3.11 Mystery Spot: Dean’s Your Weakness. The Bad Guys Know It, Too.
Tuesday’s nightmare trick:
Over and over again,
Watch your brother die.
Investigating the disappearance of a man from a reputed “mystery spot” in Broward County, Florida, the boys checked out the tourist trap after hours on Tuesday, but things went horribly wrong when the panicked owner unintentionally shot Dean, who died in Sam’s arms. Sam woke up immediately afterward to discover Dean alive and the day apparently repeating again. When Dean suggested their after-hours visit, Sam hurriedly advocated an immediate one instead, and Dean agreed – only to be hit and killed by a speeding car. And the day reset again.
Sam lived through over a hundred repetitions of Tuesday, trying with ever increasing desperation to save Dean, only to see him die a hundred different ways while everything else about the day and the other people in it always remained exactly the same. Starting with the third repetition of the day, he told Dean what was going on, and although Dean didn’t really believe him, he tried to help, always reassuring him that together they could figure it out. The truth emerged after Dean realized that a woman who bumped into him every day was the daughter of the missing man they were tracking when it all began. Sam, investigating the man, learned that he was a pompous, self-publicizing debunker of mysterious phenomena, and Dean observed that he seemed to have gotten his poetic just desserts by disappearing in one himself. Hard on the heels of that observation, Sam realized that a businessman who was always in the diner with them at breakfast had ordered strawberry syrup instead of maple, and that no one and nothing in the diner ever changed, except him – and on that realization, the day reset again, this time without Dean having died.
Waking to the certainty that he had solved the mystery, Sam went to the diner with a wooden stake hidden in a bag. Followed the businessman out, he threatened the man with the stake, explaining his deduction that the man had to be a Trickster god – and the man morphed under his hands into the very Trickster who had bedeviled them in Tall Tales. The Trickster said that killing Dean wasn’t the point of the exercise; that the joke was on Sam, never figuring out that he couldn’t save his brother. Noting that Sam really couldn’t take a joke, the Trickster promised that they would wake up on Wednesday and be out of the loop. Sam, still angry and obsessed, said it would be easier just to kill the Trickster, but the Trickster said that couldn’t be allowed, and snapped his fingers …
And Sam woke up on Wednesday, to different music on the radio and Dean brushing his teeth rather than tying his boot. Relieved and spooked in equal measure, Sam pushed for them to leave without eating breakfast. Dean went downstairs to load the car while Sam got dressed and packed, and was shot during a robbery attempt by the out-of-work guy from the diner. As had happened on every Tuesday, Dean died – but this time, Sam didn’t wake up. And Dean stayed dead.
A montage of scenes showed Sam’s life from that point on through several months into the future, in which Sam became a ruthless hunter methodically and mechanically tracking down and killing demons, vampires, and anything else that crossed his path, treating his own wounds, robotically executing his routines, and not answering phone calls from Bobby while maintaining his own obsessive hunt for the Trickster.
In his last phone call, Bobby reported having found the Trickster, and Sam met Bobby at the Broward County mystery spot, the last place where the Trickster was known to have worked his magic. Bobby said that he had found a ritual that would summon the Trickster, but that it needed a gallon of fresh blood to work and had to happen that night. When Sam started out to find a person to kill, Bobby protested, and told Sam that it would be better if Sam killed him rather than an innocent, maintaining that Sam and Dean were the closest thing to family that he had, that while he was old and nearing the end of his trail, Sam could keep on saving people, but that he needed Dean. Sam agreed, but exchanged Bobby’s dagger for a wooden stake before stabbing him through the heart, saying that Bobby wasn’t Bobby, but the Trickster. Looking down at the dead body, Sam started questioning, finally wondering brokenly if he’d actually made a mistake and killed his friend … and the body disappeared, the stake flying through the air into the Trickster’s hand.
