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It seems that, every time I feel so out of sorts with Supernatural this season that I seriously consider quitting, Robbie Thompson swoops in and pulls me back from the brink by delivering an episode that reminds me why I love this show. Pac-Man Fever is the kind of episode that I find emotionally engaging, as well as intellectually stimulating. It gives us Sam and Dean at their brotherly best, offers an interesting monster-of-the-week case and throws a beloved recurring character into the mix. It has the right combination of humour, action and emotion, too, as Robbie Thompson’s episodes usually do. So, really, what’s not to like?

I guess airing an episode like Pac-Man Fever right on the heels of an episode like Taxi Driver inevitably invites comparison. The one is a major mythology episode that aims to be 'epic', but remains entirely anaemic. There is no significant progression for Sam and Dean's arcs, no meaningful interaction between the characters, no sense of their personal history, no consideration for past canon. The other is a small-scale monster-of-the-week episode, but it is emotionally rich and engaging. It allows the characters to actually address and move past their personal issues, it takes past canon into account and expands established mythology in a believable manner. I know a lot of fans think that standalones like Pac-Man Fever are a waste of time because they do not advance the overarching storylines – hence the somewhat derogative name 'filler' – but for me those episodes have always been the glue that holds Supernatural together. They allow character progression in a way most plot-driven mytharc heavy episodes cannot; they give the characters room to deal with the emotional consequences of their overall situation and move them into position for the big, sweeping events. Quite frankly, I would rather have a season consisting entirely of 'filler' episodes like Pac-Man Fever than a season full of 'epic', but ultimately shallow episodes like Taxi Driver. Of course, it is fantastic if a show excels at both in equal measure, but Supernatural has always done intimate way better than epic.

Dean: "Look, man, I know you’re frustrated, but you’re also sick."
Sam: "I’m not leaving, Dean."
Dean: "I know you wanna help, I do, alright. But –"
Sam: "Dean, you cannot take care of the both of us. I need to be out here. Play through the pain, right?"
Dean: "C’mon, man. Don’t quote me to me."

I have to say that the brotherly interaction throughout Pac-Man Fever is highly enjoyable, because it has just the right mixture of emotion, humour and constructive conflict to make it meaningful and engaging. The opening scene in the Batcave in particular pushes all my Sam-and-Dean buttons; it gives me two of my favourite things in Supernatural, namely domestic brothers as well as brotherly hurt/comfort moments. On an entirely shallow note, even pale and sickly, a scantily dressed Sam with bed hair looks pretty damn adorable, and I know I am supposed to swoon over Dean in a uniform, but I am actually way happier about Dean wearing his red shirt; he just looks stunning in that one. ♥ I also love the light humorous touch of that opening scene, like, for example, Dean’s playful comment about cutting Sam’s hair or the failed throw-and-catch of the beer bottle. I particularly like how the humorous moments at the same time emphasise and offset the seriousness of Sam’s illness. Also, the reveal that the Batcave has its own shooting range caught me by surprise, and now I wonder what else is hidden in the depths of the brothers’ new home. I really wished the writers would consider giving us a 'bottle episode' – just Sam and Dean in the Batcave, exploring their home and being all domestic. I would watch that in a heartbeat.

In any case, it is visible right from the start that, as a consequence of completing the second trial, Sam’s health has taken a turn for the worse. He looks like death warmed over, a chronic fatigue seems to have taken hold and he can barely stand upright or hold a gun, let alone hit a target. It is apparent that he is entirely unfit to hunt, and yet Sam stubbornly insists that he is fine and perfectly able to back Dean on their new case. Sam’s persistence is as endearing as it is frustrating, and Dean’s irritation when faced with his brother’s stubbornness is quite understandable, but I think Sam’s struggle to accept his physical limitations is not surprising. The illness robs him of his independence and control, and such a loss of autonomy has always unsettled him. Sam’s present situation is comparable to his situation in S7, for example, where his mental instability threatened his autonomy as well. But back then he was able to retain it through a variety of coping mechanisms, an option he just does not have at the moment; he cannot just ignore his limitations or force his body into cooperation, and since it is a supernatural illness rather than a physical one, he cannot fight it with medicine either. I love, though, that Sam’s stubbornness is not only fuelled by his need to feel useful and in control of himself, but also by his concern for Dean. These past few years, Sam has always made a point of trying to relieve his brother’s burdens by pushing him towards taking care of himself rather than Sam, and I love seeing that continued here. ♥ As a side note, I also really like how Sam uses Dean’s own 'play through the pain' attitude against him. Dean does tend to have double standards in that regard.

