The Morning After
Exciting and brilliantly executed. Supernatural’s 14.10 “Nihilism” was another superb chapter in season 14’s story. Jensen was absolutely outstanding, presenting such a chilling and overly-confident Michael that there was no trace of Dean in the face we’ve lovingly obsessed over for 14 years. Thankfully, all the other characters got to play smart versions of themselves, from experienced, powerful Castiel; to Sam knowing his brother better than his brother knows himself; to the momentary return of Jack the Nephilim savior. Even Maggie’s valiant attempt at leading hunters was realistic, as her failure to anticipate the Trojan horse tactic (the imposter/disguise thread) reflected her youth and inexperience.
The continuity details from much earlier seasons of the show were a special treat that materially added to the episode’s appeal. The script, background sounds, and set/art detail all reflected a mythology steeped in events that the fans have not only memorized but revere. Especially gripping were the indistinct screams inside Dean’s head of the most pivotal traumas in his life…
Dean: We had a deal!
Sam: Wait. Hold on, okay? We're coming.
Dean: You can't escape me, Dean. You're gonna die. And this -- this is what you're gonna become!
Dean: Sam! Somebody help me!
Dean?: Your own father didn't care whether you lived or died.
Dean?: It's about who's the bigger badass.
...then all the happiest memories they could find:
Dean: I think I'm adorable.
Sam: You seem pretty cheery.
Dean: Strippers, Sammy, strippers. We're on an actual case involving strippers. Finally.
Dean: I'll stay here, hook up with the posse. 'Cause you know me -- I'm a posse magnet.
Dean: Hey, see if they got any pie.
Bonus trivia challenge: Identify the episodes when these moments/quotes occurred!
All this familiarity felt so personal to fans, yet the plot line was fresh and unexpected, providing the best possible combination of blazing a new trail while being respectful and mindful of the ground already covered.
Highlights of the Episode
Pamela Barnes! - A perfectly kept secret! Great to know that we haven’t been spoiled about everything we’re going to see! She still had the same spunk, complete with a “To Hell and Back” tank top. I wonder if Dean remembered seeing her in her version of paradise (5.16 “Dark Side of the Moon”).
“It’s a Big Trunk.” – That was a hilarious line delivered with just the right “What do you want from me? Deal with it.” shrug from Sam. Kudos to Steve Yockey for not forgetting poor Garth in the trunk!
Rocky’s bar – Simply Outstanding! The detail from the art and set departments merits study in a dedicated visual review all its own! A shout out to Jensen’s Family Business Beer Co and custom taps, the squirrel holding a beer, the moose head on the wall, the skeletons that looked a lot like the décor from the bar where Dean killed Death, the Impala’s old license plates and the “Daphne Loves Fred” heart carved into the bar, which might have been the best Easter Egg of them all, were only some of the fun references only diehard SPNFamily would understand. Does anyone know the background for “Tequila shot and a beer. Best damn house special ever,” made with limes? Seems like that’s a trivia answer I should remember!
The bar was Dean’s dream, but after the first shock of it all wore off, I realized that surprised me a bit. In Dean’s 2.20 “What is and What Shall Never Be” alternate life dream, Dean said he worked at a garage. I guess I always assumed that one day he would own a garage of his own, spending his days as a mechanic working on classic cars. I don’t object to the bar fantasy, I just never considered it. In this dream, Sam and Cas were still in his life, and Dean not only hadn’t lost his edge fighting monsters, he was famous! What was your reaction to this vision of Dean’s dream life? Thinking ahead, the set department now has the props to reuse for the epilogue of the series finale!
Poughkeepsie! – I shouted with joy when Sam thought to say this to Dean! From 9.10 “Road Trip”, Poughkeepsie was the boys’ code for heading toward, or being in, a trap. Once revealed by Dean, Crowley used this secret word to convince Sam that he was trapped in Gadreel’s dream world. Since it snapped Sam out of his trance and allowed him to cast off his angel possessor, Sam realized it was a way to break through to Dean. A cache of bargaining chits goes to Yockey for that fabulous call back!
Jack using his Powers again… and Castiel chastising him for it. - You could tell he was going to do it. Helplessly looking around at his friends being slaughtered, seconds away from the monsters killing his family, Jack really had no choice but to tap into his soul and power up his death ray. Even though it was foreshadowed earlier when Jack questioned Sam about the possibility of using powers, it still was an effective climax to both the fight scene and Jack’s restlessness. I love seeing Jack use his powers so it further assured my love of the episode.
