This review contains spoilers.
9.19 Alex Annie Alexis Ann
Well – that was not only excellent, but unexpectedly so. Alex Annie Alexis Ann is the latest contribution by Robert Berens, who only joined the Supernatural writing team this year. It’s no easy matter to write for a show with eight years of canon, but Berens more than outdoes himself: not only does he provide an excellent and layered storyline, he also draws heavily on previous seasons, showing that he knows more about this show than certain writers who have been around for years.
The fact that this episode is something special is evident from the very beginning. It appears to start like any other episode: there’s a poor helpless girl locked in a room in a police station, and you just know that the evil monster is going to come get her and kill her, leaving a bloody corpse that spurs the Winchesters onto a new hunt. That’s the opening of pretty much every Supernatural episode ever.
Except that doesn’t happen, because Jody Mills shows up to cut the head off the vampire and save the would-be victim, whom we’ll call Alex.
Jody Mills has been a beloved (and badass) character since season five, with her many returns eagerly awaited by fans. This time, though, Jody returns not just to help the boys on a hunt, but to carry an episode on her own. That’s right: this episode isn’t so much about the Winchesters as it is about Jody, with the Winchesters as the background characters who more or less facilitate the story. That’s pretty much a first for Supernatural: an episode that’s centered around a female character. Not only that, but Jody also doesn’t die – and, more amazingly, the story is driven by her interactions with other women.
On Supernatural, this is so unexpected that it makes me worry about the space-time continuum. After all, Supernatural doesn’t exactly have a good track record with its female characters, who, more often than not, are nothing more than foils for the Winchesters or dead bodies that provide manpain for the male characters. Even series star Misha Collins has pointed out these problematic portrayals of women on the show, and this season has been particularly lackluster in that respect, so it’s refreshing to have an episode that’s so… respectful.
Plus, this episode, in focusing on Jody, not only has the benefit of reminding us that women actually exist as something other than plot devices in the Winchesters’ world, but also fleshes out that world. It makes it seem more real through an interesting and compelling characterization of the people the Winchesters interact with, and also tells a story that has deep and important parallels for the story of the Winchesters.
But let’s focus on Alex for now. At least, Alex is what she calls herself – although it’s revealed that her true name is Annie, and that she was kidnapped and renamed years ago by a nest of vampires to be their blood slave (a concept that sounds kinky enough to belong in fan fiction). The Winchesters quickly assume that she’s a victim with Stockholm Syndrome, urging her to give up the nest – but it turns out things are a bit more complicated than that.
In fact, the amazing thing about this episode is the number of points of view it provides on “Alex” – alternatively called Annie, Alexis, and Ann – as many points of view as she has names, each name symbolizing a different role of her. Everyone sees her differently, trying to pigeonhole her into a name and a role, but in the end it turns out that she’s all of them and none of them – and that the Winchesters don’t always have the right version of the story.
Despite Alex’s reluctance to give up her family, however, the Winchesters do manage to track down the nest, while Jody takes Alex up to a cabin to hide out from potential vampire pursuit. While interrogating one of Alex’s brothers, the Winchesters discover that she often played the role of bait when her vampire family hunted – and quickly assume that Alex enjoys killing. This interrogation is cleverly intercut with scenes of Jody and Alex up at the cabin, with the suspense building perfectly until the viewer just waits and waits for Alex to turn out to be a bloodthirsty killer and attack Jody. All signs point in that direction: Alex’s sudden and strange disappearance as Jody looks for her, Jody not picking up her phone as the Winchesters frantically call, the way Alex appears to be asleep in a bed and you just know that she’s faking…
Except that she’s not. In another clever subversion of Supernatural’s own tropes, Alex is actually a scared little girl, terrified of what her vampire family would do to her and who’s had an inaccurate version of the story pushed onto her.
But, despite Alex’s attempts, her family takes her back, leaving Jody unconscious on the ground in the process. This leads to the Winchesters and Jody regrouping and debating what to do. The Winchesters are all for following the vampires back to the nest and killing them all, while Jody seems to be the sole voice of reason, suggesting that Alex deserves a chance. It’s a strange scene: Sam seems to back Dean completely on the idea that someone like Alex, in a tenuous, morally gray position, doesn’t deserve a chance. The fact that Dean’s so judgmental is explainable: it can be easily read as some more effects of the Mark of Cain. But Sam’s always been the compassionate one, capable of seeing the moral gray area – especially when it comes to vampires. Nevertheless, it’s Jody’s who’s the voice of compassion here, emphasizing that the Winchesters aren’t always right in their narrative of who’s good and who’s evil.
