Another Monster of the Week episode, except this time around we got two for the price of one, with Dean taking Jack on a hunt to boost his self-esteem, and Sam staking out the creature responsible for a bunch of disappearances with the Apocalypse dimension’s version of Charlie Bradbury. And as you might expect from a Richard Speight, Jr. directed installment, “Optimism” was big on chuckles and farcical antics, and light on progression of the season arc.
There was some allusion to the ever-present threat of Michael, and while the adversaries being tackled by the Winchesters and their respective partners didn’t tie into the archangel’s plans, as we saw previously with the Djinn, we did see Dean still struggling to let go of the guilt he feels for saying ‘yes’. The theme of self-recrimination was prevalent in the more intimate scenes between Dean and Jack, with both trying to face up to their mistakes, to move past them, and to forgive themselves. But ultimately their escapades were played for laughs, with Dean taking on the role of reluctant father, leading his young charge through the risky family business of hunting things, and desperately trying to avoid a conversation about the birds and the bees. It’s a well-worn dynamic by now, as we’ve seen the brothers (Dean especially) coach celestial being, Castiel, in the messy business of being human with equal measures of affection and exasperation. Luckily, Alex Calvert lends enough adorability to Jack that the man-child act stops short of grating.
Dean and Jack posed as FBI agents, then used Jack as bait to get close to Harper, a romance-obsessed librarian with a rather unfortunate relationship history. With several would-be suitors dead, throats ripped out, it seemed that Harper could well be one of the damsels in distress she liked to read about in pulpy novels, and when the culprit turned out to be her high-school boyfriend returned from the dead, Jack took her to safety while Dean tried to put the deceased jock back in his grave. But Harper’s tastes ran far darker than her syrupy demeanor let on, and it was revealed she’d used necromancy to keep her zombie beau by her side in a decidedly Dahmer-esque twist.
Meanwhile, Sam was having a more serene but no less bizarre time stalking a fly/man hybrid who’d been laying its eggs in humans, and yes – it was as gross as it sounds. Thankfully, most of Sam and Charlie’s interactions took place in the relatively hygienic surroundings of her truck, with Sam taking the opportunity to get to know this battle-hardened version of his lost friend. Having become the default leader of a new breed of hunters and survivors, Sam has undergone quite a change this season. He’s no longer the surly boy who resented hunting, or the Christ-like young man who gave his life to save the world, or the broken soldier who tried to go back to civilian life after losing his brother and paid the price. This Sam is committed to fighting the good fight. He has seen too much to ever go back to the dream of an ‘apple pie life’. His place is with Dean, striving to make the world a better place, and empowering others to do the same.
While Sam was clearly angling to draw out the characteristics of the Charlie he and Dean lost – the chipper and smart woman who embodied optimism – this Charlie bore many scars. Having seen the love of her life killed by the angelic wars (a professional cupcake baker, just to really underscore that loss of innocence cliche), Charlie associated hunting with pain and death and loss, and planned to give it up and withdraw from society. Charlie’s faith in mankind as a species had understandably been shaken by witnessing the collapse of civilization as she knew it, and it was down to Sam to change her mind about giving up on humanity. While it might not have been subtle, this episode’s timely and pointed message about needing other beings, even during times when it might seem that people are inherently self-serving and violent, was illustrated by the strangely moving scene of the dead fly monster’s ‘family’ coming to perform some kind of mourning ritual.
While this episode didn’t rock my world, it did show some new and interesting facets to the Winchesters, demonstrating how they’ve grown and matured. It was an entertaining diversion from the main arc, and Dean now knows that Jack’s cough isn’t simply a touch of flu, so it will be interesting to see what other challenges lie ahead for the Nephilim boy, now that he’s lost his grace, and how the brothers deal with this new danger for their young ward.
Final Grade: C
+ Shout out for the return of CHRISTO! Seriously, why does no one bother with that anymore?
+ There were some comedic nuggets including the cut to Sam playing with a fidget spinner as Dean waxed lyrical about how smart he was, but Jensen Ackles stole the show this week, conveying Dean’s sense of shock and betrayal at being called ‘old man’. Ouch.
+ Having just started the gloriously trashy Riverdale on Netflix, I enjoyed the ‘Hey, Archie!’ line from Dean. A little shout-out to/dig at a fellow CW show, perhaps?
– Although it was a decent plot twist, I’m not massively enamoured with seeing yet another crazy stalker character. The show has improved its representation of women hugely over the years, but this seemed like a backwards step.
– I get that we need new dynamics to keep the show from stagnating, but it still feels a little over-populated to me.
– I can’t shake the sense that many of the narrative and creative decisions this year are being steered by talent availability and budget. I mean, I know that’s how the industry works, but by having guest stars begin major plots then not following up on them for weeks on end makes the world seem disconnected. Surely someone in the bunker would have discovered Nick’s rampage by now?
Extra Thought: I’m still not sure about recycling dead characters as 2.0 versions of themselves…It feels like cheating somehow.
What did you think? Are you optimistic for the rest of the season, or did this episode have you running for the hills? Sound off in the comments or over on Twitter!