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[lots o’ spoilers ahead]
I was not in the least impressed by Davy Perez last season. He wrote some pretty stinky codswallop, especially at Dean’s expense. “American Nightmare” was terrible. “Somewhere Between Heaven and Hell” managed to ruin Hell Hounds in the way that notorious Nepotism Duo entry “Of Grave Importance” managed to ruin ghosts and Ghost!Bobby in season seven. I especially like to pretend that Tarantino tribute/ripoff (“Stuck in the Middle with You”) never happened – and that’s coming from a Mary fan.
“Tombstone,” however, is surprisingly good.
While “Frontierland” was hardly serious throughout, “Tombstone” is a more modern-day, more noirish take on the Western genre. It wouldn’t hurt for them to do more of these. Dean’s geeking out over gunfighters (and TFW 2.0’s reactions) was a hoot. There were some nice takes on Western tropes (like the shootout at the bank). And the set design people outdid themselves on that motel room. Goodness, it’s been a while since we had one that gloriously in-your-face.
One thing I really liked was the low-key way the episode did two Native American characters, simply by casting them and playing out an Old West revenge storyline with them (the bank security guard Jack accidentally killed (Jason Asuncion) and the bank teller (Hana Kinani) were also played by PoC actors). Both Eric Schweig (Sarge AKA Joe Philips) and Paul C. Grenier (Carl Philips, Sarge’s murdered nephew) are First Nations. In fact, they were both in a Canadian series about a First Nations reserve, called Blackstone, that ran for five seasons. I couldn’t find Grenier’s tribe, but Schweig is a renowned Inuit artist, in addition to his acting career, and also works with the homeless in Vancouver and stressed First Nations communities all over Canada. If he looks familiar, it’s because he played the hot, doomed Uncas in Last of the Mohicans (1992).
I can’t prove it, unfortunately, but I have a sneaking suspicion Perez (or possibly director Nina Lopez-Corrado, who would have had more control over casting) was strongly inspired by a book called Killers of the Flower Moon: The Osage Murders and the Birth of the FBI, which came out in April of last year. This noirish true crime book (a film is already in the works) retells the horrifying story of a conspiracy that ultimately took at least 24 lives in Osage County during the Jazz Age of the early 1920s. It reads a lot like a cross between Dashiell Hammett’s Red Harvest and Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee.
The victims, all members of the Osage tribe or white friends and relatives, were systematically murdered by other white friends and relatives in a plot to grab Osage “headrights.” The Osage tribe had bought the land in the county in the 1890s under the impression that it was too barren for any white people to try to steal it. Cannily, they became aware that oil was on the land around the same time they bought it and managed to secure all mineral rights, creating an “underground reservation.” Each full-blooded tribal member then had a full “headright” to this underground reservation, equally divided among the tribe of two thousand members.
Needless to say, once oil was struck, the Osage became millionaires, which (mostly) improved their material lives to a stratospheric extent. Alas, the U.S. government of the time (apparently feeling it had not already screwed over the Osage enough) became worried about these “childlike” Native Americans having too much money and set up a system of custodianship for pretty much every full-blooded Osage. The guardians, of course, were mostly white (though some were part Native-American from other tribes) and they did a gruesome job of fleecing the Osage.
In addition, there was the aforementioned plot to murder an entire family of sisters and their mother to gain all their mineral headrights, which the author believes was only a smallish clutch among perhaps hundreds of similar, individual murders and conspiracies. Not even extreme wealth could protect the Osage from genocide.
Fortunately, the Osage survived this and are now a thriving tribe. But they remember that period as a very dark time in the tribe’s history. Since this period followed on the one where they all were driven off their ancestral lands, saw the bison herds destroyed, nearly starved to death, and had an entire generation of their children carted off to brutal reservation schools intended to turn them into obedient servants of white people, that’s really saying something.
A lot of the conspirators were lowlifes from the dying frontier of the West – cattle rustlers-turned-respectably corrupt ranchers and politicians, gunslingers-turned-bank robbers – and they fell upon this late bonanza of the Underground Reservation with a truly ghoulish relish. I trust you’re beginning to see some of the parallels I’m talking about with this episode.
If you look at the episode in this context, Sarge’s turn toward vigilantism to avenge his nephew (also a cop) while his (probably white) boss is out of town makes far more sense. Despite being walking targets, the Osage did everything they could think of to solve the murders and they did eventually get the custodianship system reversed. They petitioned politicians, hired lawyers and private investigators, and even considered taking the law into their own hands. They grew pretty desperate. It wasn’t until a former Texas Ranger named Tom White, now heading up an FBI investigation, came in with a crack, if eccentric, team of Old West characters (including the first Native American FBI agent), in 1925 that the conspiracy was cracked and even then, many peripheral or individual murders remained officially unsolved (though the investigators had their suspects and suspicions).
