3.14 Long Distance Call: You’re All So Connected, But You’ve Never Been So Alone
Desperate for hope,
Dean obeys his father’s voice:
Just crocotta lies.
A man in Milan, Ohio received pleading, persistent phone calls from a former love begging him to come to her, and when the calls didn’t stop even after he yanked the phone cord out of the wall, he shot himself. Because the man had complained of strange household electrical problems during the week before he died, possible signs of a demon or spirit, Bobby called Dean to have the boys investigate. Worried about time running out on Dean’s deal, Sam was reluctant to take any other case, but Dean observed that all of their attempts to get information had come up empty, and that until they could find something, he’d like to do his job. When Sam insisted that they try to summon Ruby for help, Dean refused, and finally told Sam what Ruby had admitted to him at the end of Malleus Maleficarum – that she couldn’t save him. With that tension still between them, they went to Ohio.
Interviewing the dead man’s widow and checking over the scene, the boys found a strange number on the telephone’s caller ID – SHA33 – from a call just before the man’s death. After some coaxing, his widow reported hearing him on the phone some days earlier, talking to someone named Linda, but said that when she jealously picked up the extension to listen in, she heard nothing but static on the other end. Searching for a “Linda” with a connection to the dead man, Dean found a memory page on the internet dedicated to the man’s high school sweetheart, who had died some years earlier in an automobile accident. Following Sam’s research into the phone number lead, the brothers posed as headquarters telephone company troubleshooters and duped Stewie Meyers, a sloppy, porn-obsessed telephone company technician, into tracing the number. Apart from recognizing the number as being over a hundred years old, he couldn’t determine its origin, but identified ten houses that had recently gotten calls from the number, and the brothers split up to investigate them. Both of them found more people receiving calls from dead loved ones … and then Dean’s phone rang, and the voice on the other end was John’s. The call dropped before he’d said much more than Dean’s name.
Dumbfounded by the idea and unsure what to believe, the brothers argued, and Dean walked out. When he returned three hours later to find that Sam had learned nothing new, he dropped his own discovery; a tourist brochure for the local Thomas Edison birthplace museum containing the curious tidbit that Edison’s last invention had been a “spirit phone” to communicate with the dead. The brothers took the tour, but the device proved innocuous, giving off no EMF readings or any other indication that it was responsible for the rash of local conversations with the dead.
Back at the motel, while Sam slept, Dean stayed awake with his phone at hand. When it rang again, the voice identified itself as John, berated Dean for having sold his soul, and then said that there was a solution to Dean’s deal that would save both brothers: that the demon holding Dean’s contract was in town, and if the demon was killed, the contract would be void. He recited an exorcism ritual that he said would work to destroy a demon, and promised to call later with the demon’s location. Meanwhile Lanie, the teenaged girl who had spoken to Sam about getting calls from her dead mother, started getting instant messages on her computer from a user ID identical to the caller ID, and the messages continued even after the girl, in a panic, had turned the computer off.
The next day, Dean reported to Sam that he thought John was right and that the demon not only was in town, but had been following him for the past couple of weeks, based on internet reports of electrical storms happening every place they had been. He dismissed Sam’s uneasy comment that he didn’t remember any electrical storms, and when Sam questioned the ability of an exorcism ritual to kill a demon rather than simply banish it, Dean pulled out more of his research documenting that the ritual dated back to the 15th century. Sam agreed that he and Bobby had also researched the ritual and found the same thing, but cautioned that there still was no evidence it could kill a demon. Having promised the terrified Lanie that he would stop by, Sam left Dean alone, pleading with him not to go anywhere until he got back.
Lanie eventually admitted that the messages from her mother had instructed her to kill herself so that she could come to her mom, and that clue finally led Sam to understand what they were dealing with: a crocotta, a nasty supernatural scavenger that lured people into the dark where they could be killed by imitating the voices of dead loved ones saying, “Come to me.” Having failed to attract Lanie, the thing played the same game with her little brother, calling on a toy phone and directing the boy into the street. Sam saved him from being run over by a truck, and then called Dean to report his discovery. Dean made the connection between the crocotta reportedly living in filth and Stewie’s fly-infested basement room at the telephone company office, and Sam immediately changed direction. Arriving at the phone company and seeing his target, he called Dean for help, but only got his voicemail and left a message. He attacked Stewie in the parking lot, but as Stewie begged not to be killed, Clark, the middle manager who had introduced them, revealed himself as the monster, knocking out both Sam and Stewie with a baseball bat. Dean, meanwhile, had not gotten Sam’s calls, but did get one of his own directing him to the house where the demon would be. Finding the house empty, he prepared a trap, spray-painting a devil’s trap on the floor beneath a rug and prepping a gallon jug of holy water.
