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3.12 Jus in Bello: If That’s How You Win Wars, Then I Don’t Wanna Win

3.12 Jus in Bello: If That’s How You Win Wars, Then I Don’t Wanna Win

 

What price victory?

When demons target the boys,

Allies pay the price. 

 

Episode Summary

 

Tracking Bela and the Colt to the small town of Monument, Colorado, the Winchester brothers found that Bela had laid a trap for them, alerting the FBI to their whereabouts. FBI Special Agent Victor Henriksen took great delight in arresting them, and took over the local jail to hold them until he could arrange secure transport to the SuperMax prison in Nevada. Henriksen’s boss, FBI Deputy Director Steven Groves, was so eager to see them caught that he flew out himself with a chopper to transport them. But when Groves arrived to inspect his catch, the brothers learned that he had been possessed by a demon; visiting them alone, he pulled a silenced pistol and shot Dean, then escaped Sam’s half-finished exorcism, abandoning Groves’ dead body to flee through an air vent. Not believing the brother’s tale that Groves had been possessed, Henriksen decided to take the chopper and move them immediately, but when the pilot didn’t respond to a radio call, Henriksen’s partner Reidy went outside to check, only to discover that the pilot and all four of the local cops who had been on guard were dead, their throats cut. No sooner had he reported in than the chopper exploded, and one of the dead cops, with demon black eyes, confronted and killed him. Inside the police station, the power went out and the phones died, and Henriksen realized that they were under siege.

 

Stuck in a cell, realizing that the demons were apparently coming for them and could enter the station in the guise of anyone, the brothers had few resources. Sam persuaded the devout young secretary, Nancy, to bring a towel to help stanch Dean’s bleeding shoulder, and grabbed her when she approached the bars, managing to get her rosary as well as the towel before the one remaining deputy, Amici, responded to her screams and warned them not to try anything further. A little while later, when Sheriff Dodd opened the cell, saying that he meant to take the boys and make a run for Boulder, Henriksen shot him. Instantly understanding that Henriksen had been possessed, Dean and Sam overpowered Henriksen and got his gun. Dean held Amici at bay while Sam proceeded to dunk Henriksen’s head in the toilet, which they’d blessed into holy water with the help of the rosary, and to race through an exorcism to expel the demon. Even as it was being dismissed, the demon gloated that it was too late, that it had already summoned the others; then Sam completed the exorcism, and the demon was driven out.

 

Finally understanding first-hand that everything the Winchesters had said was true, Henriksen lost no time in freeing the brothers and asking them for help. Road salt served to secure the windows and doors, and the brothers spray-painted devil’s traps on the floors inside the doors and windows. Dean dared a trip outside to ransack the Impala’s trunk for weapons and protective amulets, and raced back inside even as a cloud of demons descended on the station. Unable to enter, the demons instead possessed townspeople. Amici, peering out through a window, inadvertently broke the salt line protecting it, and Ruby, having fought her way through the other demons, broke through the glass and landed in one of the traps. Released by Sam, who re-secured the window salt, she demanded the Colt. When she learned it had been stolen, she announced that the only other way she knew to get them out alive would be to do a witchcraft spell that would vaporize all demons within a mile, herself included. Learning that the spell would require cutting out the heart of virginal Nancy, Dean and Henriksen flatly refused, even though Nancy was willing to die to save her possessed friends and Sam was listening to Ruby. Dean proposed an alternative plan, a desperate gambit to sucker the demons into the station, keep them occupied with fighting, trap them inside with salt, and broadcast a recorded exorcism through the public address system to send all of them back to Hell. Protesting that it would never work, and that she was disappointed in Sam, Ruby left them to their own devices – and Dean’s plan worked, although one demon escaped.

 

Afterward, Henriksen told the boys that he would report them officially dead, and let them go. Shortly after they left, while Nancy, Amici, and Henriksen were still cleaning up the shambles of the police station, a little girl turned up, asking after the Winchesters, and announced that she was Lilith – the name Ruby had revealed as the rising new leader of the demons. Lilith destroyed the police station and the people inside. Ruby turned up at the boys’ motel and told them to turn on the news. Watching their shock and grief at the news report of the purported gas main explosion, she castigated them for not having used her plan, taunting that for all their talk of humanity in war, Dean’s plan was the one that had produced the real body count. She gave them spell bags she said would throw Lilith off their trail for a little while, and then left, saying that next time, they would do things her way.

 

Commentary and Meta Analysis

 

Ruby was wrong. Dean was right. Morality is not a numbers game. Humanity matters. There are always choices, and some of them are always wrong. And some of them are right.

