Supernatural Episode Review: Pac-Man Fever

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Supernatural fans have something to cheer about as actress Felicia Day and writer Robbie Thompson once again paired up to bring us out of the funk of a two week hiatus filled with fan wank and disgruntled viewers.

After some spotty characterization and fast-and-loose continuity in Supernatural’s episode 19, “Taxi Driver,” we were coming back into the show after a break that gave many fans time to stew on problems in “Season GR8,” rather than wait in anticipation for the newest adventure. Interviews and previews for tonight’s “Pac-Man Fever” left many in fear that it was a lighthearted romp and Monster of the Week episode, out of place so close to the finale, or that it would exclude one character or relationship in favor of the others.

More pointedly: a lot of fans flipped their lids that the only real sign of Sam they saw in the preview was of him in the hospital bed, and the summary talked about benching him. Others complained that it was another ‘dress Dean up like a Ken doll’ opportunity and little else. The Cas fans were looking at the episode as a stepping stone to getting back to their angel, and generally people forgot that “The French Mistake” and “Changing Channels” were brilliant episodes because of their quirky concept.

Behold, both Winchesters were featured and unscathed after sharing the story with a female character.

Behold, both Winchesters were featured and emerged unsullied despite sharing the story with a female character.

It could have been a throw away episode.

What we received instead was the most tightly scripted, character-driven story of the season. “Pac-Man Fever” advanced the main plot without being dragged down by it, offered emotional developments for all three featured characters, and gave us something Supernatural has perpetually lacked: a strong female character with whom we can relate.

Holy crap did we need that episode.

When Charlie comes to the Winchesters with a case, she finds the boys in the state in which we left them: Sam’s health is rapidly deteriorating after the second trial, and Dean is obsessively worrying for his brother’s health and attempting to offer him time to heal while continuing the search for Kevin from the safety of the Men of Letters bunker.

While the case provided by Charlie is essentially a monster-of-the-week twist on a familiar myth, the djinn, and a plot-twist we have seen before with ‘Amy Pond’ the kitsune and her son, the episode itself delves into the motivation of all three featured characters without neglecting any of them.

The episode spotlights Dean’s big-brother protectiveness as he attempts to balance it with the support that Sam has requested of him as he goes through the trials, and the internal conflict is fantastically portrayed by Jensen Ackles, who as always is able to convey entire complex emotional ranges through expression alone.  It delves into that stubborn Winchester drive, the need to be out there fighting monsters and saving people, that has pulled Sam back from being a reluctant hunter at the beginning of the season to the hero we remember from season 5. Jared Padalecki’s dedication to portraying Sam’s wasting illness, right down to losing weight to make himself seem more sickly, is gut-wrenching and compelling on camera.

And Charlie Bradbury, in the span of a single episode, became one of the most well-rounded secondary characters of the show’s entire run.

I could, and may yet in future articles, wax poetic about how refreshing it is to see a female character on Supernatural who is intelligent, funny, independent, and defined by her talents and wit rather than her sex or her sexuality, and who hasn’t been fridged immediately or turned into a caricature of a ‘girl geek’ or ‘token lesbian.’ It’s more significant tonight, however, to look at what was accomplished within this episode.

Robbie Thompson gave us the perfect blend of horror, pop-culture references, heart, hilarity, family and believability. I am a highly critical viewer of Supernatural, to the point where it has admittedly in the past damaged my ability to enjoy an episode because of plot holes or continuity errors (the aforementioned “Taxi Driver” threatened to sour me on the entire season: that wasn’t a doorway into purgatory, that was the all-consuming plot hole whose gravity threatened to consume everything around it like a friggin’ black hole) but I find I have nothing negative to say about “Pac-Man Fever.”

“Pac-Man” was full of nods dating back to the first season, from the account of djinn found in John’s journal, to the application of Dream Root, and the Supernatural novels Chuck apparently  published through to “Swan Song.” It wove humor in with pop-culture references, notably Star Wars, Monty Python, Terminator, Tron, and enough gamer nods that I was briefly concerned going into the episode that it was going to be a montage of Bioshock ripoffs. The Hobbit was used to great effect, giving us an emotional connection with Charlie and her mother that ended the episode on a quietly heartbreaking note. Even Castiel was given a nod, in Charlie’s prodding about the missing angel and the deliberate nod to “Free to Be You And Me” of the upside-down FBI badge. There were funny lines and hilarious moments without cheapening the emotional ride, and I could stand to see a lot more of that kind of balance in my Supernatural.

We need more episodes like this to remind us why we love Supernatural in the first place, and what sets this show apart from straight horror/drama productions: it’s about family, as Chuck would tell us, and Charlie became family tonight. Her backstory of loss and guilt and the inability to let go of the past weaves in neatly with the Winchester’s own experiences, and cements her role as the little sister Dean and Sam never expected, but are clearly glad to have. She is not shoehorned into the storyline, as I felt Garth was as the “new Bobby,” rather she builds a mutual relationship with both brothers, offering her support and reassurance to Sam and accepting comfort and advice from Dean.

Supernatural is notoriously hard on the relationship between Dean and Sam; their brotherly bond has been strained to the breaking point more than once in the past several seasons, and at the beginning of Season 8 was at one of its lowest points since Sam’s blood addiction. Thompson gave us back the Winchesters as they should be: on the same side, of one mission, supporting each other without giving up on their being as obstinate stiff-necked and muleish as they’ve ever been. He doesn’t gloss over the conflicts between them, but he gives us a sense of closure on those problems by once again showing the brothers as family.

Maybe the boys should have been wearing eye and ear protection on the shooting range. There. I feel better. I nitpicked something. I’m overlooking it because there were half a dozen hugs in that single episode alone, and they all felt right in the context without becoming gratuitous. (Gratuitous hugging. It’s a thing.)

I look forward to seeing more of Charlie in the future, and hope more episodes follow the successful pattern of this one: advance the story and the plot through the characters, give us the emotional connection back between Dean and Sam, and remember that for the Winchesters family is more than just blood, and that the secondary characters of the show are needed to round out the story both physically and emotionally.

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