The Morning After 

Last week I added this "Morning After" commentary to my traditional "Threads" review. This new section allows me to record then let go of any strong, emotional reactions to the week’s Supernatural story before I attempt to analytically examine it for plot threads. I write this section first, before time or analysis dilutes or changes my initial impressions. Usually I wake up and start writing it immediately, before breakfast. I sit in front of the television and begin my rewatch, pausing the episode after just a few seconds because I have so much to say I can’t wait to jot down my thoughts. This morning was different, though. Today I’m sitting in my office, at my desk. No rewatch. I think you’re going to be surprised by how I feel about “American Nightmare”.

I hated it. Absolutely abhorred it. I refuse to ever watch that episode again. If that had been my first or only introduction to Supernatural, I would have turned it off after 30 minutes and never watched the series again. I’m not kidding.

Let me say that I think I’m in the minority in my opinion. I’ve talked to Alice and she liked the episode (Go figure. I’m typically the “I loved it!” voice on our admin team!) so her opinion will be much more upbeat than mine. I’ve also scanned WFB’s Twitter account and the feedback from most of the fans has been glowingly positive. Then there’s this:

 
 

So why did I have such a vitriolic reaction to the show that obviously other people liked so much? It boils down to two factors. Stated dispassionately: Violence against children and its depiction of religion. Stated the way I feel about it: it’s repulsive, nauseating visual of forcing an innocent child to mutilate herself, and its cheap and completely unnecessary use of a sacred aspect of Christianity, the stigmata, and clichéd depiction yet again of how religion is used to destroy lives. Both the child abuse and The Da Vinci Code Opus Dei fanaticism were used for extreme shock effect.  It worked. It shocked me almost to the point of turning off the show I dedicate half my waking hours to celebrate and promote.

This was Davy Perez’ first script for Supernatural. I’m guessing he is feeling pretty good about the increased ratings and the positive feedback that was circulating online during the show. I’m just not a fan of horror – never was. I love Supernatural because it shows how much strength can be derived from family, how to always keep fighting even against impossible odds and unfathomable defeats, that the bonds of friendship can be as strong as the those of family, and that we all need a little help to do the right thing – but that the right thing is always worth doing. This episode was the exact opposite of all of that. Does anyone know which number episode it was in the series? 243 or something like that? Well that’s the number it rates in my ranking of Supernatural episodes. Below “Bloodlines” and “Season 7, Time for a Wedding”. It wasn’t poorly written and it didn’t ignore canon. In fact, it brought back a piece of canon that I’m thrilled to pieces to explore. So rather than dwell on my rather strong fan-based reaction any longer, let me turn my attention to objective analysis. That’s what "Threads" is all about anyway.  

Mothers and their Sons... or rather Parents and their Children

“American Nightmare” focused on parents who took the actions they deemed necessary to protect their child. When Mr. and Mrs. Peterson thought their daughter was a threat to others or would be hunted down, they uprooted their lives and “hid” her from society.  Of course, their actions were misguided (to spare you the many other adjectives I can think of to describe their actions) but the case still centered on one possible reaction of parents who were confronted with something they couldn’t handle. Given the parallels with last week’s story, I’m beginning to detect a thread about parents’ reactions to extreme situations involving their kids. In “The Foundry”, the monster was the ghost of a father who was driven insane, “twisted” as Mary put it, by the death of his daughter. His insanity compelled him to murder and bind children to fill the emptiness he felt at the loss of his daughter. In “American Nightmare”, the mother was driven insane either by pain, drugs or the trauma that resulted from an accident caused by her daughter. That’s two stories in a row about Parental Insanity. Remember that Dean told his mom that “Dad changed” after she died in the fire? Those words now take on new meaning as Dean was reminding us how the supernatural already drove one parent to obsessive, extreme behavior.  Is it possible that these stories are leading to a storyline about Mary’s reaction to Sam and Dean? When she was resurrected, she was introduced to two adults who are deeply immersed in the supernatural. She admitted that just looking at them reminds her of the innocent children she lost. She mourns her perfect life with her toddler children in heaven. Psycho mom had a similar dream of a perfect family in heaven:

This is how we will stay together. We will enter heaven as a family.

Is Mary headed down a similar path? I really can’t believe that but I have no alternate theories about this emphasis on insane parents. The two hunts about stopping/destroying parents who were hurting children makes me suddenly concerned about where these stories may be leading, though. Any ideas?

Conversely, the psychotic parents of this week and last could be establishing the contrast of a loving protection that Mary will exhibit for her boys. That would surely fit better into the Winchester mold of sacrificing oneself to save a family member, as opposed to this week’s mother who sacrificed her daughter and tried to sacrifice her son rather than learn about their fate, then guide and protect them.

What about the other side of the parent/child relationship? These cases were as much about the children as the parents.

…or rather, Parents and their (Supernaturally Powered Psychic) Children

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If we look at the children in these stories, both Lucas of last week and Magda of this week were meant to remind us of Sam. Lucas was the beautiful little boy with long hair and a sweet disposition. He fell victim not to his parent but to a different, grieving parent, then he fought from beyond the grave to save himself and the other kids from a monster. That sounds like something Sam would do, plus Sam suffered near death from a nutso parent that was a stranger to him, Lady Toni.

