There has been a trend for a while in Supernatural that the third from last episode of a season always delivers an emotional sucker-punch to the gut. In the tenth season there was the painful loss of Charlie Bradbury (Felicia Day); in the eleventh viewers found themselves feeling sorry for former villain Metatron (Curtis Armstrong) and then had to see him die; in the twelfth deaf hunter Eileen Leahy (Shoshannah Stern) was killed; and in the thirteenth Dean (Jensen Ackles) had to witness Sam (Jared Padalecki) having his throat torn out by vampires. It’s been a running trope for at least the last four years, if not longer, so it was not that much of a surprise that this episode was going to be a painful one.
Directed by Nina Lopez-Corrado, ‘Absence’ was the fortieth episode written by Robert Berens, who has also written favourites such as ‘Wayward Sisters’, ‘Don’t Call Me Shurley’, and ‘All In The Family’ in which Metatron died. Berens has already had experience with taking a character predominantly perceived in a negative light and making us feel for them at the point of their departure from the Winchesters’ lives, and in ‘Absence’ he did the same for Mary Winchester (Samantha Smith). The episode confirms what everyone feared from ‘Game Night‘ – that Jack (Alexander Calvert) had killed the Winchester matriarch. Although it was an accident, it cements the theory that the brothers will be going up against Jack for the remainder of this season and possibly into the fifteenth.
No disrespect towards Sam Smith, her portrayal as the mother of Sam and Dean has always been amazing, but ever since her return in the finale of season eleven, the writers just haven’t seemed to know what to do with her. In the three seasons Mary has been back she was still largely absent from her sons’ lives and made some questionable decisions, such as joining up with the British Men of Letters, that has alienated her from the fandom.
Although a very capable hunter, it has always felt as though the writers have consistently tried and failed to introduce new angles to the character. Her relationship with the AU’s Bobby Singer (Jim Beaver) felt forced, and fans were still trying to adjust to the new version of Bobby. But then Bobby hasn’t been seen in an episode since the fifth one, and in ‘Damaged Goods‘ Mary reported that he had taken off by himself. Yet another plot ball that seems to have been dropped. In conclusion, Mary’s death is yet another under-developed female character who had died to further fuel Sam and Dean’s anguish.
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With all that said, ‘Absence’ was not a terrible episode. Berens and Lopez-Corrado managed to make us lament Mary’s departure with the good use of flashbacks. In these, we see conversations she has had with her sons, Jack, and Castiel (Misha Collins). We get more of the Mary we would have liked to have seen within the show, they made her more human and made her seem to flounder less. Again we can talk about the time constraints of a shorter season and forty-minute episodes, but that does not really excuse the lack of development of such a keystone character like Mary.
Calvert once again delivered as Jack, who is now in a full-on downward spiral after his lashing out caused Mary’s accidental death. He is aware he has done wrong and attempts to right things before Sam and Dean can catch up to him. The Nephilim does not want to admit that to himself that he has no soul, however, Lucifer (Mark Pellegrino), or more accurately a hallucination of his archangel Father, is keen to point out all of Jack’s flaws and how the Winchesters will never forgive or trust him again because of what he has done. This is not the first time that we have seen a hallucination of Lucifer: Sam suffered plenty when he endured such torment in season six. But with the archangel still in the Empty and Nick’s charred corpse seen by the brothers, this might be the last incarnation of Pellegrino’s Lucifer that we see, although one that could easily be taken into the final season.
Castiel spends most of the episode feeling guilty for withholding the information about Jack, but this is not the first time that the angel has made this mistake, such as in season six when Cas teamed up with Crowley (Mark Sheppard). Withholding information has been a common Winchester trait and usually ends up coming back to hurt people, and of course, this mistake has contributed toward the death of Mary. In some respects, it would be nice to see Castiel grow beyond these mistakes, but given that his human role models are Sam and Dean perhaps it not that surprising that he has not. Like the Winchesters, he always strives to do what is right but sometimes the execution is flawed.
Lastly, we need to make mention of the truly believable grief that is conveyed by both Ackles and Padalecki. Losing a parent is a hard thing for anyone to deal with but the Winchester have had to say goodbye to both their parents multiple times. At no point did it seem like the actors were just going through the motions. Dean’s first reaction, ever the one to lash out in anger, is to look for someone to blame and initially that blame falls on Castiel. Dean’s reaction is a perfectly normal one, as his breaking of the chair when it is confirmed that Mary is now in heaven. Sam’s flinch is also natural, he knows what his brother is like but he is also processing his own grief and shock, but it is more internal for him. Sam preventing Cas from going to Dean at Mary’s funeral is simply due to him knowing Dean needs time. Mary’s loss has been a terrible blow to the brothers, even more so knowing it has come at the hands of Jack.