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4.6 Yellow Fever: That’s Fear; It Spreads and Spreads

4.6 Yellow Fever: That’s Fear; It Spreads and Spreads

Ghost sickness breeds fear.
Dean, infected, faces death.
Fear can kill ghosts, too.

Episode Summary

Running through the night to the echoing sounds of hellhounds baying, a terror-stricken Dean fled from … a beribboned Yorkie?

Forty-three hours earlier, Dean and Sam passed the town sawmill on their way into Rock Ridge, Colorado to investigate the apparent heart-attack death of healthy marathoner and softball player Frank O’Brien and two similar deaths in a neighboring town the day after O’Brien’s. Posing as FBI agents, they conned the local coroner into doing an autopsy which revealed that O’Brien’s arms and hands were scratched up but his heart was perfectly healthy, providing no explanation for why his heart had stopped. Tracking witness statements that indicated O’Brien had been nervous and even terrified before his death, the brothers visited the local sheriff, one of O’Brien’s softball-playing friends, who appeared to be curiously afraid of germs and said that he’d finally gone to see O’Brien’s body that morning. Departing the sheriff’s office, Dean walked our of his way to avoid a group of teenagers near the Impala. Their next witness, O’Brien’s neighbor, kept reptiles and amphibians as pets, and Dean was on edge and nervous around them the entire time they talked about O’Brien being freaked out by witches after watching The Wizard of Oz on television, and generally being afraid of everything. The neighbor told them that O’Brien had been a bully when he was younger, but had gotten better with age, and that he’d really been broken up by his wife’s death almost 20 years earlier.

Sam searched O’Brien’s apartment and discovered nothing unusual. Dean learned that O’Brien’s wife had been a manic depressive who went off her medication, ran off, and committed suicide, and that O’Brien had been working at the time and couldn’t have killed her. As they returned to their motel that night, Dean uncharacteristically drove at the speed limit and refused to make a left turn across oncoming traffic, and then the EMF meter in Sam’s pocket went off, indicating spirit activity around Dean. Sam called Bobby for help, and the next morning, as Dean developed scratch-like rashes on his arms like those on O’Brien’s corpse, Bobby called with his conclusion that the deaths and Dean’s growing anxiety were due to ghost sickness, an illness inflicted by a ghost on the first victim that spread like a virus to other people who came in contact with him. O’Brien had been the first to die, meaning he was likely the vector, and the two other victims had played against him in a softball game. The victims experienced generalized anxiety leading to terror that would cause their hearts to stop within 48 hours after being exposed – meaning that Dean had only 24 hours left, since he’d evidently been infected by the corpse during the autopsy. Killing the ghost was the only way to end the sickness and save the victims.

While Sam made inquiries about O’Brien’s dead wife, the only apparent ghost link, Dean – alone in their hotel room reading about the symptoms of ghost sickness – began experiencing his first hallucinations, seeing the text of the book change to directly threaten him and hearing the ticking of the clock as an unbearably loud countdown to doom. Sam returned to report that the wife’s body had been cremated, making it unlikely that she was the ghost. Dean’s occasional cough turned into desperate hacking and he coughed up a wood chip, prompting Sam to treat him as a clue and head out to the town sawmill. Sam pushed Dean into going into the mill with him despite Dean’s fear having increased to the point where he refused even to carry a weapon, holding on to a flashlight instead. Inside the lumber mill, they found O’Brien’s wedding ring on the floor, and in an unused office, discovered charcoal portraits of O’Brien’s wife. When Dean ripped a portrait picking it up, the plant machinery turned on, and the brothers saw the ghost of Luther Garland, a big, simpleminded, mean-looking but gentle-hearted man who had died around the same time as O’Brien’s wife. Investigating Garland’s death, the brothers collected his file from the sheriff’s office and spoke to his surviving brother, learning that the file had concealed the real manner of Garland’s death, something everyone knew but no one talked about: that O’Brien, convinced that Garland, who’d had a crush on his wife, was responsible for her disappearance, had put a chain around his neck and dragged him to death behind his truck on the chip-covered sawmill road. Sam realized that Dean’s symptoms were repeating Garland’s death in slow motion. Sam observed that Garland’s body had been in too many pieces for them to be certain of burning all his remains and destroying the ghost, and Dean, overwhelmed by everything, decided to walk away from it all – only to hallucinate hearing hellhounds, encounter the Yorkie, and run all the way back to the hotel as if pursued by demons.

