He chose to not torture the brothers for six weeks. This was a welcome, “smart” choice as far as I’m concerned. I was not anxious to endure the brothers going through horrible pain again. The warden’s, Dean’s and Sam’s ways were “smart” or right, whereas the agent’s way was immoral or “wrong”.
You want my opinion? We should take those two psychos out back. I cap one, you take the other.
What are we to conclude then about the British team’s decision to kill everyone involved? That was clearly immoral, or “wrong”, but was it smart?
The brothers’ lives are protected, and the important work of hunting to make America safe can go on unfettered. The British took the more intellectual approach in other actions as well. They used satellite imaging to find the boys, whereas Dean had told Cas to drive up and down a huge highway until he hopefully ran into the brothers at the exact right moment to save them. So if the BMoL as so smart, are they also right? I’m anxious to hear your thoughts on whether what Mr. Ketch did was right and smart, or wrong and stupid. Does hunting require a level of ruthlessness than Sam and Dean have abandoned?
Saving People/ Hunting Things
Season 12’s premiere episode emphasized another thread that was repeated in the mid-season premiere: Exploring the job of hunting. While explaining to Castiel how they knew about the black ops site, Mick said:
We gather information. It’s our job.
He and Mr. Ketch were both extremely impressed that Sam and Dean took on the devil himself, and won, so a few points for the home team in that round.
The Brits still, however, feel that their approach to a distinct delineation of duties is the better way to get the job done. At this point in the story, it’s hard to argue with them. They clearly have Mary’s attention and she’s not easily fooled. It also became clear in this episode that Sam and Dean’s capture was a really dumb strategic move. I was so hoping that it was part of an elaborate sting to make the BMoL’s expose their true motivations, but no, it was just dumb. Even Castiel couldn’t defend it to Mary:
Mary: You left them?
Cas: No, I… Dean told me to go. The woman…
Mary: The one you lost?
Cas: I didn’t… I thought that she…
Mary: Stop making excuses!
I agree with Mary. The end of that operation was a complete debacle. Why would Team Free Will, who have planned and executed several intricate strategies before, suddenly make such a rookie mistake? I am terribly disappointed that their capture was due to failure, not skill. Sam’s, Dean’s and Cas’ actions at the end of the last episode were completely inconsistent with what we know of them.
The only explanation that makes sense out of the contradiction between that mess and Sam and Dean’s impressive handling of themselves this week is that they are being recast more narrowly as American hunters, brilliant with hunting skill but dense in planning. Their tactics in the woods and at cabin were worthy of their Rambo counterpart! As an audience, we vehemently reject categorizing them as only good warriors, but what else could explain it? They made a mistake, sending away their supernatural ace and staying behind to look guilty? Maybe, but ignoring the American MoL’s legacy side of the brothers’ skills strengthens the BMoL’s case. Cas himself then added to the charge that the brothers were being stupid:
Dean: Cas, what have you done?
Cas: What had to be done. You know this world, this sad, doomed little world? It needs you. It needs every last Winchester it can get, and I will not let you die. I won’t let any of you die. An I won’t let you sacrifice yourselves. You mean too much to me, to everything. Yeah, you made a deal. You made a stupid deal, and I broke it. You’re welcome.
I loved this episode but I remain confused on the characterization of our heroes this season. Could that be because we’re simply rejecting the direction Dabb is taking them? Dumb moves from last week have to be reconciled with their fight-to-win performances this week. Is the show exploring whether the MoL legacy properly fits them, and whether they are deserving of it? I think this deserves some discussion.
Then what about Castiel? He called in the British Men of Letters, which turned out to be a humble and smart move. They were able to do something he and Mary alone couldn’t have easily done. Castiel was also fierce with a blade this week. He didn’t hesitate to kill to save his friends, possibly triggering the next “cosmic consequences”. Yet he “ran away” from a hunt?
Cas: I tried to work the case. I tried. But I don’t know what I did wrong. I asked questions but maybe they were the wrong people or the wrong questions, and I just … I never found it Never found the monster. Never even got close – and three more women died before I left town. Before I ran away.
Mary: So we go back. You and me.
Cas: No. No. I’d only get in your way.
This recurring crisis of confidence keeps putting Cas on the “wrong” side of the equation. Did Cas call Mick because Cas desperately needed someone to take charge or was it truly a strategic alliance? One possible explanation is that Cas is also being cast more narrowly, as simply the soldier who follows orders, or defends his commanders (who happen to be his best friends). Given his wonderful, final speech, I’m beginning to see Cas as not an equal to the brothers in either skill, strategy or importance, but as their champion. Not a sidekick, but a faithful friend, needed for the love he gives them and the occasional hand to pull them out of the pit of Hell. Sherlock’s Dr. Watson. How does that work for you? I’m desperately trying to figure out these characters this season!
