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4.17 It’s A Terrible Life: You Get To Change Things

4.17 It’s A Terrible Life: You Get To Change Things

Corporate haunting
Makes hunters of Sam and Dean
Even in strange lives.


Episode Summary

Dean Smith lived a go-getter corporate middle manager’s life: rising at 6:00, steaming rice milk for his morning latte in the cappuccino maker in his chic apartment, driving a white Prius, listening to NPR, working long hours on his phone and computer in his executive office at Sandover Bridge and Iron, commiserating with others about the lack of time to go to the gym, eating salads at his desk and trying a fad weight loss cleanse. Sam Wesson, meanwhile, occupied a tiny cube down in tech support answering constantly repeated questions from ignorant users about non-functioning printers, and found Dean oddly familiar when they met in an elevator, although Dean denied knowing him.

Down in the cube farm, Sam’s friend and co-worker Ian, a rebellious slacker stealing office supplies for personal use, persuaded reluctant Sam to tell more of his dreams, which included saving a grim reaper named Tessa from demons. Ian teased Sam about being a Dungeons and Dragons geek, a Harry Potter hero saving them from the apocalypse. Dozing off at his desk, Sam had more vivid dreams, in which he saw himself fighting side-by-side with Dean against a series of monsters. Encountering Dean in the elevator again, Sam asked what Dean thought of ghosts and vampires, admitted to having weird dreams, and asked if Dean didn’t have them too – to which Dean replied uncomfortably that he didn’t know Sam, and that Sam over-shared.

On yet another day, Ian revealed nervously that he’d been summoned up to the Human Resources office, and Sam guessed it was because the company had caught on to him pilfering supplies, even as Paul, another co-worker, had been disciplined recently for surfing porn. As Ian left for his appointment, Sam saw Paul, who’d become a model employee after being disciplined, breaking down in an excess of anxiety when his computer crashed, taking with it a full day of work. Paul stayed alone late into the night trying to recover his data, and when he couldn’t, he used a plastic fork to jigger the office microwave oven into running with the door open and committed suicide by sticking his head inside and turning it on.

The next morning, Sam and Dean both watched Paul’s body being taken away. Separately, they each discovered that Paul had been due to retire in just two weeks, making his suicide all the more incomprehensible. When Sam tried to get Ian to talk with him about it, however, Ian, in a total change of attitude, said almost in a panic that he didn’t have time to talk because he had to work. Summoned to a manager’s office, Ian nervously reported to Dean, who asked him to fill out a new copy of a routine form because the one he had previously submitted had a few minor errors. Pathologically upset by his failure despite Dean’s attempt to reassure him that it was no big deal, Ian rushed out of Dean’s office to the nearest men’s room with Dean in concerned pursuit. Strangely, the air turned cold and all the faucets and automatic soap dispensers turned on; disconcerted, Dean, tried to get Ian to leave with him, but Ian stabbed himself in the neck with a pencil, and Dean saw the ghostly image of an old man reflected in a polished metal stall door as Ian bled to death.

Seeing Sam watching with the other office staff as he told the police what had happened, Dean summoned Sam to his office and asked who he was and what Sam had meant when he had earlier asked Dean about ghosts. They discovered that they had both started working at Sandover three weeks earlier. Sam asked if Dean had seen a ghost, and Dean admitted that he’d been freaking out. Sam posed the question whether the suicides were unnatural and they started comparing notes, realizing that they both had the same instinct that the deaths may have been caused by ghosts. Sam revealed the connection he’d found between Paul and Ian, that both of them had been required to report to HR in room 1444 – when HR was down on the seventh floor. Deciding to check it out, they heard a cry from inside the room, and Sam kicked open the door to reveal another IT tech pinned under a fallen set of metal shelves in a room apparently dedicated to storage and lit only by the flickering of obsolete computer screens. Leaping to help him, they were both attacked by the spectre of an elderly man who tossed them aside and advanced on the fallen tech with electrical charges sparking from his fingertips. Scrambling for a weapon, Dean grabbed a large wrench and swung it into the spectre, dissipating the ghost. All the unplugged monitors turned off, and they freed the tech from the shelving, wondering what was going on.

