Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Supernatural 9.11 "First Born" Review: To Each His Own Atonement

This week's episode of Supernatural, "First Born," was written by Robbie Thompson and directed by John Badham. Badham is perhaps best known as the director of Saturday Night Fever. The episode guest stars Timothy Omundson as Cain. Omundson delivers a wonderful performance, and while he's been a friend to the Supernatural family for some time, this episode ensures that he is now very firmly a part of the family proper.

The episode is a bit of a change up and sees Dean (Jensen Ackles) paired with Crowley (Mark Sheppard) while Sam (Jared Padalecki) pairs with Castiel (Misha Collins). Dean, Sam, and Castiel are all suffering from low self-esteem and are focusing on their short-comings. Crowley, of course, is perfectly happy to capitalize on Dean's weaknesses. Once again, when he's at a low point, Dean forgets his better judgment never to trust or work with a demon. Crowley tells Dean, "nobody hates you like you hate you." Cas tries to get Sam to see that he'd agreed with Dean to live instead of closing the gates of Hell and that his life is precious. By the end of the episode, it seems they are each hunting for someone else: Castiel for Metatron, Dean for Abaddon, and Sam for Gadreel.

There are lots of mirror images in this episode besides the new pairings. Sam is consumed with not letting anyone else be hurt because of him and is still feeling responsible for Kevin's death. Dean is also still convinced that anyone close to him is doomed to die or be hurt, and Tara's (Rachel Hayward) death simply reinforces that belief. John's one weekend stand with Tara is mirrored by Dean's attempts to seduce the waitress. There are two spells in the episode - one works to find the first blade, but the other fails to find Gadreel. Both Crowley and Cas suggest at the end of the episode that they will need more help to catch their quarry, and both Sam and Dean decline to include the other.

Cain's story could also easily be Dean's. Cain kills his brother to save him from Lucifer and assure his soul went to Heaven while damning his own to Hell. Dean went to Hell in exchange for Sam's life and also had to save Sam's soul from Lucifer. Colette (Anna Galvin) could easily be Lisa. Colette knew who Cain was and what he'd done and she loved him unconditionally. All she wanted was for him to stop the killing. Lisa knew who Dean was and what he'd done, and all she wanted was for him to stop - although she tried to make it work with him hunting. If Colette looked familiar, it's because Galvin also played Mrs Fremont (child-Lilith's mother) in "No Rest For the Wicked." Interesting that the actor would have this dual connection to Dean/Hell/murder.

A quick word about Tara who was brilliantly brought to life by Hayward. It's always great to see another woman hunter - even if having a Winchester enter her life pretty much seals her fate. Tara was smart, brave, and clearly independent. Hayward certainly looks like she could hold her own in a fight. However, she also admits to the classic hunter failing - obsession. She ends up with a bum knee all alone and her life ruined because of chasing the blade unsuccessfully all over the world.

It was great seeing John Winchester play a part in this episode. We see that Dean still carries John's journal with him and is still stung when Tara points out that John would have been extremely disappointed in Dean for working with a demon. I loved that they've added codes to where John stored more information on the entries. It never made sense for the sum total of John's 22 years of hunting to fit into that journal. After all, Dean and Sam have been hunting for nine years on the show and their hunts would fill more than that journal. I loved how what the "T" stands for is revealed to be Tara. I do have to wonder why they haven't simply gathered all of John's materials into the bunker - even if they have been busy.

Cas reflects on what being human did to him. He was able to experience life in a completely different way, but now that he's an angel again his perspective has changed again. When it comes to PB&J, he can't see the forest for the trees - he can only taste molecules (trees) not the entire sensation of the sandwich. Yet, he at least remembers that his sensations and feelings were different so he has a new appreciation for the sanctity of life and how Sam feels. Old Cas would have drained the life out of Sam, but new Cas sees Sam as an individual and sees worth in that - which is why seeing his PB&J stops Cas from continuing. His hope is that angels can change, so maybe even pig-headed Winchesters can too.

He is still quintessentially Cas though. He is hilariously offended when Sam tells him he's a terrible liar, quickly pointing out that he managed to deceive Dean and Sam very effectively when he was working with Crowley. Collins is fantastic at bring yet another level of characterization to Cas. He also still has his completely ingenuous moments, such as his hopeful joy that Sam has a guinea pig stashed somewhere in the bunker and his failing to understand Sam's teasing about asking a question. It's a lovely moment when Sam hugs Cas and has to coach him through hugging back.