With less than four hours left to live, Dean experienced another hallucination in which he heard Sam say that he was going to die and go back to Hell, and that it was about time – and Sam’s eyes glowed yellow as he flung Dean into the wall using telekinesis. When Dean told the demon to get out of his brother, Sam laughed that he wasn’t possessed, but that this was what he was going to become and wanted to become, and there was nothing Dean could do about it. Sam began strangling him – and then the hallucination resolved into Sam anxiously calling his name and supporting him against the wall as he hyperventilated.

Leaving Dean in the hotel for safety, Sam met Bobby at the sawmill, and they resolved to try one last option to destroy the ghost: to kill it with the same kind of fear it used on its victims. Sam went into the mill to taunt the ghost, but couldn’t get it to appear until he started destroying the sketches. When Garland attacked him, Sam managed to get an iron chain around Garland’s neck. With the other end of the chain secured to the Impala, Bobby proceeded to drag the ghost the same way that the man had been killed originally, and reliving the terror of his own death destroyed the ghost.

Meanwhile, as Dean struggled against ever-increasing fear and heard hellhounds, the sheriff broke into his room threatening to kill him for revealing how Garland had died and that the sheriff had covered up what his friend O’Brien had done. Seeing the sheriff’s arms as bloodied as his own, Dean realized that the sheriff was suffering from the same ghost sickness. He managed to strike the gun out of the sheriff’s hand. As they struggled, Dean saw the sheriff as a demonic monster and flung him aside, and the man fell to the floor and died of his terror. With his own time come, Dean hallucinated Lilith in the body of the little girl she’d possessed in No Rest For The Wicked, who told him he was going back to Hell. She reminded him that his four months there had been like forty years on Earth, and assured him that of course he could remember every second of what happened to him there. Just as his fear reached the killing point, Garland’s ghost was destroyed, and the hallucination evaporated.

In the aftermath, Sam asked Dean what he’d seen in his hallucinations, and Dean – seeing again a flash of demon-yellow in Sam’s eyes as he seemingly contemplated telling the truth – lied with a joke, making no mention of Lilith or of seeing Sam as a demon.

Commentary and Meta Analysis

I’ll confess, Yellow Fever simply didn’t work for me. Amusing as it was, considering Jensen Ackles’s positive gift for comedy and his willingness to make an idiot out of himself, playing Dean’s myriad irrational fears purely for laughs throughout most of the episode just rang the wrong note given the presumed seriousness of the situation, and Sam and Bobby never seemed concerned enough with the immediacy of the countdown for me to believe that they really contemplated that Dean might soon die. We had seen their true concern – and seen Dean truly afraid – toward the end of the countdown in season three, so their reactions here fell flat. I also had issues with the script logic, including why it took nearly twenty years for the ghost to infect and kill O’Brien and why all of Garland’s things had been left conveniently in the sawmill for all that time, not to mention how and why O’Brien’s wedding ring turned up there; what was the real logic for the spread of the infection to the various other victims, including Dean; and how Sam and Bobby could have used an iron chain to bind and roadhaul the ghost when our experience has been that simple contact with iron, like contact with salt, will disperse a spirit.

Despite those criticisms, the show truly sang for me in the moments when it dispensed with broad artificial humor to provide glimpses into Dean’s true terror with his hallucinations of the changing book text, Sam as a yellow-eyed demon, and Lilith telling him that not only was he going back to Hell, but that of course he could remember everything that happened to him during his effectively forty years there. Dean’s fears and secrets and the suggestions of changes in Sam are the topics of my meta discussion.

Just The Usual Stuff, Sammy – Nothing I Couldn’t Handle

Make no mistake: seeing generally fearless Dean jumpy as a neurotic cat and pathetically afraid of inconsequential things definitely had humor value. The real fascination for me, however, was in watching Dean unhesitatingly spew out all the embarrassing, silly, inconsequential fears while still keeping his essential ones brutally under lock and key. Dean has spent his entire life hiding his real fears of insufficiency, abandonment, and loss behind a facade of bravado. He never shared them with Sam – even though Sam could see some of them through the facade – except in extremity, and usually under pressure from Sam: confessing his heart’s desire for family in Shadow; admitting how close he was to losing it in Salvation; acknowledging his survival guilt in Children Shouldn’t Play With Dead Things; admitting what he’d done to get Sam back and why in All Hell Breaks Loose, Part 2 and The Magnificent Seven; responding to Sam’s desperate plea for truth in Fresh Blood; and openly confessing his terror of death and Hell in the final few episodes of season three.