The Trickster confirmed that he’d just been playing with Sam. Sam pleaded with him to bring back Dean, but the Trickster maintained that Dean was dead and in Hell. As Sam continued to beg for his brother, the Trickster observed that he was trying to teach Sam a lesson, that the brothers constantly sacrificing themselves for each other led to nothing good. He warned Sam that Dean was his weakness, and that the bad guys knew it, that this would be the death of him, and that – like it or not – this was what life would be like without Dean. Sam continued to beg him to return them to before all this had happened, and the Trickster made his own decision.
And Sam awoke to Wednesday, and Dean brushing his teeth. In an excess of emotion, Sam hugged his brother, confessing that he’d experienced enough Tuesdays. Dean remembered only that Sam had been whacked out on Tuesday, and that they’d encountered the Trickster. Sam insisted on leaving town immediately, but wouldn’t allow Dean to go down to pack the car alone. Heading out the door, Dean observed that Sam didn’t look good, and asked if anything else had happened; Sam said only that he’d had a really weird dream, and followed him out.
This obsession to save Dean? The way you two keep sacrificing yourselves for each other? Nothing good comes out of it. Just blood and pain. Dean’s your weakness. The bad guys know it, too. It’s gonna be the death of you, Sam. Sometimes, you just gotta let people go. … And like it or not, this is what life’s gonna be like without him.
My take on the Trickster is that he actually is on the boys’ side when it comes down to the demon wars. After all, humans and human follies are his playground, and his world would be much less fun if demons took over the planet. I don’t think he wants that, and opposing the demons directly would take effort and not be fun, so he has a vested interest in helping the Winchesters win. He’s not a demon himself, nor inherently evil. His practical jokes tend to have a cruel edge, but they aren’t necessarily fatal. They’re designed to appeal to the self-serving weaknesses in people, but people who choose wisely and resist the bait can emerge unscathed. He also doesn’t go after folk who are truly innocent. I believe that the Trickster genuinely likes the boys, as he claimed back in Tall Tales. They aren’t his customary prey because they truly care for each other and for other people, they’re funny, and they can take a joke even when it’s on them – and I think all of that factored into his decision back then to let them go believing they’d won their contest with him.
I’d guess the Trickster started his game with the Winchesters purely for fun and a little payback, since they turned up so conveniently on his doorstep, but I think it rapidly became something more focused and serious. Killing Dean over and over in steadily more absurd ways really was funny from the Trickster’s perspective, and even we could appreciate the humor as long as we knew it wasn’t permanent, wasn’t real. Dean himself could appreciate the joke and why the Trickster would find that part of it funny; just look at him asking Sam if his death-by-speeding-car had been cool, like in the movies. What made it not funny at all, however, was the emotional impact it had on Sam. But the very fact that Sam couldn’t step back from the situation and come to realize how pointedly contrived it all was pointed up his loss of perspective and his need to shore up his emotional defenses against enemies who would exploit them in earnest.
I think that the Trickster gave Sam several lessons to learn, all of them important ones. Judging from the expression on his face at the end of the episode, I think Sam has realized all of them, but how that will affect his actions remains to be seen. I’ll explore each of them separately.
Focusing on saving Dean blinds you to the true picture. The Trickster’s prank exposed a basic weakness in Sam’s heart/mind interaction, because it proved that when Sam’s focus is fixated on saving Dean, he starts thinking linearly and ignores what could be vital information simply because it doesn’t seem directly related to saving Dean.
From the moment Dean died and came back the first time, Sam stopped investigating the case that had brought them to Broward County. It wasn’t until a hundred Tuesdays later, when Dean deliberately broke pattern to speak to the girl who bumped into him on the street and learned that she was the missing man’s daughter, that Sam went back to hunter basics and started investigating the first victim for clues as to how his disappearance might be related to the strangeness in which the brothers were trapped. Even then, the obsessive nature of his research prevented him from thinking about what his reaction to the missing man’s writings suggested about the nature of what had happened to him. It took Dean – who shares some of the Trickster’s own sense of humor – to note that the disappearance at a mystery spot of someone so self-proclaimed as a debunker of mysteries smacked of just desserts, before Sam stopped to think of whose modus operandi that would fit.
