Supernatural season 15, episode 4, “Atomic Monsters” meets a family ready to do anything to protect their nuclear normalcy. Meanwhile, God’s picking up the pen again, and it turns out – surprise – that he’s not so great at accepting constructive criticism.
In the aftermath of saving the world for what the Winchesters believe to be the final time, Sam and Dean hit the road again in an attempt to “return to normal,” for their first monster of the week in a post-Chuck-reveal world, but it’s clear that things won’t ever be as simple as the once were. The killer at hand is a vampire, and though the brothers eliminate the threat, the circumstances of their success are not exactly what anyone could call victorious or fulfilling to the brothers.
Everything about the case, from the vampire who clearly didn’t deserve to die to the civilians who were no particular pleasure to help, reminds the brothers – particularly Sam – along with the audience that, even now that they’re “free,” this is a really shitty lifestyle with no upside.
And how free they truly are comes into question when Chuck, unbeknownst to the Winchesters, reenters the scene. Seeking out help – or ego stroking – from his number one fan, his attempts to begin writing again seem to pull the brothers back under his control throughout the course of the episode.
Directed by star Jensen Ackles, and shot first in the season to allow the actor time to prep for his shoot while not working on other episodes, “Atomic Monsters” feels a little odd tonally, but it works, because this is an odd time for the show and the characters. Not knowing how to feel right now is pretty understandable. But the game is still afoot – in fact, it looks like it’s only just getting started. Here are our 15 takeaways from Supernatural season 15, episode 4 “Atomic Monsters.”
‘Supernatural’ season 15, episode 4 review
However, when Jensen and Jared posted their “hiatus beard shaving transformation” pictures to kick off season 15, it seemed like maybe ol’ Natalie wasn’t so wacky after all. Jared’s initial “Sam” reveal showed him sporting some very pre-season-8 sideburns, which we then saw him trim down shorter in the background during Jensen’s big shave… which was clearly taking place after a day of filming, as he was in costume and sporting plenty of grime and blood.
This entire look and demeanor for this version of Dean would have been the careful devising of Director Ackles – he didn’t get the idea to keep his beard on for shooting because of being yelled at by a writer at Comic Con – and aside from it looking freakin’ cool (the gloves, the scarf, the tac vest) it makes me want to know absolutely everything about the state of this Dean’s world in this version of events. Even in the End!Verse, Dean found a way to shave. Even in Purgatory. The visuals of the red-tinged vision: his dress, his fighting style, the location… all of these elements paint a blurred picture of the whens and hows of this version of his life, as did the appearance of…
And lo! Here he is. Dean’s special guy. Dreamy, dedicated, and… dead. Sigh. I would really like some more Benny, please, before the finale, some proper intense Benny drama for real, but there’s a lot to unpack here even from the few moments we saw. This is Sam’s dream, or vision – so he is the one watching Dean and Benny together, hearing the throwback of Benny’s line to Dean from when they escaped from Purgatory.
God, they are still electric together. The Dean and Benny relationship worked because from the word go in season 8, the offscreen bond they’d established was tangible as soon as we convene with them. The actors established an absolutely wonderful dynamic that sold the whole thing, and apparently it’s still just as powerful today. Bless you, Ackles, for bringing him in. This won’t be Sam’s primary takeaway, but I wonder if watching this scene play out will remind Sam of any guilt that he may still be carrying around about what Dean and Benny were to each other, and how he didn’t accept it until after Benny was dead. The brothers kind of have bigger problems to deal with right now, but I am greedy – a taste of Benny just isn’t enough!
Remember, Dean hoped that Sam would bring Benny back to Earth with him, and when that didn’t happen, he left the door open for the possibility in future when burying Benny’s body. Benny was rarely mentioned again, but whenever he was, it was with the heaviest and most intense of meanings and implications. Open the door, Dean! Go get him for real! Your bench – both in terms of soldiers in your fight, and shoulders for you to cry on – ain’t real deep. Anyway, I’ll be over here, continuing to pray that this Benny appearance was an aperitif, not an nightcap, until the series finale credits roll.
Some of my questions about the AU scenario in this episode: When and how did Sam get back on the demon blood, and start using his powers again? How long has Dean been leading a militia against him? Who uses the Bunker as base camp – Sam or Dean? Did this story diverge before the boys canonically got the Bunker, and have them end up there anyway? Or did it diverge during season 8?
Maybe this is a world in which Dean chose Benny over Sam, after Purgatory? Maybe this is a world that diverged later, and Dean brought Benny back to life as his loyal companion? Or is this Benny human? What about the mention of Bobby, who canonically died in season 7? Where is Cas in all of this?