Back at Dean’s apartment, both men were surprised and puzzled by what they had done, and Sam said that it was almost as if they had done it before. Sam admitted that he felt as if he should be doing something else, something more; that there was something in his blood, as if he was destined for something different. Dean said that he didn’t believe in destiny, but that he did believe in dealing with what was right in front of them, and that the next step was research. Searching the web, Dean found the Ghostfacers’ website, with instructions on figuring out what they were up against and using salt, iron, and fire to dissipate the ghost and burn the remains. Sam pulled up information on the workaholic founder of the company, and Dean recognized his photo as matching the ghost. Sam found information on a previous string of suicides at the company during the stock market crash of 1929, and Dean theorized that the ghost manifested in times of severe economic crisis to turn slackers into committed company men who would commit suicide if they felt they had failed the company. Discovering that Sandover had been cremated and that room 1444 had been Sandover’s office back when the building had only 14 floors, they decided to search the room for anything that might have a fragment of his DNA.

A building security guard interrupted their after-hours search, catching Sam but failing to spot Dean behind the shelves. In the elevator on the way down to security, however, the lights flickered and the air turned suddenly cold, and the elevator cage dropped and then stopped partway between the ninth and tenth floors. The guard pried the doors open and climbed out, but Sam refused, and when the guard reached back in for him, the elevator abruptly dropped, slicing the guard in half and dousing the shocked Sam with blood. Upstairs, Dean found a framed newspaper photo of the company’s signature bridge, and realized that the same photo adorned the wall of the 22nd floor lobby in an exhibit that included a glass case containing Sandover’s construction gloves. He called Sam to meet him there. No sooner did Dean smash the case than the ghost appeared, tossing them both aside. Sam dispersed it by flinging salt, and then tossed Dean a poker to use for defense when the ghost reappeared behind him. Fighting as a team, they defended each other until Sandover managed to throw Dean against a wall, stunning him. Seeing the ghost advancing on Dean, Sam grabbed for the gloves and set them on fire, and the ghost burned away to nothing.

In Dean’s office, using his first aid kit to patch their scratches, both men exulted in the win and observed that they had enjoyed the hunt. Sam proposed that they keep doing it, but Dean raised practical objections, asking how they would live. Sam confessed that in his dreams, they were fighting things together and were friends, more like brothers, and suggested that their memories had been scrambled and they were supposed to be doing something else. Dean protested that he knew who he was, that he’d gone to Stanford, his father was Bob, his mother was Ellen, and his sister was Jo, but Sam asked him how long it had been since he’d talked to them, saying that he’d tried to call Madison, the fiancée he’d broken up with, only to get an animal hospital. Dean maintained that Sam didn’t know him and told him to leave.

The next day, back in his cube, Sam stared at his constantly ringing phone and then stood up, picked up the poker from the previous night’s hunt, and smashed the phone to smithereens, announcing that he quit. Upstairs, Dean’s boss Mr. Adler dropped by his office to ask if he was happy and offered him a large bonus, observing that Dean was doing great work and could look forward to a senior executive position in eight or ten years if he kept working hard. Dean thanked him, but then gave his notice, saying that he realized there was something else that he had to do, something important to him, and that this wasn’t what he was supposed to be. Mr. Adler said, “Finally!” and reached out to touch Dean’s forehead – and suddenly Dean remembered who he really was, and realized that Adler was actually an angel, who announced that he was Zachariah, Castiel’s superior. Zachariah told Dean that the company and the haunting were very real, and that he had simply dropped the brothers into the situation without their memories in order to show Dean that being a hunter was in his blood not just because of his father or because God had brought him back, but because he was good at it and miserable without it. He told Dean that others had fates worse than his, and that he could change things and save lives, that his mission wasn’t a curse but a gift. He said that Dean would be successful, that he would do everything he was destined to do, and asked if he was ready to stand up and be who he really was.

Commentary and Meta Analysis

It’s A Terrible Life was a brilliant piece of work on many levels, full of symbolism and using the conceit of freeing the brothers from the complications of their pasts to let them reconnect without all of the issues that have recently driven them apart. The story was cast as a lesson for Dean but presented just as much a lesson for Sam, and also may have demonstrated a change in attitude on the part of the angels toward Sam.

