In its earlier seasons, Supernatural sometimes kicked around the idea that a hunter might be a villain—that a monster slayer might be driven by a cold, obsessive nature or a cruel, sadistic heart, and that he might become so blind to the possibility that a situation might not call for spilling blood that he became something of a monster himself. Morally questionable guest hunters have been largely absent from the last few seasons, maybe because Dean had become so Ahab-like—culminating in that episode where he risked the disapproval of his brother, along with at least half the human race, by wasting Jewel Staite—that he had that role sewn up for himself.
Dean’s close friendship with Benny the reformed vampire has changed both the established outlines of his character and the dynamic of the brothers’ relationship, and it’s also made it possible for the show to bring in characters whose quickness to judge and single-minded focus on killing monsters can strike Dean as appalling, myopic, even inhuman. “Citizen Fang”—I wish I could say that the title referred to a complicated framework of competing perspectives from different characters who’ve known Benny throughout his long life, but I’m afraid it’s just a dumb joke—marks a welcome return, not just for Benny, but for that underappreciated actor Jon Gries as Martin, the hunting partner of Pa Winchester who was last seen taking up space inside a nuthouse. In that earlier episode, Gries had picked up on something spooky going on inside the hospital, and he had to convince people who were inclined to regard him as a discarded cartridge that he knew what he was talking about. He came across as shaky but sure of himself, and he was completely sympathetic.
Tonight, Dean learns that Sam has assigned Martin the task of, basically, stalking Benny, who has settled down in the small Louisiana town where he grew up and taken a job working at a restaurant whose owner doesn’t know that her latest hire is her own great-grandfather. There have been a couple of bloody murders in the area, and Martin calls Sam and Dean in because he thinks Benny is the likely culprit. But even though Martin agrees to let Dean poke around and talk to his friend, it becomes clear early on that Benny’s guilt or innocence is almost a side issue to him. What matters is that Benny is a vampire, and he should be put down on general principles, even if he’s been behaving himself. Gries steadily peels back the layers of Martin’s surface good nature, revealing the fanaticism at his core, until he’s saying things like “Lay down your weapons, you unholy thing!” and making you wonder if he might not be the worst casting choice for a remake of The Night Of The Hunter. He makes Martin the scary nut who’s prepared to do what it takes to get the creature he’s set on killing perfectly consistent with Martin the likable nut, trying to sound sane when alerting people that there are monsters out there. And he doesn’t sound any more vicious or unhinged than Dean used to, before he had a vampire for a BFF.
When Benny reconnects with Dean, he explains that the real killer is a “rogue vamp” named Desmond who’s been trying to recruit Benny for his nest. It’s interesting that Desmond barely makes an onscreen appearance—Benny and Dean look for him, they find him, they waste him, done and done—and his nest isn’t even treated as a cause for concern. Desmond is just a device to bring up the subject of what makes a monster a monster. (It’s also a mark of how respectfully inclined Supernatural is toward the Benny-Dean relationship that, despite the backwoods-Louisiana setting of this episode, there’s not a trace of any True Blood parody.) There was a time when Dean would have taken the position that it’s a matter of species classification, and even if the show might drop hints that Dean was a little pig-headed on the subject, the fact is that whatever Dean believes tends to carry more weight on this show than anything he doesn’t believe. Now it has to do not just with what’s in someone’s heart, but how well they can control their powers—and their urges. After messing around with fancy CGI monsters in recent seasons, recent episodes have seen a welcome return to Val Lewton-B movie territory, and this episode gets a lot of mileage out of doors slowly opening and floorboards creaking late at night. But the scariest moments come when Benny sees fresh blood and has to restrain the need to slake his thirst. As in a movie about an alcoholic who’s tempted to fall off the wagon, it’s not just the prospective menace you’re scared for.
Dean the Ruthless is most in evidence here when he plays a heartless trick on Sam to “help” him deal with his feelings for the woman he left behind—a trick that may backfire, and that definitely feeds the bad blood between the brothers. This is the last new episode of Supernatural until mid-January, and even though it doesn’t end with anyone being held captive in a fiery cage or with a knife being held to anyone’s throat, it works as a cliffhanger. For the moment, Supernatural is back to being about the things the show has usually been about at its core, when it’s been its best: the question of how much of a monster someone has to be to defeat monsters, the conflict between needing to be a hero and wanting the satisfactions of a normal life, and how much being brothers finally counts for two men who never seem to be in a place where they can give the same answers to those questions at the same time.