Angels let seals break,
Wanting the apocalypse;
Sam opens the door.
At St. Mary’s convent in Ilchester, Maryland in October 1972, a priest was attacked and possessed at night by a demon right in the sacristy of the chapel. The next day, Azazel in the priest’s body trapped his congregation of eight nuns in the chapel, saying he’d finally found the gate to his imprisoned father Lucifer right in the convent. He disemboweled them all, and Lucifer spoke through one of the victims. Lucifer praised him and said Lilith could break the Seals, and told Azazel he needed to free her from the pit and also to find him one special child.
At an abandoned farm, Ruby asked a brooding Sam if his head was in the game. Trying to get him on track, Ruby said Dean was wrong in what he had said, but Sam disagreed, saying he’d been right. Sam said he could feel inside that he’d changed for good and there was no going back. He agreed he’d do what he had to do, but maintained there wouldn’t be anything afterward for him, and sadly concluded that Dean was better off being as far away from him as possible.
Dean, meanwhile, was equally abstracted and negative at Bobby’s, refusing to call Sam or try to reach him again despite Bobby’s protests. Drained, angry, and depressed, Dean said Sam had never wanted to be part of the family and had run away to Stanford the first chance he got, and was doing it all over again. This time, Dean said Sam could do what he wanted; he wouldn’t chase after him any more. He mused that he didn’t even know if Sam was still his brother, or even if he’d ever been. Bobby exploded, mocking Dean’s self-pity and maintaining that family wasn’t supposed to make you feel good. He accused Dean of sounding like John and called John a coward who found it easier to push Sam away than reach out to him. Bobby said Dean was a better man than his father ever was, and begged Dean not to be John. Dean turned away, considering – but when he turned back, Bobby’s house was gone. Dean found himself instead in an elegant white and gold room looking like something out of a mansion or an art museum, hung with pastoral art in ornate frames and with a harp in one corner. Castiel appeared behind him and told him it was almost time.
Sam and Ruby waylaid Lilith’s lieutenant, a demon inhabiting a nurse who was stealing babies, and took her back to the farm to force her to reveal Lilith’s location.
Alone in the room, Dean paced past the bare table, and then turned to see a bowl of ice loaded with bottles of El Sol beer – his favorite, as we’d learned in What Is And What Should Never Be and a platter heaped with cheeseburgers there. Zachariah appeared with Castiel behind him. When Dean asked where he was, Zachariah called it a green room, a safe place to wait as the apocalypse approached, and encouraged him to rest and relax in preparation. He offered Dean burgers from his favorite place, a seaside shack in Delaware where he’d eaten when he was eleven, and when Dean said he wasn’t hungry, offered him women instead, quoting his own taste for Ginger from season two of Gilligan’s Island and offering to throw in Mary Ann for free. Both intrigued and disturbed, Dean refused, insisting on knowing the game plan. Zachariah told him all but one of the Seals had fallen, but only Lilith could break the final Seal. He refused to tell Dean anything more and told him to have faith. When Dean asked why he should, Zachariah reminded him that he had sworn obedience, and ordered him to obey.
In the farmhouse, the demon refused to cooperate, observing that since she was dead in any case, she had no incentive to help Sam. Sam responded that she should be worried about what would happen before she died, and used his power to torture her.
Alone in the room again, Dean pulled out his cell phone and called Sam. He got voicemail and left a message apologizing to Sam, saying he was still pissed but he shouldn’t have said what he did, that he wasn’t Dad and was sorry. The recording cut off before he could say any more.
The demon in the nurse finally cracked and begged Sam to let her die in exchange for information, and he agreed. She said Lilith would be at St. Mary’s Convent in Maryland at midnight the next night to open the final Seal. Sam tortured her again to find out what the seal was, but she screamed that she didn’t know. Sam would have killed her, but Ruby reminded him he needed more blood than she could provide to power up, and planned to take the demon with them. Bitter at being betrayed, the demon decided to make it as hard for Sam as she could, so the demon let her host surface, leaving Sam to deal with a terrified nurse who didn’t understand anything of what was going on.
Researching the convent on the internet, Sam found newspaper accounts of the massacre of the nuns, and learned the priest had maintained he’d been possessed and even remembered the name of the demon: Azazel. Ruby observed that all the A-list demons were making appearances, and insisted it was time for them to go, taking the possessed nurse with them. Uncomfortable facing the terrified, innocent host, Sam suggested finding another demon instead, but Ruby impatiently observed he’d killed hosts along with demons before, and Sam eventually forced the nurse into the trunk of Ruby’s car and locked her in with the devil’s trap painted inside.
