So, there I was, an article ready to fill in my draft box entitled “Supernatural has done it again” criticising Supernatural Season 12 and then, out of no where, this episode pops up. “American Nightmare” was an emotional, dramatic horror movie with a side of Winchester family issues, and pretty much had everything I could want.
Season 12 Episode 4 “American Nightmare” Air Date: Nov 3rd 2016
As I have already mentioned, Season 12 has not been great in my opinion and the title in my draft box is referencing the fact that the Supernatural writers tend to create these big cliff-hanging finale moments; the Angels falling in Season 8, Demon Dean in Season 9, The Darkness in Season 10, and then completely ruin or gloss over the idea once the new season starts. Mary Winchester was one of these in their long list. The premiere of Season 12 was probably one of the worst I have ever seen. The British Men of Letters as an antagonist is boring and mild, and Mary is detached and unconnected to the audience as a mother.
However, despite the first three episodes of the season being barely watchable, I am willing to forgive and forget due to what the show gave us this week.
It has been a long while since Supernatural actually scared me, and I think it’s difficult for a show that has been going for so long to keep things shocking, gory and fresh. The opening sequence, set in a church, is eerie and uncomfortable to watch as a woman gets whipped and killed by an unknown force. Most viewers are long-term fans so understand that this woman is possessed, whether by a demon, ghost or other being, and so we do feel sorry for her despite not knowing her name or her motivations. I believe this is due to a combination of directing and sound. One shot circles the woman twice as she screams and the music ascends, making her and the audience vulnerable to what is going on.
Sam and Dean enter, in their priests outfits which I didn’t even know they still had. Fans noted how the boys continuously change their disguises during this episode, going from religious priests, to FBI agents, to child protective services, to their usual hunting attire, which kept things interesting.
Comedy is still regular when it is revealed that Sam loved 80’s rock. What’s also great about this episode is how much Sam and Dean have matured and grown in that they are so much faster and wiser, and are quick to filter their options for what is behind the brutal murders. They have battled Lucifer himself, so therefore instantly shoot down suggestions from the majority of the characters they meet in the episode that it might be the devil. They also cross off many ideas from their list including a demon or a rogue angel because of their lifetime of experience and expertise. When Dean believes the events are due to a witch, Sam argues and suggests that it is ghost possession. Even though the boys split up due to this disagreement, Dean humbly admits to his mistake and they accept that they do have different opinions and are open to listening and learning. In one scene where they argue over what is causing the murders, the boys are so fast to counter act each others ideas, it just shows how experienced the hunters are.
The characters are so diverse and interesting in this episode. Even Carl, the pathologist who shows the boys the first victims body and is on screen for approximately 2 minutes, is quirky and fun. Then as the boys are examining the body, Sam tries to have a brotherly moment but Dean is having none of it. Earlier, Dean is seen texting his mum which is sweet, and kind of made me happy that Mary did leave the bunker. As I have already mentioned, Mary seemed so disconnected and distanced from her sons and I didn’t feel emotional when the three of them were on screen together. If anything it was just awkward. The whole premise of the show is Sam and Dean seeking revenge for their mother’s death, and this was kind of just ruined by bringing Mary back. I guess it feels a bit like the writers have written themselves into a corner where they have no where to go from here. I do hope Mary stays in the show but as someone who Sam and Dean actually need. The boys don’t need a mother right now, they are already grown and have faced a lot already. Mary may have been their ultimate desire at one point in the show, for example when Dean wishes and dreams of a normal life where his mum is alive in Season 2, but they have been settled for a while now and, although it’s great that she is back, it’s obvious that she doesn’t fit. I hope she fills a Bobby or Kevin shaped whole and appears regularly as an aid or advise helpline. However, seeing as this is the best episode of the season so far it’s clear that Mary shouldn’t be in every episode.
Beth is next to be introduced to the Winchesters in this episode and, as she is honest and likeable, we are left suspicious about whether she is the culprit behind the killings. Meeting the Peterson family, we do get a strange sense from them as well which is probably mostly to do with their extreme views on God. Considering that the audience and Sam and Dean know God personally and know that he doesn’t really care how this family lives or prays, it makes the family appear even more deluded. When Gail asks the brothers if they know God, Dean replies with “Oh, yeah. We’re besties” to which Sam gives him a disapproving look. Despite this being a funny inside joke between the Winchesters and the audience, the boys understand that, although they know the truth about Heaven, Lucifer and God, there are people who use religion as hope and a way of coping through life, and they do respect that.
Dean begins to connect with the Petersons as Abraham reveals why they turned to religion and rejected the modern way of living. It is very eye-opening as Abraham gives this speech and makes viewers self-reflect on their own society:
“Oh, the world out there is all distractions. Consumerism, corporations. And the people, if they’re not shopping or stuffing their face, they’re sitting in front of some screen watching fake people do fake things, while the real world just gets more and more screwed up. Gail and I, we didn’t want that for our kids, so… so here we are, sweatin’ our butts off. The things you do for family.”
The fact that viewers are watching “fake people do fake things” makes Abraham’s words just that little bit more real to the audience as we sit and watch the episode. “While the real world just gets more and more screwed up” I found clearly references today’s political and social upheaval.
The amazing speeches just keep coming as Gail continues to criticise the type of life her family used to lead, including their kids never interacting and being on behavioural medication, herself being on painkillers and her husband spending his time working or drinking. Audiences do get drawn in by their view of modern society and it does put things in perspective for viewers. Then Sam grows angry and argues with Gail over her belief and view of God. The Winchesters believe the Petersons let their daughter, Magda, die of pneumonia because they believed it was “God’s will”. Sam, having met God personally, argues intensely with Gail about this matter and states that God doesn’t care what kind of life the family lead and accuses Gail herself of killing Magda. Sam acts sophisticated throughout this episode but this scene reveals a bit of his defiant personality when he is faced with something he feels passionate about.
