4.3 In The Beginning: You Have To Stop It
A trip to the past
Reveals family secrets:
Destinies can’t change.
Sam left Dean asleep in their latest motel and snuck out to be picked up by Ruby, who asked him if he was ready. When he responded with “Definitely,” they drove off together in the night. Dean, meanwhile, dreamed flashes of his own terrified eyes amidst blood and screaming, and woke to discover Castiel sitting on his bed. Castiel told Dean that he had to stop it, and then touched his forehead – and Dean woke up on a sidewalk bench in bright morning sunlight, being prodded awake by a cop telling him he had to sleep somewhere else. Confused and disoriented, getting no signal on his cellphone, he wandered into the diner across the street, learning from the young man sitting at the counter next to him that he was in Lawrence, Kansas. To his astonishment he also learned that it was April 30, 1973, and the young man was 19-year-old John Winchester, newly returned from Vietnam.
Following John, he rounded a corner and met Castiel, who told him that what he was experiencing was real. Castiel repeated that he had to stop it, but disappeared without telling him what it was he had to stop. At a used car dealer, where John was looking at a VW bus, Dean sold him instead on the dusty Impala. Acquiring a car of his own, he kept following John, and saw him pick up his date, Mary Campbell. Outside the diner and without John’s knowledge, Mary confronted and attacked Dean to learn why he’d been following them – and seeing the charm bracelet on her wrist adorned with a cross, a pentacle, and a Star of David, among other symbols, he realized that she was a hunter.
Dean passed his grandfather Samuel’s test to prove himself a hunter, and despite Samuel’s distrust of other hunters, found himself invited to dinner by his grandmother Deanna. The conversation revealed that John was a naïve civilian unaware of hunting, while Samuel was working the case of a farmer inexplicably mangled by a combine. Samuel refused to let Dean join in his hunt, but when he and Mary went to the farm the next morning to investigate, they found Dean already there. Talking to the dead man’s teenaged son, Mary and Dean learned that a yellow-eyed man had offered to stop his father’s abusive beatings in exchange for getting a favor from the boy ten years later.
Realizing that his father’s journal listed the dates and locations of everyone he believed had contact with the yellow-eyed demon, including the boy on the farm, and that its next stop would be in Haleyville, just three miles away from Lawrence, Dean determined to kill it in order to stop what had happened to his family. Before leaving, he asked Mary what John was like, and she called him a sweet and kind man who still believed in “happily ever after” even after having experienced Vietnam. Mary shared the secret that she hated the family business and wanted to get out, that she loved John precisely because he was everything that a hunter wasn’t, and that she thought that the worst possible thing would be if her children grew up in the hunting life the way she had.
Knowing that Daniel Elkins had the Colt, Dean drove to Colorado, discovering Castiel abruptly in the car with him. When he asked Castiel why he hadn’t sent Sam to the past along with him, Castiel said without explanation that this was something he had to do alone. When Dean asked for assurance that his parents would live and he and Sam would grow up normally if he killed the demon, Castiel asked him if he didn’t care that all the people he, John, and Sam had saved would die if they didn’t become hunters. Dean answered that he cared, but that this was his family, and he couldn’t let his parents die again. Castiel disappeared.
Elkins caught Dean stealing the Colt from his safe, but let him go when he offered no threat to Elkins and said passionately that he needed it to save his family. He said that it would be with the Campbell family of hunters in Lawrence when he was done. When Samuel let slip that Dean had said he’d gone to kill a demon in Haleyville, Mary realized that the person he’d identified as the contact was a friend of hers, and insisted on helping. The Campbells arrived just as the yellow-eyed demon Azazel, in the guise of the family doctor, was presenting his deal to save the girl’s father from terminal cancer. Samuel shot the host, but the demon flung him aside. When Mary attacked him, the demon expressed interest in her. Dean arrived with the Colt, and the demon fled the host before he could fire.
Back at the Campbells’ home, Dean told Samuel the truth about who he was, only to discover that Samuel was possessed by Azazel. Gloating, the demon told Dean that he was choosing the perfect parents for his crop of psychic kids, describing how he would feed the babies demon blood to make them strong, and said that he was making deals because he needed permission to get into their homes. When Dean challenged him to learn why, mentioning leading the demon army, Azazel claimed that his endgame went way beyond that, but refused to tell Dean – or the angels he said were on Dean’s shoulder – what his plans actually were, announcing his intention to cover his tracks. The demon killed Samuel’s body by stabbing himself with Samuel’s knife. Deanna made a try for the Colt, but the demon broke her neck. Dean broke free and got the Colt, but the demon, still in Samuel’s body, was already gone.
