Editor's Note: It is with great sadness that we learned this week of the passing of Charles Beeson. Charles directed 14 Supernatural episodes, beginning with "Playthings" and ending 13 years later with season 15's, "The Gamblers". Charles made an unmistakable imprint on Supernatural, as noted in Alice's review below. Her commentary was written earlier in April, before we knew that Charles' time with us would be cut short unexpectedly, thus her focus on his visual storytelling talent stands as a honest and timely testament to our appreciation of his artistry. Rest in Peace, Charles. Your work here is done.
When I first saw “Playthings” those MANY years ago, I didn’t like it. I might have borderline hated it. At the time though, I was power binging season two and after what had just happened with “Croatoan” and “Hunted,” a creepy doll story wasn’t winning me over. But over time I’ve learned to appreciate it. No, it’s not a series great, but it’s one of your better standalone episodes. It just aired in season two when the bar was very high. It would have been considered a masterpiece if it had aired in later seasons.
I will always remember “Playthings” for two things. First, this is a great visually shot episode and has some of the best direction of the season. Second, this is when we see that teflon armor of Sam Winchester’s start to crack. After all, he was practically mechanical with everything he dealt with in season two, even stuff that should have really, really freaked him out. He was putting on a really strong front while Dean went through all his drama. But losing Ava, that one hit him hard. Keeping up appearances proved to be difficult when there’s an honor bar with plenty of liquors in the very ornate hotel room after another perceived failure.
This isn’t a half bad ghost story either. It’s definitely one of the more clever and unpredictable plots. Killer dolls is a horror theme that can be popular and man did the show do its job here. The really clever part of the script though that kept us guessing until the end was the reveal that Maggie wasn’t real. Up until that, it was an innocent story of two young girls playing in a haunted hotel. You know, nothing suspicious. Remember, creepy children weren’t a target yet at this point in the show! I didn’t see that one coming, despite the numerous clues about hoodoo (something Sam picked up on right away) and a mysterious grandmother in the attic. The fact that Maggie was grandma Rose’s long dead sister that surfaced when Rose couldn’t keep her away via hoodoo spells due to having a stroke…pretty cool. One of the better plots for sure.
(How amazing is the lighting in this scene?)
However, this story was sold by visuals and tone, as if director Charles Beeson was a quick Kim Manners study. Well, actually, there’s also some of The Shining influences in there too. Those constant low shots through the dark halls really added to the eerie feel.
(Not your normal POV)
The slow pacing, somber tone of the characters, lots of dark scenes indoors, and so many things that were just off. That room of dolls, something that’s seen plenty in Victorian homes, just wasn’t right. It was something “Supernatural” did very well - something that’s so innocent is really so damned creepy. It’s right up there with the clown thing.
Too much was happening in that doll room. A dead doll at the end of the stairs that mirrored real dead people at the end of the stairs? Both of them with their heads turned the wrong way? A hanging doll, matching the guy who was hanging in his room? Yikes. Then there was that sequence back and forth between the old playground outside with a spinning wheel, see saw, and swings moving by themselves in the wind while horrified Susan watches and Tyler playing with the replica inside, a doomed doll in the middle of it. It was no accident Susan was a target after she yelled at Tyler. The entire sequence was great, classic, old style horror.
There were plenty of odd shots of the house too, like everything there was meant to show that there were plenty of old ghosts in that house. The pictures on the wall, the wedding dress hanging in Sam and Dean’s room, the ornate fixtures everywhere. Even the butler was old. The layout of the place is even weird, with plenty of staircases leading to hidden rooms, etc. I mean come on, they were keeping a very sick grandma in the attic? How very Psycho of them. It was so Kripke and I love it.
The grand achievement of this visual story telling was the scene in the old pool house. That entire room was quite extraordinary and this is where the cinematography really excels. Among the striking overhead shots of the pool, the tension was intense. Tyler and Maggie together in a locked room hanging onto a balcony rail hovering over the covered pool, Maggie wanting them to be together forever, and Sam, Dean and Susan desperately trying to bust in before Tyler drowns like Maggie did all those years ago. It’s very fitting that it was Sam who saved a drowning Tyler, leading to that dramatic, slow motion shot of him surfacing from under the water with Tyler in his arms. It was a symbolic rebirth of Sam Winchester. A moment of purity where his sins were being washed away. A second chance to change his destiny. The symbolism was pretty intense. Whether it really played out that way is a greater debate, but we fan girls and boys also love our wet Winchesters. It was a big win in multiple ways.
