By Paula R. Stiles
Tagline: Yep, it’s another mini-hiatus of two weeks, so it’s back to the Wayback Machine for a season-one episode involving weeChesters, a creepy witch straight out of the Brothers Grimm, and John treating his young sons as bait.
Recap: It’s the usual season-one recap of the mytharc about Mary’s death. Cut to Fitchburg, Wisconsin, where a little girl is saying her prayers before bed, while her father watches. In their subsequent conversation, we find out that her older sister (who sleeps in the same room with her) is sick at the hospital, where her mother is watching over her (so she must be very sick). The father kisses his daughter goodnight and leaves, turning out the night, with the little girl apparently going to sleep. But later, we see her sitting up in bed, wide awake and scared, staring at her sister’s empty bed. You just know she saw something. When the branches of a tree outside bang against the window, she gets out and scampers over to pull shut the flimsy curtains, then gets back in bed. But it’s a vain gesture. The shadow of the branches turns into a clawed hand, which opens the window and pulls back the covers. The little girl looks up into a gnarled face and a gaping, glowing mouth, and shrieks.
Cue title cards.
Cut to rock music (UFO’s “Rock Bottom”) and the Impala roaring down the road on a cloudy day. The brothers are arguing (Golly, that never happens) about some coordinates from John that are sending them to Fitchburg. Sam says he did research and couldn’t find a thing indicating a hunt. Dean says it’s either a hunt or they’ll meet their father there, and won’t brook any further argument.
In Fitchburg, Dean gets coffees for himself and Sam, while pumping the locals for info. All he gets is a local waitress who doesn’t like Freemasons. Magic Sam notices no kids on the playground, even though it’s four in the afternoon, and immediately makes a cognitive leap to that being odd (I’m glad they later made Sam’s leaps of logic more…well…logical). Dean goes over to talk to the lone mother and child, and the mother says there’s a small epidemic going on. It’s only five or six kids, but parents are worried, so they’re keeping their children home. This seems to tick something over inside Dean’s own head as the plot anvils from the car scene catch up to him.
At the hospital, Sam has to introduce himself as Jerry Kaplan from the Center for Disease Control, using a fake ID from Dean for a “bikini inspector” (Both Jensen Ackles and Jared Padalecki had trouble with this scene – Ackles because he kept cracking up at the phrase “bikini inspector” and Padalecki because he kept calling himself “Jerry O’Connell”). Because nurses are dumb in TV Land, he gets away with it, even after the nurse at the desk asks for his ID.
On their way up, though, Dean’s humour fades when he sees an evil-looking old hag in a wheelchair, sitting in a room with an inverted crucifix on the wall. This gives Dean another tweak that he can’t quite place. Upstairs in the ICU, he and Sam talk to a nice pediatrician named ‘Dr. Heidacker’, who tells them he’s baffled by the cases. The kids are all unconscious and appear to have some kind of bacterial pneumonia. But their immune systems aren’t fighting it. Also, as the brothers go from the doctor to a nurse to Teaser Dad, they find out it goes through families, hitting only the kids. Dean gets another internal newsflash when Teaser Dad admits the window was open after his younger daughter got sick. Sam is still skeptical at this point, but suggests they go over to the house while Teaser Dad is still at the hospital. There, they find nothing until Sam opens the window next to the old tree and discovers a clawed handprint “rotted” into the windowsill (You’d think clueless Teaser Dad might have noticed that when he closed the window). Looking at it, Dean finally gets the brainstorm that’s been threatening to break. He has a flashback to Dick (sorry, John) going off on a hunt for several days, leaving a nine-year-old Dean to watch over a young Sam, who is sitting in a chair, listening to music and utterly oblivious to the fact that his dad is even leaving. John sternly says that weeDean can’t make any mistakes and then leaves him.
In the present, Dean says he understands now why John left them the coordinates. John knew this was something he had hunted (and, obviously, missed) in the past and he sent the brothers to finish it up.
Why, yes, all that does make John Winchester look like a total douchebag, doesn’t it?
