By Paula R. Stiles
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Tagline: It’s Retro Review Time, as we enter another brief (four-week) hiatus. Let’s first harken back to season two and an episode in which the brothers investigate a series of fatal hauntings at an old hotel – with lots of creepy dolls.
Recap: Brief recap of the Family Business, of John’s secret to Dean, and Sam’s encounters with Ava in “Hunted”.
Cut to nighttime and a brass sign outside the old Pierpont Inn, established in 1930, with a family crest – “Thompson”. Inside, a heavy-set man is addressing the proprietor, a Mrs. Thompson, about what a shame it is she’s closing the place. Mrs. Thompson, a harried young blonde woman, just smiles and shows him upstairs to grab some boxes. On the landing, with their feet dangling through the rails, are two young girls who look a lot like Mrs. Thompson. As the woman goes downstairs, one of the young girls, Tyler, complains about the man taking her “toys”. The woman assures her that she has plenty more toys than she needs. When the other girl, Maggie (played by Conchita Campbell, who also played “Maia” in The 4400), mutters, “Son of a bitch,” Tyler echoes her, but her mother doesn’t correct her, or Maggie, until Tyler says it.
Later, Tyler enters a room stuffed to the gills with dolls. She goes to a very large dollhouse and picks up several dolls lying by the doorway. She puts a sailor in a rocking chair and a baby in its crib, calling the baby, “Tabitha” (a Bewitched reference). But when she goes back, she finds the sailor missing. Confused, she looks around until she finds him at the base of the stairs, with his head turned completely around. She hears her mother shriek. When she goes out to look, her eyes widen briefly in shock. Mrs. Thompson is downstairs, calling 911. The man who was helping her lies at the foot of the stairs, just like the sailor in the dollhouse, amid a clutter of books. And yes, his head is completely twisted around, his face and hands still twitching. A doll with a shattered face lies next to him in a spreading pool of blood.
Cue season two fiery title cards.
Cut to Peoria, Illinois, where Sam has a map and a picture of Ava’s missing ad on the wall (He’s still wearing the cast Jared Padalecki was wearing for much of season two, due to a real-life hand injury). He’s talking to Ellen when Dean walks in. When Sam gets off the phone, he admits that Ellen has heard nothing. It’s as if Ava has “vanished into thin air”. Dean also says he’s heard nothing, but he does have coffee. Sam then fills Dean in on the Doomed Teaser Guy, a hunt he got off Ellen (Yes, the brothers having hunts handed to them on a platter thing is not new). The hotel in question is located in Cornwall, Connecticut, where two “accidents” have occurred in three weeks, one of them the man who fell down the stairs and another a real estate agent who was electrocuted in the bath.
When Dean questions whether they should leave off looking for Ava, Sam says they’ve looked for a month and haven’t found her. They might as well go off on a hunt and “save as many people as we can.” Hmm, so that Sam attitude of, “Oh, well, mytharc’s gone underground; let’s go kill something” is older than it looks. And just as destructive (considering how things turned out with Ava). Dean is surprised, considering he was expecting Sam to mope more (perhaps an awkward reference to Sam’s grieving for Jessica in season one), but goes along with it. They take the case.
In Connecticut, when they arrive at the hotel, we get some idea of why Dean agreed so readily. It seems Dean has always wanted to do an old-style, Gothic haunted house hunt, so he’s all perky about this one. On the way in, Sam notices a “quincunx” on an urn (a word originally derived from the Latin for a type of Roman coin or military formation), which Dean identifies as “hoodoo”. This place strikes him as a bit too far north (and white) for that magic system.
Inside, he gets a bit of a shock when Mrs. Thompson assumes he and Sam are a gay couple “antiquing”, rather than two brothers, because they “seem the type.” Whatever that means. An old porter comes out and insists on hauling Dean’s duffle bag upstairs, giving them a brief, canned history of the place, how it used to be big. Mrs. Thompson – Susan – has already told them she’s closing at the end of the month.
