The Morning After
I’m still smiling after watching The Winchesters return from hiatus episode “Hang on to Your Life” last night! For the first time in the series, I watched an episode twice, back to back, because I couldn’t get enough of Richard Speight, Jr.’s wit, JoJo Fleites’s singing, Tom Welling’s teddy bear tough guy snarkiness, Louden Swain’s wigs and disguises, Elton John’s soundtrack, The Trickster’s and Rivers Gemini’s costumes, and… DEAN!!! “Hang on to Your Life” was full of surprises from start to finish, and claimed a spot as one of my favorite episodes of the season.
Give Them What They Want in a Way They Don’t Expect (- Kim Manners)
I don’t know when I’ll stop being surprised that my heart skips a beat at the slightest glimpse, even the smallest hint, of the brothers being alive and well, roaming around in Baby. Emotion wells up in me in a way that hasn’t happened since Star Trek: The Motion Picture slowly panned over the hull of the Enterprise ten years after the TV series ended. Dean is family. Baby is family. Sam’s not with them, but his spirit is riding shotgun and I know they miss him as much as I do.
As Supernatural’s prequel, the producers of The Winchesters understand that much of the audience is watching in order to extend Supernatural’s story. Dean’s picture and insertion into John and Mary’s history was the golden nugget that fans had been hoping to see to connect our beloved brother to his parents’ past. Many of you speculated that Dean was the mysterious stranger who gave John his dad’s letter, but seeing him and Baby in Samuel’s picture not only proved your theories but teased that we’ll be seeing more of Dean in the future.
Confirming Dean’s meddling in the path of John’s life raises all kinds of questions. Time travel? But why? When? Since he’s still without Sam, was his narration in “Pilot” from Heaven while waiting for Sam? Did he escape Heaven’s grasp and kibitz in John’s life to alter the outcome of his and Sam’s fates? Or Mary’ and John’s? When they were briefly reunited in “Lebanon”, Dean got a taste of what their family life could have been so maybe he hasn’t given up on giving them all what they each deserve and have said repeatedly they want for each other – a peaceful, normal, family life.
Samuel: Had I told you what I was doing, I know you would've charged in headfirst. I did everything I could to get you off my trail, because I couldn't I… can't let you turn out like Maggie. You could've been anything, Mary, anything. But when I put that knife in your hands, I chose this life for you. I forced you to follow in my footsteps, just like my dad forced me. It was wrong. I don't want you to hate me like I hated him. I heard tall tales of an Oppenheimer-- someone who found a way to nuke all these damn monsters, so that you could be free of all of this--forever.
Mary: But you found the Akrida instead.
Samuel: I can't give you back all those years. But I'm your dad. I have to try.
I’ve observed before in my Threads reviews on The Winchesters that it is giving us unexpected insights into the adults John and Mary become. I know that’s what a prequel is supposed to do, and the actors promised in their interviews that they would attempt to explain why these two hopeful teens become ill-fated adults, but I never actually believed that they could tell me anything about the Winchester family that I didn’t already know. We studied their lives for 15 years. I felt I knew them as well as my own family.
Yet, each week, I’m understanding more of Mary’s mindset and motives. We’re seeing the roots of actions that she’ll take in the future, from becoming unhinged at the thought of losing John, which leads to her desperate demon deal to save his life, to her life-long desire to escape hunting. This week, Samuel surprised us by saying that he is equally as desperate to find a way to end the monster threat en masse so Mary doesn’t have to hunt. He plants the idea in her mind that intellectuals, in his case, Oppenheimer, the father of the atomic bomb, might have a solution to wipe all monsters from existence. Although I don’t remember anyone in the 70’s using the trendy expression “nuke them” to signify an extreme, unilateral action that in one swipe eliminates all aspects of a threat, the phrase accurately conveys what Mary wants to do when she allies herself with Ketch and the Men of Letters years in the future.
Samuel: Where are you headed with that useless piece of junk?
Millie: Figured I'd fix old cars. Maybe I can fix it too-- make that dream of yours for Mary, a world without monsters, a reality. It's worth kicking its tires one more time, don't you think?
Mary doesn’t give up on the dream. Decades later, she ditches her sons and becomes as elusive as Samuel was to her in her teens in order to find a solution that will free them all from monster hunting. Sam even briefly considers that path as well.
Samuel’s anti-possession tattoo instructions were also an exciting pre-cursor to Sam and Dean’s tattoos that we know so well from Supernatural. I jumped out of my seat when I saw their anti-demon possession symbol in Latika’s book! Maybe this was a hint that the gang successfully rids the world of the Akrida. The next generation of hunters needs to be protected from demon possessions versus Akrida possessions! Fitting this piece of lore into a story where the Trickster’s contract is sealed with a tattoo was slick writing.
