Dean learns what he cannot bear:
He broke the first Seal.
Castiel arrived at a destroyed parking lot, evidently the site of an epic duel, to discover the body of a woman stabbed through the upper chest, surrounded by smashed and flipped cars; a murdered angel, with the shadow image of her wings burned into the pavement around her.
In the aftermath of Pamela’s funeral, Dean’s emotional exhaustion left him apathetic about Sam’s plan to rendezvous with Ruby outside Cheyenne, Wyoming, to pick up leads on Lilith. Sam urged him to get angry rather than depressed, but when they walked into their motel room to find Uriel and Castiel waiting for them, Dean’s livid anger at being expected to help yet again prompted Sam to try placating both sides. Uriel, clearly in command, said that seven angels had been murdered and that Alastair had resisted all attempts to get him to identify the demon responsible, so the angels wanted Dean to use the torturing skills he’d learned from Alastair in Hell to force the information from him. Dean refused, but Uriel said that they weren’t asking – and Dean and the angels vanished, leaving Sam raging, worried, and alone.
In an old meat processing plant, Dean found Alastair chained to a Star of David within an old Enochian devil’s trap that Castiel assured him rendered Alastair completely bound. Dean insisted on talking to Castiel alone, and Castiel admitted that Uriel was now in charge because their supervisors felt that Castiel was identifying too closely with Dean, weakening himself with emotion and doubt. Afraid of becoming again what he had become in Hell, Dean warned that if Castiel asked him to go through that door, he wouldn’t like what came back out, but Castiel reluctantly maintained that it was necessary. Shoulders slumped, Dean gave in, and rolled a cart of his chosen instruments of torture into the room.
Seeing Dean brought to torture him, Alastair was amused and taunted him, first mocking him for not wanting to torture him, for being scared. When Dean smiled and responded that he was here, Alastair shot back that he wasn’t, not really; that he’d left part of himself back in Hell, and Alastair wondered if he could reunite the two pieces of Dean. Still trying to get a rise out of Dean, Alastair prodded that he had to want to get some of his own back for all the things Alastair had done to him in Hell. When he still didn’t react, Alastair found his lever by mentioning instead all the things he’d done to John.
Meanwhile, Sam called on Ruby to use her abilities to find Dean, and told her that the problem with the angels’ plan was that Dean wouldn’t be able to do it; that something had happened to him during his time in Hell and he wasn’t what he used to be, he wasn’t strong enough. When Ruby archly inquired if Sam thought that he was, Sam pledged that he would be.
Alastair delighted in telling Dean that he had tortured John for nearly a century in Hell time, and that John had made quite a name for himself because, despite being offered the same deal that Alastair had offered Dean – agree to torture others, and be taken off the rack – John, unlike Dean, had never yielded; Alasdair had never been able to break him. Alasdair said that he hadn’t been pleased to be given Dean, because he thought he’d be up against it again – and then taunted that Daddy’s little girl broke in just thirty years. Watching Dean absorb his words and take a swig of booze, Alastair commiserated that Dean just wasn’t the man his Daddy had wanted him to be – and that was finally enough to push Dean into picking up his tools. Dean filled a syringe with holy water and told him that even in Hell, he could dream, and what he had dreamed about was torturing his tormentor. Between screams, Alastair continued to needle Dean.
Ruby used a spell to burn away all of a map except the piece showing where the angels were keeping Dean, observing that it was a good thing that the angels weren’t accustomed to being spied on. With the map fragment showing Dean’s location, Sam told Ruby that it had been weeks, and he needed it; when she said that he didn’t seem too happy about it, Sam protested that it was the last thing he wanted to do, but that he needed to be strong enough. Ruby assured him that he could have it, then cut her arm and stroked his head, smiling as he drank her blood.
Dean brought out Ruby’s knife, baptizing it in holy water before sticking it in with dead eyes and turning it with the beginnings of pleasure. Alastair, despite agony, gloated that he had carved Dean into a new animal in Hell and that there was no going back, but Dean observed that it was his turn to carve. Absorbed in his work, he didn’t notice a valve turning, seemingly on its own, and one of the many pipes overhead starting to drip water onto the outline of the devil’s trap, slowly washing it away and breaking the integrity of the trap.