Unaware of what was happening, Mary had asked John to take her away. John stopped the car in a romantic, secluded place to ask her to marry him, but Samuel showed up, yanked Mary out of the car, and when John tried to stop him, snapped John’s neck, killing him. The demon revealed himself to Mary, saying that he had also killed her parents, and offered to bring John back in exchange for letting him just make an uninterrupted visit to her house ten years later. He promised that she could escape from hunting, and have no more monsters or fears; he promised her safety. Bereft of everything, she agreed, and kissed the demon to seal the deal just as Dean arrived. The demon fled, John awoke, and Castiel touched Dean’s shoulder, transporting him back to the present, where he awoke again on the motel room bed. Castiel told him not to be too hard on himself because he couldn’t have stopped it, that destiny can’t be changed. He said that Dean’s trip had been for him to learn the truth, and that he now knew as much as the angels did. He explained that they knew what Azazel had done to Sam, but not why. He warned Dean that Sam was on a dangerous road and they weren’t sure where it would lead. He told Dean to stop it, or they would. And he told Dean the address where Sam could be found. To be continued …
Commentary and Meta Analysis
One of the things I love most about this show is its continuity, particularly the way that questions raised find further development and even answers in later stories. In The Beginning was an absolute delight in the way it addressed mysteries begun all the way back in the pilot and deepened in other episodes. We learned why Mary’s spirit apologized to Sam in Home and why Mary recognized the demon in the vision of what happened in the nursery that the demon gave Sam in All Hell Breaks Loose, Part 1. We learned that his dream vision hadn’t lied about baby Sam having been fed demon blood. We even heard the demon repeating lines and attitudes in new contexts, including an echo in his reaction to Mary of him calling Sam his favorite in AHBL, P1 and bemoaning the red tape involved in deal-making that he mentioned in AHBL, P2. We met a younger and more vital version of Daniel Elkins, the grizzled old hunter we first saw in Dead Man’s Blood, and heard from Samuel the acknowledgment that the story of the Colt was well known in hunter circles, albeit mostly dismissed as a legend. All of those things made this an incredibly satisfying episode.
The specific story elements I’m going to explore in this commentary include the immutability of destiny, the reasons for Dean’s journey in time and for Sam not accompanying him, and the full scope of the tragedy of the Winchesters.
Causality Paradox and the Immutability of Destiny
My major problem with this episode is one common to virtually every time-travel story: I have issues with paradoxes. On the one hand, Castiel told Dean afterward that he couldn’t have stopped what happened, that destiny couldn’t be changed; but on the other hand, Dean’s presence appeared to directly influence events in very fundamental ways. The biggest one is simply that Samuel and Mary had no reason to be in Haleyville until Mary reacted to Dean’s information about where the yellow-eyed demon would be, and it wasn’t until encountering Mary there that the demon noticed her and marked her as a target – or so he said. Again, it was apparently their presence where they had no intention of being that led to the demon possessing Samuel, and to killing Samuel, Deanna, and John in order to set the stage for making the deal with Mary. It would seem that it was actually Dean’s presence out of time that drove all the events that led to his family’s tragedy. On a lesser level, played for humor, it also seems to have been Dean’s influence that led John to buy the Impala.
I don’t buy that an angel sending Dean traveling in time caused what happened to his family, and I don’t believe that the episode actually intended to suggest that. I think that the real key was another of Castiel’s lines, right after his observation that destiny couldn’t be changed: All roads lead to the same destination. I have two possible explanations to offer in support of this interpretation. One, which assumes that Dean actually was introduced into the real but fluid past by Castiel, with ripple effects like water swirling around a rock tossed into a creek, would posit that while specific details may have been altered by Dean’s presence – for example, exactly how Azazel happened to become aware of Mary that night – all of the individual destinies of the people involved played out the same way they actually did, with Samuel, Deanna, and John all dying that night, and John being returned to life by Mary’s deal. This idea holds that all the same things happened, and that only the specifics of their execution were changed by Dean’s presence. This explanation, however, still has paradox causality problems, with Dean, who presumably wasn’t present the first time around, having direct causative impacts on the people and events of his own history – including the yellow-eyed demon – using information from the future about the past to shape that past.
My second possible explanation is that Castiel gave Dean a true dream of the past, something essentially real and true to events, but with details altered to accommodate his point-of-view presence. In other words, it was real to him, and adjusted on the basis of the decisions he made, but it wasn’t real to history, at least not in terms of Dean actually having been present and interacting with his family before he was ever born. This posits that he saw essentially what happened, with everyone he encountered acting true to themselves and reacting as they would have if Dean had been present, based on the knowledge available to Castiel.