Later that night, outside a local motel, Sam tries to quiz Dean on why he thinks their MOTW is a “shtriga”, causing Dean to do a fair bit of dancing around the truth of a hunt John never put in his journal. John encountered the shtriga sixteen or seventeen years ago in Fort Douglas, Wisconsin and didn’t catch it. Dean claims not to remember why (and Sam’s completely blanked the whole incident), only insisting that John must have located it here and wanted them to “finish the job.” Dean then checks in with a fake credit card.
The motel manager is a weary-looking mother (played by the sorely underused Venus Terzo of Da Vinci’s Inquest and many cartoon voiceovers fame). Dean also encounters the smartmouthed older son of her two, who makes an immature and unfunny joke about Dean and Sam being gay before his mom comes in and tells him to go get his brother some dinner. As the kid pours his brother some milk, Dean has another depressing flashback to a day or two after the previous one. In it, weeDean is fixing weeSam some dinner. weeSam is suddenly interested in when their dad is coming home, despite not even noticing his departure before. He also is very manipulative (as five-year-olds are) and maneuvers weeDean into giving him Spaghettios he then decides he doesn’t want and then the last of a box of Lucky Charms, which weeDean was saving for himself (since weeSam had already had most of it). weeSam then takes out the prize and gives it to him instead of the cereal, which we are supposed to think is cute.
What a brat. Call Nanny 911, stat!
Dean is startled out of his reverie/flashback by the motel manager. Later, Sam establishes that Dean was right. It is a shtriga (They really do exist! But why is Sam researching Hindu demons on his computer, instead? Big fail, art department!). They’re shapeshifting witches from Albania who look like old women in their natural state, but “can take on human form” (Since when are old women not human?) and can’t be killed by anything. Dean corrects him that they can actually be killed while feeding, by consecrated iron, even though he doesn’t really remember anything about the hunt. Dean immediately remembers the old woman at the hospital, which Sam thinks is funny until Dean mentions the inverted cross. Dean has also mapped out the houses of the victims, which surround the hospital. Sam, for his part, has discovered that shtrigas steal the “spiritus vitae” (basically, “breath of life”) from their victims, which is why their victims lose their vitality, sicken and die.
Late that night, at the hospital, they go to the woman’s room. Dean pulls out an absolutely enormous pistol, which makes Sam do a doubletake. Inside, the old woman is sitting upright in her chair, cataracted eyes open. When Dean leans over to see if she’s dead, though, she suddenly wakes up, making Dean recoil back into the wall. It turns out she’s just an old woman and thinks they’re there to steal from her. Sam quickly covers for them, saying they’re from Maintenance, so she tells them to fix her crucifix, which she had asked about four times, already. An embarrassed and shaken Dean complies.
Meanwhile, at the motel, the manager’s sons are asleep when something opens the window.
The next morning, Sam is still laughing at Dean’s mistake: “I was sleepin’ with my peepers open!” Dean is hugely embarrassed and tries to brush it off. But the amusement of the moment fades when Dean spots the older brother, Michael, sitting alone on a bench. The younger brother, Asher, is very sick and Michael blames himself for not making sure the window was closed. He’s responsible for keeping his brother safe. Dean reassures him that it’s not his fault and, when Michael’s mother comes out in a rush, Dean offers to drive her to the hospital, while Sam picks up her purse after she drops it. Before he leaves, Dean quietly and intensely tells Sam that he intends to kill the shtriga, one way or the other.
At the library (which never thrills the staff), Sam fields a call from Dean at the ICU (which forbids cell phones because they interfere with important equipment) about Asher’s condition, which isn’t good. Sam has found a pattern. The shtriga hits a town in Wisconsin every fifteen to twenty years. The earliest record is Black River Falls in the 1890s. And the worst part? The shtriga drains dozens of children before moving on. And they always die.
As he’s talking to Dean, Sam runs through the microfilm to one startling photograph from the 1893 epidemic. One of the doctors is a dead ringer for Dr. Heidacker. Maybe I’ve just watched too many Highlander episodes, but I had to laugh at this bit because it’s such an old X-Files chestnut – the immortal monster that’s too dumb (or arrogant) to stay away from cameras, and even poses for them, decade after decade. Even so, this is a chilling scene, because Dean gets a dead, cold look on his face, turns around, and there’s Dr. Heidacker, sitting next to Asher with his hand on the kid’s head, comforting the mother. It’s chilling, of course, because the shtriga is right there next to its victim in broad daylight, and there’s no way to prove it. But it’s also scary because we don’t quite know how Dean will react. That’s the really cool thing about making Dean so dangerous and unpredictable. You never know for sure if he might just pull out a pistol and go for it, right there.
