Supernatural returned Thursday with “Stranger in a Strange Land,” and the premiere offered plenty to theorize about.
As mentioned in my advance review, “Stranger in a Strange Land” is not season premiere full of flashy whizzbang fireworks. It does not, by any means, hit the ground running. That’s okay – it’s intentional. It is an episode about dead ends, inviting the viewer into the stasis that the characters have suffered in their weeks away from us.
It’s an episode about aftermath, but if you’re not cool with that, you’re probably watching the wrong show – this entire series is, in a way, about aftermath, as its entire narrative is driven forward by the weight of the past. At nearly 300 episodes, Supernatural has proven the old adage: slow and steady wins the race.
Every year in promo mode, the Supernatural EPs claim that they can’t possibly top what they did last year, and plan to make the upcoming season more personal, smaller in scope, more focused on the character journey and less on the external mythology. It’s sort of a running joke among fans, but you know what? They ain’t wrong.
Supernatural is honing itself gracefully, creating, in recent years, much tighter stories with much more insular priorities and consistent tone. Last season, the team offered up a grand total of one (1) true old-school standalone case-of-the-week episode, and that was “Scoobynatural,” an unusual outlier. “Stranger in a Strange Land” is paced the way it’s paced for a reason. This year, with the episode order trimmed down to 20 from a previous 23, you better believe that every second counts.
Still, there was plenty of progression and set-up over the course of the hour. Threats and theories abound. Here are some of the biggest talking points at this juncture.
Ol’ Nick Made New Again
So. Nick, the long-time Mark Pellegrino-shaped vessel of Lucifer, is apparently alive, recuperating in the Bunker under Sam’s watchful eye.
In case you need a refresher, Nick became the devil’s Plan B vessel when Sam rejected him back in season 5. Because he wasn’t Lucifer’s true vessel, his body rapidly deteriorated, and when Lucifer finally exited him, he died. Lucifer kept Nick’s image when he reappeared non-corporeally throughout the series – whether this was his choice, or merely how the Winchesters perceived him, is unknown.
During season 12, Crowley repaired and reanimated Nick’s body, making it capable of holding Lucifer permanently. However, no mention was made of Nick’s own spirit or consciousness returning to life as well. In the premiere, we learn that Nick survived Lucifer’s fatal battle with Michael!Dean. Sam’s working theory is that the archangel blade kills the symbiote, but not the shell, which would raise fewer questions if Nick had not been already very, very dead when Lucifer possessed him this time around. Crowley raised a crusty corpse, not an actual person. Why, and how, is Nick’s soul back in his body?
So, is this situation all that it seems? We don’t have a lot of precedence to contribute any evidence for or against. Season 10 confirmed that Castiel’s vessel, Jimmy Novak, died and went to Heaven as soon as Castiel was killed the first time (exploded by Raphael.) The rebuilt Cas retained Jimmy’s image, but his body is basically a clone, all his own – unique among angels. Nick definitely did die, but this is definitely his actual, revived body, not a copy.
Then there’s Gabriel, who also died by the archangel blade. Who knows what the deal is with Gabe’s vessel, because in season 13, we learnt that he had disguised himself as Loki – literally taking his face. Did he craft his own new body to do this, or what? Was the Richard Speight. Jr-shaped vessel ever actually a human being? If so, what does being stabbed with the archangel blade mean for that dude?
Right now we have two main options to explain the Nick situation. First: we accept that Crowley resurrected Nick body and soul and that he’s telling the truth. In that case, his resurrection is a way to plant the archangel blade as a Chekhov’s Gun, perhaps the key to recovering Dean or getting rid of Michael – the gang knows that they can now stab the vessel, kill the archangel, and save the human. (Be nice if regular angel blades worked like that. On demon-possessed humans, too.)
Nick’s presence could also potentially be a way of helping Jack – when Sam was possessed by Gadreel, his grace left traces in Sam’s body afterwards, some of which Castiel was able to extract. Could Nick be housing some of the grace that Lucifer stole from Jack? A fairly indestructible archangel vessel might be something that comes in handy for Michael, too, once Dean expels him. Given that Supernatural seems determined to retain Pellegrino’s services as an actor, shifting Michael into him as the season’s primary villain could tick a lot of boxes.
