Meet true and deadly magic:
End bloody, or sad.
At a magician’s convention in Sioux City, Iowa, the aging, no longer nimble, once-Incredible Jay, after being heckled by a rival, pitied by a barmaid, and seeing the main stage given to a flashy, arrogant, portentous young Criss Angel wannabe, decided to go out with a headline by attempting a fatal escape trick in front of a bored and meager audience. They gasped when the blades came down, then applauded wildly to see Jay alive – and his drunken rival dropped dead in the street from ten stab wounds that didn’t pierce his clothes. Posing as FBI agents investigating the death, the Winchester brothers learned that the dead man had been known to steal tricks from other magicians, and had a lot of enemies. Although he’d never done card tricks, his assistant had found a tarot card – the ten of swords, depicting a pierced corpse – tucked inside his cape.
Meanwhile, Jay, talking with his old friend Charlie, enthused that since his miraculous escape, he was able to do card tricks he’d never been able to master before. Euphoric despite Charlie’s concerns, Jay announced that he wanted to do a trick called the Executioner – a timed escape from a straitjacket and noose that even Houdini had refused to attempt – imagining what a success would do to revitalize his fading career. Riding the high, and overriding Charlie’s worry that he was deliberately trying to kill himself, he persuaded Charlie to help him arrange it.
When Dean questioned Charlie and one of Jay’s other aging magician friends, Vernon – who had been known to use tarot cards in his own act, back in the day – the two spotted him as a con artist and seamlessly set him up, sending him to a gay S&M club under the pretense of identifying a man reputed to have a grudge against the dead magician. While Dean was out, Ruby visited Sam, telling him that Lilith had succeeded in breaking 34 of the 66 seals so far and advocating that Sam should go directly after Lilith, to cut the head off the snake. She repeated that Sam was the only one who could stop her and told him to step up and kill her. He responded that he was game, but said that the psychic thing wasn’t what he had a problem with, and Ruby answered that she knew what he had a problem with, but that it was the only way, and that it would be easier if he could just admit that he liked the way it made him feel. She stalked out after warning him that millions of people would die if the seals were broken and Lucifer walked free.
That night, Jay performed the Executioner in front of a capacity crowd, including the Winchesters, and accomplished an impossible escape – and as he escaped from hanging, Jeb Dexter, the smarmy Criss Angel wannabe, practicing his look in front of the mirror in his room, was garroted by a rope that suspended itself from the ceiling fan and wrapped around his neck.
The brothers investigated Jay, learning that he’d once been a star and had lost his prominence just because he got old, and speculated that he was now using real magic to stage a comeback. Dean observed that the whole thing seemed brutal, and said that he hoped he’d die before he got old. Sam asked whether he thought they’d still be chasing demons when they were sixty, and Dean responded that he thought they’d be dead, maintaining that the hunting life always ended bloody or sad and indicating that he wouldn’t want to become like Travis or Gordon, or even Bobby. Sam asked him to consider whether there was a way they could win, a way to go after the source and cut the head off the snake, but Dean answered that the snake had a thousand heads, that there was always more evil to fight, and Sam reluctantly conceded.
Dean learned about Jeb’s death and found a tarot card – the Hanged Man, this time – on the body, and guessed that the cards were the targeting devices for some kind of death transference spell. The brothers confronted Jay in his motel room, but when he not only professed ignorance and a total disbelief in any form of real magic, but didn’t throw any magic against them, they began to think that he was innocent. Since he was the beneficiary of the deaths, they guessed that one of his friends was the source of the magic, but he escaped before they could ask and then got them arrested on the charge of having broken into his room.
Torn between dismissing the Winchesters’ wild talk about his show killing people and being troubled by the impossible coincidences between the deaths and his escapes, Jay began to reconsider doing his Table of Death stunt again for the night’s show, but Charlie argued that he had a sold-out house waiting for him. Jay admitted that he’d intended to kill himself the first night he’d done the act, and had no idea how he’d gotten out alive. Charlie encouraged him, reminding him that in his day, he really had been the best, and that now he had it back, making even Charlie feel young. He went ahead with the act, once again pulling off an impossible escape – and Charlie fell dead backstage, pierced as if by the swords that Jay had escaped.
Devastated, Jay got Sam and Dean released by dropping the charges against them. The brothers hesitantly raised the question of whether Vernon might have been behind the spells, and when Jay protested that Vernon could never have done it, Dean observed that real magic was a lot like crack; that people do surprising things once they’ve gotten a taste of it. Jay reluctantly distracted Vernon to give the boys the opportunity to search his hotel room, which turned out to be a veritable trove of stage magic history – including a couple of very old handbill posters of a very young man billed as “The Great Dessertini” who looked a lot like Charlie.