Dean gets another shock when the porter, Sherwin, shows them to the door and then expects a tip. Dean, dressed in his dad’s leather jacket and then stripped down to the Hot Henley o’ Doom, later contemplates the decor (which includes things like tiny wedding dresses on the wall and creaky, low, saggy beds) and wonders: a. why people think they’re gay and b. how the hotel lasted as long as it did. Sam speculates that, perhaps because Dean is so “butch”, they thought he was “overcompensating”. Ahh, the early seasons, when the brothers still snarked at each other instead of ripping huge shreds of flesh off every other day in some heated argument.
Still later, they go down the hallway, where Sam notices more quincunxes inside a vase on a table (Hey, remember when Sam noticed stuff on hunts?). Dean then goes on a hunch and knocks on the door next to the table. Susan is inside and it’s the doll room. She’s packing up. By embarrassing the hell out of Sam (by claiming Sam loves dolls and has a huge collection of them), Dean talks their way inside. Huge life irony, here – my grandparents used to work in the antiques business and my war vet grandfather not only loved dolls…but had a huge collection of them.
Inside, Dean notes that the dolls are pretty creepy (which they really are, especially the ones with no eyes). Sam then notices the humongous dollhouse (hard not to) and Susan admits that it was “custom made” and is an “exact replica” of the hotel. Sam doesn’t bother to ask her about the vase, because he asked her about the outdoor urn at check-in and she only knew it had been there as long as she remembered. Sam then finds the doll with its head twisted round. When he asks Susan about it, she says her daughter, Tyler, must have done it. But when Tyler runs in, claiming Maggie is being mean to her, she insists she found it that way. Neither she nor Maggie did it. “Grandma Rose” would be angry because they used to be her dolls. We flash to an old woman in a wheelchair upstairs and, when Sam asks to see Grandma Rose, Susan immediately says no.
As the brothers return down the hallway, Dean goes off to do research at the local library, telling Sam to do an internet search. They figure the grandmother is perhaps the witch.
In her office, Susan signs the papers giving up the hotel, right as she’s asking an officious man what the new owners will do with it. He tells her they’re going to demolish it. She looks shocked. You’d think she’d have asked that question sooner.
Upstairs, Tyler is playing with the dolls, humming “Ring Around the Rosie”. Behind her, a doll man sits on a bed, as does the officious suit. A door opens in the dollhouse behind the doll man and a door opens behind the suit. His eyes are closed, until he opens them and loosens his tie. Tyler then turns around to see the doll man hanging from a fan; cut to the man in the suit hanging from a ceiling fan by his belt, twitching and choking.
Later, while the police arrive and the coroner wheels the body into a van, Sam looks out the window from his and Dean’s room. Dean is on the front steps, greeting Susan as she comes back from talking to a policeman. She says that the maid found the man hanging from the ceiling fan. Commiserating, Dean interviews her. He gets out of her that the guy worked for the company buying the place and that she feels she’s had a “run of bad luck”. When she offers to give him a refund, Dean staunchly replies, “I don’t scare that easy.”
Back in their room, Dean tells Sam (who is sitting in a chair, out of focus) about the dead suit then says that they need to solve the case fast, while the two of them totally misuse the word “hanged”. Sam starts whining about how he couldn’t save the guy and couldn’t save Ava, either. Turning around, Dean realises to his shock and annoyance that Sam is blind, stinking drunk. He decides to put Sam to bed, right about the time Sam starts insisting that Dean will have to kill him, someday. Sam demands that Dean promise he will. Obviously not thrilled, Dean refuses, but finally gives in to get Sam to shut up and go to sleep. After Sam does so (following some sloppy “I love you” and an attempt to give Dean some weird hug, whereupon Dean yanks away), Dean sits across from him, rubbing his face and looking obviously hurt.
Dean then goes downstairs to the bar, where the porter is working. Sherwin offers Dean a drink (Dean is not nearly the sloppy drunk Sam is, either in this episode, or even later, where his drinking in episodes like “Yellow Fever” is played for laughs or shown not obviously affecting his faculties). After taking him up on the offer, Dean asks him about the recent deaths and what the old man knows, since he and his family have been working there for generations. The old man knows a lot. He shows Dean around a line of photographs, talking a great deal about Rose. He won’t say what’s wrong with her, but he does talk about how the house has been in the family for over a century and Rose will be “leaving the only home she’s ever known” for some grotty old nursing home. He then shows Dean some photographs of Rose as a child (including what appears to be a double shot of her as a toddler). Dean picks out one of her with a black maid. The porter says that was Rose’s nanny, Marie, who raised her more than Rose’s mother did (What a black maid was doing in lily-white early 20th-century Connecticut is never explained). Dean immediately zeroes in on Marie’s quincunx cross and remembers the other two that Sam had picked out.
