Last Thursday’s Supernatural episode “The Raid” had unpredicted teeth — and that’s not even referencing the return of the Alpha Vampire. This episode may be a turning point, and here’s why.
Supernatural season 12 has featured plenty of solid standalones, but we’re 14 episodes deep and the anticipation is creeping in. At this point in recent years, the show had firmly established the season’s A-plot — Amara, the Mark of Cain — and was making attempts at solving it. This time around, it’s building up more slowly and carefully, off-screen more often than not. Lucifer’s half-human baby is an issue that will surely need more attention pretty soon, but even that arc seems like a mere facet of the impending blow-up between Sam, Dean and the British Men of Letters.
All season, we’ve been waiting for things to come to a head with the Brits — their Aquarian Star symbol is the current title card, after all, which is a solid indicator of the season’s most important element, and this week, one Winchester brother finally allowed himself to be recruited to the cause.
Touted merely as a vampire hunt, “The Raid” turned out to be a surprisingly pithy and character-driven episode for all three Winchesters, tying directly into the overarching, lingering, festering British Men of Letters intrigue, as the uptight technomancers try to implement their methods in America.
Their presence has been felt before now — they opened the season with a foot-burning, rib-cracking bang (sorry, Sam) but since then the show has been playing somewhat of a long game — episodes that aren’t actually about the Brits at all just happen to be made or broken by their influence, proving to the audience and to the Winchesters just how much power they wield.
To bring them to the forefront this week and actually go deeper into the organization, literally and metaphorically, was a shock. It wasn’t as if I was expecting “The Raid” to be uninteresting — writer Robert Berens is four-season veteran and a fan favorite — I just sort of wasn’t mentally prepared for its level of importance, particularly after last week’s oddly paced episode “Family Feud.” Like, I ordered a beer, I was expecting a beer, and then Supernatural shows up with a 33 year old bottle of barrel-proof Scotch. I’m grateful, but I needed a second to process.
The most valuable moment of “Family Feud” was the closing scene, in which Mary comes home to the bunker to admit to her sons that she’s been working with the Brits, using their methods to eliminate monsters on a grander scale than the usual hunter’s daily grind.
“The Raid” picks up where “Family Feud” left off — a pretty rare narrative device, for Supernatural — with that confrontation being continued, and over the course of the episode it’s flashed back to a couple of times, as we witness more and more of the fall-out which ultimately ends in the boys asking Mary to leave.
— Supernatural (@cw_spn) March 2, 2017
The difficulty that Sam and Dean have in forgiving Mary’s choice — initially, to them, a betrayal, especially as they begin to put the pieces together and realize that she was responsible for what went down at Ramiel’s place in “Stuck in the Middle (With You)” — is both understandable and not. On one hand, she did very much just stand there hiding her theft of the Colt, ready to watch Castiel die rather than come clean, but on the other — they’ve all done awful things each other over the years, and their father put them through awful things with much less compassionate motivation to make up for it.
Dean, in particular, would never hear a word against his father’s choices, and usually he’s the one falling over himself to excuse or forgive his family, so it’s interesting that he cannot forgive this, at least for the moment. Yes, the wound is fresh — it’s taken a while for the guys to forgive each other their trespasses in the past — but I get the feeling that this pain is less about what’s actually happened and more about the fact that his real live mother is destroying the mother he held so dear in his heart.
His accusations towards her — why doesn’t she try, for once, to be a mom, why does she need space from them — are so heartbreaking, because what the show has done with Mary Winchester is incredible from a viewer’s perspective. Sharply described by a fan as “the ultimate unfridging,” I love that this idyllic female character who was killed to start the show’s drama has returned from the dead to prove just who she really was, not a child’s nightgown-clad idolized image. All the kudos to Andrew Dabb for running with this arc, and Samantha Smith for playing it so well. But I also feel deeply for Dean, because Mary not being what he dreamed is one of the worst things to ever happen to him.
Sam and Dean have very different ways of handling their emotions, which was showcased brilliantly in “The Raid.” Sam’s impulse to be a peacemaker is called out, labelled by Dean as “playing the middle,” as he once again facilitates the issues within his family, allowing his own feelings to go unexpressed as tries to inject reasoning into his brother’s grudge. He ends up accepting Mary’s olive branch behind Dean’s back, but because he’s bottled up his emotions rather than bleeding out all over the place in little bits like Dean does, we see him, incredibly and suddenly, nearly break down when he sees the Colt, the full weight of Mary’s actions hitting him.