Sam woke up tied to a chair to hear Stewie pleading for his life, and the crocotta killed him and then fed off of his soul. Sam realized that he’d been trapped, that his last phone call with Dean had actually been with the monster instead, and the crocotta gleefully observed that once he’d pegged the boys as hunters, it had been easy to find all the information it needed to use to set them both up – their phone numbers and John’s, emails, voicemails. It tapped the network again to complete its trap for Dean, calling a distraught father in his murdered daughter’s voice to say that her killer was waiting in their house. Sam broke his bonds and fought the crocotta even as Dean faced off against the man he thought was possessed. Sam managed to kill the crocotta. When his opponent walked free of the devil’s trap, Dean realized that he’d been duped and the man wasn’t possessed, and he stopped short of killing, admitting his mistake.
Reunited, Dean apologized to Sam, admitting that he’d been wrong because he’d been so desperate to believe that there was a way out of the deal, and he confessed openly that he was scared. He said he realized that he couldn’t expect anyone to save him with a last-minute miracle, that he was the only one who could get himself out. Sam chimed in with, “And me.”
Commentary and Meta Analysis
Long Distance Call was what I was waiting for: a story with the focus squarely on the brothers, with relationships and Dean’s deal front and center, and with a monster of the week tweaked in truly unique Supernatural fashion. In this commentary, I’ll focus on the relationship issues and the deal, but I’ll play a bit with the monster first.
I’m starting with the monster just because there were some plot holes amidst the goodness and I want my “no-prize.” For those of you not familiar with the comics world, Stan Lee started an amusing tradition in the Marvel comics universe many, many years ago of awarding “no-prizes” to readers who spotted errors in the comics and suggested plausible explanations as to why they weren’t actually errors at all. They were called “no-prizes” because they didn’t actually consist of anything tangible, just a little applause and recognition in the letters columns. “No-prizes” weren’t awarded for nit-picking or grumbling complaints, but only for creative solutions that transformed an error into something clever. I always thought that was a really cute and positive way to deal with inconsistencies that otherwise might interfere with my enjoyment of a story, so my usual approach to dealing with plot holes or factual errors in something I truly like is always to find a way around them and award myself a virtual “no-prize.”
The crocotta is a case in point. I loved the way that Supernatural tweaked the monster lore here. We’re presented with a very traditional monster, a skulking thing known for hundreds of years to lurk in the woods and shadows on the outskirts of communities and try enticing people out to it by imitating the voices of their beloved dead. The twist is that this monster has learned to adapt to modern technology, and figured out how to use our communication tools of telephones and computers to deliver its luring messages to many more people than it could ever have reached in the old days by the old ways.
But how could it make disconnected phones and toy phones ring, and put words and images on a turned-off computer screen? And if it needed to be close in order to feast on the soul of its victim, as it did on poor Stewie, what benefit did it get from using the telephone system?
My explanation? I figure that the essence of the crocotta’s ability is partially telepathic in nature and relies on the victim’s mind supplying all the details of the communication once it’s made an initial connection. It used to have to wait until victims came close to it to forge that connection by whispering its “come-hither,” knowing that they would hear the voice they most wanted to hear. Evolving to be able to make a connection by targeting a victim through a phone line didn’t change the telepathic nature of the message; it just changed how people perceived the message. My basis for that leap is the widow saying that she heard nothing but static and her husband when she picked up the phone while he was talking to Linda. Her husband had an entire conversation with the crocotta posing as Linda, but his wife heard only her husband’s part. I take it that Linda’s part of the conversation happened only in the man’s mind, altering the static to the sound of her voice delivering the message the crocotta wanted to say. Similarly, Dean heard his father speaking of the terms of the deal, chiding him as John surely would have for making that choice, and then promising what he most earnestly wanted – a way out of the deal that would both keep him out of Hell and wouldn’t forfeit Sam’s life. The crocotta wasn’t a demon, so how would it have known the details of Dean’s internal torment unless it could simply turn loose the concept, hear the voice of the dead person you most loved, and hear them promise you your heart’s desire if only you do as they ask, and let its victim’s own mind do the work?
And if the crocotta’s ability had a telepathic component, then who’s to say that once it established and solidified an initial connection, it couldn’t continue the broadcast even after the physical link – the telephone or electrical connection – was broken? It wouldn’t matter then that the phone was unplugged or the computer turned off. And if the crocotta used the network to troll for and initially connect with victims, it could have chosen to get close physically once it knew or sensed that a victim was weakening and approaching the point of yielding, so that it would have been close enough to feed. We didn’t see Clark anywhere near Lanie’s house, but that’s not to say that he wasn’t there. And perhaps he was close enough to put the message directly into her little brother’s mind, to make him think that his toy phone rang with a call from his mom. And with many more potential victims to devour in a year, the thing probably wasn’t fazed by occasionally missing out on a meal by being too distant when the suicide moment came, or – as in the case of its trap for hunter Dean – when an arranged murder set-up paid off.
