Review: Supernatural: “The Big Empty” (13.04)


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[lots o’ spoilers ahead]


This isn’t one of my favorites of the season, though it did have a character (Mia the grief counselor) I rather liked and would like to see again. The counselor was played by the doomed fake psychic from “The Mentalists,” something the show’s writers obviously remembered. There was a fairly extended injoke near the beginning about how Mia Vallens could possibly be a medium who was accidentally (or intentionally) calling back vengeful, troubled spirits from beyond the grave. In “The Mentalists,” Rukiya Bernard played a fake medium named Camille who got killed by a ghost that had been summoned by a vengeful medium.

I quite liked Bernard in “The Mentalists” and found her very personable. So, I was bummed when the character got killed off and happy to see her again here. I was also glad that she didn’t get killed off this time, which means she could recur (although the actress does have a recurring role on Van Helsing, so there’s that wrinkle). We may not see her again on this show, but she might pop up in Wayward Sisters.

Now, I also thought Mia was an absolutely terrible family counselor, but more on that in a minute. In general, her heart was in the right place and when the chips were down, she preferred to die rather than hurt anyone in her new life (something Dean very much noticed). She took the job to help people and used her talent as a Shapeshifter in a benign way – not to mess with people, but to give them closure.

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This is a radical departure from the Shapeshifters we’ve seen in the past, but it makes sense we’d only meet the psychopaths. Shapeshifters with anything remotely close to normal in psychology would keep a very low profile to avoid Hunters. It would take an unusual circumstance to flush one out, as we see here.

Mia had a somewhat different background than other Shapeshifters we’ve met. The parent Shapeshifter was her mother, rather than a passing and malicious male Shapeshifter impersonating her mother’s husband or partner and blowing up her relationship (what seems to be the root cause of your average psychopathic Shapeshifter’s Daddy-tried-to-kill-me-with-a-shovel issues). This may have contributed to her more stable personality. She only briefly mentions her mother, but the tone is one of love and trust.

The male Shapeshifter who is her ex and stalker is the more common type we see. One interesting clue about their ugly relationship right after the reveal of her MOTW nature is that her alibi for the first murder is that she was volunteering at a battered women’s shelter.

If you think about it, Shapeshifters are among the most human of the monster species. They don’t eat people, or need to. They are essentially human, aside from their ability (and need) to shapeshift. They can blend into society. It therefore makes sense that they would have relationships very close to those of ordinary humans. It’s just that the way they breed and their inability to stop shifting as babies and children tend to create a fractured atmosphere of fear and hatred in the parental figures who are supposed to be nurturing them and bonding with them.

Mia’s method of using her ability to help her patients was a bit “Eh, okay, I guess.” It felt like a ripoff of season three’s “Long Distance Caller,” which already was an uneven episode. Didn’t help that once again, whoever edited the beginning recap gave away the MOTW right off the bat. That was a bit annoying.

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Also odd is that the juxtaposition of good PoC girl vs evil white boy was repeated from last week’s “Patience.” Then again, why complain? Season one had its fair share of cute, rich white girls being menaced by white male MOTWs – “Hookman,” “Skin,” even “Dead in the Water.” There are worse patterns than one that repeatedly presents non-cliched, heroic Women of Color with their own stories.

As for the evil Shapeshifter, he was marginally less annoying than the Wraith from last week, so there’s that. Of course, once we knew the MOTW was a shapeshifter, it was easy to pick him out as the one person around the good counselor who didn’t quite fit in. Though the red herring about the Asian assistant who had five cats and looked a bit like the second male victim impersonated in “Skin” was cute. And there was a really cool gross-out moment as Jensen Ackles (having some fun playing a monster character for the first time in a while) ripped his own face off.

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But damn, is Mia a terrible therapist. Granted, she doesn’t get a whole lot of info from the Brothers and Jack before they find out she’s a Shapeshifter, but what was up with coming down on Dean like a hammer, while totally letting Sam off the hook? I get that Jack comes across as sincere and not contributing (at least, not consciously) to the toxic dynamic between Sam and Dean, except as a point of conflict, but there was a lot more going wrong between those three than Dean’s anger.