There’s another factor at play here as well — the fact Sam has no memory of his mother, and is only responding to their current relationship, whereas Dean is feeling the added angst of having to undo old expectations. Dean’s pain and anger are heightened, in part, because he’s mourning his memories. The fantasy mother that he clung to in his mind was never real, and therefore that source of comfort, falling back into those childhood memories, has been ripped away and will never be a safety net for him again.
He can’t blame her for leaving him through death, but he can, and does, blame her for not wanting to stay with him now that she’s alive, and his little comment about never having a childhood pries up the lid on the whole John Winchester’s A+ Parenting Skills Can of Worms — a can I desperately want dumped in Mary’s lap at some point — a tiny fraction. Even though they make up at the end, and talk about working on their dynamic with each other, his reference to her not having to make his lunch just throws me straight into another downward spiral. Remember his sandwich memory of Mary in his version of Heaven? Bet the next time he goes back there, that ain’t one of his greatest hits anymore.
Speaking of Dean, this episode was the second time in a few weeks in which a powerful but questionable ally has called Dean a killer, “cold-blooded” prefix silently implied — first Rowena, when filling Dean in on his past during his memory loss, and now Ketch, who claims that he and Dean are cut from the same cloth, and that the life the Men of Letters offers him — could offer Dean — is a safer, healthier and more productive way of channeling his proclivities than being left to his own devices.
It’s all a bit Dexter, actually, Ketch’s awareness of his own impulses, but it’s decidedly not Dean. Despite his “need to hit something,” itching for a hunt after his fall-out with Mary, I can only assume that this repeated idiom – people telling Dean what he is — is intended to challenge the idea and prove precisely what he isn’t.
— Supernatural (@cw_spn) March 5, 2017
In this case, once he sees Ketch in action, the fact that this man considers the pair of them to be of a piece makes Dean pretty uncomfortable, and he intervenes with the kill of a relatively “innocent” vampire, finding himself disturbed by Ketch’s viciousness. Dean may like a fight, and killing comes easy when necessary, but he doesn’t play with his food before he eats it.
The fact that Dean Winchester is a much gentler man than rumor makes him out to be is one of the most interesting things about Supernatural even as a viewer – it definitely isn’t the impression that people have of the character via osmosis — and given this season’s expanded look at the American hunter network, perhaps it’s time for the truth about Sam and Dean to come out within their own universe, and for their own community to discover the men behind the dehumanized garbled legends.
Dissimilar to Dean though he may be, Arthur Ketch himself is becoming more and more fascinating by the hour. A menacing shadow since the season premiere, his true debut in “LOTUS” was the most engaging moment of that episode, and “The Raid” gave us much more personal insight on him than we’ve had to date.
What’s most intriguing is the question of how reliable a narrator he is, especially contrasted against our first British “Man” of Letters, Lady Toni Bevell. Toni played a crucial role in the season 11 finale and opening of season 12, and it was through her that we first heard Ketch’s name. She and her colleague Ms. Watt attempted to handle Sam’s interrogation themselves specifically because Toni didn’t want Ketch – whom she called a psychopath – anywhere near her. Mick Davies intervened, tried to make friends, and since then, Toni’s been out and Ketch is in.
It seems very much like there’s something still brewing here — yes, Supernatural wouldn’t be the first show to randomly gloss over an initial introduction and change tack, but this seems too carefully done to just be a dropped ball. Ketch was mentioned by Toni. Toni was mentioned by Ketch. The unseen “old men” running the show were mentioned by both of them.
Are we meant to believe Ketch’s take, that Toni — a single mother who he apparently used to date, possibly the father of her child – was the crazy one with evil intentions? Or are we meant to expect Toni to burst back in as a Winchester ally once they inevitably go toe-to-toe with those doing the bidding of the “old men” over whatever ethical line they end up crossing? And is the genial, reasoable Mick Davies the best or the worst of the lot of them?
The fact that — accent-wise, at least, which means everything in the U.K. — Mick is working-class and Ketch is upper-class is an indicator that both of them have overcome some sort of social norm or boundary to end up where they are. People who speak like Ketch don’t become foot soldiers — even in the regular army, back in WWI and WWII, the sons of gentlemen would immediately receive commissions as officers. The fact that he’s a grunt, a weapon — a highly elegant and precise one, but a grunt nonetheless, rather than the brains of the operation – is notably unusual, therefore what he revealed to Dean about his lifestyle makes a lot of sense. Perhaps this was some lord’s way of respectably hiding his serial killer son.
