3.05 Bedtime Stories: Once Upon a Time …
Comatose Snow White
Cries out through fairy tale deaths.
Sam kills a dead deal.
Against the backdrop of a Maple Springs, NY housing development billboard proclaiming that once upon a time, all houses were built this well, three brothers arguing about the quality and durability of their various building materials were attacked by a vicious thing out of the dark, and only one, cowering back against a stack of cinder blocks, survived.
En route to the scene, the Winchester brothers engaged in a shouting match in the Impala, with Sam advocating using the rebuilt Colt as leverage to force the Crossroads Demon to release Dean from his deal, and Dean refusing even to consider the idea for fear the attempt might trigger the “no escape” clause in his contract and kill Sam. Ultimately, Dean flatly refused to have that conversation and Sam subsided into sulky silence until Dean prodded him into talking about the reported psychotic killer and whether it might be a werewolf. The lunar cycle was right, but the surviving brother described an ordinary human attacker with a tattoo of Wile E. Coyote on his arm, and the doctor’s report on the dead men’s wounds didn’t match the werewolf pattern of taking hearts.
While the Winchesters were investigating that incident, a brother and sister, lost hiking in the woods, found the house of an elderly lady who invited them in, fed them a drugged pie, and killed the brother. The surviving sister, less drugged, managed to fight back, shoving the woman, who fell against the corner of the stove and died. Hearing the survivor’s story, Sam recognized a pattern of fairy tales: Hansel and Gretel for the brother and sister, and the three little pigs for the brothers attacked by the wolf. The sister also gave them the first clue to a supernatural cause, reporting having seen a pale, pretty, black-haired girl of about eight who had watched the horror through the window and then vanished. Checking the house, the brothers found no sign of demons, but definite EMF evidence that a spirit had stood outside the window.
Back in town, a pumpkin on a porch a bit early for Halloween caught Sam’s eye, and combined with the mice scurrying around it, conjured images of Cinderella. Breaking into the house, the boys found a bruised and bloodied girl handcuffed in the kitchen, who reported that her stepmother had gone nuts and beaten her. Dean looked up to see the little girl the sister had described watching them, and followed her through the house until she vanished, leaving a red apple behind, when he asked her who she was.
Realizing that their spirit was appearing as Snow White, the boys looked for a comatose little girl, but found a young woman instead: Callie, the doctor’s daughter, who had been poisoned by her stepmother with bleach at the age of eight and lingered in a coma ever since, with no one realizing that her poisoning hadn’t been an accident. The brothers realized that Callie had gradually become an angry spirit frustrated in her attempts to make her father realize the truth, and that she was striking out for attention by making innocent people reenact the Grimm’s fairy tale stories that her father read aloud to her. Putting together the latest attack – an elderly woman found savagely beaten and mauled by the roadside – with the current story being that of Little Red Riding Hood, Dean guessed that the “big, bad wolf” was going after the woman’s granddaughter. Dean went to the grandmother’s house to stop the wolf while Sam approached the doctor, trying to make him understand what was going on and find a way to persuade Callie to stop what she was doing.
At the house, Dean found the terrified little girl, who’d been picked up from school in her grandmother’s van by the man with the Wile E. Coyote tattoo, and wound up in a brutal fight. Having lost his gun, he eventually grabbed the only weapon available – a pair of scissors, exactly the weapon used by the huntsman in the tale. Callie’s spirit simply watched the fight. Meanwhile, Sam, with no time or ability to come up with a reasonable cover story, told the doctor the unvarnished truth, expecting to be dismissed as insane. Instead, he found a man disposed to believe, because he had seen the apparition of his daughter and simply refused to acknowledge her as real. Persuaded by Sam that he needed to listen to her and let her know she’d been heard, he started talking to her, and she withdrew her attention from the fight to attend to him. He assured her that he knew the truth, and he told her tearfully that it was time for her to move on, time for him to let her go. With a last kiss from her father, the girl flatlined – and the snarling wolfman Dean had been about to kill suddenly became nothing more than a terrified and disoriented man with no memory of what he had done.
At night, with Dean sound asleep, Sam snuck out of the motel room, went to a crossroads, and summoned the Crossroads Demon. He threatened her with the Colt, but she didn’t believe the threat. The Demon taunted Sam with not really wanting to free Dean, slyly claiming that he would actually be secretly relieved to be freed of Dean’s sloppiness, bossiness, weakness, and needs, and dismissed Sam’s protestations to the contrary as nothing more than going through the motions. She also maintained that she couldn’t break Dean’s deal even if she wanted to, because someone much more powerful – someone she couldn’t name – actually held Dean’s contract and wanted his soul far too badly to let him go.
And Sam shot her in the head.
Fairy tales can pack a lot of punch. The little girl’s story took the boys aside from the focus of their current primary mission: it had nothing to do with the devil’s gate opening, nothing to do with an army of demons unleashed on the world, but everything to do with family, with communicating, with holding on and letting go.