Castiel, listening uncomfortably to Alastair’s screams, saw a light explode with the flutter of nearby angel wings, and greeted Anna, now a full angel again, but wearing a reconstituted version of her destroyed human body rather than inhabiting a human host. Anna tried to persuade him that he knew his orders were wrong and were not from God, and that he should stop Dean before Dean – whom she called the one true weapon Castiel had – was ruined by what he was being forced to do. She told him that what he was feeling was doubt. She tried to persuade him to work with her, but he refused to listen because she had fallen, and he maintained that he was nothing like her. He ordered her to leave.
Alastair, meanwhile, continued to taunt Dean, observing that torture on Earth was so much more limited than the variety of torture in Hell. Dean shut him up momentarily by pouring salt down his throat, its purity reacting like acid, but when he was able to speak again, Alastair played his trump card, reciting prophecy that a righteous man shedding blood in Hell would open the first Seal, and telling Dean that when he broke, he was the one who broke the Seal that opened the way for the demons to unleash Armageddon. After a moment of attempted denial, Dean turned away, processing the bitter truth, and Alastair realized that the dripping water had broken the devil’s trap and freed him. Dean resolved that even if the demons won, Alastair wouldn’t be around to see it, and turned back to try finishing him, only to discover Alastair free. Continuing to taunt him, Alastair beat Dean nearly to death, prevented at the last moment only by Castiel attacking with the demon-killing knife.
Castiel missed his heart-blow and wound up in a brawl. Alastair got the upper hand and observed that it was too bad that he didn’t know how to kill angels, and could only send them back to Heaven. He started the incantation to dismiss Castiel, but was interrupted in mid-word and flung against the wall, and found himself facing Sam. Sam proceeded to demonstrate just how much stronger he was by holding Alastair pinned to the wall with his mind, and pulling from him the tortured admission that Alastair didn’t know who was killing angels or how angels could be killed. Alastair finally snarled that Lilith wasn’t behind it because if she could kill angels, she wouldn’t have stopped at seven, but would have killed hundreds or thousands. Alastair gloated that Sam should send him back to Hell if he could, but Sam said that he was stronger than that now; that now, he could kill. As Castiel looked on in shock and fear, he proceeded to do just that, burning the demon out of the host with his mind.
Later, holding vigil by Dean’s bedside in the hospital, Sam demanded that Castiel perform a miracle and heal Dean. When Castiel said that he couldn’t, Sam made him realize that the whole exercise of forcing Dean to turn torturer again had been pointless because the demons weren’t the ones killing angels. Adrift, Castiel met with Uriel, who told him that their superiors wanted them to stop hunting the demon responsible and maintained that there was something wrong in Heaven. Castiel speculated that, since all the angel deaths had been in their garrison, perhaps they were being punished because they were failing in the war, and perhaps God wasn’t giving the orders. Later, Castiel sought out Anna, begging her to tell him what to do, but she told him that he had to make his own decisions and choose his own course of action. Forced to think, Castiel realized that only another angel could have tampered with his devil’s trap and confronted Uriel, his brother in arms. Uriel revealed that his sympathies lay with Lucifer, their exiled angelic brother, and maintained that God had stopped being a God and father to the angels when he had made humans his preferred children. He said that Alastair shouldn’t have been taken alive, and that he had intended that Alastair would kill Dean and escape. Revealing that only an angel could kill another angel, he admitted to killing the angels in the garrison who wouldn’t join him in trying to free Lucifer, and asked Castiel to join him. Castiel at last found his certainty again and refused, attacking Uriel. He wasn’t strong enough to defeat his brother, however, and only Anna’s timely arrival saved him, as she killed Uriel with his own weapon.
In the aftermath, Dean, conscious but still bedridden and weak, asked Castiel if he had been the one who broke the first Seal, and Castiel reluctantly admitted that was true. He said that when the angels learned of Lilith’s plans for Dean, they had laid siege to Hell, but hadn’t reached him in time. Telling Dean that it was only fate that fell on him, not blame, Castiel also spoke the rest of the prophecy, explaining why the angels hadn’t left him there: that the righteous man who broke the first Seal was the only one who could end it. Crushed beneath responsibility and his own perceived weakness, Dean protested that he couldn’t do it, that he wasn’t strong enough, and that Castiel needed to find someone else.