This time around, I’m going to discuss the angels’ strategy in dealing with Dean and Sam, and the bridge that this shared experience hopefully built between the brothers.

All I Can Say Is, It’s How You Look At It

Zachariah is our fourth angel and another very distinct individual. Castiel’s superior, he displayed a bit of Uriel’s dismissive attitude toward humans: he clearly preferred his own pure angelic form to borrowing a human one (Believe me, I had no interest in popping down here into one of these smelly things), and spoke disparagingly of most people (Most folks live and die without moving any more than the dirt it takes to bury them.). At the same time, however, he displayed a lot more understanding of human nature and human motivation than we’ve seen from Castiel, Uriel, or even Anna. Understanding that what we believe from our own experience is vastly more important than what we’re simply told, he set up the entire situation precisely to have Dean prove to himself that he was a hunter born, that he had good reason to trust in his own abilities and believe that he could succeed. Understanding the resonance of trauma and the need for recovery, he built in time – three entire weeks – in which Dean was insulated from the pain of the real past so that his spirit could heal in the comfortable assurance that he was a successful achiever, a well respected man. He used the way that Dean responds to orders and authority to orchestrate his reaction to learning that the entire situation had been a setup; he deliberately triggered Dean’s knee-jerk anger at being used yet again to counteract his depression and despair, and then both invited and disregarded insult to himself to hammer home the point that others, including the angels, had confidence in his ability despite his own doubts. And while his dismissive attitude toward Dean’s legitimate suffering grated on me badly – I emphatically don’t agree that any boring, even soul-numbing nine-to-five drone existence is worse than having been tortured in Hell and realizing that you’re responsible for having triggered the apocalypse – it also had the bracing effect of getting Dean’s back up and letting him see a different perspective invisible from within the mire of his own guilt and despair. I think that the most important thing Zachariah said to Dean was what I used as the header for this section: It’s how you look at it. It’s often said that the Chinese use the same character to depict the concepts of crisis and opportunity; which one you see depends on how you approach the situation, and positive thinking can be enough to tip the balance.

I loved the way in which this all led directly from the events in On The Head Of A Pin. At the end of that story, we saw Dean utterly crushed by guilt and despair, overwhelmed by responsibility, telling Castiel that he couldn’t do it, that the angels needed to find someone else. Prophecy, however, told the angels that the one who began it is the only one who can finish it, so they know that Dean is vital to the war if the angels are to have any hoping of winning it. Anna said it when she warned Castiel against making Dean torture Alastair: Stop him, Cas, please – before you ruin the one real weapon you have.

For Zachariah, it’s apparent that is exactly what Dean represents: an essential weapon in the war, a sword blade left too long in the fire and damaged by Uriel’s malicious hammering that had to be reforged and retempered to regain its edge. The plan Zachariah came up with was well calculated to make Dean effectively begin to fix himself by becoming the smith of his own soul, making his new name more than just a joke.

Another vital piece was the inclusion of Sam in the whole process. Unlike In The Beginning, where Castiel sent Dean alone into the past, Zachariah placed Sam into this situation right along with Dean. The brothers shared this experience, and I think that may have reflected a new realization on the part of the angels not only that Sam’s role is vital to Dean’s, but that his role may not prove to be what they had initially and dismissively assumed it to be simply because Azazel had corrupted his human self with demon blood. Even the humor in the choice of their cover names suggested that the combination of the brothers was crucial to the whole intent. Singly, Smith could be anything and Wesson could have been cooking oil; it took putting them together into Smith & Wesson that created an analogy to Winchester.

Whether by his own inquisitive, challenging nature or the angels’ incorporation of that nature into their designs, Sam was the first to realize that their lives weren’t as they should be, and Sam was the one who reached out and challenged Dean to think outside the box. And although Dean is the one we have always associated with the need for family and togetherness, it was Sam who tried to make a lasting connection, Sam who wanted the closeness he’d seen between them in his dreams.