Talking about Dean, given the severity of Sam’s illness, it is not surprising that he is in protective big brother mode throughout the episode. What stands out for me, though, is Dean’s frequent insistence that, if they just take it slow, Sam will get better, even though he knows that is not true. On the contrary, evidence suggests that Sam will get worse the longer they wait with the next trial. I am sure that, in part, Dean’s assurance is about trying to appease Sam, but I think it also shows Dean’s own struggle with Sam’s illness. His brother’s current condition renders Dean utterly helpless; he cannot actively save Sam from the sickness that is ravaging his body, so taking care of Sam and keeping him out of danger gives Dean the illusion of control. However, to sit tight and wait for Sam to get better is just not a particularly promising strategy in their current situation. Of course, I do not think Sam should be hunting in his condition, but to hide in the Batcave and even cease their efforts of finding Kevin – and thus delay the third trial – out of fear that it will affect Sam’s condition adversely is rather counterproductive. In that context, I think it is telling that, when Dean shares Charlie’s fear-driven nightmare, his own greatest fear manifests as Sam in a hospital bed. I think that particular image is interesting, because the last time Dean saw his brother in a hospital bed was in The Born-Again Identity – and Sam was dying then. Dean had been oblivious to the deterioration of Sam’s mental health for a long time, and when he finally realised the extent of it, it was almost too late, and I think that might play into his overly cautious reaction now as well.

Charlie: "I just wanna tell her that I’m sorry. And that I love her. And just have her hear it again. I just need her to hear that one more time. But she can’t. She can’t."
Dean: "I know. Believe me, I know. But you got to let her go. Game over, kiddo."

As one of its main themes, Pac-Man Fever underlines the importance of being able to let go of a loved one. With Dean’s help, Charlie learns to let go of her mother, and conversely Charlie implies at the end of the episode that maybe Dean should learn to let go of Sam as well. Of course, letting go of Sam does not make much sense for Dean at this point; Sam’s situation may be serious, but, unlike with Charlie’s mother, it is not hopeless. There is just no reason to believe that Sam will never recover from his (supernatural) illness. On the contrary, it is perfectly sensible to assume that, once the trials are over, Sam will go back to normal. However, I think in Dean’s case 'letting go' refers to the fear of losing a loved one rather than to the person itself. "What are you afraid of? Losing? Or losing your brother?" Bobby asked Dean back in Two Minutes to Midnight, when Dean hesitated to give his consent to Sam’s plan of becoming Lucifer’s vessel in order to trap him in the cage – just like he now hesitates to press forward with the third trial. In both cases, the overwhelming fear of losing Sam stopped Dean dead in his tracks. Now, the fear of losing each other has been a central driving force for Sam and Dean throughout the show, and it is not uncommon that it clouds their judgment or pushes them to make irrational decisions. That is not to say they should stop worrying about or fighting for each other, but they should not allow that fear to dictate how to live their lives either – and I think that realisation is what prompts Dean’s change of heart in the end. Ultimately, Dean does a 180 over the course of the episode. It begins with Dean deflecting Sam’s desire to focus on Kevin and the trials in an attempt to protect his brother, and it ends with Dean agreeing to renew their combined efforts to find the prophet.

