Tag Archives: The Big Empty

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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The Official “The Big Empty” (13.04) Live Recap Thread

Standard recap of the season so far, including Jack and a quick cut of the MOTW from “Nightshifter.” Gee, I wonder what the MOTW will be this week?

Cut to Now in Madison, Wisconsin, where a man is entering his house and turning on lights. A woman is waiting for him. She says hi and he says she’s dead. She approaches him, says she missed him, and then stabs him to death before walking out.

Cue title cards.

In the Bunker, Sam is back from a food run and Dean is doing research. Dean grunts when Sam ask him how he’s doing. Dean has found the case of DTG (who was murdered by his dead wife), but is hesitant to take Sam along and leave Jack. Sam suggest they take Jack along. My response is identical to Dean’s: “Oh hell, no.”

Dean figures that as long as Jack is at the Bunker with them, he’s not out on the loose doing something awful. Which is actually a good point. Sam doesn’t like it, though, and Dean points out that maybe Sam’s just mad because his plan to use Jack to rescue Mom isn’t going so well. Sam then not only crosses that line, but swandives over it by asking if Dean is okay with the idea of their mother dead.

The look Dean gives Sam could blister paint. In the Antarctic.

Anyhoo, Sam ends up going to ask Jack if he wants to come along. Jack at first says no, correctly citing Dean’s reference to him the previous episode as “an interdimensional can opener” as a sign that Sam is “using” him. Sam then turns this around by appealing to Jack’s grief over his mother by talking about how Mary is trapped on the other side of the rift Jack created and saying that no, really, he still cares about Jack, and he won’t let Dean hurt Jack, especially if Jack shows himself making an effort to be good and win Dean over. Jack naively buys the Puppy Dog Eyes o’ Doom hook, line and sinker. But it’s still pretty cold.

In the car, in their FBI suits, the Brothers are getting ready to interview a witness to the killing and explaining about ghosts and revenants to Jack. Of course, the recap has already pretty much spoiled which MOTW it is, but hey, let’s just roll with it.

Sam tells Jack to check out the crime scene while Dean tells Jack to stay in the car. Jack checks out the crime scene, but he’s got nothing. The Brothers also get nothing when the EMF shows no reading on it. Dean says that means a revenant, but when they dig up the wife’s grave (Dean has Jack dig the hole while he has a beer; Sam has issues with this for some reason and compares Dean to John), they find an intact body, very dead. So, they burn the remains, explaining to Jack that his mother can’t come back because they burned her bones, and go to Plan B.

Meanwhile, somewhere on a dark and empty soundstage, Castiel is wandering around, confused.

He’s also being stalked by something dark and oily.

That night, a middle-aged woman gets a flat tire and calls in for help. Then she sees her son in the backseat. He eats her. At the crime scene the next morning, the Brothers are confused. Dean sends Jack on a food run. Sam complains that Jack isn’t their “intern.” Make up your mind, Sam. Either you want Jack to prove himself to Dean in some way, or you don’t.

As Jack returns with food, and confusion over how human interactions work, the Brothers discuss a connection between the victims – both of them were seeing a therapist who may or may not be a genuine medium. Dean snarks about psychiatrists. Considering his previous very-negative experiences with them, this is fairly understandable. But it still doesn’t mean he’s not the one on TFW most desperately in need of therapy right now.

Dean points out that patient confidentiality means they can’t go in as FBI, but he really hates Sam’s idea for all three of them to go in as patients. They meet an odd dude on the steps going in (whom Dean and Sam ignore, but Jack cheerily greets) and an officious assistant inside. Dean is pushy about wanting to see the therapist today. She then comes downstairs and introduces herself as Mia Vallens and asks if they have a recent bereavement. Jack says his mother just died. Sam says it’s their mother and they’re all brothers (you know, as if the idea of Jack as the kid brother character weren’t already obvious).

She invites them in and immediately clues in that Dean is hostile to therapy. Sam snarks at Dean about it, saying he’s not dealing well with his grief, and Dean gets hostile. He says that he’s dealing just fine, seeing as how he’s actually acknowledging their mother is dead, while Sam is in denial.

Sam gets angry and yells at Dean that at least Dean “had a relationship” with Mary, that she was always calling him. And then he storms out of the room.

This was a head-scratcher for me, since Sam was the one last season insistent on giving Mary space and telling Dean to leave her alone, then asking Dean how she was doing instead of texting her himself. Mary was very distant at first and Dean had to put in a lot of work to make that relationship continue, work Sam chose (for various reasons, some good, some not so good) not to do and tried to discourage Dean from doing. So, it seems a bit odd to get mad at Dean now about it.

Anyhoo, Sam storms out, gets some water, and spots a stairway to an upper story that has a privacy sign on it. Which, being a Winchester, Sam naturally doesn’t respect. He totally goes up there.

Sam immediately hits paydirt with blood on the pristine banisters and the shower curtain in a bathroom. He also finds shapeshifter goo in the tub. Oops.

Back in the exam room, as Dean openly drinks booze in front of her from his flask, Dr. Vallens has Dean’s number, pointing out that he just drove one brother out of the room and the other (Jack) is terrified of him. She says that if Dean wants to hold onto his anger, that’s okay, but he’s using it against everyone else.