His deepest fears came openly to the fore in his hallucinations, starting with hearing the baying of hellhounds over the Yorkie’s yipping bark, then seeing Sam reveal himself as a yellow-eyed demon, perceiving the sheriff as a demonic thing attacking him, and finally confronting Lilith with her reminders of Hell and promise that he was returning there. But while Dean readily admitted to Sam everything else that the ghost sickness made him fear, from traffic to heights to arrest for fraud, and from guns to spooky places to ghosts, he never spoke about his true terrors. It’s a fair bet that Sam knows that seeing Sam apparently possessed by a demon was one of his hallucinations, given that Sam was in the room when Dean told the demon to get out of his brother’s body, but nothing that Dean said out loud during that hallucination would have given away either that Sam’s image had yellow eyes or that he claimed to want to become the demon. And Dean definitely never admitted his terror that he would be returned to Hell when he died.

I believed Dean in Lazarus Rising when he told Bobby that he didn’t remember anything between dying and waking up in his grave, and I mostly believed him when he told Sam that he didn’t remember what happened to him in Hell and must have repressed it. We knew then that he had brief flashes of images of blood, fear, and pain, but we didn’t see him giving any evidence of actually remembering anything else. I wasn’t surprised that he didn’t tell Sam about the flashes, both because they were more suggestive and disturbing than true memories, and because Dean has never burdened Sam with knowledge of or guilt for his own pain unless forced to do so. Since then, however, we saw during In The Beginning that he was dreaming about Hell and that Castiel knew it, and we know the flashes have continued. His hallucination of Lilith said flat out that he remembered every second of what happened to him in Hell, and since Lilith was a figment of his own imagination, he was telling himself that. I believe that he has been repressing his memory, and that the repression is going to fail now precisely because he is conscious of it.

His lie to Sam at the end about what he saw in his hallucinations was an obvious one that he knew wouldn’t deceive his brother. His choice to deflect Sam’s and Bobby’s concerns with humor and obvious dodges was, I think, an attempt to persuade them that things were normal; I believe that Sam asked and hoped for the truth, but expected him to lie because that was what Dean would always have done.

Secrets between the brothers never turn out well, but I can understand why they try to keep them. They both want to protect each other and to hide from each other the things about themselves that frighten or shame them, the things that they fear – needlessly, in my opinion – would damage the other’s regard for them. Dean has always tried to be Sam’s unfailing protector, the big brother he would look up to; being seen to be afraid, to have limits, was never an intended part of that image. Part of Dean’s protection has been to guarantee that Sam would be safe even from his own fears about himself. Dean couldn’t bear to show Sam fear that Sam might become something other than the brother Dean loves beyond life. Telling Sam about his hallucinatory fear that Sam wanted to become a yellow-eyed demon in his own right would only confirm to Sam that Dean saw him differently, as a non-human freak, and not as the brother he’s always loved – notwithstanding that Dean actually sees him, and will always see him, as his kid brother, his responsibility, his best reason to appear brave and strong.

Telling Sam about what he suffered in Hell would torment Sam with guilt, the same way that speculating on what his father suffered had tormented him. And perhaps worse would be admitting to Sam the extent to which that suffering broke him. What did the tortures of Hell do to Dean, and how much of his honor and self-image did he surrender there? How ashamed would he be if he had to admit, as I suspect he might, that he did things or gave up things to escape the pain that violated everything he believed to be right, and everything he thought he stood for? How much does Dean fear that Sam would look at him differently, not just out of guilt for contributing to his pain, but out of revulsion for his compromises?

I suspect at this point that both of the brothers fear rejection from the other for what they perceive as their own failures: Sam for what was done to him as a baby and how he’s dealt with it since, and Dean for failing to meet the impossible standards he set for himself, imagining that they were what his father and Sam had expected of him. I can’t help but think that the key will turn out to be the love between the brothers and the simple truth that it will always be there and will always be the force that ultimately keeps them both true. Love accepts and love forgives; love differentiates between the sinner and the sin. Love redeems.

And I hope that all of that is true, because sooner or later, the truth will out, and both Sam and Dean will have to deal with each knowing the secrets of what the other did and felt in their time apart.

This Is What I’m Going To Become

I found it interesting that Dean’s hallucination of Sam as a demon used almost exactly the same words as his dream of himself as a demon in Dream A Little Dream Of Me. That dream version of himself said, You’re gonna die. And this? This is what you’re gonna become. The Sam-demon’s version was, This is what I’m going to become. This is what I want to become. And there’s nothing you can do about it. I firmly believe that all of it was a hallucination, the truest expression of Dean’s worst helpless fear of failing his brother, and that the flash of yellow in Sam’s eyes at the end was purely Dean’s imagination, but there were things about Sam that seemed threatening for real.

