By Paula R. Stiles
In keeping with the 12 Days of Christmas (which began on Thursday), I’ll be doing at least 12 Supernatural episode reviews to catch up a bit between now and January 20. Today is number one.
[spoilers ahoy for several seasons]
Tagline: When the brothers investigate the death of a taxidermist, Dean takes a shaman’s potion to speak with the only witness – the man’s dog.
Recap: Recap of the season so far, with a weird emphasis on Charlie, as well as some of the crazier episodes the show has had, including the infamous cat scream from “Yellow Fever.”
Cut to Now. A guy is working in his shop on some taxidermy involving rodents in a Game of Thrones arrangement while listening to a ballgame on the radio. His dog, the Colonel, starts whining and the man hears a noise. When goes to investigate, he scares himself with a stuffed bear, but sees nothing. Then his dog starts barking wildly and a another man appears behind him. The intruder is tall, wears a cowboy hat, and sports a forked tongue. Oh, and he also crushes the guy to death with a big … uh … bear hug.
Cue title cards.
Cut to Dean and Sam at the Bunker. Dean is infodumping about Kevin’s offscreen mini-meltdown (what … another one?) from last week. Seems he got loaded and is nursing a hangover in one of the Bunker’s many mansions – I mean rooms – with the aid of Dean’s “Buffalo Milk.”
Sam is looking for new hunts. A rather boring exchange of Worried Nurse Dean ensues to remind us that Sam is still unknowingly possessed by an angel before Sam brings up Doomed Teaser Guy, a taxidermist named ‘Max Alexander’ from Enid, Oklahoma. According to Sam, it’s near the Bunker. According to the way these writers map their stories, the entire friggin’ Midwest is nearby.
So, off they go to Mounted Treasures Taxidermy, established in 1967, and find it vandalized by red paint with the words, “DIE SCUM.” Dean, in fake FBI mufti, is bemused. Sam notices etched into the paint an inverted triangle with a paw inside it.
Inside, the brothers talk to a young marshal who used to hunt with Max. Then they talk to the guy who found Max, another hunting friend. Dean is not very impressed and a tiny bit grossed out by the details of taxidermy. The guy used to clear out the guts for Max and was surprised to find them missing. It was a weekend and there are a lot of weekend hunts in the area. Dean perks up a bit when the man points out the only witness is the Colonel (as if he still likes dogs post-hell-hound-gutting) and can’t wait to get out of there. He’s creeped out by all the dead animal bodies.
Back at the motel (Sam does look rather nice in rumpled shirtsleeves and tie, doesn’t he?), Sam discovers that the triangle-paw symbol is of a local PETA-like organization (Jared Padalecki joke there) called S.N.A.R.T.: “Showing No Animal Rough Treatment.” The brothers’ current theory is witches or perhaps Wiccans. But, Sam wonders, what if they’re just local “hippies”? Dean shrugs and asks, “What’s the difference?”
The brothers investigate.
They arrive at the Gentle Earth Vegan Bakery, where Dean comments that he has finally discovered “the source of all evil.” Yeah, Dean, being a carnivore, isn’t going to like the whole Vegan thing at all. Dean’s aversion to Patchouli also rears its ugly head. Again.
Seeing the couple (Olivia and Dylan Camrose) working inside wearing sunglasses, Dean comments to Sam that only the blind and “douchebags” wear sunglasses inside.
The couple are friendly, but their front of knowing nothing about the tagging at the taxidermist’s shop crumbles rapidly. They admit were just trying to “scare” him because his business is supported by the hunting industry and they abhor the killing of animals. They get off on the wrong foot initially with Dean by calling hunters (small h) “selfish dicks who define themselves by what they hunt.” But then it turns out they have a useful clue. They are just harmless hippies (as Sam had guessed), but while they were engaged in the vandalism the night before, they heard a hissing and then were sprayed in the eyes with “Mace.” The woman mournfully adds that now they must look like “douchebags” because they have to wear their sunglasses inside. This startles Dean into seeing them as more human, even more so when they take off their glasses and there is their alibi – their eyes are red and sore, the skin around them cracked.