Vernon informed Jay that he was going to have the headline act for the convention, and Jay accused him of having done magic and killed Charlie just so they could be back on top. Appalled and disbelieving, Vernon denied it – and Charlie, in a once-again-young version of his own body, confirmed that Vernon was innocent. Charlie explained that he’d once shilled for P.T. Barnum, and that Barnum had given him a grimoire that turned out to be full of real spells, including one for immortality. He offered to share that spell with both Jay and Vernon, saying that he’d never had such friends before. Vernon was tempted, but Jay wondered about the price, and when the Winchesters arrived and tried to interfere, Charlie’s magic hung Dean from the Executioner’s noose and trapped Sam on the Table of Death. Before they would have died, however, Charlie himself fell, and Jay revealed that he had palmed Charlie’s tarot cards, planted the Magician card on Charlie, and then stabbed himself, transferring his death to Charlie.
Dean and Sam tried to thank Jay for saving their lives, but discovered Jay bitter, abandoned by Vernon for what he did to Charlie, grieving having killed the friend who had wanted only to give him a gift, and wondering how what he did could possibly be the right thing when it had led him to kill and left him old and alone. Sam left Dean at the hotel bar, saying he was going for a walk, but instead met Ruby and told her that he was in. When she asked what changed his mind, he told her that he didn’t want to be doing this when he was an old man.
Commentary and Meta Analysis
This episode made me sad and afraid, and I loved it. The parallels between the magicians and the boys, the conversation about growing old, and the realization that Sam has a secret he still hasn’t shared with Dean all resonated in ways that made very clear that this apparent standalone monster-of-the-week variety episode was nothing of the sort. This commentary will deal with all three of these pieces.
What’s So Right About That?
Supernatural is often accused of dropping anvils in drawing parallels between the situations of the Winchester brothers and the cases they confront. Personally, I don’t mind anvils; they’re very useful for hammering characters into shape. But this episode made me appreciate how many different ways parallels could be drawn, and wonder how many more I may be missing.
The most obvious parallel would be to relate Charlie with Sam and Jay with Dean. After all, Charlie was seduced by the success of spells from the grimoire into doing more and more of them and became inured even to killing other people to make the magic work, and no matter what he blithely promised at the end about giving up the magic, it was clear that he never would. We’ve seen Sam tempted by his success, by apparent need, and by the survival of the human hosts into using his powers to pull demons out of people and send them back to Hell, and even though he announced his intent to stop in Metamorphosis, conceding that using his powers was playing with fire, he has accepted every excuse and opportunity since then to use them again, much like an addict pursuing a fix. Jay, despite his love for his friend, ultimately did what appeared to be the right and necessary thing and stopped him the only way he could, by killing him, and we’ve been given many unsubtle hints along the way, from John’s admonition to Dean confessed in Hunted through Dean’s announcement in Metamorphosis of Castiel’s warning to him from In The Beginning, that Dean similarly may be expected to kill Sam, if that’s the only way to stop him.
But I think that alone is too simple, and that there are other possible parallels here. What appeared very black and white when the series began – that supernatural things are evil and need to be destroyed – has been increasingly shaded with grey, first with the recognition that things are often not what they seem, like vampires not killing humans in Bloodlust and spirits attempting to warn rather than kill in The Usual Suspects, and most recently by the appearance of angels who often seem more harsh and rigid than good. A favorite theme in Supernatural is that what is right is often hard, but hardest of all, sometimes, is knowing what is right.
In a way, Dean has also been like Charlie and Sam like Jay. After all, when Sam died, Dean turned to magic – of the soul-selling variety – to get Sam’s life restored. That transference of death was the same kind of undesired gift that Charlie gave to Jay, and while the price was Dean’s own life and soul rather than someone else’s, it was a price Sam – like Jay – would never have agreed to pay. For his own part, Sam has tried, like Jay, to do the right thing, amidst confusion about what exactly is right. Sam had no choice either in the matter of being given demon blood as an infant or in being restored to life after he had died; his only choice was to do the best he could both to stop demons and save lives. I’m not remotely surprised that he considered using his powers and pulling demons from living hosts a better outcome than employing the demon-killing and human-killing knife. And confronting the spectre of the seals being broken and the end of the world coming unless he could manage to destroy Lilith, I’m not surprised that he would consider using his powers – and whatever else – to stop Lilith, despite the possible cost to him. Normally, we consider killing people to be wrong, but we make an exception where we feel that killing one person is the only way to stop that person from killing others; Sam and Dean considered what Jay did in killing Charlie to be right. Unsurprisingly, Sam considers stopping Lilith from bringing the apocalypse as a right and worthy offset for doing what Dean and the angels have told him not to do.