We’ve seen both last season and this that Sam is harder than he used to be in many ways. Coming up with the plan to scare the ghost to death by recreating the horrible way he died showed a ruthless, deliberate practicality we hadn’t seen in Sam before. We’d seen him ruthless before – decapitating Gordon with razor wire in Fresh Blood was a case in point – but we’d never seen that outside the heat of unpremeditated, desperate battle. And there was one brief flashing moment in the final fight between Sam and Garland where, even though Sam seemed to be getting his ass handed to him by the ghost, Sam positively grinned as if he was enjoying himself, as if the fight was going his way and answering some violent desire of his own. That smile disturbed me more than any purely hallucinatory flash of yellow eyes, because it spoke of something fundamentally changed inside Sam.

And yet, the essential things hadn’t changed. Even though Dean’s sudden, needy fears and craven behaviors exasperated Sam and constantly threw him for a loop, he accommodated them as best he could, getting their hotel room changed to a lower floor and letting Dean cling to the flashlight to be able to feel he was doing his part. He tried to reassure Dean even when he doubted his plan, if only because going forward was all he could think to do. He tried to be for Dean a bit of what Dean had always been for him: the take-charge one, the steady rock of support.

Whatever happened to Sam in the months that Dean was gone made him tougher and harsher, but didn’t destroy who he was. As Dean is for him, he’s still his brother’s keeper.

Production Notes

First-time scriptwriters Andrew Dabb and Daniel Loflin lacked the polish we’ve come to expect from Supernatural writers, and their take on Sam and Dean here, while very funny, often didn’t feel quite right to me. I think that a lot of the problems I had with this episode went back to the script and to the whole concept of playing Dean’s fears for laughs. We’d already experienced the humor of an irrationally phobic Dean in season one’s Phantom Traveler, and while the gag was funny there, it felt out of place to me here given everything that’s happened since, with both brothers having experienced the grief and loss of the other’s death and with Dean having been in Hell for a time. It especially felt off to me that Sam and Bobby displayed no emotional urgency about hurrying to save Dean, even when Sam observed that less than two hours remained. And while the brothers – particularly Dean – have often used humor to disparage troubles, it felt wrong to me that, with only 24 hours remaining on Dean’s clock, Sam would have been so apparently callous and amused about speculating on why Dean had been infected and he had not. Finally, after the new acceptance that Dean articulated to Jamie in Monster Movie concerning the value and importance of what he does, his meltdown and extreme fear reaction of dismissing what the brothers did as insanity and trying to walk away from it didn’t feel real.

While the ghost sickness concept was an interesting one, the script fell down on the logic of explaining at all why the ghost waited for 20 years before striking out; why everything in the mill office seemed abandoned and unchanged since then although all the equipment was in perfect repair and fully powered; why the wedding ring that O’Brien had evidently worn up until his death was found on the floor of the sawmill; what rationale actually explained which victims were targeted by the disease; and why the touch of the iron chain didn’t disperse the ghost before it could be roadhauled. I’ll admit that I don’t often pick at the holes in Supernatural’s script logic, but I couldn’t resist here just because so much of it felt off to me. I needed a few more explanations, even if they simply concerned speculations that the ghost needed time to become either crazy or powerful enough to strike out, or that his actions were precipitated by O’Brien having done something recently that the ghost found newly objectionable, perhaps having finally moved on from his grief over his wife to plan on marrying again.

As for the infection rationale, I could have bought the ghost having an objection to apparently lewd, crude, and good-old-boy rude guys he might have lumped in the same personality category as his murderer, but I couldn’t see Sam gloating and teasing about that while Dean was still apparently in danger of death. After the danger had passed, I could definitely see Sam gleefully playing that card, but not while Dean was scared of everything and primed to die again. If the rationale actually was different, the groundwork to explain it wasn’t sufficiently laid out. Lilith telling Dean that he knew why he was infected and Sam wasn’t just seemed to harp on the old saw of Dean’s damaged self-esteem, not to hint at any deeper, different reason.

With all that said, however, I’ll readily admit that there were moments that felt exactly right to me. Almost all of those moments happened when they turned the volume down a bit on the humor and got instead to emotional truths. Dean battling his hallucinations brought the story to a new level and advanced what we know and fear. The ticking clock, when he’d counted down the moments of his life once before, was a potent symbol. The heart of his fears being Sam going demonic of his own choice and himself being returned to Hell rang true as a bell. Dean snatching up a Bible for solace and holding on to it like a shield as he tried to deny Lilith spoke reams about how much he’s changed since his death and resurrection. Sam taking charge to save Dean and attempting to reassure Dean by telling him to ride out the trip because he was going to be fine also felt right, and showed how far Sam has come as a hunter on his own. The Tyler and Perry Aerosmith joke was delightful, in the tradition of other characters occasionally recognizing the boys’ obvious rock aliases (remember Scotty recognizing Dean’s John Bonham name as the drummer for Led Zeppelin in Scarecrow?). The prop folks did a grand job with the hallucinatory changing pages in the book on ghost sickness.