Commentary and Meta Analysis
Supernatural has taken on major topics and issues throughout its run, but I think that On The Head Of A Pin ranks as the single most huge, most ambitious episode of the entire series to date. There’s too much here for a single meta, and not enough time before the next episode for multiple ones; I find myself as daunted by the task and inadequate to the challenge as Dean. It’s too big.
But I too have responsibilities, albeit ones I’ve accepted voluntarily rather than had thrust upon me, so I’ll attempt to address angels, demons, brothers, and agents of fate.
There Is No God
Uriel’s defection and the indication that other angels from Castiel’s garrison had joined him ups the complexity on a plot already laced with it. We now realize that this isn’t simply a war between good and evil, Heaven and Hell – it’s a war where the sides themselves have become confused and commingled, where angels can lose faith, willfully deny God, and pursue the same goal as demons, and demons can profess faith, accept self-sacrifice, and even contemplate following a human leader. And yet, I would submit there’s no other way it could be, given that the fall of an angel provided the leader for Hell. The lines were blurred from the very start.
We started learning Supernatural’s take on this in season three with the dialogue between Casey and Dean in the cellar in Sin City. Casey repeated the story of the angel Lucifer’s rebellion against God, saying that their legends said Lucifer had made demons what they were. Casey admitted that no one she knew had seen Lucifer, but said that she believed in him; she professed faith in Lucifer as Dean couldn’t quite profess faith in God, despite his growing desire that there be some higher power he could believe in. Casey said that she’d been ready to follow Sam, Azazel’s human chosen, in whatever orders he would have given. And when her lover arrived and would have killed Dean out of hand, Casey tried to persuade him otherwise; she advocated that Dean be left alive, defying the norms of demon behavior.
Other demons showed themselves ready and willing to die for the cause, marking a departure from the selfishness and self-centeredness we generally associate with evil. Take the male crossroads demon who answered Sam’s summons in I Know What You Did Last Summer, for example: You want to kill me? Go ahead. I’ve made peace with my lord. He took satisfaction from knowing that everything was going as the demons had planned – and now we, too, finally understand why Dean being in Hell was exactly where Lilith wanted him, and why she had no interest in trading him for Sam.
Things took another step along this convoluted path of motive when we learned from Tammi and Ruby in Malleus Maleficarum that most if not all demons had once been human, and had lost their humanity through torment in Hell. Rather than being pure evil by nature, then, demons became evil first by the choices they made in their human lives that took them to Hell, and then by forgetting their humanity in the torment of the Pit. In effect, they were as dual-natured as Lucifer and the angels who initially fell with him to become the first denizens in Hell, traveling from good to evil by way of pride and disobedience. By choice.
I noted in my review of It’s The Great Pumpkin, Sam Winchester the parallels between Uriel’s dismissive and resentful attitude toward humans and the pride that led Lucifer to disobey God by refusing to bow to humans. Having Uriel reveal to Castiel his desire to raise Lucifer, the strong and beautiful brother they both remembered, was less a surprise than a seeming inevitability. We’d heard from Anna in Heaven and Hell that only four angels had ever seen God, and that she, Castiel, and others had been assigned simply to watch Earth for thousands of years with no new orders and no real understanding of their mission for all that time. It’s little wonder that Uriel, who increasingly resented both humans and his seemingly senseless orders, came to agree with Lucifer and accepted a new mission to try converting other angels to his view with the goal of raising Lucifer again. And when his disobedience – even to the point of killing angels whom he could not convert – drew no killing wrath from Heaven, it’s no wonder either that Uriel came to dismiss the very existence of God. God had punished Lucifer for less; in Uriel’s eyes, the lack of punishment argued a lack of God.
Given what Uriel told Castiel about only an angel being able to kill an angel, it would appear that Uriel and his rebel angels caused the deaths of the six angels Castiel reported as having fallen in battle in Are You There, God? It’s Me, Dean Winchester. It’s unclear whether those six and the female shown at the beginning of this episode constituted the seven murdered angels that provided the excuse Uriel needed to set Dean up to be killed, or whether the seven murdered angels were in addition to the earlier mentioned six, but either way it begs the question how many angels were in Castiel’s garrison, and of that total, how many joined Uriel’s cause and thus were spared. Castiel himself does not know any longer whom among the angel host he can trust, and who will be working to advance the demons’ cause, at least insofar as it leads to Lucifer being freed.