The episode then cuts back to Alex and her “mother,” the vampire who originally kidnapped her and renamed her, and to a conversation about the oh-so-familiar concept of “family” – and this is where the most interesting parallels begin.
After all, the vampires are Alex’s family – and yet a family she tried to run from, because she couldn’t take the guilt and the responsibility anymore. It’s not hard to notice the parallel to Sam, who loves his family (Dean) and yet wants out of the hunter’s life – who, at the beginning of this season, wanted out through death, despite his love for Dean. Thus, this scene is doubly interesting, not only casting Alex as a character with conflicting motivations, but also shedding light on Sam and his intentions. In the end, Alex chooses to be turned into a vampire – or is she guilt tripped into it? It’s as interesting a question to ponder as Sam’s motivations.
The other, most important parallel, though, is between Jody and the Mama vampire, and this is where the episode gets even more interesting. See, Supernatural does this really clever thing where it uses its monsters as metaphors for the emotional lives of its protagonists. Usually, those monsters are parallels for the Winchesters’ issues – but this time, it’s Jody’s story and her emotions that literally manifest themselves in the form of the monster she confronts. As the episode goes on, Jody takes on the role the Winchesters usually play, of having a complex relationship with the monster in question through their similarities. And, while the Winchesters are off in the ungraceful position of being bloodbags for the vampires, it’s Jody who has the interesting confrontation with the main monster, the Mama Vampire.
It’s here that Jody sees herself in the monster she’s facing: the Mama Vampire and Jody are both women who have lost their child, and who have tried to fill that empty hole with Alex. In doing so, the episode once again draws on an already-established backstory-Jody’s. It reminds us that Jody’s not just a sassy, badass, and fun recurring character, but a complex human being who goes through the same struggles and losses as the Winchesters. And somehow, that makes everything feel more real.
And though Jody’s story stands incredibly well on its own, it’s difficult not to see another parallel: between Dean and Jody. Dean has always found self-validation in his ability to care for Sam. Just as the Mama Vampire kidnapped Annie, erasing her name and turning her into “Alex” after her lost daughter, just as Jody attempted to use Alex to fill the hole her lost child has left in her life, so too Dean has used his younger brother to fill the emptiness in his life. This season, he’s even removed Sam’s agency in order to save his life, as much for his own sake as for Sam’s – an act that’s defined much of this season’s story arc. This parallel serves as yet another reminder of the dangerous places to which both family and loss can lead, and how important they are this season.
Of course, neither Sam nor Alex like being manipulated into a role they didn’t choose, which is what turns Alex against her mother and allows Jody to escape and, in another badass move, take down the main monster of the episode. In the meantime, the Winchesters manage to escape their precarious position – and, in another striking parallel to a former Supernatural episode, Dean bloodthirstily slices the head off a vampire, and looks like he’s enjoying the power trip it gave him. It’s more than reminiscent of Sam’s killing of hunter-turned-vampire Gordon back when his own powers and evil were manifesting themselves, and another subtle, quick nod to the Mark of Cain storyline.
Then comes the usual post-episode discussion, as our stalwart heroes discuss the events, the monsters, and the moral issues. After a quick mention that Alex has been cured of vampirism (another nod to already-established vampire lore!), the episode leaves Sam to confront Dean about how much he was enjoying the killing. Interestingly, Dean almost blows him off, suggesting that there’s nothing wrong in taking pleasure in killing – a mindset that harkens back not only to his experiences in Purgatory (which he described as “pure”) but also to his experiences in Hell, where he not only tortured souls but liked it. This Dean, though, doesn’t even seem to be bothered by the fact that he likes it, which makes the place he’s sliding to all the scarier. Admittedly, I’m getting a little tired of waiting for where exactly that leads – but we should find out in about two episodes.
The episode ends, in another interesting turn, not with the Winchesters standing around the Impala, talking about their feelings, but the women – Jody and Alex – sitting in Jody’s cabin, talking about their feelings. Both find comfort in each other for their loss, and are able to share their grief – reminding us that there is a healthy balance to strike between using someone to fill a hole in your life and creating a mutual relationship. And that, I predict, is a theme we’ll see again before the season’s over.
Read Anastasia’s review of the previous episode, Meta Fiction, here.
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