Anna’s angel grace
Concludes confrontation of
Demons and angels.
Picking up where we left off, Castiel told Sam that Anna was far from innocent, and Uriel called her an abomination worse than Ruby, revealing that the angels knew that Sam had slept with her. Uriel attacked Ruby, and when Dean went to her defense, Uriel began to beat Dean with great relish. Castiel headed for the back room where Anna was hidden, putting Sam to sleep along the way, but the moment he touched the door, a pulse of light and power flared through the cabin, and both Castiel and Uriel were yanked up and away, disappearing. Dean found Anna in the room bleeding from a gash in her arm, with a symbol drawn in her own blood on the mirror in the room. She couldn’t explain what she had done, saying only that the symbol had just come to her and that she had sent the angels far away. Seeking safety from all sides, Dean took them all to the safe room at Bobby’s place, which Ruby couldn’t enter. Ruby worked up new hex bags to keep them hidden from angels as well as demons.
Sam researched Anna’s past and found that when she was about two and a half, she had been taken to a psychologist because she claimed that her father wasn’t her real father, and she became hysterical about her real father being very angry with her and wanting to kill her. She’d undergone therapy and the problem went away, and the adult Anna had no memory of it. To shed light on her past, Dean brought psychic Pamela Barnes, who was eager to pay back the angels for the loss of her eyes. Pamela hypnotized Anna and tried to regress her, and wild forces ran around the room as Anna became hysterical. The door slammed, lights exploded, and Dean, touching Anna in her trance, was flung across the room before Pamela calmed her down. She woke knowing who and what she was, and announced that she was an angel who, like Lucifer, had disobeyed God. Fearing destruction as her punishment, she had instead ripped out her own grace – the essence that made her an angel – and fallen to Earth to be born as a human to a woman who hadn’t been able to conceive a child. As she grew up, she forgot that she had been an angel and accepted that she was human.
With both angels and demons on the hunt for her now, however, and with Sam, Dean, and Ruby in the crosshairs, she believed that her only choice was to find her grace and become an angel again. When she described literally falling to Earth, Sam guessed that she and her grace may have been visible as meteorites, and found accounts of one that was sighted close to her Ohio birthplace nine months before she was born, and another that came down that same night in Kentucky. While he searched for any clue as to where it may have landed, Dean took Pamela back to her house to get her out of the line of fire. When he came back, he had a heart to heart with Anna, asking her what the angels wanted from him and why they had saved him. She told him that she didn’t know, that all of that had transpired after she had fallen, and she hadn’t heard them mention their plans for him. He asked her why she had wanted to be human, and she said that human emotions and human sensations were things that angels couldn’t experience, and that even the bad ones were worth having. She described having been stationed invisibly on Earth for two thousand years, just watching, sick with yearning for home and not understanding what her father God wanted from her, and Dean, remembering his own father, identified with her.
Sam learned that an oak tree had miraculously grown to century-old maturity in six months in an empty field on the outskirts of a small town in Kentucky in the right time frame, and Anna noted that, because grace was the essence of creation, the tree could have marked the location of her grace. Anna, Ruby, and the boys drove through the night to reach the place the following day, but Anna realized that, although her grace had been there, it had since been removed. Trying to decide what to do next, the group took shelter in an old deserted barn, trusting in the protection of Ruby’s hex bags to keep them from being discovered by both sides. Anna heard the angels talking again, but it wasn’t a conversation: instead, a message directed to Dean kept repeating, saying that he would deliver Anna to the angels by midnight or be cast back into Hell.
Researching desperately to find some alternative, Dean was approached by Anna, who thanked him and Sam for trying to help her, but observed that she had disobeyed God and said that perhaps she had to pay for what she’d done. Dean tried to pass it off, saying with too much grim weight that everyone had done things they had to pay for, and Anna revealed that she had overheard the angels talking about what he had done in Hell. She told him that it wasn’t his fault and that he should forgive himself, and when he stammered, overwhelmed with guilt, that he couldn’t talk about it, she told him to remember that when he could, there were people who wanted to help him. Fearing what the night would bring, she kissed him, and they took refuge in each other, making love in the back seat of the Impala.