Look, Dean is a powder keg. Granted, Dean is always volatile, but he’s clearly ill, clearly grieving, and other characters have not dealt with it nearly as much as they probably should, considering how much pain he’s in. And as even just his conversation this week makes clear, he has some major trust issues regarding psychiatry, which means stepping lightly would be much more professional and therapeutic than verbally rapping his knuckles with a ruler.

It’s not just that his view of shrinks comes from television and movies (hence his reference to Hannibal Lecter this week). In the past, he’s been tortured by the ghost of a mad scientist psychiatrist who experimented on his patients. And then there was the Brothers’ first Wraith (especially fresh in Dean’s mind after last week’s episode), who was a psychiatric nurse. For Dean, shrinks equal monsters and while Mia turns out to be a good person, she doesn’t exactly break that streak.

And yes, he’s angry, but he has ample reason to be. There’s no way he couldn’t be angry under the circumstances. There’s no way he would be feeling any other way about Jack, and his attempt to bring himself closure by saying Mary is dead and trying to move on makes sense. In light of the facts, it’s even rational, if cold and hard.

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And I get that Dean is intended to be the one who is speaking brutal, even unkind, truths about what is going on, while Sam “keeps the faith,” as Dean puts it at the end of the episode. But again, that doesn’t let Sam off the hook for how he’s coming across. There’s a lot more going on with Sam emotionally than just trying to cover up his own grief by trying to raise Jack. What he’s doing is every bit as toxic as Dean’s rage.

The thing is that Sam spends almost all of “The Big Empty” trying to manipulate events, and people, to follow the script he wants. Neither Dean nor Jack wants Jack to go on a Hunt at the beginning of the episode. Sam ignores what they want, cajoles and lies (or at least tarts up) about how Dean feels to Jack and vice versa, to get them out on the road together. And then, once he does, he tries to bully Dean into parenting Jack – not just helping Sam parent Jack, but doing it all himself. And all of this, even Sam has to admit, is to “help” Jack regain his ability to reopen the portal that leads to the alt-SPNverse and rescue their mother.

Why? Because Sam didn’t take his many chances last season to bond with her (aside from hanging out with her for a bit at the LoL Quonset Hut). Sure, I get that Sam didn’t have a good template growing up to create a mother-son bond (Dean and Mary’s bond was pretty unique), and that Mary was being distant. But last season, not only was Sam holding his mother at arm’s length, but he was trying to get Dean to do it, too, all under the excuse of giving her “some space.” Sam doesn’t seem to be comfortable with emotion or closeness unless he is the one in control, pulling the strings, arm’s length while making others take all the emotional risks. And boy, does he pull some strings in this episode.

Unsurprisingly, Dean digs in his heels and fights back, saying he never signed on for that and he’s not going to do it now. He says he won’t interfere with Sam if he wants to parent Jack, but Sam’s doing that one alone.

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Even Jack questions Sam on the same point. This is really saying something, since Jack is trying to be as agreeable as possible. Jack even tells Dean about wanting to help Sam in his plan to get Mary back. Even at this point, we can see the seed of that obsession germinating. In an early sign that he’s warming to Jack, Dean warns him, “Sam’s plans don’t always work out.” Boy, doesn’t Dean know it, too.

Yet, Sam just keeps on going with it and not once does Mia (the therapist) ever call him out on his manipulation, even though he’s causing both Dean and Jack pain, and even putting Jack at risk. In fact, so clueless and self-absorbed is Sam portrayed this week that he walks into a situation, when he knows a dangerous Shapeshifter is on the roam, with his weapon stowed simply because he heard Dean’s voice and assumes it’s Dean. Of course, it’s not Dean; it’s the Shapeshifter. And Jack is forced to use his power to save Sam.

Also, the things Sam complains about Dean being “mean” to Jack about are not necessarily things Jack doesn’t want to do. The dramatic irony here seems to be that Sam is projecting his own issues with John onto Jack, while Dean wants nothing to do with the kid, yet Jack identifies with Dean a lot more than he does with Sam.

