Note: Do not read on if you have not seen Season 8, Episode 3 of The CW's "Supernatural," entitled "Heartache."
Episode three of "Supernatural" Season 8 (which was actually filmed first this year to give director Jensen Ackles time to prepare) was basically a standard "Monster of the Week" installment, but like many of the show's best standalone entries, it also helped contextualize the brothers' relationship to help the audience understand what's motivating them at this point in the season.
Up until this week's episode, Dean had seemingly convinced himself that Sam would eventually reacclimatize to the life and rediscover his passion for hunting, just as Dean did in Purgatory, but "Heartache" saw Sam tell his older brother, in no uncertain terms, that he fully intended to quit the family business once they'd found Kevin and laid their Hell Gate quest to rest.
It's both refreshing and a little heartbreaking to see the brothers being so honest with each other, where once they would've obfuscated, sugar-coated or quipped their way out of a serious conversation. Sam's not coming across as particularly sympathetic, given Dean's recent ordeal, but since the Winchesters have both been to Hell and are still standing (and more or less intact), I guess there's no need to make concessions for each other's frayed mental states.
I'm admittedly missing the more overt care and concern for each other that we saw back in Season 2 and 3, but thinking back, the majority of the show's run has seen the brothers at odds or at least working with different priorities in pursuit of the same goal, regardless of how much they care about each other, so this return to the Season 1 dynamic of Sam wanting to go back to school and Dean being gung-ho about the hunt isn't particularly jarring.
At least "Heartache" offered us a reason -- albeit briefly -- for Sam's desire to quit: with Amelia, he truly had the chance to experience a normal life, and we saw the vet throwing him a birthday picnic and baking him a cake ... which, judging by Sam's reaction, was something he'd never experienced before. (This did seem to involve a little retroactive retconning, since I can't believe that none of Sam's college friends or Jessica wouldn't have celebrated his birthday normally while he was at Stanford, or that Dean, so diligent in making Sam's life easier in other ways when they were kids, wouldn't have stolen him a cake or made his birthday special at some point in the past.) Regardless, Sam was clearly touched by Amelia's gesture, and Jared Padalecki did an excellent job of selling that moment with a subtly tearful glance away at the episode's end.
It's also clear that Ackles is gaining confidence as a director with every episode he helms ("Heartache" is the third), and he made a number of compelling choices in terms of framing, mood and lighting this week. It was almost impossible to distinguish his work from that of a veteran director's, and he kept the action flowing seamlessly throughout. This was especially impressive given that he had more screen time in this episode than in either of his previous directorial efforts, but if he was fatigued from pulling double-duty, it didn't show in his work in front of the camera or behind it.
It also gave him an opportunity to cast his father, Alan Ackles, as the belligerent detective who pointed them in the direction of the first murderer, Paul Hayes, and even in that brief scene, the palpable comfort and energy between the two made it a memorable appearance.
Though the plot was fairly straightforward (and shared some similarities with the scenarios from "Faith" and "Time Is on My Side"), writers Brad Buckner and Eugenie Ross-Leming delivered a solid script, nailing the brotherly banter and keeping things moving at a steady pace even if the episode's villain was somewhat bland. After some of the admittedly painful MOTW episodes that seemed tonally discordant in seasons 6 and 7, it was nice to have a simple, competently executed story that returned the focus to Sam and Dean, rather than placing too much emphasis on uninteresting baddies. Killer transplant organs have cropped up in a few horror movies and shows in the past, but I was still engaged by the episode.
I've said it already this season, but it's also worth reiterating how relieved I am that we've returned to Sam and Dean doing their own investigating. As much as I miss Bobby as a character and a reassuring presence in the boys' lives, I'm glad that there's a renewed emphasis on the Winchesters researching, hacking and flirting their way to the relevant information again, even if Apple has yet to invent an app for deciphering dead languages.
Kudos to the writers for involving Professor Morrison from "The Slice Girls" (although it's not that impressive that they remembered, since Ross-Leming and Buckner wrote that episode too), since it's an effortless way to add depth to the Winchesters' world and make their lives seem less claustrophobic. Any familiar names and faces are welcome, and even if I've mostly given up on ever seeing Missouri Mosely again, a little nostalgia goes a long way. Likewise, it was nice to hear the alias "Agent Sambora" again (last heard in "Shut Up, Dr. Phil," written by ... you guessed it!).
Overall, while the episode didn't pack the emotional punch of a mythology story, "Heartache" elevated itself above a throwaway filler episode by offering a glimpse into Sam and Dean's motivations this season. It's great to see Dean doing anything other than drinking himself into a stupor and actually enjoying his job, and it's enlightening to learn more about Sam's year spent with Amelia, even if I'm hoping for a little more justification in regards to him not looking for Dean and why Amelia is so markedly different from Jessica in future episodes.
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"Supernatural" airs Wednesdays at 9 p.m. ET on The CW.