Meanwhile, Ruby watched Sam, who had fallen asleep over his books, and then left, making her way to a crossroad where she burned her hex bag. Alastair showed up immediately, and Ruby tried to bargain with him, offering Anna in exchange for Ruby and both Winchesters going free. Alastair restrained her with two other demons and made her a counter offer; he took her away, torturing her with her own knife to get her to tell him where Anna and the Winchesters were hiding. Eventually, she told him that she wouldn’t tell him, since he would just kill her once he had the information – but she would take him to them.
In post-coital dreams, Dean met Uriel, who told him that dreams were the only way they could talk since they were hiding from discovery. Dean tried to bluff him with the claim that Anna had regained her grace, but Uriel revealed that he was wearing her grace bottled up within a crystal pendant around his neck. Recognizing that Dean had slept with Anna, Uriel taunted him and told him that the issues with Anna went far beyond the angels’ plans for him, and said that he was replaceable and would be cast back into Hell, because the midnight deadline had come. Afraid but resolute, Dean challenged him to do it, and Uriel marveled that Dean was crazy enough to accept going there. When Dean clung to his pride and said that he didn’t break easy, Uriel laughed that of course he did; it just took knowing where to apply the pressure.
Come the morning, Dean was making inroads on his whiskey flask and Sam was wondering where Ruby was when the door was flung open and Castiel and Uriel entered. Castiel’s eyes and Dean’s own guilt revealed that Dean had told the angels where to find them. Anna correctly deduced that they had given Dean a choice – they would kill Anna, or they would kill Sam – and Dean couldn’t condemn his brother. Anna told him he had done his best and said that she forgave him, kissing him to seal it, and then told the angels that she was ready. Remembering that Anna had once been his superior and that they shared a history together, Castiel hesitated, expressing sorrow that Anna didn’t believe he felt, and in that moment, Alastair and his demon henchmen arrived with Ruby in tow, laying claim to Anna. The boys, Anna, and Ruby all got out of the way as Castiel and Uriel faced off with the demons. Uriel attended to both of the henchmen, burning the demons out of the host bodies with white fire, but Castiel, although he tried to do the same with Alastair, found himself outmatched. Dean intervened as Alastair throttled Castiel and chanted his dismissal ritual, pulling Alastair’s attention away from the angel, and Alastair chided him for having betrayed the promise he showed in Hell, and then afflicted both Winchester brothers with choking pain that dropped them to the floor. Anna chose her moment as Uriel slew his second opponent, and grabbed the vial containing her grace from around his neck. Shattering it against the floor, she drew the essence of light into herself, and warning the others to close their eyes, she flared into a being of pure light, blasting Alastair as he reached for her and then disappearing. Picking up the knife that Alastair had dropped, Dean bitterly taunted Castiel and Uriel into going after her, and they vanished, leaving the brothers and Ruby alone. Dean congratulated Sam on the success of his plan to bring the demons and the angels together, and Sam wryly quoted Ruby: that when you had Godzilla and Mothra on your ass, it was best to get out of their way and let them fight.
In the aftermath, the brothers sat on the Impala’s hood and marveled at their own survival. Knowing that Sam had heard Alastair’s comment about Hell, Dean steeled himself and told Sam that time in Hell moved differently, so he had spent forty years there. He described having been tortured out of existence every day only to be magically restored just to undergo the torture again, and said that Alastair had made him the same offer at the end of every day: that he could come off the torture rack the moment he agreed to torture others in his place. Weeping, Dean confessed that after thirty years of refusing, he couldn’t take it any more, and he’d spared himself torture by ripping other souls to shreds. Despite Sam’s attempt to absolve him by stressing how long he’d held out, Dean said that he wished he couldn’t feel anything, because of the agony he felt inside over what he had done.
Commentary and Meta Analysis
This episode was magnificent. I have nits to pick down in the Production Notes section, and some of them – especially on the story and script – are very large nits, but on balance, this episode was superb both because of its sheer emotional scope and because of the way in which it expanded the show’s mythology to add even more complex shadings to the ordinarily simplistic theme of a war between good and evil. In this analysis, I’m going to look at the nature of angels as revealed by Anna, Castiel, and Uriel; Dean’s torment in and rescue from Hell; and the complexity of good and evil in the Supernatural universe.
