bardicvoice (bardicvoice) wrote,

4.7 It’s The Great Pumpkin, Sam Winchester: One Step Closer To Hell On Earth

4.7 It’s The Great Pumpkin, Sam Winchester: One Step Closer To Hell On Earth

Demon trick or treat:
Witches seek to break a seal
To bring Hell on Earth.

Episode Summary

Two days before Halloween, a man sneaking Halloween candy inexplicably swallowed razor blades and died. Investigating, Sam and Dean found a hex bag hidden in the man’s kitchen, but no reason why a witch would have targeted him. The contents of the hex bag were old, including an extinct herb, a Celtic coin, and a charred baby’s bone, suggesting a very old and powerful witch. The day before Halloween, an innocuous high school girl at a party drowned bobbing for apples in water that boiled her face despite not being hot, and the boys found another hex bag. Sam guessed that revenge wasn’t the motive, and found lore indicating that once every six hundred years, three blood sacrifices made leading up to Halloween could be used to summon the powerful Celtic demon Samhain. The original inspiration for Halloween – people wore masks to hide from him and left treats to appease him – the demon had been exorcised centuries before, but according to the stories, if he returned, his power was so great that he could raise every other kind of evil thing.

Staking out the first victim’s house on Halloween in the hope of finding someone with access to both houses where deaths occurred, Dean saw Tracy, a witness from the party, arrive to babysit, despite her having told him that she didn’t know the first victim. Investigating further, Sam discovered that Tracy had been suspended from school after a violent confrontation with Don Hardy, an art instructor, so the boys went to interview him. One of the masks on display in the art department triggered a hellish aural flashback for Dean, but he pushed it aside and moved on when Sam caught up to him. Hardy reported that Tracy’s artwork had become inappropriate and disturbing, depicting strange symbols and scenes of killings in which she appeared as a participant. He also said that Tracy lived alone as an emancipated teen.

The boys separated to search for her, but Sam found nothing at her apartment and Dean couldn’t find any friends who claimed to know anything about her. Concerned that she might be making the third sacrifice at any time, they regrouped at their motel – only to find Castiel waiting for them with another angel, Uriel. Sam was abashed and delighted to finally meet angels, but quickly discovered that they weren’t as pleased to meet him because of the demon blood that Azazel had fed him as a baby and the powers he had cultivated since.

Castiel asked if the brothers had located the witch and stopped the summoning of Samhain. Learning that they knew who the witch was but hadn’t located her yet, Castiel observed that she knew where they were, revealing a hex bag planted in their room which would surely have killed one or both of them if the angels hadn’t intervened. Castiel explained that raising Samhain would open another of the seals keeping Lucifer bound. He told them that the witch was very powerful and was cloaked even from the angels, and that since the boys didn’t know where the witch was either, they should leave before the angels destroyed the entire town and all the people in it. Castiel maintained that their orders, despite destroying the innocent along with the one guilty witch, were just because they came from Heaven, and because the sacrifice of this one town could save the lives of billions. Dean and Sam protested, and Dean gambled that if he had been valuable enough to rescue from Hell, there would be repercussions if the angels killed him, so he said that he and Sam wouldn’t leave, and would take it on themselves to stop the witch and save the town. In the aftermath of the encounter, as they left to try and stop the witch, Dean encouraged Sam not to be disillusioned by the angels not being what he had expected, and not to give up on his faith.

With Sam realizing that the heat required to char the baby bones used in the hex bag could have come from the pottery kiln at the school, and that the hex bag turned up in their room not after they spoke with Tracy, but after they spoke with the teacher, the boys searched the teacher’s office, and found a stash of old children’s bones in a locked drawer.

Castiel and Uriel, meanwhile, had a difference of opinion, with Uriel disparaging humans while Castiel argued that Dean had a chance to succeed, and that there must have been a reason the angels were sent to save him from Hell. Uriel advocated just taking Dean with them and then destroying the town, but Castiel observed that he knew what their true orders were, and asked if Uriel was willing to disobey them.

