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4.4 Metamorphosis: I’m A Whole New Level Of Freak

4.4 Metamorphosis: I’m A Whole New Level Of Freak

Flesh-eating monster
Is born human, then transforms:
Can choice defeat fate?

Episode Summary

Accompanied by Ruby, Sam interrogated a captured demon for information on Lilith’s whereabouts, but the demon just scorned him for slutting around with a demon and taunted him about what he’d done during the months that Dean had spent in Hell. Sam exorcised the demon with his mind, leaving the host injured but alive, and reported with delight that he no longer got headaches from using his ability. He didn’t realize that Dean, alerted to his location by Castiel, had been watching. Dean demanded an explanation, starting with who the girl was, and recognized Ruby when she greeted him. He attacked Ruby with the knife, but Sam wrestled it away from him and Ruby grabbed him by the throat, only backing off when Sam ordered her away. Ruby took the injured host away, presumably to the nearest hospital, and Dean walked out on Sam in disgust.

Hours later, Dean returned to their motel room only to start packing, telling Sam that Sam didn’t need him and he and Ruby could keep hunting demons together. When Sam tried to stop him and talk to him, Dean hit him twice, and asked him angrily if he even knew how far he’d gone. When Sam protested that he was just exorcising demons, Dean demanded to know what else he could do, and countered Sam’s assertion that he could send them back to Hell and that was all with the sarcastic observation that of course he had every reason to believe that, after Sam had lied to him. Sam tried to defend what he was doing by saying that most of the hosts survived his mental exorcisms, and that he’d been able to save a lot more people than the brothers had when they were working together, but Dean asked if that was what Ruby wanted him to believe and had used to trick him into using his abilities, and said that Sam was on a slippery slope. Sam argued that he wouldn’t let it go too far, but Dean maintained that it already had, saying that hunters would want to hunt Sam for what he had become. He asked Sam why, if what he was doing was so good, Sam had lied about it, and then asked why an angel would have told him to stop Sam, revealing what Castiel had told him. Before they could resolve the fight, Sam got a call from an old family hunter friend, Travis, asking his help in tracking down a man he thought was a danger in Carthage, Missouri. The brothers responded to the call.

On the way, Dean told Sam about his trip into the past, reporting what he’d learned about the Campbells having been hunters and sharing his new memories of Mary and John as happy, hopeful people, as well as the news that the Yellow-Eyed Demon had killed their maternal grandparents. When Sam asked why the demon had gone to all that trouble just to drip blood into his mouth – a little detail of knowledge that Dean hadn’t shared – Dean learned that Sam had known that part for a year and never told him, deepening his anger and distrust.

In Missouri, they discovered that Jack Montgomery, an otherwise normal and ordinary man, had developed an irresistible and bizarre appetite. They returned to their hotel room to find Travis, an older hunter they hadn’t seen for ten years, waiting for them. He told them that Jack was a rugaru, a creature that started out looking human but transformed once adult into a monster that ate human flesh. He maintained that the transformation was inevitable, that their appetite for people always proved irresistible, and that once they took their first bite of human, they changed. He reported that he’d killed Jack’s father by burning him alive after he’d killed eight people, and only learned afterward that the man’s wife had been pregnant at the time and had put her child up for adoption. He said he hadn’t had the will to hunt down and kill the child, but now that he was grown, he had to be killed before he killed in his turn. Jack, meanwhile, found himself peculiarly disturbed by his wife’s blood when she accidentally cut her finger. He fled to a bar, where he discovered, in facing off against a bully pestering a woman, that he had unusual strength and an urge toward violence.

Troubled, Sam did his own research, turning up stories of rugaru who had successfully fought off the final transformation by never eating human flesh. He insisted that they talk to Jack and try to persuade him to control his urges. Dean questioned whether Sam was identifying too much with Jack, seeing himself in a similar position, and Sam opened the floodgates, revealing that he considered the demon blood in him to be a disease he couldn’t escape, and that using his powers to do good was the only way he had found to try to bring something good out of his curse. Dean offered the olive branch of recognizing Jack as a man and agreeing to talk to him. They explained what they knew to Jack, but he tried to dismiss what they said as insanity, and threw them out when they revealed that his real father had been killed as they indicated he would have to be, if he turned.