Increasingly irritated in his gilded prison, Dean deliberately smashed a decorative figurine of an angel and Castiel appeared, saying Dean had asked to see him. Castiel told him he could have anything, but when Dean told Castiel to take him to see Sam, the angel refused, saying it would be unwise and asking if Dean remembered how their last confrontation had ended. Dean maintained that was the whole point, that he would do whatever the angels wanted, but he first needed five minutes to tie things up with Sam. Castiel refused, and when Dean tried to leave, the door to the room disappeared, replaced by walls, and Castiel vanished.
Enroute to the convent, Sam was troubled by the screams and pleas of the nurse locked in the trunk, knowing that he would have to bleed and drink an innocent woman while she watched, and admitted to Ruby that he was starting to think Dean was right about everything. He debated listening to the voicemail message from Dean on his phone, but couldn’t bring himself to it. Ruby pressured him to think about why he would be doing the deed – saving the world being more important than his troubled morals – and tried to get him to commit.
Dean’s frustration led to him trying to smash his way out of the room, but the hole he bashed in the wall just closed up again. Zachariah appeared and told him to stop misbehaving, saying it was too dangerous to let him out with demons on the prowl. Dean dismissed the excuse, noting he’d been getting his ass kicked all year, and accused the angel of lying. He demanded to see Sam, and when Zachariah said it would be ill-advised, demanded to know why, and how he was supposed to ice Lilith. Zachariah finally said he wouldn’t stop Lilith, that she would break the final Seal, and Dean realized he didn’t want to stop it. Zachariah agreed that he didn’t, and never had; that the end was nigh and the apocalypse was coming. He said they couldn’t have admitted from the beginning that they were intentionally letting the Seals be broken because the “grunts on the ground” wouldn’t have understood and would have rebelled. Dean, appalled, asked why, and Zachariah jauntily asked why not, saying the apocalypse was a bad name poorly marketed because it was just a title fight between Heaven and Hell, and when their side won, as he was confident they would, it would be paradise on Earth. Looking around, Dean realized the artwork on the walls had transformed from bucolic scenes of peace and happiness to Hieronymus Bosch images of demons and devils fighting with and tormenting people, and asked in horror what would happen to the people during their pissing contest. Zachariah dismissively observed you couldn’t make an omelet without breaking eggs, and said this wasn’t the first planetary enema the angels had delivered. Knowing himself trapped, Dean said Sam would still do everything he could to stop Lilith, and Zachariah observed Sam had a part to play and he would make certain Sam played it, even if it took a little nudging in the right direction. When Dean asked what Zachariah was going to do to Sam, Zachariah said Sam would do it all to himself. Pausing in front of a painting of St. Michael triumphing over a devil. Zachariah told Dean to forget about Sam, saying he had a bigger destiny and the angels had never lied about him being chosen as the one to stop it – but “it” wasn’t Lilith or the apocalypse, but Lucifer, and when he triumphed, his reward would be unimaginable. Dean, far from convinced, asked what role God had in all of this, and Zachariah said “God has left the building,” and disappeared.
Dean tried to call Sam again, but Castiel told him he couldn’t reach him. Dean asked what Castiel was going to do to Sam, and Castiel, echoing Zachariah, said Sam would do it to himself. Dean asked why Castiel had come, and Castiel, observing they had been through a lot together, said he wanted to apologize for it ending this way. Castiel said Armageddon had been long foretold, that it was destiny, while Dean snapped that it was all a bunch of lies, a way for Castiel’s bosses to keep them both in line. Dean pleaded that people and families were what’s real, and asked if Castiel would watch them all burn. Castiel asked what was so worth saving, saying he saw nothing but pain, guilt, anger and confusion both on Earth and inside Dean. In paradise, he said, all is forgiven, and Dean would be at peace even with Sam. Dean caught Castiel’s eyes and told him to shove his peace, that he would take all the pain in preference to Castiel’s image of paradise. He begged Castiel to recognize right and wrong and to get him to Sam so they could stop it before it was too late. Castiel warned if he tried that, they would all be hunted and killed, and Dean argued that if there was anything worth dying for, this was it. When Castiel said nothing, Dean called him spineless and soulless, and said they were done.
At the convent, Sam, still struggling with himself, finally listened to Dean’s voicemail – but what he heard wasn’t the message Dean had actually left, but Dean’s savagely bitter voice saying he’d given up on trying to save him because he was a monster, that he wasn’t himself any more and there was no going back. Ruby, either knowing the message was false or being able to hear it, smiled where Sam couldn’t see. Feeling alone and condemned, Sam made his choice, and told Ruby to proceed.