The boys raided the teacher’s house, discovering Don performing an incantation in the basement with Tracy tied up as his intended sacrifice. They shot Don in the act and freed Tracy, only to discover that both of them were witches, siblings so jealous of each other that even though they’d had to work together for hundreds of years in order to raise the demon, they each had planned to use the other as the final sacrifice. Immobilizing the brothers with pain, Tracy finished the incantation, and the demon poured into Don’s dying body, reanimating it. Acting on a hunch, Sam used Don’s blood to mask both his face and Dean’s. The demon killed Tracy, dismissively calling her a whore, and headed out into the night, bypassing the brothers as if not noticing them. As it walked through the town, it didn’t seem to notice the masked and costumed children out trick-or-treating. En route to the cemetery, figuring the demon would head there to raise other spirits, Sam suggested that the demon was so powerful that it might take more than the usual weapons to defeat; Dean adamantly refused to consider Sam using his powers, and persuaded him to take Ruby’s knife.

At the cemetery, the demon locked a group of costumed students inside the mausoleum where they were partying, and walked on; and in his wake, the corpses in the crypt began to animate as zombies and attack the students. The brothers arrived and Sam took off after the demon, ordering Dean to help the kids. Dean got most of the kids out and staked the zombies with silver, burning bodies to disperse ghosts, and then followed Sam. Catching up with the demon, Sam walked unharmed through the blaze of white light it flung at him and attacked with his fists, only pulling out the knife when the demon got the upper hand. The demon managed to block the knife blow and then broke Sam’s grip on it, flinging the knife in one direction and Sam in another. As the demon advanced, Sam, cornered, drew on his powers. He slowed it a lot, but the demon kept moving forward, and Sam increased his concentration to the point of migraine pain and a nosebleed, finally succeeding in stopping and exorcising the demon with his mind as Dean, arriving in time only for the finale, watched, appalled and grieved.

As Sam packed to leave, Uriel appeared in the motel room, chiding Sam for having used his demon-given powers despite having been told not to, and threatened that the moment he stopped being useful, Uriel would destroy him. When Sam shot back that Dean had been right to call the angels dicks, Uriel told him that Dean should get off his high horse, and told him to ask Dean what he remembered from Hell.

Castiel, meanwhile, appeared to Dean as the older Winchester watched children playing in a park, savoring the knowledge that the brothers had at least saved the children and the town, even though they hadn’t been able to prevent the raising of Samhain and the breaking of the seal. Castiel told him that the situation had been a test and that the angels’ true orders had been to do whatever Dean had ordered them to do. He said that he didn’t know whether Dean had failed or passed the test, but admitted both that he had prayed that Dean would choose to save the town, and feared what would happen if all the seals were broken and Lucifer brought Hell on Earth. Finally, he confessed that he himself had doubts and could no longer tell what was right or wrong.

Commentary and Meta Analysis

Overall, I enjoyed this episode a lot. It upped the stakes significantly on the battle between good and evil, with the angels ready to destroy over a thousand people in order to prevent one witch – well, two witches – from breaking another of the seals on Lucifer’s prison. It showed us the brothers united against accepting collateral damage to innocent lives, and putting themselves between innocents and the minions of Heaven as well as those of Hell. It established angels as more complex characters than we might have assumed. And it gave us more glimpses into Sam and the changes we’ve seen in him since Dean died, as well as hinting at the role Dean may come to play.

In this analysis, I’ll explore Sam’s conflicts, Dean’s role, and angels.

This Is What I’ve Been Praying To?

Sam’s transparent delight in meeting Castiel took me back instantly to Houses of the Holy, in which Sam was desperate to believe that there was a higher power he could turn to for protection and succor. When Sam believed then that he’d seen an angel, he felt calm, fulfilled, and at peace, and the subsequent discovery that his “angel” had been only a ghost left him crushed and desolate. Meeting Castiel had the same effect. His initial joy was absolute and unfeigned, and when Castiel finally took his hand and said his name, he looked happy. That instant of joy transmuted into dismay when Castiel called him the boy with the demon blood, identifying him by what had been done to him rather than by who he was, and said that he was glad to hear that Sam had ceased his extracurricular activities.

