The Road So Far
1.03 Dead in the Water
SPNWiki entry for synopsis, trivia, etc.
Wherein I get back on the project after far too long. Wherein the Great Woobification of Dean begins and Sam starts to see his family with new eyes. Wherein Show begins weaving its richness of layers, and I think I basically just wallow in the early days.
(Possible spoilers for all aired episodes.)
Lake Mantioc, Wisconsin
Yep, the usual.
The Carltons. A happy family scene with tranquil music playing. I’m pretty sure that means these people will be just fine and there’s nothing to see here. Move along.
Oh, wait. No. It means that the sins of the fathers are visited upon the children, because our actions have direct and indirect consequences for those we’re connected with, and none so intensely and deeply as family. Show may be humanistic, but it’s a far cry from simple individualism. Which is actually one of those things that I love about it: however much it may skimp and fudge on the consequences of oh, say, dying or something, Show does everything within its limits to play out the full (and slow) relational consequences for people’s actions, even for the randoms we cross paths with every week. It’s what anchors Show, making it more than just a metaphysical roller coaster with people facing fantastical representations of everyday problems and coming back to life more often than they do on ER. It gives it heart. It makes it real, or a hell of a lot more than nearly every other show I’ve ever seen.
At an inn/diner (making the fourth of their haunts to show up onscreen in as many episodes, as I'm counting Hookman as the third, because it is), Dean is scouring newspapers for leads, and still giving female company a shot as a way to comfort Sam. An emotional connection (Lori) having only just been rejected as an option, the more casual variety doesn’t meet with any more success. Dean has figured out enough to not keep urging “fun” on Sam for long, though.
*iz having fun*
However, Writers’ point is well taken: Show may be full of fear and loss and death and gore and desperation and eventually the apocalypse, but that doesn’t mean it can’t be fun. (Even if Sam can get pissy about it.) Gorgeous classic car, brash rock music, gleefully absurd cases, pitch-black humour, and two (beautiful) brothers in an intensely conflicted relationship – that’s Fun. We have Dean’s permission to enjoy ourselves. After all, he does.
On with the case, then. Lake, people disappearing, no bodies.... But people don’t just disappear, Dean. Other people just stop looking for them. Ah. Subtext. Which is not-so-sub. This is about Dad, isn’t it. (Sorry to keep harping on it, but this argument about the trail going cold, the need to try anything, also makes sooo much more sense after Hookman, where Sam tries the FBI John Doe trick at the beginning.)
*iz not amused*
Dean employs a combination of rebuke, guilt-tripping and straight-up pressure, reminding Sam of his recent commitment to the hunting agenda, that quickly restores order (for the time being), and Sam gets on board with the case with his first – small – bitch!face since Jess died. (Sam’s bitch!face is a measure of his baseline emotional security. For reals.) Especially when it seems the alternative is watching Dean either chase waitresses or push them on Sam.
Their relationship seems to have settled into classic pre-Stanford patterns for the moment, the accustomed older/younger dynamic, still under Dad’s orders (to save people, hunt things). Sam’s drive for vengeance is powerful, but it’s being thwarted by circumstance, and there’s not a lot of certainty sustaining him yet. And no matter how long you’ve been away from family and grown, when you come back there’s always that tendency to fall back into the same old patterns. Especially when you need something familiar, some way of making the world make sense. He’s still off-balance, grieving, confused, and guilty. He’s questioning his judgement of having never told Jess about hunting, and even more, never having acted on his nightmares.
But acting on them brings its own complications, too, because that would have meant that his dreams were real, and the implications of that – in a family torn apart by the supernatural and steeped in hatred of it, dedicated to its destruction – are far too big to deal with. Especially on his own. When he strikes out on his own after Asylum it is because he’s got a lead on John’s phonecall, and because of the increased tension over who was in charge in the brothers’ relationship, and maybe slightly because he’s just shot his brother with rock salt and there are some lingering issues there, but I imagine that being able to discuss some of his frustrations with Elicott Jr helped him come to terms more with the decisions he was making, too. Especially in the long run, after he takes Dean/family loyalty to heart over the quest for vengeance in Scarecrow, more or less permanently, as events in Devil’s Trap show. Of course, he’s loyal in his own way, not the way Dean is or can always understand. Which is why Sam can, out of family loyalty, go off with Ruby in Levee.