Moreover, Dean learns something from Charlie as well, namely the importance of letting your loved ones know how you feel about them as long as you still can. Seeing Charlie’s regret at never being able again to tell her mother how much she loves her motivates Dean to make sure that Sam knows he is loved. Now, usually Dean tends to show his love for Sam in action, namely by protecting/taking care of him, but he never tells Sam that he loves him and rarely expresses it in a gesture that is not tied to something practical or a life-and-death situation. That is not a reproach, it is just who Dean is, but maybe it is not always the best way to make Sam hear him. Dean pulling Sam into an unprompted, heartfelt hug, though, is an open and direct gesture that cannot be mistaken for anything but affection. ♥ By the way, Sam and Dean’s hug at the end of Pac-Man Fever is the second somewhat unexpected brotherly hug in a row, and it is interesting how different it feels from their hug in Taxi Driver. I mean, I love brotherly hugs and the one they share in Taxi Driver is no exception, but still, it left me surprisingly unaffected. Mainly, I think, because there is no logical build-up to it. The writers’ failure to address the characters’ emotional state during the episode just undercuts Dean’s heartfelt gesture. As it is, Dean’s overtly affectionate, almost desperate reaction upon Sam’s return from hell/purgatory comes off as somewhat disproportionate, since he did not seem particularly worried about Sam while he was gone. Well, for the most part at least. The brothers’ hug in Pac-Man Fever, however, feels like the deserved payoff to the characters’ emotional journey throughout the episode. ♥

And while we are on the topic of Dean showing Sam his affection, I think it is interesting to note that, generally, Dean has been more emotionally open this season. I mean, he is not only more vocal about what he wants and feels – like, for example, in his arguments with Sam about their different life goals at the beginning of the season or in his open appreciation for their new domestic situation – but he is also less hesitant to physically express his affections, not only towards Sam, but also towards Kevin, Garth, Benny or Castiel. I quite enjoy this aspect of Dean’s characterisation this season, and the fact that it is a fairly consistent development suggests that it is a deliberate step towards character growth on the writers’ part. You know, I think that is one of the reasons why the scene in Freaks and Geeks, where Dean refuses to answer Sam’s simple question about his emotional well-being, felt so absurdly out of character to me. Anyway, it stands to reason that these apparent changes in Dean are a result of his experiences in purgatory, but unfortunately the writers made no effort whatsoever to link cause and effect in this regard. Not that it is difficult to imagine that the constant lack of safety and comfort in purgatory, as well as the (relative) social isolation and enforced separation from the person that acts as his emotional cornerstone, would motivate Dean to express his appreciation for his life and the people in it more openly. But I really wished the writers had taken the time to explicitly address those emotional consequences of Dean’s year in purgatory over the course of the season. The wasted potential of Dean’s purgatory storyline remains one of the many frustrations of S8.

Charlie: "She's why I'm in Kansas. I sneak into the hospital whenever I can, and I just – I read to her. She used to read me to sleep at night when I was a kid. She'd read me The Hobbit. She's the reason I love the stuff I love."
Dean: "I'm sorry for your loss."
Charlie: "She's not gone."

Pac-Man Fever gives us some long overdue insight into Charlie’s back story and, personally, I find her story not only genuinely moving, but also consistent with the Charlie we got to know in past episodes. As is usually the case with the recurring characters, the writers draw a lot of parallels between Charlie and the brothers. Just like Sam and Dean, Charlie lost her parents at a very young age, an event that shaped her life in a significant manner. It not only left her with misplaced feelings of guilt – her parents crashed their car on their way to picking Charlie up from a sleepover, leaving her father dead and her mother in a permanent coma – but it also informed her life choices and interests, and if anyone can relate to that, it is Sam and Dean. For obvious reasons, Dean in particular identifies with Charlie’s inability to let go of her mother. He is quite familiar with the need to hold on to those last ties to a parent, to the memories of a happier time. Dean is also no stranger to adopting a parent’s habits and interests in an (subconscious) effort to feel close to said parent, only that in Dean’s case it was his father, who informed his love for classic cars and rock music, while Charlie’s love for books, games and movies is rooted in her memories of her mother. And, in the end, it is Dean’s identification with Charlie’s pain and fear and guilt that allows him to help Charlie move on and find a sense of closure.