You Can’t Win, Uriel: I Still Serve God
Castiel’s personal crisis of faith in this episode, beginning when he started doubting the righteousness of his orders concerning forcing Dean to torture information from Alastair, actually carried over from the doubts he had begun to express about his mission back in It’s The Great Pumpkin, Sam Winchester, when he admitted to Dean that he didn’t know what was right or wrong any more and that he had prayed that Dean would choose to save the town. Even then, Castiel reflected his belief in God as a benevolent father/creator, and reveled in the variety and beauty of His creation.
Castiel’s attitude was a marked contrast not only to brooding, surly Uriel, but to angry, bitter Anna. Castiel didn’t blame God for his own disquiet; he tried to find understanding within himself for the disconnects between his feelings and his orders.
His conversations with both Anna and Uriel have now led him to consider whether whoever is giving orders to the hosts of Heaven is actually conveying the will of God, or is serving either an imperfect understanding in the absence of direct orders, or even a deliberate perversion of God’s command in pursuit of other goals, such as the raising of Lucifer. In the end, he chose neither Uriel’s disbelief and deliberate flouting of orders, nor Anna’s wholesale, willful rebellion against authority and the rules that angels should remain above emotion. Castiel found his own balance in clinging to the principles of goodness, kindness, and love; in professing service to God his Father by following those precepts and using his understanding of what is right to choose the proper path. Castiel retained his faith in and love of God even while coming to doubt the rightness of those who issued his orders.
I found it interesting that since her return to full angel power, Anna was no longer disparaging of God – whom she had characterized to Dean as an absentee father back in Heaven and Hell – but instead cast her argument to Castiel in terms of the commanders in Heaven not speaking the will of God and expressing the love of the Father. I wonder whether that was entirely an attempt to appeal to Castiel’s known attitudes and beliefs, or if it reflects a new and more developed understanding on Anna’s part since the recovery of her angelic grace.
What I loved about all of these developments is the indication that angels, like humans, have free will and the ability to choose, and the suggestion that God, rather than simply issuing orders to be obeyed, is allowing all of His creation to express themselves as adults by exercising their right of choice. Under the prompting of Anna, Castiel, in moving from the certainty of always accepting orders and simply leaving the responsibility for their consequences to others, to the frightening freedom of having to assess which orders to obey and accept his own consequences, grew in this episode from a child to an adult. In doing that, he still remained true to his core principles and to what he believes: that God is his loving Father and is right, even if He is beyond Castiel’s understanding and his reach.
Given to understand the difference between right and wrong, between good and evil, Castiel found himself unafraid despite being faced with betrayal and death, and emerged stronger. He will still have doubts and be uncertain of the rightness of his choices from here on out, but I think that his faith in and love of God will always be at his core. I suspect that Castiel and Anna – together with the unnamed friends who engineered Anna being able to inhabit a restoration of the physical body she had worn as a human – will be working in hesitant partnership to uncover the true motives of whatever power is giving the orders in Heaven. I also suspect that, having discovered more kinship with humanity than they had ever believed before their separate experiences – Anna learning to be human herself, and Castiel learning about humans from a singular human and his brother – they will be less inclined to simply give orders, and more likely to fight beside the hunters and others who will be humanity’s defense against Armageddon.
It’s Not Blame That Falls On You, Dean: It’s Fate
Castiel made a musing comment in his last conversation with Uriel, when he said, Strange: strange how a leaky pipe can undo the work of angels, when we ourselves are supposed to be the agents of fate.
Angels have not been the common agents of fate in this show. Castiel admitted back in In The Beginning that, while the angels knew what Azazel had done to Sam and the other psychic children, they never knew why; they didn’t know what endgame Azazel had planned. In the Book of Revelation as we know it from the Bible, the Apocalypse is triggered by the forces of Heaven at the appointed end time, with angels going forth to break the seals binding aspects of creation and destroying most of what is. The alternate take on Revelation introduced by Supernatural involves prophecies of a premature apocalypse brought about by the forces of Hell, in which demons (and new rebel angels) breaking seals release Lucifer before the appointed time. Angels are not the instruments of fate in that alternate version of the advent of the end times, unless you count the ones like Uriel who take the demons’ side. Indeed, angels – by Castiel’s own admission – have been blind to many of the machinations of Hell, and have been reacting rather than acting, often too late to win or to save, because they have no foreknowledge of events. And for whatever reason, God is silent, perhaps watching to see the ultimate outcome of His gift of free will to the elements of His creation.
