7:30 pm EST, November 25, 2016

‘Supernatural’: ‘Celebrating the Life of Asa Fox’ is a brilliant bottle episode that rewards the re-watch

No new Supernatural this week, but that’s okay — last week’s episode, “Celebrating The Life of Asa Fox,” was strong enough to do double duty. Here’s why you should watch it again.

Due to a Thursday Thanksgiving (more like Thanks-for-nothing-giving, am I right?) Supernatural fans will have to wait until December 1 for a new episode, the long-promised exploration of the sleazy LA music industry where guest star Rick Springfield will finally get a chance to shine onstage as Lucifer. However, that leaves us more time to ponder over last week’s episode — it contained so much worldbuilding that we might actually need the extra week to unpack it all.

A just-passing-through visit to Sheriff Jody Mills (Kim Rhodes) turns from casual to sombre when Jody receives news about the death of a fellow hunter, Asa Fox, whom she knew quite well. Sam and Dean accompany her to Asa’s wake — crossing the border into Canada for the first time in the show’s history, “The French Mistake” notwithstanding! — where a bunch of hunters, including, to their surprise, their mother Mary, have gathered at Asa’s family home to pay their respects. As night falls, the remaining guests end up trapped in the house fighting off a crossroads demon with a grudge against the deceased, and the truth of Asa’s death comes to light.

“Celebrating The Life of Asa Fox” — the Supernatural writing debut from new recruit Steve Yockey, an alum of MTV’s Scream — is a rather brilliant bottle episode which admittedly did not advance the season 12 story much further onward in a linear fashion, but instead served to grow the world of the Winchesters exponentially outwards in way that few other episodes have achieved. There have been game-changers in the past, of course: the initial revelation that the basis of the Judeo-Christian religion like God and angels were real would be one, and the discovery of the Men of Letters bunker, giving the boys a place to finally call home, was also huge. I’m not comparing this episode to those epic reveals, but on a smaller scale, it added more color, depth and shade to the day-to-day lives of the boys — and the hunting community at large — than most monster-of-the-week episodes ever manage.

It doesn’t take much encouragement to get most Supernatural fans to hit replay on a new episode, but here’s a few reasons why “Celebrating the Life of Asa Fox” is well worth re-watching before next week. You know, just in case Jared Padalecki’s two minute cameo in the Gilmore Girls revival isn’t enough of a fix to see you through.

The Badass Women


For a show that’s, for better or worse, deeply rooted in masculinity, it sure was nice to have an episode which featured a large group of ladies in a story that wasn’t inherently feminine and in which all of them survive. Fan-favorite recurring guest star Kim Rhodes, in particular, is given much room to grow in her role as a trusted friend of the Winchesters, incredibly comfortable and naturalistic in her interactions with the boys as well as giving a startling performance when possessed by the pesky demon Jael.

Supernatural has featured many lady hunters over the years, both established contacts and more than a few women — like Jody — that Sam and Dean have inadvertently introduced to the life, but they’re usually the solo female in a male-heavy environment. This episode’s cast of characters featured a very even male/female split – after the wake’s first murder takes place, there’s five men and four women left trapped and facing the demon. Billie the Reaper rounds out the cast to showcase five awesome and distinctly drawn women.

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The most prominent of these is obviously Sam and Dean’s mother, Mary Winchester. Back in the day, the boys were surprised to find out came from a traditional hunter family, and this episode gives us a further shock — that Mary carried on hunting in secret after she “retired.” The reveal that Mary saved Asa and became a mythical figure to him, that she secretly kept hunting after she started her new normal housewife life with John, even after her kids were born, is pretty huge, and adds further facets which humanize the white-clad Madonna of Dean’s dreams. The dismantling of that saintlike pedestal is one of the greatest services this show could offer a female character, particularly an idolized mother.

Our two new female faces are powerful in very different ways. Lorraine Fox, the wake’s host and Asa’s mother, is an unusual example of a civilian who’s aware of hunters — and therefore the supernatural — but who does not partake. She’s classy as all hell, tough and elegant, and has her own secrets. The young Alicia Banes, twin sister of Max, is the daughter of a witch, and is an example of an innovative new generation of hunters who may be better equipped than their predecessors — more on that in just a moment.

The Hunter Community


“Celebrating the Life of Asa Fox” was, above all, an introduction to more of the hunter community, and it shines a spotlight on just how isolated Sam and Dean have been within their line of work, particularly since the death of Bobby. They’ve had some allies — Ellen and Garth both get shout-outs in this episode, signifying the ties in the hunter network — but the Winchesters work in somewhat of a bubble, and while they’ve got plenty of unusual experiences under their belts, it turns out that even someone like Jody, who got into hunting thanks to them, is more in the know about the basics of hunter society these days.

