Sometimes you watch an episode of television and you cannot help but put your hand to your chest and sigh, “Oh. My heart.” This episode was one of those for me. Richard Speight Jr.’s directorial debut was a corker, making us laugh and cry in one fell swoop as Sam rediscovers the imaginary friend who helped him through his lonely, confusing childhood—and who just might be able to help him through the miasma of doubt and fear that is his adulthood, too.
1. A World of Pure Imagination
The premise of the whole episode—who would have thought they could sell this? Imaginary friends are real? And perhaps murderous? This show has tried with varying levels of success to get us to buy in to the ridiculous and on paper this was bound to be cloying or irritating. In practice, though? It was kind of charming and still managed to have a pretty legitimate premise. Sam reunites with his childhood imaginary friend Sully, who actually isn’t imaginary at all. According to Armenian lore, Sully and his buddies are Zanna, “creatures who guide and protect lost children who intentionally appear as figments of the imagination, allowing the child to move on with confidence when guidance is no longer necessary.” Think that’s not a thing? Well, they’ve got their own Wikipedia entry! I love the way Sam and Dean’s monsters are based on real folklore, myths and urban legends. It lends to the credibility of the plot, even when it’s way, way out there. Zanna. Congratulations, show! You just explained these to me in a way that I am totally willing to suspend my disbelief. Unlike those stupid midi-chlorians. Those things were lame.
2. The Sons Also Rise
Seeing a little of the morning routine at the Bunker was…well, it was a hell of a turn on actually. Between Sam’s early morning wake up call (which face it, in my reality would be me nudging him) with his gloriously mussed bed head and only wearing one layer for a change to Dean wearing the dead guy robe with his own lusciously mussed hair, staggering around like a grandpa it was all as sweet as marshmallow covered nachos.
More little slices of Bunker life please. It helps me flesh out my fan fic. Wait. What?
3. Dean—Meet Sully
The whole interplay of Sam discovering Sully is real and then introducing him to Dean? Hilarious. The sleepy way a doubtful Dean says, “Are you having a stroke? Do you smell toast?” Hilarious. To see that Sam’s favorite snacks as a kid had absolutely nothing at all to do with a salad. Hilarious. (I particularly loved Sully telling Dean who created the nachos: “It was me. And those are delicious.”) Dean’s reaction to seeing Sully (“I’m gonna get my gun.”) and his low-rent karate stance? Also hilarious. Dean angrily tying his robe as he demands Sam go with him to the library. HILARIOUS.
Jared Padalecki channeled his inner child so subtly in these scenes with small variances in his acting that reflected the child Sully knew in the face of the man he is today. And Jensen Ackles reacting as Sam’s dad more than his brother? As usual, their chemistry was incredible. Kudos to the adorably charismatic Nate Torrance for just being able to keep up.
4. Flashback—What a Feeling!
Okay, okay: we would have all liked Colin Ford to still be young enough to have played Sam in the flashbacks. But have you seen him recently? He’s not playing little kid anybody anymore. (Thankfully, we got Dylan Everett back for a cameo as teen Dean. More of that, please and thank you.)
Dylan Kingwell, the latest actor to play young Sam Winchester, was not Colin Ford, but he did a fine job of it, alternately adorable in his playful interactions with Sully and wistful in his palpable disappointment at being regarded as too little to hunt. Granted, it would be hard to not have chemistry with Nate Torrance but even so—the parlay between the two in the flashbacks was touching to watch. Their game of “Ever Think.” Sully’s constant boosts of confidence. Sam’s confession of wanting to run away. The whole thing was heartwarming and sad, all at once, and was a perfect balance for the silly humor in the rest of the episode. These scenes choked me up. Like, a lot. Sully got it right: “Sam is so awesome.” So are you, Sully. So are you.
5. You’ve Got Sparkly Red on You
Dean and Sam use the “Bert and Ernie” pretext to impersonate child counselors so they can investigate Sparkle the Manicorn’s murder (Did you catch Dean’s “nobody appreciates me” look when no one acknowledged his cool new species name?) and I’ll tell you what: no one has ever made a sweater look hotter. Of course, the crime scene is a horrifically bloody mess, but people who cannot see the Zanna can’t see the carnage. When Sully allows Sam and Dean the sight to see what Zanna see, they are privy to the crime scene in all its glittery spectacle. Glittery, thanks to Sparkle’s iridescent blood. Because, as Sully says, “Even when he’s dead, Sparkle can’t stop shining.” Hilariously wrong. And wrong gets even…wronger…when the mom comes into the room and tromps right through the mess she cannot see, smearing her hands and then her face with Sparkle’s blood.
My God, this scene was funny. Watching Sam and Dean trying to contain their disgust as Sully squeaks, horrified, “It’s on her face, Sam. It’s on her face! She’s got Sparkle on her face!” I laughed out loud. And the follow up? The so wrong it’s the wrongest exchange where Dean suggests the whole family shower together? The funniest part of all. (Not that I object to some people showering together. Sam. Ahem.) Richard Speight, Jr. portrayed the Trickster/Loki/Gabriel with finesse, navigating between the humorous and the serious easily, making his scenes extremely well rounded. It’s nice to see his directing is just as strong as his acting.