On an emotional level, we already got a great glimpse of what dealing with Nick looks like for Sam – he’s experienced so much torture by these specific hands, heard such terrible things from that mouth. Befriending Nick and getting used to the sight and sound of him could be a way to allow Sam to come to terms with some of his trauma, removing some of Lucifer’s power over him, breaking some old associations and triggers.
However, this could all be a fallacy. What if it’s not really Nick? Is Sam being played here? At SDCC, showrunner Andrew Dabb did affirm that Lucifer is really, truly dead. We all want him to be really, truly dead. But like, you’re watching Supernatural dot gif. We have to face the very real possibility that Lucifer is, in some way, alive. I’m nearly convinced that Nick is Nick – we got flashbacks, after all, to signify his point of view – but I do have one working theory: that the archangel blade kills the being’s angelhood, extracts their grace entirely and permanently, but not their personhood.
So in this case, it would mean that Lucifer was actually Lucifer – just entirely depowered and genuinely human. Why would he pose as Nick, in that case? Well, self-preservation, for one – a very valid fear that he won’t be accepted as Human Lucifer, so instead, he’s quite literally playing the victim, pretending to be the innocent in this situation.
I’m 99% sure that no one over at SPN HQ is stupid enough to think that what the universe needs in this year of our lord 2018 is a Human Lucifer Redemption Arc, but you never know, I suppose. But hey, if we have to have this, maybe that means we can also get a human Gabriel back. Anyway, this theory is more about just exploring the inevitability that all is not what it seems when it comes to Nick’s existence. Something’s gotta give here – the question is what, precisely.
Michael and His Monsters
Michael has found his Chosen People, the ones that he deems worth saving. Turns out they’re vampires. What now?
We didn’t get a ton of info about how the events of the past played out over there, but we know the Apocalypse World was a failure in Michael’s eyes. His rule of that wasteland was basically him doing the best he could with what he had left, but the knowledge of another universe immediately sparked in him a desire for a do-over, and he spent the season trying to make that happen for himself. Now, with a fresh start, he wants another crack at a better world, and he plans to make better choices in order to facilitate that.
But what exactly does that better world – a saved world, a cleansed world – look like? What went wrong the first time? What do you want, Michael? What is the vision that you’re attempting to fulfill, and what about your approach needs to change in order to achieve it? It’s worth noting that although Michael rejected angels, he didn’t kill Anael; although he rejected demons he didn’t kill Kip; and presumably he didn’t kill any Jamil or any other humans he may have questioned.
Presumably he plans to kill them all eventually… or brainwash or enslave them… or maybe not. His motivations are unclear at this point, and while it’s obvious that Michael is the hero of his own story, we don’t know whether his true aims are ultimately selfish and power-hungry, or whether he genuinely believes himself to be magnanimous, the saviour of something-kind.
The Michael of this world – the crazy one, the one still locked in the Cage, apparently, even though Lucifer is dead and Hell is a shambles – was extremely devoted to God and Heaven. He claimed to love his brother Lucifer, and that his war was one of duty, but he also blamed Lucifer for causing God to leave. He ran Heaven for millennia after his father abandoned it, and truly seemed to have no genuine personal motivators, rather, an obsession with determinism in general and his own destiny in particular, as well as fury at the idea of free will interfering with it – “You can’t fight City Hall.”
Given that the Apocalypse World diversion only happened in about 2010, we must assume that this Michael has a similar personality, and a similar devotion to his father or some higher law. (Is that God the same one as ours – did he create all the universes? Are he and Amara off on vacation in another one right now? Is Chuck like a cat who solicits food from a bunch of different families who all believe they own it? Oh my God, you guys, I think I just solved Supernatural.) So it’s going to be very curious to see whether those eight years changed this Michael into something else entirely and introduced new motivators, or whether God does play a part in all of this even still.
Michael’s acceptance of his new ally may shed a bit of light upon his values. He finds purity of a vampire’s thirst-drive, the acceptance of that primal instinct, to be worthy, and he rejected all the others who did not express their innermost base needs as honestly. That much makes sense, certainly – but what will that mean for the world Michael wants to see? Does his approval extend to all monsters – is he perhaps looking for a world much like the Purgatory?