In going to the Carltons (father and two children, huh? Huh.), Dean focuses on what the brother can tell them, but showing a brief echo in himself of the guy’s pain at losing his sister. Sam, joined by Dean, follows up with generic beastie questions, and Dean thinks they’re done. After all, anything relevant about the family would have been shared with or known by the brother, right? But Sam is eyeing over the guy’s shoulder to where the father sits, brooding and near-catatonic with guilt and grief, and asks to speak to him. After all, fathers always keep vital information from their kids, right? But, no dice. The father is currently incommunicado. Apparently, fathers in SPN (from God on down, which makes sense since we are wired to perceive that God = father x bigger ... which explains a lot) are characterized as having a lot on their mind, half-mad with loss, with poor communication skills, handling the awesome weight of protecting and guiding their families with wildly varying levels of aplomb. Please note that by SPN’s standards, John is one of the more successful fathers. At least he still functions.
Will Carlton: Look, if you don’t mind, I mean ... he didn’t see anything, and he’s kinda been through a lot.
Sam: We understand.
... Yeah, no kidding.
On to the next family to be torn apart by the dark secrets of the parents. (And another family of single parents.) I like this sheriff. Actually, I like most of the sheriffs on Show. Apart from when being used to make a particular point, they tend to be portrayed as decent, trying to do their best at protecting those who are their responsibility (a theme of Show not just limited to fathers). Even this guy, Jake; it seems that the “good” sheriff is part of SPN’s landscape of the mythic American heartland. He genuinely cares about his townspeople, and once he understands what’s going on, he gives himself to make amends for what he’s brought on them, and to protect his family. And he’s quick to catch it when something in SamnDean’s cover ids is off. He’s not a “bad” guy and he’s not incompetent; indeed, he seems to have done a good job raising his daughter, caring for her and her son after the accident, and serving the town. But none of that is enough to protect him – and those he’s connected with – from the lurking darkness of his past actions.
Enter the sparky, spunky daughter/mother (single), Andrea, and her traumatized son, Lucas, also incommunicado after his encounter with the deadly lake. And both of our boys, as traumatized sons, immediately resonate to the wound in this kid, even before they know any of the details, even before he’s confirmed to have any wounds. Of course, when Dean tries his charm on Andrea, ostensibly to find a motel (to Sammy’s pronounced eye-roll), it’s easy to assume it’s for the obvious reasons. It probably mostly is. But there’s a brief look at Lucas that suggests that something in the quality of his silence has stuck, that Dean wants to know more.
Andrea smacks him down, much to Sam’s delight, but it’s probably worth mentioning this as the first appearance of what will eventually emerge to be Dean’s Type: responsible, respectable, capable, strong woman, who challenges him and calls him on his BS (Andrea, Karmen, Lisa) ... and has a kid (Andrea, Lisa). Whereas Sam wants to build his own new world and family, from fresh, and do it his way, Dean is drawn to an already-existing situation. One where he can contribute, have immediate material worth and use, one he doesn’t have to shape in his own image, because honestly he has no idea how to do that and deep doubts about whether that is a valid endeavour. He has no confidence in himself being worth building around, but can see the value in something already existing.
Of course, at this point in the story Dean’s Type is: attractive available female, but even in this episode the connection he makes with her son transforms how he connects with her. He’s got a long way to go before he notices this side of himself, but something in Dean instinctively responds to this kind of woman with respect, and what is far more rare, commitment (when circumstances allow). Moreover, when these women actually see that side of him (ie, later in the park with Andrea and Lucas), they trust it implicitly; there is no lingering question that this is just a line he’s trying to sell them.