Sam tells Jack near the beginning that Dean will appreciate Jack making the effort to help. Jack is eager to do so, but he has no clue what to do on a Hunt. It’s lampshaded that he can’t even read an EMF meter and it’s no surprise he can’t read people at all. He’s cute and friendly and good for a climactic deus ex machina save, but the rest of the time, he’s flat-out useless on a Hunt and needs to be babysat.

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So, it makes sense for Dean to have Jack dig the grave for their first MOTW suspect. Maybe not all by himself, but Jack is young and strong, and doesn’t seem to mind. That he can do and pretty well. Plus, the clearly stated orders Sam claims Jack doesn’t like, Jack actually appreciates. As I said previously, Jack gravitates toward Dean for a reason: Dean doesn’t lie to him. Jack says repeatedly that he is confused and bothered by lies. This is a big deal for him.

Jack is actually more bothered by how Sam keeps snowing him and talking around the issues that worry him rather than just being honest, than he is by Dean’s hostility. Remember that Jack is just a baby. He doesn’t get complexity, yet. Sam’s attempts to reassure him may actually scare him more than Dean’s gruffness. At least with Dean, Jack always knows where he stands. So, when Dean compliments him at the end of the episode, Jack is happy. He knows it’s real and he knows it’s hard-won. Dean wouldn’t just say that unless he felt it.

More ominous is Jack’s admission to his fake-mom that he is himself lying. He says he pretends to have feelings, to “feel bad,” about hurting people. This confirms Dean’s concerns (though Dean never finds out) that Jack is not quite the cheerful, kindly innocent he claims to be.

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On the other hand, it doesn’t make a whole lot of sense, character-wise, for Jack. Jack says he doesn’t feel bad, while feeling bad. His powers come out when he feels threatened, but also when people he cares about are threatened. Despite his sometimes-robotic-by-way-of-the-Boy-Scouts demeanor, Jack shows a lot of emotions and cheerful, apparently benign, interest in the world.

Thing is, he’s a baby. And yeah, he talked to his mom in the womb, but clearly, he doesn’t remember a whole lot about it if the only real memories he has of her come from that video she made for him. So, how is Jack learning about these human emotions he’s faking? Why isn’t he acting more like, say, Lucifer or Michael? Indifferent and cold?

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Speaking of gee, that sure didn’t make much sense, what the heck was going on with Castiel’s storyline this week? Was that canon crackfic or what? Misha Collins sure had fun, I’ll give him that (even if some of it felt like cheap soundstage filler).

But whoo, how many problems popped up here? On the one hand, okay, cool, we finally saw the Empty and found out where angels and demons go when they die. And we had another hint or two about where Chuck and Amara came from. And the show got its obligatory pop culture reference in (to a 2003 neo-noir indie comedy) with the title.

But what is up with this new being? Is it a god? If it’s awake and talking in a way that Castiel can understand, doesn’t that mean it’s been awake in the past? How did Chuck’s creations affect it, or Chuck’s disputes with his sister? Is the Empty where Amara was trapped for billions of years? Is the Empty entity really older and more powerful than Chuck and Amara? If so, why has Chuck been able to bring Castiel back over and over and over again? Why did he say he could bring back the dead archangels Gabriel and Raphael, but that it would take some extra time and work? What about Reapers? How does the Empty figure in with the multiverse concept we now have going on? And why does the Empty, a philosophically scary concept to be sure, sound just like every other superpowered blowhard the show has had over the past 13 seasons?

I mean, great, Castiel’s back now. Awesome. But a lot of questions were left unanswered (did the Empty entity come back with Castiel? Is it possible for other dead angels and demons to come back from the Empty now?) and there’s no sign as of yet that even half of them will get answered.

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Next: Advanced Thanatology: The Brothers encounter an extremely violent ghost, which leads them to a surprise reunion with an old frenemy.


You can find my live recap of “The Big Empty” here.


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