Like A Marble Statue
Anna presented a surprisingly dark view of angels as beings without emotion or choice who must be obedient or die, and who must take on faith that God exists because only four angels have ever seen him. She described having been stationed on Earth for two thousand years just watching, with no understanding of what her real mission or purpose was, and said that when she disobeyed God, as Lucifer had done, she knew that she had done wrong and believed that her punishment would be a death sentence. She chose to fall to Earth instead, ripping out her grace for the chance to become human, to feel and experience life, and to avoid the punishment she expected. She was reluctant to resume her grace because she wanted to continue to be able to feel as a human did, and because she feared the punishment she would face for her disobedience.
I would submit that Anna’s perceptions were only that, and further posit that Castiel and Uriel, as well as her own story, demonstrate that her perceptions were exaggerated and skewed.
Being without physical form, angels would lack the range of visceral physical sensation that we as humans experience through our bodies and their linkage to our minds, from taste and smell to hunger, pain, arousal, and satiation. Lacking human form, angels wouldn’t experience the stomach-dropping adrenaline surge of terror, or feel how the same sensation can be transmuted to pleasure on an amusement park ride when we know the risk isn’t real. Apparently not being sexual creatures, they wouldn’t experience the effects of hormonal surges and libido, of sexual attraction to another being, or the mixed pleasurable torment and release of sex. They wouldn’t know the sensual pleasure of smooth chocolate dissolving on the tongue, or the first euphoric relaxation of a single alcoholic drink.
That said, however, Anna was plainly wrong when she claimed that angels had no emotions and couldn’t feel. If that was the case, Anna herself wouldn’t have felt the confusion, loss, and disillusion she expressed to Dean that evidently led to her disobedience to God. She wouldn’t have felt the desire to experience the full range of what a human can feel that led to her assuming human form. She wouldn’t have felt the guilt and fear of punishment that led to her decision to rip out her grace and fall to Earth in order to avoid the more severe punishment she expected.
It’s not just Anna who illustrates that angels do have emotion and can feel. If angels didn’t feel, Uriel wouldn’t take such evident delight in indulging the darker aspects of his job. He plainly enjoys doing much of what he does. He’s not just executing his orders; he’s deriving twisted pleasure from what he gets to do, as evidenced by his satisfaction in brutalizing Dean when Dean challenged him over Ruby, and in relishing Dean’s fear and his own sense of power and control when he asserted that breaking Dean was simply a matter of leverage. And although Anna challenged Castiel’s claim that he was sorry, saying that he couldn’t really know how that felt, Castiel wouldn’t have hesitated in executing his commission when she was at his mercy if he truly felt nothing. If Castiel truly felt nothing, he would not have shown such silent but real compassion to Dean for his pain at learning the truth of his family’s past near the end of his time-trip in In The Beginning, and he would not have shown his genuine, wondering appreciation for humans as works of art nor confessed his own doubts and confusion about his mission at the end of It’s The Great Pumpkin, Sam Winchester. Castiel is admittedly a newcomer to understanding humans, but while he is technically heartless, as he agreed in this episode, he clearly does feel and does care, although he puts his duty ahead of his emotions. Uriel even noted, however dismissively, that Castiel likes Dean, and I would submit that is true.
If angels can and do feel, then where did Anna’s diatribe come from? I would say, from the confusion of her own emotions. In her rebellion, her exaggeration, and her fear, Anna behaves much like a human child, and notwithstanding that she’s been around for thousands of years, I would say that emotionally, she is a child in many ways. We don’t know anything about how Anna disobeyed God; she said only that she disobeyed him, and that disobedience – as evidenced by Lucifer – is the worst offense an angel can commit. She never said that she actually had been sentenced to death for her disobedience; only that she was sure that she was under a death sentence for what she had done, and that instead, she had chosen to cast aside her grace and fall to Earth and humanity. As I listened to her, I couldn’t help but think that I was listening to a young child who, knowing she had done something wrong, was so afraid of punishment that she blew her expectation of it all out of proportion, and ran away rather than face what she most feared. Children often fear punishment and fear disappointing or displeasing their parents so much that they convince themselves that the punishment will be horrific, and they lie or run away in an attempt to avoid it. Even as adults, we often hesitate to admit when we’ve been wrong because we fear that the consequences will be acutely painful, damaging our reputations, our pride, and the way others see us as well as the way we see ourselves. Often when we do face the music, the consequences aren’t nearly as bad as we had let our fears imagine them to be.