Sam later identifies this as necrosis and guesses it was caused by venom, since the killer had other characteristics of a snake. But different snake species don’t both constrict and use venom. He suggests a Vetala, but the only and best surviving expert on Vetala (i.e., Dean Winchester) nixes that idea, saying there were no bite marks on DTG. So, they’re left in a quandary.
Well, no fear, since that night, the bad guy strikes again, this time at the Enid Animal Shelter. The attendant is a bored little jerk who takes a payoff from the tall attacker in the cowboy hat who whacked DTG. I’m a bit skeptical of this kid’s cynicism. In my experience, most of the staff in these places are pretty devoted to animals, especially since so many of them are unpaid volunteers, but whatev.
Anyhoo, the kid (His nametag identifies him as ‘Brad’) hears some strange noises inside as the man strides past two rows of cages of hostile, barking dogs, including the dog from the teaser, who stops barking and whines in fear when the man stops and glares at him. When Brad enters, he finds the guy eating a cat alive (found that hard to watch with a cat asleep not three feet away, poor kitties), with a big bag of others. Then he gets cat’s eyes and slashes the attendant to death. We won’t miss Brad, though, since he thought the guy was using the cats for perfume testing.
Hey, horror shows, can we try to find another animal besides cats to murder in these stories?
The next morning, Brad is in a body bag where he belongs and the brothers are checking out the scene in FBI suits, along with a whole lot of law enforcement.
Dean is trying to work his way through a connection between a snake monster and a cat monster (due to the way Brad was killed and the missing cats) when he recognizes the General (Doomed Teaser Guy’s dog) in one of the shelter cages and realizes he was at both crime scenes. Sam identifies the General and at first, Dean thinks the dog is the MOTW. But a quick headrub involving a silver coin means the dog is not a shapeshifter or skinwalker or werewolf – just an ordinary dog. Then Dean has another breakthrough when the young marshal walks by. The dog barks at his large hat. When he takes it off, the dog stops barking. Dean asks the guy for his hat and puts it on his head. The dog responds in the same way. Dean gets it: The dog is not the killer but a witness and he just gave them a clue: The killer wore a cowboy hat.
The only problem is that the General can’t talk. Fortunately, Sam has an idea. He calls Kevin, who digs up an Inuit shaman’s spell from the Men of Letters archives. It allows one to talk to animals, or, more accurately, to “mind meld” with one. Back at the motel, Sam whips up the ingredients, but Dean insists on drinking the stuff. Dean gives Sam a lame excuse about Sam still being “on the mend,” comments that it doesn’t look that bad, and drinks it. He nearly pukes and admits he was wrong, but bulls through it by reciting the spell, anyway. Kinda like Sam doing the Trials.
However, it doesn’t appear to work. At first.
Later, while they are eating and listening to a classic rock station (“I Want to Know What Love Is” by Foreigner), Dean tells Sam to call Kevin, to inform him that the potion “tasted like ass” and didn’t work. Then he hears a voice, which says, “Change the station.” Startled, Dean glances around, while Sam looks puzzled. It’s the dog. And he hates Foreigner and power ballads. Not too fond of Styx, either.
After a brief argument over the General’s music preferences, Dean gets back in track with a little help from Sam and starts asking the dog about what he was trying to say before. The General tells him that a human, “Cowboy Hat,” killed his “friend” and also Brad, as well as stealing the cats from the “orphanage” (the animal shelter). The General says the guy “reeked of red meat, dishwashing detergent and Tiger Balm,” which Dean translates to Sam as “ground chuck, soap suds, and old lady cream.”
While Dean interviews the General, Sam keeps trying to toss a balled-up wrapper from his sandwich into the wastebasket, but Dean keeps absent-mindedly retrieving it and pushing it back across the table at him. At the same time, Dean keeps scratching his head. When Sam asks him what the hell he’s doing, Dean admits he doesn’t know and gets mad when the dog laughs at him. Finding out why is momentarily short-circuited when the dog suddenly rushes to the window, barking. Dean immediately leaps after him. Outside is a mailman. As the dog barks, Dean bangs on the window, also barking, “Hey, you! You! You!” over and over again, to the man’s bemusement.
