3.09 Malleus Maleficarum: That’s What Hell Is
Bombshell from fight with
Desperate housewitch “book club:”
Demons were human.
The bizarre death by tooth loss of a pretty young woman in Sturbridge, Massachusetts and the attempted murder of her lover by maggot-burger drew the Winchester brothers into the pursuit of a black-magic witch. When their prime suspect turned up dead by apparent gruesome suicide, however, with a hex bag at the scene indicating that she had been the victim of another witch, the brothers guessed that they were hunting a coven of witches, identifiable through their spell-arranged good fortune, meeting under the cover of a suburban housewives’ book club. Sam surprised Dean with his vehemence on stopping the witches as murderers even though they were human. And when Ruby appeared, telling them to leave town because the witches were serving a powerful demon way beyond the Winchesters’ weight class who would come after Sam, things went from bad to worse.
Dean’s first meeting with Ruby did not go well. When she stopped them on the road by the simple expedient of interfering with the Impala’s electrical system, Dean threatened her with the Colt. In turn, she taunted him by sniping that he cared so little about Sam that he was simply going to die and leave Sam alone, while she was trying to help him stay alive once Dean wasn’t there any more. Only Sam striking his arm up out of line as he pulled the Colt’s trigger prevented Dean from killing Ruby, who simply disappeared as the brothers wrestled.
The argument continued through their return to their current seedy motel, with Dean disturbed both because Sam was taking advice from a demon and because he seemed no longer conflicted about killing people. Sam admitted that he wasn’t behaving like himself any more, but said that he had no choice but to change, because the only way for him to survive, keep going, and fight the war alone after Dean died would be if he became more like Dean. The brothers had no chance to deal with that revelation before Dean doubled over in sudden agony, coughing and choking on blood. Unable to break the attack spell by finding and destroying its hex bag, Sam grabbed the Colt and the Impala and drove to the house where the coven met, bursting in with gun drawn.
Demanding that they stop the spell and free his brother, Sam was met by a display of incredulous innocence on the part of the witches. Realizing that only two of the three women had experienced the incredible good fortune that had cued Sam in to knowing they were in the coven, he guessed that the third woman, Tammi, was actually hosting the demon controlling the coven, and focused on her. She admitted it, and when she callously observed that it was too late for Dean, Sam pulled the trigger, only to see the bullet stop in midair before her upraised hand. She pinned him up against the wall while she dealt with the other two witches, killing one and frightening the other into terrified, appalled silence at the realization that she’d sold her soul. Tammi gloated over Sam, telling him that there was a new leader rising in the west, someone who would tear the world apart, a demon who wanted him dead, and she started to crush him slowly into and through the wall, enjoying the experience.
But Dean wasn’t dead. Ruby broke in moments after Sam left, hauled Dean up, and poured something down his throat that neutralized the spell. Dean charged into the house as Tammi started to crush Sam, only to wind up also pinned by Tammi as Ruby walked in behind him. Tammi recognized her, and Ruby begged Tammi to take her back, saying she’d brought the Winchesters as a gift. Once she got close, however, Ruby tried to stab Tammi with her demon-killing blade, but Tammi disarmed her. Tammi decisively got the upper hand in the fight, revealing along the way that Ruby had once been human, that she, like the modern housewives, had been a witch who had sold her soul to Tammi centuries before. Tammi began a chant to send Ruby’s soul back to Hell, only to be distracted from both her chanting and her telekinetic hold on the Winchesters by a coughing fit that ended with blood and hatpins in her hand and her realization that the last witch, in her own desperate rebellion, had cast an attack spell. Tammi stopped the witch’s heart, killing her, but forgot in the moment the more dangerous foes. Dean stabbed her to death with Ruby’s dagger.
Afterward, outside the motel, Ruby appeared to Dean alone and confirmed his fear that when he died and went to Hell, he would also eventually become a demon, even if it took centuries of torment to burn his humanity away. She agreed that there was no way to save Dean from his deal, and admitted lying to Sam about it because she had to get Sam to talk to her. Finally she told Dean that he had to help her get Sam ready for life without Dean, to make him hard enough to fight the war on his own. When he asked why she wanted them to win, she said it was because she wasn’t like the others; she remembered what it was like to be human.
