Note: Do not read on if you have not seen Season 7, Episode 12 of The CW's "Supernatural," entitled "Time After Time."
The past has never looked so good. After previous treks to the '70s and the Old West, this week "Supernatural" took another leaf out of the "Back to the Future" playbook and sent Dean all the way to 1944, where he got to hunt in a whole new era with old-school G-Man Eliot Ness (played with serious swagger by Nicholas Lea), the founder of The Untouchables. It was an unabashedly fun episode, which allowed the audience to get swept up in Dean's giddy enthusiasm for the time period and the man he was working with.
Gimmicky episodes are a dangerous bet for most shows, and some stray too far towards tongue-in-cheek, wink-wink humor that undermines the conceit of the story. Breaking the fourth wall sometimes has a place, as "Supernatural" demonstrated in "The French Mistake" last season, but usually, when a show is too self-aware, it prevents the audience from engaging with the narrative and driving the mythology forward.
This show has never had that problem. Even as far back as "A Very Supernatural Christmas" and "Mystery Spot," "Supernatural" has always anchored its wackier concepts with emotional weight, and even though Sam and Dean were both busy with a case this week, it was obvious that they were still grieving over Bobby. Sam had a quiet and understated moment with Sheriff Jody Mills over a bottle of whiskey, while Dean found comfort in the familiarity of Ness' crotchety older sidekick Ezra. (She had the "idjit" delivery down, even if Bobby wasn't much for kissing his charges.) I love how much Jared Padalecki can do with Sam's quiet moments; he often conveys such a wealth of conflicting emotions with a simple quirk of his lips.
Following on from his "fake it 'til you make it" talk with Frank last week, Dean also had a moment of self-reflection with Ness, who, similar to Frank, pretty much told him to suck it up and stop pouting over his losses. I still don't think that's the most healthy or realistic solution to Dean's feelings of doubt and grief, but the older hunter did point out that it's better to have a sense of purpose than not: "Everybody loses everybody and then one day, boom, your number's up," Ness observed. "But at least you're making a difference. So enjoy it while it lasts, kid, 'cause hunting's the only clarity you're gonna find in this life, and that makes you luckier than most."
When I spoke to the show's writer/producer Sera Gamble back in October, she reiterated that this season, Dean is being "forced to question his place" in the world and his identity outside of simply being Sam's brother -- It's clear that the show is finally beginning to explore that territory. For now, with the losses of Bobby and Castiel and Rufus feeling so immediate, I can't blame him for focusing on the years of unimaginable loss he and Sam have endured; but I also believe that getting a pep talk from one of his historical heroes will prove to be a lot more effective than Frank's suggestion of pretending to be okay, and will hopefully pave the way for Dean to actually be okay.
"Supernatural" is built on the notion that these brothers are the very best at what they do; that they have a destiny that no other hunters could ever have fulfilled -- thanks to their ties to Lucifer and Michael; and that, despite all their suffering, they must keep going, purely because there's no one else in the world who could save it the way they constantly do. They're just Big Damn Heroes, Buffy Summers-style, and no matter how much life sucks, if they can't find the will to carry on, the rest of us are pretty much screwed.
I suspect that more of the Winchesters' cases in the second half of the season will emphasize this point, just as last week's storyline with Lee and Krissy served to remind them that as long as they keep doing what they're doing, other families have the possibility of normalcy and safety, even if that's something they can never have themselves. It's a heavy burden to bear, but that's why they've got their own TV show.
As I mentioned in last week's recap, many fans feel that the show has become too bleak after so many personal losses. I think that was a valid criticism of Season 6, which seemed heavy as a whole because of all the double-crossing Campbell shenanigans and Sam's prolonged soulless state. But episodes like "Time After Time" prove that, even in the wake of such tragedies, the show can still be playful and light; that Dean is still capable of smiling and quipping and being a dork over "The Untouchables" and anime porn; and that Sam can function as a regular human being and manage his trauma, even if he'll never truly escape it. I'm still hoping we see more introspection from Sam in the episodes to follow, and I believe the episodes focusing on Sam's hell memories are coming up imminently.
While I also understand some fans' frustration that Dean has now enjoyed two solo time-travel excursions while Sam has always had Dean by his side, narratively, I can understand the decision. I can't imagine Sam being so nerdy over Ness, or being so game to play good cop/bad cop as a "skull-kicking Nazi-hater" while interrogating Lester Young. Perhaps some people would deem that a shortcoming of the writing, since I'm sure there are some situations in which Sam would be believable in a specific time period or opposite a specific historical figure (he'd go nuts for Socrates or Einstein, I bet). But when it comes to westerns and gangster movies, I see why the writers would be drawn to Dean's brand of comedic geekiness. Jensen Ackles always plays such scenes with an enviable lack of self-consciousness, wholly committing to the physical comedy in a way that's totally endearing. I could have watched Dean fail to impress Ness with his "Untouchables" references and overuse of the word "awesome" for hours.
Even though this episode technically functioned as a standalone "monster of the week" yarn, it also served to illustrate just how strong the show's self-contained tales can be when the writing is focused, and provides further emotional insight into our characters. It was great to see Kim Rhodes back as Sheriff Mills -- especially since she is also mourning Bobby, providing another lens through which to view Sam's grief -- and I'm glad The CW is keeping Jason Dohring busy this season, between this and "Ringer." His final line warning about a future covered in "thick, black ooze" certainly doesn't bode well, does it?
"Time After Time" may have been Season 7's strongest story since the premiere, effortlessly blending humor, pathos and a fascinating concept (how great was the music and lighting?). It was written by Robbie Thompson, a newcomer to the writing staff whose first episode, "Slash Fiction," was also one of this season's stronger outings. I'm impressed that he already has such a handle on Sam and Dean's voices, and look forward to seeing what else he comes up with. I just hope the show can keep up the momentum it has established over the past few episodes for the rest of the season.
Sam: I hope you're watching cartoon smut, because reading Dick Roman crap over and over again is just self-punishment.
Dean: It's called anime, and it's an art form.
Dean: Special Agent Smith, this is ... Special Agent Smith, no relation.
Sam: You gonna look at more anime, or are you strictly into Dick now? (Oh, double entendre -- we see what you did there, Sam!)
Ness: Let's kill that bastard, because that--
Dean: Is the Chicago way!
Ness: Who talks like that?
Dean: ... Sean Connery.
Dean: Lester ... that a German name?
Ezra: [after planting a kiss on Dean] That's for luck -- 'cause I'm lucky! (She sure is.)
"Supernatural" airs Fridays at 9 p.m. EST on The CW. New episodes resume on Feb. 3 following a two-week break.