Despite having tried to ignore them, however, Jack pondered what they had said, retreating from his wife to think. Seeing the woman from the bar undressing in her apartment, he felt the urges rise and started to act on them, triggering the boys into trying to save the girl, but he managed to exert control before actually following through. He returned home only to find Travis there, holding his wife, Michelle, prisoner. Travis chloroformed him and tied him up, and forced Michelle to reveal that she had told him she was pregnant. Travis apologized, but said he would have to kill them both, and started to spread gasoline in order to burn them alive. The fear for his wife caused Jack to tap into the inhuman strength of his rugaru self, and he broke free and tore out Travis’s throat, feeding on him. He released Michelle and she fled from him, having seen what he had done to Travis.

Sam and Dean arrived to discover Travis dead and mostly eaten, and Jack surprised them and knocked them out, locking Sam in a closet. Sam awoke to hear Jack contemplating eating Dean, and picked the lock on the closet while he tried to negotiate with Jack, learning that Travis had intended to burn Michelle alive but not learning why. Sam tried to persuade Jack not to kill, telling him that only what he did mattered, not what he was, but Jack charged him and Sam caught him with his flamethrower, burning him to death.

Afterward, Dean tried to reassure Sam that he had done the right thing and apologized for having been hard on him, admitting that Sam’s psychic abilities scared the crap out of him. Sam brushed off his apology and told him it didn’t matter, because he had made his own choice and wasn’t going to use his abilities again since using them was playing with fire.

Commentary and Meta Analysis

Supernatural has never been subtle about drawing the parallels between the external monsters the boys fight and their own internal demons. This is definitely ground we’ve covered before, and Metamorphosis might be dismissed as being simply a very heavy anvil retread of concepts already explored, sometimes more delicately, in Nightmare, In My Time of Dying, Bloodlust, Simon Said, Hunted, Houses of the Holy, and Fresh Blood, among others. We’ve dealt before with Sam’s fears about being a freak and having an evil destiny laid out for him by the demon, and with the question about whether creatures – vampires being a specific case in point – could successfully choose to act against their base natures and elect not to be evil, as an allegory for whether Sam might have the same ability to choose to evade the demon’s destiny for him. We’ve already seen Dean dealing with his hunter prejudices against non-human things and eventually setting them aside when they ran into either his love for his brother or his realization that what he’d always felt and assumed wasn’t necessarily true. In that regard, Metamorphosis does indeed revisit earlier themes, and in a blatantly obvious way.

I would submit, however, that it also takes us into new territory and advances the story of the Winchester brothers in important ways, because it gives us our first glimpse into what happened to Sam after Dean died, and lays the groundwork for understanding how much Sam has changed in the intervening time. Metamorphosis is only a small step along that path, but I think it’s an essential one, and that’s the point I intend to explore in this analytical discussion.

Lead Us Not Into Temptation, And Deliver Us From Evil

When his powers initially appeared in the very first season, Sam was terrified by them. The dreams and visions brought crippling pain and forced him to ask why he could see such things, and why all of them involved death and destruction. He initially hid them from Dean because he knew Dean would be freaked out by them, and because he was afraid that Dean wouldn’t see him and love him the same way if he knew that Sam had abnormal abilities. When he did finally reveal them, Dean was freaked out, no matter how much he tried to deny it, but he didn’t love his brother any less, and was afraid for him, not of him.

When Sam learned at the end of the first season that the demon had plans for him and all the other psychic kids, he began to fear what those plans meant and to believe that they doomed him to some evil destiny he might not be able to avoid. That really was the theme of his quest during the entire second season, and played into what Dean told him about John’s admonition that Dean had to save Sam, and would have to kill him if he couldn’t save him. Both of the brothers wrestled with that destiny concept throughout season two, with Dean nearly losing his sanity before concluding that he would save Sam no matter what, and with Sam going through a phase in which he tried to do as much good as possible in order to stave off his fall. Ultimately, Sam learned at least the first part of the demon’s plans for him, and rejected it at the cost of his life; he chose not to kill Jake when he had the clear opportunity, and Jake instead killed him. Utterly defeated and bereft, Dean sold his soul to bring his brother back, and just reset the stage again.