But most importantly: is the story tight, full of organic twists? Or is it smattered with plot holes, slapped together in a way that makes no sense in order to simply force circumstances that Chuck desires into being? How good or bad a writer is Chuck, truly? That’s probably the big question to define the season and the series, after all.
What’s interesting to me about seeing this version of Sam again is that of course, it isn’t a possession or anything, it’s just a twisted version of him. His performance was so alien, yet so recognizable as the Sam we see every week. A friend of mine mentioned even noting shades of “Lebanon’s” TED talk Sam in the Sam we saw here – his ability to get really hard and cold and shut off parts of himself entirely.
Sam holds the constant possibility to become that person inside of him. He knows it, he knows he’s capable of it, he knows that he’s vulnerable to it, and he lives with that every day. He’s tempered the threat of it with insecurity and self-doubt, never trusting himself too much or allowing himself too much power.
Seeing this vision play out makes me hope even harder that season 15 will address Sam’s series-long fears about this sort of threat – what it means to have been touted as the most special of Special Children, what it means to have manifested psychic powers, what it means to have been susceptible to addiction to demon blood in order to increase those powers, what it means to have been fated as Lucifer’s perfect vessel.
This scene may just be some alternate ending that Chuck is imagining, sure, with no actual grounds to come true in our canon – in fact seeing it now narratively promises that it won’t – but it doesn’t change the fact that Sam’s story won’t be whole and complete until he stops fearing himself. Until he takes his innate and recognized ruthlessness (and if you’re itching to kick off about the alleged evilness of that word, may I direct you to this training montage from Spider-Man: Into the Spiderverse) and makes his perceived inner “darkness” his bitch. And any time he has to confront that – like in a dream, here – it makes that issue even more pressing.
But this, I think, aside from humor value, this is a weird regression, where a brother tries to dictate what sort of help the other needs, to push their idea of healing onto them. In fact, it’s almost a direct parallel to Sam trying to improve Dean’s spirits with the boys’ trip in “Advanced Thanatology” – you know, the one that ended with Dean killing himself.
Sam’s “let’s get back in the saddle” play in season 14’s “Mint Condition” was a world of improvement, an insightful and lovely gesture based on a clearer understanding of his brother, and I am still eagerly awaiting the reversal of this, Dean finding a way to indulge Sam on his level in a fun and meaningful way. But until then, round and round we go….
Sure, the boy enjoys his food in a very pure and wholesome way, and I love that about him, but he also 100% eats to cope and absolutely self-medicates with alcohol, and while we see him eat and drink often enough, stuffing his face in multiple scenes and casually swigging from a flask in the middle of a case is decidedly not normal. None of this is particularly normal.
“Atomic Monsters” is more overtly about Sam’s suffering, in terms of losing Rowena and Jack, and in terms of the weight of the scenario at hand, but there are a lot of non-verbal cues that show us that Dean, the episode’s bucker-upper, is absolutely stewing in it as well. I don’t quite know how I feel about his speech at the very end – his elation over being “free,” which Sam does not share – but I am leaning towards believing it, actually, in a big picture sense.
However, this episode is also coming off the back of his break-up with Cas, and losing Cas – albeit a bit differently – was also the cause of his downward spiral that culminated in the events of the aforementioned “Advanced Thanatology.” That episode saw him cite the three Bs – bullets, bacon and booze – as his primary ways of getting through a rock bottom scenario, and given how we left him at the end of episode 3, so shaken up by what he had done to himself and to Cas, I think that it’s safe to say that for this reason and more, he’s leaning into those methods now as well.
He’s hungry – for food, for booze, for a hunt. Because he’s trying to fill a hole. It’s a hole of his own digging, and he’s trying to pretend he’s fine with it, but in reality, it would seem he’s trying to satiate something within himself pretty intensely. So.
Not even visiting the site where the body was found until the second day of the case? Planning to take out a teenage suspect with dead man’s blood in broad daylight, in the middle of school hours, with no evidence other than she was third in line for cheer captain? It feels like they’re going through the motions. They’re not even trying.
I have to assume this is intentional on the show’s part. In the past, this story may have been rounded out into a perfectly normal and regular episode of Supernatural. But here, juxtaposed directly with Becky’s discussion with Chuck about what makes Supernatural good, about what the guys deserve in their story, and about what parts most fans prefer to watch, the boys’ blasé case stuck out as scathing commentary on the idea sometimes expressed that “The show is at its best when it’s “back to basics,” just Sam and Dean on the road hunting monsters.”