 

The moment I learned the name of this episode, I feared it, because I’ve studied history and international law. Jus in bello means justice in war, and names the theory defining the ethical principles of discrimination and proportionality governing moral human behavior in wartime. Discrimination concerns determining who are appropriate targets in war, while proportionality concerns how much force is morally appropriate to use. What scared me most of all was the realization that jus in bello describes human conflicts, where the parties on both sides are human. Even in human conflicts, those principles can and do fail; just witness the atrocities of terrorism and war visible in the world all around us. How much more likely would it be for humans, facing ruthless non-human opponents definitely not bound by human moral codes, to be tempted to abandon those codes themselves? If your opponents care nothing for discrimination and proportionality, considering any innocent fair game and no amount of force or viciousness excessive, how could you hope to fight or win unless you did the same? That was Ruby’s argument.

 

And I submit that Ruby’s argument was wrong.

 

Before I even get into the philosophical part of the discussion, let me address the factual one. Ruby accused the boys of having been responsible for the destruction that Lilith wreaked at the police station, blaming the murderous outcome on the boys’ choice to follow Dean’s plan rather than hers. Evidently referring to the one demon who had escaped, Ruby asserted that the boys didn’t know how to fight a battle, saying that in war you strike fast, kill all your opponents, and leave no one able to run back and report. Her implication was that, but for that one demon having escaped, the incident with Lilith wouldn’t have happened, and Amici, Henriksen, and others in the police station wouldn’t have died.

 

To which I say, hogwash. The outcome with Lilith would have been the same no matter which plan they had followed. Just think about it.

 

The very first demon to arrive at the police station, the one in Henriksen’s boss Groves, confirmed the presence of the boys. It abandoned its host voluntarily before Sam finished the exorcism, taunting them and then fleeing as smoke, and obviously summoned others. One suspects it had summoned them even before laying eyes on the boys, given the speed with which the first part of the response – the deaths of the four guard cops and the chopper pilot outside – took place. I suspect that this was the very same demon that later possessed Henriksen, who told Sam during that exorcism that it was already too late: that he had called the others to come. Ergo, Lilith already knew where the boys were; all the demons did. Lilith didn’t need any demon to escape the fight in order to tell her where to go. So that one demon managing to escape the mass exorcism would have had no impact at all on what happened afterward.

 

Nor would executing Ruby’s spell have caused anything to be different. Again, Lilith already knew where the boys were. The only way in which Ruby’s spell might have changed things – assuming it worked as advertised and wasn’t simply a ruse to get Sam to destroy himself by abandoning his humanity and acceding to the murder of an absolute innocent – would have been if Lilith herself had been within the one mile range of the spell, and we have absolutely no reason to believe she was that close. Nothing short of her own prior destruction would have prevented Lilith from doing what she did at the police station. Thus, Lilith’s body count wasn’t a result of the boys having followed Dean’s plan.

 

And what was Lilith’s body count, anyway? Yes, she killed Henriksen, Nancy, and Amici, no question. But every other person mentioned in the news broadcast as having died in the police station explosion had actually died before Lilith arrived, or was a fabricated death. According to the news announcer, the total was at least six police officers and personnel, including Sheriff Dodd and Nancy, three FBI agents, and two fugitives in custody – and we know that those two “fugitives in custody” were listed as dead only because Henriksen had already reported they were. The police officer total would have been made up by the guard officers whose throats were cut at the very beginning of the attack, along with Amici and Dodd; one assumes that all their bodies would still have been on the scene. None of the possessed civilians who had invaded the station evidently died: Henriksen and the boys were using holy water and non-fatal rock salt shot in the shotguns during the fight, and after the mass exorcism, the people who’d collapsed on the floor all stirred and got up. Most of them were gone even before the boys left. None of them were there when Lilith arrived.

 

I hope that, once they get over their first shock at what Lilith did, Dean and Sam think about everything they heard and saw, and realize that the guilt Ruby tried to put on them flat-out doesn’t fit. Unfortunately, all of the Winchesters have a tendency to blame themselves for things that aren’t their fault whenever innocent people are hurt, and their rational minds were already swamped by self-flagellating emotion when Ruby slammed them with the accusation of guilt. Even when those shoes don’t fit, the boys insist on wearing them.

 

And that brings me to Ruby. We still don’t know what her game is. We still don’t know her goal. She told Dean that, unlike most demons, she remembers how it felt to be human – but she’s still a demon. We know she professes to want Sam to be tough and ruthless, to be able to fight the war on his own, without Dean – but we don’t know what she wants  him to fight for, what she wants the outcome of the war to be. Not really. She said she’s been betting on Sam as her horse in the race – shades of the Yellow-Eyed Demon in that attitude – but we don’t know the prize she’s trying to win by riding him. She said she was willing to die in order to save his life, but since it never came to that, we don’t know it for the truth. I would submit, however, that everything we’ve seen suggests that following her lead would be a bad idea, especially for Sam.

