The Winchesters set out this week to investigate a good old fashioned haunting, and Sam took the opportunity to help his brother find the meaning of life once more. When a couple of teenage boys entered the spooky former residence of an infamous doctor, known for lobotomising his patients, and only one reemerged, the brothers left Jack alone in the bunker and went to find out what happened to the missing boy.
On the surface of it, “Advanced Thanatology” was a standard ghost story. The whole former private hospital setting of this episode gave me nice old-school Supernatural vibes, and the ghoulish Dr. Avery Meadows was every bit the chilling spectre this show used to do so well, complete with scary plague mask and exuding a silent malice. But as well as investigating the disappearance of a boy, and helping the spirits trapped in Meadows’ building to move on, the title of this episode also alluded to the coping mechanisms Sam encouraged Dean to use in order to work through his grief at losing their mom and Cas.
It was sweet to see Sam make so much effort with Dean, clearly shaken by his brother’s admission that he’d lost faith in himself and what they do. Sam’s clumsy attempts to bring his brother joy – everything from offering him a breakfast beer to suggesting they visit the dubiously named ‘Clam Diver’ strip joint – were both humourous and really touching.
But Dean’s lust for life seemed well and truly dampened, and when the boys’ found themselves stuck with a house full of lingering souls after burning the plague mask collection anchoring their tormentor to this realm, the older Winchester was very quick to offer his services as a mediator in the veil. We’ve seen Dean ‘die’ numerous times, and twice by own his hand, but in both of those instances, it was in order to save Sam. This time, Dean seemed eager to remove himself from the picture, recklessly slipping into the arms of death to speak to the ghosts and find out where their bodies were buried. And Death was exactly what Dean found.
Last seen getting stabbed in the back by Castiel, Billie the Reaper had been promoted. Whether Billie’s new role as The Grim Reaper was one of the ‘profound cosmic consequences’ of the boys reneging on their deal with her is still unclear, but it turns out once Death is killed, the next reaper to die takes up the scythe. I’m not sure this entirely makes sense, but lets go with it, largely because it gives us more Lisa Berry. While Dean was eager to chop his life in for the release of the souls in the Avery Meadows house, Billie informed him that the Winchesters still had important work to do, echoing the famous line from the pilot and numerous episodes since, and refused Dean his valiant death. Berry has always portrayed her character with an effortless gravitas, and if anyone had to replace Julian Richings, I’m glad it’s her. Billie noted that Dean was a changed man, devoid of the purpose and self-assurance she’d known as a reaper, and this went some way to mitigating the nastiness we saw from him at the start of the season.
Meanwhile, Sam was beside himself as he waited helplessly for his brother to return from the veil. He was only marginally less distraught when Dean woke up, only to admit that he no longer believed that what they do is important to the future of the world, and that after losing Mary and Castiel, he needed a ‘win’. We’ve seen Dean at low points previously, ready to give up, but (as with his suicidal missions) it’s usually because Sam is in danger. It will be interesting to see if his latest funk is due to accumulative losses over the years, or specifically to do with his mother and Cas. After all, he’s lost both before and overcome it.
We finished the episode on an emotional high, with the boys receiving a phone call from the newly returned Cas. I’m still not sure how much of Castiel’s resurrection is due to Jack and how much is down to the angel annoying the celestial entity charged with policing the Big Empty, but it seems like this might just be the win Dean needed to restore his faith. I can only hope that Cas has more to do this season than in previous years, and that the showrunners find a way to make him badass again. Castiel is a great character who has been woefully under-served by the narrative in recent times, and I’m hoping that this is a fresh start and a chance for him to become more than a third wheel without detracting from the brothers as the focus of the show.
Overall, this was a great, classic-feeling episode which put the Winchesters front and centre. It had genuine horror, moments of levity, and a nice emotional cliffhanger. Fingers crossed that the show keeps on track with episodes like this, which move the new arc along whilst keeping the essence of Supernatural alive.
Final Grade: B
+ Loved Dean’s revelation that Sam tried to talk his lap dancer into being a nurse. Sam is the purest.
+ The deaths in this episode were genuinely upsetting, and it was so good to be reminded that the boys are helping innocent people who sometimes meet tragic ends.
+ Hungover Dean is a gift, even though his bacon consumption was inhuman.
– While I dug the old skool feel, there must be soooo many crazed doctors and surgeons in the boys’ ghost busting past. This felt a little derivative of Supernatural of days gone by.
– I love Billie but the about turn on Dean dying after an eon of wanting him dead seemed odd.
– The dismissal of Jack was a little tiresome. The show has sidelined main arcs for stand-alones a lot in recent years, but they need to find a more organic way of doing it other than two lines of dialogue as exposition at the start of an episode.
Extra Thought: It’s strange that Dean would bargain himself for people he didn’t know rather than petitioning for his mom or Cas. Is that going to be important later?
What did you think? Was this episode the win you’ve been waiting for, or a dead loss? Sound off in the comments, or over on Twitter!