Centuries ago, when mankind was putting together a body of supernatural folklore that Universal Studios could pillage in the 1930s, how likely is it that ghosts were the first things to emerge from the brainstorming sessions? It seems pretty likely; well before people started imagining that poor, dead Uncle Lem might come back and try to bite them in the neck or feast or their arm, they had to wonder where he’d gone, and find a way to deal with that creepy feeling that, even though they couldn’t see him, it sometimes felt as if he was… still… here. The amorphous nature of ghost legends is a major part of their primal power, but it also makes them a bitch to deal with dramatically. Everybody knows what a vampire and a werewolf and a zombie might want from you and what they could do to you, but ghosts have traditionally been coy about their motives, and in recent years, as movies like Ghost and The Others and Beetlejuice have cast the ghosts themselves as the protagonists of their own stories, the fashion has been to portray them as confused and fumbling about what they themselves are capable of.
When Geena Davis and Alec Baldwin got snuffed in Beetejuice, they discovered that there’s red tape after death, and got handed a thick how-to manual that they had no intention of reading, (If someone were telling that story today, they’d go online and find that all the information they needed to make sense of their changed status was contained in an endless small-print content which they’d immediately scrawl through, without reading a word of it, before checking the book saying that they agreed to these conditions.) In the case of one of the most durable of classic ghost stories, “The Turn Of The Screw”, part of what’s kept the story alive for more than a hundred years is that people have never settled, to everyone’s satisfaction, the question of whether or not the ghosts are really there. In The Others, which is probably the smartest new ghost story-movie of the past dozen years or so, we know the ghosts are really there, because we’re put in the position of sharing their bafflement about what the living people are doing there.
Tonight’s Supernatural was devoted to reminding us that Bobby’s ghost is really there—something that the show established in the closing moments of the previous episode—and letting Sam and Dean know it, too. Much of the episode has to do with letting Bobby bitch and moan about how hard it is to learn the ropes of being a ghost, so that we’d understand his pain and get it that, when he announced his presence by dropping subtle little hints instead of waving his arms and yelling, “I’m here!” he wasn’t just being coy. “I tried knocking a book off a table,” he grouses, “and blacked out for two weeks.” Tonight, Bobby finally gets a tutorial from an 80-years-dead ghost named Haskel who explains to him that there are only two ways a ghost can move a physical object: either in a state of “explosive anger or white-hot rage,” which is presumably a bit of foreshadowing that will come in handy later in the season, or by “letting go of all that, calmly telling the thing what to do,” and achieving a zen calm oneself. There’s a choice, pure-Jim-Beaver moment when Bobby, warming up for one last try, mutters to himself, “I can kill werewolves, fix a Pinto, and bake cornbread. I’ll be damned if I can’t get zen!” Before that, there are a lot of scenes of Bobby just being totally frustrated, and watching a character just being frustrated over and over, especially when the rules seem so arbitrary, makes for frustrating viewing.
Bobby meets Haskel—who disappears from the story after dispensing his zen advice, which is a shame, since his “more dead than thou” boredom is one of the episode’s more amusing decorative elements—in a 150-year-old house that’s densely populated with ghosts, among them the onetime owner of the property, one Whitman Van Ness, and his jumbo-sized servant Dexter. The ghost population also includes Annie, a hunter and old friend of Bobby’s and the Winchester’s, who got herself knocked off while investigating the place. (One thing Supernatural has in common with The Sopranos is that, the longer it goes on, the more “old friends” who’ve never been mentioned before keep turning up; In the case of Supernatural, the show needs to keep minting new old friends, because so many of the ones who’ve actually been seen on the show have been killed off. Jamie Luner, who plays Annie, does a terrific job; In her scenes with Jim Beaver, they have the kind of rapport that some of the actors who got to hang around longer never did get going with the regulars, and she has a beauty of a reaction shot when she first sees her own corpse.)