Another Supernatural callback was Samuel’s view of the Men of Letters (MoL). From the mothership series, we had come to expect that there was no love lost between hunters and their intellectual counterparts.
Millie: I've had the bad luck of marrying into this craziness.
Samuel: If your husband's a hunter, you thought I'd heard of him.
Millie: Before he died, he was a Men of Letters.
Samuel: You mean to tell me that my daughter's teaching family secrets to the son of a mole man?
Millie: A mole man?
Samuel: Men of Letters, M-O-L-- buried underground with all their books, while hunters are out there getting their hands dirty-- or worse.
Millie: Well, enjoy the tea. And for the record, if it wasn't for my mole man of a husband, you, your daughter, and my son would all be dead right now.
In spite of its intended derogatory connotation, Samuel’s nickname for the Men of Letters was brilliant! Why hadn’t we ever thought of that before? I didn’t expect it but underground bunkers, hiding from predators, the acronym… I’ll never be able to see “MoL” again without hearing MOLES!
Plus Millie’s reaction was priceless! You tell him, Millie! I loved seeing Millie interact with the kids, perceiving they needed time alone to explore their budding romance, and old pop Campbell, taking none of his sass. We even saw her dish up “one of my family specials”! Surprisingly, this Winchester specialty was not a bologna and cheese casserole, but maybe it’s the precursor to Mary’s “Winchester Surprise” famed from Supernatural’s reminiscences. The Easter egg was there no matter the ingredients of the recipe!
In contrast to the Campbells, John’s family’s story wasn’t about actions being passed from parent to child. Instead we continue to see that John the adult becomes the exact opposite of John the young man wants for himself. Mary’s life develops as a direct inheritance from her family’s ancestry. John becomes something very different from what he, his mom or his dad expected for him.
John: I know I've only been hunting for five minutes, but she hasn't slept a good night since you've been gone. Least you could do is treat her more like a daughter and less like a soldier.
How many of you cringed when he said that? When faced with the burden of being a hunter for more than “five minutes”, and being hardened by years of “the life” and the death of his wife, John raises both Dean and Sam more as soldiers than children. Also like Samuel, John leaves his hunter children without any warning, notes or clues to his whereabouts or mission. He sends them on small cases to distract them from following him, and tries to keep them out of the fight with the largest threat he had faced in his career. John becomes more like the Samuel we saw in this episode than the Henry we saw in the last episode. The parallels are unmistakable. Sometimes we repeat the sins of our fathers (and mothers) despite our firm belief that we’ll do things differently when it’s our turn to parent.
Parents and their Children
Samuel: Listen, I want you to follow this pattern, okay? Use those ingredients for the ink. It's a tattoo you can put anywhere on your body. Look. The Akrida can't possess you if it's on your skin.
Mary: You better keep in touch.
Samuel: Who's the parent here? Don't worry. This time, I will. I promise.
Besides the subtle insights The Winchesters is giving us to the families’ impact on the older versions of John and Mary, “Hang on to Your Life” was filled with immediate comparisons between father and daughter. How are they alike? How are they different?
Mary: You left me in the dark! What gives you the right?
Samuel: 'Cause you're a stubborn jackass! Just like me.
Samuel: It's only been a few months since I've seen them, but now look at 'em.
John: Well, it's all because of Mary. She brought us together.
Samuel: She didn't get that from me.
Samuel was a wealth of information on monster lore, Mary’s family traits and Supernatural trivia. Despite his cantankerous ways, he was a larger-than-life addition to the story. Tom Welling was, of course, mesmerizing to watch. His gruff on the outside, soft on the inside transitions were a treat to behold. His status as a genre veteran lent a gravitas to the story that grounded it in real world experience.
The multi-generational give and take also quickened the pace, relieving us from teen angst and self-discovery dialogs that are inevitable for a team of 20-somethings. This episode struck a perfect balance between the old, jaded perspectives of Millie and Samuel, and the I’ll-do-it-better hopefulness of John, Mary, Carlos and Latika.
At the intersection of both generations was the timeless Trickster. He’s millennia old but he has the mischievousness of a toddler. What an utter joy and surprise to see Richard Speight, Jr. as Loki again! His dialog absolutely had to be RSJ’s ad libbing! He’s at his best when you let him loose to just be himself.
Loki: Oh, my sweet, little summer child, you will if you wanna save Jericho. You know, you have a very impressive résumé. "Love of modern dance." Useless. "Gifted typist." Now that's a skill. "Musician, hunter, hair model." Samesies. But what I don't see here is somebody who will just walk away. We're nodding, we're nodding, but we're not speaking. You gotta say the words, kid. Them's the rules.
Carlos: You have a deal.
Loki: Atta hippie! Let's tango.
Hair Model! LOL!
Carlos: What did you do to him?