All of this, tied in with Alastair’s recounting of the prophecy that the breaking of a righteous man to shed blood in Hell would open the first Seal, brings back the question of what Azazel had intended in the first place with the games he played with his chosen children. We know that Azazel didn’t stop with Sam’s generation; he went on to sow another crop of seeds for the future, as we saw with baby Rosie all the way back in first season’s Salvation. I would submit that he did that because there was no guarantee that everything would fall into place with Sam’s generation; not just the placement of the special children, with the plan to have a demonically gifted human leading the army of Hell, but the acquisition of the necessary key to open a gate – the Colt, in the case of this day and time – and if triggering the Apocalypse was his goal, the arrival of the right, fated righteous man in Hell. Having the first Seal open before the demons were ready to move would probably have ended the struggle before it began; my guess is that everything had to be positioned in readiness and with care over a long span of time.
We don’t know the relationship between Azazel and Lilith. In Sin City, Casey indicated that Azazel had been the leader, the one with the plan – a plan evidently erased by his unexpected death at Dean’s hands, leaving the demons, at least by Casey’s account, scattered and leaderless. Tammi in Malleus Maleficarum forecast the advent of Lilith by saying that a new leader was rising in the West – a suggestion, at least, that Lilith had not been calling the shots when Azazel was alive, even though her power clearly exceeds his. I wonder whether Azazel’s opening of the devil’s gate using Jake in All Hell Breaks Loose, Part 2 had an effect he hadn’t anticipated, in that it freed a demon more powerful than himself from whatever bonds had prevented her from roaming the Earth as freely as he evidently had.
And that makes me wonder as well whether Azazel and Lilith have ever actually been pursuing the same thing. Alastair telling Dean that John had been the one intended to break the first Seal implies that Azazel had intended to use him that way, since Azazel had still been alive and in command at the time. And yet – I can’t help but remember that Azazel seemed truly surprised when John summoned him during In My Time Of Dying and offered a deal for Dean’s life. Did he suddenly see long-laid plans apparently coming to fruition, as foretold by prophecy, and realize that the time had unexpectedly come before he was fully ready? And did his plans necessarily involve the freeing of Lucifer, or might he have been pursuing a different course? I can’t help but think that evil always seeks power and always suspects rivals, and I can’t see Azazel tamely handing over the reins to someone bigger and badder than himself in the expectation that he would be rewarded. I wonder what Lilith truly intends, for the same reason. We saw in It’s The Great Pumpkin, Sam Winchester how the first thing that Samhain did upon his restoration was to destroy his summoner, not to share power with her. Were he set free, what would Lucifer – if he is truly evil – do to someone with power, someone who might be a threat with ambitions of her own? In Lilith’s shoes, I wouldn’t be sanguine about being given a pat on the head and a position of authority.
My last word on the questions of demon plans and the roles assigned to people in this variation on Revelation concerns John Winchester. Alastair broke Dean with a perfectly calibrated weapon: the assertion that John was supposed to have been the man of prophecy but proved too strong for fate, while Dean was the weak link who demonstrated himself the lesser man, failed his father’s expectations and negated his sacrifice, and opened the door to the end of the world. Whether that was true or not ultimately doesn’t matter: it matters only that Dean believes it.
Personally, I don’t think I quite believe it – not everything about John, anyway. John Winchester was indeed larger than life and twice as badass, but I don’t see anyone human being that indomitable, to withstand a hundred years of unremitting torture and then miraculously find a way to break free of the torture rack and escape Alastair when the devil’s gate opened. John Winchester as the Jack Bauer of Hell is a little much to take. But what I most wonder is whether John would have met the prophecy’s definition of a “righteous man.” We know that John and Dean could not have been the first basically good souls in history consigned to Hell by a deal made to benefit another. Evan from Crossroad Blues served as a fine example of an ordinary man pushed to his limit by incipient loss who chose to sell his soul to save the life of someone he loved, and there were doubtless others at least as innocent as he over the centuries and millennia. Given that, why had the torment of a soul never before served to open the first Seal, especially since making one soul torture another is so perfect a strategy to break a human soul down into something less that it has to have been a favorite gambit in Hell from the beginning?