The episode first makes it appear that Dexter, who is in the habit of looming up in front of people and telling them that they shouldn’t have come here, is killing visitors to the house and, in the process, making more ghosts. It turns out that this is Dexter’s way of trying to warn people off; It’s actually his boss, Van Ness, who triumphantly sports the period look (part lounge lizard, part mortician) that Adrian never managed to pull on during the past season of Being Human, who’s been killing people to provide himself with “food and perverse entertainment.” (I kind of had the feeling that this news was meant to shock the viewer senseless. Because of that, it was a little embarrassing, the way it was last fall when TV's other Dexter found Edward James Olmos in that freezer.) One capable ghost, Van Ness kills people by just sticking his hands in their innards and making a wish. He also kills ghosts the same way. Determined to thwart him, Bobby and Annie locate the hidden room where he’s stockpiling the remains of all the people he’s reduced to spirit form, who they, in turn, release into the afterlife by salting and burning their bones. Van Ness also destroys a ghost who’s filling Sam and Dean in on the goings-on by burning her remains, then hitches a ride in the back of the brothers’ car when they set off for the family crypt. All this seems pretty labor-intensive, given that it’s already been established that he could have killed the stool pigeon ghost just by laying hands on her, and then done the same thing to the brothers before they’d had a chance to recover from the shock. Maybe he’s supposed to be so jaded that he’s less afraid of exorcism than of carrying out all his executions too quickly and then having nothing left to do the rest of the night.
In the end, the boys burn Van Ness just as he’s about to shred Bobby, and when Sam and Dean return to the house, and Bobby’s still there, suddenly, they can see him. For a second, I was afraid that being pulled back from the brink of post-death murder had somehow returned Bobby to the land of living, in which case I was prepared to pull a Travis Bickle on my TV set, but it turns out that Bobby is still dead, still a ghost, but now able to communicate directly with the boys. This would seem to be a “best of both worlds” situation, or at least something everyone could see the upside of, but Dean is deeply troubled by it; Sounding like Ma Joad, or Rick Santorum on gay marriage, he babbles about how “It ain’t the natural order of things,” and says that he wishes Bobby had gone to his reward into of sticking around to help them. All in all, it stinks of rank ingratitude, and probably hurts Bobby’s feelings, considering that he’s right there when Dean says it, which is a possibility that you’d expect Dean to have taken into consideration. Bobby keeps trawling for a laugh by saying that the boys seem to have gotten stupider in his absence, but this really is the stupidest thing Dean’s ever done, and it isn’t funny at all.
- Trailer for next week’s episode, in a nutshell: “‘To Serve Mankind’ is a cookbook!”
- Dean, reading a newspaper: “Dick Roman’s funding another archeological dig. Guy moves more dirt than the Drudge Report.” One doesn’t expect this kind of hot topical reference from Dean. Did he have insomnia and find a 14-year-old copy of Newsweek under the bed in his motel room?
- Back when the show was teasing us about whether Bobby was really shadowing the boys, Sam mentioned having tried, and failed to contact him via ouija board. Tonight we get the explanation for why that didn’t work: Dean had Bobby’s flask in his pocket the whole time. I don’t know what the hell that has to do with the price of tea in China, either.
- Annie asks Bobby and the boys to salt and burn her remains, because she prefers to pass on to her rest rather than endure the inevitable deterioration that turns ghosts spooky and irrational, or, as Bobby calls it, “ghost Alzheimer’s.” This is fine, and so is the contrast between Annie and Bobby, who’d determined to stick around and help his boys as long as he can. What’s strange is the exchange between Annie and Bobby, in which they seem to agree that there’s probably not really a Heaven or a Hell or any such thing as an afterlife in any form. But Bobby knows there’s a Heaven and a Hell, because he’s met emissaries from both places, and the boys have visited both places themselves and come back with reports about what it’s like on the other side. Does he see no reason to enlighten her before breaking out the charcoal? (My dream is to spend eternity in a room at a Ramada where Jaws is always on the TV and I never get charged for using the mini-bar, which has my grandmother's pork chops in it. I don't suppose God reads these reviews, but just in case She does, why waste this opportunity?)