The memory of Purgatory brings to mind Dean’s strange appreciation for that place (“It was bloody. Messy. 31 flavors of bottom-dwelling nasties. Hell, most days felt like 360-degree combat. But there was something about being there… It felt pure.”) Dean himself was less repressed and less performative after his experience then – he was much quicker to speak more freely and bluntly, react more openly, in many ways. He wound a lot of that back in, closed himself back up, but it did seem like a cause and effect scenario at the time.
Dean’s vampire friend, Benny, even made a comparison similar to the point Michael seems to be driving at. Upon re-entering the real world, the extra complications and emotions and rules and morals, all the structure that we create for ourselves in order to function as a society, weighed upon Benny, and he struggled with them, admitting that he wished he’d appreciated Purgatory’s purity like Dean did.
Is any of that in line with Michael’s desires – a world of good, honest monsters, hunt or be hunted, no falsities, no further questions? Or is he looking for something else – acolytes, worshipers willing to sacrifice their autonomy, who will pay him reverence if he provides for their needs? Will he eliminate all who don’t submit, leaving behind some sort of (ugh) master race? Does he plan to improve on them at all, enhance their abilities and leave behind a world full of souped-up monsters for the Winchesters to deal with upon his eventual demise?
Season 13 also left a rather large hanging thread in what was seemingly a monster-of-the-week episode, and the questions that raises may play in here as well. In “Breakdown,” when a man tries to sell Sam on the black market as monster food, the Winchesters learn that the population of supernatural beings is bigger than they ever dreamed. The ones they usually fight are just the ones who failed to conceal themselves – the ones who were so driven by those pure instincts that Michael seems to now admire so much that they hecked up and left a bloody trail.
If those monsters are just the tip of the iceberg, if there are so many more that attempt to make human-passing lives for themselves – will those ones be rejected by Michael, deemed as liars in the same way Anael and the others did? Or will they be counted, and contribute in their thousands or millions to Michael’s potential numbers?
Finally, despite Michael’s rejection of this world’s angel population, I still feel like he’s going to have to deal with Heaven in some way. The title card shows a pair of solid, powerful angel wings in all their glory, surrounded by streams of grace. Are these Michael’s wings, or do they represent a redux and repowering of the entire Heavenly Host?
Given how much this design mirrors the season 9 title card – broken, burnt out wings, after Metatron cast them all out – and given how much the stranded angels affected the plot of that season (spoiler: a lot) then I think it’s safe to assume that season 14 is going to be all about fully powered angels.
This doesn’t even begin to scrape the surface on what this all means for Dean. Even without all the questionable consent issues he’s having (which memories of Dean’s may Michael choose to exploit in order to keep him complicit enough not to revoke that consent?) and the horror he’s likely to experience while in Michael’s passenger seat, life through an angelic lens is something that fundamentally changes a person. Trauma – which is sure to be the main takeaway – aside, will anything about Dean’s worldview shift, now that he has a tangible grasp on the scope of angelhood? Especially since that scope, as I’ve mentioned once or twice, is something he frequently rejects about Castiel?
As Dabb recently stated, the things that happen to the characters on this show are “less about the event, and more about how it affects them moving forward.” One of the biggest sources of common discord between Dean and his angelic BFF is a failure to communicate with the context of the others’ experience. Will this change or improve, now that Dean knows what perceiving the universe as an angel is like?
It’s enormously significant that this premiere gave us the first look at anything that could even be considered an angel’s true form – the “angelvision” which Anael viewed Michael to identify him showed us his inner power, and now that we’ve seen this special effect, I don’t think anyone in the fandom will rest until we’ve seen how Cas looks – how he truly looks – through Dean’s, eyes. I mean, Castiel has literally held Dean’s soul in his hands, it’s only fair.
Heavy is the Head
Sam Winchester, A Motherforking Boss Bench, is, at long last, exactly where he should be.
Ever since returning to hunting, Sam always focused on the big picture, looking for a solution to make the necessary evils of his family’s lives unnecessary, allowing them to be free. And he’s gotten so close.
Rewind for a minute: the plan for the British Men of Letters to mobilize the US hunting community with their superior resources was, at its core, a good one – it was just executed by corrupt leaders. In season 12’s brilliant penultimate episode “Who We Are,” Sam proves that he has the chutzpah to do everything the Brits never could: his wielding of both strategy and rhetoric proves to be the most effective force to rally the hunting community, and after a very Henry V-esque speech, he leads a united collective of hunters to take down the British Invasion.