The next morning, Sam is puking into the toilet. Absolutely unsympathetic, Dean comes in and starts talking about grease and ashtrays, which makes Sam want to puke some more – and which Sam totally deserves after that morbid, maudlin speech the previous night. Dean questions Sam about what he remembers and it appears to be nothing, to Dean’s relief. Dean then tells Sam about Rose and her nanny, so Sam suggests they go talk to Rose. Dean suggests Sam brush his teeth, first.
Breaking into the doll room, they find some stairs and go up them to find the room from the flashes. Rose is inside, in a wheelchair (How anybody could, or would, let a woman who had a stroke a month ago out of the hospital, let alone cart her up several flights of narrow stairs to stay in a tiny attic, is never explained). Sam tries to talk to her, and she tries to speak in return, but she can’t. She has had some kind of stroke. Dean wonders if she might be faking, since hoodoo is “hands on”, requiring mixing of herbs and “chanting”. While they try to figure out what to do next, they are (what a surprise) caught by Susan, who throws them out. They drive off while she stands on the steps with her hands on her hips.
Later, Tyler and Maggie are playing jacks on the stairs when Susan comes in and demands to know why Tyler isn’t packing. When Tyler says she doesn’t want to go, and Maggie says they don’t need to, Susan gets angry. Yep. As we all suspected, Susan thinks Maggie is imaginary and only Tyler can see her. As Susan goes out, Maggie looks at Tyler and says, “I don’t like her.” Uh oh.
Later, Susan is packing boxes into the car when Sherwin comes by in his old pickup, asking if she needs anything. She thanks him and says no, so he drives off. Inside, Tyler is playing with a wind-up horse and rider on the dollhouse. Behind her, the swingset model (just like the one outside) starts swinging. Outside, as Susan slams the trunk on her car, a wind blows up. Seeing the swingset move, she walks toward it. Then the seesaw starts going at the same time as the one inside. She looks freaked out, enough not to notice her car starting by itself behind her. Seriously? She’s been living in a haunted hotel for how long now and she just noticed this kind of stuff?
She finally notices the car coming after her and starts to run (because jumping out of the way is apparently too complex for her limited mental faculties). As the car is about to hit her, Sam comes out of nowhere and pushes her out of the way, just in time for the car to hit a tree. Dean comes up, as well, saying they all need to get inside.
Once inside the bar, Susan asks for some whiskey. They give it to her straight – and the truth, as well – and Dean says he and Sam thought it was a hoodoo curse, at first, but it now looks like a spirit. Susan takes the whiskey easier, calling Dean “insane”. Dean shrugs it off. Sam asks her when her mother had the stroke. Susan says it was around a month ago, so Sam points out to Dean that Rose must not have been creating the hoodoo to curse but to protect (Yeah, ’cause while you were getting loaded, Sam, Dean was doing most of the footwork for you!). When she had the stroke, she couldn’t do the constant protection spells, anymore, and the spirit broke free. While Susan continues to protest (because she really is that stupid), Dean harshly tells her that her car didn’t try to run her over by itself…well, without spirit help. Sam tells her she needs to get everyone out, including her mother and two daughters. It’s at this point that Susan “admits” that Maggie is “imaginary”.
Well, gee, Susan, don’t put “angry spirit trying to kill me” together with “imaginary friend my daughter insists is real” and come up with MOTW, or anything. Sam asks her where Tyler is.
More importantly, where is Rose? Why, she’s upstairs, while Maggie stands in front of her, snottily informing her that she’s going to keep Tyler forever and Rose can’t do a thing about it (Maggie is a right little bitch in this one). Tyler comes in, warning Maggie that she’s not supposed to bother Rose, then asks if they can have “a tea party”. Maggie says, sure, they can have a whole bunch, forever (Yeah, Tyler’s not any swifter than her mother).