At this point, Sam figures it out (It’s kind of funny that Dean is normally so eccentric, anyway, that it took a while for even Sam to figure out what was “off” about him). The spell worked just fine. In fact, it worked “too well.” Dean can not only talk to dogs – he’s becoming a dog. Barely restraining himself from retrieving the balled-up paper once again when Sam tosses it (playing fetch), Dean whimpers like Scooby-Doo, “Ruh-roh.”
Later, while Dean and the General have a staredown, Sam confirms his suspicions with a phone call to Kevin. Dean is unhappy to find out this unexpected side effect and argues with the dog about how deep it will run. Though he does take the General’s advice to avoid chocolate until the spell wears off.
They head out into the parking lot, Dean with the General on a leash, to visit the animal shelter again. The General makes a few “doggy cracks,” so Dean threatens to get him neutered. Unintimidated by the threat, the General says he already got the snip.
As they approach the car, Dean discovers that a pigeon sitting on a streetlight overhead has just crapped on his beloved Impala. When Dean curses at the pigeon, he’s really shocked to find he can understand the bird’s return barrage of insults (interspersed with the pigeon cooing everybody else hears). After a quick aside in which Dean confirms with the General that “animals share a universal language, like Esperanto – but this one actually caught on,” he quickly gets into a verbal dispute with the pigeon that ends with an enraged Dean pulling a gun on his cute, widdle, fowl-mouthed nemesis. Sam, meanwhile, goes from amusement at Dean’s chagrin over the outrage to the Impala, to trying to locate what Dean is yelling at, to embarrassment, to having to calm Dean down in front of a middle-aged couple getting out of a nearby minivan who are staring at Dean as if he’s a lunatic.
This scene cracks me up every time, dark subtext and all.
Sam (and Padalecki) gets to drive the car. They arrive at the shelter, Dean on shotgun and the General in back, both of them sticking their heads out the window and clearly enjoying the breeze. Dean recollects himself as they arrive, but goes off on a rant when Sam wants to leave the General in the car. Dean refers to himself and the General as “we,” and a moment later, is weirdly attracted to a nearby female poodle. It’s not made clear at the time, but we find out later that Dean’s sense of smell is heightened, meaning she’s probably in heat and that’s the attraction.
Sam, looking unnerved, snaps Dean out of it and has him go inside with the General.
Cut to Dean interviewing the dogs. The first is an elderly pedigreed dog who was dumped at the pound due to having cataracts her owners apparently didn’t want to pay to remove. I have heard people claim this doesn’t happen to elderly animals and that pedigreed animals don’t end up at shelters. Ha. They are so wrong.
Dean finds the many pitiful complaints of all the dogs too much and is ready to give it up for the day when a Yorkie nearby claims to have seen everything of Brad’s murder. But he’ll only give up the info for a belly rub. From Sam. As Sam cramps up from his hand-rubbing, the Yorkie tells Dean about the cats and that the guy ate one of them. He also mentions a logo for Avant-Garde Cuisine on the sack the man used to put the cats in. The General confirms this is “a cafe on Main Street” that doesn’t allow dogs.
When they put the Yorkie back, he begs to be adopted. At first, Dean refuses, but then he gets an idea. He lets all the dogs out. The General says, “I didn’t peg you for a softie.” Dean just shrugs. This will become important later.
The brothers break into the Avant-Garde Cuisine cafe that night. Dean comments on the place being closed on Mondays (a fairly common thing, at least in this area). In the kitchen, they find a photo of a “Chef Leo” who is wearing a cowboy hat and is the guy who killed Brad. Since the brothers have never actually seen him, they don’t know it’s him, though they have their suspicions. Sam wonders if he’s their psycho killer, but Dean points out that lots of guys in town wear cowboy hats.
Sam looks through Chef Leo’s desk and discovers a whole lot of pain meds. Meanwhile, Dean hears little voices under a napkin, begging for help (voices Sam does not hear), and discovers several mice locked in a cage. They say that the Chef is going to eat them and direct Dean to an open fridge behind him. He discovers animal parts in plastic containers right when Sam discovers Chef Leo has a “spellbook” full of shamanistic (more totemistic-ish, really, but shamanism can overlap in this area, with the shaman’s ability to inhabit and turn into animals) spells for gaining the strengths of various animals by consuming certain parts of their bodies. For example, as the mice tell Dean, they have “collapsible spines.” Sam also finds 3×5 cards showing combinations of animal parts. What is Chef Leo up to?