In season three, Sam seemed to be free of his powers and to have stepped aside successfully from his purported evil destiny; the demons may have referred to him as the boy who would have been king, but he was secure in knowing that he’d dodged the bullet. With Dean facing a death sentence at the end of a year, however, Sam grew increasingly desperate to find a way to save him, and when Ruby ultimately dangled the reawakening of his powers as the only way to succeed, Sam was ready to accept them and damn the consequences. Only Dean’s adamant refusal to let him do it saved him from taking that step.

We learned in Lazarus Rising that Sam’s desperation to get Dean out of Hell left him open to considering anything that would work; he admitted flat-out to Dean and Bobby that he’d even tried to open the devil’s gate and to make a deal, but failed at the first and couldn’t find any takers for the second. His failure to free Dean clearly tormented him. We also saw what he hid from Dean: that he was consorting with Ruby and had learned how to exorcise demons with his mind, but that was all we knew.

Metamorphosis finally let both us and Dean see a little bit into Sam’s mind. In his fights with Dean in the motel and on the roadside, he finally revealed that he had been every bit as bereft as Dean had been when he had died, but that because he hadn’t been able to get his brother back as Dean had done, he’d been forced to go on alone and make decisions alone. Dean had charged him to keep fighting, and that’s what Sam had done. We still don’t know – and I very much look forward to learning – exactly how Ruby returned and became his companion, but we can guess that she persuaded him that he could tap into his powers without being ruled by them in order to save lives, and that without Dean refusing to let him consider it, he’d elected to try.

Dean clearly still has no conscious memories of his time in Hell. I believed him when he told Bobby in Lazarus Rising that he remembered being a hellhound’s chew toy, and then lights out, with nothing more until he woke up in his grave. I think that when he actually does remember more than just those flashing dream glimpses of terror and blood, he’s going to be overwhelmed by it with no way to hide what he feels, and it will probably come close to destroying him. For the moment, however, it’s as if no time has passed for Dean since his death; he died, he woke up, with nothing in between. Listening to Sam, I saw Dean comprehending for the first time just how much time had passed for Sam, and how hard it had been for Sam to be alone, especially carrying the guilt of his death and damnation. He had realized it earlier with Bobby and the liquor bottles, but I don’t think he’d really applied that knowledge to Sam until now.

I also saw Sam having rounded a corner in his own mind, because what he admitted was that he had dared to use his powers, and nothing bad happened. Working with Ruby, he developed his control and learned to exert himself without the pain he always used to experience. Ruby found the way to convince him that his powers could be used for good, and that led to him actively pursuing and practicing with them. This was a far cry from his initial fear of them, and from his active distaste at thinking about what the demon had intended for him. He had learned from sweet, innocent Andy’s example in both Simon Said and All Hell Breaks Loose, Part 1 that developing the powers in small ways didn’t necessarily corrupt the spirit, at least not immediately, but he’d never really accepted that idea before; after Dean died, he bought what Ruby was selling, turning off the little voice that warned about what had happened when Andy’s brother Anson and Ava and Jake had all developed their skills to the point where they no longer suffered pain when using them. All that remained of his earlier caution and fear was the remnant of shame at considering himself a freak contaminated by demon blood, and his innate understanding that Dean would never agree that using his powers was right.

While the boys’ argument in the car about whether Jack could resist temptation echoed many other older debates, with Sam, as he had in seasons one and two, arguing in favor of treating Jack as an individual and giving him the benefit of the doubt and Dean reprising his attitude from seasons past of doubting that evil wouldn’t turn evil, I don’t consider it either just a rehash of issues or a retreat from the characters’ evolved perceptions. Sam had become more bloody-minded in season three, but saving people was still his rationale for hunting, so his defense of Jack rang true. Similarly, Dean didn’t insist that Jack’s redemption was impossible, as he likely would have done before his gradual conversion from single-mindedness during season two, but just made the argument that he needed to know where Sam would be if Jack did turn. The major change was that the fights in this episode constituted the first and only time I can recall, apart from their argument in Houses of the Holy, when Dean actually mentioned to Sam the possibility that Sam might be doing evil and need to be stopped. Every other time they argued about his putative destiny, Dean had always maintained that Sam had choice, that Sam wasn’t fated to become what he feared to be; this was the first time I can recall Dean asking Sam to think about whether he might be wrong and fail.

