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4.2 Are You There, God? It’s Me, Dean Winchester: There’s a Bigger Picture, Here

4.2 Are You There, God? It’s Me, Dean Winchester: There’s a Bigger Picture, Here

Break the seals of Hell:
Lilith raises witness ghosts
To free Lucifer.

Episode Summary

Olivia, one of Bobby’s hunter friends, woke to the unmistakable signs of a haunting in her house even as Bobby called her for help. She recognized the ghost, temporarily disrupted him with rock salt shot, and laid down a salt barrier to block his return, apologizing to him when he reappeared. Too late, she realized there was a second ghost in the room with her, who killed her.

At Bobby’s, having shared the information about Castiel, Dean continued to question the existence of angels and the very concept that there was a God who knew his name and cared enough to save him from Hell, while Sam was enthusiastic about the angel being proof of his faith and Bobby simply reported that his research indicated that angels were the only entities supposedly able to free souls from Hell. Sent to get food while the research continued, Sam encountered Ruby, who asked if it was true that an angel rescued Dean from Hell. When Sam said that it looked that way, Ruby left, telling him that she had never met an angel and didn’t want to because they would simply smite her as a demon without caring that she was being helpful. She advised Sam to be cautious.

Investigating Olivia’s failure to respond to Bobby’s messages, Bobby and the boys discovered her brutally murdered, her heart literally ripped out of her chest. Bobby called other hunters nearby, but got no answer. Separating to investigate, the brothers and Bobby found all three of the other hunters dead in the same manner as Olivia. Stopping for gas along the way back to Bobby’s, Sam felt a telltale chill in the men’s room, and turned to confront the ghost of Agent Henricksen, who blamed the brothers for his death and attacked Sam. Dean arrived just in time to disperse the ghost with rock salt shot. Meanwhile, having gotten home first, Bobby found himself facing the accusing ghosts of two children he’d failed to save.

Unable to reach Bobby by phone, the brothers hurried back and began searching for him, with Dean taking the house and Sam the junkyard. Dean was confronted by the ghost of Meg Masters, who savaged him verbally for having attacked the demon within her without regard for the human host, and proceeded to beat him physically as well, until he dissipated her by shooting the chain to drop an iron chandelier through her. Meanwhile, Sam found Bobby being held by the two little girl ghosts, who were tormenting him to feel the same fear they had felt before they died when he had walked past them without finding them. Sam and Bobby dispersed the ghosts. While they compared notes back in the house, the lights began to flicker again, and Bobby led them down to his panic room, a ghost-proof, demon-trapped, ventilated, fully iron- and salt-lined room, in order to research in safety and prepare more salt-based ammunition.

From a mark that Dean reported seeing on Meg’s hand and that Sam had similarly spotted on Henricksen, Bobby identified them as witnesses, ghosts raised in terrible pain by a powerful spell to be implacable vengeance machines, and observed that the Rising of the Witnesses was a sign of the apocalypse from an expanded version of the Book of Revelations. He found a spell that he thought could lay the ghosts back to rest, but it would have to be cast over an open fire, using components from elsewhere in the house. Gathering implements and leaving the safety of the panic room, they encountered the ghost of Ronald Resnick, the hapless mandroid hunter from Nightshifter, and Bobby dispersed him when Dean hesitated.

In the library, Sam spread salt for protection while Dean lit a fire in the fireplace and Bobby began drawing the sigils for the spell. Safe within salt, Bobby sent Sam upstairs to retrieve a curse box and Dean to the kitchen for spell components. Unable to reach him because of the salt, the little girl ghosts nonetheless sought to distract him, but he continued working. Upstairs, Sam confronted Meg, who chided him for working with Ruby rather than sending her back to Hell, when he knew that Ruby was possessing innocent hosts as Meg had been possessed. She called him a monster, and he shot her. In the kitchen, Dean faced Henricksen, who told him that Lilith had taken her time torturing the innocent people in the jail before she had killed them, and who asked him why he deserved to escape Hell. He knocked Dean’s shotgun out of reach and plunged his hand into Dean’s chest, gripping his heart, and only Sam’s timely arrival with a round of salt shot saved Dean’s life.

Back in the library, with Sam and Dean armed and ready, Bobby began the spell, and a mighty wind blew open the windows and scattered the protective salt barrier. While Bobby chanted, the brothers fired as fast as ghosts appeared in order to keep the ghosts at bay, until they ran out of ammunition. When Sam was pinned against the wall by a desk and shouted to Dean to keep covering Bobby, Meg found an opening and thrust her arm into Bobby from behind. He dropped the bowl of spell components but Dean caught it, and following his gasped directions, threw the contents in the fire. All the ghosts dispersed.