The clues to how to stop the cycle of Dean’s deaths and get out of the joke were always there, waiting to be discovered along with the Trickster himself. Sam just never looked at them, because they didn’t seem to lie along the straight line to saving Dean. By focusing on saving Dean, Sam made it impossible for him actually to save Dean, because he failed to look far enough to see what was really happening.
It’s going to be the death of you. I think it was Sam’s obvious failure to get the point of the first joke – that his focus on saving Dean had totally blinded him to realizing the truth of the situation – that made the Trickster decide to up the ante by giving Sam his deadly Wednesday and all the days that followed it. Seeing Dean die again on Wednesday, when he should have been safe, tipped Sam into an obsessive revenge path that made John’s similar reaction to Mary’s death pale by comparison. We saw Sam reduced to a mechanical, robotic hunting machine fueled only by his grim determination to get his brother back or get his own revenge on the Trickster. No life, no joy, no laughter, no caring, no love, no friendship, no indulgence in bittersweet memories, no acknowledgment of pain, no human impulses at all: the Sam that we and Dean know and love didn’t exist any more. His flat willingness to kill a random innocent person to get the blood for the ritual to summon the Trickster demonstrated graphically how far he had gone. If he’d been able to get Dean back, his brother wouldn’t even have known him any more, and would have been horrified at the price.
For all intents and purposes, Sam was dead. His body moved and his mind computed, but his soul was empty. Terminator-Sam was less human than demon-possessed Sam. Nothing got through to him until he’d killed Trickster Bobby and then faced the moments of uncertainty that finally made him wonder if he’d made a mistake and actually killed the real Bobby, misled by his own obsession. And the worst thing was that he had done it all to himself through the choices he made after Dean died.
The scariest thing for us – and now, hopefully, for Sam – is the realization that he’s already taken a few steps down that path by forcing himself to make hard choices and do brutal things without hesitation or much remorse, all in his attempts to save Dean or face living without him. Part of that nightmare future is already here, but now Sam knows it; the question now becomes whether having seen that future, he’ll make different personal choices in order to avoid the soulless suicide of it.
Dean’s your weakness. The bad guys know it, too. The Trickster isn’t the only one to have realized that the way to make Sam dance to a specific tune is to pull the strings on Dean. Look at Ruby, dangling her non-existent ability to help save Dean in front of Sam’s nose in order to get him to talk and cooperate with her. Dean realized it back at the beginning of Bad Day at Black Rock and used virtually the same words (She knows what your weakness is – it’s me!) to Sam even before he learned from Ruby that she doesn’t know any way to save him.
We still don’t truly know what Ruby ultimately wants, since we already know from what she did to Sam that we can’t trust anything she says. I’m not reassured by what Ruby told Dean at the end of Malleus Maleficarum, that what Dean had done in knifing Tammi was pretty tough, that Sam wasn’t there yet, and that she wanted Dean to help her get Sam ready for life without him, to fight the war on his own. In retrospect, it sounds as if Ruby wants Sam to become what the Trickster’s future drew from him, a ruthless machine with no brother by his side, willing to do whatever it would take to achieve his ends.
However hard it may be, the only way that Sam can fight effectively is if he makes it impossible for anyone to manipulate him through his love and need for his brother. He can’t allow the enemy to predict his behavior or dictate his course by threatening or killing Dean. If Sam lets Dean’s loss or the threat of Dean’s loss destroy him, the bad guys win.
The corollary, of course, is that Sam is Dean’s weakness, and Dean did exactly what Sam must avoid when he sought out the Crossroads Demon after Sam’s death. The Demon knew that Dean would give anything to have Sam back, and she used that knowledge to broker the deal for Dean’s own self-damnation. Only lately has Dean come to realize the full price he will pay: that barring a miracle, he will eventually become what he fights, what he hates, and wreak on people the very destruction that he currently tries to prevent. The Trickster’s lesson for Sam is that he has to learn from Dean’s experience, and not go the same way.
