It’s rather… appropriate reviewing these two together as they represent rather flipped instances of audience goodwill.
Alright let’s do this.
You know on some level I could pick this apart, the episode does have flaws I’ll admit. There are points here and there that are a bit rough. Shamus Young talks about this idea in some of his analysis, I forgot his term but I like to call it “audience credit” or “audience goodwill.” Let’s be honest, nobody can really write an absolutely perfect story. We’re all but mortal men and reality is bigger than us. Heck we’re all larger than each other. So trying to capture the totality of a real world or even a person is just not possible in a story. Instinctively we all realize this, so as part of the implicit contract between audience and artist, we the audience allow for things in a fictional tale to be a little unreal. This allowance is what is termed “suspension of disbelief.”
Of course everyone will notice that said suspension seems rather flexible. Why for some people does it support a show about 2 brothers fighting demons and angels but not a show about crime lab techs in LA? This is where the audience’s goodwill comes in, the more an artist appeals to that goodwill, the more that audience member is willing to accept mistakes in the narrative. The faster a story runs out the audience’s goodwill, the sooner they stop suspending their disbelief and then the story collapses.
With the always lovable Bobby & Rufus, a “back to basics” style tale, and clever cinematography (seriously I can barely remember the last time the show had me wanting to rewatch the episode, sometimes just to admire the directing) this episode racks up a lot good will. Heck it had an actual FISTFIGHT and ACTION SCENE in it instead of just “pin to wall with mind powers”! This is why I give this episode a 4 out of 5 salt shells. It’s not a flawless episode, but it does so many little things right that they all add up to just an enjoyable time. This is what I’ve been wanting from you, Show Makers! Not every episode has to be mind blowing or epic or flawless, they just have to demonstrate effort, and a bit of care.
On the flip side, we have an episode that used my goodwill before the title card. Why? Because during the ‘then’ refresher clip section, they heavily played up reapers and Billy’s warning to the Winchesters that “when you die, that’s it.” Ok, I don’t have a problem with this, indeed the show’s been needing to get things back on track to keep some kind of suspense going. The problem is that immediately following this, we see Sam get shot.
Why did that annoy me? Think about the set up a moment. Given the clips in “then” it is very obvious to us that this episode is a MotW one, not an arc episode. If they ever decide to permanently kill a brother off, it is NOT going to be in a MotW episode, it’s going to be a major arc episode. So we know he won’t die. But the opening of the show really wants us to think he might. Unless it wants us to wonder “how will they escape” but then thinking that undercuts the entire purpose of reapers’ “you die – you die” pronouncement. The entire episode is like watching a performer with a dummy who doesn’t even try to keep his lips still while performing, it messes up the entire show.
That the episode then goes on to screw with logic and medicine further buries the rubble of the destroyed disbelief-suspension.
Had this episode wanted to accomplish what it failed at, then the entire hour should have been focused on one night. Sam should have been shot, then the next hour should have been the boys & victims struggling to survive and return to civilization. Let the dying Sam have visions of Billy approaching. Instead of putting her in the opening refresher, insert them in the episode as Sam’s memory. Have him tell it to Dean with a voice that Sam believes her and thinks this may be it. The Trojan-horse style monster was somewhat neat and should have been kept as the climax, but only when they were on the edge of salvation.
You want to bring the boys back down to danger? Then bring the story down and simplify it so you can make it more intense. Don’t throw it all on them at once (and certainly no BS about a temporary coma) and have them weasel out of it thanks to character shields, but steadily turn up the tension. 2 out of 5 shells for a poorly done story, at least the guest actors did pretty good and made me feel something for them.
Heck the episode should have had the turned victim shot at the Impala’s door, and then Sam going into shock shortly after when the audience thinks relief should be at hand. Dean’s race to the hospital should almost feel like in real time. When they get there, Sam’s lost a lot of blood. You can have Dean offer (if compatible, I actually forget if they are) which will help, but won’t be enough, and then reveal that the girl they saved is also compatible. Then at close of episode instead of the bro moment in the car, you have the bro moment in the hospital (perhaps with beds side by side) to emphasize how different and challenging this moment was.
Oh what could have been.