Commentary and Meta Analysis
That’s what Hell is – forgetting what you are. Every Hell-bound soul, every one, turns into something else. Turns you into us, so, yeah – yeah, you can count on it.
Ruby’s line to Dean near the end of this episode may have been the scariest thing I’ve heard this season. And it’s scary not only for what it portends will happen to Dean when his time is up, but because of what is happening to Sam right now. Between Ruby’s prodding, his own fears, and his growing despair at being unable to find a way out of Dean’s deal, Sam has begun deliberately forgetting who he is, in order to build the Sam that he thinks he needs to become to be able to walk the war road, alone. Dean may be going to Hell when he dies because of the choice he made to save Sam, but by Ruby’s definition, Sam is going to Hell while he’s still alive, right now. He’s turning into something else. That is particularly heartbreaking when you remember how desperately afraid he was all last season about becoming something that he wasn’t. He was so terrified of becoming evil that he forced Dean to promise to kill him if he became something other than himself. Now he’s made the deliberate choice to change, but with the conscious, positive direction that he intends to change into the mirror of his older brother.
What he sees in that mirror, however, may not be the truth. Sam is adopting Dean’s decisiveness, his willingness to make hard choices and act without hesitation, but in doing so he’s overlooking the crucial role that he himself has played in Dean’s decisionmaking: Conscience. Sam has been Dean’s moderating force, prompting him to look past appearances and make morally defensible choices. Choosing to help the vampires in Bloodlust, not to kill Duane in Croatoan, and not to kill the wrong Sherrie in Nightshifter, for example, were all decisions that Dean based on input from Sam. If Sam insists on making himself into a version of his older brother in order to survive and keep fighting, who or what will serve as his sounding board and conscience, to keep him from making mistakes he would bitterly regret? And without Sam providing the essential counterbalance he always did in the past, will Dean have confidence that the hard choices he’s making now are the right ones?
The revelation that most if not all demons were once human souls who wound up in Hell was a brutal twist. There may be debate about whether or not this is true – after all, demons lie – but I believe that it is. The irony was not lost on me, that this is the second time that Dean has been confronted with becoming after death something that he would hate, something that his family would hunt. He doesn’t remember what happened with Tessa the Reaper in In My Time of Dying, when he was told he could either die and move on or become an angry spirit like the ones he hunted, and the Yellow-Eyed Demon intervened before he could announce his choice then, but I have always believed that Dean had resolved to die rather than become something his father and brother would have had to hunt and destroy. And I believe that now, facing the certainty of becoming a demon, he will finally have the incentive to search for a way to avoid dying and going to Hell because of his deal. He’ll never regret that he brought Sammy back, and he’d be willing to die and endure torment to know that his brother was well – but to be transformed into a demon is a thought as unbearable to him as it was to Sam last season.
That said, the deal is looking harder to break all the time. I never believed Ruby when she said she could help; I always thought she was stringing Sam along. Having her admit it is small satisfaction as the days go by and Dean’s time gets short, however. I’m wondering if there may be only two options: to kill the demon who holds Dean’s contract – perhaps the “new leader rising in the west?” – in order to void the contract by terminating the other principal; or to let the contract be fulfilled, but only momentarily and on pre-defined Winchester terms, perhaps by stopping and then restarting Dean’s heart. I could see Sam arguing with his lawyer soul that there was nothing in the contract about Dean staying in Hell for eternity; only that he would die and go there. It’s clearly Hell’s own problem if those confined there manage to escape. Look at John in All Hell Breaks Loose, Part 2, for example. He made basically the same deal as Dean, but when a gate opened, he managed to escape and save his sons, and the last we saw of him, he clearly wasn’t going back down into the pit. The trick there would be dying and still having a viable body to come back to, because I would never see Dean possessing someone else.