The acting from all the guest stars in this episode were incredible as we feel for each character in their own way. However, actress Paloma Kwiatkowski was particularly inspiring as it is revealed her character is still alive and kept prisoner in the basement by Gail. She first appears singing “I’ve Got the Joy in My Heart” and this contrast between the song choice and the appearance of the chained up and bloodied Magda, having been whipped, was so uncomfortable to watch.
Then all is revealed as Gail believes her daughter is possessed by the Devil due to her strange powers. She forces Magda to “purge” her body by whipping herself. The imagery and symbols of the story suddenly switch from God and hope to the Devil and evil. The episode continues, demonstrating how people label power and unfamiliar situations as darkness and sin and how far people will go to wash all of that away from their lives, purely because they don’t understand it and are scared of what it can do.
Despite the horrible techniques that the family use on Magda, Abraham shows that they do care about her and are trying to keep her locked away so that she can’t hurt anyone. He explains to his son that Magda is their burden and they must help her. Believing that there is something evil that is using their daughter’s body is not the same for Gail and Abraham as believing that their daughter is doing those things of her own free will, which is why they can’t get their head around the fact that it is her own power.
Meanwhile, Dean heads off to shoot Beth, believing she is a witch and is responsible for the case. After speaking to her for a bit, Dean realises that it is very unlikely that she could have murdered anyone. When Beth asks why Dean came over to talk to her, the scene is cut. I like to think that the two of them continued to flirt or perhaps perform something even more intimate because Beth gives Dean her number at the end of the episode. As I said, all of the characters are interesting and intriguing to the audience, and Dean and Beth’s slight relationship is just another addition to this that I found very cute.
Sam has matured so much over the years that he is actually beginning to sound like a fully-fledged adult, or father as he talks to Magda. It’s very sweet because he can talk from experience of having powers that he couldn’t control and being scared of himself. Sam’s psychic powers are something that the show hasn’t touched on in years so this conversation was so refreshing. It appears that Sam has forgiven himself for all the demonic powers he developed in the earlier seasons. Becoming Lucifer’s vessel in Season 5 created a lot of self-hatred in Sam and it gives closure to audiences that Sam has put the past behind him as he states “I could move things with my mind…but that didn’t make me the Devil, it just made me who I am”.
Director John F. Showalter continues to amaze as Magda explains how she possessed the victims that were killed. We do feel very connected to Magda as shots are show from the inside of the basement, looking out at the world, wanting to be set free and reaching out to anyone for help. Sam, speaking from experience, tells Magda that she can learn to control her powers and won’t ever have to hurt anyone ever again. This scenes keeps up the heart-warming sweet taste. Later on in the episode, Sam reassures Magda that her power shouldn’t control her, and it’s obvious Sam is drawing from his experiences with his demon blood addiction and visions that he felt controlled him.
Then there’s the supper scene where Gail attempts to legitimise her treatment of her daughter. Sam is having none of it as he answers back with such confidence, knowing for a fact that the family are wrong about Magda. He counteracts Gail so quickly – “Pain purges sin” “No it doesn’t” – which is probably the first time the family have ever been shut down so fast regarding their beliefs. As the family eat and realise Gail has poisoned their food, I just wanted to scream at Sam to keep trying to convince the room that they have misinterpretation Magda’s powers. I wanted Sam to scream ‘Trust me, I’ve met the Devil and this girl is not him. I’ve met God and and if you guys eat this food you will not be together in Heaven.” All these comments are what Sam and the audience are thinking and it is interesting that, as the show has lasted so long, that we are more knowledgeable than most of the characters the Winchester’s meet, which is what makes Sam and Dean so victorious with their hunts.
The episode does have a sorrowful ending as the majority of the family end up dead. As Gail unfairly poisons her husband and stabs her son, Magda uses her powers to turn the knife onto Gail herself. Sam convinces Magda out of this idea as he understands that, when he killed with his powers, it made him empty and dark. Gail hopefully lives the rest of her life locked away and labelled as deluded, however the ending scene leaves a bitter taste as Mr Ketch shoots Magda as she was travelling to her Aunt’s. I understand why the show killed Magda off so that Mr Ketch could be introduced even more and his actions will definitely provoke the Winchesters later on, but the she did have so much potential and I was probably one in many who wanted her to join Sheriff Jody Mills’ lost girls club.
Sam gave Magda such a comforting shoulder to rest on and let her travel to her Aunt’s so that she could lead a normal life, after stating that she could call him whenever and he would be there. So he will be distraught if he finds out that Magda was killed because of her psychic abilities by the Men of Letters.
Mary finally texts Dean back and I already love the set-up a lot more because Mary is acting more like a mum and actually fits in, rather than moping around the bunker the whole time or trying to fit into Sam and Dean’s hunting lifestyle.
Well, definitely the best episode in a long time! It didn’t touch on the season arc too much but just enough so we want to keep watching. We were kept updated on Castiel, Crowley, Lucifer and Mary, as well as it being a perfect one-off story. As I was watching, it did feel like a horror movie, but shortened and clear of the boring scenes that normally come with a Supernatural episode like the brothers in the bunker or the brothers driving. I still can’t believe the episode was only 40 minutes because the actors, writers and directors managed to make us connect to each guest character and scare the hell out of us with the gore, uncomfortable torturing scenes and spooky music. We have seen enough ghost stories to last a life time and the monster-of-the-week episodes have slowly become worse and worse over the past few years, but I want to say that “American Nightmare” sets the bar for how to nail a good horror story, as well as referencing Sam and Dean’s position and their past. Ultimately, this was all about Magda and her struggle but it obviously had an effect on the boys and definitely on me.