Overall, the episode firmly cemented Charlie as one of my favourite recurring characters of the show. I always loved about Charlie that she is such an optimistic, life-affirming person, and the reveal that she is haunted by the tragedy of her past allows me to appreciate those character traits even more. The loss of her parents in such a cruel manner is the kind of tragedy that easily could have derailed Charlie’s life and set her on a self-destructive path – and for a while it apparently did, if her criminal record is anything to go by – but instead it motivated her to live her life in a manner that would make her parents proud, and that shows real strength of character. The tragedy may have shaped her, but it did not destroy her, and that sets her apart from most of the other characters we meet in the show. I also like the positive progression in the show’s depiction of 'geekdom' through Charlie’s character. In the past, the writers have often portrayed geeky/nerdy interests as a simple, yet effective form of escapism (LARP and The Real Girl) or used them as a means to ridicule characters (Hell House, The Real Ghostbusters), but by showing that they can also represent a positive form of human connection – like in Charlie’s case an emotional connection to her mother – the writers add some unexpected layers to the theme, and I can only welcome that.

What else is noteworthy:

(1) It seems that even an overall solid episode like Pac-Man Fever does not manage without canon inconsistencies nowadays. I mean, in The Monster At The End of This Book it was firmly established that the Supernatural book series ended with No Rest For The Wicked, and while Chuck wrote the subsequent volumes as well and considered to publish them, Sam rather forcibly dissuaded him from that notion at the end of The Real Ghostbusters. So, unless Chuck went back on his promise to Sam and published the rest of the books behind the brothers’ backs, Charlie simply could not have known about Sam and Dean saving the world or Castiel’s existence from the book series. I get that Charlie reading the Supernatural books is simply meant to add some levity to the episode, but still. This is a continuity error that could have easily been avoided through a simple facts check and while this minor error pales in comparison to the epic canon failure that was Taxi Driver, I am still frustrated about the lack of accuracy. And if the writers wanted to retcon this part of canon, they should at least have had the courtesy to make a point of it by having Sam and/or Dean react to Charlie’s statement about the books with surprise/anger.

(2) I have to say that I am somewhat disappointed that there is no follow-up to Benny’s death from the previous episode. Given the enormity of Dean’s decision to sacrifice Benny in order to save Sam, I would have expected to see some signs that Benny’s death still weighs on Dean, but he does not even mention or allude to him once. Of course, it is possible to argue that Dean knows that Benny is still alive and kicking in purgatory and that he hopes to bring his friend back one day, but I still think it would have been appropriate to acknowledge the loss of Benny in some manner to preserve emotional continuity between episodes.

(3) Talking about continuity, I really love that the episode gives us confirmation that Sam and Dean still participate in the Moondoor role-playing game with Charlie. I find it heartening to know that, even if we do not see it onscreen, the brothers continue to make some time for shared fun activities in their lives. ♥

(4) Pac-Man Fever sees the return of the dream root from Dream a Little Dream Of Me, and while I am pleasantly surprised that it makes a reappearance, I have to wonder why Dean did not use it when Sam was in a trauma-induced coma in The Man Who Knew Too Much. I mean, at the time he considered dream-walking Sam’s mind to help him out of the coma, and the fact that he did not go through with it suggested to me that he had no way of acquiring the dream root. It is rare and hard to come by, after all. So I am a tad surprised to learn that, apparently, Dean had a batch of it available all along.

In conclusion: Pac-Man Fever is an excellent episode that gives some long overdue depth to Charlie’s character and further establishes her sisterly relationship with Sam and Dean. I felt thoroughly entertained throughout the episode and was genuinely moved by Charlie’s story. I will admit, though, that I am not quite as enthused about good episodes as I used to. I guess the massive problems with the writing in S8 have finally taken their toll. I mean, it is difficult to truly appreciate the character work of an episode knowing that in the next episode said character work will probably be forgotten or even negated. And I find that it is just as easy to dismiss a good episode in an overall terrible season as it is to forgive a bad episode in an overall solid season. The writers will have to clean up their act in S9 considerably for me to regain my former enthusiasm for the show.

December 2013

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