The research back at the motel reveals the nature of Lucas’s trauma, and puts an indefinite pause to Dean’s horndog intentions. It unfolds according to type, too: Sam in the foreground, investigating, learning, processing, compassionate but remaining intellectually intent on discovery; Dean behind him, unseen, empathetically reacting.
The mental and physical chores.
“Watching one of your parents die isn’t something you just get over.” – It’s strange to recall there was a time when we didn’t yet know how very damaged Dean was, or that there was a time when Writers didn’t simply assume that Jensen could sell that information with his eyes alone and had no need of such clunky explanation. Case in point: when he gives Lucas the picture he draws of his family in the park. The way he points to each of them – Dad, Mom, geek brother, me – tells you exactly where he stands relative to each member of his family.
Anyhow. He feels his way toward a connection with Lucas, without any obvious cues from Lucas at all, which is a very interesting comment on Dean’s empathy with deeply wounded people (contrast Sam’s empathy with shocked and grieving normal people; in this episode, Andrea). It’s all instinctive, and as such it’s very revealing; and like in Wendigo, his knack for positional body language comes through. Sam’s persuasion strength is in words; Dean’s is in physicality. He sits himself down across from Lucas and immediately responds to the toy soldiers; he’s put himself level with Lucas, but it’s (toy) soldiers fighting that he identifies with, not artistic self-expression. But one look at Lucas tells him he’s off-track, and without a single beat he easily puts himself (and the soldier) aside to work toward connecting the way Lucas needs. He shifts to the art, starting with the chick angle (of course), but then joins Lucas in it, using it to communicate about families and knowing that bad things can happen. This is also the point at which he changes position to be sitting side by side with Lucas, but also above him, a strong, protective presence that can understand what he went through. Dean is facilitating the hell out of this near-impossible communication, without lying, either (except about not being a bad artist himself).
Connecting with the weird and wounded.
Of course, it helps that he understands almost exactly what the kid went through, a fact that Sam begins to pick up on, first here in the park and then much more later, at Lucas’s place. Even though it’s never explicitly stated, it’s implied (and I believe in John’s “official” journal it records it as fact) that Dean also didn’t speak for a long time after Mary’s death. Really, these are the first few steps in Sam learning who Dean is outside of the overprotective but always-safe and nigh-invincible annoying/hero older brother and John’s XO. It’s the first time that he’s had it brought to his attention that Dean went through considerable trauma as a child, and what that might have meant for him; it’s not surprising that he never thought about it before, because before he left for Stanford most of his attention was bound up in Dad and his own messed up situation, and Dean has always been exceptionally good at keeping people from noticing this side of him. Plus, who’d have that little heart-to-heart with Sam? John? Dean? Both unlikely.
Connecting with the normal and grieving.
Andrea: Lucas hasn’t said a word. Not even to me. Not since ... his dad’s accident.
Dean: We heard. Sorry.
Sam: What are the doctors saying?
Andrea: Oh, that it’s a kind of post-traumatic stress.
Sam: That can’t be easy. For either of you.
Andrea: We moved in with my dad. He helps out a lot. It’s just ... when I think about what Lucas went through, what he saw....
Dean: Kids are strong. You’d be surprised what they can deal with.
And in all of this, we get glimpses of John’s early (and ongoing – he couldn’t exactly move in with the grandparents and create a stable home) struggle, Sam’s sympathy, Dean’s determination, that are all beautifully expressed in a way that could never happen overtly. For all that Show is obvious and brash, it’s also softly sensitive at times, too. It’s also interesting that for all that Sam has begun to notice Dean’s affinity and is actually voicing the little signpost toward what John dealt with, he hasn’t yet noticed the John connection; that’s going to take much longer.
Lucas trudges over and gives Dean a drawing of a house (no eye contact, though), and Sam and Andrea each give Dean a look; Andrea’s essentially amounting to a double take, of having misjudged this guy and realising there’s a lot going on here she doesn’t yet understand. Sam’s is on the same path, but much farther along it, having definitely picked up on the similarity between Lucas and Dean.