So what is right, and where are the parallels now?
It Ends Bloody Or Sad; That’s Just The Life
Sam and Dean’s discussion of death and growing old broke my heart. It exposed a fundamental difference in perception, goals, and outlook between the brothers that harks back to the very beginning of the series, and even before, shaped by their understanding of the world and their place in it.
From the pilot episode of the series, we knew that Sam had never wanted the hunting life; that he had resented the training and their bizarre nomad existence, and that he’d broken with their father and gone to college in pursuit of a dream of normality. Even after he began hunting in earnest following Jess’s death, looking for John and seeking payback from the demon, he never intended to keep hunting once his goals were achieved. He made that very clear in the first season episode Shadow, when he talked about going back to school after they finished hunting the demon. His specific goals changed over time as his life presented new challenges, but they were always finite and very personal: finding Dad, avenging Jess, escaping the demon’s plans for him, saving Dean. His latest goal, imposed by the angels, is more grandiose – trying to avert the apocalypse – but their dialogue in this episode made clear that, at his core, he still clings to the hope that he may yet achieve the goal and stop, then have a life after the fight that isn’t hunting. I think the hope exists in part because he had a sense of security and normality for several years growing up, protected and kept ignorant as he was by John and Dean, and because he succeeded in escaping the life totally for the years he spent in college, daring to think that he’d never return, that he would marry Jess, become a lawyer, and live normal and free.
Dean, on the other hand, has always known nothing but hunting, and wanted nothing but family. From their mother’s death when he was four, he knew that there was evil in the world and that it destroyed people and families. He explained his commitment to hunting very simply in Wendigo, just the second episode of the series, when he said, I figure our family’s so screwed to Hell, maybe we can help some others. Makes things a little bit more bearable. And I’ll tell you what else helps: killing as many evil sons of bitches as I possibly can. That was Dean in a nutshell: putting saving people first and hunting things second, and doing both to make sense out of his own warped existence and to give tangible purpose to his life. Unlike Sam, he also saw no end to hunting, ever; that was very clear in Shadow, when he said, It’s never going to be over. There’s going to be others. There’s always going to be something to hunt.
That may be the single most fundamental difference between the brothers: that Sam can contemplate a life without hunting, and Dean can’t. At his nadir in season two, when he was struggling to protect Sam and overwhelmed by John’s admonition about saving Sam or killing him, Dean talked in Croatoan and Hunted about abandoning the hunt, but he was only venting frustration and searching for a way to keep Sam safe; he couldn’t really contemplate life without hunting. And that is what makes Dean a hunter to the core, and makes him intrinsically different from Sam. To Sam, hunting is a job or task, something he needs to do in order to achieve something else, just a means to an end. To Dean, hunting is a vocation, a calling or an end in and of itself, an obligation that will never cease simply because there will always be evil in the world and someone has to fight against it, and his knowledge makes him the one in position to do it.
Hunters are different from the rest of humanity because they hunt. Not everyone who encounters the supernatural becomes a hunter; just look at all the people Sam and Dean have saved who now know about the reality of ghosts, witchcraft, curses, legendary creatures, and demons, but who haven’t become hunters themselves, people like Haley from Wendigo, Sarah from Provenance, the prisoners rescued from the vampires in Dead Man’s Blood, Diana in The Usual Suspects, Father Reynolds in Houses of the Holy, Deacon from Folsom Prison Blues, and Jamie from Monster Movie, just to name a few. Some who know stay in the hunting world, but do things other than hunt, like Missouri from Home, Pamela from Lazarus Rising, and Ellen Harvelle in Everybody Loves A Clown.
We’ve met several different flavors of hunter, and each had different reasons for hunting. I would submit that John was much like Sam in that his hunting goals were very direct, personal, and finite: avenging Mary and protecting his sons. Given that one of his sons was a target of demons, that finite goal became an all-encompassing obsession, but I think that, had he been able to destroy the Yellow-Eyed Demon before all Hell broke loose, John would have been able to give up hunting and make a life for himself and his boys, because he would have achieved his goal. He would always have been aware of what went on in his vicinity, I’m sure, but I don’t think he would have felt compelled to seek out evil across the country that didn’t come close to threatening the people he loved. He helped others along the way while he was on his own quest and taught his boys to do the same, but I don’t think he would have felt compelled or obligated to continue seeking out others to help once his own purpose had been achieved.