The boys meet a plethora of hunters with different methods and backgrounds, from the boisterous storyteller Bucky Sims to the young twins Max and Alicia, who were raised by a witch and include magical practices in their hunting. The twins also represent two elements that one may expect a rough-and-tumble traditionalist bunch of supernatural killers to eschew (queerness, on Max’s part, and magic, for the both of them) and yet none of this is questioned as unusual by anyone except the Winchesters. These boys have a history of both extremely toxic posturing and rejection of anything supernatural as evil. That’s changed for the better, but Sam is still quite confused by the fact that the twins are both witches and hunters, and it’s interesting to see that those attitudes aren’t hunter-universal, they’re John-Winchester specific.

As Sam and Dean are introduced to the world of their peers, it becomes clear that, despite their skill and their world-saving legacy, they’re not exactly the cool kids at the party, they’re kind of like the awkward bumpkin cousins who don’t get any of the jokes or traditions. Sam’s admission that their father kept them away from hunter gatherings at large, citing them “trouble” — who’s shocked there — adds a huge and immediate layer to the brothers’ own backstory. Watching them be slightly on the back foot in one such social situation is fascinating, and the pre-funeral scene — dropping by Jody’s for some literal Netflix and chill after a drama-free hunt — is a delightful bonus glimpse at the down-time of their daily lives.

The story of Asa’s life and untimely death was also a stark warning to both the audience and to Sam and Dean that there’s only one likely future in sight for all these hunters – you can be as good as it’s possible to be, but one day, something will get you, and that’s knowledge that everyone present carries with them, the burden that they all share. It’s something that Sam and Dean have pondered over themselves many times, and while it’s not how I want the show to end, it’s understandable that Dean would roll back to that old expectation when faced with the corpse of yet another hunter who died on the job.

The Winchester Legacy


As awkward as the boys are at this gathering, given their clear lack of childhood birthday party invites, this episode includes a factor that we haven’t seen much to this degree but one I’ve always been super curious about — other hunters knowing about the Winchesters by rumor. We’ve had quite a bit of this with angels and demons and so on — given their divine omnipotence, a lot of supernatural beings seem to be aware of the Winchester gospels – but what we haven’t had enough of is other hunters recounting stories about them by hearsay, and watching the boys react in that circumstance.

Well, it happened, and it was rather glorious – Dean, particularly, is very taken aback by this and for all that he’s usually as slick as you like with strangers, he’s immediately put on the spot in a way that’s kind of reminiscent of Harry Potter’s first day in potions class. This is honestly pretty understandable – he is not, at his core, an egocentric character, and even if he was, much of what he’d be renown for isn’t exactly trauma-free. It’s certainly not as simple or as positive as “hey, you guys stopped the Apocalypse, free drinks forever!” The juxtaposition between his own bragging about killing Hitler — yes, he’s still not over that — and his reaction to the challenging curiosity of his fellow hunters about his many deaths, is a significant tell.

It’s also kind of a great representation of the dehumanization of celebrity — there’s an immediate vibe from the hunters of tall poppy syndrome, that weird thing we humans do, where, when faced with someone extraordinary, we try to cut them down to our level to prove that we’ve still got something up on them. Bucky seems to delight in making Dean uncomfortable, which tangibly oozes off Jensen Ackles in this scene — it’s genuinely stressful to watch. Sam’s experience with Elvis is another classic example of celebrity culture — an excited fanboy tactlessly quizzing him about something personal, as if the details of his life were public entertainment to relish. We even get Max and Alicia stepping in on Sam’s behalf as an example of a younger, more empathetic generation, one who understands that you don’t just treat people like that, no matter how famous. It’s all done quite brilliantly.

The brothers share a private moment to reflect on the fact that “people tell stories about us,” however, the Winchester legacy doesn’t start and end with Sam and Dean — Mary has her own history to face up to in this episode as well. Lorraine’s confrontation about Mary’s influence on her son’s life — the life that got him killed — is a harsh but necessary reminder of the fact that even though she wanted to avoid this life for her own sons, a) they ended up there anywhere and b) she inflicted the same damage on someone else’s kid. That’s sure to weigh heavy on her already-struggling heart.

The Real Monster


“Demons I get. People are crazy.” Wise words, tiny-Dean-of-season-1. Supernatural really isn’t backing down from its whole ‘humans are terrible’ theme this season – as I already covered, they’ve met their fair share of evil humans over the years, but in season 12, every single episode seems to contain a strong undercurrent, in some way, of the Shakespearean sentiment “Hell is empty, and all the devils are here.”

