Supernatural season 9 episode 17 review: Mother’s Little Helper

The Winchester boys battle demonic nuns and addiction in this week's episode of Supernatural...

This review contains spoilers.

9.17 Mother’s Little Helper

Well, the engine of the story and the character arcs is chugging along, bringing us towards the end of the season. There are half a dozen episodes left until the finale, and Mother’s Little Helper dutifully brings us closer to that climax, preparing the characters psychologically and the storylines logistically to get there. It picks right up where the previous episode left off: Dean had just used the First Blade for the first time and felt its power before Crowley absconded with it, and the Winchesters are still looking for Abaddon.

This episode is also the first directed by Misha Collins – who plays the fan-beloved Castiel. Despite the heavy heaping of plot in it, it also happens to be an incredibly psychologically heavy storyline, especially from Dean’s point of view. The best part of Misha’s directing – aside from how natural it looks – is how well he captures that psychological complexity, the memories that haunt Dean, the darkness he fears within – even with a script that has its limitations.

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This episode’s monster of the week (as we find out later) is people losing their souls and bludgeoning their husbands to death over meatloaf and the like, which, naturally, is something Sam Winchester goes off to investigate. In the meantime, Dean’s still obsessively looking for Abaddon and struggling with what definitely looks like addiction, which is why he doesn’t come along. It’s Sam, by himself, who takes the Impala and goes off hunting – and that’s significant in itself, because how often does Sam drive off with Dean’s beloved car?

And it’s clear Dean is struggling – he hasn’t slept (something he’s been doing a lot lately), he’s drinking copious amounts of alcohol (and, canonically, Dean does have an alcohol problem), and he just won’t stop researching how to find Abaddon. These are all obsessive behaviours, but ones that hide a different kind of addiction altogether: a craving for the First Blade. We saw Dean’s darkness come out last episode when he laid a hand on it, and we saw both the fear and exhilaration it brought him. It seems like, this episode, Dean’s giving in to his other addictions precisely to mask the most pressing one: the fact that he wants to have that blade in his hand and kill. It’s aptly conveyed by Dean’s shaking hands and dead eyes, Misha’s choice of gloomy zoom-ins and haunting flashbacks, all of which create a morbid atmosphere that shows just what a dark place Dean is.

However, Dean’s in a bit of a self-perpetuating loop here, because the obsessive research he’s doing about how to find Abaddon would lead to just the thing he’s dreading – having that blade in his hand. It’s a testimony to the conflict he feels within, and the loneliness he seems to be drowned by, that one minute he’s obsessively researching, and the next he’s in a bar, drinking more alcohol, playing pool, and lying to Sam.  

That’s something Crowley’s aware of – he shows up with his usual clever quip to talk Dean through his problems. It’s not exactly subtle – it seems like Crowley’s the writers’ last card to play, and they’re playing him for all he’s worth and more, from comic relief (remember his fight with the vending machine last episode?) to menacing demon (he did take the Blade) to a mirror for the Winchesters (he’s saying everything I just did about what Dean’s feeling).  In fact, as if the cinematography, Jensen Ackles’ acting, and the flashbacks didn’t make it clear, Crowley’s there to, in his snarky way, tell Dean (and the viewers) exactly what Dean’s feeling.

That makes it pretty clear that Crowley’s character is about as stale as it was last episode. Hey, I loved the guy for the first couple of seasons, but they keep bringing him back so that he can patently not do anything. His actions this episode, aside from acting as a mirror for Dean Winchester’s character development, is to test Dean and see if he’ll protect Crowley from a supposed hunter. It’s a confusing scene – does Crowley really not know how far gone Dean is already? Is it supposed to tell us viewers how far gone Dean is? Is it supposed to prove to Dean how far gone he is? Maybe Crowley’s being all dastardly and reminding Dean of his addiction precisely to exacerbate it, but a much better plot point would’ve been a Crowley that was still visibly addicted to human blood, mirroring Dean’s addiction rather than hinting at his own (possibly non-existent) one.