That’s what makes Sarge’s alliance with Dean so much fun (Dean even dresses in the episode a lot like Tom White did in an old photograph from his Texas Ranger days and how Texas Rangers dress today). When Sarge bluntly tells Dean after the bank robbery that some Old West justice is about to commence, he’s pleased to find that Dean is entirely of the same bent (being a Hunter). Not only won’t they stand in each other’s way, they immediately team up. And when they finally get the drop on the Ghoul (this week’s MOTW) who murdered young Officer Philips and is impersonating a dead, white gunslinger from the Old West, it’s probably not a coincidence that Dean and Sarge are able to work it so that Sarge makes the kill.
Personally, I think Sarge would make a good Hunter. I hope he returns in a future episode (and doesn’t immediately get killed off). I liked how Dean immediately clued in that the dead deputy was Sarge’s nephew (thanks to Sarge’s anger and the same last name) and that he assumed Sarge was the Sheriff until Sarge corrected him.
Dean’s going after Sarge down the Ghoul’s tunnels in the graveyard (adlibbed to the max by Jensen Ackles) is also hilariously off the chain. The script even gets in a callback to Die Hard by way of season two’s “Hollywood Babylon.” Dean does love his Die Hard refs.
Fans, of course, were long awaiting the return of Castiel and his teaming up with Dean, though the show never allows this to go on for long in the MOTWs before coming up with a stupid reason in a subsequent episode for Castiel to disappear for a few episodes, or at least not be in any scenes with the Brothers. I mean, I sorta, kinda get that Misha Collins is really easy to make laugh, but since the instigator of that sort of thing is usually Jared Padalecki, I’m not too impressed by that as an excuse not to have Dean and Castiel scenes.
Anyhoo, Castiel and Dean’s (re)entrance as co-investigators is a hoot and Collins works Castiel’s fish-out-of-water shtick for all it’s worth. There were some nice musical cues. “Space Cowboy” by the Steve Miller Band is one of my all-time favorite rock songs and was on my bucket list for appearing on this show, so that one’s obvious.
But it was also cute to become acquainted with “They Call Me Zombie” by the Messer Chups (AKA the Bonecollectors). The show doesn’t always use “hip” newer music very well, but this song by a cute, 50s-B-horror-movie-inspired Russian band from St. Petersburg fits in nicely with the show’s tone and introduces Athena Lopez as a Goth girl well. She’s another one who could come back and I’d be fine with it. Though she really needs to start locking the doors if she’s going to wear headphones at work.
Was less into “Hot Rod Rockin'” by Thaddeus Rose & the Thorns, which sounded a bit more generically rockabilly, but you can’t have everything. Admittedly, I’ve never been a big rockabilly fan.
I thought it was a bit amusing that after the incident with the bank guard, Dean packed the rest of TFW 2.0 back off to the Bunker and finished the job himself, teaming up with local talent (Sarge). When all is said and done, Dean does Hunting better than anyone else, but it’s interesting that as soon as things got serious, he went it alone – and the others didn’t argue with him as much as they could have.
It’s also interesting that Dean’s knowledge of Western gunslingers allowed him to immediately identify the Ghoul’s disguise and that his intuition (his “spidey sense,” as the scripts put it) allowed him to discount Athena almost immediately. As he pointed out, as an undertaker, she wouldn’t need to steal bodies from a graveyard. Of course Dean would know this – eating brains as an undertaker was Amy the Kitsune’s method of feeding before she turned serial killer to serve her cute moppet fresh brains in season seven’s “The Girl Next Door.”
Some of the other elements in the story didn’t do as much for me. Speaking of which, now I remember one reason why Kelly Kline annoys me – the actress who plays her, Courtney Ford, played that evil bitch who shot Daniel on Revenge. She seems to have hooked up with the CW’s acting stable and is now over on Legends of Tomorrow, apparently playing another Elektra-complexed evil bitch (gotta say, she makes those memorable). Anyhoo, the sooner they get rid of the drippy character that is Kelly, the happier I’ll be. She is sticking around far too long in flashbacks.