You can’t save your brother. Sometimes, you just gotta let people go. This one is a killer, but ultimately, it’s true. Sooner or later, we all die, and we all die alone. We can take steps to avoid dangers and rescue each other, but eventually the end comes, and we can’t change that – not without a whole new rash of unacceptable consequences. In our real, non-Supernatural world, we sometimes try to cling to someone even when life and soul are effectively gone; medical science can keep a body breathing and nourished, but that doesn’t mean the person we loved is alive in it. Sometimes, the hardest thing to do is to let go, and to not blame ourselves for failing to save the person we lost.
At the same time, however, letting go can sometimes be the way to hold on. Sometimes the only way to free ourselves to take action is to accept at the outset that we might fail and lose the thing we most want. Think of the heartbreak in a kidnapping or hostage situation, when the choice has to be made concerning whether to attempt a rescue or not. An attempt always carries with it the chance of a backfire, of the loss of exactly what the rescue would be intended to achieve; but without the attempt, survival still isn’t assured. Do you take the chance and hope for the best, or let your emotions freeze you in place, helpless to act? The choice is yours, but the only way to make it is to accept all the potential consequences. Dean and Sam face a similar dilemma, with a similar choice. Does Dean try to free himself from his deal, and take the chance that Sam will die? Does Sam turn his attention away from saving Dean to go for broke against the demons, and take the chance that by winning in the bigger fight, he might either lose his brother or create the chance to save him? For both of them, it’s Hobson’s choice, do it or not, and even a right guess has no guarantee of happiness.
Sam has Dean’s example to show the dangers and unintended consequences of holding on. At the same time, both boys know that John escaped Hell intact even after having made a similar deal, so life is not without hope. What choice Sam will make, I think even he doesn’t yet know. But unlike Dean, he has the advantage of foreknowledge to inform his choice, and because of that, the realization that he doesn’t have to choose precisely the same way he did in the Trickster experience of his potential future without Dean.
And one last thought on this particular lesson. Much depends on the emphasis you put on the sentence, You can’t save him. If the emphasis is on you, the implication is that someone else could do the saving.
The Trickster didn’t have to release Sam from his world-weaving. He didn’t have to give Dean back to Sam. None of what happened was real to anyone but Sam; no one remembers any of it, except Sam, who remembers it all, and who hasn’t told Dean the worst of it, about what happened when the Tuesdays stopped and Dean still died, and Sam went into his own Hell of revenge.
What might the Trickster choose to do, if Sam takes his lessons to heart? Could the Trickster save Dean, if Sam can’t? If anyone has the power, it would seem that he would. Would he choose to?
I have to start this off with a gloating personal note: I really enjoyed seeing the show shooting in Steveston again, with the repeated Dean and Sam walk-and-talk down Moncton Street, a street I’ve walked down myself. The mobile potted palm and the sunny shooting weather they had most of the time helped to sell the location as being in Florida, although I did have to chuckle at the death-by-golden-retriever-Tuesday when rain on location gave the lie to Sam saying that nothing ever changed, and at the air being so cold when Sam and Dean went after the disguised Trickster that their breath was visible! Ah, the joys of shooting on location and having to meet the schedule, no matter what the weather does to you …
Everything about this episode makes me marvel. The balance was adroit and everything fit. The music was great, from the delightful use of Asia’s “Heat of the Moment” and Huey Lewis and the News’ “Back in Time” through the techno-beat of the original score by Jay Gruska underlying Sam’s descent into mechanical precision. I loved it all.
