On Supernatural there are monsters, and then there are monsters. Sure, supernatural creatures may lie in wait for the unsuspecting stranger, but a betrayal by someone meant to be a protector is much more frightening. In “American Nightmare,” Supernatural reminds us that Man is the ultimate monster. Whether it’s an abusive parent or a self-righteous killer, people can be real jerks.
In case we had tried to block it out, Supernatural reminds viewers about Sam’s psychic powers story arc from Season 2. It was never one of our favorite storylines, so let’s hope these callbacks connect only to “American Nightmare” and not a future narrative.
At the start of the episode, we learn that the dream team of Castiel and Crowley are still hunting Lucifer. Dean doesn’t love the arrangement, commenting, “One’s an angel and one’s a devil, and they solve crimes.” Cas also fills Dean in on Lucifer possessing Vince Vincente. Apparently, Sam was a fan in the 80s. Dean, not so much.
Dean has been acting surly since his mom left, but as usual, he doesn’t want to talk about it. He texts her, asking if he should call her “Mom” or “Mary.” His mother wants a little space, having just returned from the dead, and all Dean can do is sulk. It seems like someone is suffering from a case of crybabyitis.
Gimme that Old Time Religion
Supernatural often shows us the lighter side of religion—an angel who doesn’t get pop culture references, a demon who envisions Hell as a long line, and a God who writes his own story. Yet in “American Nightmare” we see the darker side of religion—intolerance, ignorance, and extremism. If you’ve been feeling like there hasn’t been enough mortification of the flesh in Supernatural, then you’re in for a treat.
After Olivia Sanchez develops stigmata and is whipped by an invisible force, Sam and Dean investigate the church where she died. When Father Santos fears being mocked for telling the story of watching his parishioner get flayed alive, Fathers Penn and De Niro assure Father Santos that they’re old-school priests. The Winchesters may not be Catholics, but they’ve certainly got that whole exorcism thing down. Not to mention the guilt.
When Dean learns that Child Protective Services employee Beth got the job of her former boss, Olivia, he’s immediately suspicious. Though it’s mostly because Beth is a Wiccan. Being the old-fashioned type, Dean is quick to assume “She’s a Witch!” He could probably benefit from some cultural sensitivity training. Though Dean is ready to put a bullet in poor CPS worker Beth, Sam thinks they should consider other leads. Meanwhile, a grocery delivery boy suffers the same fate as Olivia.
They learn that the connection between Olivia and the grocery delivery boy is a family of “weird, creepy, off-the-grid, Children-of-the-Corn people.” Sam and Dean don their caseworker sweaters and pay the Peterson family a visit. The Petersons’ references to God and the Devil take on new meaning with Winchesters around. When matriarch Gail asks if they know God, Dean tells her, “Oh yeah, we’re besties.”
The Petersons have isolated themselves since Gail was in an accident five years before. After everything started to fall apart she heard God’s voice say, “Go live a life of simplicity and humility, and all your pain will be taken away.” Doesn’t sound like Chuck. Sam isn’t one to tolerate people blaming their bad behavior on God or the Devil. He tells Gail, “God doesn’t care what kind of life you lead, trust me. God didn’t kill your daughter; you did.” His accusations lead to Gail’s husband Abraham asking the Winchesters to leave.
After spending time with Abraham, who talks about making sacrifices for family, Dean thinks the Petersons are good people. Dean wants to go after Beth, the Wiccan from CPS. Sam believes the angry ghost of Magda haunts the farm. It turns out that both the Winchesters are wrong, because Magda is alive, chained up in the basement where her parents force her to practice self-flagellation.
Sam is captured by the Petersons and joins Magda in her basement prison. When she tells him she’s the devil, Sam says, “No, you’re not. You’re really not.” If anyone knows Satan, it’s Sam Winchester. Sam tells her she’s not evil, just psychic. In her desperate attempt to communicate, she reached out with her mind to caseworker Olivia, and then the delivery boy, accidentally killing them. Sam tells Magda it’s not her fault, and she can learn to control her powers so she’ll never hurt anyone again.
It turns out that killing runs in the Peterson family. One important difference being that Gail wants to kill her family on purpose, so they can all be together in Heaven. Seems unlikely Gail will ever find herself in Heaven, though we do have hope for Elijah, the Petersons’ teen boy. Magda uses her powers, but stops herself from killing her mother, telling her, “I’m not the devil—you are.” In reality, neither of them is the devil, because Lucifer is somewhere far away, deep under the ocean.
A Killer Ending
In the end, Gail is arrested and Magda makes plans to go live with her aunt in California. Dean tells Magda that sometimes a little space helps people to figure things out. Looks like his crybabyitis might be clearing up. Wiccan Beth gives Dean her phone number because she has no idea he was ready, and seemingly eager, to kill her. No, Dean, it’s not hot. Dean gets a text from his mom, assuring him that she’ll always be his mother.
Later that night, when Magda gets off her bus to Cali at a rest stop, the man in black who has been following the Winchesters kills her. It’s Mr. Ketch, the clean-up man for the British Men of Letters first seen at the end of “Mamma Mia,” whose motorcycle Dean admired in “The Foundry.” Mr. Ketch calls in to report that he’s taken care of the job the Winchesters couldn’t finish. We’re supposed to realize that these British Men of Letters are ruthless killers, while Sam and Dean have more nuanced beliefs when it comes to those they hunt. It’s a little hard to buy after watching Dean prepare kill a woman he thought was a witch, despite having no proof whatsoever.
Sam and Dean take their fake identities to new heights in “American Nightmare,” playing priests, FBI agents, and case workers all in one episode. We haven’t seen the boys wearing sweaters since they played trauma counselors in “Just My Imagination.” Why does the wardrobe department associate sweaters with a career in human services?
“American Nightmare” give us a well-done standalone Monster of the Week story. Looking at the role of religion in social and individual behavior feels like old-school Supernatural with an interesting new twist, just as we were promised in the interviews about Season 12. We didn’t get the happy ending we’ve come to expect from a MotW episode. Instead, we’re reminded once again that people are just the worst. Thanks Supernatural.