I submit that this may have been what happened with Anna: that lacking direct experience of God, she saw her own disobedience as a much worse transgression than God would have. Convinced that what she had done was unforgivable, on a par with the offense of Lucifer, whose punishment was legend, she ran away and hid, exactly like a child. While she was a human child and still innocent enough to apprehend the truth of her angel self, if not to understand or express it, she revealed that she was afraid and hiding from her father, who – she said – was angry enough with her to want to kill her.
Now forced as a grown-up to remember and recognize what she had done, she built up a rational justification for it, exactly the way we humans are wont to do when we have to acknowledge the things we’ve feared and the wrongs we’ve done. I would posit that her rationale came from her need to believe that her flight was justified: that she would have been killed had she stayed an angel, and that her situation as a human was much better than her life as an angel had been.
One thing that suggests powerfully that the situation was not in truth exactly the way she now recalls it is very simply that Heaven took no steps to capture her and bring her back; indeed, Heaven evidently did nothing to punish or pursue her until Hell became aware of her unique ability to overhear angels. At that point, with the forces of Heaven desperate to stop Lilith from unleashing the apocalypse, it does appear true that the angels most directly tasked with prosecuting the war were ordered to deny her to the enemy by killing the human form that demons could otherwise have captured, tortured, and used to spy on the angelic host. What might have been the fate of her angelic self is less clear, however, especially since her grace had been kept safely intact as an individual thing, removed from the Earth where it had fallen but neither destroyed nor subsumed into some greater, amorphous, anonymous good.
I suspect that we may encounter Anna again, because – contrary to her expressed fears and expectations – I somehow doubt that Heaven’s plans ever included destroying her for her perceived disobedience. I also suspect that her time spent as a human with the full experience and appreciation for human emotions and sensation will be of importance in her future precisely because it will make her more sympathetic to and understanding of humans, even as Castiel is becoming, and that will make her better able to connect with the humans who fight on the side of the angels. She may no longer be able to feel entirely as she did while she was human, with a body that reacted to touch, physical stimulus, and the chemical changes triggered by emotion, but I do believe that she will still feel and will still care. And I wouldn’t be at all surprised to learn that her punishment and her reward is precisely that she can still remember how it felt to be human.
We’ve All Done Things We Gotta Pay For
Dean plumbed the depth of his guilt more than once in this episode. When Anna revealed that she knew what he had done in Hell because she had heard the angels talking about it, and then told him that it wasn’t his fault, his inability to speak about it even though she already knew and didn’t reject him for it gave evidence of just how deep the wound went. He couldn’t verbalize it, and couldn’t even acknowledge it, and that he flinched away from her hand when she reached out to offer comfort said louder than words that he couldn’t accept that he deserved gentleness or forgiveness.
Earlier, he had asked what the angels wanted from him, why they had saved him. Listening to Anna saying that she might not deserve to be saved because of what she had done, agonizing over mere disobedience, he must have felt doubly damned and undeserving because in his eyes, what he had done was much worse than any choice simply to disobey a command. Still, being told by someone who knew the truth that he deserved to forgive himself, and being met with understanding and forgiveness, was exactly what he needed to eventually be able to open up to Sam.
His terror of being returned to Hell showed openly in his face when Anna repeated the angels’ ultimatum. When he confronted Uriel in the dream and Uriel threatened to cast him back into Hell, he accepted it despite his fear precisely because he felt that he deserved to go back to Hell because of what he had done there the first time around, even though he knew he hadn’t deserved to go to Hell that first time. He wasn’t crazy, as Uriel suggested: he was judging himself, as he’s been judging himself ever since he started remembering Hell and drinking to drown it out, convinced in his own mind that however much he hadn’t deserved to go in the first place, he deserved to be there now, and simultaneously terrified that if he went back, having been broken before, he would do even worse things and damn himself all the more.