Pacing, angry, and hungry, Dean picked up one of the burgers, but Castiel appeared and grabbed him before he could take a bite, slamming him up against a wall with one hand clamped over his mouth to keep him silent. He drew the demon-killing knife, asking a question with his eyes, and Dean nodded acquiescence. Castiel released him, cut his own arm with the knife, and drew symbols on the wall in his own blood, using them to banish Zachariah when the other angel appeared demanding to know what he was doing. Castiel explained that he and Dean needed to find Sam and stop him from killing Lilith, because Lilith was the last Seal. Castiel said he didn’t know where Sam was, but he knew someone who would, and transported them both to kitchen of Chuck the prophet. Chuck told them about the convent but protested they couldn’t be there because they weren’t in that part of the story; Castiel countered that they were making it up as they went along. Glaring light and seismic tremors announced the approach of Chuck’s protective archangel, and Castiel told Dean he would hold off the archangel and all the others, but Dean had to stop Sam, and he touched Dean’s head and transported him to the convent.
At the convent, Lilith told one of her assembled minions not to be afraid, because they were going to save the world. Mere seconds later, all of her minions dropped like stones as Sam walked in, trailed by Ruby. Lilith slammed a door against them, but Sam simply flung it open and used the power of his mind to pin Lilith against the altar. Dean arrived in time to see that tableau before Ruby glanced back, noticed him, smiled, and closed the door in his face. Facing Lilith, Sam summoned his power, but hesitated when he heard Dean screaming his name and hammering on the door. Ruby screamed at him, asking what he was waiting for, and Lilith laughed that he had turned himself into a freak, a monster, and now wasn’t going to bite, and that was the last straw; Sam called on all his power, and his eyes turned fully demon-black as he burned the Lilith-demon inside her host the same way he had served Alastair. Her blood began to flow into an iris pattern on the floor and Ruby, transported in amazed delight, rejoiced that Sam had done it; he’d opened the door to free Lucifer. Sam, horrified, protested that he’d stopped Lilith, and Ruby gloated that the first demon was the last Seal, and smashing her open smashed it, too. Ruby boasted about her own cleverness and power, how she’d pursued the goal even when other demons didn’t believe in it and hunted her for apparently betraying them. Sam tried to fling his power against her, but found himself totally drained by his takedown of Lilith. To Sam’s growing horror and despair, when he protested that she’d poisoned him with her blood, Ruby said that the blood hadn’t mattered at all; that it was Sam and Sam’s choices, and it had been in him all along. She praised him and assured him that Lucifer would be grateful and would reward him, but his loathing was complete.
When Dean succeeded in smashing in the door, Ruby crowed that he was too late, but he responded that he didn’t care and advanced on her with the knife. Before she could fling him aside, Sam grabbed her from behind and held her as Dean stabbed her. As the blood iris in the floor began to glow and open, Sam tearfully apologized to Dean. Dean grabbed him to drag him away, but Sam, seemingly rooted in place by shock and horror, said, “He’s coming,” and the brothers were engulfed in light.
Commentary and Meta Analysis
This episode paid off the fourth season brilliantly, providing explanations for mysteries dating back to the very beginning of the series while raising even more questions and setting the stage for a massive confrontation between good and evil in season five. At the same time, the episode reinforced the series’ core themes of family, choice, and personal responsibility and continued the debate between the concepts of destiny and free will. In this discussion, I’m going to explore the increasingly complex roles of angels and demons; the family dynamic; and Ruby’s revelations about Sam and what they may mean for his future.
They’re Supposed To Make You Miserable
In an interview I recall from a long time ago – some time during the first season, I think – Eric Kripke, chuckling about Joss Whedon having once said that the theme of Buffy The Vampire Slayer was that high school was Hell, joked that the theme of Supernatural was that family was Hell. I was reminded of that by Bobby’s comments to Dean in this episode: Are you under the impression that family’s supposed to make you feel good? Bake you an apple pie, maybe? They’re supposed to make you miserable! That’s why they’re family!
That was a bit exaggerated, but still true. The families we’re born to are inflicted on us without choice, and they and the choices we make in dealing with them color all the rest of our relationships. In the case of the Winchesters, their family was broken by demons when the boys were very small. Because of John’s choices both to pursue revenge and to try to keep his sons safe by equipping them to deal with the supernatural, Sam and Dean were forced to be closer together than most siblings, with only each other to turn to because no one in the normal world outside their family unit could be allowed to understand. Their situation was more extreme than most families, but the end result – that the boys can hurt each other worse than anyone else can hurt either of them, and they can push each other’s buttons with unerring accuracy both when they fight and when they set out to please – is typical.