Susan and the brothers rush upstairs to find the doll room in chaos and most of the dolls smashed on the floor, except for one flaxen-haired doll in a familiar outfit, sitting unnoticed on the top shelf. The brothers question Susan about “Maggie”. Did anyone of that name ever live – more importantly, die – in the house? Susan finally remembers that her mother had a sister named “Margaret” who drowned in the pool. Because, despite having lived there all her life, having put up pictures all over the place, and such, she barely knew a thing about the history of her own home.
At that moment, Tyler is standing over the pool (which is an old-style indoor one in a separate building) with Maggie. Tyler is scared, but Maggie won’t let her choke in the homestretch. First, she reassures her that it won’t hurt. Then she turns sad and says she can’t come with Tyler and Susan when they leave. She’s stuck there and doesn’t want to be alone forever. But when the adults come rushing up to the door, and Tyler begs her mother for help, Maggie coldly dumps her in then appears down in the pool to ensure Tyler stays under to drown. While Sam smashes at the upstairs door and Dean and Susan try to kick in the downstairs one, another ghostly girl voice calls Maggie away, just as Tyler goes limp.
Sam finally bursts in and jumps down into the water. Swimming under the plastic laid on for the winter (This being New England, wouldn’t they drain it to avoid damage to the pool, since it appears to be unheated?), he finds Tyler and hauls her out, just as Dean and Susan burst in. As the three of them gather around Tyler and Susan sobs (and nobody thinks to do CPR), Tyler suddenly coughs up water and revives. When asked, she says that Maggie is gone.
Well…not quite. Maggie is in the upstairs room, talking with Rose. Rose can’t speak, but Maggie can hear her thoughts. Maggie is willing to “let them go” if Rose agrees to go with her. She calls Rose “little sister” and seems puzzled at Rose’s willingness to let her back in, after keeping her out for so many years. Meanwhile, Susan, who’s still getting the hang of this “intelligence” thing, is taking Tyler upstairs to fetch Grandma, instead of taking her to the hospital to get checked out for pneumonia and, say, having the brothers get her mother, instead. While the brothers stand in the doll room, trying to puzzle out where Maggie went, they hear a shriek. Susan just found her mother dead.
Afterward, Susan says the coroner thinks it was another stroke (Amazing how the coroner makes these pronouncements right at the scene without a single autopsy on a string of deaths). The brothers admit that they don’t know if it was Maggie or not (even though we do, of course). They then shepherd her and Tyler to their taxi. Susan pauses long enough to hug Sam and give Dean a perfunctory thanks, as well. As if this weren’t teeth-grindingly ridiculous enough, Dean then compliments Sam on saving the day. Um…what?
But wait – the episode’s not quite done with us. As the brothers prepare to go off in their own great, black chariot, Sam admits that he really does remember Dean’s “promise” while he was drunk and he’s holding Dean to it. Really, Sam, if you’re that stuck on the subject, why be such a coward and force your brother to turn into a parricide? Eat your own bullet.
At the very end, we segue through the house, past the photo of Young Rose and Marie, and up the stairs, where two girl ghosts, Maggie and Rose, are now locked in play together in the attic, surrounded by dolls. Forever.
Review: I’m not entirely sure why “Playthings” has sunk into obscurity, despite its being quite a successful little mini-horror movie and MOTW (at least, until it falls apart into a big, illogical mess in the end, like many of the Gothics it imitates). I remember finding it very dark and creepy at the time (especially the dolls), but I haven’t seen it in quite a while, with no inclination to do so, either. Nor does it seem to have much of a big following in the fandom. I suspect its main problem is that it came on the heels of two major mytharc episodes, “Croatoan” and “Hunted” – and right before a very popular mini-mytharc ep, “Nightshifter”, which was part of two ongoing storylines about Hendrickson and the FBI and the shapeshifters. When it works, “Playthings” is very effective and chilling, but it’s also definitively ended. There is nowhere left to go in the story, with the MOTW locked into an eternal playground with her sister. We have a whole female line of three generations haunted by a vindictive dead female relative. At the end, one of them sacrifices herself and the ghost is appeased. Forever.