To quote a great woman: MEH. Like, no, it’s not. Hunting is a thankless drag, and Sam, in particular, is more openly resentful of it than we have maybe ever seen during this episode, bitterly impatient with the naivety and self-importance of the civilians and enraged at the Winchesters’ predestined role to carry the weight. Message received: for an endless multitude of reasons, this isn’t how things should be anymore. For the characters, for the audience, for anyone.
The onscreen portrayal of the Supernatural fandom has changed quite a bit within the show’s lifespan. From meeting Chuck’s book series publisher with her gatekeeping, her fandom tattoo and her insistence that the best parts are when the boys cry in season 4; to Becky’s introduction as SamLicker81 (webmistress at morethanbrothers.net and Chuck’s number #1 fan) and her organization of the first Supernatural fan convention, filled with mostly male cosplayers and shown to be an audience whose interest writer Chuck finds endlessly tiring; to season 7 Becky becoming someone who, despite having dated Chuck and despite knowing the actual factual truth about Sam and Dean becomes toxic and dangerous in her obsession with Supernatural, drugging and force-marrying Sam; to the 200th episode where we meet Marie, the deeply invested yet balanced and perceptive young teen responsible for creating clear-eyed transformative works to amuse herself (the Supernatural musical) and seeming to stand in for the new wave of fandom that came to the show later, after its Netflix debut, the show has graduated from poking fun at or misreading their audience, to instead earnestly trying to see and validate them, acknowledging the reasons that Supernatural means something to so many people.
“Atomic Monsters” went above and beyond in this matter. Becky Rosen of season 15 is a healthy, happy grown-up fangirl who takes pride in her fandom, who is not cowed or ashamed of her passions, whose relationship with her beloved source text is not affected by her personal distaste for the text’s original creator. Her sense of ownership over Supernatural has gone from delusional and creepy to reasonable and healthy. She sets her own boundaries and she’s in it for the right reasons. She’s boiled down how she really feels about it all, and hasn’t let anyone take away the value of what the stories meant to her, and she’s confident bringing her fandom passion into her family home, where she’s settled happily as a wife and mother and businesswoman and writer. From the little we see of her family, her fandom career is a normal part of their lives, and the show frames this as perfectly valid.
Furthermore, she has the upper hand with Chuck, explaining her situation and defending her choices in a way that’s clear he can’t mess with in any way, particularly when he gets snobby about fanfiction. He cannot shake her, and he even seems to listen to her and admire her, until his God-sized pettiness takes over.
The decision to frame Becky, a previously problematic portrayal of fandom, like this, speaks volumes about the show’s respect for its fans and its intention to do right by the fans, particularly those, and it further confirms that the show stands with the fans who recognise that what Chuck is doing is wrong, despite a decade or so of assumptions that Supernatural would end tragically. It’s one of the kindest and smartest things they could have possibly done, both to show their appreciation to the fandom and to convince the fandom to trust them in their aims for landing the series finale of this epic story.
That being said, I’m wary of getting too deluded about the narrative rightness of Becky (the fandom) and narrative wrongness of Chuck (the creator.) I don’t want to get my hopes up. But it’s really hard not to when they have Chuck out here defending his monster stories by enthusing about Leviathans – obviously lampshading a total flop – and when all of Becky’s notes on Chuck’s newly finished story are the same notes that we would all give at the prospect of Chuck’s ending – too dark, too cruel, hopeless, unfair. There’s a clear slant here.
Becky, that hero, has no qualms standing up to Chuck, telling the literal Word of God that his idea about ‘canon’ doesn’t matter to her, and that her relationship with the story is her own. “Fan Fiction” held much the same message – “I have my version, and you have yours” – but this one feels different for some reason.
As a certain type of viewer, I naturally believe that Becky is correct about what makes Supernatural wonderful – the best parts are just them sitting around talking, and doing domestic stuff where they don’t have to fight monsters. I understand that her line addressing this is meant to be gently poking fun at fans like me, and I’m cool with that. I know that the show is not going to end in a gift-wrapped double-wedding domestic bliss beach vacation family dinner parcel with a bow on top.
But it’s no secret that the show has turned into a character drama first and foremost and that the monster element is, nowadays, merely a framework, a way to explore the emotional state of the characters rather than serve as the main stakes of the plot. This episode itself kind of pushes this idea forward in Sam and Dean’s arc – we see them trying to slot into a normal monster case as their primary focus (as Chuck would like to write) and it just. Does. Not. Matter. It doesn’t carry any weight anymore. It’s set dressing, nothing more, and trying to put it front and center is wrong. The character journey is what matters, and at this point, there are some clear points that the show needs to fulfil in order to land that journey in a way that makes us feel like it was worth the telling.