Sam admits, earlier in that episode, that he’s always been gun-shy – happy to follow because he was too afraid to lead. He’s got good reason to fear embracing any sort of power – he’s seen himself corrupted by it in a number of ways, including addiction and having his autonomy taken away. He’s also made a few bad calls that led to disaster, but really, on this show, who hasn’t?
Sam’s story has always been one about autonomy – his choices have never really been his own, in a lot of ways, even from childhood, even with his father and his brother. After all, the show opens on him being torn from the independent life he tried to craft for himself, and like it or not, there have been entire seasons of Supernatural where the internal conflict was about the fallout of Dean taking control of Sam’s agency. But that’s – hopefully – now a thing of the past.
It takes Dean getting injured for Sam to allow himself to step up. Even after taking ownership of the plan, Sam still requests that Dean join the fight, feeling more comfortable with even a banged-up Dean at his side. Fair call, sure, but Dean sees something that Sam doesn’t – that Sam is inordinately good at this, that he has what it takes to be a great and inspirational leader, the makings of a statesman. Dean benching himself here is about much more than his physical condition – it’s about cutting Sam loose from his apron strings.
I’ve always been a bit disappointed that Sam chose to burn that Men of Letters base down instead of taking it over and using those fancy resources to help the whole country in a way that everyone willingly contributes to. But we’re back on track for that endgame now – this forced experiment involving Sam’s home turning into an unexpected barracks has the potential to lead to a regrouping of the existing community, reuniting the Men of Letters with the hunters in the way they should have always been.
What was clear then and remains clear now is that Sam’s approach to command automatically incites deference in others, even older men, experienced fighters. People submit to his authority willingly, they trust him to lead them, and his aura when doing so is almost Arthurian, regal, bringing to mind the concept of the divine right of kings. I have a lot of confidence in Sam and I do believe that this is the right choice for him. But I’m not gonna lie – I also have a few worries about all of this becoming a burden rather than a blessing, as well.
This premiere chose to spend a bulk of the hour dealing with that situation with Kipling, when, on paper, everyone definitely had bigger things to worry about at that moment. On one hand, it’s perfectly fine if that meant nothing further at all, because “Stranger in a Strange Land” was full of false starts, showing us an example of the ongoing slog before Sam gets a big break about Dean’s whereabouts from Sister Jo.
However, we cannot ignore that Sam just intimidated a room full of demons so wholly that it caused them to smoke out and run away. That very much happened, and it is not exactly a run-of-the-mill occasion. Based on how domineering and powerful they found him, the threat of crossing Sam Winchester is more than anyone is willing to risk, apparently, and that’s significant – even Cas and Mary looked floored at the outcome of Sam’s battle-stopping mic-drop.
I’m a little worried that our resident once and future king just effectively pulled some sort of evil sword out of some evil stone and accidentally declared himself the new ruler of Hell. Like, if the throne is empty, and no one is willing to cross Sam to take it… then that sort of implies that he’s claimed it by default. I’m not predicting any sort of corruption, but the idea that his forceful magnificence could end up meaning that he’s the only person on Earth who can keep evil in line until he figures out a way to end it… That would be a less than ideal weight on Sam’s admirable shoulders, to say the least.
There’s also something about the way Kip (named for Rudyard Kipling’s “The Man Who Would Be King?” Coincidence or a sign?) talked about Crowley that seemed to have Sam reflecting: something about the way Kip portrayed the prior leniency between demons and Winchesters made me feel like Sam might swerve hard in the other direction and adopt a black and white zero tolerance policy for the supernatural that may have detrimental consequences.
We’ve been there a few times before on this show and always come out on the side of “personhood matters,” but I can’t help but fear is that this incident may be foreshadowing a severity that will overtake Sam in a way that he eventually has to be pulled back from. I’m not entirely confident that that’s where we’re going, and I really don’t want something like this to once again tarnish Sam’s experience in charge, so I actually hope I’m wrong about that one.
What Do You Want?
That is the real question here, and it feels like it might worm its way into the hearts of all our heroes this season.
If we’re talking about story arcs in terms of character growth rather than external plot events, the Winchester cohort has made massive progress in recent years. They’ve worked their way up from running on “base need” fumes. They’ve surpassed merely surviving and they’re so close to the cusp of thriving. So here’s something to consider: once fulfilled your divine duty, once your “purpose” longer applies, can you choose a new one? Say you do get to choose: what do you really want from your life, and is it possible for you to have it?
