When Supernatural was still a fairly young show, it often achieved the feel of a horror paperback that had been left to molder under the car seat for a few years after being bought on impulse off a rack at a Walgreens. It was part of what made the show fascinating even before it started being, with any dependable degree of regularity, good. I think the show has gotten both more varied and a lot better since the days when its most interesting quality was a hung-over C-movie grindhouse vibe that didn't exactly mesh with the expectations one brought to a CW show starring a veteran of Days Of Our Lives and the guy who took Rory Gilmore's cherry and who managed to look pouty about even that. But I can understand how long-time fans of the show, and even those who work on it, might feel the occasional pang of nostalgia for the old days.
This episode, which begins with a flashback to a case from four years ago, pushes hard to recapture that merciless, no-prisoners feel. and for the first ten or fifteen minutes it does a pretty good job of it. In a flashback that plays like clips from a long-ago episode that I'm pretty sure doesn't actually exist, we see Sam and Dean, with help from a friendly Wiccan named Nora (Nicole Oliver), capture and exorcise a postal worker named Jeffrey (Russell Sams) who, under the influence of a demon, had been terrorizing an Idaho town. The term “exorcism” may call up images of men chanting in Latin over their trussed-up subject, but this is a Winchester-style exorcism: Sam and Dean alternately scald the victim with holy water (with lots of screaming and clouds of steam rising from his flesh) and just pummel the crap out of him. All this, we're made to understand, is done with the blessing of Jeffrey, the owner of the body they're abusing, because he is, Dean says, “a decent guy” who's prepared to suffer what it takes to have the evil driven from him. When Dean, the exorcism having been successfully completed, drops Jeffrey off and tells him to say that he was mugged when he reports to the hospital, and Jeffrey, his face transformed into pure raw hamburger, manages to get the word “Thanks!” past the pulpy mass that were once his lips, you don't know whether it calls for a “Hah!” or a “Huh?”
Supernatural has always been about the effects of the past, none of them rosy. It's a given that Sam and Dean are haunted by, and chronically incapable of getting past, what's been done to them and what they've seen done to others, and as the show has piled up season after season, it's increasingly become about their inability to stop being haunted by and get past the things they themselves have done to others, in the name of putting up the good fight against what Donald Pleasance used to call “EEEEEE-vil!” “Repo Men” starts out with a full head of steam and what promise to be some strong, prickly ideas about the costs of the Winchesters' way of doing business. Drawn back to Idaho by a strong of murders that match the M.O. of the demon they drove back to Hell, the brothers reconnect with Nicole and share their suspicions that Jeffrey might be possessed again: “Some demons,” Sam says, in the best line of the night, “tend to be sentimental.”
It turns out that Jeffrey is a shattered wreck living in a halfway house, and has never gotten over the experience from four years earlier. The thing is, it's hard to say whether it's the demon or the Winchesters that he's never recovered from. He defied Dean's orders and told people about what had happened to him, and this breach of confidentiality got him locked in a rubber room. In the process, he lost his job and his health insurance. Basically, being saved by the Winchesters destroyed his life. Dean ponders on this, looks troubled by it, wonders how guilty he should feel even as he remains Deanishly certain that there was nothing else he could have done at the time. "You were so desperate,” the bad guy taunts him, “to save the world back then. It kills you that people keep getting hurt, and you can't stop it.”
Meanwhile, Sam lights out for the library, to keep tabs on a woman who may be earmarked for death, because her name was next on the list of targets that the demon was keeping back when he was on his killing spree, even though demons don't normally keep hit lists and Jeffrey never mentioned it four years ago. Tagging along with Sam is Mark Pellegrino as Lucifer, who's back after an absence of several episodes, and who I can't say I missed all that much. He may, of course, be a figment of Sam's imagination, or maybe be. Either way, it means that, thanks to recent developments on the SyFy version of Being Human, there are now two shows on the air in which one of the main characters is receiving ghostly visitations from Mark Pellegrino. This poor guy is the most weirdly typecast actor since Antonio Fargas got too old to keep playing pimps.
That mysterious list, and the Winchesters' failure to go “Hmmmm” in response to hearing about it, is the first real sign of trouble. Not trouble in Idaho, that is, but trouble for this episode. By the time Dean is tied to a chair in an empty warehouse, next to some other poor sap who's tied to a chair, and Sam is twiddling his thumbs in the library, wondering when something's going to happen already, it's become acutely embarrassing that they couldn't piece together what the thickest regular viewer will have already long since guessed: Jeffrey is the real bad guy, has been committing the murders, and isn't possessed at all. Wait, it gets worse. It turns out that Jeffrey was always a budding serial killer, and the demon selected him because he was already innately evil: “All I had to do,” says the demon when he finally does reappear, “was loosen the lid on the jar and show him some practical know-how.”
This development has the face-saving effect of absolving the Winchesters: they didn't know it at the time, but they were whaling on somebody who, possessed or not, had a good face-pounding coming to him on his own merits. Besides dulling the edge of this particular episode, this development undercuts one of Supernatural's most unnerving conceits. It's always been understood that demons take possession of good people and make them do terrible things, and this has made the terrible things that much scarier, just as it's complicated the Winchesters' efforts to bring demons to ground without harming the innocents they're using as pawns, if they can help it. Even with the slopping plotting, it would be truly, deeply creepy, besides being true to the show's mythology, if Jeffrey really were a decent guy who turned psycho in part because of what he'd been through at the Winchester's hands. Having him explain that he'd always wanted to go on a sadistic killing spree, and that his possession “liberated me, started me on my true life mission,” makes the whole thing less creepy, not more. Still, it's Dean himself who pushes the episode over the cliff, all with a single line. Jeffrey still wants to be reunited with his demon, and the spell that will do the trick requires him to slaughter a dog. By this point, Jeffrey has carved up several people and abducted Nora's son in order to force her to help him, but it's only when he realizes what's going to happen to that mangy-looking dog that Dean hisses, “Oh, you sick bastard!”
The big development on Sam's end is that not is he seeing Lucifer again, he accepts helpful tips from Lucifer while he's trying to figure out what everyone watching at home already knows. As Lucifer explains at the end of the episode, this means that he now his hooks in Sam deeper than ever, so there'll be plenty of scenes of Sam reacting to stuff that nobody else can see, as well as an abundance of Mark Pellegrino's face, to look forward to in the weeks to come. Of all the people and things that this show could have brought back, these items were pretty far down on my personal checklist.