Sam’s announcement at the end of Metamorphosis that he wouldn’t use his powers again was thus something more and different than just his earlier fear and rejection of them. It wasn’t simply rewinding the story to an earlier point and repeating earlier decisions. Before making this decision this time, he had graduated to the point of using his powers expertly without fearing them, and even justified them because of the good they could do. He was well on his way to accepting them and losing both his fear of them and whatever residual distrust he felt for Ruby, and actively defended that position to Dean. It took hearing that an angel had told Dean to stop him, together with seeing yet another good person pushed over the edge by the pressure of evil, to make Sam decide that he had to set temptation aside. I do believe that Sam was in earnest in what he said, and was not trying simply to mislead Dean into thinking that he had changed.

His decision is also different than his earlier ones for another reason. Previously, even when he desperately decided to access and use his powers consciously despite his fear of them, he had never been able to because he didn’t know how; hence his total inability to oppose the Yellow-Eyed Demon when Azazel had taunted him and tortured Dean in front of him in Devil’s Trap, or to do anything actively to prevent Dean’s death in No Rest For The Wicked. I do believe that Sam told the truth when he told Dean than the only things he had learned to do involved holding and exorcising demons; otherwise, I think he’d have deliberately used the telekinesis he’d tapped unconsciously in Nightmare to open the closet door and stop Jack from killing Dean. I think that Ruby was constrained in training him to delivering only the forms of knowledge he was willing to accept, and that he hadn’t yet gotten to the point of being willing to do overtly non-human things with regard to anything but demons. I would guess that telekinesis had too often been a demon’s weapon against him for him to have felt comfortable in using it, especially knowing how using it had played out for Max in Nightmare.

Now that he knows how to access and use at least some of his abilities consciously, however, and that he can do so without automatically becoming overtly evil, I think he will have a much harder time resisting the temptation to use them in desperate situations. I suspect that his resolve will be tested when he and Dean come up against a demon who gets the upper hand, especially if Dean is in danger. I believe that what happened to Jack is a clear and very anvil-obvious foreshadowing of the principal danger to Sam: that if he’s pushed hard enough, particularly by a threat to the one person he loves the most, he may accept his power in order to defend what he most values, and that he might do it even knowing that his humanity would be the price. Had Travis not threatened to kill Michelle, and to do it horrifically by burning her to death, Jack might have remained human; we’d seen that he had the will to resist his urges, once he understood what they were. Saving Michelle, however, was his irresistible temptation, and delivered him to evil even as he tried to prevent evil to her. Dean accepted death and Hell to save Sam, and we know that Sam is more than willing to do the same to save him. And if using his powers hadn’t warped him yet, suggesting that, unlike Jack, he could take a bite without automatically condemning himself, holding to his resolve not to use them may be all the harder.

Loose Ends

On another note, Dean’s acceptance of Castiel as an angel and of the concomitant existence of God appears to be certain following his journey into the past. Dean referring to God and an angel so matter-of-factly – not to mention his having given his angel a nickname! – marks a major turning point for Dean. He may not yet have faith – he may still require overt demonstrations of power and specifically designated orders from a being that he can see – but he’s come a long way from the man and boy who’d bitterly dismissed in the aftermath of his family’s destruction his mother’s gentle promise that angels were watching over him. That Sam still believes was reflected in the look of loss on his face when Dean reported that Castiel had said that if Dean didn’t stop Sam, Castiel would; Sam still desperately wants to do good and had justified the use of his powers because he was saving lives and doing good, and hearing that an angel abjured him for it was a body blow.

