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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9 thoughts on “Review: Supernatural: “The Big Empty” (13.04)”

  1. I know Mia meant well, but I had the impression that when she reinvented herself as a grief counselor, she read a few books and articles and then made up her credentials. I doubt she had studied psychology as a discipline.

    I also want to know if her assistant was aware of her talent. She left her leftover skin out to be seen and made no great attempt to clean up the mess. If she is that sloppy, I can’t imagine he never found out.

    Dean having Jack shovel and fetch food was totally appropriate. Jack, at this point, seems like a six to eight year old child. Children that age usually love to help, but they need tasks within their ability. Jack was young, strong and willing. He also had self healing abilities, so it’s not like blisters or back strain are going to be a problem. Rather than bossing him around, this was actually a way to make him feel included. And if Sam felt that digging and food errands were over the top demands when he was a teenager, he was spoiled indeed. As if we need more evidence of that.

    I didn’t remember the conversation Jack had with his “mother ” regarding faking feelings. (Seems to me I returned to the book I was reading during that scene.) That is pretty ominous.

    The creature from the empty was just weird.

    1. Jack and Kelly didn’t talk about taking emotions. She talked to him and he talked to her using telepathy and possibly mind control.
      Jack admitted now that he does not have feelings which is a scary concept and nonsensical in regards to angel canon and what we have seen. Once angels are free of the rigid heavenly structure we see all sorts of emotions from them. Even Gas who is about as stoic as they come has emotions. Lucifer is all emotion.
      And we have seen Jack talk about fear of dagon and display emotions appropriate for a frustrated child.
      He doesn’t know what these emotions are called because it is the first time he has felt them and he is likely feeling overwhelmed by all of these emotions being thrust info the Winchester family dynamic of denial, repression, passive aggressive jabs and outbursts.
      Bad writing top to bottom.
      Third episode in a row in which a male was the monster and the women were innocent. Second episode in which the bad male monster was a boyfriend. In addition to this episode’s female monster choosing to use her powers for good, obvious Jack mirror, I chalk it up to a weird misguided way of promoting wayward sisters. Girls rock and men can be monsters.
      I really don’t know. It feels like more than coincidence. Maybe they are all using the same episode outline to write from. We basically saw the same episode twice with a secret killer boyfriend that made the women look guilty. The wrath came across as a rapist.
      All 3 as well as Asmodeus and his appearance changing are all wolf in sheep’s clothing too which may be more significant actually. I expect a twist with at least one character not being who they appear to be.

      1. Jack talked to Mia about his emotions (or lack of ones he recognized as emotions) while Mia was in his mother’s form.

        I don’t really have that big a problem with female-centered conflicts in terms of having an MOTW be about women’s issues. The Brothers aren’t so toxically macho that they’d fumble them (I think the Brothers were just messing with Jody during the birth control dinner conversation because she dropped it on them without warning; Dean talked a lot more seriously about similar issues later on in the kitchen with her). I’ll take those over more Asmodeus any day.

    2. I think Mia did mean well, but yeah, I doubt her training was very extensive. Unfortunately, regulation in the field of counseling is so poor that in many states, you can put up a shingle as counseling with no formal training whatsoever. Interesting question about the assistant. Perhaps he was a different kind of benign “monster”?

      Yeah, I didn’t quite get what Sam thought Jack would be doing on the Hunt if not the mentally undemanding scutwork. How else was Jack supposed to prove himself (which, in fact, he did end up doing) besides digging a few holes? Ideally, they wouldn’t have been in a situation that requires a Hail Mary save with his powers in the first place. That was almost a worst-case scenario and as “Tombstone” shows, one fraught with risks.

      Jack has the conversation with Mia while she is pretending to be his mother. It’s right before her evil ex comes in, wearing Dean’s face, and smacks Jack with a poker.

  2. You have such an interesting insight into this episode. I don’t have any history with family therapy, but it did seem that Mia was ‘too much’ on Sam’s side.

    And from the beginning with Jack it was so obvious to me that Jack was looking to Dean for a role model. Dean was telling him the truth about ‘himself’ and Jack recognized it. He ‘knows’ that he is not human and is learning to mimic humanity. However, he also knows he ‘wants’ to find the ‘right’ way to do things. He may not ‘feel’ empathy towards people but he recognizes that he wants to do the right thing towards them. He was ‘moved’ by the dead guy in the Dodge City episode. He’s a kid, he is learning how to care for others.

    This also fits in with Dean going ballistic when he finds out Mary IS still alive (and being tortured) in The Bad Place. Once Dean makes up his mind about something, Nellie bar the door, it is getting DONE. I felt Jack wanted to find Mary FOR DEAN.