Even given my less than enthusiastic reaction to the general choice to play this story predominantly for humor, the opening teaser sequence with Dean and the Yorkie was priceless, and I wouldn’t have changed it at all. I also laughed at Chris Lennertz’s musical cues for Dean facing off with the Yorkie, which harked all the way back to the pilot. And having Dean watching a Gumby cartoon in which Pokey got lassoed and dragged off behind a jeep – after Dean had asked in The Kids Are Alright if his association with Lisa the Gumby-flexible yoga instructor made him Pokey – was hysterically on point, considering the plot of the episode.

Phil Sgriccia is one of my favorite Supernatural directors and there were numerous trademark moments of his that I enjoyed here, including scenes that began with characters moving into frame, the mirroring of the fights between Dean and the sheriff and between Sam and Garland (and kudos to editor Nicole Baer for the brilliant job of cutting those fight scenes together), the glorious elevated shot at the end of the episode as Bobby drove off, and the fun of Dean rocking out to “Eye of the Tiger.” Creator Eric Kripke has credited Sgriccia with having come up with a lot of the best musical moments in the series, and this was clearly another!

But with all that, Sgriccia’s direction also played up the humor aspect of the episode, which let me down. Things like the first scene in the sheriff’s office, with the exaggeration of the hand sanitizer and with exceptionally broad reactions from Sam and Dean, and the opening of the scene with Garland’s brother with Dean obsessing about the fake IDs, just felt overwritten and overplayed to achieve the laughs. I felt that the sound crew also went overboard in a few scenes, including the hand sanitizer bottle sound effects and the animal and water noises in the neighbor’s house.

Jensen Ackles was given the opportunity to show off his comedic acting chops and he excelled at it, even if I didn’t particularly resonate to the humor focus. Still, some of both his and Jared Padalecki’s reactions were perilously close to being over the top on the funny side, something they both usually avoid in favor of more subtlety. His scream reaction to the cat in the locker was hilarious, but felt deliberately overdone to me. The combination of script, direction, and acting just made the comedy elements really blatant, and precisely because they stuck out so much, I found that they got in the way of my overall acceptance of the story. I thought that both Jared and Jensen excelled at the dramatic moments, however, especially in the confrontation with demon Sam and the moments at the end when Dean lied to Sam and both of them knew it.

Despite its impact on the story, I will confess to having enjoyed much of the humor just for itself, or for its inside-joke nature. A sterling example of the latter for anyone who’s seen the season two gag reel was Dean’s line about Sam’s drawbacks as a car companion: And you – you’re gassy! You eat half a burrito and you get toxic! Who could forget the hilarious outtake from Everybody Loves A Clown of the boys in the car, with Jensen gagging at the stench of Jared’s off-gassing? We know the true inspiration for that line!

I suspect that Yellow Fever might have played a little better for me had it not followed on the heels of Monster Movie, which was originally supposed to air as episode three, rather than episode five. Two humor-oriented episodes in a row proved problematic for me. Had the broadcast order not been switched, I still would have had issues with the script, but possibly not as many with the tone.

Postlude

I have to give a separate accolade to the brilliant outtake that we were given as a special treat at the end of the show. By now everyone knows that this was the result of a prank instigated by Jared with the connivance of Phil Sgriccia and the crew – that on one take of the “Dean rocking out” scene, Jared deliberately didn’t give Jensen his expected cue to break, and everyone just waited to see what he would do.

The result was 76 seconds of pure, unadulterated hilarity, with Jensen exaggeratedly lip-synching to Survivor’s “Eye of the Tiger” complete with improvised choreography involving the Impala and an air-guitar routine utilizing his own anatomy. I enjoyed every silly moment of it from start to finish, especially including Jared’s delighted off-screen laughter, the reactions of the rest of the crew, and Jensen’s grin.

I thank Jared for his inspiration, Jensen for his totally uninhibited seizing of the moment, Phil Sgriccia and the crew for letting it play out and for capturing it on film, and Eric Kripke, Warner Brothers, and the CW for giving it to us so perfectly, and not making us wait for the DVD release. That said, I want to see it on the DVD release too!!
Tags: christopher lennertz, dean winchester, episode commentaries, eric kripke, jared padalecki, jensen ackles, meta, phil sgriccia, sam winchester, supernatural, supernatural university, television production
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