Uriel broke him further by dismissing his defiance and his perverse pride in being able to accept condemning himself to Hell when he used the leverage of making Dean choose to give up Anna to the angels not to escape from Hell, but to keep Sam alive. Even though we learned in the end that revealing their location to the angels was part of Sam’s plan, the way it came about put another nail in the coffin of Dean’s self-respect, because it showed him how easily he could be fractured. That shame just added to the burden of guilt he carries for having hurt other people in order to spare himself pain. It’s no wonder that he was drinking and unable to meet either Anna’s or Sam’s eyes – the realization, the shame, the guilt, and the self-loathing were all real, even though what he had done had served the purpose of bringing the angels to the party on schedule.
His admission to Sam in the end of what he had experienced in Hell and what it had done to him was the bravest thing I think I’ve ever seen him do. He stripped himself naked and held nothing back. While Sam tried to absolve him with how long he had resisted, all that Dean could see was that in the end, he was weak and he broke, and that what he did violated the strongest tenet of his life and his innermost self. We’ve known since Wendigo, just the second episode of this show, that Dean’s driving force and core motivation has always been saving people. Alastair’s evil genius lay in breaking Dean by pushing him to the point where he accepted torturing others in order to escape pain to himself – but the very knowledge that he broke and was destroying others served as a new and deeper form of torture that Dean inflicted on himself, because even as he brutalized others, he was further punishing himself for being so weak that he accepted inflicting pain in order to spare himself. That cycle, once begun, maintained itself; Dean no longer needed any other torturer, because he tortured himself. Even having been removed from Hell, the torture continued, because the memory remained – at any rate, once it fully returned.
Almost two years ago, way back on December 17, 2006, I borrowed a classic poem by Rudyard Kipling and wrote a Supernatural University blog on Dean Winchester called Hymn To Breaking Strain. “Breaking strain” is an engineering term for the amount of force required to fracture a structure. The theme of the Kipling poem is that people don’t come with handy specs on the limits of stress they can take before shattering, and that, unlike broken bridges and rails, human beings are doubly damned because when we do fail, we also know that we failed, and feel shame for having broken no matter how much force it took to do the deed. Little did I know when I wrote that blog just what Dean’s true breaking strain would prove to be: the cunning torture of Hell that, by turning him into a torturer of others, made him the most implacable torturer of himself.
I hope that, with his guilt and pain now out in the open, Dean may have the chance to start to come to terms with what happened in Hell, and to realize that his inability to accept pain indefinitely doesn’t make him weak, and that he broke under torture doesn’t make him damned. Despite what he did to other souls in Hell, Dean is far from a demon himself, and far from irredeemable. Unlike demons, he isn’t callous, nor does he take pleasure in hurting others; his guilt and self-flagellation for what he did in Hell is ample testimony to the continuation of his humanity. His desperate admission that he wished that he couldn’t feel anything speaks eloquently of the unremitting torture he is still putting himself through.
Although Anna told Dean that she knew what he had done in Hell because she had heard the angels talking about it, she didn’t tell him the nature of that conversation or what the angels thought of him. It’s a fair bet that angels like Uriel find him distasteful and unworthy of the attention of Heaven, but Castiel’s take on Dean is clearly much different. We heard from Anna that some angels think that Dean can help save the world, and judging from Castiel’s interactions with him, Cas is now one of that number. But for Dean to succeed, he needs to be able to function, and to be able to function, he needs to rebuild himself.
The comfort that Kipling offered in his poem was that even in the midst of disaster, humans have the ability to endure; that despite being broken, and even because of being broken, they can stand up and build anew. That’s Dean’s task, and now that Sam knows about it, he will have his brother’s help.
An Angel And A Demon, Riding In The Back Seat
One of the most intriguing things about the story that Supernatural has developed is that, although the series is yet another example of the archetype of the conflict between good and evil, there are no black-and-white sides or answers. This episode gave us the parallels between the forces of Heaven and Hell, and showed that they are close to each other in many ways – much like Anna and Ruby, sitting in the back seat, and Dean and Sam, sitting in the front.
