This review contains spoilers.
9.13 The Purge
What’s perhaps the most remarkable thing about The Purge is the way that it feels like it continues the previous episodes. With television continuity being an iffy thing in general (what with its variety of writers and the network’s demands), and with Supernatural having so many seasons of material to work with, it’s continuity is more often than not lacklustre. But this episode works because it really, truly feels like it follows the previous ones, with the characterization and character development making so much sense in relation to what we’ve seen so far that it’s easy to overlook whatever flaws the episode does have and enjoy it as a whole.
The episode begins (after the obligatory opener of murder) with Dean, deep in concentration on his computer. He hasn’t slept all night, and he’s not looking good. Though he brushes it away with an offhand comment about staying up to watch films, it’s patently clear that it’s something else that’s been eating away at him: his conversation with Sam in the preceding episode. Sam’s made it clear that he doesn’t’ see their relationship, or “family,” the way Dean does, and Dean’s taken it hard. But, in the true Dean Winchester way, he coldly pretends not to care, insisting to Sam “I don’t break that easy.” But it’s more than painfully obvious to anyone who knows Dean’s character that he’s hurting, and his tried-and-tested method of dealing with it is posturing and pretending.
But, despite their falling-out, Sam and Dean are still engaged in the family business, so off on a hunt they go. This time, they’re confronting a monster who seems to be sucking the fat out of people. After doing some preliminary investigating, they discover that all the creepy supernatural murder stuff seems to be originating from Canyon Valley Spa, and off they head, going undercover as a fitness trailer and kitchen assistant. The episode quickly goes for the good old method of awkwardness-induced laughs, as Dean does his patently ridiculous act of faking enthusiasm for something he knows nothing about; since the plot requires the aforementioned spa owners to be absolutely unable to see through Dean’s obvious faking, they get the job. They’re in, and in between pretending to help people lose weight and trying not to starve themselves, they investigate.
Originally, I didn’t have high hopes for this aspect of the episode; with its preliminary title being “Let the Fat One In,” I did an uncomfortable little eyebrow raise and waited with anxiety, wondering if this episode would go the route of shaming those who didn’t conform to certain narrow standards of beauty, or alternatively, laugh at the expense of those who strove to. Surprisingly, though, none of the humour was at the expense of the appearances of the episode’s characters (with a few brief exceptions, for example when Dean, in a bit of a cringe-worthy scene, asks “how is he your type?” of the beautiful, slender Mol). Still, I’d hoped that perhaps this episode might take itself up on its potential for parody; the show has a great track record for using monsters as metaphors for aspects of contemporary culture it wants to critique (from the horror movie industry in Hollywood Babylon to celebrity culture – remember that time Paris Hilton was an evil monster?) With Doctor Who’s “Partners in Crime” in mind, I’d vainly hoped this episode might provide the same kind of critique of beauty and body standards, but I can live with the fact that it didn’t.
Eventually, following a trail of creepy-looking suction marks, Sam and Dean discover that the monster is Maritza, the spa owner. She claims to be a Pishtaco, and I admit, I actually Googled the name to see if this was an actual monster, of if Supernatural’s just given up and started making things up (with so many seasons, it wouldn’t be surprising). Pishtacos are actually a Peruvian mythological figure, which makes the episode just that much cleverer; one of the things I love about Supernatural is its ability to adapt ancient myths to modern-day America, and this is one of the examples in which it succeeds.
This particular monster’s adapted quite well to modern-day society; she’s married to a human, eating just enough to get by without killing anyone (and there’s a beautiful irony in the monster being the one on a diet even as she helps other people lose weight), and is an all-around good person/monster. At the same time, this episode portrays the possibility of monsters being both good and evil with a lot more subtlety. Unlike the preceding Sharp Teeth, which bashed its viewers over the head with grey area, this one offers a more compelling portrait of coexistence that makes its own argument through its believability.
Of course, Dean’s not quite so quick to see it that way. After disposing of Maritza’s brother, who’s the monster who’s actually been killing people, he’s more than willing to kill the innocent as well. Though this might seem like a regression in character development, I don’t think it is: even though Dean’s developed as a character overall in terms of being able to see the possibility of good even in monsters (i.e. Benny), he’s in a very dark place right now. Sam’s informed him that he doesn’t want to be brothers anymore, the weight of his decisions is crushing him, and he’s still sporting the Mark of Cain. The result is a mindset in which he’s bound to see the world as darker than it is, and unwilling to see good even where it exists. So, what might seem like character development reads, at least to me, like continuity.
The episode ends with another very important conversation between Sam and Dean; in a way, this one’s merely a continuation of the one they had at the end of last episode, because of course there can only be so many “chick-flick moments” in a single episode before they start to threaten the Winchesters’ masculinity.
This conversation is painful – both for the viewer to watch, but also for Dean, who hears some of the most painful truths he’s ever heard. In short: Dean attempts to justify his decisions regarding Sam and saving his life by taking away his choice. Sam is family, his brother, everything Dean has, and saving him is “the right thing to do,” Dean insists. Sam disagrees: it’s not. Sam values his ability to choose above his life (how fitting in the context of Supernatural and its many-season battle for free will), and he says a very important truth. Dean saves other people for himself as much as for other people; he’s found a way to validate his existence only through his ability to care for and save other people. The result, of course, is his dependency on Sam for his own self-worth, his inability to live life for his own sake – and the great burden it places on other people to be the object of Dean’s sometimes-crushing need to express his affection.
Watching Dean hear these truths is more than heartbreaking. Sam’s doesn’t mince words, and the bluntness of the truth he speaks Dean will doubtless see as rejection. Sam insisting he wouldn’t save Dean under the same circumstances will sound, to Dean, as if his own brother doesn’t love him back with the same strength – when really, Sam simply values choice above all. It’s obviously not true that when Dean makes sacrifices, other people get hurt more than he does (he did, after all, spend forty years in Hell for Sam’s sake), and that, too, will sound like a painful blow. But there’s a very large kernel of truth to Sam’s words.
And, despite the pain and heartbreak, they’re words necessary for character development, and I revel in this fact. I’ve always loved Dean Winchester as a character – I’ve loved his complexity, his heroism, and his darkness, and I hope that one day Dean Winchester will learn to see that in himself as well, rather than validating his existence through others. I long for a healthy relationship for the brothers, in which they are able to love each other and yet respect each other’s choices, because they don’t cling to each other as their only reason for existence. Sam seems to have moved towards accomplishing this, finding ways to live without Dean’s existence completely defining who he is, and now it’s Dean’s turn. That makes this ultimately painful scene exactly what Supernatural needs, because it suggests that its many seasons of cycling through the same unhealthy interdependence that repeatedly sends the world to hell might actually transform into something newer and fresher.
However, while all that stuff is happening, I’ve just got one question: where the Hell did Castiel go?
Read Anastasia’s review of the previous episode, Sharp Teeth, here.
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