I think that Dean may have been uniquely suited to the “righteous man” aspect of the prophecy in ways that John and ordinary people like Evan were not, precisely because of who and what he is. John raised him to hunt almost from the time that Mary died, but unlike John, revenge was never his driver: he always put saving people first in his mantra of the family business, and I don’t think that was any accident. He confessed in Bloodlust to hating many of the things he hunted, but he also recognized that the hate had been a learned response, the product of John’s attitudes and training, and he put it aside when he began perceiving shades of grey in place of John’s black and white. He did any number of things that were morally wrong, but at his core he was always about others. Saving people was always his mission, starting with his brother and father and spreading out to many people he never even knew, and he did it just for itself, not with any expectation that doing it would benefit him either in life or in the afterlife that he didn’t even believe in. I think that he was a most uncommon soul for Hell.
I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that Azazel put John to the test, thinking that he might be the prophesied man, or that John resisted Alastair’s tortures for a long, long time. But I also wouldn’t be surprised to learn that when John eventually broke, his breaking did no more than the breaking of millions before him because he wasn’t the specific “righteous man” of prophecy that the demons sought. And once he broke and the Seal didn’t, there would have been no reason to chain him or watch him any more closely than any other soul in Hell, which to me would explain how he managed to claw his way out in the brief time that the devil’s gate was open.
I can cling to that thought, anyway. And I hope that Dean might find a way to accept what happened to him and move on, even if only because the same prophecy that doomed him says that he can. Saving people is too much a part of him for him to abandon it for long, even if he currently believes that he has nothing left to give.
He’s Not Strong Enough
This episode served as a marvelous antidote to Sex And Violence by vividly demonstrating through Sam that while the siren’s spell did indeed compel truth from its victims, it shaded that truth by limiting it to the negative and blocking everything positive. In this episode, we got the full package, the bad and the good, and the loudest voice was Sam’s love for Dean. Unfortunately, Dean wasn’t in a position to hear it.
In Sam’s interactions with Ruby, we saw the dark side: we saw Sam’s pride and assurance in his own strength, we saw his belief that Dean was both less and weaker than he had been before his experience in Hell, and we saw the craving of his addiction to Ruby’s demon blood. To some extent, his need to rescue Dean provided an acceptable excuse to let himself give in to the craving and delight in the resulting power. On the other hand, however, his need to rescue Dean was very real in and of itself, and that need was born of love. While Sam reinforced and shared with Ruby his perception of his brother’s weakness, he didn’t resent it; instead, he worried about what it meant and what it would do to Dean if and when he failed again. There was an element of satisfaction in riding to the rescue and demonstrating to the angels who had dismissed him that he could do things that Dean couldn’t, but the greater driver – at least until the power high kicked in, and again as soon as the battle-fever ended – was love and fear for his brother and the desperate desire for him not to be hurt again. Sam at Dean’s bedside was Sam in full-on brother mode, caring for nothing but having Dean open his eyes and be all right.
As Sam said truthfully in Fresh Blood, he’s watched Dean all his life. Dean was always his touchstone, the one thing he could count on. Even when he resented Dean’s big brother bossiness and chafed against his protection, he never had to question his love, and that gave him security. When Dean died, Sam had to find his own way and become his own man, and he made choices along the way that he knew Dean would not have approved. None of that changed the love, however, and the need to feel Dean’s approval is still strong enough that Sam has been hiding what he’s been doing largely out of shame based on fear that Dean would reject him if he knew how far off the reservation Sam has gone.
That fear has just been made worse by Sam’s realization that Hell damaged Dean in ways he still doesn’t fully appreciate or understand. Dean never seemed to need his protection before; an uncertain Dean who suffers from nightmares and guilt and drinks to keep going has been a new and unsettling experience for Sam. He can’t be sure that Dean hasn’t changed in other ways, and that some of them might make him reject Sam as he never would have before. Seeing Dean in the hospital physically broken by Alastair’s beating was just a graphic depiction of how emotionally and spiritually wrecked he is, and Dean’s obvious pain hurts Sam more than his own in part because he never used to share it; his openness now is just another indication of how much he has changed.