We have now seen a spectrum of angels as well as a spectrum of demons. In Anna, Castiel, and Uriel, we see three different points on the scale. Anna, the disaffected one, rejected being an angel in favor of becoming human, and criticized Heaven. Castiel, the moral one, is concerned with doing the right thing, and has found himself curious about and even fascinated by humans – but that growing closeness to humanity is threatening his angelic conviction and complicating his duty. Uriel, the fundamentalist one, is dedicated to his duty, dismissive of humans, and obedient to Heaven, but in his zeal, he takes pleasure in inflicting pain, making him seem more like a demon than a warrior of the light.
The demons have displayed similar variety. In Alastair, we see the mirror image of Uriel: as Uriel is dedicated to Heaven and finds Earth and humans largely despicable, Alastair – alone among the demons we’ve met thus far – actually prefers Hell to Earth. Devoted to evil, he found that even in the midst of the Nazi regime, which was the last time he walked in the world, Earth didn’t offer enough pain and torment for him to enjoy. Despite his own evident power, Alastair appears content to accept Lilith’s leadership because he’s not interested in ruling nearly as much as he’s interested simply in deriving hedonistic pleasure from artistically torturing others. Lilith and Azazel both evidenced grandiose plans to rule on Earth, the first by freeing Lucifer to bring the apocalypse and reign – evidently pursuing loyalty to the demon version of the divine even as Castiel and Uriel display loyalty to God – and the second for as yet unknown reasons of his own, which might have involved Lucifer or concerned securing his own dominion. Ruby, on the other hand, has claimed to remember being human and seems to be trying to some degree to become human again, pursuing and enjoying human sensation as Anna has done, although through the proxy of a stolen human host.
We’ve been set up to expect that the Winchester brothers will also reflect aspects of Heaven and Hell, with Dean rescued from Hell by angels at the command of God and Sam tainted with demon blood as a baby and courted by a demon tempting him to learn to wield his demon-given powers. At the same time, the brothers have always supposedly reflected their currently opposite poles, with profane Dean having always skated on the wrong side of the law while innocent Sam shied away from violence and con jobs. We’ve seen them constantly displaying the reverse of what we might expect, with usually crass horndog Dean proving a gentle and considerate lover taking and giving comfort in sex, while seemingly gentle Sam flipped to violence and need, punishing himself and his partner. Dean, although rescued by Heaven, had spared himself by torturing others in Hell; Sam, while using demon-given powers, saved the lives of innocent human hosts who might not have survived other forms of exorcism. Round and round and round they go, and where they’ll stop … only Kripke knows.
But in Supernatural’s world, the ways and means of good and evil don’t appear to be absolutes. Instead, like individual angels and demons, like individual humans, the avatars of both sides come in all shades of grey, and shade into and out of each other. Some things, however, hold their value through all the shifting light – love, loyalty, forgiveness, sacrifice – and those things define the Winchesters and their allies.
This discussion will be a mixed bag, because there were some things about this episode that were absolutely exquisite and other things that fell loudly and resoundingly flat, and both were dispersed across the episode. I’ll get my criticisms out of the way first.
My major problems came with the story by Trevor Sands and the resulting screenplay by Eric Kripke. I can appreciate the intent to parallel the link that demons have with humans – that most demons are humans who lose their humanity after a stint in Hell – by giving angels a link with humans through the potential for angels to fall to Earth and be born as human babies. That said, however, it opens many potentially stinky kettles of fish, especially with the artifice of an angel’s “grace” being severable from the angel and able to be contained in a piece of jewelry. How many fallen angels are there (how many meteorites each year are angels and/or grace?), and how do these fallen angels compare with the capital-letter “Fallen” that we associate with Lucifer and the other disobedient angels who followed him being exiled to Hell by more common legend? Heaven literally being up in the heavens and falling angels being visible as falling stars was downright hokey. Anna fully recovering her memories after a simple hypnotic regression – and why did we need a psychic for that? – was awkwardly clunky. The whole device of Anna’s grace being the subject of an abbreviated quest to a tree of life felt contrived, and given that there was no logical reason offered for why Uriel would be wearing her grace, the final resolution of Anna’s situation was ludicrously convenient. I hope that there was some logical rationale that simply wound up on the editing room floor due to time and budget constraints – perhaps the angels needing to use Anna’s grace to try and locate her human shell, or Uriel’s ultimate arrogance in thinking that he was the safest guardian, or something – but I have a sneaking suspicion that was not the case. And the whole plan of bringing the angels and demons together at precisely the same time relied on too many improbable coincidences to be acceptable to the logical mind. The structure of the story itself was lazy in the extreme.