Freed of the conscious past, including all their old role assumptions and their current discomfort with each other, they worked together seamlessly as equals, both contributing to the solution, each guarding the other’s back. Unconscious hints of their old relationship sometimes crept through, as when Dean obliviously called Sam “Sammy” and Sam found it uncomfortable, but for the most part, they simply forged a new and successful balance. And in the end, it was Sam choosing the independent and right but risky action of burning the gloves to end the ghost permanently rather than running up with an iron weapon to temporarily dissipate him again that saved Dean from Sandover.

I found links to their reality scattered throughout the brothers’ reactions in this story. Sam’s belief that he was destined for something more, something better, and even his choice of saying it was in his blood all echoed his current real-life pride and belief in himself, as well as his sense of a destiny imparted by his demon-tainted blood. His yearning for the relationship he had with Dean in his dreams hinted strongly to me that he still wants the closeness he used to have with his brother, but that he wants it in the form of the grown-up partnership of equals. His enthusiasm for the hunt also seemed to reflect his current attitude of acceptance and commitment much more than the resentment he had felt for the life while he was growing up and wanted nothing more than to be normal.

Despite his uncharacteristic preppy façade, Dean still clung to his essence in stubbornly refusing to believe in destiny but being willing to accept and act on the things he could see with his own eyes. He kept a constant framework of family in his delusion, and when Sam suggested that his memories weren’t real and that he was meant to be doing something else, to be something else, Dean’s refusal even to consider it emphasized how frightened he still is to lose his family. His assertion that Sam didn’t know him and that Sam should go echoed his current fears and feeling of estrangement from Sam, translated from his real world sense both that Sam can’t grasp how much Hell changed him and that he doesn’t recognize Sam any more in the stranger who’s keeping secrets from him.

Building The Dream

I think it was no accident that bridges featured so heavily in this story. Sandover Bridge and Iron was unsurprisingly rife with images of bridges, from the art we saw right in the beginning when Dean first arrived at work on the 22nd floor to the pictures on the office walls, the logo on Sam’s shirt, and the framed photo that led Dean to the gloves on display. This entire episode was a bridge between the absolute devastation of the end of On The Head Of A Pin and a future in which Dean, despite having been badly injured in both body and soul, could function again. The bulk of the episode involved the brothers, as strangers to each other, nonetheless building a bridge of communication and trust between them that allowed them to work as a team, and Sam – the one wearing the stylized bridge symbol on his shirt – was the one who began the effort.

I found the corporate slogan of Building the Dream to be both ironic and hopeful. It was ironic in the extreme given that, for the brothers, much of this effectively was a dream built by angels: they were living lives not their own that let them do things that brought them satisfaction and enjoyment, working together in trust as friends and partners to meet an exciting, exhilarating, frightening challenge and win it to save lives. It was hopeful on multiple levels because it suggested strongly that both brothers still retain both the desire and the ability to bridge their current differences and become effective partners again. And the angels including Sam in this particular effort suggested as well that, instead of them seeing him just as “the boy with the demon blood,” they may be coming to realize that he can make his own choices and fill a role both acceptable to the angels and necessary to his brother.

Bridges span the gulf between two points. Bridges are transitions between one place and another, between one musical theme and another. Bridges cross divides and unite disparate points. Bridges are suspended in space with emptiness below them. Bridges connect. Bridges carry loads.

Bridges must be built.

I don’t for a moment believe that the events of this episode will miraculously make things right for and between the brothers. Even after they defeated the ghost, Dean rejected Sam’s attempt to make him accept that they were meant for different things. Even in the fantasy situation that Zachariah had created for them, things weren’t made perfectly seamless and happy between them. Returned to their real memories, they still have all their same baggage, including the secrets they’ve both been keeping – Sam about drinking demon blood and Dean about being the initiator of the apocalypse – and the shamed and miserable way those secrets make them feel.

Still, some things have changed. While Dean is far from being healed and over his experience in Hell, he may at least have found the impetus he needed to shake him out of his crippling paralysis of guilt and start him moving forward, accepting that he can still make a difference even on an overwhelming task by taking one step at a time. I hope he also understands that Sam still loves and wants him as a valued brother, partner, and friend. For his part, I hope Sam remembers that he made the first efforts to reach out to Dean that created the link between them, and that it was their teamwork – not powers, not one or the other acting alone, but both together in concert – that solved the problem.