Ruby and her nature provide more grist for the speculation mill. Again, she may be lying when she maintains that she wants the Winchesters (and thus presumably humans) to win the demon war, and that she desires it because she’s different from other demons; she may instead be hoping to use the Winchesters to eliminate competition that she would otherwise have for the demon ruler slot. We probably won’t know that one for certain until the very end of the show, since I would suspect that the demon war will be the overarching story line.
But if she’s telling the truth about what she is and how she feels, many more speculative doors open. Why is Ruby different from other demons? Why does she remember her humanity, even though she died and went to Hell centuries ago? Does it make a difference how someone ends up in Hell? I could posit that people who sold their souls for power and advantage are the norm, but that people who did it for nobler motives might be less corruptible. We still don’t know why Ruby became a witch and sold her soul through the practice; only that it happened during the Plague years. What if Ruby’s case was not all that different from Dean’s, and she had looked for whatever way she could find to save someone she loved from a hideous death? She was clearly transmuted over time into something not human – she has demonic strength and the ability to come and go without the limitations of physics – and she behaves as a demon in having taken possession of an innocent human host, but perhaps she is looking for a way out. Maybe there’s redemptive hope for one otherwise damned who fought on the side of the angels; maybe that’s what Ruby is truly after. Only time will tell.
The rise of the new big bad certainly isn’t unexpected news; we’ve been waiting to see what would emerge from the leadership chaos of Azazel’s death and Sam’s adamant refusal to accept his status as Azazel’s chosen. That he – or she, or it – would want to see Sam taken entirely off the board to avoid any confusion or future potential for challenge is also anticipated. How he will go about it, however, is something we don’t yet know. Although Tammi said that she and others had been looking for Sam, they don’t seem to have been particularly effective about it, especially when compared to Ruby, who seemed able to find Sam at will; was Ruby gifted, empowered by her possibly better nature, or just better motivated? Other demons we’ve encountered seemed more bent on having a good time with their newfound freedom than on consolidating their position, assembling an army, or targeting the leaders among their opposition. If indeed there is a new leader consolidating his position, then the next step we might expect to see would be a change in demon activity to improve coordination, with the freed demons being brought to heel, and to neutralize specific targets. To me, that suggests that the hunters – including our boys, Bobby, Ellen, and the other survivors we’ve rarely heard mentioned – would become the hunted, with concerted demon attacks being directed deliberately against them. Again, we’ll just have to wait and see.
Tammi’s ability to deal with the Colt, while dismaying, was not unexpected. The Yellow-Eyed Demon wasn’t particularly afraid when John summoned him in In My Time of Dying, even though John had the Colt in hand; Azazel seemed reasonably confident that he could avoid that one last bullet, had John chosen to try taking the shot. While bullets from the Colt can kill anything, they have to hit, first, and it appears that the Colt’s weakness is that a forewarned demon can use its telekinetic and other beyond-mortal-physics abilities to prevent that from happening. I always thought that it was surprise that killed Azazel: distracted by John, it lost hold of Dean and fatally underestimated him, and the moments that it took for Azazel to repossess its host body were enough for Dean to lift and aim the Colt. Azazel’s realization of the danger came too late and as too much of an astonishment for him even to try to avoid it. What the experience with Tammi warns, however, is that the Colt can’t be relied upon as the silver bullet solution to demons, if you’ll pardon the expression; it’s not all-powerful or a guarantee of a win.
What the boys really need is a way to counteract that demonic telekinesis trick. It’s hard to do anything when your opponent can plaster you to the wall. I haven’t figured a way around that yet.
I don’t seem to have many answers to the questions that this show raised. What I can say, however, is that this episode in particular provided much nourishing food for thought.
The gory teaser was worthy of The X-Files, as was the maggot-burger. Never eat during horror shows! The return of classic rock through “Every Rose Has Its Thorn” by Poison and the wild, as-old-as-I-am “I Put a Spell on You” by Screamin’ Joe Hawkins was very welcome. The sensitivity of radios in the show to mood and supernatural phenomena (“Cold As Ice” coming on in No Exit; “House of the Rising Sun” in Roadkill; and “I Shall Not Be Moved” in The Magnificent Seven, just to mention a few!) has me looking sideways these days at my sometimes seemingly psychic iPod when the random shuffle tosses up the perfect tune ...