Back to the house on the lake, and now the caring, dutiful, still-grieving son is taking care of his unresponsive father, and there’s weird murky water coming out of the tap and, look, I’m just saying, CALL A PLUMBER. Especially when it begins to come up through the drain like that. Just ... argh. Also? Where’s the dad while this is going on? Because the boy’s making a bit of ruckus, drowning in his own sink and all, and the dad was just in the next room. (Contrast with the self-sacrifice of Andrea’s father later in the episode. Either way, it would seem that when it comes to protecting their kids, Show doesn’t hold out much hope for happy endings. *whimpers for John*)
But as clues go, this sink drowning rules out a creature, and the boys bounce epiphanies back and forth figuring it out, which is so natural and easy that I can only smile at it all. Yes, yes, there’s clues and connections and plot whatnots in there, it’s the lake and the guy and not a creature and stuff, but mostly, BOYS. You are so good at this. You are so good at this together. You mesh and you get it and ... and you just get it. Can’t you just do this forever and kind of avoid the whole terrible self-destructive death spiral of death? Can’t we do this instead?
Fine, I guess we’re giving Passive Dad Guy a visit. Bill Carlton. Who, okay, does wring a fair amount of sympathy at this point, even if he did fail to notice his son drowning in the sink in the next room. No matter how soothing and sympathetic Sam can make his voice, they’re not getting any clues out of this man. My children are gone. It’s worse than dying.
What they do get, and it’s in a flash in Sam’s eyes and Dean’s understanding nod, is a reflection of John in the picture of a father’s love for his kids. This is the second bereaved father Sam’s interviewed (after Constance’s husband in the Pilot), but this time around, his own grief is fresh and this isn’t just a brief excursion in hunting before getting back to his law degree. It’s probably the first time he’s started thinking about the father’s side of things.
Upon leaving, Dean notices the house is the one from Lucas’s drawing, and lightbulb. They tag-team convincing Andrea – Dean’s insistence with scarce regard for the shift in thinking that agreement would take, and Sam’s sweet voice of reason coaxing for open-mindedness, and of course they succeed. (I know this is off-topic, but being able to linger on all these little moments just enriches their background so much. I can’t help but see years of these boys learning perfect timing with each other as they face the world together, and John’s chagrin when they inevitably turn it on him, and ... well, anyway, back to the review....)
Gaining entrance to the inner rooms.
So Dean goes in and is so gentle ... and it’s interesting that with Lucas, the idea that there is some supernatural psychic thing going on doesn’t seem to bother Dean at all, which is weird because you’d think it would. Sure, Lucas is a kid and therefore all Dean’s protective instincts are up, but there’s more to it than that. Dean is identifying a ton with Lucas. I don’t mean to imply that Dean ever had psychic stuff going on – because I really believe they reserved that for Sam alone, and I think that’s sustained by the way Dean reacts to it in Sam – but that he is transferring his totally grounded, un-supernatural sense of his own humanity, and perception of his own journey of surviving and being okay after his mother’s death, onto Lucas. Whether this is the beginning of that attitude in Dean (more on that in a bit), or whether he’s always been that way, it just doesn’t enter Dean’s head that Lucas’s touch of supernatural is a problem in any way.
And then ... gah, kill me now. Dean’s reading Lucas’s total lack of communication perfectly because he’s reading himself, and the little flicker of understanding when he realises Lucas is scared is completely heartbreaking. As is Sam’s when Dean vocalises it. All of a sudden it’s not about the case, it’s about touching the fear that lives in both of them and calling out the courage for others that overcomes fear’s control. It’s about giving Lucas the reason to move beyond what happened on the lake, the reason Dean gets up every day and keeps putting one impossible foot in front of the other.
You’re scared.... It’s okay. I understand. See, when I was your age, I saw something real bad happen to my mom ... and I was scared too. I didn’t feel like talking. Just like you. But see, my mom ... I know she wanted me to be brave. I think about that every day ... and I do my best to be brave. And maybe your dad ... wants you to be brave, too.