The brothers hear a noise in another part of the kitchen and go investigate. They find a young chef (not Leo) preparing something and roust him by claiming they’re from the Health Department. A waiter comes in as the young chef is explaining to the brothers that Chef Leo is hosting a private party, which is why the cafe is closed down for the night. Dean declares the place shut down and Sam comes up with some legal babble for a code violation.
After the staff leaves, the brothers briefly discuss how to kill Chef Leo. Though he’s still nominally human, even Sam is not arguing they shouldn’t do it. His human body count is obviously too high to leave the errant black magic chef alone and this isn’t first-season Sam, anymore. Dean suggests they empty a gun full of bullets into his head and see how that works.
Dean then goes out into the dining area, but Sam hears a noise back further in the kitchen and goes to investigate. Yeah, that won’t end well.
It doesn’t. Seems Chef Leo has recently eaten a chameleon and comes right out of the wallpaper. Getting the drop on Sam, he slashes Sam’s throat. As Sam stumbles away, Ezekiel briefly comes to the fore and heals Sam’s throat. But as a confused Sam turns around, a shocked and impressed Chef Leo coldcocks him, after confusing Sam even further by asking him “what” he is. Commenting that his private dinner (“Sharktopus,” like the Syfy modern “classic”) has just been preempted, Leo crosses over without a qualm into the realm of attempted cannibalism. He’s going to eat Sam and acquire his power to heal.
But as he’s getting ready to do so, he smells a dog in the kitchen and turns around. It’s Dean, who has a gun on the bad guy. Dean pulls the trigger, but Chef Leo pulls a Matrix maneuver and dodges the bullet. He throws a meat cleaver, that Dean also dodges, but knocks the gun out of Dean’s hand, yanks out some electric cord, and ties Dean to a column, commenting, “All dogs should be leashed!”
Still struggling, Dean sees Sam lying unconscious and demands to know what Chef Leo did to to him. He gets the reply that Sam is fine … for now. Until he gets eaten.
Chef Leo is surprised to hear that Sam and Dean are brothers, especially in light of Dean being a dog. Dean sniffs out that Leo is “sick” and he doesn’t just mean “sick in the head.” Our MOTW admits that he has stage four carcinoma, that he was diagnosed at past the point where he could be helped. But then he ran into a Pawnee shaman and got himself a zoo membership, and got better. Unfortunately, the cancer kept coming back.
When Dean asks about the combination of parts, Leo says those spells last longer. His interest in Sam? He hopes to assimilate Sam’s ability to heal by eating him, thus effecting a permanent cure. Don’t think a human eating even a weakened angel inside its vessel would be very good for the human, but being eaten won’t do Sam any favors, either.
Dean is taking all this in while frantically trying to fray the cord and break free. But Chef Leo ups the time table by deciding to do a dog fight and kill Dean that way, then eat Sam. He picks out several organs, then settles on a wolf’s heart.
Just as he’s saying a spell and eating the heart raw, Dean breaks free and stealthily gets the cleaver Leo threw at him earlier. Leo dodges the blow, but Dean follows up by shoving Leo into some shelving. When Leo comes back up, though, he has wolf fangs and Dean flees.
Down the hallway and out the back door Dean goes, into an alleyway. Chef Leo chases after him, declaring Dean outmatched. Dean allows this with a fierce grin of bared teeth, but then whistles. It turns out he is not alone. The cavalry arrives in the form of the released dogs from the shelter (Remember how I said we’d hear about them later?), led by the General. Suddenly panicking, Chef Leo tries to flee the sprung trap, but there’s nowhere to go and the dogs take him down. Dean watches in a mixture of triumph and revulsion … but mostly triumph.
Back inside, Dean rushes to Sam and slaps his face, begging him to wake up. He calls him both Sam and “Zeke,” threatening to lick his face. Finally, to Dean’s great relief, Sam wakes up.
Later, Dean gives the General to the Vegan couple. The General is a bit disgusted with them, but Dean assures him they will give him a good home. Dean regrets he can’t take the General with him, but says being on the road is no life for a dog. The General admits he gets carsick, anyway, and threw up in the back of the Impala.