It was inevitable that Dean’s deal would open a rift between the brothers precisely because they are both fully committed to each other, but Dean, having already sacrificed everything for Sam, adamantly refuses to let Sam even take a chance on doing the same for him. Having made his bed, Dean is determined not to let Sam lie down in it, both because he doesn’t want what he’s giving up to be for nothing, and because, having lost Sam once already, he can’t bear the thought of losing Sam again, least of all in exchange for him. The only thing giving Dean the strength to face what he knows is coming despite his steadily growing fear of it is the consolation that Sam will live because of it. Dean literally can’t let himself see how badly losing him would damage Sam, because Sam’s grief is Dean’s despair and despair would destroy him utterly, taking away the sense he needs to have that something good will come of what he’s done, of the life his father gave back to him that he chose to give away in bringing his brother back.
The opening fight between the boys captured them perfectly, and probably echoed their past experience to a degree that would be funny under other circumstances. Sam marshaled logic, constructed a theory, and proposed a test – adamantly, perhaps, but still couched as a proposal – while the only answer Dean could make was a flat, no, because I’m older and I say so. Could you hear the echo of two much younger boys, Sam trying to persuade, and Dean shutting him down? The flat denial based on his gut-deep fear of losing Sam was the only argument Dean could offer. Sam’s angry rejoinder of “You’re not Dad!” might well have been the most hurtful thing he could have said, given the way that John had always laid down the law and refused to explain himself to his boys, but I think there was a difference. John chose, at least in part, to try to protect the innocence of his sons; Dean’s choice was pure self-defense, something essential to let him stay on his feet and not be crushed by fear, not to fall while his brother was watching.
And even though Dean shut Sam down and did it hard, it was also Dean who reached out to keep the bridges open, cajoling Sam into talking to him again, just on a different subject. Where Sam would have sulked and fumed in silence, Dean – ever the family peacemaker – tried to extend an olive branch, even against the anger his own recalcitrance couldn’t help but build. “Tell me about the psychotic killer. Come on, Sam – tell me about the psychotic killer.” Change the subject, talk to me; I need to know we’re still okay. That’s Dean.
The scene between the brothers in the hospital after Callie died was pure grief. Callie’s father had held on to her, keeping her body alive even after any hope of recovery was long gone, unwittingly promoting her transformation from a frightened child to an angry spirit. Even as he’d done so, he’d failed to acknowledge her spirit, failed to hear what she was trying to say. Dean’s comment to Sam that the doctor’s recognition that he should have let her go was good advice, prompting Sam’s anguished question, “Is that what you want me to do, Dean? Just let you go?”, seemed mostly an acknowledgment that leaving is going to be hard for Dean, and that watching his brother fight it would just make it harder for him to go. Dean is trying so hard to make his own peace, to meet damnation with dignity, that he can’t acknowledge that what would make his dying easier for him would simply make it harder and even more painful for Sam. Sam has told him that, many ways and more than once – “I can’t imagine anything worse,” he said to the surviving brother, asked how he would feel if something killed his brother – but Dean can’t afford to hear it, can’t afford to acknowledge him, because then he would fall apart himself. At the same time, Sam can’t give Dean the strength and peace of his blessing to go, because he can’t bear the thought of Dean dying and being damned because of him. They’re both as trapped, as deaf, and as blind to satisfying each other’s core needs as little Snow White and her father, and all because of love.
And Sam is lashing out as brutally as Callie did with rage against everything that would take his brother from him, including his brother himself. Sneaking out in the middle of the night, summoning the Crossroad Demon despite his brother’s express order, willfully taking the chance of challenging Dean’s deal and potentially risking his own death without his brother’s knowledge, was all patented little brother action. But he wasn’t ready for the answer he heard: that someone higher in the demonic pecking order had a special grudge against Dean, a special yen to make him hurt. Suddenly it’s not just that Dean is Sam’s brother and made a deal Sam never wanted, the same way that John made a deal that Dean would have refused; now it’s personal, and somehow even worse.
And Sam killed the Demon. I know that’s got the speculation wires humming. Arguably, at least, everyone else Sam has killed so far was a threat, even if “kill” sometimes tipped into “overkill,” as was the case with Jake. And even when he pulled the trigger with seeming coldness, he’s still done penance in his soul afterward, as when he refused to celebrate with Ruby at the end of Sin City because he’d killed the demons’ hosts along with the demons themselves. So what justified killing the insulting, insinuating, but not intimately threatening Crossroads Demon?
I’m going to put my money down. I’m going to stake that Sam is still 100% Sam, as much as he’s been all his life despite getting a taste of demon blood when he was six months old. But I think this is a Sam who’s reconsidering his decisions, who’s hardening himself to do whatever it takes to save his brother, and to accept the changes that will make in who he is. My fear is that he’ll go too far and cross moral lines without even acknowledging that they’re there, not until they’ve become his Rubicon and he can’t turn back. It would be the supreme irony and the greatest loss if Sam saved Dean from his deal by becoming someone or something Dean could no longer recognize as his gentle and beloved little brother. Dean would literally rather die.