Castiel’s serious one-on-one talk with Jack was just as welcome. That boy cannot give into temptation and burn himself out like that, but it’s quite possible this conversation was more than a dad’s concern for his son’s recklessness, or a fellow angel’s advice on conserving grace. Perhaps Castiel’s reference to seeing damaged or destroyed souls was a harbinger of things to come (more on this later).
“I got him. I’m the Cage.” – I got chills just typing those words! A creative, exciting yet ominous solution to Dean’s circular cycle of being possessed, and a call back to Sam's triumph over Lucifer, the other Michael being in the cage and Sam’s time in the cage. Remember when Lucifer drove Sam insane, pestering him from within to the point where Sam was at death’s door from lack of sleep? Might the same thing happen to Dean? It’s utterly fantastic that Dean must walk a mile in Sam’s shoes – oops – sorry – I mean it’s a shame Dean has to suffer the same way Sam suffered. Sam would never have wanted that.
Billie – Always a treat to see Lisa Berry as Billie. I love her style and sass. The reason she appeared was even more tantalizing!
Say What Now?
There were a few bumps in the otherwise perfectly paved path of this plot, but it’s just possible that they have very valid explanations.
Angel Canon: Michael confirmed that Dean was his inside man, unbeknownst to Dean. Michael could see and hear everything around Dean ever since he released Dean back to his friends. That was a rather big reveal that might have warranted more than a passing flashback, but we got our answer, nonetheless. What we still don’t know, though, is how Michael repossessed Dean. What was Michael’s back door into Dean’s mind? I hope that’s not a “don’t look behind the curtain” detail. Also, Michael confirmed that Dean will be a worthless shell once he vacates his body. So he can’t live with him and he can’t live without him. They’ve really boxed Dean in – and that’s another detail that got a quick line in passing. Rather another big deal I would say. Were they covered sufficiently for you?
New Canon: The climactic plot twist was that all of Dean’s fates changed when he imprisoned Michael in a mental cage versus a physical entrapment! Billie handed Dean a book that contained the one way he could save the world (again!), saying that all other roads led to him being possessed forever and Michael burning the world to ashes. Now that’s intriguing! Some fans have said the book foretells the long delayed apocalyptic battle between Michael and Lucifer. This time perhaps Lucifer would be content to be in Nick’s body so that both could be killed permanently? This inevitable apocalyptic battle might be a nice return to the show’s core plot line, and an interesting debate of free will versus fate. Personally, I don’t think they’ll go there, though. I think it will be too ambitious and too repetitive. What’s your take on it? Regardless, Billie’s book was a dramatic, creative reignition of this story line and the season, even if it was a slight rewrite of the idea that the books that were on Billie’s shelves already foretold all possible choices Dean could make in his lifetime. Wave of the magic wand, anyone?
Next, why can’t Castiel see reapers all of a sudden? He most notably saw them in 5.10. “Abandon All Hope” when he saw a whole town of reapers. Is selective visibility something the reapers can use, even on angels? Jessica and Violet were present strictly to keep an eye on the mayhem that surrounds Sam and Dean. Their assignment was to watch, wait and report, not reap. Consequently, maybe they revealed themselves only to their charges. It might make sense that Michael, as an archangel, could see them. Archangels have more power and have an assigned place as guardians of universal order. It would have been nice if Violet would have said something to that effect, but it’s a rational explanation that might add to rather than contradict reaper canon, so let’s go with that for now. Thoughts?
Monsters, monsters, everywhere? It also seemed odd that hunters who have been trained specifically in how to fight and kill Michael’s super-charged monsters brought hand guns to a knife fight? Decapitation was proven to be the only effective strategy against this breed who are impervious to traditional vulnerabilities yet Maggie’s last line of defense came armed with nothing more than hand guns? Machetes all around next time please! Come on people! At least the monsters aren’t an organized army any more. Nothing more than individual packs of… nearly immortal killing machines.
These might be mistakes or they might be nit-picks, but overall, the action and plot progression held together, if one could truly separate reality from fabricated fantasy.
The Title Thread/Dream Worlds
In a philosophical context, nihilism is defined as “extreme skepticism maintaining that nothing in the world has a real existence” (Google definition; source unknown). Such a perfect description for Dean’s dream world! Beyond this obvious application, however, I believe the title also applied to Castiel, Sam and Jack’s worlds as well. In trying to undermine the determination and fortitude of his enemy, Michael did his best to describe their family bonds and their belief in each other, i.e. their personal worlds, as nothing but a web of lies. He told each one in turn a version of their most important relationships that played to their worst fears. Did Jack, Castiel or Sam really fall for Michael’s mind games?