As they are saying their goodbyes, the General tells Dean something very important – that dogs have a specific purpose for being on earth and it’s not being Man’s Best Friend. Unfortunately, just as he’s about the spill the beans, the spell wears off and all Dean can hear is barking.
Outside at the Impala, Dean admits to Sam that he will miss the General. Sam muses that he doesn’t understand what Chef Leo said earlier, about his not being completely human (Well, that would bother Sam, considering his history). Dean tries to pass it off as Chef Leo being nuts and not making any sense. Digging himself deeper, Dean claims that the chef was “possessed” by something that was bound to take him over, sooner or later. The subtextual metaphor for Ezekiel’s possession of Sam is obvious to the audience, not so much to Sam. Dean ends his babbling with “You can’t reason with crazy, right?” and assures Sam that everything is going to be fine.
They get in the car (Dean driving, this time). Dean gives Sam a reassuring look. Sam looks pensive. They drive off into the night.
Review: I really enjoyed this episode, both on original watch and on rewatch. It’s one of those old school episodes that people say they want, but often complain about when they get it. It’s rude, raunchy, dark, and fierce – gloriously imperfect. It also has a strong heart pumping inside it. And, of course, it’s very Deancentric.
I’ve done a lot of research on shamanism and the last major Ice Age for the Fraterfamilias series and my future Ice Age stories (“Life in the Red Zone” and “Seabird”). I’ve said in the past, numerous times, that this show does best in terms of faithfulness to the lore when it goes for a shamanistic worldview. In this case, not only does the episode go for shamanism, but it has two competing shamanistic traditions – Pawnee for the bad guy and Inuit for Dean. Neither is necessarily portrayed as evil. In fact, they’re both neutral in their original cultural context. It’s just what you do with them. They are good examples of “black” (active or aggressive rather than evil) and “white” (passive or benign) shamanistic traditions.
The storyline also deals with abuses of power. For those who are wondering when the Mark of Cain storyline, and how it would play out, first occurred to the writers, this gives us a hint. There is heavy foreshadowing in the central conflict between Dean and Chef Leo of corrupting power, of what you would do to survive, and how each man responds to it. How Dean responds foreshadows how he responds to the much-greater power in the Mark of Cain at the end of the season.
There is also, of course, a sense of a white man abusing the powers of an indigenous magic system for his own selfish ends, as well as preying on the animal world. There is no learning curve in Chef Leo’s story, none of the wisdom or enlightenment about the plight of the animals he is exploiting, such as what Dean gains. They are simply ingredients in his recipe book. While Dean receives privileged access to their voices, dreams and fears (which they eagerly unburden to him once they realize he can understand their speech), and becomes their ally and protector, Chef Leo merely consumes their bodies and is just another human predator. Unlike Dean’s merging of minds, Chef Leo’s “knowledge” of the animals he eats remains purely external. It is far less taxing on him than the Inuit spell is on Dean, but it also makes it easy for him to progress to cannibalizing his own species, at which point the brothers step in and take him out.
The idea of humans becoming animals or partially animals, often as part of religious ritual, is extremely ancient. It dates to at least the Middle Paleolithic and is believed by some paleoanthropologists to be linked to shamanism. Since modern shamanism, particularly of the ur-Siberian and Circumpolar variety, has customs in which shamans communicate with animals or animal spirits, and inhabit or even transform into animals, that’s not a big stretch. These customs also appear worldwide, though there’s some debate as to whether all of them are related to shamanistic practices.
For example, possibly the oldest evidence of a religious ritual is a rock carved into the shape of a python’s head in South Africa. Behind the rock is a small natural alcove in the rock. The current theory is that a priest or shaman stood behind the hole and spoke through it, appearing to speak as the serpent. This carving has been dated to 70,000 years ago.
Exceedingly famous is “The Dancing Sorcerer” of French cave Les Trois Frères, a rare cave painting of a human figure (most art from the Paleolithic is of animals, geometric figures, and handprints), dating from about 13,000 years ago. This was interpreted by its discoverer, Henri Brueil, as a dancing shaman who was transforming into a deer or wearing a headdress of antlers. That interpretation has come under criticism, but older and less-ambiguous art also depicts animal-headed people. The oldest known example is a lion-headed human figure from Swabia, dating to about 40,000 years ago. Another painting of a moribund rare human figure with a bird’s head, is found in Lascaux Cave, dating to about 17,000 years ago.