Loki: Oh, please, nobody cares-- at least, I don't. He's like a security deposit. Move on from that.
Security deposit?!! LOL! Moving on…
Hey, easy, manicure. I can feel that. Quit tapping!
At this point, I’m cracking up (mirror reference there)!
The perfect accompaniment to the Trickster’s wit was the “Saturday Night’s Alright for Fighting” musical sequence. A scene of 5 Tricksters fighting 5 hunters could have been over the top silly, but the 1973 Elton John classic made it laugh out loud perfection. Leaning into the Trickster’s raison d’etre of satirical comic relief, the writer and director gave us a scene composed of equal parts danger, subterfuge and utter nonsense. We were able to sing along to the inevitable exposition and confrontation act, notching up the episode’s entertainment value considerably. Bravo, team.
As much as Loki’s banter added to the episode, his serious side always makes the point of his tricks.
When the chips are down, humanity always chooses the selfish way out! Always! And you--you are the portrait of bad choices!
Loki misjudged Carlos, just as years in the future, he will misjudge Sam and Dean. Another continuity win. I also like RSJ’s serious (i.e. non-comedic) acting. Its sharp contrast to his humor adds depth to Loki/Trickster that foreshadows the Gabriel to come.
Shedding the Past
We’ve already talked about the many ways “Hang on to Your Life” delivered multi-layered messages for the future within the context of Supernatural’s lore, but we haven’t yet talked about the center of the story – Carlos.
Latika: You sure you don't want to go to the show tonight?
Carlos: Positive. It's like looking in a funhouse mirror of what my life could've been, so no, thank you.
Latika: You miss it, don't you?
Carlos: A part of me does. But it was never gonna work. You're on the road for so long, it's a matter of time before you come across a monster, and then something has to die-- the dream or the monster.
Continuing the season’s emphasis on shedding one’s past, Carlos says goodbye to his former partner, a guitarist who couldn’t cut it on his own. Carlos confirmed to Latika that he didn’t regret walking away from his normal life in order to become a hunter, but then he got a chance to prove his convictions when he chose to make a deal to release his friend, then die rather than kill one of his adopted family members.
Dean: Being a hunter, it means living a life of sacrifice-- not a lot of room for dreams. But you open your heart and get a little lucky, you'll find you gain more than you lose.
The payoff was not only victory over Loki, but a spotlight on JoJo’s supreme delivery of Carlos’ complex, devil-may-care attitude and a surprise, one night only serenade from Carlos’ alter ego, Rivers Gemini.
Jericho: No, nobody could replace Rivers. He could make an entire room weep with three chords and the truth.
JoJo’s smooth singing was the icing on an already delicious treat of an episode.
Hard times, hard times ♪ ♪ Come again no more ♪
The cherry on top was the closing scene image of Dean and Baby.
Latika: Loki's magic is tied to a powerful symbol of misdirection and trickery that he carries with him-- a hand mirror."
John: So what's the plan? Smash the mirror, no more curse?
No, the mirror's indestructible, but there might be another way to kill Loki-- using a reflective blade like the mirror that's been enchanted using a warrior's own blood.
I couldn’t help but reflect (see what I did there?) on the fact that alternate universes are often referred to as mirror universes. There was also the emphasis on "dreams" which are altered realities. Was “Hang on to Your Life” sewing the thread of a mirror or alternate universe? I've never thought that would be the basis of the series but add to these clues the name of the last episode, "Reflections", and the hints are glaring.
Latika: These were on Brock's mirror. They're protection sigils.
Carlos: He's a trickster, right? So he could be hiding anywhere and look like anyone.
Latika: Explains how he got away-- probably just shape-shifted into someone else.
Carlos: Well, let's just hope that one of your books has the trick to see through his smoke and mirrors.
I thought it was odd how prominently Samuel noted that Mary was right handed. I spent several minutes looking at Supernatural footage and concluded that adult Mary was also right handed. I thought that might have been a clue to a mirror universe but I’m not seeing the connection if one was intended. Do you?
The Last Word
If you haven’t yet figured it out, I think “Hang on to Your Life” was a treasure! I enjoyed every minute of its surprises, wit, music, character interaction, production and writing. It skillfully balanced young and old, serious and silly. I could nitpick a few, minor quibbles so I wouldn’t call it perfect, but it was nearly so, and is my new go-to episode when I need a booster shot remedy for life’s realities. Adding to its charm, there weren’t any unwelcome “human-sized cockroaches” to crash the family reunions (Winchester, Campbell, demi-god and SPNFamily meta) that made this episode so much fun. To quote JoJo’s brilliant deliver of this very simple line,
I’ll allow it.
A great start to the second half of The Winchesters season!
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Transcript courtesy of TV Show Transcripts
Screencaps courtesy of The CW