 

Even when Ruby was human, her moral compass was obviously unreliable. All that we know about her is that she became a witch of the old school, black magic variety, who traded her soul to a demon for power. Maybe there was a noble reason for her to have done it, something similar to Dean having sold his soul for his brother’s life, but we don’t know that and have no reason to assume it. And now, there’s no disputing that she’s a demon. As such, she’s in no position to offer moral or ethical advice. Demons may have been human once, but they aren’t any more. Following a demon’s advice seems a fast road to becoming a demon yourself. It’s certainly not going to make you a better human.

 

Ruby seems bound and determined to force Sam to become a ruthless warrior, and to consider that a good thing. I don’t, Dean doesn’t, and neither should Sam. All last season, after having learned that the Demon had plans for him, Sam was afraid of his purported “destiny,” of possibly becoming something evil, something other than himself. With the Demon dead, he seems to be assuming that his “destiny” is moot, trusting that his psychic abilities are gone and that the Demon’s plans have been negated. At the same time, his determination to save Dean from his soul-selling deal has led him to justify becoming harder and colder, becoming faster to judge and act, and we’ve seen him sliding by inches down the slippery slope toward Ruby’s ruthless, lonely vision. That frightens me. In last week’s episode, Mystery Spot, we and Sam saw where that could lead – to Sam becoming a mechanical terminator as ruthless and inhuman as any demon.

 

And Ruby seems to want that. More, Ruby seems dead-set on achieving it. The depth and heat of her rage at his refusal to follow her lead makes me wonder. What would Ruby do, to take him there? How much of what happened at that police station, happened by Ruby’s design? Who slit the throats of the cops who were outside on guard, who all died so swiftly that none of them were able to raise the alarm, and who all died before the big demon army arrived? Who do we know, who carries a knife and uses it without hesitation? Was all of that a setup, intended to force Sam to take a decisive step away from his humanity by putting him in the way of overwhelming odds, and prompting him to accept a mathematical argument in favor of an immoral, soul-destroying choice? If they’d had the Colt, that easy demon-killer, how many innocent, possessed people would Ruby have convinced Sam to kill in the battle, without looking for alternative strategies? When it came down to the spell idea, killing one willing person in cold blood to save thirty more innocent souls sounded almost like a reasonable balance. The needs of the many outweighing the needs of the few, or the one. Serving the greater good. Making the hard choice.

 

And ceasing to be human, and true to themselves.

 

And this is where the philosophical holes in Ruby’s argument come in. She professed an accountant’s view of morality, of ethics – that the determinant of moral choice is how many lives you save, and that how you save them doesn’t matter, if you’re saving more than you take. Further, she professed that no moral code matters in war – that the only thing to do is to fight no-holds-barred until your enemies are dead and you win.

 

I would submit that all of that is wrong.

 

Moral and ethical choice lie with each of us. That our enemies may have no moral code does not absolve us of the need and duty to remain true to our own. If we abandon our code because it is inconvenient, because it is painful, or because it is costly, then we abandon ourselves. And it can’t be reduced to a simple numbers game, to some arbitrary ledger and balance sheet of lives saved and lives lost. What we choose to do, and how and why we do it, matter. Between them, Dean and Henriksen both said it: We do have choices. We don’t sacrifice people. We do that, we’re no better than them. Your choice is not a choice. That doesn’t mean that we throw away the rulebook and stop acting like humans! If that’s how you win wars, then I don’t wanna win. There are times when the price of physical survival is spiritual suicide, and that price is too high to pay; just ask Dean. Yet that’s exactly the price I see Ruby demanding from Sam.

 

The unacceptability of the equation wasn’t offset by Nancy’s willingness to be sacrificed, either. Yes, soldiers in wartime may choose to sacrifice themselves in an attempt to take out a stronghold of the other side, and in so doing save others of their comrades, and we call that noble. I would submit, however, that it’s something entirely different to agree to the deliberate murder of one of your own, and someone who’s an innocent, not a soldier for the cause, in order to use her death to kill your foes. The choice to kill your own for tactical advantage is abhorrent.

 

Dean’s alternative plan, desperate as it was, also was brilliant, and it worked. The boys accounted for thirty demons returned to Hell, all without killing anyone themselves. They saved thirty innocent hosts from possession – and, hopefully, from a possession short enough to have done no permanent damage. Clearly, they had a morally defensible choice that was also tactically and strategically sound. That was a masterstroke, and what Lilith did afterward does not detract from it in the least, no matter what Ruby claimed. It was a victory, and it was real. And I hate both Lilith and Ruby for devaluing it.