6. Zanna Do
Sully, as a character, could have been very one dimensional, but he ended up being cuddly and deep and flawed and delightful all at once (and especially so as portrayed by Torrance, who was a revelation.) Even beyond Sully the Zanna were crafted so well. Writer Jenny Klein wrote them with such heart, such warmth, even giving them real missions that tugged at our heartstrings. Sparkle encouraged his charge to be considerate of her parents. Nicky fed her child’s active imagination. Weems cared for his child through alcoholic neglect. And Sully? Sully tried to give Sam a future full of choice.
Again, when I heard about this episode I was expecting the silly fun that I got in spades. What I wasn’t expecting was how much I would care for the Zanna. How much I would wish they were real. And I certainly wasn’t expecting one of them to be the best air guitar player in the Superverse. (Sorry, Dean. Weems wins.)
7. Legos and Army Men
Okay—this one’s small but important. One of the things about an eleven year old show is that you’re going to have a range of fans watching. Diehards from day one. Netflix newbies. Channel surfers caught in a moment. I imagine one of the more difficult things about writing the show must be satisfying them all. That’s why I appreciate even the smallest of nods back to shows past. They don’t affect the plot—some won’t even notice them—but I do.
When I hear young Sam talking about his broken arm and know that he got it playing Batman and rode to the hospital on Dean’s handlebars, or when I see him scoop up some Legos and an army man and know that they’re going to end up in the vents and the ashtray of the Impala, it makes me feel valued as a viewer. Like the writer is saying “Here’s a little reward for faithfully watching past seasons. Enjoy.” These little Easter Eggs may seem pandering to some. So be it. To me? They are little moments of joyful recognition.
8. “I’m a Winchester. I hunt monsters. Why would I want anything else?”
“You have a good, long life, Sam.” Sully’s wish for Sam is the same as ours. Aisha Tyler, when interviewing Jared Padalecki, once said that one of the main struggles of the storyline is that Sam and Dean constantly have to choose between being men and being Winchesters. Sully wanted little Sam to choose one, and, despite a time or two of trying not to, Sam chose the other. Sam making his peace with Sully, talking about how their goodbye was heartbreaking for the both of them, Sully admitting that Sam going off to hunt was what he considered one of his biggest failures, it all served to remind us of who Sam is now. Who he was always destined to be.
“You’re a hero. Sam, you saved the world,” Sully says, before listening to Sam confess his failings. How he let the Darkness into the world. “I’m gonna fix it. I am,” Sam says, earnestly, before admitting that if God is asking him to go back to the cage, he doesn’t know if he can do it. “Ever think about running away anymore?” Sully asks. Sam doesn’t. Not ever again.
And there’s the rub. Sam knows—he can’t outrun his past. He doesn’t even want to anymore. But revisiting that particular part of his history? Terrifies him more than he can say.
9. Tag—You’re It
I have to admit—throughout the episode I had no idea how they were going to resolve it. I mean, Zanna on Zanna killing would have been a bit anticlimactic. So to find it was a wronged child who studied Romanian folklore with a witch was both satisfying and sobering. The murderer, Reese, had a twin sister that Sully unwittingly led into traffic during a game of tag, causing her death. After, in his guilt, Sully ran and hid, leaving a broken, lonely girl when she needed him the most. So many parallels to what Sam is going through.
Sully shouldn’t have run. He should face up to what he knows he owns, even if it is terrifying and even if it causes his death. Sam wants to save him. Save his innocence. When Reese threatens to kill Sam, Sully steps forward and asks if killing him will make her feel better. Sam tries to stop him, but Sully’s brave determination is too strong. “This is what I do. Whatever’s best for the kid.” Sully has made his peace with his responsibility and faced his fear. And in doing so he is the inspiration to make Sam, however much he doesn’t want to, to do the same.
10. Ever Think
Before Sully goes, it’s time for one last game. Sully is ashamed that Sam has seen his failings but Sam will have none of it. “Ever think maybe you’re a hero to me?” Sam asks Sully. He tells him that one thing he’s learned is that heroes aren’t perfect. “Sometimes they’re scared,” Sully says. “But that just means that the thing they’re facing—it’s super important. And nobody else is gonna go for it because nobody else has got the balls.” Indeed, Sully. Indeed. Sully says his goodbyes and we miss him already, knowing how much support Sam needs through what is going to be one of the hardest things he has ever faced (and that’s saying something.)
But maybe Sam, courageous and selfless as always, doesn’t even need support any more. He knows what’s coming is going to be bad, but he won’t allow his fear to hold him back. Dean, being Dean, wants to find another way, and Sam asks him, knowing the answer already, what that other way is. We close on Dean’s silence, which is more telling than his words could ever be.
Could it be? Is it so? Are we getting Lucifer back? Let’s hear it for a show that can make us root for the return of the devil! See you (and him?) next week for the mid-season hiatus episode, “O Brother, Where Art Thou?”