Asleep on the floor of the library, Dean had a dream encounter with Castiel in Bobby’s kitchen. Confronted by Dean’s anger over God’s failure to help the people on Earth being plagued by demons and evil, Castiel told him that there was a bigger picture, of which this fight was just a part. He told Dean that Lilith had cast the spell that caused the witnesses to rise, and in doing so had broken one of sixty-six seals that held Lucifer confined. If she succeeded in breaking them all, Lucifer would walk free – and it was to stop Lucifer that angels were walking the Earth for the first time in two thousand years. The angels and the human hunters had lost this round, with twenty more hunters and six angels killed, and although the witnesses had been laid to rest, the seal had still been broken. Castiel warned Dean to treat him with respect, and observed that he had taken Dean from Hell and could throw him back in. Waking from the dream, Dean asked Sam if he believed in the Devil, as well as in angels and God.

Commentary and Meta Analysis

With the discussion between Dean and Castiel, the likely mytharc for the entire rest of the series has been revealed: that the Winchesters and other hunters, now in the company of angels, are tasked with preventing Lilith from bringing on the apocalypse by breaking the seals that hold Lucifer bound. The story has suddenly gone from being intensely personal to truly epic, while still retaining the deep personal focus. In this discussion, I’ll look at story structure, revelations about angels, and the continuing development of both Sam and Dean.

Brother Warriors

Dean’s crisis of faith runs counterpoint to Sam’s renewal of it. After a lifetime of believing in nothing beyond the evidence of his own senses, Dean has suddenly been confronted with very physical evidence that he doesn’t want to accept, given the way that it overturns everything he’s considered true. Sam, on the other hand, is delighted to have proof to finally support his faith, in the very tangible form of having had his dead and self-damned brother restored to him alive and well, a positive answer to his prayers. He’s not inclined to look this particular gift horse in the mouth. We’ve known since Houses of the Holy back in season two that Sam is a believer, if one whose faith was sorely tested; he’s content and reassured to know that there is something bigger than them watching out for them. And while Dean is creeped out by the very idea that God would know and care about him, especially when he’s seen no evidence before that God exists or cares about anyone, Sam is more than ready to rejoice that however ordinary Dean thinks he is, God considers Sam’s big brother to be as important as Sam does.

In regard to faith, the brothers display another of the trademark character reversals that have made this show fascinating each and every season. On all other matters, Sam has always been the questioning one, while Dean has simply accepted whatever came his way. But in the context of God, angels, and faith, and specifically of Dean’s resurrection, Dean is the one who can’t accept, who has to question, while Sam is content to embrace the gift of Dean’s life at face value and move on. Sam doesn’t need to see and hear Castiel for himself in order to believe, while Dean still can’t accept what he himself has seen and heard.

Some of that doubtless concerns Dean’s own self-esteem issues, but I would submit that more is involved here. Castiel still has not answered Dean’s most basic and essential question: Because … why me? Castiel’s simple response that God commanded it doesn’t explain why God would have singled out one Dean Winchester, from all the souls consigned to Hell over the millennia, to be restored to life, and restored now. It stands to reason that something makes Dean special, and he’s both desperate and afraid to know what that is. In Dean’s experience, nothing comes without a price, and not knowing his price and the limits on it is terrifying. He’s waiting for the other shoe to drop, the one that will tell him what he will have to do in exchange for having his life back. Given the life he’s lived and the deals he’s made before, he has to wonder whether that price will be one he’s willing and able to pay, or whether it may be a torture worse than Hell. The one thing of which he’s certain is that his salvation wasn’t a gift; that something tangible will be expected of him in return, and it will be big. Learning the stakes for the overall fight – keeping Lucifer bound and the apocalypse at bay – still hasn’t told him specifically what he will be expected to bring to the party that couldn’t have been gotten from some other hunter.