Mick, whose name, voice and image all imply Irish-turned-Cockney (extremely un-posh) and who’s a soft-handed strategist with no experience in the field, appears even more interesting in contrast as Ketch’s superior. He would have had to be particularly brilliant or particularly manipulative — probably both — to get where he is, as the Men of Letters, both in the past with the American chapter including Henry Winchester, and at present with the Brits, have proven to be highly elitist and classist.
More and more I’m reminded of the Watchers’ Council in Buffy the Vampire Slayer — it’s actually a very close comparison, but given that Buffy turns 20 years old this week, it’s fair game for some basic genre concepts to go back into the pot and get doled out again. Right from the start, the vibe is there — an traditional organization with resources and history who let the fighters on the ground, whom they treat as inferior and insignificant, get their hands dirty.
Buffy Summers called out the fact that the Slayer was not their slave – that without her, their entire existence becomes meaningless, and she tears their moral superiority to pieces. There were a shades of that shining through in “The Raid,” as Sam and Mary discover that very, very few of the Men of Letters actually know how to handle the situations they send hunters into, or, in fact, kill anything at all.
— Supernatural (@cw_spn) March 3, 2017
The way Sam takes charge of the base when the vampires come a-calling proves just how conceptual and impractical the British Men of Letters are. They’re hopeless and helpless and even hypocritical — the fact that they include spellwork alongside technology and weaponry in their research and development is maddening to me, as they’ve been shown to have a zero tolerance policy to any supernaturally powered activity at all, and yet they’re perfectly fine, of course, with using it to their own advantage. Sam’s intel on the Alpha Vamp is also better than theirs is, based in personal experience rather than hearsay.
If you’ll allow me to mix my Whedonverse metaphors, I want Sam’s decision to come on board to end up being something like (LOOK AWAY, REWATCHABLE NEWBIES) Angel taking over Wolfram and Hart. Because despite the lack of personal experience from those in charge, and despite the ethical qualms, the resources that the British Men of Letters have are very real and they very much do work, and Sam Winchester is the perfect hunter-turned-tech-witch-in-training to use every asset he’s offered to do this job, and do it not from a holier-than-thou moral high ground, but rather from a place of genuine integrity, true understanding of good and evil.
This could be the paradigm shift that allows our boys, in the next few years as the show presumably winds to a close, to lay down their load, and the idea of this opportunity turning into something that the Winchesters reject or fight against is really stressful.
The sentiments that Mary expressed to Sam in “The Raid,” her reasons for joining, are so close to what I want for the end of the series, but if she’s standing there saying this right now — basically, if it doesn’t in some way succeed, it’s going to reinforce the idea that there’s no escape, no hope, and no end in sight.So I’m hoping that this is the start of something big for Sam as a Man of Letters, as the legacy he’s so proud of being, that perhaps, in overthrowing the old regime, the Winchesters will find themselves the de facto leaders of the organization with all the resources at their disposal to use in their own way.
I’m still convinced that that coup, that throwdown that must be in the cards, is going to have to do with who’s deemed an innocent, who’s allowed to walk free. Sam and Dean still don’t know about Ketch’s murder of Magda, the young psychic girl that they saved in “American Nightmare,” and no mention at all was made this week about innocent vampires — like Lenore, like Benny, both dead now, but there must be others — vampires who don’t attack humans, by choice. There’s even a cure for those who never fed on humans – Dean himself has undergone it. The British Men of Letters are still going nest by nest in this circumstance, but if they could press a button from their control room that immediately extinguished all vampires, innocents would surely die. Same goes for werewolves and witches and psychics and skinwalkers and all other manner of individuals who may be have monstrous power but who are not monsters.
With a potentially innocent nephilim on the horizon, I find it difficult to believe that we’ll see this season out without a big moral battle of this type, tying the dual arcs of the Lucifer baby mama drama and the British Men of Letters together, and I’m keen to see once and for all where all three Winchesters stand, and if they’re in agreement with one another.
Sam and the Alpha Vamp discussed the way things “should” be — cops and robbers, only taking out those who get out of line — and though he was stalling and bluffing, I think there’s truth in his statement about wanting a fair fight, and that he may have qualms with the level of extermination he’s about to uncover. Dean certainly will. And for the boys to take over the Men of Letters, at least one major player — Mick perhaps, Toni perhaps — will have to start seeing things the Winchester way, go rogue, and orchestrate the transfer of power from the old men to our guys.
As of right now, Sam’s on board. Dean doesn’t know that yet. That’s kick-off, then. Now the real games can begin.