Maybe this isn’t the most perfect piece of dialogue, but so beautifully executed that there’s nothing to criticise. Watching it play across Dean’s face almost makes up for not seeing more of Sam’s reaction to it, although his realisation at the beginning is supposed to be ours as well, which I guess means we can project his reactions as it unfolds by going by our own. And Dean’s uncharacteristic moment of openness is rewarded on the character level by Lucas making the first eye contact since he appeared onscreen, and on the plot level by the next clue being handed over in the form of a drawing of a house, a church, a boy and a bike.
*massages aching heart and moves on*
In the car, Sam’s explaining how traumatic experiences can sometimes result in awakening psychic tendencies, and if you know what’s going on with him you can see the struggle to keep it all separate, focus on the case, and above all not let Dean notice anything deeper going on. And his pokerface is nigh-perfect. As is his moment of skepticism when Dean suggests that this is what Lucas is “tapping into”.
Here again we see that, typically, a supernatural touch in a human doesn’t seem to bother Dean unduly – ie, Andy – provided the human isn’t using it to hurt anyone. Dean has always maintained a strong dichotomy between human and monster (which is why he has such trouble with the Benders, for example), and although Sam is a more complicated case, it’s complicated because Sam thinks it’s shades of grey, not Dean.
They decide to chase the church lead, because duh, and then of course Sam has to dig at this new part of Dean he’s just witnessed. He’s careful, knowing Dean won’t like it, but not hesitant, knowing he won’t suffer for asking. And the moment he starts, Dean pulls firmly into his turtleshell, knowing this was coming, but brushes it off gently, knowing just how to defuse Sam’s probing without being mean. Still, this episode is the one where Sam really starts looking at Dean – he openly studies him even though it makes Dean uncomfortable – for the first time seeing beyond the role he’s played in Sam’s life. This marks the first, tiny shift in the relationship toward them becoming equal, whole, and independent in each other’s eyes.
They find the church, and the relevant house, and go to find the boy and the bike, and for the first time Show really begins to delve into the horror of tragedy. The story of this missing boy, his bewildered, grieving mother, and then the terrible circumstances of his death are horrific beyond gory scares; it is horror on the personal scale that grows out of relationships (which is where horror excels at storytelling). Even after 35 years, the pain of losing her son Peter, of not knowing, of having no peace ... it’s as fresh as Will Carlton’s grief. She confirms the connection for us, and the boys: He just disappeared. Losing him ... you know, it’s ... it’s worse than dying.
Circumstances and clues fall into place, along with the picture which connects Bill Carlton to Peter as boys, and they return to the Carltons’ just in time to see Bill succumb to ghost!Peter’s desire for vengeance. They return with Sheriff Jake to find Andrea and Lucas at his office, where Lucas is passive right up to the point where Jake suggests they go home, at which point he becomes frantic. He grabs hold of Dean until he’s pried loose, with Dean’s assurances that it’s okay, when the only thing he has left to convey to these stupid adults that something BAD is going to happen at home is a long, mournful look at Dean until his mother leads him out of the office.
They sit down with Jake to discuss what happened to Bill, and discover the jig is up; they are not Wild Life Service and are about *this* close to being considered suspects. The case seems to be closed and so taking up Jake’s suggestion that they essentially run themselves out of town sounds like a good idea.
Except Lucas is sitting at home in the dark drawing dark swirly water and Andrea’s about to have a bath and it’s time for Dean to listen to his instincts. Sam wants to know why Dean doesn’t think the job is done, and it boils down to Lucas was really scared.
Sam: That’s what this is about?
Dean: I just don’t want to leave this town until I know that kid’s okay.
Sam: Who are you? And what have you done with my brother?
Oh, Sam. The good news is, you’re going to learn the answer to that. The bad news is, it’s going to take five long (long, long) years. For now, let’s start with: where your instincts run on empirical evidence, Dean’s instincts run on relational cues (as first seen in Wendigo). When either of your instincts speak, they are rarely wrong. When both your instincts speak, you tend to arrive at the same conclusion at the same time from totally different directions. This is a good thing.