His dismay shifted further into disillusion as the conversation continued and Uriel spoke dismissively and even insultingly of humans, and as Castiel made clear that he and Uriel were unable to locate the witch and were tasked instead with destroying the entire town to prevent the greater evil from being unleashed. Castiel’s insistence that their mission was just precisely because their orders came from heaven, notwithstanding that many innocents would die, shook Sam’s faith and his understanding of the God he’d been praying to all his life, because it was nothing like what he had expected either from an angel or from God. Sam’s sense of religion and God has been grounded in the New Testament promise that God is a God of love, a God of both justice and mercy, and that redemption and salvation are possible for all who believe no matter the circumstances of their lives. That Uriel, an angel of God, spoke insultingly about humans and didn’t care at all about the innocents he would kill turned Sam’s beliefs upside-down, and Castiel’s apparent compassion and reluctance couldn’t undo the damage wrought by his insistence that their orders were just because they came from heaven.

In the aftermath of Sam’s disillusion and hurt, Dean did the same thing he had done in Houses of the Holy. Despite his own issues with faith, he tried to persuade Sam not to lose his beliefs and conviction, arguing that he shouldn’t judge God by the attitudes of the angels. Understanding how important belief in a higher power and the hope of salvation have been to Sam, especially over the past couple of years, Dean tried to repair the damage done by Uriel’s callousness and Castiel’s commitment to merciless orders. Taking care of Sam’s emotional security as well as his physical safety has always been behind Dean’s actions, but in this case, I think Dean also felt the need to bolster Sam’s faith in being able to reach Heaven for another reason. Sam has always believed and tried to do the moral thing, the right thing; I suspect that Dean is concerned that, if he lost his faith and concern for obeying the rules of that faith, he might be more likely to use his powers and slip closer to Hell’s road even while still trying to do the right thing in his own eyes. I thought the grief of that was one of the things on Dean’s face, looking at Sam after seeing him stop Samhain with his mind.

This season, Sam seems to be more detached from others than he was before. Bobby warned us of it in Lazarus Rising when he said that Sam had insisted on going off alone, and that he hadn’t heard from him in months. Sam’s emotional response to Dean’s return in Lazarus Rising was overwhelming, evidenced by his desperate, clutching hug and his struggle to control tears and breathe – but he still retained enough composure even in that moment to lie to Dean and Bobby and get Ruby out the door unnoticed. Even with his brother back, Sam kept a distance between them, continuing to meet secretly with Ruby to exercise his powers and to hide his other secrets, including knowing that Mary had recognized the demon and that Azazel had fed him demon blood. That detachment may have contributed to his seeming lack of urgency in Yellow Fever, trying to find a cure for Dean; he may not have been letting himself feel, in order to avoid feeling too much.

My guess is that his detachment began as a defense mechanism. The worst thing Sam could imagine had happened: Dean died in front of him, and he wasn’t able to do anything either to prevent it or to get Dean back from Hell. Sam had already lost his love and his father, but I think that losing his brother was the worst blow of all, precisely because Dean had been the surest constant throughout his life. I think that, in the aftermath of that loss, Sam pulled away from Bobby and from others in order to minimize any other loss, to try to persuade himself that he didn’t care any more and wouldn’t be hurt again, and that he hasn’t come back from that yet. He still has compassion for others, particularly for victims – not surprising, since he himself has been a victim – and he’s reconnecting with Bobby, but he’s still holding himself remote from anyone else who might be considered a friend.

Along with becoming emotionally detached, Sam has become both more decisive and more brutal. We saw that happening throughout season three, and he explained it in Malleus Maleficarum; that he felt he had to become stronger, more like Dean, in order to fight without him. Now that Dean has returned, however, Sam hasn’t backed off on the changes he made within himself in order to survive without Dean. He can’t return to the person he was before. He’s clearly a lot more than just four or five months older; loss, grief, and rage have aged him beyond chronological time, and cost him most of whatever innocence he might have had left. The danger here is that the angels, in evidencing their own brutality and harshness, may have taken from him the last of his innocence, the last of his belief in gentleness, forgiveness, and love – and if he ever does lose all of those, he may lose himself, at least as we have known him. Dean’s return has been the only positive shift, and even that is precarious, because if Sam feels that he’s been judged and found wanting by his brother, he may reject that judgment – and his brother. But that hasn’t happened. Yet.

