Inanimate objects designed to look like human beings are inherently terrifying. Or maybe that's just me. I mean, yes, it's possible to see mannequins or dolls and not be immediately stricken with a soul-freezing, pants-wetting horror—otherwise the janitors at Sears would be a lot better paid. But just the slightest change in lighting or mood music, and all bets are off. 'Mannequin 3: The Reckoning" (good title? Or the best title in the history of words?) makes good use of this reflexive revulsion in three of its scare scenes, and for a while, I expected that was going to be the episode's main hook. A woman who gets sort-of murdered by a bunch of jackass pranksters comes back from the dead to wreak her revenge. It's plot the show has done many times before in one form or another, but "Reckoning" tells a familiar story well enough. But then things got a little wonky in the back half, and what I thought was one story turned out to be something else.
So, a janitor dies a freaky, freaky death while cleaning up a college science lab, and the Winchesters are on the case. Of course, before they get on the road (we hardly ever see them flying anywhere, do we—it's like all of the mid-west is sitting on top of a big ole Hellmouth), Dean wants Sam to open up about his recent memory download. It plays out in roughly the same way all Sam and Dean conversations play out, with one side posing questions, and the other side dodging those questions as politely as possible. Usually Sam's doing the interrogating, but here it's Dean, worried that Sam might've come close to busting up the wall in his head, who presses the issue. From what we hear, all is well in Sam's head, or at least as well as one could expect. But really, this can't last forever. Sam still feels responsible for what Sam-less got up to in his soul's absence, and while he's willing to hold off for now, it's obvious that he's not going to stop looking for ways to right old wrongs. Even if he's really not responsible for those wrongs (again, he saved the world from Armageddon by going to Hell. As "Get out of Jail free" cards go, that's never really going to run out of punch tabs.), his sense of self depends on not being a bastard. So sooner or later, that wall is coming down, no matter how desperately Dean pretends otherwise.
Supernatural has always been very good at putting its heroes into seemingly inescapable corners, and while "Reckoning" was a bit more subtle than, say, Lucifer demanding a body jump, the walls do seem to be closing in. It's less a question of life-or-death, though, and more one of how what kind of lives the Winchesters can possible expect to have now. Sam's a ticking time bomb of psychological repression, and Dean, who finally had the home life he'd wanted all along, is now forced to accept that he can never go back to Lisa and Ben, no matter how much everyone might wish otherwise. As an audience member, I'm not exactly disappointed that Dean's trip back to visit the family he left behind ended with him back on the road. Lisa and Ben are marginally interesting, but the relationship drama here is always a question of delayed gratification; I see Dean getting angsty about not being the man he wants to be, and I'm really just waiting for him to go back to being the man we all want to see, killing monsters, throwing down quips, and exchanging soulful glances with his brother. But story-wise, there needs to be some kind of potential happy ending for us to root for, whether the boys ever achieve it or not. What's fun about the show right now is the sense that the Winchesters are getting stuck in an impossible situation more complicated than a yellow-eyed demon or a world-ending prophecy. There's no real bad guy here; just the inexorable sense that tomorrow doesn't hold anything more promising than today. That's some serious, sixth season of Buffy level gloom right there.
Fortunately, this episode never really bogged down in the gloom. The Dean-at-rest scenes were iffy, partly because Lisa and Ben stuff is always iffy, and partly because these are all arguments we've heard before, outside of Lisa finally going on dates. (Ben says his mom is going on her third date, and "I know what third dates mean." Ew, man. Just, ew.) But Sam and Dean's hunt for the Ghost that Walks? That was fun, and effectively scary, even if the beats were familiar. Somebody dies horribly; the Winchesters show up, ask a few questions; another person dies; the Winchesters form a hypothesis as to what's going on. Turns out it's all about a woman named Rose; a few of her co-workers pulled a horrible trick on her, convincing her she had a secret admirer and luring her to an apartment for a fake "date." (Her suitor was a mannequin, so that's where that came from.) Things went wrong, she died mostly by accident, and they decided to cover up the crime. So Sam burns her bones and thinks he's solved the problem, but, ha-ha, the spirit isn't actually bound to the bones; it's bound to the kidney she gave her sister, Isabelle, when they were younger.
That's not a bad twist, although I'm surprised that it hasn't come up before—surely there were other ghosts who filled out their organ donor cards before expiring? It does raise a few questions about how you could possibly take care of a haunted kidney; but then those questions are conveniently rendered moot when Isabelle is killed after Rose takes over the Dean-Mobile and tries to kill the brothers. It's an abrupt ending, and the second half of the episode is full of odd beats that don't quite fit together right. It's not as mediocre as last week, but it sometimes seems like the writers got to the 25 minute mark and suddenly realized they still had to pull out enough stuff to make the full hour. There's Johnny's death at the hands of his sex doll, which briefly led to me believe the story was about to take a very different turn; there's Rose's kidney; and then there's the end of Isabelle. She gets a shard of glass in her stomach, although there didn't seem to be that much glass flying around. The first half of "Reckoning" is rock solid, even if it relies on the structure the show perfected in the first two seasons. The second half, everybody just got bored and decided to go a little goofy.
And yet it all comes together in the end, mostly, because it turns out this episode was really about forcing the Winchesters to wonder why they do what they do, just as Dean is seeing an example of the life he should be living slipping away. It's interesting to see them lose once, or at least not manage a perfect win; here, they save a douchebag or two, and get an innocent woman killed. The world would've been better off if they hadn't gotten involved. (Sam says the ghost would've kept on revenge killing, but really, there were, what, four people in that apartment? She only had one guy left, maybe two, and it's not like we're experiencing some kind of asshole shortage.) Stopping ghosts, ghouls, and what-have-yous is what they do, and usually they have a positive effect on the world. But that cost has to be looking a lot steeper with each opportunity lost.
- Oy, that prank. First, it was bizarrely elaborate—I almost wonder if the guy who tried to keep her from leaving put together the whole thing as a dumbass way to ask her out on a date. Second, I realize we've been trained by the movies to think that whenever a bunch of morons inadvertently kill someone, they always make things worse by trying to hide the corpse, but this just seems egregiously stupid. I'm not saying it's hugely implausible, but jeez.
- I'd be ragging more on Lisa and Ben, who frankly bore the crap out of me, but I can't think of any characters on other shows who performed a similar function who weren't inherently tedious. So, maybe it's not their fault?
- "You shove it down and let it come out in spurts of violence and alcoholism."
- "What's a Snooki?" "That is a good question."
- "I don't like the way Kim Cattrall's looking at me."
- No spoilers, but judging by the previews, next week's episode will either be a step too far, or just possibly the best thing ever. Fingers crossed!