You see similar animal-headed figures as gods in Egyptian mythology, dating back perhaps as far as the Mesolithic, which is probably why some paleoanthropologists interpret these Upper Paleolithic figures as deities, while others see them as transforming shamans. The truth is, we don’t really know what they were.
Note, however, that these figures appear to be respected and revered as possessing special powers (the “Venus” figurines, as well), while ordinary humans rarely appear in Ice Age art. Also note that the heads of these figures are of animals, possibly indicating that they thought as animals, as well as humans (though the misconception that the soul resides in the heart and not the brain is quite ancient).
Chef Leo takes on animal characteristics, but never stops thinking as a human – body of animal, mind of a human. Dean remains human on the outside, but his mind is completely in sync with those of the animals he encounters, to the point where all of the domesticated ones (save the only wild animal, the brassy pigeon) ask him for help and rescue from predatory humans. At the very end, the Colonel calls him “an honorary dog” and agrees to share with him an important secret. That Dean never actually hears it doesn’t change his status with the animals.
This conflict between Dean and the MOTW is cast as Chef Leo being an arrogant newbie to the supernatural world, while Dean is its experienced life-long resident who must stop him from abusing said powers any further, subverting the straight-up Evil White Man vs. Mystical Native Shaman Guy trope. It’s probably just as well. I’m not sure the writers intended this, but overlaying the theme of Man’s unending exploitation of the natural world is one of Americans co-opting non-Western cultures, ranging from the benign (the Vegan couple and their pseudo-Eastern mystical philosophy, and Dean’s use of the Inuit spell) to the sinister (Chef Leo’s use of the Pawnee shaman’s spell book). There is an entitlement to the Wendigo-like Chef Leo in that he starts off in perfectly legal territory, eating only animals, before graduating to killing humans pretty much for fun. Chef Leo is so dangerous precisely because he’s so unpredictable and won’t follow the rules, but there are also huge holes in his knowledge set. Unfortunately for him, there are people out there who know how to deal with amateurs like him.
When he comments in wonder, for example, on how strange Dean and Sam appear to be (“What was your mum smoking when she had you two?”), he shows his complete ignorance of angels and angel possession, or even of animal-related spells beyond the limited set he learned. This utter lack of knowledge will prove fatal. Once again, as in episodes like the clown one or “The Mentalists,” we see someone who has learned a little bit of magic and gone nuts with it (thinking he/she is the first person ever to have done that and is therefore unstoppable), having to be stopped (permanently) by a much more experienced and principled expert in black magic who can get up to speed on this new clutch of spells very, very quickly. Sometimes, as in “Swap Meat,” the brothers show mercy and other times, as in “Repo Man,” they don’t. This time, Dean doesn’t.
The episode is held together by a single performance – that of Jensen Ackles (well, two, if you count Steve Valentine’s very scary performance as the human MOTW, Chef Leo) – though Jared Padalecki also does some really nice back-up as a straight-man Sam to Dean’s crazy behavior (which only Sam understands is actually mostly rational). Ackles eschews the obvious slapstick in playing a dog and spends more time trying to portray how a dog might react in such a situation. This contributes a lot to the empathy Dean feels for the animals and how this helps him solve the case. We also see a distinct learning curve for him, as he progresses from being rather harsh and cynical toward the Vegan bakery owners to (accurately) judging them the best new owners for the General. The General isn’t too thrilled about it, but Dean gently points out that they love animals and will be kind to him. Dean doesn’t have to add that the General might well not find another friend like his taxidermist pal among the local hunting (small h) community.
We also see Dean go through a learning curve with animals, though this one is less extreme. This starts long before he takes the potion and can actually hear the animals’ thoughts – he’s the one who guesses that the General saw the murder when the dog reacts to the local cop’s hat. And he also figures out how to communicate that realization to the General, who confirms it by barking when Dean borrows the hat and puts it on his own head. We also see Dean realize at the end that it’s not enough for him to kill Chef Leo. Instead, he deliberately leads the villain into a trap and makes it possible for the dog pack to take their revenge on him directly. And he also releases the animals from their cages after interviewing them at the shelter, saving them from almost certain death.