I’m afraid that the negative aspects of this experience will also carry forward, however, particularly Dean having rejected Sam’s claim to know him and telling Sam he should leave. Sam didn’t get to see how further thought affected Dean; he saw only the rejection, the abrupt, absolute dismissal of his effort at a partnership, and then went on to make his own decision his own way, violently assaulting the offending telephone and declaring that he quit. From Dean’s demeanor the next morning – his uncertainty, distraction, and the obvious fatigue that “Mr. Adler” called him on – it seems apparent that he had reconsidered his earlier dismissal long before he declared that he was giving notice because he had something important to do, but Sam never got to see that change of heart. I’m afraid the rejection will rankle and make it even harder for the brothers to reconnect, if only because Sam will expect that Dean would reject him in the real world, too, especially if he knew that Sam powered up by drinking demon blood.

Still, bridges can be built, and that remains the hope for the future: building the dream that Sam and Dean will be fully together again before the end, no matter what keeps them apart in the near term.

Production Notes

I can rarely say enough about Sera Gamble’s scripts. I love what she does with Dean and Sam, and it was a delight to get such a light-hearted, essentially hopeful piece from the reigning Mistress of Angst. One of the funniest things to me is simply that she gave an angel a wicked sense of humor, given that Zachariah set things up so that the Winchester boys were named Smith and Wesson; Dean believed that his father was named Bob, his mother was Ellen, and he had a sister Jo; and Sam, on calling the phone number for his ex-fiancée Madison, got an animal hospital. I also got a huge kick out of the Smith and Wesson Winchesters essentially learning about ghost hunting from themselves, since all the real and useful tips on the Ghostfacers’ website came from them.

There were only a few minor things that didn’t fully convince me or ring perfectly true. The first was the security guard’s death by elevator. The ghost had previously targeted slackers and turned them into pathologically model employees who committed suicide if they believed they had failed the company, and the ghost defended against Dean and Sam when they actively interfered with its attempt at converting another drone. Killing the security guard made no sense in the context of the ghost. If the ghost was targeting Sam in its own defense, why not drop the elevator cage to the bottom of the shaft and have done? Why kill the guard and leave Sam intact? And for that matter, why did the guard take Sam into custody in the first place when it appeared that there were no alarms on the storage room door and it would have made sense for an IT guy to be prowling amidst a collection of potentially obsolete IT equipment, even if he was there really majorly after hours? Sam also recovered from the shock of the guard’s death in record time. Admittedly, Sam Winchester had experienced far worse things, but after the initial shock, Sam Wesson largely seemed to forget and discount what had happened.

The second thing was tonal; I was offended by Zachariah telling Dean to quit whining, and telling him that many fates were worse than his. An angel trivializing Dean’s torment in Hell and offering the opinion that normal, boring lives presented a worse fate than Dean’s torture and his knowledge that both the apocalypse and its end rested on him just felt … wrong. It may indeed have been exactly what Dean needed to hear in order to make him angry enough to take the first step past his crippling guilt, but that callousness, even more than Castiel’s and Uriel’s willingness to smite an entire town just to take out one witch in It’s the Great Pumpkin, Sam Winchester, simply cried out as an offense against humanity. I understand that these aren’t the guardian angels of nighttime reassurance to children, but still; such cruelty stole my breath and made me angry on Dean’s behalf. I don’t believe that Dean has whined about his fate; I think it simply crushed him, and that is something entirely different than him complaining about it.

First-time Supernatural director James L. Conway did a great job of setting mood, first with the hilarious, fast-paced opening teaser montage establishing Dean Smith as a latte-drinking, Prius-driving, Bluetooth-addicted, sadly sedentary middle manager, and later with such fine touches as shooting through the microwave oven to establish its presence early on, well before it warped into horror, and using the repeat of the copier/printer-pencil sharpener-cube farm sequence to set up the sameness of every single day. I also loved the way he shot and editor Anthony Pinker (who also gets major applause for that opening montage!) assembled Dean’s first encounter with the ghost in the men’s room at Ian’s suicide; the use of mirrors has been a trademark in this show, and Conway expanded the mark. And for some reason, I loved the crane shot that ended that scene. Finally, I loved the touch of totally changing the light from the brilliantly saturated color of the rest of the episode to the desaturation that flooded out from the moment that Zachariah touched Dean’s forehead to return his memories; the world lost its color and light as Dean remembered who he really was and what he really faced, and all the joy and lightheartedness drained out along with the color. Wow. Although new to Supernatural, Conway has been around for a long time, with significant television directing credits going back to MacGyver and including all flavors of Star Trek apart from the original series, and worked most recently on Smallville, Psych, and Charmed. (Judging from early CW release information on the various episodes, Conway originally may also have been slated to direct Death Takes A Holiday, but that episode was directed by Steve Boyum.)