I don’t have many production notes this time out, but there are a few regrettably critical ones I may as well get out of the way. I’m still bothered by the third season’s brightness and color saturation. The show has lost much of the unique look that the first two seasons had, and nighttime scenes – such as Ruby stopping the Impala on the road, or Sam’s confrontation with the Crossroads Demon in Bedtime Stories – are simply distractingly bright, too light to be real. Someone who’s only seen season three episodes wouldn’t realize how much the lighting and color cues in season two’s What Is and What Should Never Be truly reinforced that Dean’s fantasy world wasn’t real, because all of this season seems colored and lit like the fantasy rather than the dark, moody, desaturated appearance given to the show’s earlier reality. (This season had better not turn out to have been a djinn-induced dream …)
There are also two little bits involving Katie Cassidy’s take on Ruby that irritated to the point I felt I had to mention them. The first is – does Ruby only know one way to stand? That arms-crossed, legs-apart pose is exactly the same every time we see her. It reminds me of high school drama, when I didn’t know what to do with my arms unless I had props in my hands. Hmm, maybe we’re supposed to sense that Ruby hasn’t fully settled into a human body again yet. Yeah, that must be it. And the ambivalence of the delivery on one of her lines to Dean (Look at you. Trying to be all stoic. It’s heartbreaking.) is such that I can’t figure out what she intended – sarcasm, or genuine feeling. While achieving bewildering ambivalence may be the goal of a character, I didn’t get the sense that even Katie knew what emotion Ruby was intending to project.
I have three more nit-picks, hardly worth mentioning, but I’m on a roll. One was on the choreography of the demon fight. Someone who knows and uses knives as Ruby does would try a quick surprise attack by stabbing up from underneath, not telegraphing the move with a whole-arm overhead the way she did with Tammi. No wonder Tammi stopped the blow so effortlessly. My second nit-pick was just with Sam’s search for the hex bag in the motel room. Slicing open the mattress? It was dramatic, but looking under, over, and around would have made more sense than that move did, unless the boys have knowledge that a hex bag could be translocated into an intact object! And finally, did Sam not notice the motel lights flickering at the end?
But enough with the criticism, because there were more wonderful points. I loved the under-the-glass-coffee-table shots at the dead witch’s house (thank you, Bobby Singer!), and Dean checking out the dead witch with his gun barrel, not his hands. The script had a lot of Ben Edlund goodness, although less than his usual offbeat humor. The humor this time mostly came out in the wacky forms of gruesome death and in Dean’s sympathy for the dead rabbit.
As is always the case with Supernatural, the very best moments came from the boys, both together and alone. The scene in the motel where Sam told Dean that he was changing into Dean to be able to fight after Dean was gone was heartbreaking. We haven’t seen much of what we know has been Sam’s constant desperate search for a way to save his brother, but the frustration and growing despair of not being able to find anything is clear. In the past three episodes particularly, we’ve seen Sam having to accept more and more that he may not be able to save Dean; that his brother may die and go to Hell no matter how hard Sam tries to prevent it, and that thought is wearing him down. Jared Padalecki has been doing a wonderful job of conveying all of that. The expression on Sam’s face when Dean killed Tammi – a killing even more brutal than Sam’s execution of Jake in All Hell Breaks Loose, Part 2 – showed the reservations that Sam still has about how far he would have to go to become his brother in his own mind.
Jensen Ackles did his usual lovely job with Dean. The closing scene with Ruby was so very understated; Dean wouldn’t show the depth of his feelings to Ruby, and watching his eyes shutter and his face close every time he realized that she had turned to look at him was magic. He can do more with a flicker of eyes than others can with histrionics. Dean’s fear, his realization that one slim hope had been closed off, and his attempt to stay strong despite it all embodied precisely what made me love this character in the first place. And one last “thank you” to Bobby Singer, for that achingly lonely final crane shot of Dean and the Impala in the empty parking lot.
What will our boys change into, as the war heats up? May they never forget themselves in the process.