Despite his grumpiness and some writers’ tendency to have him dislike cats from time to time, Dean has actually always been sympathetic toward animals, has never liked hunters (small h), and has always rooted for the animals over the hunters (or any other human using the animals for his/her own selfish ends). I’ve seen some fans accuse Dean of hypocrisy in this respect, but I disagree. Dean has repeatedly stated he’s a “warrior” and that he likes meat not “rabbit food,” but that no more makes him a hypocrite than it does the General, who is a dog. Liking to eat some dead animals doesn’t mean you agree with using and abusing all of them – the Circle of Life and all that.
This poor episode unfortunately has had the well poisoned for it by some real crap – yeah, “Man’s Best Friend with Benefits,” I’m looking at you. However, “Dog Dean Afternoon” itself treats the subject with a lot of respect and sympathy for its guest characters (and even cruder moments like Dean catching the scent of the poodle in heat are foreshadowing down the road, to show us that Dean’s sense of smell has been enhanced when he realizes Leo has terminal cancer). It’s a reasonably subtle plea for humans to stop treating pets as disposable and killing “excess” animals in shelters because we’re too damned cheap and lazy to get them fixed or take care of them or find homes for them. This makes stories like the elderly “pedigreed” dog dumped at a kill shelter because she’s “too old” and going blind especially sad and moving. If you have any animals (two dogs and three cats, y’all, every one a rescue of some type, and I just lost my 19-year-old in August), you can understand where the heart of this story lies. And it’s got a lot of heart. It ably illuminates a real-life horror with thinly disguised archetypal supernatural trappings.
This also brings up an oft-used trope of contrasting Dean’s interactions with the MOTW (or, in this episode, animals in general) to his interactions with humans. The spell that turns Dean (temporarily) into a dog in a man’s body doesn’t really make him any less human than before. He really is that feral all the time. And not just feral but unstable – the interaction with the pigeon is hilarious at least in part due to how the humans react to Dean’s rage at a pigeon whose insults they don’t understand. All they hear is cooing.
Similarly, Dean looks flat-out psychotic when he’s “barking” at the mailman. In that instance, Dean is actually carried away by the sudden connection with the General and acts like a dog without thinking, totally without filters. It’s funny, but it also makes Dean look really nuts. But then, the point of making it funny is that you can take it a little further than you could if it were played straight. Make the audience laugh at the same time you make them uncomfortable.
Dean says at the end, in a way that will prove prophetic for him down the line, “You can’t reason with crazy.” It’s interesting that Sam is asking the questions while also being the center of that storyline, but Dean in the center of his MoC storyline is hiding things from Sam, while Sam is asking the questions of him. In the case of Ezekiel and “Dog Dean Afternoon,” we know that Dean’s motivations and intentions are the best, even if his methods are seriously questionable, because we are looking over Dean’s shoulder the whole time. Later on in the season, Dean’s intentions are still honorable, but his thinking darkens and he starts to do things that don’t look terribly different from Chef Leo’s on the outside, even though we can see from the inside that he doesn’t have a lot of choices. We know that Leo does things for selfish reasons, while Dean does things for selfless reasons, but crazy is still crazy when it comes right down to it.
Something the episode does show up that’s not so good, though, is how frustrating these MOTWs that give Dean one-shot powers never seen again can be. When done correctly, superpowers are nothing more nor less than metaphors for character growth. The problem with making them all MOTWs for a main character is that they threaten to reset the character every time. Dean has still managed to be a highly dynamic character over the years, but only in the recent Mark of Cain storyline has he been given powers that didn’t go away.
Unlike pretty much everyone else in the story, Dean has always been able to casually pick up powers and weapons and then simply drop them, just as casually, when he was done with them, as if they were mere tools. The reason why the MoC storyline works so well – and should probably never be written out completely – is that for the first time, Dean is given a power that doesn’t conveniently go away once the quest is done, and a weapon that he can’t quite control. This allows the MoC storyline to tap the deeper and darker areas of Dean’s psyche in a way Dean being able to talk to animals can’t do because it forces Dean into changes he’d otherwise not make, due to the progression over time as his defenses and willpower are worn down, and the darker side of the powers shows up. It’s not that Dean talking to animals is a shallow storyline per se – it’s that it has no time to develop into a deeper one in just one episode.