Even the closing scene was ideal. Everyone is leaving the Pierpont Inn for good. Sam and Dean say their goodbyes as Susan and Tyler split, but the camera doesn't end on them. No, it's a slow pan through the house and up to the doll room, where ghost Maggie and Rose as children are playing together. The creepy, eerie score paints the picture, the family is gone, but the ghosts remain. Brilliant.
Ah, but there are weaknesses in this episode. The biggest downside is the off characterization of Sam and Dean. Writer Matt Witten managed to choke out a great ghost story, but in the two episodes he wrote for “Supernatural” he never quite got Sam and Dean, especially Dean. In this episode, he was clearly trying too hard with the brothers. The lines, the setups, it didn’t quite come organically. They felt forced and clunky.
For example, when Sam and Dean are put in the box of “gay antiquers,” we're left to believe that people in New England really don’t know what to think when two flannel clad brothers traveling cross country in a classic car killing monsters roll into town. That’s probably why there weren’t too many episodes set in New England. Honestly, there have been other episodes where the brothers have been mistaken for a gay couple, but the joke has been subtle and well played. My favorite is the “two queens” line from “Something Wicked.” Here the whole mistake was long, drawn out, and played out awkwardly. They should have said “two beds,” gotten a confused look, and left it at that. Do I like seeing awkward moments play out on an episode that honestly had bigger fish to fry? Not at all.
I also hated the way Dean set up Sam in the doll room. I know Dean’s been known to do that, but again it failed here. Maybe because it wasn’t believable. It was very believable in “A Very Supernatural Christmas,” not to mention funny as hell. But when two mysterious grown men are very pushy about seeing your antique doll collection, I’d be locking the door behind me and keeping a safe distance from now on.
But let’s talk about the most pivotal scene in the episode, Sam’s drunken meltdown after Maggie the ghost killed a guest in his room. He didn’t get just a little tipsy, he was drunk. We have learned through the series Sam only drinks heavily when he’s really upset. So score, things are really eating away at him inside. Thank heavens, he is human after all.
I was a little thrown back though that Sam’s plan for saving himself was to save others. He honestly believed the more he could save, the more he could save himself? As if someone out there was keeping score? That’s pretty desperate and I really had no clue that was how he was feeling before this. The fact though that he couldn’t save Ava, and now the people being killed at the hotel? That notion that he can’t save everyone is sinking in. To think that’s what he’s been torturing himself with is kind of sad. Also sad, the "Everybody around me dies" line. Oh, how sad and true that is. How sad and true that this will continue to be a thing until the series' end. The amount of corpses fallen behind the Winchesters is staggering.
It’s a pretty big leap though believing that his failures are leading to his doom and he will go evil. Begging Dean to promise he’ll do what John told him to do, kill him if he goes evil, wasn’t right. Sure, I was in Dean’s corner, accepting this was the ramblings of a drunk, but when Sam brought it up in the end, it didn’t sit right with me. You can’t put that kind of crap on your brother Sam, even if he’s the only one in theory that can stop the “big plans.” Can’t you tell how much this has been eating him alive? The only saving grace is that look on Dean’s face. It’s just another hint there is no way he’ll be able to go through with it. So, for now, we’ll just file this conversation under “remember this for episode 2.14.”
(Oh, Dean, I don't envy you)
So, this is one of the things “Supernatural” has ruined for me. There was the line that Maggie said, “We can have lots of tea parties. Forever and ever and ever.” I always break into laughter whenever tea parties are mentioned. Why? I blame Ben Edlund, circa season four.
“Tea parties, is that all there is?”
I say that line every time I hear mention of a tea party now. I did when I heard this line during the recent rewatch. So did my husband. :)
Another strange thing in the hotel room - drunk Sam sleeps on his stomach hugging a pillow? Yum. This is the last episode BTW where we see the cast on his arm.
Hungover Sam is kind of hot too. “Ohh, I can still taste the tequila.” Oh Sam, I feel ya. I’ve had a few of those mornings.
This episode was shot at an old convent located in a nice, well to do neighborhood of Vancouver. The house was named "Rosemary" after the original owner's daughter. It was one of the stops of my first location tour there. Many TV shows have been shot at this house. They were remodeling the exterior at the time so it doesn't look like the way it did in this episode anymore. There's a nice picture of me outside of the gate in front of the building plaque. I often use it for my bios.
Overall grade, a B+. An A+ for direction and cinematography. Up next, sh*t gets really out of control.
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