As the concept of Chuck as a writer and Supernatural as a story becomes more meta than ever in the plot of season 15, I knew that the role of the Supernatural fandom had to come into play one way or another, especially as the audience is asked to side with the boys and reject the story that Chuck is writing. Maybe Becky’s role here is simply to tell fans that their hopes for the series are valid and heard but ultimately unrealistic – a fan’s rose coloured version – but given that Chuck is so obviously our villain, and his puppeteering of Sam and Dean is so obviously the obstacle to overcome, it’s hard not to imagine that Becky’s ideas for them are the better ones, the ones we’re meant to root for.
It’s likely that the actual ending will land somewhere in between the gravestone and the laundry. I don’t think the show is going to present a message that says the fans basically get to dictate the ending. But I do believe that Becky is meant to be saying more than just “your fanon is valid to you, but irrelevant to the story,” because there’s no place for Chuck’s vision of Supernatural in the Supernatural that we’re all actually watching.
This is more about the creator losing sight of the value of his own story due to his single-mindedness ego – here, Chuck puts forward the idea that making an audience feel something is good, no matter if the feelings they feel are bad, which is a childish and careless approach to storytelling that breaks the unspoken contract between a creator and an audience about what the audience as signed up for based on what the creator has laid the groundwork to deliver – and the fan, who sees the story outside of the creator, and therefore can see all the better what it’s supposed to mean.
Becky, I believe, is meant to represent the audience that the show is now writing for – the audience that wants the right things for the characters as we know them today. Growth, freedom, togetherness, an earned reward. She represents the transformation of the show itself, the ability to move forward and become something else, something better and more than you once were. Over the years, Supernatural outgrew its initial aims and its initial structure, and the journey it took created a narrative in which those initial aims and initial structure were no longer appropriate – sticking to its original guns would land badly, and feel like bad storytelling.
Through its endurance, Supernatural basically wrote itself into a place where a hopeful and peaceful ending is mandatory, and Becky telling Chuck that his endgame is all wrong is basically Supernatural season 15 telling Supernatural season 5 that it is no longer a story that has to end with hopeless cruel tragedy and destruction, that it can be better and more than that, that it can survive itself and become something even more epic and powerful.
This is not about fans knowing what is better for a show than creators. It’s about the difference between resisting change or embracing it. And Supernatural absolutely wants us to embrace it.
Can we assume that the events of the vampire case playing out in “Atomic Monsters” are already being dictated by him? I think we’re meant to get some sense of that, given the way that the scenes of him changing up the story are interspersed with the twists of the case. Or maybe it’s a metaphor, a warning of what’s to come. Was he writing the red-tinged universe? What about the shaking of the bobble heads – shaking the way they’d perhaps shake if mounted on a dashboard – as we cut to the final scene in the car?
And obviously, B) I do not love that Sam and Dean don not address the absence of Castiel. I guess we can assume that Sam, in his addled, grieving state, inquired about Cas’s whereabouts and Dean told him some clipped version of events, something like “he took off.” But still. The fact that Becky brought it up reallllllly highlighted that the boys did not bring it up, which again, we must assume is intentional, and it certainly leans towards the idea that Chuck was controlling the boys’ story as it played out.
Rob Benedict is fantastic in what he achieves here, hardening his eyes and tightening his smile just enough to turn from a simpering marshmallow into a serious threat. He’s such a goddamn dick. But truly – he tells Becky that the family isn’t dead, just “gone” – gone where? Another world? The Empty? Are we going to see them again? Is he going to live in her house and make it his base of operations? Becky, you were brave and true to the story – the real story – until the last, and I truly hope you manage to get your wonderful life back and contribute to Chuck’s eventual downfall.
Billy’s story is absolutely horrific and cruel, and the way he bravely took control of it and laid down how things were going to go – resulting in his own death – makes it even crueler. It’s a story that, in Sam and Dean’s world, will repeat itself over and over to innocent people as long as the situation is allowed to perpetuate in secret.
It was one thing when all victims were lost causes, but over the years of Supernatural, the guys have discovered that, treated early enough, there’s actually a cure for vampirism. There’s a cure for werewolfism. There are relatively simple ways to banish ghosts from homes or exorcise demons from human hosts, and even simpler things people can do to protect themselves, like wearing iron jewelry or getting the anti-possession symbol tattooed.
I’m sorry if I am barking up the wrong tree here, but this just seems so pressing, and so irresponsible to me. It seems like a no-brainer, especially as Sam kept going on about the normals not knowing what’s out there. Change that! Figure out a way to change that, for the good of everyone! Come on!
