In the thirteenth episode of the fourth season of Supernatural, a case brings the Winchesters back to a school they attended for a month, and it unearths the most unfair wave of Sam feelings in the universe. Intrigued? Then it’s time for Mark to watch Supernatural.
Trigger Warning: For discussion of bullying, depression, parental death and suicide.
I don’t think any of y’all would be surprised if I told you that I relate more to Sam than Dean, and I think that “After School Special” touches on a lot of issues that are very personal to me. Strangely, this wasn’t a difficult or triggering episode for me to watch, despite that it did dredge up memories of my own horrible time in high school. I think that Sam helped me cope with that, especially since he felt like such a hopeful force throughout the episode. But I also find myself more drawn to him because I, too, wished desperately to escape the life that my parents wanted me to live. I understand that struggle intimitely.
“After School Special” is violent at times, uncomfortable most of the time, and kind of shaky towards the end, but through the use of flashbacks, I actually think it’s one of the stronger episodes of the show. We’re led to believe that the boys are dealing with a fairly straightforward case of possession, though it was also clear that all the people who were possessed were getting revenge on their bullies. Wellâ€¦ sort of? This is where I think the episode suffers, and it’s probably the only bit of criticism I have to offer here. What I think the writers were trying to convey was the chaotic, dog-eat-dog nature of high school. Given that students come from a variety of backgrounds and must cope with a number of horrible things that might be happening in their personal lives, everyone sort of picks on one another. The culture of cruelty in this setting leaves few people unscathed. And I think there’s a good idea in there, but the execution of it leaves something to be desired.
There were clear hierarchies in the social arrangement in my high school, and I’m sure that was the case for a lot of y’all, too. There’s a hint that this is the case, since at the open of “After School Special,” one of the popular girls is shamed for having sex, but she then turns around and viciously bullies another girl after the girl is super nice to her. That felt real to me, because I know there were folks who bullied me and other “undesirable” people because it elevated their status. Unfortunately, that included people like my brother, who turned on me in junior high to avoid all the gay rumors that ended up being associated solely with me. It was always a horrible thing to go through because you never knew if someone you thought was a friend would turn on you just to make sure that they themselves weren’t picked on.
But after this point, the writing gets a bit shaky. One of the main plots in this episode focuses on Sam standing up for Barry Cook, who is bullied relentlessly by Dirk McGregor. In many ways, Dirk is a quintessential bully, so it made a lot of sense that Barry’s soul was still hanging around the school. Where this story falls apart some for me is when, upon visiting Mr. McGregor, we learn that Dirk’s father truly and honestly believed that his son was the one who was bullied. Sam is shocked by the revelation, and so are we, since this entire episode up to that point has portrayed Dirk in a singular way. He’s an asshole all the time. The problem I have with this is that we’re told Dirk was bullied, but we’re never shown it. The timeline doesn’t even make sense, since we know for certain that it was only because of Sam standing up to Dirk that Dirk earned his nickname.
I suppose I’m biased against someone like Dirk from the start because jerks like him were the reason I disliked junior high and high school so much. I recognize what this episode is trying to do. It’s trying to show us nuance and layers, but to tell us one thing and show us another makes this a little hard to understand. There’s no on-screen acknowledgment of the fact that Dirk is a hypocrite! So it’s jarring that this episode feels like it’s expecting us to feel a lot more sympathy for Dirk than we might be willing to give. (Which isn’t to say he deserves none. If you’ve been reading my sites for a while, you know I’ve got experience with the trauma of watching a parent die, so I really do get how that can fuck a person up.)
I DON’T KNOW IF ANY OF THIS MAKES SENSE. I feel like a scene got cut or something got mixed up in here because the end to this episode is very strange. Also, that bus driver died, right??? He got shot multiple times at point blank range IN THE CHEST. That seems like a big thing to just gloss over?
Whatever, LET’S TALK ABOUT SAM WINCHESTER. The power of “After School Special” comes in its willingness to address the sadness of the Winchester’s life with their father. There’s a notable role reversal here, though, that’s integral to understanding Sam’s emotional issues over the course of this episode. It’s clear that Dean has always had an easier time fitting in and coping with the chaotic lifestyle that hunting brings. That’s undeniable. (Though let’s not ignore how on-the-nose Amanda’s reading of Dean is. The truth is that Dean is forever lonely.) Sam, however, was much more prone to dissatisfaction, which was based on the longing he felt for normalcy. He couldn’t just collect friends and dispose of them in a couple weeks; he wanted something long-term and dependable. Yet he still made friends with Barry, despite knowing that he’d have to leave him in a few weeks.
What’s so heartbreaking about this episode isn’t that Sam eventually leaves Truman High right as he gains social acceptance. (Though that’s certainly sad, y’all.) It’s the terrible irony of Mr. Wyatt, the teacher who told Sam that he didn’t have to do what his family wanted him to do. He could choose his own destiny. Truth is, Sam actually did that. He actually left his family to pursue a college education and make a life for himself away from hunting. But the events that brought him to Mr. Wyatt a second time are a reflection of Sam’s failure to negate his father’s intentions for him. It’s all perfectly (and terribly) summarized by Mr. Wyatt’s question at the end of the episode: Is Sam happy?
Is he? After losing his mother, losing his girlfriend, losing his father, then dying, then learning his brother made a demonic pact to bring him back to life, then spending a horrific year with said brother only to have him die violently in front of him, then going four months without Dean, all the while questioning his inherent goodness and morality because of what a demon did to him as a child, then have to deal with the guilt and fear after Dean comes back â€“
I don’t know that I could answer that question with an affirmative answer. Sam is just living day to day, and I don’t know that he’s happy at all. He’s alive, but being alive and being happy are two different concepts. Sadly, the episode cuts to black, leaving us without an answer. We’re left to ponder it ourselves, and unfortunately, I can’t really say that he is happy.
Goddamn this show. YOU WERE SO FUNNY and then nope nope nope. That’s all season four is. Promises of humor and endless sadness instead.
The video for “After School Special” can be downloaded here for $0.99.
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