Still, Sam in the fight against Samhain wasn’t the Sam we’d seen even in the final days before Dean died, and a huge part of that was Sam’s use of his powers. We don’t yet know how and why Sam started to work with Ruby to develop his abilities, but I would guess that Sam got his ass kicked hard along the way after Dean died and that Ruby persuaded him that the only way he could effectively fight without his brother at his back was to use his mind and Azazel’s barbed gift. Sam promised at the end of Metamorphosis that he wouldn’t use his powers any more, but at the very first hint that Samhain’s powers outstripped those of most other demons they’d met, he suggested that their other weapons and means might not be enough, even though Lilith herself had appeared in No Rest For The Wicked to be afraid of Ruby’s knife. His immediate turn toward using his powers, despite what he had said about them being playing with fire not all that long before, suggests that he may be addicted to using them, or that the temptation to use them is nearly irresistible. But the biggest shock of watching him came when Samhain charged him, after he had simply walked through the white fire. If he’d drawn the knife then, Samhain would effectively have killed himself, running onto it; instead, Sam used his fists, despite knowing that a physical beating wouldn’t harm the demon inside the body. It felt to me as if Sam was unleashing all of his pent-up anger and indulging his desire just to beat the shit out of something, daring the demon to take him out. It was a suicidally reckless move, like some of Dean’s choices during season three, and I wonder whether it was a reaction to the angels’ response to him.

When he finally pulled the knife, he did it in desperation to save his life and kill the demon. When he lost the knife, he turned to his powers, but discovered to his shock that even his practice with them hadn’t prepared him to face a demon of Samhain’s power. We learned in Metamorphosis that he had developed his abilities to the point where he could exorcise ordinary demons without suffering any pain; managing to both stop Samhain physically and exorcise him, however, cost him dearly. The migraine and the accompanying nosebleed would seem to warn that Sam could kill himself with his powers if he pushed them too far, and we can bet that he will come up against other demons as or more powerful than Samhain. It would seem we have two things to fear, if Sam keeps using his powers: not just that he might trip the balance and effectively slip to the dark side, but that he might cause his own death. I think that Dean now fears both of those possibilities, after having watched Sam strain and bleed to end Samhain.

The brothers are together again, but they’re often still apart in many ways. I thought it very telling that, after Dean saw Sam use his powers against Samhain, we saw each of the brothers alone, leading to their separate encounters with Castiel and Uriel. Sam, packing, wasn’t happy; Dean, watching children play, seemed to be seeking comfort. But despite them being apart physically and troubled by being apart emotionally, they were still united in the ways that truly counted: countering Uriel, Sam observed that his brother was right in calling the angels dicks, while Dean said with satisfaction that the children and the swings and the town were still there because of his brother and him. For each of them, the other was still top of mind. As long as that continues, as long as they always have each other’s backs and put each other first, they win.

It Was A Test

Dean learned from Castiel that the angels’ orders had not been to prevent the summoning of Samhain, but to do whatever Dean ordered; that it had been a test of how he would perform under battlefield conditions. Dean assumed that he had failed that test, but concluded that he was content with the outcome because Sam and he had saved the town. Castiel admitted that he didn’t know whether Dean had passed or failed, but that he had prayed that Dean would choose to save the town.

That this exercise was a test indicates that Dean has a specific role to fill, a particular reason that he was taken out of Hell. He still doesn’t know exactly what that purpose is. Before we could judge whether Dean passed or failed, we would need to know what the true object of the test was, and I don’t think that we know that yet.