I would say that Gordon was a different case. His initial motives were revenge and hate, but he discovered that he liked the hunt and the kill, and went after them for their own sake, for enjoyment and satisfaction. He wasn’t ever going to stop. Creedy, the born-again hunter who partnered with Gordon during Bad Day At Black Rock, evidently considered hunting his mission from God, a belief that Pastor Jim Murphy from Salvation may well have shared. The very solitary Travis from Metamorphosis, Chuck Elkins from Dead Man’s Blood, and Rufus Tanner from Time Is On My Side all seemed to have lost any other purpose and human connection in their lives, likely through the tragedies that brought them into hunting in the first place. Bobby’s guilt over killing his wife through ignorance of how to counter a demonic possession, revealed in Dream A Little Dream Of Me, evidently spurred him to learn everything he could about the supernatural, and he continues to atone for that guilt by helping everyone else he can. Isaac and Tamara from The Magnificent Seven stayed together after tragedy by hunting for revenge, making up to each other their failure to save their child.
Hunters didn’t necessarily have to be solitary, either. We saw in the Campbells of In The Beginning a family dedicated to hunting while also pursuing a normal life on the surface, and the Harvelles of season two were evidently the same before Bill Harvelle was killed. The letter from his daughter suggested that Steve Wandell, the hunter killed by possessed Sam in Born Under A Bad Sign, was similar. These families presented the most interesting picture of hunters, people who evidently survived supernatural tragedy and then continued to hunt almost as a sideline, helping others while also defending themselves, raising children, always on guard against evil in the neighborhood. The grief is that all of them were still torn apart in the end because of evil, but we don’t know whether that’s true of every hunter family in the world.
Dean’s whole personal experience, however, is that evil is unending and that encountering it is inevitable. Sammy, it ends bloody or sad; that’s just the life. His tragedy is that he can’t perceive evil threatening anyone without feeling the obligation to defend them, and because he knows with absolute internal certainty that evil is always out there and virtually infinite – Well, the problem with the snake is that it has a thousand heads. Evil bitches just keep piling out of the Volkswagon – he simply can’t contemplate a time when he would be free of the obligation to fight it. Hunting isn’t a job that he could ever retire from; it’s become the core of his personal definition, in part because it’s the only link to family that he has left. Given all that he has lost, he’s compelled to keep other people from the kind of loss that made him what he is. Saving people, hunting things isn’t just the family business, but the reason for him to live, and now it’s also the only way he can see to even partially atone for what he did and became in Hell. Given a choice of ending bloody or sad, he’ll pick bloody every time, because the worst thing he can imagine is being alone.
I would submit that Dean’s bleak view encompasses the failure of his imagination because, unlike Sam, he’s afraid to hope. He’s lost too much, and thus sees any promise of happiness and normality as being unattainable and essentially unreal. If he imagines things and hopes for them, he’ll only be hurt when his hopes are dashed, so he sets out not to hope, not to believe in the things that his experience has taught him will only be taken away from him. He’s put himself in a trap of despair because he can’t visualize a goal that he can achieve; he wants and needs to save people, but he knows he can’t save everyone, and that teaches him that he can’t ever win.
Sam, on the other hand, still dares to hope for a different outcome. With finite goals, however ambitious, he can still contemplate winning. With the experience of having escaped the life before, he can imagine doing it again, and settling into a semblance of a normal life. To his mind, if he could stop Lilith from breaking the seals, he would avert the apocalypse and deny his supposed demonic fate, and if he did that, he could stop. He doesn’t feel the same compulsion as Dean to justify himself by saving everyone; he just needs to save enough. And that enough would emphatically include his brother.
Dean can’t understand Sam’s hope, but I think it was Sam’s glimpse and understanding of Dean’s despair that fueled his determination to win, because only if they win could Dean possibly learn to hope.
Is There Something Going On You’re Not Telling Me?
Sam’s confrontation with Ruby had a fascinating wrinkle to it suggesting that there is indeed something more going on that Sam still hasn’t told Dean, even beyond what he learned from Ruby about the demons’ progress in breaking seals. It echoed their exchange in Heaven And Hell, when Ruby had chided him for letting his abilities get flabby and told him that he knew what he needed to do, and he responded that he wasn’t doing that anymore. During that earlier argument, it seemed that Ruby might have been referring simply to Sam needing to continuously practice pulling demons in order to keep his mental muscles strong, but his line here that, It’s not the psychic thing I got a problem with! seems to have taken that off the table. Her rejoinder of, Yeah, I know what you got a problem with, but tough – it’s the only way. You know, this would all be so much easier if you’d just admit to yourself that you like it. That feeling that it gives you? could be construed as referring to tantric sex with a demon – something else definitely not psychic that he hasn’t been doing any more! – but I don’t think so.