At that moment, Sam bursts in and belts out that she’s a shapeshifter. Dean also draws down on her and they accuse her of killing her patients, while a confused Jack looks on (Jack’s confused a lot in this episode). Dr. Vallens insists she’s never killed anybody (though she is a ‘shifter). Her therapy involves shifting into the form of a dead loved one who died suddenly so grieving people can find closure, and that’s it. She’s very surprised to hear that two of hers are dead. She knows the Brothers are Hunters (duh) and insists she has an alibi. And it checks out.

Meanwhile, Castiel calls out his stalker, who turns out to be some entity that rules the Empty (where Castiel is). Except the Empty is “nothing” as Castiel says, the nothing that existed before God and Amara even existed. Yeah, whatever. It doesn’t hold together if you think about it very hard. Anyhoo, said entity (which looks just like Castiel) isn’t thrilled that Castiel woke him up, since none of the other angels and demons who died and came there for an eternal sleep ever did, and he hates being awake. So, he tortures Castiel to find out what’s going on.

He also brags that even God has no pull in the Empty. We know for a fact that’s not true, since God has brought Castiel back from the d-e-a-d more than once, as well as saying he could conceivably reconstruct even the archangels given enough time. Yay for LOL!canon.

The Brothers question Dr. Vallens about who could be killing her patients. She says she used to be with another shifter, named Buddy, who liked to hurt people, “ruin their lives,” and then kill them. She bailed, but he may have found her and stalked her. Patients and staff are in and out of her house all the time, so anyone could have seen her files (HIPAA violations! HIPAA violations everywhere!). She suggests maybe her assistant for a suspect. Poor guy. Dean goes to check him out. Jack volunteers to come along, to Dean’s displeasure.

At the place, Dean tells him to “stay in the car.” Jack says he wants to help, that Sam told him about his “plan to save your mother.” Dean straight-shoots that “Sam’s plans don’t always work out.”

It turns out the assistant isn’t the shifter, just a dude with several cats.

Sam has a conversation about closure and her method with Dr. Vallens (I am pretty sure this is the same actress as the one who played the doomed fake psychic in “The Mentalists.” I liked her) while he scrolls through her CCTV footage. Eventually, he finds one with the flashing eyes of a shifter. It is, of course, the weird guy who greeted the Brothers and Jack when they first came in, a guy named Driscoll. Dr. Vallens says he’s only been seeing her for a few weeks.

Meanwhile, Castiel’s Empty half is complaining that Castiel won’t let him sleep. Castiel suggests the entity send him back so that he can help Sam and Dean. Instead, the entity shows him the worst hits and sins of his life.

Sam decides to check out the shifter himself (at no time does anybody make any attempt to check whom they are really speaking with). Dr. Vallens tells Dean and Jack when they get back. Jack asks to talk to her and tells her about his mother. She takes the form of Kelly (God, are we ever going to be free of that insipid character?) and hugs Jack. He says he’s afraid because he wants to believe Sam and his mother that he’s good, but most of the time, he doesn’t feel any emotions at all. “Kelly” tells him that what matters is what he does, not what he is. Bang that on-the-nose dialogue home, Show.

Meanwhile, Dean is calling Sam and eventually Sam calls back, saying he found the real Driscoll and he’s dead. But it wasn’t actually Dean who took the call. Dean is unconscious on the floor. It’s the shifter. It knocks Jack out (Jensen Ackles had fun with that) and then rips its own face off to reveal Driscoll!shifter.

Back in the Empty, the entity is beating on Castiel, trying to get him to go back to “sleep” rather than return to the world and back to being a “disappointment.”

Castiel takes the beating, but tells the entity it can’t make him sleep. He’ll fight and they’ll both go insane, or the entity can send him back.

Back in the world, Dean wakes up only after he’s chained to the mantle. The shifter wants Vallens to kill them, but she refuses. Dean gets knocked out trying to warn Sam (after encouraging Jack to use his powers to snap the cuffs), but the shifter uses Sam’s voice to lure him in and like an idiot, Sam walks right into the trap.

Jack panics and throws the shifter into a wall. Sam then shoots the off-kilter shifter. What is it with these easy kills for Sam? I totally get that Jared Padalecki is tired of getting injured doing stunts (he’s had some doozies over the years). Who can blame him? But that doesn’t mean the way they’re just handing kills to Sam these days is fun to watch.

Later, Dr. Vallens tells the Brothers and Jack that she will take care of things with Driscoll. Apparently, that will ruin her career. It’s not too clear what consequences she’s taking on besides saying she killed him.

Back at the Bunker, Dean visits Jack in the kitchen and tells him, “You did good today, Jack,” then leaves. Jack smiles to himself, this time not so creepily.

Dean also hands Sam a beer and apologizes for provoking Sam at the doctor’s office. He admits that Jack may be more useful than he previously wanted to believe. Sam, as usual, flips and plays Devil’s Advocate – what if Mary is actually dead? What if he’s in denial. Dean says that Sam needs to “keep the faith” for them both, since he can’t right now.

Meanwhile, Castiel wakes up in a field. Or is it Castiel and not the entity? Who even freakin’ knows, anymore?

Credits.

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Contribute monthly via Patreon (which includes perks), make a one-time donation through Paypal, or buy us a coffee.

I’ll also be simul-recapping on Wayward Children.

Like this column? You can help keep it going by contributing monthly via Patreon (which includes perks), making a one-time donation through Paypal, or buying us a coffee.