For Castiel and Jack, there’s an interesting parallel about their sense of self already apparent. Jack’s struggle to identify his place in the world when it’s not defined by his firepower or usefulness is something that’s clearly going to have a knock-on effect, causing Cas to reflect on his own circumstances. It’s so obviously clear that Castiel finds what Jack is saying abhorrent, and would do anything for him not to feel that way, but it’s also clear that he has very little idea how to handle it.
In this episode, Cas tries his best to comfort Jack, but he may have to take a few more pep-talk lessons from the Winchesters, as he is visibly flustered by the statements Jack is making. Castiel has never had to consider these things for someone else, someone that he loves whose experience so closely mirrors his own. When dealing with this specific kind of hatred within himself, Castiel, in all the millennia he’s been alive, has never given himself a break, and has never truly learned the lessons that the Winchesters have tried to teach him.
Both Cas and Jack will need to figure out how to define themselves, leaving aside from what special things that they can do. Someone get them matching “I Am Enough” t-shirts, pronto.
When Jack says he can’t do anything, when he doesn’t have anything… I just know that Cas can’t help but be forced to confront the way he feels about the same sort of situation, with all that he’s experienced. Quite simply, you cannot teach someone that who they are is worthwhile if you don’t actually believe that about yourself as well. You can’t talk the talk if you don’t walk the walk.
If Cas is going to convince Jack that he belongs right where he is, no matter what powers he has or what he can do to serve others, then that’s something Cas damn well better be realizing about himself as well, especially as Heaven becomes less and less powerful and any sort of duty becomes less and less relevant.
But what does Castiel actually want? It’s probably worth asking what is going on with Cas’s level of grace at this point. His powers are not being put to use at all – while sometimes his fighting abilities are handwaved in order to serve certain plots, extra effort was taken to show that he didn’t even heal himself upon returning home, which, in terms of production, means that Misha Collins had to sit in make-up to get those wounds reapplied in order to shoot scenes in the Bunker set. That’s intentional. Is there something deeper here?
Is this about a desire to detach himself from angelhood and live as a human, either out of solidarity with Jack or because he’s finally starting to figure out that, given the choice, he’d like to adopt humanity once and for all? I’m not gonna lie: I want Cas to want to be human, and Michael’s scolding of Anael planted some pretty big seeds about that concept.
And what does Jack want? Well, Jack wants his powers back. I think it’s okay for him to want that, as long as he manages to shake off this misery of living without them first, and embrace all aspects of himself as valid. The show is doing a great job so far of making sure Jack’s desperation doesn’t come across as literally power-hungry – his frustration of being powerless is genuinely selfless.
Jack’s powers are very special – he is likely the key to the continued existence of the universe – and I do think he does have some purpose yet to come, but the state he’s in right now is just so sad that I need it to stop. He is so pure, and his heart is so big. He is a tiny baby and he should not have to feel like he’s the biggest weapon in anyone’s arsenal.
And Sam and Dean? This season, if Lucifer does remain dead, if Dean frees himself from Michael and vanquishes him, then the Winchester brothers will have finally both succumbed to their fates and survived them. No matter what else is going on, that chapter will be closed.
Given what the boys discovered about the circumstances of their birth, all the aspects of the universe that aligned to bring them into being purely to fill those roles for Heaven and Hell, that’s a big deal. It’s a chance at rebirth, at redefining the idea of “the role you were born to play.”
I’ve already written about my fears for Sam’s current position. Say none of that bad stuff happens, and Sam does maintain this new calling as a hunter general in the best way possible. Dean, when he shakes Michael loose, is going to return to a very different home. There will be a massive dynamic shift in play, if the Bunker continues to house a small army of refugee hunters who are calling his little brother “Sir.”
I’m hoping, given his approval and pride of Sam in “Who We Are,” and how this mutual respect and recognition developed in season 13, that while Dean may find that situation a bit weird, he won’t have any major objections or feel wronged-footed by it, and will recognize what this opportunity presents for both him and Sam.