Not Telling the Truth
Jack might have more of an excuse to falter in the face of Michael’s lies. Jack is so young. He is only two years old after all, and a good part of that time has been spent trying to sort out lies from truth. As with all teenagers, Jack’s been scrutinizing the reality that his parents have presented to him, trying to decide for himself what he believes and accepts as his truth. But after Dean’s road trip with Jack, teaching him to drive, bonding over burgers, and having a truly touching father/son chat while fishing where Jack seemed wise beyond his years in accepting his premature death, Jack suddenly doubts Dean’s love for him? Really???
Castiel recognized Michael’s ploy and quickly pulled Jack away from him… only to become the object of Michael’s fairy tales himself. I was SOOOO happy and impressed with WiseCastiel, throwing Michael’s challenges right back in his face with counter-challenges:
Michael: Look at you. Playing nursemaid to an Nephilim. Nothing like the Castiel I knew. He would've never been so anemic.
Castiel: You're confusing loyalty and compassion with weakness.
Michael: Tell me. Why do you love this world enough to risk your own life?
Castiel: Tell me. Why do you hate this world enough to burn it to the ground?
That was glorious! It’s about time Castiel acts like he’s older and wiser after dealing with numerous treacherous, lying enemies (remember Cas and Metatron, the silver-tongued con man?)! Castiel was on a roll, then suddenly things took a turn and Cas started to take to heart Michael’s accusations that God abandoned this world as a failed experiment. Really??? Chuck returned and was willing to be imprisoned for all time to save this world from his sister’s wanton destruction, but Cas is ready to believe the world is just a throw away toy? Come on Cas! You were doing so well!
Once inside Dean’s head, it was Sam’s turn to be hurt by Michael’s words. Experienced in battling Lucifer’s mental torture, it didn’t look like Sam believed Michael’s taunts about him and Dean. To me, he was the only one of the three who didn’t drown in Michael’s lies. Did you get the impression Sam was buying Michael’s bluff?
How many times had Dean referred to Michael as a “con man”? The “then” montage reminded us yet again:
Dean: Impossible odds.
Sam: Walking right into a trap.
Dean: Feels like home.
Dean: Michael conned me. Kept me trapped and drowning inside my own body.
Michael: I own you.
The season’s recent thread of keeping secrets and lying could have been foreshadowing that is was Dean who had been lying to them all along, however, the thread combined with the title implicates Michael as the inventor of false worlds.
Cas, Jack, Sam and Dean should accept as truth the exact opposite of whatever Michael said to them! I don’t believe for one second that Michael was truthfully relaying what was in Dean’s mind or heart but it would have been nice if Dean would have actually denied the accusations as lies. Instead, Dean only told Michael to stop and get out – never “that’s not true” or “you’re lying”:
Dean: Get out of my head!
Michael: You don't mean that, Dean, not really. You may lie to them, but, deep down, I know you. I am you. You only tolerate the angel because you think you owe him, because he "gripped you tight and raised you from Perdition." Or whatever. But since then, what has he done? Only made mistakes, one after the other. And, Sam -- oh, Sam You know, Dean was his happiest when you quit hunting, leaving him with your dad, just the two of them. See, deep down, he knows that you will always abandon him, again and again.
Dean: Shut up!
Michael: You don't need them. You don't even like them. They're not your family -- they're your responsibilities. They're a weight around your neck. And deep down, you wanted -- you were desperate to get away from them. And that is why you said yes.
Dean: I said shut your damn mouth!
Castiel: Wait. Something's wrong. You're stalling.
Sam: He's buying time so his monsters can get to us and rescue him.
That made it sound like Cas rebounded back to his senses, and my argument is that Sam never believed Michael to begin with, but what of Jack? I recently posted a “Let’s Discuss Jack” essay because Michael's prediction last episode that Jack would eventually forget his human family and accept Michael as an kindred spirit was unsettling. As Michael laid out his vision for their future as the conquering, all powerful brothers-in-arms, Jack’s words were defiant but he didn’t seem convinced himself that he wouldn’t go dark side, or that his place was truly with Team Free Will. His arguments came from his mind, not his heart. I saw the same thing this week. Jack was actually listening to Michael. Could Jack truly believe Dean was indifferent when Jack died, and that Cas and Sam were happy to be relieved of Jack’s burden? Could he be that insecure still? Then when Castiel told Jack not to believe Michael, that Michael was lying, Jack pulled away from Castiel, as a rebellious child does from a cautioning parent.