Also, the episode is perhaps a little too effective. Those dolls are extremely scary. The MOTW “wins” in the end, though in another sense, she ultimately loses in a terrible and chilling way, all the more emphasised by subsequent events in the show, like the introduction of Memorex Heaven. Not to mention that her “victory” is likely moot. In the end, her doll will be transported far away (or destroyed); the hotel will be demolished; and she and her sister will become fading memories. Perhaps they’ll haunt what is built in its place, but more likely, they will just be gone, and there won’t be anything Maggie can do about it this time, not with her little sister restraining her.
In a way, we can pity her because she refused to leave the earthly realm and ended up shut out for decades, growing angrier and more lonely. If she’d gone with her Reaper, she would have ended up much happier. But the way she is portrayed is extremely off-putting. She comes across as spoiled, imperious, hostile, vicious, ruthless, and uncaring about the pain and suffering of others, including her own family. Yes, she was a kid – once – but that doesn’t make it any easier to root for her finding peace at the expense of just about everyone else in the story. I didn’t want to see her get what she wanted in the end and the brothers didn’t win this one, as far as a victory went. The grandmother sacrificed herself to save her granddaughter. She seemed happy about it in the end, so I guess that was a win in that sense, but the ghost wasn’t banished to continue to her final destination, the daughter still lost the old hotel/homestead, and the brothers seemed a little baffled by it all.
I don’t know if this is the first time “hoodoo” is ever mentioned in the show (I think it first appears in “Crossroad Blues” a few episodes earlier), but may be the episode that uses it most extensively and establishes the (very traditional) idea that it requires a lot of work and will from the user. In fact, the will, and the strength of will, of the user, is quite important. Here, it is portrayed as entirely protective, though the brothers mutter about much-darker uses when they first come across the signs (and we’ve seen those darker uses as recently as “Plucky Pennywhistle’s Magical Menagerie“). Interesting that Dean is so on the ball with that, while Sam gets a heroic moment near the end (a flip on their usual season-two shtick), where he jumps into a pool to try to save the granddaughter.
Sadly, Sam still hasn’t got over his whininess from “Hunted”. He gets drunk in the middle of the hunt (a big family no-no, according to Dean) and starts complaining yet one more time about how he feels like a freak and Dean should kill him if he ever goes bad. I can sort of see this as a delayed reaction to being nearly blown up by Gordon. On the other hand, it’s still annoying. What balances it out is Dean’s ruthless, cheerful and deliberate insensitivity toward Sam’s massive hangover the next morning, which Sam really does deserve.
Also curious is Sam’s claim that Dean is “short” and “bossy”. We know, of course, that Dean is only short in comparison to Sam, but okay, let’s let that pass. What’s more interesting is Sam complaining that Dean is bossy…before trying to drunkenly bully his brother into promising to kill him down the road, should he turn evil. At the time, I recall finding this a tiny bit self-centred, but figured maybe it was just a momentary lapse. In retrospect, after several more years of Sam demanding that Dean trust a demon, Sam demanding that Dean accept his drinking demon blood, Sam demanding that Dean enslave himself Sam’s dream life with Lisa and Ben, Sambot demanding that Dean come back out on the road with him, and (most recently) Sam demanding that Dean not get himself killed, we can see that there’s a whole lot of projection going on in Samtown if Sam thinks Dean’s the really bossy one. Sure, there’s some justice to it. Dean does order Sam around, using the excuse of being the older brother. But Dean hasn’t demanded of Sam things that Sam can’t promise and that, furthermore, Dean shouldn’t be expecting to get, because they would destroy Sam.
In fact, the moment when Sam whines at the end about how he really does remember Dean’s promise and he’s holding Dean to it is just…can’t this show have more than an episode or two, especially a Samcentric episode, where Sam doesn’t need a good slap and a firm admonishment to get his head out of his ass, for the millionth time? It’s curious, in fact, that this episode appears to be Samcentric (right on top of the Samcentric “Hunted” and the Samcentric “Croatoan”), and even a little fawning on Sam’s constant moaning about his tragic fate, when the ghost is the big-sister-turned-monster and Rose is the little sister protecting the world from Maggie. Shouldn’t it be the other way around? With all the unsubtle Sam worship in this one, I can’t imagine this was intended as foreshadowing of Dean turning into a monster (or ghost), yet that’s what the analogy of the ghostly sister implies.