I don’t imagine that Dean is going to hide from Sam what he learned from Alastair and had confirmed by Castiel: he’s too broken and beyond caring. He did lose part of himself in Hell: he lost everything he understood about who he was, because he did things he never would have believed himself capable of doing and lost his own respect. He never had much sense of self-worth to begin with, and his belief now that he utterly failed his father and made possible the Apocalypse has taken him as low as it’s possible for him to go and still be breathing. I suspect that before he can even start to rebuild, he’ll need to be given incentive by being made to realize that no matter what happened to him in Hell, he is still Dean Winchester, and that means he’s constitutionally incapable of just standing by while other people are hurt or killed.
Almost everything in this episode worked for me. To me, it’s the brilliance of this show that we’re given satisfying answers, but that whenever we get them, they simply set up more and deeper questions.
I’m certain that there are fans who were upset by the amount of time that the story spent with Castiel, Uriel, and Anna, rather than with the Winchester brothers themselves, but I don’t believe that the pivotal information we needed to obtain from all of them could have been as effectively revealed in any less focused, less dramatic way than by seeing them have it out with each other. None of them would have done it in front of humans, and much would have been lost if one of them simply told the Winchesters afterward about what had happened. For the sake of the story, we needed our angel time, and I thought it well spent.
Ben Edlund is best known for writing funny scripts. Here, his humor was pretty much confined to Alastair’s indefatigable personality and his unending stream of quips, which included such gems as Something caught in my throat – I think it’s my throat as he seemingly coughed up bloody parts of his lungs, and Stupid pet tricks as he reacted to Sam throwing him up against the wall with his mind. (That said a lot about his view of Sam and Ruby’s relationship, by the way: Sam as pet ...) Bleak and black humor was definitely part of the package, but what amazed me was the depth and breadth of story and character development that this script provided. We saw new sides of all our principal characters in the drama, from Dean and Sam to Castiel, Ruby, Anna, and Uriel. And we learned why Dean was pulled from Hell and what Castiel really meant when he told Dean all the way back in In The Beginning that You have to stop it. We’re not just talking about Sam using his demon powers; we’re talking about the Apocalypse itself.
There were pieces of Mike Rohl’s direction that I really enjoyed, including the crane shots in the beginning and after Uriel’s death that allowed for the effects reveal of the dead angels’ wings; the whole torture sequence between Alastair and Dean, with all the love that the camera gave to both actors in those scenes; and the bit in the motel room between Sam and Ruby. The opening scene of the brothers in the car with Sam literally driving the action and Dean most uncharacteristically apathetic in the passenger seat perfectly set up and reflected the changed dynamic between the brothers and the flip in their previous roles. Visual storytelling that expands on and illustrates truth always impresses me. And while I think the last scene between Castiel and Anna was shot on the grounds of Riverview, I can’t be certain – which says a lot for Rohl’s ability to find a new way to shoot a very common, well known, and usually instantly recognizable location.
The only bits that didn’t entirely work for me were the fistfights between Castiel and Alastair (although the remote-control twisting of the knife was a really nice touch) and between Castiel and Uriel. Something about the fight choreography – and I mean beyond the basic idea that a physical brawl between such powers didn’t make much sense – just didn’t ring true for me. It could have been as simple as the actors not being as familiar with selling a fight scene as Jensen and Jared are after doing it on a weekly basis, or the camera angles not being quite right fully to sell the hits, but both fights felt more staged and less real to me than usual for this show.
And there was one shot missing that I really wanted to see. After he killed Alastair and faced Castiel’s reaction, I desperately wanted to see Sam finish his transformation from demon-killing avenger back into just Sam by kneeling beside his brother and reacting to how very badly he was hurt. We know that he made that transformation – the very next scene, with Sam worrying at unconscious, intubated Dean’s bedside, made that very apparent – but I strongly wanted to watch it happen and see how Jared would play it. I got the sense from the camera angles being used that Rohl had spared Jensen the discomfort of lying on that floor for the whole second half of the fight between Castiel and Alastair, and I’m guessing Jensen wasn’t there on the floor at all during the shooting of Sam’s confrontation with and execution of Alastair; I found it telling that we never even saw the floor in the area where Dean had fallen during those bits to maintain Dean’s continuity in the scene. With all commiseration to Jensen for how miserable a scene it would have been for him to shoot, I do kind of wish they had. Seeing Sam come down off his proud, confident, monster-slayer high to confront the wreckage of his beloved brother would have been a Jared tour-de-force.