I don’t know which approach actually works for me, and I don’t know that it matters. I loved the episode for itself, for the personal stories and the performances, but causality paradoxes give me headaches. However, if only for Azazel having to remember in that frozen instant before he died that Dean had promised even before he was born that he would be the one to kill him, and that Azazel hadn’t believed that claim and even accepted John’s deal to save Dean’s life in despite of it, dismissing Dean as being of little consequence, I could wish that Dean’s timeshifted version of the past was actually real. If it was real, however, I do wonder how the Colt actually got back to Daniel Elkins without John learning about either the weapon or the man, and whether Elkins – who hadn’t heard of the Campbells as hunters until Dean told him about them – had eventually told John the truth about his wife’s heritage when John finally did meet him after Mary’s death.
The Reasons For It All
I guessed from the outset that Dean would be unable to change the past in any truly paradoxical way that would have changed the history of his own life, including what happened to his family. My immediate thought at the end of the episode was that Castiel had been around Dean long enough to realize that Dean wasn’t inclined to believe anything that he was told unless he already intimately trusted the source, and that the best way to teach him was through his own direct experience. If Castiel had simply told Dean what Azazel had done to Sam, Dean might not have believed him despite the doubts he already felt. Hearing his plans directly from the demon’s mouth, however, made them very real to Dean, and primed him to accept Castiel’s warning about Sam being on a dangerous road leading to who knows where.
Accordingly, the most obvious reason for Dean’s time-trip was exactly what Castiel said: an opportunity for him to learn the truth, and to know everything that Castiel and his forces already knew about Sam and Azazel in order to predispose him to act as Castiel desires. But I think there might have been other reasons as well, and that they included giving Castiel the opportunity to truly understand Dean and forcing Dean to face himself.
From the outset, Castiel, in his innocence of human understanding, has displayed curiosity about Dean. When Dean first refused to believe his assertion that he was an angel and then questioned why an angel would have rescued him from Hell, Castiel openly asked him what was wrong, and answered his own question with wonder when he observed without understanding that Dean didn’t believe that he deserved to be saved. It was very clear that Castiel was unfamiliar with the psychological complexity of humans, and particularly inexperienced with non-believers.
When Castiel appeared to Dean during his drive to Colorado, I think he was honestly curious, not judging, when he questioned Dean about his feelings, asking if Dean didn’t care that all the people he had saved would die if he changed the past and he, John, and Sam didn’t become hunters to save them. Castiel already knew that Dean had no chance to actually affect the outcome, so his question was a purely intellectual one, but it forced Dean to consider how much he himself has changed. We saw Dean face that same question before in his djinn-induced dream in What Is And What Should Never Be, when he decided at his father’s grave – and before he realized that the dream-world was false – to sacrifice his imperfect but sweet wish reality to restore the life he had known despite its loss and pain precisely in order to save all the people who would otherwise have died. This time, however, given the opportunity really to know and to save both of his parents, he couldn’t face giving them and his brother up in favor of numbers of strangers. In the aftermath of losing his whole family, including having seen his brother die as a consequence of the demon’s interference, and following his own deal, death, and resurrection, Dean has finally hit his limit on personal sacrifice. He’s a different man than he was before because of what he’s suffered in the year since encountering the djinn.
In the moment when Castiel reappeared just after Dean saw Mary sealing her deal and unwittingly the doom of her family, Dean’s anguish over his failure and the complete desolation of his family’s loss was plain on his face. However briefly, what Castiel showed him then was compassion. Compassion requires empathy and understanding, and I believe this was the first time Castiel had enough of both regarding Dean to be able to approach him on an emotional level. Without the opportunity to observe Dean and his own soul-searching on this sojourn into the past, I don’t think Castiel would have achieved this degree of understanding and appreciation. I would submit that Castiel has learned as much from this experience as Dean. And I would also submit that Castiel’s compassion for Dean in that moment was the surest proof we’re yet received that Castiel is what he claims to be, and in no way an agent of evil.
I do wonder when and under what circumstances Castiel will reveal himself to Sam. I suspect that there were two major reasons Sam was not included on this jaunt into the past, and that the first and simplest was that Castiel knew that Sam was already aware of the single most salient detail that Dean had to learn: that Sam had been tainted with demon blood. I would guess, however, that the second and more important reason was actually to keep Sam as safe as possible by keeping him remote from another direct connection with Azazel, which might have resulted in him being pushed further down the dark path than whatever he is currently doing with Ruby. Since there was no chance for whoever went back in time to actually affect events, it would have been foolish to risk a confrontation between Sam and Azazel that might have adversely affected Sam on his return to the present, and it’s a fair bet that Sam, had he been with Dean, would have found the temptation to use his powers to save his parents irresistible when everything else inevitably failed. I suspect that would have been catastrophic for Sam, and perhaps for everyone.