Magda was a psychic child with telekinetic powers. The “Then” montage reminded us (as if any of us would have forgotten) that 7 or 8 years ago Sam also had psychic powers. We first saw Sam’s telekinetic powers in season 1’s “Nightmare” when extreme emotion enabled him to move furniture. Magda’s life was similar to the original “Nightmare” boy (Max) whose abuse caused him to use his powers to bring harm to others. There are certain elements of Magda’s story that are perilously similar to Sam’s, though, too. Like Magda’s parents, first John then Dean protected and hid Sam’s powers once they learned he was “special”. At one point, Sam’s father contemplated having to kill Sam to protect the world from him. Is that all that different from what Magda’s mother tried to do with the stew? Dean’s love (and sanity) ended up protecting Sam the first time around, but is this trying to say something about Sam and Mary now? I’m jumping up and down excited that this aspect of Sam’s life is being reintroduced into the storyline, but how will it be used?

Sam: Magda, you’re not the devil. You’re just psychic. There are others out there like you, like me. I have powers too. I’d get these visions sometimes and I could move things with my mind

Magda: You can do that?

Sam: Well, no, not anymore… I don’t think.

“I don’t think”? This is an obvious opening for Sam to either want or need to experiment to see if he still has his psychic powers. I’m elated with that storyline but it has scary implications. At the end of this hunt, Magda was executed by the British MoL because, whether intentionally or not, she killed using supernatural powers. The logical parallel would be that once Mr. Ketch learns of Sam’s abilities, Sam will be under a sentence of death. Although I didn’t hear any overt references to the Animal/Humanity thread, the execution of a human without consideration of his/her culpability implies that the British group considers all supernatural beings as monsters, or animals, versus humans deserving of mercy. So that thread may dovetail into this one.

Sam said one more thing to Magda to convince her that psychic powers weren’t evil:

Sam: Well, no, not anymore… I don’t think. But that didn’t make me the Devil.  

No, Sam’s powers didn’t make him the devil. What made Sam the devil, literally, was when Sam invited Lucifer inside Sam’s vessel. In both a frightening reminder of history and possible foreshadowing of the future, Magda talks about being possessed:

Magda: I’m not Magda. I’m the Devil. He’s inside me. I can hear him whispering.

To strengthen the implication, the song Magda sang to herself mentioned the Devil. The priest (the real priest) at the beginning of the story also reiterated Magda as the devil:

Priest: I watched her get flayed alive by some invisible force. That was the devil’s work.

Psycho mom’s own words reinforced the symbolic substitution of Magda for Sam:

I have tried to keep the Devil locked away and you let him out. You couldn’t let it rest. And now the devil is doing his work through you.

With Lucifer walking the earth again and looking for a “permanent” vessel (as he already told Rowena), this dialog clearly opens up the possibility of Lucifer pursuing Sam once more. Sam’s encouragement to Magda about her powers could also foreshadow another Sam/Lucifer showdown:

You are not the devil. You’re not evil. And it’s scary I know it’s scary but you can learn how to control it.

Sam learned how to control Lucifer once. Sam also conquered his fear of the devil last season. Literally Hell on Earth. That thought is terrifying.

One last clue to Sam being at the heart of this year’s story arc. The name of this episode is “American Nightmare”. It is a obvious reminder of the season one “Nightmare” about a telekinetic psychic Max who lost his mother in a nursery fire, was abused as a boy and eventually killed himself after killing his mother by levitating a kitchen knife in front of her. Adding American into this title might distinguish it from the British, insinuating that Sam is now the American who the British will want to kill. So whether Sam’s pursued by Lucifer or Mr. Ketch, either way he will be fighting for his life, and his mother will play prominently in his fate. That’s a lot to take in from just the first four episodes!

…or maybe (Absent) Parents and their (Broken Hearted) Children

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“American Nightmare” openly explored Mary’s decision to leave her boys. The Child Protective Services person hit the topic with:

You don’t make a lot of friends when sometimes what’s best for a family is to split them up.

At the closing, the story’s forgiveness of Mary was enunciated by Dean (I think it was Dean),

Sometimes in order to figure things out a person needs space.

There were many other apparent references to families, space, needing time, etc. I’m sure you heard all of those in your rewatches.  Clearly Mary’s departure was softened by a compassionate point of view. The writer himself commented on trying to highlight that aspect of Sam’s personality:

 

Saving People, Hunting Things

A last point. It’s interesting that last week the boys were wrong about the type of monster they were hunting. They were driven by research and lore versus being open to other possibilities but Mary’s instincts told her it was something different. When it turned out that she was right, Dean acknowledged his mistake and complimented her on being right. This week, Dean was sure the monster was a witch but Sam’s instincts told him it was someone or something else. Again, Dean stubbornly refused to listen but when he learned he was wrong, he admitted his error and complimented Sam on being right. Keep listening to see if instinct winning out over first impressions or being right vs wrong is emphasized again in the coming weeks.

 

So Sam’s and possibly Mary’s futures spoke loudly to me in my review of the script and first (and only) viewing of this episode. The story was ruined for me by a disgusting and completely unnecessary application of one of the most violent stories in the Judeo-Christian religious traditions upon which the show is based. The abuse of the psychic child could have been shown in far less repugnant ways. The devil references could have been based in any of several different illusions or contexts. "American Nightmare" just didn't have to be as blatanly mocking and horrifying as it was. If you noticed, I haven't even included new screencaps in my review because it was too upsetting to even look through the hundreds of moments in this show. I know that the horror is part of the attraction for many of you. There are 4 more reviews coming this week so stay tuned for what I'm sure will be less "extreme" reactions than mine.  Sorry to be such a softie.  Hopefully, you get positive Nightsky again next week (and every week after that!).

I simply can't ignore that the episode's reintroduction of psychic Sam opens the season up to a myriad of exciting possibilities, though. What reached out to you and what do you think of my threads theories? Go!