I would also have appreciated a nod to an explanation of why Anna suddenly began to hear angels when she did. I could offer to explain it as the angels’ rescue of Dean being the first instant when angels began to walk the Earth almost openly after over two thousand years of silent observation, but having it just come out of nowhere was a hole I could have done without.
On the other hand, the script’s treatment of Dean’s connection with Anna over both feelings and unfathomable fathers was wonderful, as was the whole final scene of Dean confessing to Sam. The interactions between Sam and Dean throughout were scintillating, and the funny lines were absolutely hysterical. The story and script were a strange mix of the perfect and the perverse, and I ultimately don’t know where I come down on them because the overall mix was so intense. The episode ultimately won because of its overall impact, but the plot details? Not so much.
I had possibly two problems with the direction and one with performance, which is related to one directing note. My performance issue came with Mark Rolston as Alastair, who suddenly seemed to be channeling Marlon Brando’s Don Corleone for no logical reason beginning in the crossroads and torture scenes with Ruby, and concluding in his ultimate scene with Dean during the battle in the barn. I hadn’t heard his version of Brando in the dialogue from last week’s I Know What You Did Last Summer, so it really didn’t make any discernable sense here. Maybe it was the whole concept of making an offer neither Ruby nor Dean could refuse, but the actor’s sudden adoption and delivery of a slurred accent positively grated. Whether it was the director’s or the actor’s choice, I would question director J. Miller Tobin to explain going with it, because it really didn’t work for me.
Tobin’s one other decidedly irritating choice was the obvious Titanic shout-out in Anna’s hand drawing down through the condensation on the Impala’s window. If that hadn’t been such a blatant stylistic choice in so many other movies, I might have found it an attractive take, but the overuse of the identical shot elsewhere made this use almost terminally cheesy. I appreciate an homage as much as the next person, but not at the expense of the dramatic impact of a scene, and aping such a well-known and often ridiculed shot was just the wrong move for the moment.
The flip side of this criticism, again, is the beauty of every other directorial choice Tobin made. He holds a special place in my heart because I suspect that, of all the Supernatural directors, he is the one who loves the Impala the most, and it shows in some of his best shots, like the end of A Very Supernatural Christmas. I’d love to know whether the story and script set the love scene between Dean and Anna in the Impala, or if the setting was Tobin’s choice. The Impala is Dean’s most personal space and the closest thing he has to a home, so setting a love scene there for the very first time made it very special. We all know that Dean has had sex in the car before, even if we never saw it; I would take bets that he lost his virginity there! Shooting the final scene with the boys sitting on the hood of the Impala was both an homage to the end of season two’s Children Shouldn’t Play With Dead Things, and an acknowledgment that Dean draws reassurance and comfort from the support of his best girl.
Apart from his use of the Impala, Tobin also does a lovely job of placing the brothers in positions that reinforce the roles they’re playing with respect to each other. Sam stepping forward protectively in front of Dean and – despite his reverence for them – asking Anna about weapons that could kill angels when it appeared that they were threatening his brother with a return to Hell, as well as sitting on the hood at his brother’s back almost close enough to touch in order to lend support in that final scene, were both lovely pieces of blocking that reinforced their brotherhood. He does a delightful job as well of framing both tight shots on individual actors lost in strong emotions, and two-shots – those featuring two actors in the same frame – that capture character relationships. Seeing the pain of Sam’s reaction to Dean’s narration at the same time and in the same shot as we were watching Dean totally fall apart was beautifully done.