Castiel indicated in Are You There, God? It’s Me, Dean Winchester that the reason angels were walking the world again was to prevent the breaking of the seals that would release Lucifer, and Castiel’s emphasis here was on preventing another seal from being broken. The mission Castiel outlined for Dean and Sam was preventing the raising of Samhain. At that mission, Dean failed: he ordered the angels not to destroy the town, and to leave the operation to him and Sam. The brothers weren’t quick enough to realize that both Tracy and Don were involved, so the seal was broken and Samhain freed. They managed to stop him with only one innocent death involved, but the breaking of the seal brought Hell one step closer to Earth, and Sam closer to the edge through the use of his demonic powers.

I would submit, however, that we don’t know what Dean’s test really was. If it was the obvious one, then yes – he failed. But there might have been an entirely different test going on, and at that one, he might have succeeded.

The question remains why Dean was delivered from Hell, and why that happened when it did. Somehow, I don’t think that Dean is meant to be the general who calls the shots for the forces of Heaven in the war against the minions of Hell. By his training, Dean is a commando, not a commander. But Dean is Sam’s brother, and Sam was apparently selected by Azazel to be Hell’s tool. I suspect that Dean may have been taunted with Sam’s anticipated fate as part of his torture in Hell; he may know more than he yet realizes about the nature of Azazel’s real endgame involving Sam, courtesy of information that demons let slip with the intent of tormenting him. Part of the reason for liberating him may thus have been to obtain intelligence that Heaven didn’t otherwise have. Another part may have been that Dean, of all people, is the one person who might be able to turn Sam aside from the course that Azazel set for him, if only by putting himself in the way. The love between the brothers is their truest strength; neither would willingly hurt the other, and as long as that holds true, I have to believe that Sam won’t fall, not if it would mean causing harm to Dean.

But given how long Dean was in Hell and what he suffered there, one would have to question whether he came back intact, or whether what he’d seen and experienced in Hell might have changed him to his human core. Castiel told him that he of all people should understand what it would mean if Hell were unleashed on Earth, and even though we’ve only seen Dean experiencing isolated flashes of fragmentary memories, those memories were of almost unimaginable blood and pain and terror.

That makes me wonder whether the true test might not have been to determine just how afraid Dean would be of facing Hell again, and whether he might be willing to sacrifice a thousand innocent people to avoid that chance. If that was the test, then I would submit that Dean passed it with flying colors, because he refused the simple and expedient solution that would have left both him and Sam safe at the price of other innocent lives, with the guilt for those lives put off on the shoulders of angels under the orders of God. Instead, he held to what both he and Sam believed to be right and just, and unhesitatingly put both of their lives explicitly on the line to save the lives of others, in despite of the threat that angels and God might also be against them. That took guts, and it told me that Dean remains true to himself despite what he suffered in Hell. He wasn’t ready to play a numbers game and trade a thousand lives for six billion ones – not in a faceless exchange with no guarantee that the sacrifice would win the war. Logic might dictate that the few should be sacrificed for the many, but Dean chose to go with his heart and his belief in what was moral and right, not with logic and expedience.

The differences between the angels just played up my uncertainty about the real nature of Dean’s test. Uriel is a classic Old Testament and Book of Revelations angel, a sword of God out to smite sinners and execute any of God’s commands. The God of the Old Testament stories came across as a rigid, harsh, and uncompromising entity, and his angels were similarly inclined. Castiel, on the other hand, appears to represent the New Testament, the gospel of love, forgiveness, sacrifice, and redemption. And before someone points out that Revelations appears at the end of the New Testament, I would note that there was a lot of controversy over the inclusion of Revelations in the Bible, particularly concerning where it appeared, precisely because it appears so entirely at odds with the message of Jesus.

Uriel’s dismissiveness concerning humans suggests an attitude of resentment for humans reminiscent of the pride that supposedly led Lucifer to rebel against God’s command to acknowledge humans as being superior to angels. Given that Genesis maintains that Man was created in the image and likeness of God, Uriel’s comment about humans being plumbing on two legs was pretty edgy. Castiel, on the other hand, regarded each individual human as a work of art, and spoke of God as his father, the father of all creation; a view close to that of Jesus. Uriel was more than willing to destroy humans wholesale and without question; Castiel expressed doubt and uncertainty of what was right and wrong in this situation, and in what would come. And he expressed sympathy for the burdens that Dean will carry and for the future decisions that he will still have to make, because the tests and the trials are far from over. Of the two angels, Dean is clearly a mirror of Castiel, a mirror simply emphasized by Castiel’s comparison of his obedience to God to Dean’s obedience to John. I fear that Sam may be the mirror of Uriel, given his recent hardening; but I’m reassured so far by the continuance of Sam’s compassion that this reflection is only an imperfect one.