On the matter of secrets, it’s clear that there are still things that the brothers are keeping from each other. We know that Dean shared a lot of information concerning his trip to the past, but we also know that he had deliberately withheld the information that the demon had fed Sam demon blood. I would bet that Dean was trying to protect Sam from that specific piece of knowledge, understanding at least a little how he would feel about it and not wanting to admit himself how much it revolted him. Learning that Sam already knew and had been deliberately hiding the knowledge from him for a whole year just damaged the trust between them further. We don’t know whether Dean told Sam all of the rest, particularly that Mary made a deal and that she had made it to bring John back to life; we only know for certain from what was said in the car that he told Sam that the Campbells had been hunters, and that the demon had killed them as part of its plan.

Sam still hasn’t told Dean how Ruby came to be working with him, or any of the specifics on what they’d been doing together. I suspect that at least some of Dean’s rage and disgust at discovering Ruby was recognizing her as the girl who’d been in Sam’s hotel room in Lazarus Rising, with the intimation there, deliberately cultivated by both of them, that they had been sleeping together. I suspect that wasn’t actually the case – I do think that Sam would draw the line at sex with a possessed host, or at least, I devoutly hope he would – but the idea was inescapable. And given that Sam lied so fluently and easily about not using his powers, it will take time for Dean to be able to trust his word again, even when he is telling the truth. Facing that constant skepticism will doubtless breed resentment in Sam, opening another dangerous potential for a rift between the brothers.

Finally, the situation with Travis opened up some interesting issues. The story established that Travis hadn’t seen the Winchester brothers for at least ten years, since they’d been boys hunting with their dad. How Travis got Sam’s phone number, and why he would have sought out Sam rather than some other hunter to help in his rugaru hunt while he dealt with his broken arm, are niggling questions, although I could guess that Travis might have called Bobby for help and been referred to Sam and Dean, since they were relatively close and he already knew them. More interesting, however, was Travis’s clear ignorance of Dean’s death and resurrection, which suggests that the hunter world at large is not generally aware that Dean had died, much less gone to Hell and been subsequently resurrected. I had wondered about that. Bobby had clearly told Pamela, the psychic, since he needed her help to find out who or what had brought Dean back, but the question remains whether either Bobby or Sam had told any other hunters what had happened to Dean. That Travis had once been a friend but didn’t know suggests that neither Bobby nor Sam had spread the word, even to others who had known and might have mourned Dean. I was wondering whether Dean might become the subject of hunts given the unnatural nature of his return, but it would seem that, unless demons have been talking to hunters out of turn the way one did to Gordon about Sam, Dean won’t become a target for other hunters simply because they don’t know he was dead. I do wonder whether any others who had really been close to the boys – and I’m specifically thinking about Ellen and Jo here – or who had a peculiar penchant for knowing things, like Rufus Tanner, might have been told or found out that Dean was dead, and whether we’ll ever learn their reaction. This hadn’t been as much of an issue in my mind with respect to Sam’s death precisely because so little time had passed before Dean had gotten him back, but given that Dean had been dead and buried for months, I had expected that other hunters would have known about him. Surprise.

Production Notes

For one brief, shining moment, I thought that the Powers-That-Be had finally restored the spotlights to the Impala; then I realized that editor Anthony Pinker had just used an old piece of footage from one of the first two seasons to briefly extend the driving scene before the argument at the side of the road. Sigh. I really want her spotlights back!

Eric Kripke had to be delighted at what he got past the network Standards and Practices people on this one: the level of gross was phenomenal, and the scene of Jack ripping a chunk out of Travis’s neck and chewing was amazingly graphic for television. Pardon me as I go, Ewwww!

Cathryn Humphris’s script for Metamorphosis was heavy-handed on the obvious parallels between Sam and Jack, but what worked in the script was having the boys specifically referencing those parallels and using them as the springboard for the discussion that had to happen between them. I’m personally glad that this happened so early in the season, because getting the rift out in the open means we’ll get the chance to see how they deal with their trust and truth issues, rather than having to wait to see how they would eventually explode. I’m also very curious to see what happens next between Sam and Ruby, given Sam’s announced decision, and whether Sam’s intent may affect whether Castiel might appear to him as well as to Dean the next time he shows up. The only specific detail that I really didn’t like in the script was Dean’s line in the motel fight about using the knife; it set up an artificial difference to let Sam claim superiority in using his powers over the brothers’ traditional methods. Since the boys always preferred to use a straight exorcism – which also left the host alive, providing the demon hadn’t hurt the human too badly – and used the knife only in combat when speed was more vital, it didn’t make sense to me that Dean would have talked about using the knife rather than using an exorcism.