What do you think – “no-prize” time? *grin* I’m happy with it. And I remain delighted in any case by the whole idea of updating an old monster by teaching it new technological tricks.
Dean’s deal is my next topic of discussion. The crossroads demon added a nasty clause: But here’s the thing: if you try and welch or weasel your way out, then the deal’s off. Sam drops dead, he’s back to rotten meat in no time. The terms of that clause put Dean in mortal fear that any attempt to circumvent the deal would lead to Sam’s death. He made clear when he first admitted to the clause in The Magnificent Seven that he not only wouldn’t take any action on his own behalf, but that he would stop any attempt by Sam as well, because he didn’t want to risk Sam’s life again.
Things have changed since then, with Dean finally acknowledging in Dream a Little Dream of Me that he doesn’t want to die and doesn’t deserve to go to Hell, and with Sam having demonstrated by his summoning and execution of the Crossroads Demon in Bedtime Stories that there’s apparently more leeway in the terms of the deal than Dean had believed. Still, it was jarring to see Dean accepting “John’s” blithe assurance that attempting to kill the demon holding his contract wouldn’t be considered trying to welsh on or weasel his way out of the deal, and acting seemingly without the fear that he might be killing Sam by doing so.
All I can think is that his desperation and his cruel hope blinded Dean to everything else, including Sammy, for the first and only time ever. He was so scared and wanted so badly to believe in a way out that he didn’t let himself think, didn’t let himself doubt; he just threw himself into action, the very same way that he made the deal in the first place. As it chanced, nothing the crocotta arranged had anything to do with the deal, and nothing happened to Sam to punish Dean for the attempt, but I wonder if Dean will reconsider this kind of action in future, fearing what might have happened to Sam had the situation been real. The brothers have killed or exorcised plenty of demons along the way, so demon-slaying itself clearly doesn’t contravene the terms of the contract, but deliberately going after the demon holding the contract specifically in order to void it might be a different matter entirely, at least when the real demon becomes the target.
And that brings me to the relationship part of the discussion. I loved everything we saw here. But as the crocotta observed about humans and our technology, while the brothers are closer than ever before, they’ve each also never been more alone. Throughout the episode, they constantly came together and then moved apart both physically and emotionally, right from their opening scene on the university campus. Apart from their shared visits to the dead man’s house, the telephone company, and the museum, we seldom saw them acting in concert. They connected, they argued, they separated and went their own ways. In the end, however, they came together and stayed, and that was the most important thing.
And the character reversals between them continued. Dean, seeing his death and damnation approaching and increasingly believing there’s no way to avoid it, initially just wanted to do his job of saving people and hunting things in his remaining time. In that spirit, he echoed the character we first met in season one, complete with the absence of social polish and finesse. In his own way, Sam also returned to a season one attitude, initially wanting to focus just on the main case of saving Dean (shades of finding Dad) rather than being distracted by random hunts along the way. In the course of this single episode, they flipped again, with Dean totally losing sight of the random monster hunt when presented with a possible solution to his deal from the spirit of his Dad, and Sam becoming caught up in comforting and helping a stranger while solving the monster hunt even as his brother went off on a desperate tangent.
So many things both referenced the past and carried into the future. Dean finally shared the second-last of his secrets with Sam, admitting that Ruby had told him flat-out that she couldn’t save him, even as she continued to dangle that lure in front of Sam. Sam had been counting so much and so obviously on that hope that Dean hadn’t wanted to take it away from him even though he despised Ruby for holding out that falsehood. Losing that hope made Sam lash out about Dean having kept the secret from him, but Dean brought the challenge right back, knowing that there still are things Sam hasn’t confided to him. At the same time, though, he still hasn’t shared with Sam the Yellow-Eyed Demon’s sly hint that Sam may not have come back as one hundred percent pure Sam, and I don’t think he ever would, not even through the moment of his death, because he doesn’t want Sam to doubt himself.
Dean hearing John’s voice reverted instantly to his lifelong role as John’s loving and obedient son, despite having grown in his independence since John’s death. The joy of it was that it demonstrated that the absolute love and trust we saw on display in Shadow when Dean walked without hesitation into his father’s strong embrace still remain intact, even after Dean had finally faced and admitted his hurt and his rage over all the ways in which John had failed him. Dean wanted to believe that John was reaching out to him, making it all right, and he refused to look too closely or question more than a minimal amount. At the same time, he still feared coming up short in John’s eyes. Sam saw no reason to trust in the absence of facts and proof, and not having shared the close relationship that John and Dean had known, had no incentive to defer to faith, least of all in a man who had forfeited that faith when Sam was still very young. In many ways, this was the mirror image of the situation in Houses of the Holy, when Sam desperately needed to believe in something beyond human ken and Dean stuck to rationality and had no faith to share. This time it was Dean’s turn to yield to and admit growing despair, but Sam had no perceived miracle to offer to rekindle hope.