Even so, we get development in Dean’s character in “Dog Dean Afternoon,” in that the spell throws him into a tailspin initially and forces consequences on him he did not anticipate. We also get some nice callbacks to old character canon for long-time fans. Dean’s empathy for downtrodden and abused animals kicks in, and creates a connection between him and the General even before Dean drinks the potion. Sam uses his research skills to find the spell, and back up Dean’s intuition with science and magic. Sam is also the buffer between Dean and a society that looks at him and sees a nutter. These are traditional roles we’ve seen the brothers fall into many times before. We even get Kevin taking Bobby’s place as Offscreen Infodump Expert.
But we see that Sam is taken aback a bit when Dean grabs the potion and drinks it, explicitly saying Sam is still recovering from the Trials. Long-time viewers know that Sam is the dog-lover, someone who had a fond memory of his dog Bones in Heaven, and that Dean is the one suspicious of canines after being dragged off by hell hounds at the end of season three, who is later outraged at the idea of Sam having dogs in the car. So, I think Sam is disappointed not to get a chance to mind-meld with a dog. It’s never explained why there is only enough for one of them, but perhaps they’re testing it, which means that one of them has to remain lucid and spell-free.
Even so, Dean’s prior empathy with the General makes him the best candidate for the spell. There’s no guarantee at the start that it will work, particularly before the brothers find out that a big part of the mind-meld is understanding the universal language of animals (warm-blooded animals, anyway). Therefore, the person who is already able to communicate to a certain extent with the dog is probably the person who will have the best chance of understanding that animal. Sam may like dogs, but he’s not really on the General’s wavelength.
Both a weakness and a strength of the episode are the voices used for the animals themselves. They work best with the Yorkie whose belly Sam has to rub (Leslie Jordan), the aged pedigreed dog Dean talks to, and the hilariously confrontational pigeon that makes Dean so mad he goes whacked-out Shakespearian (“you wingéd rat!”) in public. Unfortunately, one of the weakest voice choices is the one for the General (Al Rodrigo), which makes him come across like an old-time gangster in a noir flick (though the German Shepherd they got is absolutely beautiful and well-trained-enough to get across meaning and character without the voiceover). And the bit with the poodle (“Parisian” music cue and all), though it has a point, is pretty gross.
Sam’s “miraculous” cure by an understrength Ezekiel is probably the weakest and least essential part of the episode. It’s basically in there to show the writers are still pursuing the storyline and to provide an off-hand joke from the bad guy about how weird the Winchesters look to other humans. Once again, it makes Sam look a bit dim and there’s something about Jared Padalecki’s performance as Ezekiel that seems a bit stiff, though he does quite a good job playing Sam rather reluctantly playing straight man to Dean, and not getting to have “fun” mind-melding with dogs and such. Not really sure what happened there, but at least we don’t get a whole lot of Ezekiel in this episode to confuse things.
Dean: What can I say? [Kevin]’s an amateur [at drinking]. The Slippery Nipple shots at the Dolly Parton Dixie Stampede nearly killed the guy.
Dean: I always knew I’d find the source of all evil in a Vegan bakery.
Sam: What’s that smell?
Dean: Patchouli. Mixed with depression, brought on by meat deprivation.
The General: You call this Classic Rock? Next, they’ll be playing Styx. And Dennis DeYoung? A punk.
Dean: Dennis DeYoung’s not a punk! He’s Mr. Roboto, bitch!
Sam: Why are you arguing with the dog? About Styx?
Dean [after a pigeon craps on the Impala]: Hey, dick move, pigeon!
Pigeon: Screw you, asshat!
Dean [to the pigeon]: Ah, shut it, you wingéd rat!
Chef Leo [to Dean]: What was your mum smoking when she had you two?
Chef Leo [to Dean]: Sorry, wolf trumps dog.
Dean: Maybe. But not a whole pack!
Next: Reichenbach: Crowley tries to strong-arm Dean into executing a deal for him, while Military Guy uses Sam to track Dean down. This turns out to be a huge mistake on both counts.
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