Once again returning to Supernatural’s director’s chair for last week’s episode, ‘Optimism’, was Richard Speight Jr. and given that he has been a long time member of the SPN Family he always seems to deliver the best episode he can with the scripts he’s working with.
Written by Steve Yockey, ‘Optimism’ is full of laugh out loud moments coupled with a few icky ones, and some well placed heartfelt scenes that make Supernatural the show it is. It made for a more-lighthearted monster of the week episode – or in this case monsters. However, it wasn’t an episode free from issues; there were a couple of moments to make a good number of fans go ‘huh’?
The focus of the episode is divided into two, but this time it splits Sam (Jared Padalecki) and Dean (Jensen Ackles) up as they partner with other Hunters on two different cases. Sam has already left the bunker to join up with the Apocalypse World’s Charlie (Felicia Day), while Dean returns from seeing his Mother (Samantha Smith) and Bobby (Jim Beaver) to find the bunker empty apart from Jack (Alexander Calvert). Given how the episode pans out, it’s clear why Castiel (Misha Collins) wasn’t present from a meta point of view, but given that we’ve not seen the angel since the third episode it’s the hope he features again soon.
Of the two storylines, it’s the one that focuses on Sam and Charlie that has the most problems. It is always a joy to have Felicia Day back for an episode but yet again we have to remember that this isn’t the same character who was introduced in the seventh season. That Charlie, the nerdy computer hacker who helped foil the Leviathan plotline, was the one we were able to watch develop over several episodes before her, very controversial, death in season 10. This Charlie makes it abundantly clear to Sam after he tells her that the other version of her used to be like Dean’s wingman, that she is not that woman he used to know.
First of all, viewers are very aware of this and so when given a scene in which we learn this Charlie’s tragic backstory, it’s hard to connect with her. Secondly, referring to Charlie as a wingman comes out of the left field. Dean affectionately referred to her as the little sister he never wanted but the way Sam talks of her in this episode makes you wonder if you’d missed an episode somewhere, the writing feels a little forced and inaccurate.
There are other little incidents that occur throughout their hunt, involving a humanoid fly creature called a Musca, that also don’t feel quite right, such as a comedic moment involving Sam messing around with a fidget spinner, which is funny but it felt more like you were watching Jared rather than his character. There are also moments of inactivity when you would have expected two seasoned Hunters to have got up and done something and not remained sitting in a truck.
The crux of this storyline is very representative of Sam’s journey throughout the show; the very pessimistic Charlie wants to retire from hunting and go live as far away from people as possible. Sam’s advice is very much based on what he went through and what he learnt about not giving up. It’s very typical big-hearted Sam and it’s nice to hear how he’s finally dealt with his past and has come to terms with where he is now, but again Charlie isn’t him and her life is very different. Talking her out of retiring felt a little bit presumptuous somehow. It’s still unclear what the long-term goal is with these returned characters but if they are destined to die before any real development can occur then it seems like a waste, a lazy attempt at trying to shoehorn these new versions into viewers’ hearts.
Where this episode shines is with the Hunt shared by Dean and Jack. Jack manages to convince Dean to go out hunting with him based on the fact that their both smarting over Michael still walking free, despite it being neither of their faults. Dean relents and the two of them head off to where we already know something’s afoot due to the opening scene. Shot almost like a 50s sitcom, complete with twee music, we’re introduced to the popular Harper (Maddie Phillips) who is reluctantly agreeing to a dinner date with Winston (Amitai Marmorstein) and fending off the interest from her fellow librarian/stalker Miles (Eanna O’Dowd). Winston wins the round and gets the date, but when he gets outside and Stayin’ Alive starts playing, with him imitating Travolta’s moves in the movie of the same name, we know he’s doomed and seconds later he’s killed.
Much like with Charlie and Sam, the case is the backdrop to the interactions between Dean and Jack. Jack is clearly trying to learn how to be the best hunter he can be and is eager to absorb what Dean can teach him, there is a moment when Jack has his FBI badge upside down, which is very reminiscent of when Castiel was attempting to do the same thing. He’s also trying to learn more about social interactions and due to getting caught up in romance novel obsessed Harper, Jack has a lot of questions about love and of course sex. Dean promises that he’ll give Jack “The Talk” when they get back to the Bunker.
Alexander’s comedic timing excels again when the naive Jack is confronted with the new situation of a woman possibly being in love with him. Him excusing himself to go to the bathroom is funny, but even more, laughter-inducing is asking Dean over the phone to tell him everything about sex immediately. Jensen also gets in the laughs when Dean reacts to Jack ad-libbing and calling him ‘old man’. It’s very typical Dean that he can’t let that go.
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There are lots of attempts to throw viewers off working out just who is responsible for what’s happening to the men in Harper’s life. When some of the misdirection occurs it’s a genuine surprise when things don’t go how you’d expect. Maggie Phillips is wonderful as the wholesome Harper and watching her go from being the apparent victim of the piece to the villain when she’s revealed to be a necromancer, is a lot of fun. Given that she gets away in the end and now has an unhealthy interest in Jack, it’s a hope that she will return again soon.
The episode, after being a very light-hearted affair throughout, of course, has to end on a down note with Jack’s health issues finally being discovered by an already concerned Dean. Jack collapses after coughing up blood leaving Dean trying to work out what’s wrong.
Overall, ‘Optimism’ was a real 50/50 in terms of good and bad. There were lots of good moments that clearly came from Richard Speight Jr. having an intrinsic understanding of what makes Supernatural the show it is, but to counter this were a number of writing based issues that felt both unnecessary and downright confusing. Supernatural episodes can suffer more when Sam and Dean are separated, and with all these new characters being present there is a creeping concern about it becoming more of an ensemble effort rather than focusing on the brothers. Time will tell if these concerns are justified or not.