In the meantime, Sam’s off to hunt the other mirror for Dean’s addiction/obsession this episode. The whole soul-less people conceit is not exactly an impressive one (though it’s better than a few Supernatural’s done this season), but it’s fitting that this is an episode where Sam is solving a case about people who have let their inner demons out – just like Dean is struggling with the inner demons he let out the moment he touched that blade.

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In the process of cracking this case Sam encounters a woman named Julia, who takes him back to the past and drops some family history on his head. She fleshes out the background on Henry Winchester (who was introduced in last season’s As Time Goes By), as well as his close companion Josie Sands (whose body we now know as that fiery redhead Abaddon). Back in 1958 it turns out that Henry and Josie went on what would really be called a hunt, though God forbid that word reach the ears of the Men of Letters. They’d probably call it “research” instead. This endeavor takes them to a convent where they discover a bunch of nuns possessed by demons (really, how clichéd), who seem to be removing souls from people.

This has the dual function of explaining what’s happening in the present time and showing exactly led up to the scenes that introduced Henry Winchester last season. It turns out that Josie was in love with Henry Winchester – which is precisely why Abaddon is possessing her body and not Henry’s. It’s an interesting little tidbit, though the entire collection of scenes does little to flesh out what we already know about the Men of Letters (they were keepers of the lore, not very hands-on, and pretty snobby, as well as sexist, it seems). All I can say is, I love the portrayal of Josie – who, in this society of snobby, elitist men, seems to have become a respected and erudite Woman of Letters, before her body was taken by the even more kickass lady that is Abaddon.

Julia’s story leads Sam to the former convent of St. Bonaventure, where it turns out that Abaddon’s cronies are performing the same task they were performing half a century ago: collecting souls. This is where the mythology of the story starts to get a little fuzzy. Apparently Abaddon’s collecting souls to create an army of demons, bottling the souls up in little jars so that she can… I’m not sure what, exactly. We know that demons are created when souls are sent to Hell and made to torture. I kind of doubt there’s some quick three-step-recipe for turning a soul into a demon – it’s a long and complicated process, and it’s supposed to be. Plus, as we’ve seen from soulless Sam – people without souls don’t automatically just turn evil. They seem to simply lose all emotion, including the bad ones. So, while the whole soul-less thing is a good metaphor for what’s happening to Dean, and it does advance plot by making Abaddon more of a threat, it does it messily – and also takes away a bit of the importance of souls in the first place. The fact that a demon is a corrupted soul, worked at by a dastardly master like Alastair for years, and the subtlety of a soulless character (which we saw in Sam Winchester) is precisely part of the point, and part of the poignancy. Taking that away seems like messing with a conceit that was already so perfect in itself.

On the bright side, it looks like the Winchesters have finally stepped up their game and made use of the marvels of 21st century technology in their hunting (no, really, it’s about time). Sam finally has an exorcism app on his phone, for, you know, when he’s being strangled by evil demons (which, you know, happens about every other episode). That’s how he kills the demon in this particular episode, and solves the temporary problem of this particular demon factory, though, as we learn, there’s hundreds more all over the country, making the Abaddon problem even more pressing.

While this train is chugging along towards the season finale, though, there’s still the question of where Castiel is in all this. Isn’t he a season regular? Why have neither Sam nor Dean even spoken to him since Sam kicked Gadriel out of his head? I mean, he’s off doing his own thing in Heaven but as a season regular, shouldn’t he maybe interact with out protagonists? Shouldn’t the storyline act like he exists, considering he’s a season regular? Wouldn’t an angel with angelic powers be a good person to call when they’re dealing with people like Magnus, the First Blade, and Abbadon? What happened to Team Free Will and taking on problems together?

Can I cross my fingers that by the time we get to the season finale, all the different storylines will come together and all three characters will actually interact?

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