Over and over we’re witnessing the twist of each season 12 episode be wrapped up in awful human behavior, and last week was no different. Yes, a demon entered the house and people got possessed and killed. There’s no handwaving that. However, the more sinister element of the episode was the reveal that it was Asa’s best friend Bucky who actually caused Asa’s death, unintentionally causing him to strike his head on a rock after shoving him in a heated argument that was, ironically enough, initially about protecting Asa’s safety.

This in and of itself would have been a tragic accident, and Bucky could have either a) outright reported the truth of the accident without much risk of blame, or b) slightly dodgy, left Asa to be found dead as the result of a simple, lethally-placed stumble. But no, he chose option c) to callously hang the dead body of his friend, framing the demon that had a grudge against Asa and alleviating himself of any wrongdoing. What the eff, man. What would possibly cause someone to do something so gross? Oh, wait, I remembered, humans are trash and Supernatural wants you to know it.

Bucky aside, the threat that Jael poses is very real, and this episode also hammers home that Supernatural’s monster of the week episodes are by no means obsolete — even though they’ve faced much bigger and badder threats, a single demon, or any other beastie, can still cause a world of grief or bring about the end for any number of experienced hunters. It’s just a matter of wrong time, wrong place or lack of resources. However, it really seems like Sam and Dean need to take their new friends — and their old ones, c’mon, Jody! — on a little hunter gathering to the nearest tattoo parlor, ASAP.

The Future Consequences


While this episode didn’t directly tie in to either of the season’s big bads — Lucifer on the loose or the British Men of Letters’ quest to bring Sam and Dean in line, there was quite a lot of content that could come into play once things start heating up. Firstly, here’s an example that the North American community of hunters that Toni Bevell tortured Sam to get details of doesn’t exist in the structure she expected it to, and what organization does exist does so completely outside the influence of the Winchesters. However, now that they do have some new connections, perhaps Sam and Dean will begin to forge more bonds, share more resources and actually create a stronger network as a backlash to the Men of Letters’ attempted intervention.

Not only that, but — and this is a stretch, but it’s plausible — what about Bucky Sims? After the horrid truth of Asa’s death comes out, the group punishes him by making him a pariah, planning to tarnish his name to every hunter they meet. Wouldn’t Bucky be in the perfect position to be picked up as an ally by the British Men of Letters – he’s the type who’d be dying to have someone on his side making him feel validated, and unlike Sam, he’d be more than willing to spill the beans on everything he knows, in exchange for protection or purely out of spite. It’d be a classic move, cozy-ing up to someone with a grudge against the people you want intel on. Given that the Men of Letters use some magic themselves, I wonder if Max and Alicia would constitute as supernatural enough to deserve elimination, like Magda. Probably — the BMoL seem the type not to be phased by a bit of hypocrisy.

Jael also gives us an update on the status the “complete trainwreck” that is hell without Lucifer or Crowley. What “messy” means to a demon could range from anarchy to lethargy, but we’ve seen battles for the throne of hell before, and demons are certainly a little less problematic when they’re not thinking for themselves. Lucifer is still at large, but Crowley, at least, is honourable in his own weird way and holds his demons to a certain standard of behavior. Somehow I don’t think the Winchesters will ever be particularly cool with making the best of a bad situation re: hell and saying “hey just keep your demon dudes in line,” but if that’s what it comes down to, Crowley is surely the better option. Once the gang manages to bundle Lucifer back into his box, will Hell just be left to Crowley’s control again, or will there be another attempt at a more permanent solution?

Finally, Billie’s role in this episode is a pretty clear indicator of where Mary’s story is going to go. As a Reaper, Billie is even more dispassionate than Death himself, but she seems a little bitter about the Winchesters. She’s by no means a villain, and she helped them to defeat Amara, but she believes in the sanctity and balance of life and death, and she’s tired of Sam and Dean bending the rules. Billie previously promised the boys that that the next time they die, she’ll prevent them from ever coming back, and now Dean owes her a favor. Ominous, to say the least. She wants to claim Mary as her favor – surely Dean didn’t sell her to Billie specifically, but we never saw the deal they agreed upon – and it’s a gentle offer to go back to Heaven that Mary, who still feels that everything about being alive is wrong, is clearly tempted by. She’s hanging on, for now, but if Mary isn’t sticking around indefinitely, then I think we can expect to see Billie take her upstairs before the season’s done.

You can re-watch “Celebrating the Life of Asa Fox” now on The CW App.

‘Supernatural’ returns Thursday December 1 at 9/8c on The CW

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