Cas asks Sam about his choice to stop the trials and live. Sam agrees that he did choose to live, but then simply continues that Dean made a choice for him after that. Sam then goes on to say that he could have put a stop to everything and closed the gates of Hell. Yet, his death after stopping the trials would not have closed the gates of Hell. Dean didn't cause the gates of Hell to remain open OR the angels to fall by letting Gadreel possess Sam. It did, however, lead to Kevin's death. Sam may feel that he needs to avenge Kevin's death, but he can hardly be responsible for what Gadreel did while in possession of Sam's body. I found this scene disappointing, and I hope this will be addressed further. Being human means settling your debts, according to Sam and he wants to start balancing the books. Padalecki brings a new layer to his portrayal of Sam in the episode as we see his desperation to fix what he can.

Crowley, played exquisitely by the King of Genre Sheppard, has, as always, many of the episode's best lines. I loved him crossing himself when Cain displays his mark and his teacup rattling as he shares tea with Cain. It is always a joy to watch Crowley work both sides against the middle. Dean recognizes that Crowley has played him. I'm still curious about Crowley's addiction to blood. Has he really changed in some fundamental way? Does he maybe want to return to being King of Hell to shut the gates himself? Or does he want to make it a kinder and gentler version of Hell than what it would be under Abaddon? Was he simply trying to water his demon blood down enough to escape the various demon traps he was ensnared in?

It was nice to see Dean figuring out some of the puzzle on his own. He pieces together Cain's motivation when he finds Colette's photo and makes the connection to Cain's ring. He left his life of destruction for the love of a woman. Omundson is wonderful in the scene in Colette dies and then he asks her forgiveness before rejoining the fight. It's a lovely touch when he kisses the ground over her grave.

Ackles and Omundson really pushed each other to their best work. I loved Omundson simply watching as he tests Dean's reputation as brave but impulsive. The fight scene was amazing and Ackles shot the entire scene himself with no stunt doubles. I was a little disappointed in all the super close-ups and cuts that interrupted really seeing what was going on at times - but that is, as always, my person complaint about such scenes.

It was inevitable that we would draw parallels between these two first born sons. Dean has identified himself as a killer for a very long time, and Cain is the father of murder. However, in a great Supernatural twist, we see that Cain didn't murder his brother without a good reason. In every way that matters, Cain saved his brother's soul.

One interesting possible influence on the episode is Neil Gaiman's Sandman series which features a character, Destruction, who appears in Brief Lives and Endless Nights. Crowley, of course, has been linked to the Good Omens novel that Gaiman co-wrote with Terry Pratchett. The character is described as having a large beard and having abandoned his responsibilities, retiring to the country. Destruction dedicates himself to trying to create rather than destroy - much like Cain's concern for the bees as life on earth will end if all the bees die. Destruction even cooks a last meal for his guests before he disappears again. In Brief Lives, Destruction tries to counsel another character on the need to change and self knowledge.

There's another comics reference as Dean and Crowley enter the pawn shop and Tara is reading Joe Hill's comic series Locke & Key (see picture above). The first series was called Welcome to Lovecraft - a name we've heard before on Supernatural.

Dean is determined to kill Abaddon. He is willing to pay "the great cost" that carrying Cain's mark will force upon him if it means he can "kill the bitch." Like Cain, killing simply leads to more killing, and perhaps this is the lesson that Dean needs to learn. Sam needs to learn to forgive - both himself and his brother. It was an interesting twist to see Dean take on Cain's mark, I hope we won't have to wait too long to find out what the burden might be. I have to wonder if it is going to be the inability to die himself. The demon knife does not kill Cain and the legend is that Cain cannot be killed. I loved the shout out to Saturday Night Fever as Dean tells Cain "Let's dance" as he clasps his arm. Kudos to the VFX team for the terrific effect of the transfer of the mark.

Cain's demand that Dean come to him and kill him when he calls seems like it's too easy a request. Will Dean have become sick of killing by then? Will the call mean he can't protect someone else? Only time will tell, but it does seem to promise that we will be seeing Omundson again. The mark is obviously physically paining Dean, so it will be interesting to see if that continues and its other effects. Anybody else think that Sam is going to be pretty upset with his brother when he sees it? I'm betting Cas will also have a few choice words for Dean.

What did you think of the episode? While I love hearing everyone's comments and discussing your thoughts with you, please let's refrain from entering into the tired Sam versus Dean debates. I'm really not interested in engaging in the writers obviously hate this character or that character or counting up each character's screen time. But do let me know what you think about Sam's determination to settle the books, Crowley's mechanizations, Ombundson's wonderful portrayal of Cain, or Dean's acquiring the mark in the comments below.
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