Jack has been starting to grow on me a bit, and some of the earlier stuff in the ep was cute. Like his waking Dean, who rises up, primal-screaming, bleary-eyed and heavily armed. Man, that is a bad idea, as Castiel (who, as we know from “In the Beginning,” likes to watch Dean sleep) tries to warn Jack before Jack does it: “I told you he’s an angry sleeper – like a bear.”
Alexander Calvert also milks it later, with Jack side-eyeing Dean nervously. Just because Jack can’t be killed by known weapons, doesn’t mean Dean doesn’t scare him. These things make Jack’s quickie bond with the Brothers seem more real and organic, so kudos to Calvert for that, and for making Jack’s affection for Castiel seem innocent and genuine (despite the rather-tainted origins of that in the execrable from-the-womb brainwashing storyline of last season). He has an easy chemistry with Misha Collins, as well. This is no mean feat. Such insta-grown-super-babies more usually end up like the whiny Connor on Angel, though granted, it’s still early days for Jack.
But Jack’s funk and his abruptly leaving at the end of the episode feel artificial and forced. It’s basically there because the writers decided it was time for Jack to strike out on his own. It doesn’t seem to grow from the story itself. While it’s nice (and, frankly, natural, particularly after Dean’s Team Free Will 2.0 speech: “Two salty Hunters, one half-angel kid, and a dude that just came back from the dead again. Team Free Will 2.0”) for the rest of TFW to reassure Jack that this is not a mistake he can never walk back from, their attempts to make Jack feel better just reinforce how out-of-nowhere Jack’s decision (and sudden and precise command of his powers after his central conflict of the episode being that he can’t do that) is. In such a circumstance, Dean’s calling Jack “family” also seems just a tad rushed.
In addition, while I like Athena, I don’t like that she basically ended up little more than Dave’s unsuspecting girlfriend and a red herring when it turned out she had no clue what he’d been up to (and no sympathy once he turned to murder). Plus, I thought their relationship was creepy from the get-go, not because she was a goth undertaker who aspired to be a film FX tech and he was a Ghoul who ate dead bodies and took their forms, but because he was stalkery and condescending and didn’t respect her boundaries even before he turned on her. Another creepy white dude. Yay.
That seems to be the only reason she was written as an Abby Sciuto from NCIS knockoff. And while I like that the side characters were almost all Hispanic and other People of Color, the villain at the middle of it was still a generic white guy (or impersonating him, anyway). Both Jonathan Cherry (Dave Mather) and Sarah Troyer (Athena Lopez) are experienced with low-budget horror. They may have been cast for that reason, but overall I found Ghoul!Dave a tad bland. Spending so much time on his relationship with Athena because she was just his girlfriend in the episode felt like wheelspinning.
I thought it was quite clever for the MOTW to be a ghoul gnawing on an Old West gunslinger rather than a Shapeshifter or a Ghost, or that the real Dave Mather was a monster back in the day (and the tunnels were a nice touch). The real Mather was quite a piece of work, dancing on both sides of the law in Dodge City (the setting of this week’s episode) and racking up quite a body count until he fell off one side somewhere around 1885. A colorful character like the Mysterious Dave wasn’t likely to stay breathing and off the map for long. In terms of who knew who, the Old West was smaller than you might think. But all confirmed sightings ended after 1885. He was declared dead (albeit with no body) in 1887.
No one knows if he really was dead at that point, but a lot of bad things could happen to you in the Old West, where the average life expectancy was only 47 years and you could disappear into the wilderness, never to be seen by other humans alive again. So, the likelihood of Mather (who was already in his thirties at that point) living to a ripe old age was always going to be low.
All of these elements never quite gelled for me when it came to Ghoul!Dave, though. A lot of the problem was that it’s the third time this season the show has done this trope (woman menaced by MOTW played by a somewhat-older male actor in a creepy stalker way) and it’s by far the weakest example. I noted in my review for that episode that I didn’t care for it in “Patience,” where the Wraith’s creepiness seemed overly sexual in an OOC way that didn’t fit the previous Wraith modus operandi. It worked better in “The Big Empty,” where the woman was also a monster (physically) and had a bad past connected to the male MOTW that made sense for Shapeshifters and for which she chose to atone.
In “Tombstone,” it’s just filler and relegates a potentially interesting female character to Damsel in Distress status. Portraying a guest female character as irrelevant, in a reactionary gender role at the climax of the episode, just because she’s an ordinary human, isn’t the best message to send, particularly this season.
Next: War of the Worlds: The Nepotism Duo return with another confusing tale about the alt-SPNverse, Lucifer, alt-Michael and Asmodeus.
You can find my live recap of “Tombstone” here.