 

My parting thought on this concept is that this series has always been about choice, and that it is the choices the boys have made, not the things that have happened to them, that have always mattered the most. Choice isn’t easy, and the right choice isn’t always clear, but Sam and Dean, working together, have so far managed to take turns compensating for each other’s occasional weaknesses and make more ethical choices than wrong ones. Either one without the other can be prone to choosing badly, to making mistakes, but as long as they’re together, they can argue themselves into seeing the light.

 

Production Notes

 

I always trust Sera Gamble to open philosophical and emotional doors and then twist them off their hinges, and she definitely delivered again. I do wish she didn’t take such positive glee in killing off good characters, though; what hurt the most was losing Henriksen right on the heels of watching him learn the truth and unexpectedly bond with Dean. Please, Sera: can’t you occasionally leave someone alive?

 

Phil Sgriccia is one of the best go-to directors for action in Supernatural’s stable – just look at Nightmare and Nightshifter for other examples – and he never disappoints. He laid out the police station so carefully in his set-ups that you understood the relationship of all the rooms before the crazy action began and could follow the climactic fight through all of its phases. He used a lot of quick-cut, hand-held camera work to give real immediacy to the action. My only unfulfilled wish, knowing from interviews that he’s responsible for some of the great music cuts, was that we didn’t have any classic rock in the soundtrack, although we did get the hilarious shout-out to Bob Marley’s “I Shot the Sheriff.”

 

The guest stars were superb. I will truly miss Charles Malik Whitfield as Victor Henriksen; he made a potent adversary, and an even better and more nuanced friend. The scenes between Henriksen and Dean sparkled, from Henriksen needling Dean and Sam in the cell (Truth is, your Daddy brainwashed you with all that devil talk and no doubt touched you in the bad place.) to unexpectedly bonding with Dean as they loaded weapons (I’m right where you are. …  Imagine that.)  His silent guilt over his actions while possessed, revealed in his long look at the dead sheriff’s nameplate, felt very real. The single saddest thing about this episode is that Victor died just when he was ready to join the hunter world and be a true friend to the Winchesters. Aimee Garcia totally rocked virgin Nancy Fitzgerald, who managed to make even Dean respect a virgin’s choice to be one. And it was a treat to see Peter DeLuise in front of the cameras again as Steven Groves, after so much time behind them (see Stargate: SG-1 and Stargate: Atlantis), even if he did pretty much just shoot Dean and die. And having new super-bad Lilith possessing a sweet-looking little girl? Yep – kids are scary. Just ask Eric Kripke! What’s going to happen when Sam and Dean discover that the super-demon who wants Sam dead is possessing an innocent little girl, and they have to choose what action to take against her? The situation won’t be pretty, I can guarantee that.

 

Jensen Ackles and Jared Padalecki did their now-customary beautiful jobs. What could I say about them that I haven't already?

 

Delightful touches were scattered throughout the episode. The Dean and Sam mugshots (“Blue Steel,” anyone?) from Folsom Prison Blues were posted on Groves’s wall. The new tattoos the boys were sporting echoed things many of us said after Devil’s Trap, and again after Born Under a Bad Sign. And was the woman in that “Wanted” poster of Molly Baker in the police station the same woman who held Lilith’s hand on her way into the station at the end?

 

Bela’s non-answer to Dean’s assumption that she would sell the Colt to the highest bidder pretty well indicated that she stole the Colt for some other purpose of her own, probably related to her as-yet-undisclosed tragic past. I still don’t care. After all the things she’s done to the boys, I have no interest in her redemption. Forgiveness may be divine, but I don’t aspire to it.

 

The flip in airing order of this episode with Mystery Spot didn’t bother me at all. I’ll be curious to see what they do on the DVD release. Had this episode aired first, I might have seen Mystery Spot as a deliberate attempt on Ruby’s part to use the Trickster to force Sam to toughen up. In the current strike-dictated order, I could as easily see Sam’s hesitation to fully espouse Ruby’s position and really argue with Dean as the outcome of Sam having seen how harsh, non-human, and demonically mechanical he had become after Dean’s death. It can work either way.

 

All I really aspire to is seeing more episodes of Supernatural. Having to wait until the end of April will be killer!

 

 

Tags: dean winchester, episode commentaries, jared padalecki, jensen ackles, meta, phil sgriccia, philosophy, sam winchester, sera gamble, supernatural
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