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REVIEW: Supernatural 12×04 “American Nightmare”

After the epic nature of the myth-arc last season, it seems that Supernatural has decided (wisely) to go back to its roots. The pre-titles ‘then’ sequence using scenes of Sam discovering his psychic abilities from the show’s first season suggested this episode was going to be a throwback to a simpler time, a time when the brothers knew nothing of the existence of angels and demons, and the idea of having God living with them would have made Dean choke on his breakfast beer.

Indeed, the ‘now’ scene recalled a time when God was still an unknown quantity – an absent and mysterious entity – as a child protection services officer called Olivia Sanchez was seemingly flayed alive by an unseen force in her church, holes punched in her hands and feet and puncture wounds around her head. This provided the Winchesters with an opportunity to don their priest outfits, last seen in 1×14 “Nightmare”, the episode in which Sam first found he could move things telekinetically, which provided me with the closest thing to a religious experience I’m ever likely to know. Take me to church, boys. Amen.

After a second death, that of a local delivery boy by stigmata, the Winchesters’ investigation took them to Olivia’s place of work, where they discovered her second-in-command was a young Wiccan called Beth, and that Olivia had been a case worker for a family of religious zealots, the Petersons, who’d apparently let their sick daughter, Magda, die by refusing her medical treatment. While Dean, still smarting from Mary’s decision to leave the bunker last week, wanted to pin Olivia’s death on slightly witchy Beth with very little evidence to go on, Sam figured Magda’s ghost was the culprit.

While the puritanical Petersons didn’t exactly give off “The Benders” vibes, there was something distinctly off about twitchy matriarch, Gail, a former addict who’d been left in permanent pain by nerve damage sustained in a car accident. While Sam questioned her, increasingly irritated by her righteousness in the face of all he actually knows about Chuck/God, Dean somewhat bonded with father, Abraham, and son, Elijah, over replacing a wheel on the family’s horse-drawn cart.

There’s always been something quite old-fashioned about Dean, from his love of classic cars to his need to keep his family together, and this episode nicely highlighted the differences between him and Sam in that respect. Sam’s always been faster to embrace change and strike out alone. Sam would listen to Vince Vincenti and replace the Impala’s tape deck with an iPod. While Sam was trying to connect with Gail through talking and ‘Dr. Phil crap’, Dean bonded with the males of the unit with practicalities and hard physical graft. While Sam is generally considered ‘the more emotional one’, it’s often Dean who acts on raw feels. His eagerness to gank Beth was a clearly a reaction to her belief that sometimes what’s best for a family is to split them up. By his own admission (albeit while alone), Dean can be ‘a 13-yr-old girl’ when it comes to matters of the heart.

Supernatural -- "American Nightmare" -- SN1204a_0054.jpg -- Pictured (L-R): Jensen Ackles as Dean and William MacDonald as Abraham Peterson -- Photo: Robert Falconer/The CW -- © 2016 The CW Network, LLC. All Rights Reserved

Unable to see eye-to-eye on the case, Dean went after Beth while Sam stayed on at the Petersons’, discovering that Magda was not dead, but instead being kept in a basement by her mother and forced to repent and self-flagellate on account of having the devil inside her. Now, we all know that the devil is currently inside a fading 80s rock star at the bottom of the sea, so Sam deduced that poor Magda was not possessed, just psychic. Seeing Olivia and the delivery boy visit the house, she’d tried to reach out to them with the power of her mind, and unfortunately ended up making them relive the death of Jesus and scrambling their brains. As you do.

While Sam tried to reason with the Petersons, Gail decided the best course of action was a Waco style exit courtesy of some rat poison in the family’s evening meal. After Abraham and Elijah were killed, Magda had a knife trained on Gail, a mirror of the scene in which Max Miller was about to kill his step-mom in “Nightmare”, but Sam managed to persuade her to gain control of her powers just in time. With Gail in custody, Magda was sent to live with relatives in California, but her journey was intercepted by the mysterious Mr. Ketch, who shot her in a truck stop before informing the British MOL that he’d cleaned up the Winchesters’ mess.

So there was a real sense of coming full circle in this episode. More than a decade after Sam and Dean first encountered the ‘special children’ and realised Sam was one of them, the boys found themselves in a situation where the monster they were hunting was actually a scared and abused human. But there was also a demonstration of how much the boys have developed over the years. While Dean is still prone to hiding his emotions and that ‘shoot first, ask questions later’ mentality, he is less black and white when it comes to putting down anything or anyone supernatural, because he understands that not everything inhuman is inherently evil. And Sam has come to accept that his ‘freakishness’ is part of what makes him who he is. Overall, a nice mix of nostalgia and character development, and a solid, creepy, Monster of the Week style episode.

Final Grade: B

+ Dean’s bewilderment at Sam liking Vince Vicente was a joy to behold. I’m hoping for lots of teasing about that in future episodes as they hunt Lucifer. And I’m also loving the idea of a Crowley & Cas crime-solving duo spin-off.

+ There’s nothing like some holy cosplay and grandpa knitwear to make a gal realise how much she’s missed the boys playing dress-up. It was impractical in the good old days of motel life, but now they have a permanent base, I propose a vast wardrobe of disguises!

+ Olivia’s death was genuinely chilling and upsetting in a way that Supernatural deaths rarely are these days.

– I get that this show has never been the most subtle or high-brow of affairs, but there’s no excuse for out and out dumbness. A priest being amazed that a fellow priest had a rudimentary grip of Aramaic, for example, just grates!

– The old school feel of this episode kind of made me realise all over again how much I didn’t enjoy the Chuck and Amara arc. While there was no actual celestial force at work, it just reminded me of how problematic a lot of the mythology is now that we know who/what God is.

– I liked Dean opening up to Sam and promising to be less of a dick, but then he kept Mary’s message a secret. One step forward, two steps back. Le sigh.

Extra Thought:

This may be me misremembering, but I was under the impression that the special children and psychics/those capable of telekinesis had powers because they’d been fed Azazel’s blood. We’ve met mediums such a Missouri and Pamela before, but Magda’s abilities seemed much more in line with Sam’s, and his powers seemingly stopped when Azazel was destroyed.

So what did you think? Did this episode leave you speaking in tongues, or was it as much fun as a three hour Sunday service? Tell us in the comments or on Twitter.


About the author

Katie Young