So obviously, Supernatural has some gender issues it needs to work out. By this point in the show’s run, the major manifestations of those problems are familiar—the Winchesters’ overuse of the word “bitch,” the way almost every female character (give or take a Charlie) is either a love interest for one of our main characters (even Sheriff Mills!) or a villain/demoness/bitch, and those characters’ marked propensity to be killed as either a sacrifice to Sam and Dean’s character development or a cheap means of raising the stakes or emotional impact of an episode. For the regular viewer who cares about this sort of thing (and you should), it’s easy enough to watch the show and know that these things are part of the cost of doing business, so to speak. And this season has actually been decent enough about this sort of thing (one of the reasons I really hope Charlie comes back soon-ish). But “Rock And A Hard Place” hits all of the old favorites, as well as some new ones.
Let’s start by talking about virginity. Society’s treatment of virginity as simultaneously something pure and to be aspired to (generally for girls) and something to be ashamed of, particularly for men (see: The 40 Year-Old Virgin) is frustrating in a lot of ways, chiefly because whatever, why are we so interested in the sex lives of other people? And, hooray, the possession of virginity (real or “reclaimed”) is central to the episode’s main plot, since our victims are all part of a church focused on renewed pledges of abstinence. The monster (Vesta, an ancient Roman goddess) requires virgins to serve her and punishes those who break their pledge by feasting on their livers (it’s the only purifying body part left, besides the kidneys!). So, of course, to investigate the church Sam and Dean renew their virginities. “Rock And A Hard Place” treats the fact that Sam and Dean take the pledge as funny by itself, because, lol, virgins! So funny! The Winchesters obviously don’t take the pledge seriously, and the show doesn’t either. Not that people should choose to be virgins, but it’s frustrating that the existence of virgins at all is pretty much the whole joke here, which means that not only is this story not great in its treatment of virginity, but it’s also not funny.
The important characters in the abstinence group (all female) are literally a moralizing harpy (Tammy the poet) and a porn star (Susie). Tammy complains to Dean about the evils of Honor (she only brings Oreos to the meetings!) and claims she’s going to Hell like a vindictive, stereotypical shrew who just gets punched in the face. Susie is paraded around for Dean (and us) to leer at before he discovers she’s a porn star. Then it turns out that Susie has tried to break from her old life as a porn star (who keeps all of her old DVDs around why?), but Dean manages to seduce her in a matter of minutes. Yes, Jensen Ackles is a very attractive man (his riff on how great sex is was decently funny), and, yes, lots of Supernatural episodes have female characters that exist solely to be love interests for Dean, but his rapid conquest here just seems kind of insulting. Compare Susie to the show’s treatment of Robin last week. Robin may have largely existed as a love interest for Dean, but she also had her own stuff going on and was part of a larger story about children becoming their parents. Pretty much the only good moment for Susie here is when she tells Dean how much she’d missed sex, because sure, sex is fun, but then she feels really bad about breaking her pledge and disappears at the end of the episode.
The saving grace here is the return of Sheriff Jody Mills, one of Supernatural’s strongest and longest-lived female characters. For a while, Mills was a love interest for Bobby, so she hasn’t escaped the show’s gender problems entirely. But she’s competent and reasonably well-developed, and Kim Rhodes gets to play her as kind of a badass. Mills gets to kill Vesta herself, and her conversation with Sam about her renewed interest in church, even without the abstinence pledge, is easily the best part of the episode. Hopefully, she’ll be around more often, both as an older, partially parental figure and as a woman who can roll with the boys. But here, she’s mostly relegated to the background, which makes it harder to take her role seriously. It doesn’t help that Vesta is a pretty terrible villain. Lindy Booth is very good at playing both the confused and ditzy church leader and the villainous Vesta, but she doesn’t overcome the mediocre writing and is dispatched as practically an afterthought. I’m generally not a huge fan of the pagan god episodes of Supernatural—they tend to just complain about not being worshipped any more and show up in not very nice-looking areas with an extremely small scope for their plans. Maybe it’s a childhood love of mythology thing, but I just hate the thought of Greek and Roman gods playing small-time with just a few souls.
Worse still, there’s almost no tension for the entirety of the episode. We get glimpses of the non-virgins in some sort of dungeon, but we have no idea where they are or why and don’t have any investment in any of the guest characters, particularly since the identity of the monster is kept secret for almost the entire episode. This tactic only really works if we actually care who the villain is, or at least enjoy the journey, and we don’t get much of either here. And the fighting amongst the prisoners is absolute general issue. Pretty much everything not focused on Dean’s sexytimes is filler, except for the revelation that Vesta is only after virgins who break their chastity vows. This is a nice twist, even if it means that there are no dragons (which I was pretty excited about), but it’s not enough to redeem how boring a lot of the episode is. Normally, I’d try to steer clear of spending so much time talking about Supernatural’s problems with women, but there has to be something else to focus on in the episode, and not only is there not much here, but the crappy sex stuff is the main focus of the plot.
And as a reward for making it through that part of the episode: more Zeke stuff! Sigh. When Sam decides that his “health” problems (have we actually really seen any of that since the premiere?) are his fault after being told he should be dead by Vesta, Dean decides seven episodes too late that Sam “deserves to know” about Zeke’s presence in his body, only to be told off by Zeke himself. As annoying as the ongoing Winchester secret-keeping is, Dean actively wanting to tell Sam the truth while being stymied by Zeke (who can take control of Sam’s body at any time so he never learns about the angel’s presence) is a much more interesting dynamic for this story. But I have a hard time taking this change, which seems just in time for Zeke to assume a more villainous role (also sigh), seriously. I’m just concerned that, like Mills’ presence in a weird, boring episode that regresses the show’s treatment of women, it’s too little, too late.
- Thanks for indulging my complaining about the show’s sex and gender issues. It’s not something I like talking about a lot, but it’s pretty much the whole point of this episode and is just incredibly frustrating when so many other things the show does are so fun (or could be).
- Even with this week and that Oz mess, this has still definitely earned the lead spot for my favorite post-Kripke season of the show.
- Way to tease us with a ton of Crowley in the “Then” segment and then not show Hopefully Human Crowley.
- Next week looks nuts. That is all.