Sam even says this afterward, back at the motel. Dean admits he thought about it, but restrained himself (barely, with a twitch at every double entendre from Heidacker about “taking care” of the kids) because he wasn’t going to shoot the shtriga on a pediatrics ward when it was invulnerable – and, more importantly, he wasn’t armed at the time. Otherwise, he admits, he might have done it “just on principle”. Dean is furious and shaken by his close encounter, and more determined than ever not to let the thing get away this time. He has a plan. It involves using Michael as bait, since the shtriga will surely come back for him that night. Sam’s horrified, but Dean insists that they can’t let it get away. They might not find it again for years and more kids might die. More kids have died because he made a mistake a decade and a half ago.
While a shocked Sam listens, we get another flashback. In voiceover, Dean says that after three days, he couldn’t stay inside, anymore, and he went out to play video games. When the place closed up, he came back, only to find the shtriga inside the motel, feeding on weeSam. weeDean quietly got the shotgun, but as he was trying to get up the courage to fire, the thing lifted its head and saw him. At that moment, John came rushing in, yelled at weeDean to get out of the way, and shot the thing in the torso. He then brushed right past weeDean to go to weeSam and make sure he was all right, cuddling him in a way we never, ever saw him do with Dean after Mary’s death. The most Dean got was a pat on the head, like a dog. John then yelled at weeDean about where he had been and gave weeDean a look of pure disgust as weeDean tried to stammer through an explanation about only being out for a little bit.
There are quite a few things wrong with this scene, some of them intentional and some of them not. It is never explained, for example, how John was close enough to know that weeSam was in trouble, yet didn’t know that weeDean had gone out. At best, it makes him look like an idiot and at worst, he conveniently blames Dean when he knowingly dangled the two kids in front of the shtriga as bait. Worse, there is never a hint that he left the kids with any weapons they could use against the shtriga. And worst of all, he takes his kids to a town where a creature is preying on children, gives them no information about the MOTW so that they won’t be forewarned beyond the usual “Look out for evil” instructions, and leaves them alone for three freakin’ days.
How anyone – anyone – could like this character, and not think he was an absolute prick and an abusive father is beyond me. I don’t care how sexy Jeffrey Dean Morgan looks in a leather jacket. John not only knowingly puts his children in extreme peril, he then blames his eldest when the plan goes completely sideways! Is there really any moral grey here? Because I’m not seeing it. Only a year in Hell? He got off easy.
Back in the present, Dean finishes the story. John grabbed the two of them and fled to Pastor Jim’s, where he dropped them off (which is what he should have done in the first place) and went back to finish the botched job. But the shtriga had already fled. Dean says they never talked about it again, but John always “looked at me different,” which humiliated Dean and made him feel even more guilty. In his eyes, he had disobeyed his father and nearly gotten his brother killed. Hence his rigid obedience to John now. He figures that their father sent him this job because it was “unfinished business”.
There is a strong subtext in this story (though it’s never stated outright) that Dean has read the situation wrong. That John used his kids as bait and was ashamed of it. That it freaked him out how close he came to losing his youngest and the position in which he had put his eldest. This would explain the flash of anger at weeDean, the trip to Pastor Jim’s, the utter silence about it afterward, even down to not putting it in his journal (because it wasn’t his finest hour by any stretch). Is this a mitigating circumstance for John? No. Lots of abusive parents feel badly about what they’re doing, but they do it, anyway. And the most abusive thing is their refusal to admit it, to do anything to repair the damage they inflict on their child. John’s head was so far up his own ass that it seems to have never occurred to him to sit Dean down and tell him it wasn’t his fault (until, of course, he was about to die and leave Dean with an even more horrible secret!). Because it wasn’t. It was John’s.
Over Sam’s objections, Dean takes their case to Michael. At first, unsurprisingly, Michael thinks they’re nuts and threatens to call the cops. When Dean lays it all out for him – that he’s seen the thing, too, and that he and Sam are hunters of things like that – it doesn’t go well, at first. They’re forced to return to their motel room, empty-handed. But in the end, Michael knocks on the door. After a little Selfless Big Brother bonding, he agrees to act as bait, even though Dean can’t guarantee him that killing the shtriga will help Asher.