What I can’t forget is that before Ruby was a demon, she was a witch, and that even now, she’s been practicing magic. The only things we’ve actually seen her do thus far have been beneficial – coming up with the potion that saved Dean’s life in Malleus Maleficarum and the hex bags that protected them from discovery by demons in Jus In Bello and added protection against angelic location as well in I Know What You Did Last Summer – but especially given the magic addiction theme of this episode, the question becomes whether Sam has been dabbling in magic as well as in psychic abilities and demon sex. And if he has been tampering with magic, the next questions are, for what specific purpose and at what price?
There would be an interesting parallel with Dean if it turned out that Sam had another thing still to confess after his revelations in I Know What You Did Last Summer, given that Dean had more to admit in Family Remains after having given his first confession in Heaven And Hell. At a minimum, he’s going to have to admit meeting with Ruby behind Dean’s back, or see the undesirable consequences when Dean learns of it either on his own or through the angels. It never bodes well when the brothers keep secrets from each other.
In Barry Bostwick, John Rubenstein, Richard Libertini, and Michael Rubenstein (who is John Rubenstein’s real-life son, and played young Charlie), this episode had the highest-powered guest star ensemble ever, and it paid off in spades. Bostwick in particular was positively golden in his portrayal of Jay. The structure of the story, which put the guest trio of aging magicians much more in the center of the story than has been typical for a Supernatural episode, made the chemistry within the ensemble cast crucial, and they delivered beautifully. Luke Camilleri chewed the scenery with arrogantly appropriate insincerity as Jeb, convincingly earning the “douchebag” appellation.
Julie Siege has been on the editing staff for a while, and this second foray into carrying a script proved that she's a keeper with an eye for detail and a loving ear for the boys. Her exchange between the brothers on growing old was heartbreakingly dead-on, and the scene at the end between the boys and the utterly devastated Jay not only echoed with despair, but perfectly set up and reprised all the themes touched on during the entire course of the episode. The glimpse of a thirteen-year-old Sam being a magic aficionado was a cute touch.
As an aside, I found the title hilarious, and while the constant repetition of “douchebag” was a bit indulgent, the sense behind it – disdain for extravagant fakery taking the place of both reality and quietly elegant illusionist style – resonated across every use of the word.
There were a few awkward bits that stretched logic in the script – the boys rushing out of the room without looking in the bathroom or the closet when Jay slipped his bonds, and them being arrested and then released with no complications despite their past records both come to mind – and the boys wound up not being the heroes of the story, needing to be saved by Jay, but the story worked. How Charlie managed the death of his old body and his transference into a young copy wasn’t clear, but the absence of the tarot cards from that particular circumstance, and his comment that what he’d done to give Jay his enhanced ability with card tricks was another different spell, suggested that his immortality spell was an entirely different thing from the death transference one that utilized the cards. His comment to Vernon that the cards were still radioactive was the clue for Jay that the death transference potential was still active in the cards, and that he could use the cards against Charlie when he needed to do it. One particularly subtle thing that I didn’t catch until a second viewing was the implication in the scene after the discussion of death and aging that Sam had possibly lost Jay because he had been setting up the meeting he had with Ruby at the end of the episode.
I also loved the use of P.T. Barnum. Charlie having shilled for Barnum back in the day meant that he was on at least his third go-around, when he came back this last time. Barnum was born in 1810, opened his freak show in New York in 1841, and opened his circus in 1871, merging with Bailey in 1881. The two handbill posters, one black and white and one color, that the show’s graphics folks did for the Great Dessertini were perfectly in style for the late 1800’s and early 1900’s, respectively.
Robert Singer is second only to Kim Manners in being able to pull emotion from his casts, and both the magicians’ ensemble and the boys benefited from his direction. I also loved his threesome shots both of the three magicians, and of Vernon and Charlie with Dean. He magnified the emotion of the final scene with the boys and Jay by using tight two-shots and three-shots rather than individual close-ups, because you constantly saw the connections being forged between the characters and their themes as the dialogue was spoken. It was beautiful. And the scenes of Jay’s death-defying stunts were positively riveting.
I believe that this episode, even while apparently focusing on the magicians, will prove crucial in the myth structure of the show. And that makes me very afraid, because it was so very sad.
Between ending bloody or sad, I still hope for neither.