The script by Jeremy Carver was crisp and tight, punching every button of humor and pathos, driving forward clearly through the selected repetition of Tuesday moments with a sure hand on the characters of both brothers, and illuminating Sam’s descent after Dean’s death. I am extraordinarily glad that Jeremy joined the writing team this year, and hope to see more of his work next season as well. I loved the way that he used the Groundhog Day device of repeated time to actually drive Sam’s character development, and the decision – likely a combination of writer and director – to show Sam’s descent into robotic obsession purely through visuals, with no dialogue except Bobby’s one-sided voiceovers.
Kim Manners remains my favorite Supernatural director. The repeated walk-and-talk scenes with Sam and Dean were irresistible, and displayed a subtle mastery of timing as all the pieces of that walk repeated with clockwork precision. The choreographed scenes in the diner were priceless, as were the glimpses into the brothers’ morning routines. And finally, Kim has a positive gift for drawing real emotion from his actors. Dean’s first and last deaths in particular were heartbreaking, especially in what they did to Sam. For actors to throw themselves so totally into the moment, they have to trust their director. Kim shines. I’m also betting that he designed the brilliant (and cost-saving!) editorial montage of scenes from past episodes that were cut with new the footage to provide the chilling look at Sam on the hunt after Dean’s Wednesday death. The new and the old tied together with Bobby’s phone call voiceovers were convincing and utterly terrifying. The careful differences in the life details between Sam with Dean and Sam without Dean were striking, illustrating on every level just how dramatically Sam had changed without the need for words.
Together with praise for the writer and director, this is also a shout-out to the entire production design and props crew, because their attention to detail really helped sell the entire concept. The precision of placement in the Tuesday motel room and the diner spoke to careful notes and lots of production continuity photos! Seeing the Impala’s trunk converted from Dean’s casual structure to Sam’s rigidly organized recreation of John’s arsenal; noting the precise, ruler-straight regimentation of the research material posted on the post-death motel walls; observing the persnickety gun-cleaning kit that replaced Dean’s habit of spreading guns and tools on every surface; even seeing the bed going from rumpled to straight and the toothpaste tube gone from messy to neat – every physical set detail eloquently conveyed Sam’s transformation from little brother into Terminator Sam. The tacky motel room designers crafted another winner with the flamingo-obsessed Tuesday room, and even threw in the running gag of the Magic Fingers for Dean. All the supporting actors did a great job with the repetition of the day.
And what can I possibly say about Jared Padalecki and Jensen Ackles? It’s a shame that awards shows snub genre series, because these two actors are giving us their hearts. I can’t think of any other pair of actors who could have delivered so perfectly on the diner scene with their precisely unified dialogue! I want to see the outtakes …
Jared’s Sam ran the gamut from little brother irritation with his big brother’s messy habits (shades of Tall Tales, for anyone who was particularly alert!) to utter and absolute shock and grief over Dean’s sudden and meaningless death, through confusion, fear, worry, frustration, exhaustion, abject depression, and despair. In an incredible turn, he gave us Sam’s transformation into a ruthless machine with a thousand-yard stare, and then showed him breaking down back into the grieving, bereft little brother begging to have his brother back. When Sam woke up the last time to discover Dean alive, his driven stalk across the room and his fierce hug said more than words about his love and his need. Jared owned this episode.
Jensen did a lovely job supporting Jared with his rendition of Dean. Dean clearly couldn’t quite believe what Sam was telling him, but he nonetheless threw himself into doing whatever his brother needed from him, and Jensen’s face and body conveyed both the uncertainty and the decision simultaneously. He nailed making every Tuesday both exactly the same and yet totally fresh and new for Dean. He made Dean’s first death in particular dreadfully, heartbreakingly real. And I particularly loved his subtle Dean responses in the final scene, first to the uncharacteristic hug and finally to the expression on Sam’s face, realizing not only how traumatized Sam was over repeatedly seeing him die, but that there was something more still unspoken.
Dean and Sam may be each other’s weaknesses, but they are also each other’s strengths. Trickster-Bobby spoke for both of them when he told Sam, You need your brother. The trick for both of them will be finding a way to prevent that need from being used against them. Now, they have more incentive than ever.