    Do we know if Jack is telepathic like Castiel is?

    1. The thing with family therapy is that it’s often said the person who is most visibly ill may actually be the least dysfunctional in the family unit. This is because they know they’re sick (because they’re manifesting symptoms) and are seeking help. Also, therapists are not supposed to take sides. How are you supposed to gain enough of the patient’s trust to get him to open up to you if you gang up on him with another patient? That’s completely losing all objectivity. Note how Mia never actually addressed the part where Dean wasn’t there by choice and had felt bullied into coming. Of course he was lashing out.

      That said, I think there was one thing she should have addressed that would have made the scene more logical in terms of real therapy. It was highly inappropriate (and against all sorts of regulations) for Dean to be drinking alcohol right in the session like that. Politely calling him out on it could have taken them to the same point in the conversation and would have made Mia look more professional.

      Yeah, Jack is looking at Dean as a role model. And in all fairness, Jack *is* human. He’s just also part-angel. So, it’s appropriate, especially while living in human society, for him to learn human behavior.

      I definitely think Jack wanted to find Mary for Dean, too. For Sam, as well, of course (Jack says that), but the urgency seems related to his desire to please Dean.

      I’m not sure angels are portrayed as telepathic, anymore. The show dialed way back on that for demons and angels after their initial appearances (too problematic for plot advancement). Jack doesn’t seem to be except whenever he does that mindmeld thing with dreamwalkers.

  3. Oh and the black goo monster was just dumb. Made no sense at all. If you wanted to throw Misha an acting bone have Alt-Cas show up played by Misha. Or have Jimmy play a grizzled hunter.
    Not some stupid goo God which is thrown into the mix without any worldbuilding consideration.

  4. I liked it better than the previous episodes… yeah… not saying much.
    I saw the dynamics like you did so all of the mean Dean stuff from elsewhere shocked me.
    Yeah it is great that the brothers finally talked but yowza. It kind of reminded me of season 10 in which most people accepted Sam’s point of view that Dean was dangerous and off the rails when Dean was pragmatic and thinking of the world despite the Mic and Sam went of the rails lied and manipulated to get his way, got Charlie killed, nearly got Cas killed and sanctioned human sacrifice and released the Darkness . The show meant for everyone to realize that Sam was the brother out of control and reckless and yet so few did… even when people dies in 11 because Sam was selfish.

    They just see mean Dean. Eyeroll.

    Of course anyone paying attention sees Dean depressed, on the edge and very close to doing something desperate. And if losing Sam drove Dean’s dark mytharc entrance in season 2, then losing Mary will do so x1000. We have never seen Dean as desperate as he was last season whenever Mary was in danger and well gun toting Dean this season is even more desperate, crazy and actively losing it.

    It’s exciting because I think it will lead to Crazy!Dean!!Crazy!Michael. And please everyone whining about the show being all about Sam are not watching. Last season Sam had nothing to do but look awkward, mope and behave stupidly ooc. This season he is the babysitter, Magnus style, and terrible at it. His one the to any mytharc action was through Jack and Dean not only is the brother that Jack wants to please, Dean just took over Sam’s storyline.
    As for Sam’s kills… When Dean got all of the episodic kills Dean also was given the fights leading up to those kills or great dialogue. Sam just appears to have constipation and flatulence and is barely able to grab the discarded knife whilst Dean and his attacker are distracted. It is lame… so lame.
    The writing for Sam bodes well for Dean!Michael. For all we know Cas will be mesmerized by his leader’s return. Crowley isn’t around to help. Mary may be dealing with issues and extremely emotional in regards to Dean. Alt-Bobby doesn’t appear to be the great scholar and doesn’t have a relationship with either brother. I don’t see Sam having the mojo or the back-up to fix the situation quickly. Dabbler and hacks have really hamstrung the characters.
    As for the promo which appears to focus on Claire saving the Winchesters and Alt-Michael’s lance killing Jody… better Claire than the newbies. Please don’t have patience and Kaia defeat an evil archangel in their first rodeo.
    Of course if it is Dean!Michael’s lance… what an intriguing tidbit.
    Given the lame fisticuffs between Luci and Alt-M, as well as the uber fascist militaristic vibe, perhaps
    Alt-M doesn’t have a lance per se.

    1. I think it’s fairly clear at this point that Dean’s going someplace pretty dark (and I don’t just mean the Bad Place). They had their chance to wrap up that storyline with “Advanced Thanatology” and instead, they revived and amped it up in 13.09. So, it’s gotta be going somewhere.

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