Later that night, with a No Vacancy sign out front, the brothers set Michael up in his bedroom with a night vision camera. They’ll be in the other room, watching for the thing to show up. Dean walks Michael through the plan, telling him to stay under the covers in the bed. When the shtriga comes, they’ll enter with guns, whereupon, Michael should get under the bed. Dean even warns Michael that the gunfire will be very loud in the enclosed space. Nervously, Michael takes it all in, but remains willing, despite Dean giving him a chance to back out.
Around three am, Sam apologises to Dean for being so hard on him for always obeying John. Dean’s response is to roll his eyes and groan at the chickflick moment (What, you were expecting a hug and a slowdance?). Fortunately for Dean, the shtriga shows up. Dean spots its shadow on the curtains, just as it opens the window. Inside the room, it’s all Michael can do not to flee. In the other room, the brothers get out their guns, taking off the safeties. Sam wants to go right in, but Dean insists they wait, even as the shtriga approaches a shivering Michael and the screen fuzzes and flickers, while the wind blows outside. I gotta say – that is one brave little kid!
As the creature opens its glowing mouth and starts to feed, the brothers bust in. They shoot up the shtriga, knocking it down, and Dean calls to Michael, who is safe under the bed. But when Dean goes to check on the monster, it gets up and tosses Dean across the room, knocking him out. Before Sam can get off a shot, it also grabs him and throws him into a wall. Then it lands on him and starts sucking out his lifeforce before he can get Dean’s gun, which is just out of reach. At that moment, Dean yells at the thing and, when it looks up, shoots it in the head. He then asks Sam if he’s all right. The dying shtriga starts to disgorge all the spiritus vitae it’s eaten over the years, in individual little whisps. Dean puts a few more rounds into it for good measure, anyway, and it sinks into the carpet. With a shaking voice, Dean tells Michael it’s safe to come out, so Michael does so, looking relieved.
The next morning, Michael’s mom comes home with good news – Asher is much better, as are all the other kids. They should make a full recovery. Dr. Heidacker? Strangely enough, he didn’t show up for work. After she and Michael leave, Sam tries to find the dark cloud behind every silver lining and bemoans the fact that Michael will now always know there are evil things in the dark. How he wishes he could have the innocence of not knowing that (because that sure did those other little kids so much good!). As Ozzy Osbourne’s “Road to Nowhere” starts up, Dean says he wishes Sam could have that, too. And off they go in the hot muscle car.
Review: You’d think I’d have jumped on reviewing “Something Wicked”, since I like Dean and I like stories that delve into Dean’s issues. And it is a well-constructed, well-regarded episode, is “Something Wicked”, with much to recommend it. But I’ve actually avoided this one for a long time for two reasons. First, I like Jeffrey Dean Morgan and I even like Matt Cohen, but I can’t stand John Winchester. Young John was whiny and weak. Hunter John was, there’s no better way to say it, an abusive scumbag. Every time I see a fan apologia for the character, I am appalled at the level of insensitivity displayed toward real adult survivors of abuse in the justifications for this fictional character, particularly the nonsensical argument that abusive parents don’t love their kids, therefore, if John loved his kids, he couldn’t have been abusive. I’m sorry, but that is a false cognate and a mean one, too. Abusive parents very often love their kids a lot. But love does not conquer all when it comes to shitty parenting.
This episode alone (and that’s not even getting into ones like “Dead Man’s Blood”) amply demonstrates that John’s horrendous parenting not only tiptoed through the tulips, but stomped right through the nasties into abusive territory, long before we got into the stupidities surrounding the Third Winchester, Adam. There is no excuse for leaving your kids alone in a grotty motel room for days on end while you go off hunting monsters that threaten other people’s children. Your responsibility begins at home. Take care of it there, first. Abandoning your own children (at least, as far as they and the audience can tell) because you are actively using them as bait is simply unforgivable. And blaming your eldest for choking in the breach because you weren’t there to do your damned job (and, hel-lo, that job wasn’t hunting), to the point where you rub his face in it as an adult by sending him to hunt the thing you failed to kill decades before, is flat-out evil. Maybe it’s not the florid, detached, cartoonish kind of evil of demons, the kind that horror fans like to watch, but it’s still an evil that is as destructive in this show as anything YED on up to Lucifer ever did. And it happens to children every day. It’s just that the monsters aren’t characters in a fictional show.