Precisely because it was such an obvious allegory, the Jack and Michelle story was less than entirely satisfying. On the one hand, we needed to spend the time with them to establish Jack’s essential humanity, the reality of his loving relationship with his wife, and the hideous strength of the transformation that was occurring within Jack, so that we would care about them as people and appreciate the tragedy and the irony of Jack being pushed over the edge by Travis. I appreciated the performances by Dameon Clarke as Jack and Joanne Kelly as Michelle; I thought they sold the characters, and I liked Jack and Michelle both as individual people and as a married couple with both stresses and love. On the other hand, precisely because this is a horror show, I predicted from the outset that Jack was doomed, and thus wanted to spend more time with Sam and Dean than to try investing in Jack and Michelle. Accordingly, I think that the story structure damaged the effectiveness of the guest characters. I know that I’ll probably fast-forward through most of their scenes when I watch the episode in the future.

I loved all of the scenes between Sam and Dean, especially Dean walking in on Sam and Ruby, their two fights in the motel and on the roadside, and the moments in the car when Dean shared his memories of their young parents. It was a real shock to see Dean, after a night evidently spent thinking and probably drinking, packing to leave Sam; that more than anything else showed how deep the loss of trust had cut. We’d seen Dean drive off in Scarecrow when Sam insisted on going his own way against Dean’s orders from John, but we’d never seen Dean of his own will choose to leave Sam. Sam was always the one who left: for Stanford, in Scarecrow, in Hunted. Dean was always the one who stayed. Seeing him deliberately hit Sam – twice! – to drive his anger home was something I hadn’t thought I’d see again, not after the way Dean had beaten himself up for hitting Sam back in Bloodlust, but nothing else would have fit in that moment, and his later assault on the motel room when he felt he had to hit something but wouldn’t hit his brother again really brought it home.

Kim Manners excels at pulling emotion out of both Jensen and Jared without either of them going over the top. Their anger in both fights was palpable, and felt both real and consistent to me. Jensen sold both Dean’s fury and his very gradual softening as he watched Sam fighting tears both in the motel room and in the roadside dispute and began to empathize with Sam’s pain, and Jared conveyed Sam’s desperation, loss and dedication to doing good, together with his bewilderment and uncertainty at being challenged by an angel, with quiet conviction. Dean’s attempt to apologize and Sam’s somewhat self-absorbed dismissal left wounds still unhealed in both of them. I’m sure some fans were disappointed, wanting a more blatant and complete reconciliation, but I thought Jensen’s and Jared’s restraint in their conclusion made the emotions all the more powerful for being subtle, especially since the rest of the episode was anything but subtle. The brothers can hurt each other more than anyone else can hurt either of them, and there aren’t easy fixes for human emotions no matter how great the love between them; this uneasy and incomplete resolution felt like a realistic step along the path to me, especially since Sam, who had managed to convince himself of the rightness of what he was doing through months of positive action, had his entire rationalization so thoroughly upended. It leaves a lot of issues still open, but gives the brothers the chance to create a little breathing room for each other and let the deepest cuts scab over before they start picking at them again.

In terms of the shooting style, I liked Kim’s use of mirrors and reflections in his choice of shots: Jack brushing his teeth in the bathroom and then collapsing in pain as the first hint of transformation rippled through his body, and later first seeing himself in the bar mirror and then having his eyes reflected in the window glass as he resisted temptation were very effective at both conveying his introspection and showing him becoming the reverse of what he was. Best of all, however, was the shot of Sam looking out the Impala’s window and announcing his decision. Especially on the heels of Dean’s quiet promise that he didn’t have to deal with the demon blood thing alone, focusing the shot purely on Sam and his reflection gave the lie to Dean’s line; the power is within Sam, and ultimately he alone will determine whether he uses it or not.



Tags: dean winchester, episode commentaries, jared padalecki, jensen ackles, kim manners, meta, sam winchester, supernatural, supernatural university
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