Each of the boys carries a fair degree of guilt for the people they couldn’t save, which made both of them vulnerable to the attacks of the witness ghosts. After the first confrontation with Henricksen, however, I was pleased to see Dean refusing to let Sam accept the guilt for Lilith having killed the people in the police station. They couldn’t have anticipated or prevented that. The guilt over Meg was harder for both of the brothers to deal with because their own actions and ignorance were on trial. They hadn’t been the ones to kill Meg’s host body – the fall from the building was the work of the daevas, angry at having been controlled by the demon, and the gunshot was the work of her demon brother – but Dean in particular had hit her before realizing that there was an innocent girl trapped inside the body, and had made the decision to force the exorcism knowing that the demon’s eviction from a body so badly damaged would kill the host. Sam’s guilt comes from accepting Ruby’s continued presence despite knowing that Ruby has hijacked the bodies and minds of other innocent girls in order to be doing what she is doing. We still don’t understand exactly what Ruby’s goals are, but we and particularly Sam have to ask: do the ends ever justify the means, when the means are evil?

The brothers’ relationship is both back to normal and different, and the Impala seems to reflect that. Before Dean’s death, although we saw Dean letting Sam drive while he slept, we never saw Dean let Sam take her on his own. Sam only ever did it once, in Malleus Maleficarum, when he couldn’t find the hex bag and desperately went after the witches to stop the attack on Dean. In Lazarus Rising, Dean questioned Sam having taken the Impala while he slept, and Sam responded that it was force of habit, since she’d been his for the months that Dean had been dead. In the few days since, Dean appears to have made an adjustment to Sam driving without him, even sending him on an errand in the car. Seeing Dean sleeping in the car also spoke to the brothers having reestablished the trust in their partnership.

I also found it interesting that despite Bobby’s house having many rooms, the boys slept in direct line of sight with each other in the library. I know that the primary reason for that choice was filmic, to serve the dream scene of Dean’s meeting with Castiel in the kitchen and his subsequent real awakening and conversation with Sam, but it made a nice character choice as well, suggesting that after the whole drama of death and separation they would both want the reassurance of instantly being able to see upon waking that they were still together.

I’m very glad that Dean evidently told Sam and Bobby everything that Castiel had said to him in Lazarus Rising. Whenever the boys have secrets, it comes back to bite them in the end. Sam has been hiding things from Dean for a long time now, ever since the Yellow-Eyed Demon gave him the vision in All Hell Breaks Loose, Part 1 of his mother recognizing the demon and the demon having fed him demon blood; now he’s continuing to hide the truth about Ruby being around and about having been learning to use his powers. When those secrets come out, there’s going to be a bad fight, especially if Dean learns about them in any way other than Sam coming straight out and telling him.

I do wonder whether Dean will share his dream conversation with Castiel. His first meeting with Castiel was undeniably physical and real, and partially shared by Bobby, so it was easier for him to accept as truly having happened, no matter what he thought about Castiel’s claim to be an angel or his statement that God had ordered that Dean be saved. His latest encounter with Castiel happened in a dream, however, and he might be less inclined to report it because it feels so strange to him. Dreams and prophecies are far removed from Dean’s physical world, and while he could reluctantly accept Sam as having powers, weird things happening in his own mind are going to disturb him far more.

Angelic Revelations

Bobby’s research reported that angels could snatch souls out of the pit, but that nothing else had that capability. We have reason to doubt that, at least in some instances, but our reasons might not hold up. Although demons themselves had limited ability to escape Hell, judging from Meg’s story in Born Under a Bad Sign and the relative rarity of demon encounters prior to the opening of the devil’s gate in All Hell Breaks Loose, Part 2, the crossroads demon in Crossroad Blues tempted Dean with the promise of restoring John, which would have involved freeing his soul from Hell – at least, if the demon was telling the truth about being able to do it. Then again, for John, seeing his sacrifice thrown away by the son he’d made it for would still have been a potent, personal form of continuing Hell, even if he’d been restored temporarily to a body walking the Earth, so that point may have been moot. We don’t know where Sam’s soul had gone after death, but I would submit that Hell was not likely, given Sam’s innate goodness, so the crossroads demon bringing him back wouldn’t have had to deal with a release from Hell. In Dean’s case, we know from Sam’s confession that no demon was willing to make a deal for Dean, presumably because Lilith, who held his contract, had no interest in seeing him freed in any way. So, it could be that angels are the only creatures able to disregard deals made and bonds forged by demons, to be able to bring souls out of Hell in despite of all resistance, and that demons making deals that ostensibly released souls from Hell weren’t actually doing it, either because those souls were simply experiencing a different aspect of Hell or because what the demon provided was an illusion, a lie, not a reality.