Castiel: Jack? Go help Sam. Wait. Don't believe anything he says. He's lying.
Michael: No, I'm not. And I can still hear you.
It actually looked like Jack resented Cas in that moment – that he was truly considering that maybe Castiel and the others didn’t love him to their last breath. Later, when Castiel was rightfully dressing down Jack for burning up a piece of his soul, did Jack really hear Castiel’s warning? Again, Jack said the right words of “It won’t happen again” but they didn’t seem to come from a place a conviction. He sat there rather emotionless. Emberlast shared with me that she is worried that Jack resented Castiel’s rebuke, so agreed on the outside but didn’t internalize the message. What do you think about Jack?
Draining Life Force/ Identity
I’m simply not understanding what Jack is thinking and feeling these days. Alexander Calvert has completely won me over as loving, gentle, innocent, altruistic, headstrong and at times, comedic Jack. He also is very convincing when he’s desperate to help, desperate to fit in, or desperate to kill his enemy no matter the cost because, until lately, Michael was clearly the biggest thing that is wrong with the world. I am totally not understanding resurrected Jack, though. His “Sam, are we’re going to die here” seemed more like a dispassionate observation than a panicked plea. Jack’s face-to-face confrontations with Michael have been similarly unemotional.
Is this the new Jack, resurrected but not exactly the same as the original version? His soul was replanted with magic but is it not fully connected, or not operating at full capacity, or is its essence slowly draining? Something is wrong and I can’t tell if it’s a blip in Alex’s acting (new situations that he’s not dealt with before) or if we are seeing some kind of SoullessJack. Like SoullessSam, is Jack feigning emotions to not let anyone know he’s no longer himself? Where’s that boyish charm, eternal optimism and deep commitment to the power of love? I’d really like to hear your thoughts on this.
Pam: Pamela Barnes. Waitress, hostess, Ouija board enthusiast. - We met the last time you stopped by -- - and the time before that.
Real Estate Lady: I brought the papers I mentioned. I know you said you weren't interested, but it's just a few signatures… I'm in a bit of a rush.
Sam: Last time Dean was possessed, he said it felt like he was drowning.
Jack: This time?
Sam: It'll probably be worse.
There were other references to time as well throughout the dialogue. The doomsday clock is still ticking now that Michael is constantly pounding on Dean’s door.
Michael: I can hear you.
Sam: Okay, listen. Back when Gadreel possessed me, he created, uh, I don't know, like a fake world inside my head. But Crowley was able to force his way in, he showed me how to take control, and I drove the angel out.
Later, about monsters: I think I can hear them.
Talking, communicating effectively and listening have been threads all season. Besides the many mentions of it again this episode, Sam and Castiel spent several minutes listening to Dean’s life being played back in audible memories. Do you see a deeper meaning here?
Drowning/Water and Weak/Strong
Michael: Sam's in so far over his head, he's drowning. And Dean? Well, I've got Dean under control.
Jack: No. Dean - he's strong.
Sam: Dean's been through a lot, but he's strong.
Castiel: Sam you've both been through a lot, and Dean is more than strong. What I meant was, if I knew if I knew what I was looking for, I could just -- I could simply go to it. But because Michael has Dean trapped away, drowning, I have to wade through all of Dean's most terrible memories.
Sam: Cas, wait a second.
We first noticed water and drowning as threads back in 14.3 “The Scar”. It was used prominently as the metaphor for Michael’s dominance over Dean and Sam in this and the past episode, so perhaps this was the climax of this thread. Notice the heavy rain outside Dean’s dream bar, as if Michael was “drowning” Dean in bliss.
The real estate lady trying to get Dean to sell his bar was an outlier. Seems like it should be important but I don’t yet get its hidden meaning. Ideas?
That’s twice in as many weeks that someone has said “I’m not mad.. but.” This week it was Cas to Jack. Last episode it was Sam to Ketch. Coincidence? Keep your ears open for this.
Were Bobby and Mary the generals in St. Louis? It might have been nice to have mentioned that.
I loved "Nihilism". Steve Yockey did an excellent job creating a dedicated fan’s “dream” episode – brothers saving a brother, acknowledgements of everything they’ve been through before, a favorite character brought back for fun and a heck of a teaser to keep us wanting more. Bring it on.
Threads is all about discussion! Let me know what you think of the threads I found and the questions I've asked, then add your own threads, questions and observations below!
You can catch up on my prior Threads articles for season 14, and all my other reviews and articles since season 8, by going to my Writer Page!