We need to spend a moment talking about the third Winchester as well. As a mom, she was predictably willing to sacrifice herself for her sons. For a very long moment, I thought this episode might have been the end of Mary’s storyline. I was extremely happy when that didn’t happen! Still, she didn’t look any happier when she was in the Lawrence, Kansas diner or the bunker kitchen poring over John’s journal than she was when she first walked away from her boys.
Even though she’s been off trying to find herself for several months now, nothing seems to have gotten better for her. That worries me. I introduced the “secrets” thread last week and mentioned the strong possibility that the BMoL’s are hiding something. I didn’t mention, however, that I also think Mary is hiding something. In my mid-season rewatch of the first few season 12 stories, there were several mentions of Mary’s “unfinished business”, having “history” with werewolves, and looking up old friends and cases. I think she’s either looking for something or someone specifically (which is a bit inconsistent with the “lost” look on her face all the time), or in looking for herself, will stumble on an old aspect of her hunting life that will be the springboard for season 13.
It was also very interesting that she was the one who broke ranks and was willing to listen to the BMoL’s proposal. In my comments on last week’s Threads, I said that I believe “the brothers will convince the BMoL to work with them, reuniting a big faction of the MoL global network. That would increase the stature of the Winchesters yet again, contributing to their heroic saga.” Maybe it’s Mary who is the peacemaker, finding a way to bridge the two approaches. In either case, so far I find her storyline to be the most interesting part of season 12.
Billie and Rules
Billie’s character was consistent from beginning to end.
“I’m a big believer in what dies, stays dead. If any of you change your mind, you know my name.”
Billie’s death was a complete shock. I was so focused on not losing Mary that I never considered for a moment that the deal would be broken. The meaning of Dabb's tweet earlier in the day became clear when the following morning Lisa Berry added to it:
— Andrew Dabb (@andrewdabb) January 26, 2017
If I had to choose between Mary and Billie, though, the blade fell true, even though Billie has been one of my favorite characters in the past two years. She was confident, smart and committed to her ethics and principles. Not to put too fine a point on it, but it was refreshing to see such a strong role played by an African American woman. Lisa Berry’s screen presence was equal to Jared and Jensen, and in some scenes I think she upstaged them as she portrayed a character who stood toe to toe with Sam and Dean. I will miss her.
With her also dies the threat to throw the brothers into the Empty. Amen. That was tiresome. Does her death also mean the death of my theory that she was more than a reaper, though? No. I stand by my optimism that Death isn’t dead (just like I’m not sure Lucifer is caged). I guess I just see the flip side of any situation that is left ambiguous.
Season 12 has shown us so many reunions! It was wonderful to see the relief on Sam’s face when he saw Cas and Mary. Four beautiful hugs followed - everything except the one hug we haven’t yet seen this season! Dean and Sam escaped the torture of Lady Bevell’s tools and the warden’s solitude, and yet they still haven’t hugged! Does Dabb feel that 30-something bros don’t need hugs? Once again we were left standing on the emotional precipice of season 12 that we mentioned last week. The audience is led to the edge but the show just refuses to give us that one final push. I feel as if I’m in a very long, pregnant pause. What is the hesitation??
I didn’t see any branding or burning in this episode. This sudden break from its consistent use in season 12 coincides with Lucifer’s absence from the brother’s troubles. Keep watch for it in upcoming episodes. I’m anxious to test the theory that it was simply the artistic symbol of Lucifer’s storyline.
- Where’s Baby? She wasn’t at the motel when Cas returned there. Presumably the feds impounded her, so where is she now? Are we to believe the brothers risked going back to Site 94 to get her?
- In their cells, why couldn’t the brothers pray to Castiel? He has always heard them, even if he hasn’t replied. They could have told them they were being held in a prison, they were separated, they were alive, etc.
I truly enjoyed this episode. It was exciting, fast paced and mysterious. I just wish I could find more consistency in direction or characters in season 12 (Remember Lady Bevell? Was she a throw-away character that just happened to play a huge role in the beginning of the season?) I guess in the end, I should just say, “I don’t know” if this all has a greater purpose. I’m sure we’ll all find out soon enough. In the meantime, let’s discuss the possibilities!
Screencaps courtesy of http://www.springfieldspringfield.co.uk
Dialog confirmed with http://transcripts.foreverdreaming.org