The effects crew gets major props from me for the work with the shadows of the angels’ wings, with turning just the irises of Sam’s eyes black as he drove in the Impala to Dean’s rescue (I loved what that said about Sam still being human despite shading to demon, since his eyes didn’t go fully demon-black), with the setup for the water dripping on and eroding the devil’s trap, and with making the death of Alastair perfectly echo the death of Azazel. In effect, Sam Winchester ironically has become a living Colt; the effects he produced with his mind were identical to what a bullet to the heart from the Colt achieved. The sound crew did a wonderful job selling angel entrances and exits with the buffeting of wings, and the hollow, echoing sound of the deserted meat processing plant had real dimension as we heard the water dripping and had the backdrop of Alastair’s screams underlying the conversation between Castiel and Anna.
But my greatest praise for this episode goes to the actors. I can’t say enough for what Jensen Ackles, Jared Padalecki, Christopher Heyerdahl, Misha Collins, Robert Wisdom, Genevieve Cortese, and Julie McNiven all brought to their characters this week, taking everything in the script to the next level. Heyerdahl’s Alastair was amazingly creepy, holding true to character and playing on Dean like the master manipulator he was even as he responded to torture. The scenes between Heyerdahl and Jensen were beyond intense; I think they kept pushing each other as actors nearly as hard as their characters did, and the result was viscerally riveting. Jared sold Sam’s complexity, making him at once concerned and loving brother, reluctant but driven addict, and unhesitating avenging angel. The smile of triumphant satisfaction on Ruby’s face as Sam drank her blood was some of the best work I’ve seen from Genevieve. I think we got our first true glimpse inside Ruby at that brief moment, the clear indication that she has her own agenda and that all the very deliberate moves she has made to secure Sam’s trust are finally paying off because she has him exactly where she wants him, dependent on her to the point where he even accepts her calling him “Sammy” without protest. Wisdom made Uriel’s choice understandable, bringing to the fore not only his resentment of humanity for having usurped the angels’ place as favorites of the Lord, but his loss of faith and trust in a silent and seemingly absent God and his desire to reunite with a brother he had clearly idolized before his fall. McNiven gave Anna some new dimension, no longer the uncertain novice who so feared punishment that she engineered her own fall, but an adult making her own decisions in support of the ideals of Heaven, even if not the rules of its current regime. And Misha brought Castiel on a voyage of discovery and a rite of passage, growing up to take responsibility for his own actions and make decisions that frightened him, rediscovering in the process his own faith in what is right.
While everyone was stellar, Jensen wins my top award for the night for his depiction of Dean’s journey to absolute rock-bottom. At any rate, I hope this is rock-bottom; I don’t think I could take any more. Seeing Dean at his emotional nadir at the very end of the episode, utterly crushed beneath his guilt and responsibility for ultimate disaster and unable to find any gleam of hope for the future, I felt that same weight. But most incredible of all was watching Jensen take Dean through all the stages of feeling as he first reluctantly contemplated torturing Alastair, strove to find a cold professional place where what he was doing wouldn’t touch him, got angry enough to actually begin doing it, started to enjoy it, and then had it rebound on him as Alastair twisted the knife of his weakness and failure inside his very soul and bled him dry. Fear, unwillingness, reluctance, anger, hate, absolute cold blankness, clinical distance, sick pleasure, doubt, realization, guilt, shame, despair, acceptance, resolve, terror, defeat, and the desire to end – all of that passed in subtle sequence as the torture scenes played out. It’s not the first time I’ve said that the acting in this show is Emmy-worthy; I’m sure it won’t be the last. And while I don’t believe that the Emmy voters will ever recognize this show, Iwill.
Epic episodes reverberate for a long time, and I think this one will keep spreading ripples right through the series’ end. As Alastair said, there’s no going back, not now, not for any of these characters: they’ve all been changed. How much they manage to remain themselves in despite of it all remains to be seen.
I always feel like the latecomer to the party; I really hope people don't mind that these things take me so long!