In a recent interview with TVGuide.com (http://www.tvguide.com/News/Buckley-CSINY-Supernatural-1004349.aspx), A.J. Buckley indicated that the insert segments with the Ghostfacers were directed with appropriate hilarity by co-executive producer Phil Sgriccia, who had also directed the Ghostfacers episode, among many others. I think I also detected Sgriccia’s fine hand in the absolutely perfect selection of The Kinks’ “A Well Respected Man” as the music underlying the Dean Smith opening montage. I cheered out loud to hear the music back again! And I really laughed at the edit on that montage, with the Kinks being interrupted first by a few quick bars of hard rock – suggesting perhaps that Dean occasionally succumbed to his real world tastes? – and then by NPR, before resuming with “Well Respected Man.”

The set designers and dressers get really high marks for this episode, from the big things – including Dean’s apartment, Dean’s office, and the great bridge photo wall for the 22nd floor lobby – to such superb small touches as the logo polo shirts on the IT support crew, Sam’s Dracula bobblehead toy and monster sketches, and the “Don’t heat up your fish here, it STINKS!” sign above the microwave. And a silver-white Prius with a charcoal and black interior as the inverse of the black Impala with her cream dash and door liners? Brilliant! Given Jensen Ackles’ acknowledged passion for golf, the little executive mini-golf putting green in Dean’s office was particularly hysterical. And after Nicki Aycox mentioned during a first season interview that Jensen and Jared had a gym on set, I had to wonder whether the Bowflex in Dean’s apartment had seen real use before! I also had to laugh at Dean’s alarm clock having an iPod dock, after what he did in Lazarus Rising to the iPod Sam put into the Impala. The sound folks get a special mention for having the microwave oven “ding” after the screen went black following Paul’s suicide, and making that be the transition to the commercial break.

The guest cast was perfect, especially Kurt Fuller – who’s been in everything – as Zachariah/Mr. Adler, and Jack Plotnick as Sam’s ne’er-do-well friend Ian. But the greatest joy was seeing Jensen Ackles and Jared Padalecki deliver yet another distinctly different take on Dean and Sam Winchester/Smith and Wesson. Both of these actors are really hitting it out of the park consistently this season. I particularly loved Jensen’s little facial tweaks of agreement as Dean responded to Zachariah observing that being able to drive around in a classic car and fornicate with women was a blessing, not a curse, and the entire gamut of his response as Dean realized that the whole experience had been a deceit. Jared’s portrayal of Sam wanting desperately to connect with Dean and experience the closeness he’d seen in his dreams was poignant, especially in the context of the distance that’s grown between the brothers this season.

I’m going to close by saying that, as a cube-dwelling wage slave, I really appreciate the show recognizing both the soul-killing aspects of the drudgery and sameness of ordinary life and the understanding that what really matters is how you look at things. I choose to look at what I do as being important, as having a positive impact on the world at large. I may not be saving the world from the apocalypse, but I’m doing my bit for human health and the environment, and trying along the way to impart a positive attitude to everyone I meet. And what I do, in my small way, hopefully impacts other lives in positive ways, with the result that the net positive impact to the planet is way more than I could accomplish on my own.

And that, I think, is the ultimate message of the lesson that Zachariah was trying to teach Dean and Sam: that trying your best and believing in your potential to do good may accomplish more than ever you believe, simply because you believe and act on that belief. Simply because you build bridges that, in turn, build dreams.
 


Tags: dean winchester, episode commentaries, jared padalecki, jensen ackles, phil sgriccia, sam winchester, sera gamble, supernatural, supernatural university
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