Note: Do not read on if you have not seen Season 8, Episode 9 of The CW's "Supernatural," entitled "Citizen Fang."
Is it January 16 yet? "Supernatural" has always pulled off its midseason finales with great aplomb, and I'm pleased to report that "Citizen Fang" showed no sign of breaking that streak. Though its cliffhanger was far less urgent than some midseason breaks we might mention (I'm still scarred for life by the wait to discover what John's last words to Dean were in "Croatoan"), the rest of the episode packed half a season's worth of tension, betrayal, angst and anger into one taut, 42-minute slice of character development.
First, let's talk Benny, who -- as Ty Olsson promised in our recent interview -- certainly evolved from an enigma into a fully-realized character worthy of our sympathy this week, as befits any multifaceted addition to the "Supernatural" universe.
Since we've seen everyone from Sam and Dean to Castiel, Bobby, Kevin and Gabriel (to name a few) wavering between doing the right thing and the easy thing over the years, it was fitting that this episode laid that moral dilemma at the vampire's feet and, just as he appeared to be overcoming his darker impulses, allowed him to realize that he was no more monstrous than the human standing in front of him, threatening to harm his great-granddaughter.
"Supernatural" has always excelled at traversing the murky gray area between good and evil, emphasizing again and again that it is our actions that make us monstrous (or heroic), not our genetic makeup, and that humans can be just as capable of true evil -- if not more so -- than some of the creatures that the Winchesters hunt. Martin was threatening to harm an innocent woman just to prove a point, so why shouldn't Benny have ripped his throat out? Why was Martin more deserving of life than Benny? Simply because Benny was a vampire (who was fighting his inhuman urges) while Martin was a human (who was embracing his)? Or perhaps Benny resisted killing Martin, and it was Elizabeth who took matters into her own hands after being threatened. Dean didn't get a chance to explain what went down to Sam, since his brother hung up on him (a visual metaphor for their communication breakdown this season), so perhaps Benny's slate is still clean -- though Martin's wound looked a lot more like a bite than a blade to me.
The most heartbreaking aspect of Benny's struggle this week was the fact that, had it not been for Sam and his lack of trust, Benny might have actually managed to eke out a "normal," quiet existence in Louisiana -- the same kind of apple pie existence that Sam has always craved. Sam and Benny actually have a great deal in common (beyond their literal experience with drinking blood) since both have visibly struggled against what is supposedly their nature; both could easily have shut off their humanity and killed (or even kickstarted the Apocalypse, in Sam's case), yet both have fought to be better than what destiny has marked them as.
Sadly, the ongoing tension and mistrust between the Winchesters ensured that Sam and Benny couldn't find common ground this week (although I hope we'll see it further down the line). It was Dean's pointed observation that Benny had never let him down (unlike every other relationship in Dean's life), that seemed to spur Sam into being equally petty and deciding that Dean's trust in Benny wasn't justification enough for letting him walk. Up until that point, I was impressed that Sam was giving Dean the benefit of the doubt and allowing him a few hours to investigate Benny's innocence on his own, and everything might've turned out differently if the brothers could've just resisted sniping at each other.
But that wouldn't have addressed the duo's deeper problems -- differences in opinion and methodology that stretch right back to the Pilot. Sam has arguably always subconsciously resented Dean for being John's unquestioning soldier at the expense of Dean's own freedom (and also undoubtedly envious of Dean's closer relationship with their father) while Dean has always resented Sam for abandoning the family business (and by extension, him) in pursuit of a normal life. From there, their issues have snowballed -- from making suicidal deals to save each other (or failing to save each other), to demon blood, to their differing plans for averting the Apocalypse, these brothers arguably haven't ever been on the same page, at least in terms of their worldview and personal insecurities. There's always been love there, and the John Winchester-ingrained imperative to sacrifice everything for each other, but Sam has always chafed against his dark destiny while Dean has long since realized that hunting is what he was born for, as much as he's vacillated between embracing it and wanting to die because of it in the past.