I have to give a special shout-out to the location set dressers and the makeup people for both this episode and the previous one. The set dressers win for having fun with the number 42, which is, of course, Douglas Adams’s answer to life, the universe, and everything. Last week, Anna had been confined in Ward 42; this week, Ruby summoned Alastair to a crossroad with a US Highway 42 sign. The makeup folks win for the continuity of psychic Pamela’s “Jesse Forever” tattoo, and for the blistered burn scar of Castiel’s hand on Dean’s shoulder, which director Tobin used to great effect in the love scene, with Anna fitting her human angel’s hand to the mark of the hand that had drawn Dean out of Hell.
One last comment on the love scene in the car. The editing got a little choppy in cutting between the start of the scene, with Dean on top, and the second half of the scene, with Dean on the bottom, but given the inherent awkwardness of having sex in the back seat of a car, I can understand why Tobin would have elected not to shoot his actors changing position! I did appreciate the artistry and the challenge in shooting a love scene even in the studio Impala, which can be disassembled, and can only imagine the awkwardness that Jensen Ackles, Julie McNiven, and a cameraman got into in order to pull it off. Bravo, folks! The undoubtedly embarrassed, amused discomfort was worth it: the scene worked. And I’m sure that all involved were thankful that Dean doesn’t drive the 1965 Ford Mustang that was Kripke’s original idea for the car; that back seat would have been torture!
The performances – apart from my quibble with Ralston’s funky accent on Alastair – positively rocked. Top marks go to Jensen Ackles, who made me feel every sharp and bleeding edge of Dean’s broken soul, and the crumbling tape of resolve barely holding it together. The man deserves every acting award imaginable, and it is the shame of the Emmys that genre shows, especially on marginal netlets, are so consistently ignored. I hope earnestly that producers and directors are seeing these episodes, even if the nominating committees are biased against them, because this man deserves major starring roles when Supernatural ends, and he demonstrates that weekly. Jared Padalecki sold Sam’s devotion, shock, and grief on his brother’s behalf.
The guests did yeoman service as well. I liked Genevieve Cortese in this episode, and after the look she gave sleeping Sam before Ruby headed off to beard Alastair in his den, I’m ready to believe that Ruby has come to care for Sam. Mind you, I still believe that she has her own agenda, but she knew the chance she was taking in going to Alastair – and what I saw in that look was desire and longing and the regret that it all might be lost. Whatever her motives in seeking out Sam originally, I do believe that he matters to her personally now, whether because she’s invested so much in him or on his own merits. And speaking from the shallow end of the pool, does it make me a bad person that, when she chided Sam for his inability to pull Alastair out of his host and told him that he knew how to keep his mental mojo muscles strong, and he said that he wasn’t doing that any more, I immediately flashed on them referring to Sam practicing tantric sex with a demon, rather than simply exercising those mental muscles by constantly practicing pulling demons out of human hosts?
Julie McNiven’s Anna changed the moment she remembered who and what she was, and I thought she did that beautifully. Anna’s forgiveness of Dean and her playful seduction of him to pull him out of his pain and fear were beautiful, and the way she and Dean never stopped looking at each other while they made love just reinforced the healing power and life-affirmation of the act, in sharp contrast to the raw and almost brutal, eyes-closed sex of self-loathing and desperation that Sam had shared with Ruby in I Know What You Did Last Summer. Whatever issues I have with the way that Anna’s role was set up, I have none with the way it was played.
Misha Collins did a lot with a little, conveying just with Castiel’s eyes and face his sorrow and reluctance in performing his duty, his fear at finding himself overmatched in battle against Alastair, and his awe and almost longing at seeing Anna transformed into the fullness of her angelic being. Robert Wisdom continued to compel as Uriel, particularly in his taunting dream confrontation with Dean.
All in all, Heaven and Hell worked in the end despite the silliness of much of the story precisely because the actors took it all seriously – even the laughs – and made it work emotionally by making it all real. While I was watching it, I wasn’t thinking how foolish and contrived most of the plot was: instead, I was absorbed in Dean’s terror, guilt, grief, and agony; in Sam’s fear and determination and grief for his brother; in Anna’s fear and in her generosity of spirit in reaching out to salve Dean’s wounded soul, healing something of her own in the process; in Ruby’s fear and desire and resolve; and in Castiel’s sorrow and hesitation and yearning for Heaven. The actors and the director together made it work, and that is what, in the end, has made this my current favorite episode to watch.