I found that really uncomfortable to watch. I don’t care if that means it was well-acted. It was still uncomfortable. And no, the brothers using Michael as bait was not the same, because he knew what was happening, he knew the stakes (Hell, he volunteered), it didn’t go on for days, and he knew they were watching right outside the door. Nobody handed him a shotgun and told him to mind his brother all alone for three solid days, let alone got angry when he finally turned squirrelly and went out to play video games (unaware that he and his brother were being used as bait). He knew Dean and Sam were watching over him, and had his back.
Second is that the weeChesters scenes, as always, were incredibly sad. What a horrible, horrible childhood Dean had. Weirdly enough, Sam’s wasn’t that bad (relatively speaking). Sure, Sam whined a lot about its awfulness, but episodes like “Something Wicked” definitely show which brother took the brunt of the horribleness in protecting his younger brother. It wasn’t Sam.
One incident that fairly leaps to mind is when weeDean wants to have some of that nice cereal, but weeSam (who has already had a boatload of it) whines about wanting more of it until Dean gives in and lets him have it all. But we’re supposed to have our hearts gladdened by weeSam giving weeDean the prize from the box. Because that totally makes up for the fact that weeDean doesn’t get any food, or gets whatever crap left over that weeSam decides he doesn’t want. This image of an isolated and parentalised nine-year-old, hopeless and overwhelmed, already trudging through a life in which he gets to serve others on an endless treadmill of partially-internalised martyrdom, and the five-year-old brother he is already helping his absentee daddy raise into one colossally spoiled brat, is depressing as hell. When you want to bitchslap a five-year-old unconscious, just for being only as self-centred as many five-year-olds are, you know you’re looking at a very disturbing and unhealthy situation. You know it’s not the five-year-old’s fault, but that doesn’t make the brat any less annoying.
If you’re looking for an argument for Dean being a remarkable human being, here’s one in that he was able to sublimate this horrific childhood well enough that he didn’t turn into a serial killer (of humans) and even eventually learned to modulate his hunting of murderous non-humans. This is a guy who grew up to expand that generosity toward his brother to include others beyond his family and preserve a remarkable amount of empathy (which, it must be said, his father never showed much of and his brother selectively demonstrated or even faked). That’s pretty amazing. But to have to sit there and watch that origin story makes me cringe in sympathy for the poor guy.
What’s especially sad is that Adult Sam actually comes across very well here. Sure, at the end, we get the usual comparison of his wishing he could have had more childhood innocence and Dean wishing Sam could, too (implying that Dean not only can’t imagine having that innocence, he can’t even imagine wanting or deserving it). Even allowing that it’s a case of Dean getting the last word more than Sam thinking about nothing but himself, it’s an unpleasant callback to the whole cereal deal.
But on the flip side, we have Sam apologise to Dean, after he finally pries out of Dean the true story behind the shtriga and why John sent them on this hunt. Sam is sincere enough that Dean squirms at the unexpected sympathy and attention, muttering snarky lines like, “Kill me now.” That’s a good indication that Sam really means it and it puts Sam’s later anger toward John (especially in “In My Time of Dying”) in perspective. Yes, a lot of Sam’s anger is for his own (admittedly very messed up) lost childhood, which is not a bad thing, but a lot of it is genuinely on Dean’s behalf, too. There’s a part of Sam, a part that is front and centre here, that understands that John harmed Dean more, that maybe one could even say that YED harmed Dean the most out of all the Winchesters and Campbells.
Yes, Sam was manipulated all his life, but that’s not the same as suffering. John’s wounds were largely self-inflicted. Mary set up a lot of her own fate (and inflicted it on her children). And her parents died quickly. In “Something Wicked”, through Sam’s eyes, we get a measure of the carnage inflicted on this family in how Dean comes across during the hunt. There are times when Dean is frighteningly intense and others (especially when he is talking about the past) when he seems like a zombie, so emotionally scorched into blunted affect that he talks about that terrible first hunt when he was nine in an eerie monotone. Sam is weirded out and he should be, because it’s very disturbing. Writers of season seven, this is what PTSD really looks like and you should know that because that’s how Dean still frequently acts.