As for killing the Crossroads Demon – I go back to the beginning of their conversation. Sam made his offer: “You can let Dean out of his deal right now. He lives. I live. You live. Everyone goes home happy. Or, you stop breathing. Permanently.” The Crossroads Demon didn’t believe him. She dismissed the threat as tough talk. She taunted him with big lies built out of little truths, alleging that Sam’s sibling resentment of Dean meant that Sam secretly wanted to be free of him, wanted him out of the way to no longer be bossy and irritating and as emotionally damaged and needy as Sam had finally understood him to be when his eyes were opened over the last two seasons. She refused to give him information on who really holds the power over Dean.
In his first encounter with the Crossroads Demon, Dean would have broken his deal and exorcised her but for the real threat she presented not to him, but to Evan, if he chose that course. In his second encounter, she held all the cards and Dean came as a beggar, needing Sam too much even to bargain. Last season, over the edge with grief for and rage at John and with fear for his brother and what he himself might have to do, Dean turned hard and violent and uncompromising, until Sam drew him back.
I think Sam is taking a page from Dean’s book. The Crossroads Demon – and others – haven’t respected Sam as being strong, as being decisive, mistaking his desire to be justified and right for weakness. In killing the Demon, Sam crossed a line, a very scary one, but he also made a deliberate choice against type, a choice that means he can’t be predicted any more, a choice that means he has to be taken seriously. It was a hell of a price to pay, and one that I think will damage him as Dean’s second season excesses hurt his brother, but it also changed his position on the gaming table. The real question becomes whether this is a change that Ruby and others wanted and think they can control, or whether it will defy all prediction. Only time will tell.
A tip of the hat to Supernatural veterans Cathryn Humphris for the writing and Mike Rohl for the direction of this episode. I particularly enjoyed the way that the Grimm fairy tales were woven into the contemporary fabric of the story, right down to the fairy tale plots controlling events. Neither the boys nor the surviving brother could figure out at first why the man had survived, why the attack on him had just stopped – but after all, in the fairy tale, the little pig who’d built his sturdy block house defeated the wolf’s attempt to eat him. By the rules of a child’s story logic, the wolf couldn’t kill the pig who sheltered among the cinder blocks. Similarly, the old lady fell and hit her head on the stove; not quite the same as being stuffed into the oven, but close enough. And Dean losing his gun in the fight and snatching up the huntsman’s scissors – with which he, exactly like the huntsman, would have prevailed over the wolf – was similarly on point.
The weakest point in the plot for me was Sam’s leap of logic from the mere presence of a pumpkin on the porch in a time close to Halloween to the conclusion that the house contained the reenactment of Cinderella, but I’ll give them that as my one willing suspension of disbelief moment. And I’ll link the frog motif in with that one, if only because Dean’s refusal to kiss a frog was such a fun moment.
My favorite scenes had to be the fight in the car, which was shot as beautifully and energetically as it was performed; the scene between the brothers after Callie’s death, which was heartbreaking; and Sam’s confrontation with the Crossroads Demon. Jensen Ackles and Jared Padalecki just keep selling these brothers as real. The overlapping dialogue in the fight in the car and Sam subsiding into sullen little-brother silence were perfect touches. The scene in the hospital put Jensen’s eyes in shadow and Jared’s in light, like the death and life Dean and Sam represented, and the expressions on their faces, with Sam asking if he was supposed to just let Dean go and Dean answering with no words at all, were better than any other dialogue could possibly have been. Dean walking away alone down the corridor emptied my soul. Jared conveyed Sam fighting to save his brother and then having to fight against believing that any part of him could wish Dean gone, even though he couldn’t possibly deny the truth of often being irritated beyond words by his brother’s habits and manner. And the expression on Sam’s face when he shot the Demon and watched her die was a study in emotion that we’ll be analyzing fruitlessly for months to come.
And my gratuitous delight-in-scene-transition comment goes to the peaceful full moon over the motel transmuting into the peaceful full moon in the painting over Dean’s bed. Nice shot composition.
Of course, my wondering mind is looking toward the fallout from Sam’s encounter. Did Dean stay blissfully asleep and unaware, or did he wake up to find Sam gone? If and when will Sam admit what he did and what he learned, including that somebody down there really has it in for Dean? Will Sam, having gotten away with not only bearding the Crossroads Demon on the deal, but even killing her, get even more reckless in what he does to try and break Dean free? How will Dean react, when he learns that Sam took a forbidden chance on dying to set him free? And come to think of it, has Dean told Sam what Casey told him about the role Sam was supposed to play in the demon army, and that some demons were prepared to follow him while others are gunning for his death?
Secrets between these boys never bode well. And all the love in the world can’t keep them from hurting each other, ever and always with the best of intent.
For both of them, perhaps, the road to Hell is paved with good intentions. And not all fairy tales end with “And they all lived happily ever after.”