Given what Azazel told Dean about his criteria for choosing the parents of his special children, it seems most likely that Sam’s psychic abilities are indeed a direct result of the demon’s interference, not something innately human that he inherited and that Azazel simply wanted to warp to his own purposes. I found it fascinating that, even though Dean had told Azazel the date of his birth, and it was less than six years from the date of events rather than being in the ten year target timeframe of his demon deals, Azazel nonetheless momentarily wondered if Dean might have been one of his, and sniffed him for the taint. Had Azazel perhaps been busier than we knew, and might there be other products of Azazel’s breeding program who are older than Sam and were intended to serve some different purpose in Azazel’s endgame than competing to become the leader of his demon army and the most obvious instrument of his plans? Is Ruby a part of Azazel’s endgame, picking up subtly to groom Sam for his true role where Azazel’s death forced him to leave off? If Castiel was hoping for additional intelligence on that score, he didn’t acquire it.
In The Beginning finally gave us the context to appreciate the full magnitude of the Winchester family tragedy. For the first time, we can really understand just how much John lost. We knew from our brief glimpse of the happy family before the fire in the pilot that John had been a loving husband and father, but we hadn’t known the true depth of his innocence: that despite being a Marine with wartime service in Vietnam, he had still managed to retain a sweet belief in “happily ever after” and a cheerful, open friendliness that reached out to strangers. The closed-off, stern, angry, suspicious, uncompromising man that he became after Mary’s death – the man who reluctantly admitted having become a drill sergeant instead of a father – was alien to the young man in the diner. Seeing with adult eyes the very different man his father had been before the ruin the demon had made of his life was heartbreaking for Dean, and for us.
Even more heartbreaking was learning that Sam, despite his many similarities to John, took after Mary in the depth of his passion to be free of the hunting life, to be able to embrace safety, security, and normality. Knowing already that Mary’s fierce determination to give her children a better life was thwarted by reality, and then learning that the deal she made precisely to ensure that life was what destroyed it, was bitter grief for Dean. He couldn’t blame Mary for her choice, especially not remembering his own. He had thought that the Winchester cycle of sacrifice began with John, but the first deal had been Mary’s, and without it, none of them would even have existed.
I found it very telling that Azazel promised Mary not just John’s life, but also safety and security, and said he would ensure that no monsters would bother her. I had wondered how anyone raised as a hunter could have chosen to neglect basic precautions, knowing what darkness hid beneath the normal surface of the world, but Azazel’s deal meant that she didn’t have to worry about the rest of the supernatural world – just about what Azazel would eventually do. As the years passed and the immediate terror and loss receded, how easy it would have been gradually to relax vigilance, to accept the present good – and how incredibly horrifying it must have been when she saw that figure in the nursery and realized that Azazel’s real target was her baby boy. In that instant, she reneged on her deal. She had to know that she had no real chance to interfere, given how easily the demon had handled everything thrown at it in the past, but she couldn’t turn away from the defense of her child.
I wonder how much of the story of their family’s past Dean will share with Sam, especially given the unnatural way in which he learned it. I suspect that, right after Castiel’s warning, he’s going to be flying anger flags, rightly assuming that Sam has been learning to use his demon-given powers and has lied to him about it, but I wonder how long it will take for him to be able to step down the anger in favor of trying more rational conciliation. Given that his anger is born of his fear for his brother’s safety, and that he has a lifetime of fear stored up as fuel, it’s going to be very hard for Dean to turn the anger off, but I predict that Sam, who understandably believes in his decisions and the good that he’s doing, will react defensively and badly unless and until he can see past Dean’s anger to understand the core of his fear and to realize that it’s not fear of him, but fear for him. I think we’re going to be in for rocky times and more family tragedy before they manage to share their secrets and truly come together again. To be continued ...
Causality paradoxes aside, Jeremy Carver’s script on his and Eric Kripke’s story positively sang, and everyone responsible for casting this episode deserves kudos for having assembled the absolutely best company of performers to bring it to life. Mitch Pileggi was pitch-perfect as both gruff Samuel Campbell and as flamboyant Azazel, the yellow-eyed demon, putting his own stamp on the latter role fully as solidly as Fred Lehne did back in seasons one and two. Azazel is evil, and his delight in causing misery and pain and then drinking it in like fine wine came gleefully off the screen in Pileggi’s performance. This is one of those times when I found it easy to forget how much I liked the actor in his many other roles, because his Samuel was convincingly alive as himself and his Azazel made my skin crawl. His sniffing Dean for demon taint, casually murdering Deanna and John, and lusting after the deal with Mary gave me goosebumps. His behavior would have been over the top for any other character, but for Azazel, it hit the mark.