Bath! Icky ghost water! Eek! But luckily, there is Nick Of Time Heroics; Sam saves the girl physically, while Dean’s immediate reaction is to protect the kid from seeing what’s possibly happened to his mom, and that’s all lovely and in keeping with the theme of Dean being focussed on saving Lucas, even over the opportunity to manhandle a wet naked attractive woman in order to save her life.
Quick! Grab the one you identify with! And fight the evil water!
The boys keep digging for answers, and Lucas leads them to Peter’s buried bike in the back yard, whereupon Jake finds them and is not happy about the developments, and between SamnDean and Andrea the story comes out, and it’s still heartbreaking. Peter was the smallest one, we always bullied him. That line really puts the boot in; this tragedy has long roots. I want to believe that it was this that made Jake become a sheriff, and a good one – trying to atone for what he’d done, to protect the weak and defenceless.
However, Jake still doesn’t buy the ghost story – it’s not “rational” – and in any case there’s no bones to salt’n’burn. So there’s no option but to get the family as far from the lake as they can; cue Andrea seeing Lucas walking to the water’s edge, of course. They sprint toward him but not before ghost!Peter pulls him into the lake off the jetty, pausing to give Jake a very convincing accusing look, effectively removing any doubt he might have about the rationality of the situation. SamnDean dive unhesitatingly into the lake, but it’s not until Jake wades out, remorseful and pleading for Lucas’s life, offering his instead, that Lucas resurfaces (from certain death), saved by a separate agent (in this case Dean). Yep, the pattern for this kind of trade is deeply encoded in Show’s DNA.
Quick! Save the one you identify with! Surface from the evil symbolic death water!
Of course, Show wants to do the fake-out thing and pretend it wouldn’t save Lucas with the symbolic baptism of burial/rebirth wherein he is awakens from the shadow life he was in after his father’s death and whatever, Show. You’re not fooling anyone. Although it does give Sam the opportunity to warn Dean (and us) that they are not going to be the kind of shiny happy heroes who are always going to be successful at saving everyone (as they have so far, or at least everyone named and important). This case, they’re, what, 2 for 5? And there’ll be cases where that’s a good result.
So there’s the beat where oh noes he’s talking about Lucas, when *relief* he’s only talking about Jake and maybe Bill and Bill’s son, too, because they died also, remember? The little saved family made sandwiches for the road and Lucas is talking, hooray! And maybe this promises that maybe, in the end, our wayward son (or two) will have peace when they are done. Maybe. Or maybe it’s just saying that whatever happens, they’ll have achieved peace for others – but that’s a worthy result, too. As Andrea articulates with Sam (he of the shock-and-grief-of-normal-people empathy), she's holding on to the knowledge that Jake loved her and Lucas, regardless of what darkness lurked in his past. Because as far as Show is concerned, you’ll never get a perfect father (and often you’ll get very much less), but what you will get, if you’re lucky, is an imperfect man who loves you no matter what.
It never actually says whose peace it is when you're done. Just a thought.
Meanwhile, Dean is imparting his own sage advice (“Zeppelin RULES!”), gets a thank-you kiss from Andrea and d’awwww, it’s all adorable, and Sam is cutely smirking, and also time to move on. You know, the more I think about it, the more I think Lisa and Ben are modelled directly, and shamelessly, on Andrea and Lucas (except I think I like Lucas a little bit more than Ben). Writers do have an eye for patterns that work and for working them back in when appropriate (Gabriel-Balthazar, for example). I mean, remove Lisa from the equation, and have Dean show up at Andrea’s door after the apocalypse and I cannot think of a way in which the story would play differently.
And the boys hit the road for the next thing; they saved the girl and the kid and life is good for just a little while.
Lensflare!Dean = 0/3
Bitchface!Sam = 1/2
Unison!dialogue = 0/3
Crying!Dean = 0
Crying!Sam = 0/1