Which brings us to Benny, the latest bone of contention between the two. We know that Sam was a wreck after losing Dean yet again, that he felt lost and hopeless and utterly alone, likely burdened with guilt for failing to save his brother again, just as he failed to save him from his demonic deal and then failed to save him from Hell itself. To have Dean point out that Benny has never failed him the way Sam has must cut to the very root of Sam's insecurities -- that he first failed to live up to John's expectations and now has failed to live up to Dean's. Mentally, the younger Winchester has been barely holding on by a thread for the past few seasons, and I can understand his instinct to be defensive when faced with the enormity of his "failure" (or at least what he believes Dean sees as his failure).
Dean, meanwhile, has well-documented abandonment issues stemming from his mother's death. He was forced to grow up at age 4 and recenter his whole life around Sam -- obviously because John was too consumed with guilt to be a reliable parent to either of them. Then, as soon as Sam was old enough to escape, he couldn't wait to get as far away from John (and as a result, Dean) as possible -- and from Dean's perspective, ever since he dragged Sam back into the hunting world in the Pilot, Sam's been trying to get away again, or has actively managed to leave him. He spent the first couple of seasons telling Dean that he wouldn't be hunting forever (and running away whenever they had a disagreement), and the latter seasons surrendering to a demon blood addiction and trusting Ruby over his brother, then losing his soul and becoming an emotionless automaton, then losing his ability to function normally thanks to his Hellucinations.
Not all of these things are Sam's fault, obviously -- he's a victim of circumstance as much as Dean is, since Dean never really got a choice about whether he wanted to be a hunter or go to college, when John always expected him to watch out for Sam. In other words, these dudes are painfully in need of some real, drama-free bonding time. The closest they ever got to just being brothers hanging out together was in "A Very Supernatural Christmas," all the way back in Season 3, and even then, the expiration of Dean's demonic deal was fast approaching, forcing both of them to focus on the reality of losing each other.
So I sense that Sam currently sees Benny as the embodiment of all his past failings in regards to Dean, while Dean sees Amelia and the normal life she offered as the embodiment of all the things Sam has always craved (and always been willing to "abandon" Dean for). It seems like a textbook case of both brothers trying to push each other away first to try and lessen the pain of their eventual split (which I feel like I've been pointing out since the beginning of the season, although this is the first episode where that theme has crystallized so overtly), when all the guys really want is to have their insecurities addressed and dispelled once and for all. In short, they just want to be loved. Talk about Occam's razor.
This is why I'm so impressed with Jeremy Carver's arc for the season so far (and with Daniel Loflin, who so deftly delineated these conflicts in "Citizen Fang") -- Carver said at the beginning of the season that this year was designed to help the brothers grow and mature and establish a healthier relationship, and I see those seeds being sown every week. While I understand some viewers' sense of anxiety every time Sam and Dean are at odds, to me, there is no way for these two to ever reconcile and move past their many hurts and resentments and disagreements without this initial breakdown.
The brothers aren't going to be separated forever (or probably for more than ten minutes in Episode 10), their relationship isn't going to be irreparably damaged, and every single moment of friction and conflict in the first half of the season is clearly (to me, at least) designed to clear away the debris of seven years' worth of resentment and miscommunication to finally get both Sam and Dean onto a level playing field, with all of their fears and doubts out in the open. Only then can they hope to realize that their brother loves them, but still doesn't necessarily have to want the same things out of life that they want. Sam is never going to quit hunting, Dean is never truly going to prefer Benny to Sam, and all of this posturing does nothing to hide the fact that these guys just need to hug it out, apologize, and accept each other for who they are, as grown-ass men and good people.
Jeremy Carver isn't Eric Kripke or Sera Gamble, so it's unfair to try and predict what you think he'll do as a showrunner based on what his predecessors did. What all three of the show's helmers have always intrinsically understood, whether you agree with all of their methods or not, is that the brothers' relationship is the core of the show, and that is never going to change. Jeremy Carver wrote some of the show's best and most poignant brotherly episodes, like "Mystery Spot" and the aforementioned "Supernatural Christmas". He has proven that he understands Sam and Dean, so anyone who is legitimately afraid that he'd break their relationship clearly hasn't been paying attention.