I wonder whether this story might play out as a question ultimately about which part of the Bible prevails: the Old Testament approach of justice, vengeance, and blind obedience to commandments; or the New Testament story of love, repentance, and redemption. If it’s the first choice, I would expect that Dean, like Abraham, would be challenged to sacrifice his beloved brother/son Sam/Isaac at his God’s command; if it’s the second, I think the story would be Sam’s salvation and the brothers’ sacrifice.

And if the Old Testament rules, I think that Dean would fail, because I believe that both of the boys were raised with New Testament sensibilities.

Production Notes

First-time scriptwriter Julie Siege has been a new story editor credited this season, and did a yeoman job on her first outing. There were a few things I had trouble with, including Samhain locking the partying high-schoolers in the mausoleum when he hadn’t seemed to notice either Sam and Dean or any of the trick-or-treating kids out on the street. The difference may have been that all the kids on the street, like Sam and Dean, had masks or some facial makeup that could have served as a mask, while a couple of the kids in the crypt wore costumes but no makeup or masks, but I’d have to watch very carefully again to figure out whether that explanation would hold water. Another bit concerns Samhain and Halloween, but is only mildly uncomfortable. Supernatural routinely does its own take on stories and legends, and applies its own twists to the underlying tales. Their take on the origin of Halloween was shaded to fit the structure that the show has built for demons, and I have no problem with that, even though the lore I know doesn’t suggest the existence of a singular and powerful demon named Samhain (which isn’t pronounced sam-HANE, either). The bits about the belief in the walls between worlds being thinnest on Halloween, freeing spirits to walk, was dead-on, however, as was the observation about using masks to hide from them and leaving food out to appease them.

Charles Beeson clearly had a lot of fun with his direction, especially in the special effects sequences with the razor blades and the apple-bobbing. The razor-blade-in-the-throat scene was straight out of CSI, and both scenes involved a neat blend of camera angles, actor performances, and seamless effects work. I enjoyed the shots up through the water in the apple-bobbing.

Beeson’s staging of the scenes between the individual brothers and their respective angels showed Sam and Uriel in opposition, directly facing off against each other, while Dean and Castiel, sitting side by side and sharing confidences, were united, albeit incompletely. I particularly loved the composition and blocking of the scene in the motel room between the brothers and the angels, with Sam’s reflection appearing in the mirror between Dean and Castiel – Sam is the bone of contention between them, and the fear of Sam becoming the reverse of who and what he is hangs over both of the brothers.

Jared Padalecki and Jensen Ackles both turned in the performances I’ve come to expect from them – polished and nuanced. Jared’s portrayal of Sam’s delight in meeting the angels, including his embarrassment at inadvertently taking the Lord’s name in vain in front of his angels, was sweet, and the transition first to his disillusion and then to his violence in taking on Samhain, and finally his awareness of Dean having watched him, really ran the full range of emotion. Jensen’s subtle and changing facial expressions throughout the episode conveyed so much more than words could have done.

Misha Collins continues to impress as Castiel. The angel is becoming gradually more human in demeanor as his relationship with Dean progresses, and yet, courtesy of Collins’ performance, he still remains other, something distinctly not human. Robert Wisdom’s Uriel conveyed the intimidation essential to his character, and I look forward to seeing more of the contrast between the two angels as well as their interactions with Sam and Dean.

I already mentioned the effects work in connection with the shooting. Samhain’s distorted vision made for yet another interesting effect.

All in all, this was a very satisfying episode for me. It set up more questions than it actually answered, but the exploration it opened not only on Sam and Dean, but on Castiel and Uriel, makes me impatient for the next several episodes, in which I’m certain that more of the answers will come out … with yet more questions.

The stage is set. I’m ready for the show.

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

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