Newcomers Amy Gumenick and Matthew Cohen convincingly carried off young Mary and John both in talent terms and through their amazing physical resemblance to Samantha Smith and Jeffrey Dean Morgan; I could see them growing into their mature characters. Gumenick had more of an opportunity to shine given the structure of the story, and she sold both the physical and emotional aspects of the role of a reluctant hunter who wanted love and family and was reduced to losing everything. On the action front, I particularly enjoyed not only her initial fight with Dean, but the way she read and responded to his tiny facial signal to break away from the demon and give him a clean shot.
We didn’t get a lot of Cohen, but what we had was more than enough to illustrate just how sweetly different John had been before the supernatural invaded his life, while still showcasing the calm strength that would eventually turn to hunter granite. We also didn’t see much of Alison Hossack as Deanna Campbell, Dean’s grandmother and evident namesake, but she included nice touches in her performance that helped to establish Deanna as a competent hunter in her own right, from her casual, flashing knife work while preparing a fruit salad to her cautious advance toward the Colt when she realized that her husband was possessed. At the same time, she gave us a glimpse of what Mary might have been like as both a hunter and mother, affectionately managing her crotchety husband, welcoming a stranger to dinner, and matter-of-factly discussing hunter business.
My only quibble with the script apart from the causality paradox issue was Castiel’s artificial and misleading “You have to stop it” instruction to Dean in the beginning and in their first encounter in the past. Admittedly, implying that he had the chance to change the past both sucked us in and made Dean invest fully in the experience, but it was duplicitous and caused Dean far more pain than if he’d been told outright that he could look and touch but not change. Azazel was honest with Sam when he gave Sam his view of the past; it felt off that an angel wouldn’t have been as forthright with Dean. Then again, Castiel has had far less experience with humans than Azazel, and may honestly not have realized the full effect that the experience would have on Dean. He definitely conveyed compassion at the end – well, until he reverted back to being a remote advisor and gave Dean his warning about Sam. Misha Collins continues to do nicely at keeping Castiel non-human.
I got a major kick out of the series spending time in the 1970’s. The signs (Tab!), the wardrobe, the hairstyles, and the makeup all fit the period; I grinned for the combination of Mary’s pale lipstick and heavy mascara, and for the hippie get-up on the diner’s counter man. The gorgeous cars made me wonder if the studio put out a call for extras to the local classic car club, and I’ll admit that I briefly wondered why Dean didn’t react first to the cars in the street while on his way to the diner! My first car was a gold 1973 Ford Pinto, so I laughed to see what Dean wound up driving after persuading John to buy the Impala – not my Pinto, but close enough!
For his direction here, I could even almost forgive director Steve Boyum for having taken the spotlights off the Impala back when he was shooting Dream a Little Dream of Me. (On second thought, I’m not going to forgive him until the spotlights get put back. Hear me, Powers That Be? I want Dean’s best girl’s spotlights back!) I also particularly enjoyed the music, including the return of “Ramblin’ Man” by the Allman Brothers Band, which has been on my Supernatural playlist since the pilot. Now I’m going to have to dig out the other background tunes, including what Mary was listening to when Dean stopped to say goodbye, and wound up overcome with emotion.
And speaking of overcome, my last notes go to Jensen Ackles. This was his episode in the same way that he owned What Is And What Should Never Be, and I loved what he brought to it. His chemistry with both Pileggi and Gumenick was magnetic. From his astonished disbelief at meeting his father, his delight in Mary’s beauty, and his amusement in sparring with Samuel to his grief at hearing what his future mother wanted and would never have, his desperate determination to defeat the demon and save his parents, and the utter devastation of his final defeat, Dean ran the gamut of emotion, and Jensen gave us every minute of it.
I don’t believe that Sam could logically have been a part of this particular story of discovery, given the danger likely inherent in having him mix it up directly with Azazel now that he’s using his powers, so I have no qualms about Jared Padalecki not having been on tap for this episode. I do hope that the first minutes of the next episode see Dean showing up at the address where Sam and Ruby are, even though I’m certain that the first really serious fight of their reunion will be the inevitable result and they’ll both wind up scarred by it.
In The Beginning added new dimensions to a story we thought we already knew, and made it something more. We’re three episodes into the new season, and every one is a keeper.