Thus, I'm not even slightly worried about the brothers being at odds, or even outraged about Dean switching Amelia's number for a burner phone's so that he could distract Sam. Sure, it was mean, but that only serves to illustrate how deep these trust issues go. Sam wasn't prepared to trust that Dean could vouch for Benny, and Dean wasn't prepared to trust that Sam wouldn't kill the vampire in cold blood (a reasonable assumption, given Sam's promise to "ice him" at the end of Episode 6). If they're ever going to become a functional team again, it's better to get these issues out in the open now (and in the most dramatic way possible, since that makes good TV) rather than letting them fester as they have for the past seven seasons. Lest we forget, the very first midseason finale, "Asylum," saw Sam shooting Dean with rocksalt because of all the pent up resentment that Sam was already repressing. There's a precedent here.
Was Dean's trick hurtful? Sure. But anyone who's ever had a fight with a sibling or a best friend knows that the people who are closest to us always hurt us the most, because they're the ones we trust with our deepest fears and insecurities. In the heat of the moment, any vulnerability is fair game, and while it doesn't make Dean look particularly heroic, why does he need to be heroic all the time? These are flawed, human characters, and their facets are what makes them fascinating and relatable. Both brothers have been unsympathetic or downright unlikable before (though I don't think that Dean particularly was in this case), and I applaud the writers for going there, while still managing to present realistic and justifiable motivations for their actions.
Speaking of Amelia -- I'm interested in hearing from those who were speculating that she might not be real, either as a hallucination or as some kind of angelic manipulation. This episode seemed to lay those possibilities to rest, although I can't deny that I'm still waiting for something supernatural (or at least a little iffy) to spice up Sam's present-day storyline, because the flashbacks, while a nice insight into Sam's interior monologue, are still messing with the pacing of the episodes. It was less of an issue in the second half of the hour, when the tension in Benny's storyline really started ratcheting up, but they still seem like a jarring addition in such an overly fantastical show. With a series like "Buffy" -- where our heroine's struggle for a normal high school experience was always built into the narrative -- such mundane diversions didn't feel out of place, even opposite the horror elements of the show. But "Supernatural" has always emphasized the freaky, so I can't help but wonder if additional freakiness is coming. Unless, of course, Amelia's first words in Episode 10 are, "you're that asshole who hit the dog and tried to leave it all those months ago." Probably a pipe dream.
Still, if we're really going the love triangle route, I'm glad that Don wasn't played off as some abusive douche, but someone who wanted to put his loved one's feelings first. And despite the fact that it feels like we've seen this storyline play out before in "Pearl Harbor" and myriad other projects, I'm hopeful that the writers will have a unique spin on the story.
Speaking of Sam's guilt and feelings of unworthiness, it was interesting that he swung so rapidly from telling Amelia that the "right thing" was for them to be together, to telling her to give Don a chance. I saw it as another illustration of how inferior he felt in the wake of Dean's supposed death -- how Don had to be the right choice for Amelia because he was obviously a better, less selfish guy than Sam believed himself to be.
I'm just trying not to read too much into his line, "maybe I'm going to Hell for saying this, but I'm not ready to give this up." For someone who has literally been to Hell, it seems surprisingly flippant, unless it was deliberately intended to be.
Although Ackles and Padalecki gave stellar performances, as usual, I was especially impressed by Jon Gries as Martin -- he went from inoffensively quirky to terrifyingly unhinged in a relatively short period, and his scene with Benny and Elizabeth was nothing short of chilling. I'm sad to lose a familiar face, but after his actions this week, I would've been furious if he was the one to survive while Benny bit the dust. And Ty Olsson imbued Benny with centuries of weariness and heartache, making for a truly compelling character study.
Overall, "Citizen Fang" was a compelling, impressively layered installment -- one that hopefully sets up some major tectonic shifts for our brothers moving forward. With 14 episodes still to go this season, the mythology and character development still has miles to go before Carver's grand plan reveals itself, and I for one am loving the road so far.
"Supernatural" returns with a new episode at 9 p.m. EST on Wednesday, January 16.
What did you think of "Citizen Fang?" Are you feeling more sympathetic towards Benny? How do you feel about the Sam/Amelia/Don love triangle? Share your reactions and predictions below!