Plus, we’ve got Sam ostentatiously discovering the hoodoo quincunxes, making nice with interviewees, rescuing Susan and Tyler, and acting the role of SuperHunter. So, how is it that “Playthings” ultimately makes Sam look like a jackass and a crappy hunter who can’t even exercise the basic caution of staying sober in the middle of a freakin’ haunted hotel? Not to mention that Dean is the one who puts the necessary foundation together and interviews the right people while Sam is bombed off his ass? How many more people would have been killed in “Playthings” (since Sam expressed concern about that) if they’d had to depend on Sam to survive?
Some of the “coincidences” are based on characters acting stupid (though this, too, is a common feature of this week’s horror subgenre, the Gothic haunted house tale). We’ve got Susan, who grew up in a creepy mansion full of hoodoo signs and whatnot and never noticed a single thing was off. Also, she seems to have thought it was perfectly acceptable to yank her stroke-ridden mother out of the hospital and stick her in an attic, with no physical or speech therapy, or other treatment. Just park her up there in a wheelchair and go on about the day. And her blase attitude about her daughter’s “imaginary playmate” cements her blinkered stupidity. Speaking of her daughter, Tyler is no future Rhodes Scholar, either, acting some indeterminate age between clueless and downright-dumb about her brand-new playmate. I mean, wouldn’t she be scared when her mother made it clear she couldn’t see Maggie? And, while you have to feel sorry for how she ends up, helpless and unable to stop the danger, why did Rose never teach her daughter and granddaughter any hoodoo tricks?
Then there is the way the brothers act about what should have been a routine haunting to them. At the end, Dean congratulates Sam for saving Susan and Tyler, and even suggests Sam might have gotten some “MILF” action from Susan. Which is all well and good, but Dean did most of the legwork on this one, while Sam was getting loaded and feeling sorry for himself. And it never occurred to either of them to track down Maggie’s body, or the hair on the dolls, and burn it. Salt, their usual hunting condiment/weapon/defense of choice, never gets a mention (The same writer, Matt Witten, also gave us the dubious classic, “No Exit”, which also involved a ghost and used tons of salt, so you’d think he’d have remembered that one). Also, hello, why doesn’t anyone try to shoot out the locks, or at least a hole in the glass, when trying to bust in the doors to the swimming pool?
Finally, there are some visual Shining references in the bar (which make little sense, when nobody uses psychic powers in the episode and the hotel is neither isolated nor in Colorado. Or does all work and no play make Dean a dull boy?) and some Scooby-Doo references (which make more sense, considering the lack of brains shown in the episode’s resolution). What this episode most reminds me of, though, is the 80s Canadian horror series, Friday the 13th: The Series, which was heavily Gothic and had similar ‘verse rules, as well as a nearly identical bleak atmosphere. Though I don’t mind the homage, I wish the show had remembered its own ‘verse logic, as well.
Sam: I’m the one who told [Ava] to go back home. Now, her fiance’s dead and some demon’s taken her off to God knows where, you know? We’ve been looking for a month, now. We got nothin’. So, I’m not giving up on her, but I’m not gonna let other people die, either. We gotta save as many people as we can.
Dean: Dude, this is sweet! I never get to work jobs like this.
Sam: Like what?
Dean: Old school haunted houses! You know, fog, secret passageways, sissy British accents. Might even run into Fred and Daphne while we’re inside. Mmm, Daphne. Love her.
Dean: How ya feelin’, Sammy? I guess mixing whiskey and Jäger wasn’t such a gangbuster idea. I’ll bet you don’t remember a thing from last night, do you?
Sam: I can still taste the tequila.
Dean: You know, there’s a really good hangover remedy. It’s a greasy pork sandwich served up in a dirty ashtray.
Sam: Oh, I hate you.
Sam: What’re you gonna do – poke her with a stick? [off Dean’s look] Dude, you can’t poke her with a stick!
Susan: You’re insane.
Dean: Yeah, it’s been said.
Next Week: Family Remains: A family moves into a house where something lurks inside the walls. This would be a great time to call in the Brothers Winchester…if older brother Dean weren’t quite so feral.
On March 16: Out with the Old: While investigating the case of a ballerina whose cursed shoes made her dance herself to death, Dean accidentally touches them. Yes. Really.