Let’s move on to the MOTW. It was an interesting approach. The traditional strigoi, a legendary figure from Romania (that is more powerful, but also more vulnerable, than Supernatural‘s version), has the appearance of an old woman, so it’s a negative stereotype of a kind of inhuman (vampiric) witch, not unlike the Caribbean soucoyant. The real-life analogy (Munchausen Syndrome by Proxy) also usually strikes in women, since women are the ones usually found in a caretaker role. The potential for misogyny in this storyline is really high, since allegations of witchcraft among traditionally female caretakers often reflect fears by male medical authorities of losing power and authority.
It’s therefore a very intriguing twist that the shtriga is not female (if it could be said to have any gender) in its human form. Instead, it takes the form of a man and, further, a doctor – a traditional male authority figure in medicine. So, the original fears on which this supernatural figure is based are subverted, even inverted.
In fact, there’s a wickedly funny (and very dark, both in lighting and humour) scene halfway through when the brothers are convinced an elderly woman in a room with an inverted crucifix on her wall is the witch. When Dean inadvertently wakes her up, yelling (to which he reacts with a hair-teeth-and-eyeballs recoil straight out of an old Warner Brothers cartoon), we discover she is totally innocent (albeit crabby) and that she has been trying to get someone to fix her crucifix on the wall all day. It was upside because it had been somehow spun around. With a quick spin and a bemused shrug, Dean fixes the problem.
More amusement is generated by Sam’s teasing of Dean about having nearly blown away an old woman, just because she looked creepy, as well as of the scare she put into Dean. Dean responds with his usual grumpy insistence that he wasn’t scared, oh, no, just startled. This brings up an interesting idea that all of Sam’s childhood fears are pretty normal and seem to be based on the mundane (even the clowns), while two out of three of Dean’s greatest childhood fears (of losing his family and of the shtriga) are based on very real, ugly and supernatural events. Dean’s fears of the supernatural have been brutally confirmed for him (“Of course you should be afraid of the dark! You know what’s out there!”) as opposed to childish fears of the unknown. As for his fear of flying and heights, that can probably be ascribed to a general fear of losing control.
All psychobabble aside, the shtriga is just plain scary as hell. This thing that comes to you in your bed at night, that sucks out your lifeforce, that can only be killed by a certain type of weapon at a very specific and dangerous moment (when it’s feeding), that’s a very scary thought. We don’t know its origin or how long it’s really been killing (though we know it’s been at least a century). Even after the brothers kill it and it sinks into vapour, we’re left to wonder if it really died or pulled a trick and floated off to some other, less-strenuous feeding ground. And what did happen to those souls or lifeforces that it released when it was killed? Yikes, what a thought.
Dean: Well, the waitress thinks the local Freemasons are up to something sneaky, but other than that, nobody’s heard about anything weird going on.
Sam: Dude, I am not using this ID.
Dean: Why not?
Sam: Because it says “bikini inspector” on it!
Old Woman: I was sleepin’ with my peepers open! And fix that crucifix, wouldja? I’ve only asked four damned times, already!
Sam: I’m surprised you didn’t draw on [Dr. Heidacker] right there.
Dean: Yeah well, first of all, I’m not going to open fire in a pediatrics ward.
Sam: Good call.
Dean: Second, it wouldn’t have done any good. The bastard’s bulletproof unless he’s chowing down on something. And third, I wasn’t packing, which is probably a good thing ’cause I probably would have burned a clip in him on principle, alone.
Sam: You’re getting wise in your old age, Dean.
Sam: Hey, Dean, I’m sorry.
Dean: For what?
Sam: You know. I’ve really given you a lot of crap for always following Dad’s orders. But I know why you do it.
Dean [sarcastically]: Oh, God. Kill me now.
Next Week: The Benders: Sam is kidnapped without a trace, leaving an increasingly frantic Dean to rely on a very unlikely ally to find him.
On February 3: The Slice Girls: Dean has a one-night stand, which leads to a monster pregnancy (not his) with terrifying consequences.
You can watch (or download) this episode, in standard or HD definition, on Amazon.com.