True, it sucks that it took Dean’s possession and abduction to kickstart Sam’s command of an army, but I honestly think that this is how things would have played out no matter what, after the refugees arrived from Apocalypse World, even if Dean had stayed safely with the group in the Bunker. This commanding officer role suits Sam immensely, and in my book, it’s what the outcome of show should be, because Sam is a natural at this, with exactly the right skills and exactly the right temperament.
I want Sam to want this – I want him to recognize that he feels an enormous sense of empowerment from this work, that by using all the knowledge and experience he’s amassed and shaping it into some sort of structure, by calling the shots on how to use it, he can spearhead a revolution that will ultimately help to actualize his big picture needs, as well as save countless others.
For Sam, being allowed to take control is the ultimate form of freedom, but Dean’s freedom comes from relinquishing it. Because for Dean, being the boss comes with a lot of baggage. Dean has always been tasked with responsibility that he never consented to – of course he loves Sam, but the fact that he lost his own childhood in order to ensure his brother had one is deeply unjust.
Dean has never, ever been taught that it’s okay to put himself first, and while that has instilled some deeply moving qualities in him – he loves others passionately and forcefully – that he’s never really had anything that was just for him. He also is prone to making very dangerous decisions that are the opposite of big picture thinking, in order to protect individuals – things he’d never let his loved ones do to save him. Like, say, allowing an archangel to possess him.
Michael tells Anael something very important – he tells her that Dean said yes to him for love. Not the greater good or to save the world. Not need – Dean’s word of choice for telling people how he feels, and the reason he’s made many past sacrifices. Dean gave in to Michael because he loves the individual people he was trying to save.
We know this, of course, and Dean knows it, but he still struggles to accept this in as many words. Dean is a born nurturer, and his greatest strength lies in loving and being loved, deeply and personally. People have done great and terrible things for the love of Dean Winchester. Dean has done great and terrible things for love in return. It’s time to turn that power into a positive.
We know that Dean is going to have a really tough time this season, and it’s hard to make calls about what he may want when we haven’t spent any time with him yet or seen what, exactly, about Michael’s rampage will take the harshest toll, possibly affecting his behavior in some way. But like Sam, the evidence for Dean’s true calling is already well-established.
Looking back again at Dean’s role in “Who We Are,” it really was a turning point setting up what I believe to be the most positive overall full-series journeys for both brothers. There, we see him undertaking an equally important task with a very different root. While Sam is off, saving the whole community, Dean is using the strength of his love, to save an individual – his mother, by entering her mind and getting into her heart in order to bring her home.
I mean, this divergent yet complementary path is just so blindingly clear at this point. That iconic episode literally says it in the title. “Who We Are.” This is who they are. Sam’s greatest wins come from adopting a telescopic view, Dean’s, a microscopic. Sam, the practical; Dean, the personal.
It’s reductive to claim that that’s all either is good for – they’re both well-rounded characters with different ways of expressing themselves – but ultimately, their best chance to thrive together is to rely on this balance, with Sam better equipped to make tough calls and see wider potential, inspiring Dean to believe in the impossible, and Dean better equipped to measure the personal cost of that big picture thinking and relish the importance of the little things, zooming Sam back in when he gets too zoomed out.
We all know what Dean wants. It’s the same thing he’s always wanted. All he wants is to surround himself with the people he loves and cherish them, not just in a life or death situation. Season 13 dealt with this a lot for Dean – he finally had something he wanted, something that was good, and it was taken away. He became much more open about owning his feelings and desires, what he’s willing to live with and what he believes he deserves.
He’s made a lot of progress in the right direction – the fact that he now believes that he’s allowed to want things at all – and the biggest worry here is that his trauma will cause him to regress and reopen old wounds, causing him to lose all that gained ground.
Here’s what I want for Dean: I want this experience with Michael to leave him more vulnerable than ever. I want it to soften him, rather than hardening him. I want to see him having taken a long hard look at himself while accessing an omniscient perspective, and for that to crack him wide open instead of closing him up.
For Dean to spell out what he wants when he talks about family and when he talks about need, for Dean to admit that he has struggled with abandonment issues and that he craves proof of love, for him to reach out and ask people to help him feel supported, or for him to explore what makes him feel empowered and fulfilled for a happy future is a fever dream, not something I can imagine actually ever seeing play out on this show. But I’m daring Supernatural to prove me wrong. C’mon. You know you wanna.