We learned a lot of interesting and incomplete things about angels in this episode. From Castiel, we learned why there had been no hunter sightings of angels before: angels hadn’t walked among men for two thousand years, and returned now in extremity only to stop Lucifer. We also learned that angels are limited in number and aren’t immune to risk; he said that six of his brothers had died in the field during the week. Given that we saw Castiel pass through wards and traps without effort and take no damage from salt shot or even Ruby’s demon-killing knife, and that Ruby chose to flee rather than take the chance of facing the power of an angel, we have to wonder what can kill them. Are there higher-order demons not formed from human souls that can defeat angels? Ruby said in Malleus Maleficarum that all the demons she had ever met were human once, but the story of Lucifer suggests that some of the denizens of Hell were fallen angels who followed him; could they perhaps fight on angelic terms? And had Ruby ever met Lilith, before she told Dean that every demon she’d ever met had been human once? Were there ever mortal weapons – like the Colt or Ruby’s knife – that were made by folk working for evil to kill angels, if they ever appeared? Could Sam’s powers, or similar powers in other people, affect angels? Right now, we have more questions than answers.

Sam, meanwhile, learned that Ruby’s sense of self-preservation, on display in Jus in Bello, was still paramount. Her terror of angels speaks to a great disparity in power between angels and most demons – the standard black-eyed variety, at least – and her conviction that angels wouldn’t see shades of grey and would simply destroy any demon without asking whether it was necessarily an enemy suggests that Sam could be in a problematic situation as well, if indeed his powers came from a demonic source and demons are simply fallen humans. If angels would attack demons without question, would they also attack a human who’s been working with a demon, or see a human – however innocent – who carries and uses demonic power as an automatic adversary?

Castiel demonstrated a new subtlety, speaking to Dean in his dreams. That’s a far cry from his glass-shattering, eardrum-bursting true voice, and from his initial flashy entrance when summoned in Lazarus Rising. He was patient with Dean’s sarcasm and unbelief, up to a point; then he made it plain that Dean was ignorant of many things, and needed to understand the larger picture and to treat him with respect for his power, his ability, and his deeds. He evidenced a weariness from battle that made his comments about the fronts of the war that Dean hadn’t seen take on a reality that I think made Dean take him more seriously than just his words alone would have accomplished.

I continue to be fascinated by watching Castiel, who as an angel presumably has direct experience of God and thus no need for faith, dealing with a human whose experience has taught that there is no God and that faith is wasted. I can’t wait to see this dialogue continue.

Epic v. Personal

With the revelation that we’re in Revelations, it’s clear that the series’ endgame has begun. I’m both excited and sad – excited because I want to see where the story goes and how it gets there, and sad because either entering or averting the apocalypse is going to bring the Winchesters’ story to a close, because there won’t be any way to top that.

Although there have been epic mythic elements in the story from the beginning, starting with the discovery in season one that Sam having been chosen as a baby for some reason by the Yellow-Eyed Demon had put the family’s story in motion, Supernatural has always been intensely personal. It has been the journey of discovery of two brothers and the few people close to them.

Castiel’s announcement that stopping Lucifer is the goal and that angels are walking the Earth for the first time in two thousand years in order to accomplish that is the clear indication that we have moved onto the mythic stage. Despite that, however, it seems clear that the core of the story will still stay focused on the personal, targeting the boys, and I think that’s all to the good. I don’t think we’ll see a lot of angels, because the way the story has been set up, the biggest parts of the action will likely take place off-screen. The set-up for that came in the exchange between Castiel and Dean in this episode. Dean was focused on the immediate problems that he and Sam had faced with Bobby and the few other hunters they knew; Castiel expanded that image to show that the battleground had been much larger than Dean could have perceived. We saw two hunters dead and learned from Bobby’s call of two more; Castiel verbally expanded that body count to twenty more hunters and six angels. I expect that each of the boys’ immediate battles from now on within the mytharc focus – as opposed to the occasional free-standing story about spirits and legends outside the context of the battle to free Lucifer – will carry with them the implication that similar things were happening elsewhere, out of our sight. In other words, the fate of the world doesn’t depend just on Sam and Dean Winchester, although they are clearly important pieces on the chess board.

I suspect that a large part of the reason for this anticipated structure is simply that a television budget can’t accommodate a convincing apocalypse, but it works from a narrative aspect as well. The personal connection that we have to these characters is the thing that makes the story matter, that makes us buy into it and commit to it. We’re not in this to save the world. We’re in this to watch Sam and Dean save each other. If they help to save the world in the process, all well and good, but the fictional world wouldn’t mean much at all without the brothers at the center of it.

