This review contains spoilers.
11.17 Red Meat
On a routine werewolf hunt, Sam and Dean tussle with the culprits whilst tied-up hostages look weakly on. Surprised by a werewolf they thought was dead, Sam is shot in the stomach and badly wounded. They’re stranded in a forest with no signal and little hope with two wounded people, one of whom is Sam and the other is the second hostage, Michelle. Her husband, Corbin, is desperate to keep her safe and goes to extraordinary lengths to do so, suffocating Sam and seemingly killing him in order to convince Dean to leave him behind and get them all to safety. It’s not the wisest decision and forces Dean to make an even stupider one. Meanwhile, Corbin may have had more bitten off than he can chew.
The many ominous warnings about the deaths of the Winchesters casts an early gloom over the episode so when Sam gets a belly shot in the cold open, it immediately seems more serious than most early cliffhangers. Coupling that with the impossible situation the boys find themselves in gives the episode a survival horror feel, cutting back between the horrible aftermath of the werewolf hunt and the events leading up to it. The sombre tone works well too and elevates the episode above the more run of the mill episodes we’ve been having recently. We know we’ve got a twelfth season, but it’s a testament to Red Meat that it manages to feel as if the stakes have been raised.
I must confess that the moment that bullet hit Sam, my heart sank a little. “Here we go again,” I thought as Dean decided he needed to die in order to bring Sam back and my eyes rolled with the weariness of previous seasons, commentating on this exact plot device with interchangeable Winchesters. It suddenly felt as if the whole of the eleventh season’s character work – of pushing the brothers to admit their weird co-dependency, change their behaviour and keep them honest – just fell away with one gunshot and boy, was I annoyed.
But then, something pretty clever happened. Something I wasn’t expecting. The episode itself pointed out how stupid they were being. It wasn’t in Sam’s sudden recovery, nor was it in Billie’s confrontation with Dean. It was in the relationship between Corbin and Michelle, as she realised what he’d done to keep them safe and keep Dean with them and as he faced up to the fact he was turning into a werewolf before attempting a rampage through the hospital. Sam and Dean very nearly didn’t notice this until it was too late. It played ominously, almost in the background of an episode, that kept the narrative fractured and moving around the brothers without them realising.
It’s a really effective sleight of hand to illustrate to a potentially weary audience that yes, the boys have made progress with their enduring pattern of behaviour by acknowledging it, but when the chips are down and they’re forced to make a decision, they’re still going to go the same way. Dean is so wrapped up in getting Sam back that the rest of the world falls away and he misses the real bad guys of the episode; the woman who offers them up to the werewolves as bait in the guise of helping them, the guy who masterminds the whole thing and nearly kills Sam again, and poor old Corbin, slowly becoming the monster of the week.
Much of Red Meat teeters on a knife edge between irritating and amazing, managing to keep itself balanced by virtue of its wicked undercut of the Winchesters’ behaviour. Without it, we’d have been looking at yet another Sam/Dean martyrdom attempt, a trope now so tiresome, even the writers are pointing out how stupid it is. I blame John Winchester.
Read Becky’s review of the previous episode, Safe House, here.