Ever since Sam begged him to drop the act in Fresh Blood, Dean has become slowly but steadily more open with Sam, letting his brother see his hopes and his fears, and taking comfort in the times that Sam has reached back. They’ve both matured a lot along the way. Sam had no words to offer the first time Dean opened up back in Children Shouldn’t Play With Dead Things, but he’s gotten better at it since then, from accepting the auto shop class in Fresh Blood to giving Dean his traditional Christmas, and voicing his support and encouragement here with that quiet And me. Dean defusing the moment with humor, and Sam accepting it in the intended spirit, went a long way toward healing the breach between them, but even in that final scene they were still apart, sitting on their separate beds. At least they were drinking and smiling in unison.
And one final observation. I loved Sam’s quiet little, And me, but it also shook me to my core. On one level, it could just have been Sam making the statement that Dean isn’t alone, that Sam is right there with him and will do anything and everything he can to save Dean from the pit. But the slight hesitation before speaking combined with the look of resolution on Sam’s face make me wonder if there wasn’t another meaning. Dean said, The only person that can get me out of this thing is me. Sam’s And me could just as easily be his recognition that finding a way to make Dean forfeit the deal would keep Dean out of Hell. Sam could save Dean, could get him out of the deal, if he did something deliberately deal-breaking in order to trigger his own death. After what he experienced in Mystery Spot, both through Dean dying over and over again and through getting a taste of living six months without Dean, it goes without saying that Sam would rather die than lose Dean again, although he obviously hasn’t given thought to what Dean would do if Sam died again. The vicious circle of Winchester self-sacrifice seems likely to continue, and very, very soon. That makes me very, very scared.
Jeremy Carver is right up there with Sera Gamble and Eric Kripke in my list of favorite Supernatural writers. Everything he’s written this season has been solid and emotional, and I love it all. And I loved the red herring about Edison’s spirit phone! The combination of humor and pathos in the dialogue also got to me, especially things like Well, what did he sound like? [beat] Like Oprah! It’s Dad, he sounded like Dad, what’d you think?
Robert Singer comes second only to Kim Manners in my list of Supernatural directors. The way he captured the boys being both together and apart from the crane shots in the university courtyard to the beds in the room was perfect. I loved the time lapse of Sam in the room after Dean stalked out and before he returned with the Edison brochure. Between Singer’s direction and Nicole Baer’s editing, the two simultaneous fights between Sam and the crocotta and Dean and the distraught father were beautifully intercut, and Jay Gruska’s music score hit all the right beats and right notes. And hearing Jeffrey Dean Morgan's voice again gave me an instant case of homesickness, even though I didn't believe that the caller really was John.
I loved seeing sympathetic, empathetic Sam in both scenes with Lanie. Jared Padalecki did a wonderful job both in Sam’s gentleness with the girl, and with his brutal competence in the fight with the crocotta. The desperation underlying Sam’s scenes with Dean was wrenching. Jared sold that Sam never believed the caller was John, but wished it could be for Dean’s sake, even as he couldn’t persuade Dean to doubt. Sam trying to be strong, marshal his own fear, and offer hope even as Dean started to despair showed how much he’s grown.
Watching Jensen Ackles portray Dean unraveling as his fear of Hell becomes more immediate and more real makes me really resent both the lack of critical attention given to this show and the discrimination that awards shows practice against genre shows. Dean wondering what he should say if his father calls again was so lost and so torn between desire and fear. Seeing and hearing him admit his terror first to his father and then to Sam was heartbreaking. Dean only ever had faith in his father; now with John dead, he truly has faith in nothing, and no hope at all. And Jensen brought it all to life.
My open laughter moment came in the Edison museum tour, with the perky tour guide and her “quote-y fingers.” I’ll confess, I’ve never encountered a guide who actually did the “And we’re walking!” thing, but I’ve seen it twice now in shows shot in Canada (the other one being an episode of Stargate SG-1). And I’ve used it myself when I wanted to be particularly obnoxious and cheery …
My final production note concerns the very last shot. Dean turned on the television, joining some movie in progress, and the dialogue in the scene made me sit bolt upright, because no way was it a coincidence, and no way could I place the film. It sounded like a period piece, but there was no credit given for it, so it might not have been a real movie at all – just something ginned up for the show. But what I heard was this:
Man: (something indistinct) So must I. I have a lot of work to do.
Woman: Ah, at the rate you’re going, it won’t take long. You’ll have everything carried up and be off again before we even get used to you!
Man: Oh, I’ll be around long enough for you and I to, ah … I’ll be around.
Hmm. Dean, and Sam. They’ll be around. So will I.