Executing a sobbing teen who has called the shots and ordered you to kill him, while reflecting on your own lost child and how you would have let someone cut your own head off to save him – not exactly the kind of end result to a hunt that makes you feel like a big damn monster-hunting hero. Not exactly what I would call – as Dean calls it – “interesting.”
This is dark and dirty and plain awful, and I think that’s a very important thing to keep in mind in terms of Sam and Dean’s relationship to the job. I believe that Dean means what he says, in the final car scene. I do. But his approach is all wrong. Taking this case did not improve anything for the guys. It was nothing to take pride in. It just hammered home that, planned by Chuck or not, the life they’re stuck in is total and complete garbage.
Sure, you can say they owe it to all the people they’ve loved and lost to keep putting one foot in front of the other. To keep living. But that doesn’t mean they have to live this particular life. The people that loved them most likely wanted them to “live happy,” too. He’s looking for the silver lining, sure, but’s truly shocking to me that Dean found any satisfaction in the days they’ve just spent in Beaverdale, Iowa.
Despite Sam’s initial drive to throw off Chuck once and for all, now that it’s – to his knowledge – a done deal, he’s more weighed down than ever. Getting back in the saddle as a hunter, he’s extremely resentful of the position that he’s in, the role he still has to play and the burden he still has to carry in order to preserve the innocence of others. And he’s resentful of himself, for ever having wanted the normal, boring, white picket fence life that the folks he meets are so stuck in.
I think most of all he’s resentful of the fact that getting it now wouldn’t make him happy, that he could never be okay with it and that he will never be okay with the burden of hunting either. Doing it of his own free will – tolerating the oblivious privilege of others, carrying the pain and the horror of the truth – it seems to hurt him that much more now that he knows that it never had to be this way. That it was only this way because God enjoyed his suffering.
I very much believe that the major discoveries the boys will make this season, that the closure they need to find, will be based in coming to terms with the fact that Chuck or no Chuck, their lives were their lives, good, bad and ugly. We’ve seen Dean struggle with the brighter side of that coin – his inability to find a way to frame his free will as still belonging to him. He hasn’t solved that problem for himself, and so he’s pretty elated right now, believing that he’s finally “free” – because he didn’t, and still doesn’t, believe that he was before.
He’s struggled to believe that anything before now counted for anything, and he’s eager to move on from the part of his life that was dictated and toyed with. (But don’t think I didn’t notice that flicker of pain and uncertainty at the phrase “move on” – echoing Cas’s last words – Deano.)
Sam, however, is sinking into the mire of the other side. Knowing that past events were written and constructed doesn’t change anything for him. It doesn’t offer him the ability to brush it off and start a new chapter. It doesn’t set him free. It just hammers home the cruelty of it all, the pointlessness.
His mention of Jessica, that he still thinks about losing her (please let us see her again before the finale!) and his brutally honest description of the consuming depression, anxiety and PTSD that is constantly right under his skin – that has been under his skin for years, honestly, that he has compartmentalized and covered over and tried to overpower because he knows that if he falls into it he won’t come out, he won’t survive – is heart-stopping.
Sam, right now, when all is said and done, doesn’t believe in his ability to ever be happy again. It’s there in Padalecki’s performance – his bone-deep weariness with small, strength-sapping rally moments, his reluctance to leave the house, his impatience, misanthropy, resignation, bluntness, rage. In the way he tells Billy’s mother, who claims everything is going to be just fine, “There’s no way you believe that.” In the way he just stands there, dissociating, when Dean has to kill Billy.
But most of all, it’s there in hint of lightness in his delivery, especially in that magnificent final car scene. Anyone who’s been depressed, anyone who’s given up, will recognise that cadence, those stress-grimace smiles. They’ll recognize the disbelieving laughter in the middle of a tragic sentence, the hollowed-out lip service hope for improvement, the anxiety that comes as part of having to admit to someone – someone you know won’t understand and who isn’t going to handle the truth of how broken you are very well – just how badly you’re doing.
Sam admits that he doesn’t know what he’s going to do if he doesn’t feel better, and while I am absolutely thrilled that Supernatural is finally stripping all Sam’s compartmentalizing and coping mechanisms away, I’m with him in that I don’t know what he’s going to do either. I can’t come up with a big-picture solution for Sam at this point, not for what he says he’s dealing with, not for what he says he can’t let go. I’m anxiously awaiting the eventual discovery of what peace and freedom looks like to Sam, because what he delves into here doesn’t paint a very bright future for this burdened boy.