The only way that an epic can ever touch the hearts of readers or viewers is if it is tied intimately to the actions and fates of human characters we can care about and identify with, and Supernatural has always done that well. So long as what happens to the characters stays true and real, the outside embellishments can become as fantastical as you wish, without distracting from the core of the story. And the core here isn’t about Lucifer walking free or angels walking the Earth or whether God exists and cares about humankind. The core is two brothers loving each other and doing the best they can for each other in despite of everything, and by doing what they’re doing, having an impact on the world around them.

And that’s a story I really want to watch, and one I’m confident we’re going to see.

Production Notes

Writer Sera Gamble continued the exploration of Dean’s faith crisis and Sam’s true, honest faith that she began with Raelle Tucker in season one’s Faith and expanded in season two’s Houses of the Holy, and I’m loving it. There’s nothing simple about either Dean or Sam, and the layers that Sera writes for them, particularly for Dean, are deep. Director Phil Sgriccia once again demonstrated his gift for choreographing fast and furious action, and given that virtually all the action also had a heavy visual effects component with ghosts constantly appearing and disappearing, keeping it seamless was a heavy challenge for Sgriccia, for editor Anthony Pinker, and for visual effects supervisor Ivan Hayden. And for subtle mood enhancement, I really liked the way Sgriccia caught Henricksen’s initial appearance as just a dark figure watching as Sam pumped gas. It’s the oldest trick in the suspense book, but it worked.

The guest stars were great. Nicki Aycox added dimensions to Meg by bringing to life the girl who’d been overshadowed by the demon. Meg challenging Sam about tolerating Ruby despite her possession of a string of innocent hosts echoed my own biggest issue with the character, and Sam had no answer. I loved the differences in the encounters that Sam and Dean had with Henricksen, recognizing through Dean calling him Victor that the two had bonded during the events of Jus in Bello in a way that he and Sam hadn’t. Ronald was another great choice to bring back, again given the specific rapport that he had forged with Dean in Nightshifter. It’s a pity that we didn’t have a character with whom we already had a similar emotional investment to engage with Bobby, but in the absence of that, little girls are always appropriately creepy.

Misha Collins did another stunning turn as Castiel. I like the touches he’s bringing to the character that seem to gradually be humanizing him as he has more contact with Dean. Where before he was innocent and distant and curious, this time he added weary patience and a hint of exasperation as he found himself needing to explain to Dean the things Dean hadn’t seen and didn’t know about the bigger picture, about the broader fight that the human had been unable to perceive. And for all that Castiel is inhabiting a shorter, less physically imposing body than Dean, Misha invested him with a powerful presence that made his menace palpable when he cautioned Dean to treat him with respect.

Production designer John Marcynuk, producer Vladimir Stefoff, and their set design crew deserve major props, particularly for the joy that was Bobby’s panic room. Jim Beaver laughed at Eyecon that the set was nothing but painted wood, and that the lever handle on the door kept breaking off because it was so flimsy compared to what it was supposed to be, but that even in person, the eye was really deceived into believing that those walls were iron until you made the mistake of leaning against one. The sound crew wins too, because the illusion of iron walls and an iron door begun by the set painters was really sold by the added sound effects of echoing metallic hollowness. I also particularly loved the touch of adding the sound of fluttering wings to the scene when Dean seemingly awoke to the presence of Castiel in Bobby’s kitchen. Castiel’s calling card echoed the new title card.

I’m beyond delighted that the recap used Billy Squier’s “Lonely Is The Night.” I keep fearing that the budget cuts Kripke has mentioned will be evident first through the cutbacks in music, much the way they appeared last season, so I’m grateful for every perfect song choice we still manage to get.

Last but far from least, I’m going to sound like a broken record concerning the consistently excellent performances by Jensen Ackles and Jared Padalecki. I loved Jensen’s little touches, like absently rubbing Dean’s burned shoulder when looking at the illustration of an angel raising a soul from Hell, or his momentary surprise at his own vehemence when he told Castiel that if he said that God works in mysterious ways, he’d kick his ass. Jared’s reaction to Meg pointing out Sam’s inconsistency in working with Ruby rather than freeing her host was beautifully conflicted, while his delight in hearing about Dean’s encounter with an angel was sweetly transparent.

I can’t wait to see more of the story unfold!

I apologize for the lateness of this commentary, but I spent the weekend down at Eyecon in Orlando, and then drove two days back home. I promise to get the next one out faster!

Tags: dean winchester, episode commentaries, meta, myth, sam winchester, supernatural, supernatural university, theology
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