The core of Bobby’s point, however, was that we have an obligation to family; that we owe duties of love and responsibility to parents, siblings, and children, and the effort we put forward in those duties no matter how much frustration, resentment, or irritation they may involve defines us as people. Bobby faulted John for failing his sons, and his warning line to Dean here about not abandoning Sam when he was drowning – Don’t make me get my gun, boy – hinted that his last falling out with John, the one before the boys went to him for help in Devil’s Trap, might even have been for the same reason, with its echo of Bobby having pointed a shotgun at John. I would submit that Bobby telling Dean he was a better man than John had ever been was based on Dean’s commitment to family in the love and care he’d always given Sam and the honor and obedience he still gives to John. Dean’s family feeling is also what led to his primary driver always being to save other people.
That Sam had dreams of his own didn’t negate his love for and bonds to family, either. Sam rebelled against John’s insistence on the hunting life as the only life, but he didn’t stop loving or caring about his father and brother when he went to Stanford. I would guess that he didn’t talk about them to his friends not just because it would have been awkward to come up with a reasonable story, but more because it hurt too much to be reminded that he was so alone. He’d built in his own mind the conviction that John was always disappointed in him and he’d taken John’s parting words very much to heart; feeling rejected, he built his own bitter fences and pretended pride in being apart until the pride became real. The love and sense of obligation were still there, though; they fueled his choice in the pilot to help Dean find John, and they were very much in evidence even in this episode where Sam convinced himself he was doing what he had to do to save his brother and the world.
Being family isn’t easy. We resent the burdens family puts on us; the time it takes away from our own goals and enjoyment, the things we need to do for them when we’d prefer to do something else, the money we need to set aside for someone other than ourselves, the guilt we feel when we do indulge our own desires. At the same time, however, having family and being family offers strength, support, acceptance, and joy. Everyone in the family needs to be part of that unit and to contribute to it, or it doesn’t work – but when it works, it makes every member stronger.
And the vital thing is what Bobby said in No Rest For The Wicked: Family don’t end with blood, boy. Whatever family we were born into, however functional or dysfunctional it may be, we build our own additional families as we grow up, creating attachments to other people who become extensions of family. Even if the family we started with failed to provide for our needs, we have the chance to build another, if we’re willing to commit to it. Bobby has done that with Sam and Dean; they are as much family now as if they all were blood-related. Family is commitment, whether through birth, marriage, or bonds of love and trust; family is love, and love is acceptance, taking the bad with the good and the pain with the happiness, all as its own reward.
God Has Left The Building
In Castiel, Uriel, Anna, and Zachariah, we’ve been introduced to four very disparate factions among the angels in Heaven, and this episode indicated that God isn’t speaking directly through any of them. Humans, angels, and demons are all pursuing their own separate agendas, but does that mean, as Zachariah said, God has left the building? I would submit not.
By depicting both angels and demons as individuals who are as dependent on faith as we humans are, Supernatural has introduced unusual complexity into the typical confrontation between good and evil. In most Judeo-Christian-Muslim tradition, good and evil are pretty black and white: angels serve God, demons serve evil and themselves, humans who obey the commands of the divine are good and those who don’t obey are evil. I remember being taught that to be in Heaven is to be in the presence of God, to know and experience pure love, while Hell is the ultimate separation from and denial of God. Supernatural’s cosmology is very different, and fascinating because of that.
Castiel, I think, represents the closest approximation in the show to our traditional understanding of angels because he is a non-human being driven by obedience to and love of God. When we first met him, he was unquestioning in his duty and fiercely uncompromising in its execution. He reported in Lazarus Rising that he had rescued Dean from Hell because God commanded it, because He had work for Dean to do. His love of God came through loud and clear in the way he referred to God as being his Father and looked wonderingly upon all the humans in the park as his Father’s creations, each a work of art, in It’s The Great Pumpkin, Sam Winchester even as he first began to admit to having questions and doubts about what was right. His increasing exposure to Dean and growing understanding of and empathy for humans fueled his doubts not of God, but of the orders he was being given by his superiors. Our discovery through Anna in Heaven And Hell that only four angels had ever seen God made clear that Castiel’s orders were being conveyed through other angels, not coming to him directly from God. When he ultimately questioned his orders in On The Head Of A Pin he wasn’t doubting God, but whether those orders had come from God. When he confronted Uriel, he proclaimed openly that he still served God. His insubordination in putting an archangel at Dean’s disposal to save Sam from Lilith in The Monster At The End Of This Book resulted in Castiel being disciplined sharply, as we learned in The Rapture and again in When The Levee Breaks, but his punishment was clearly no more at God’s hands than his earlier orders had been in God’s voice. His break with Zachariah in this episode came after Dean challenged him to see a clear right and wrong, and I would submit represented Castiel’s own conclusion that Zachariah and the other angels facilitating the apocalypse were not faithfully following God’s precepts. I believe that Castiel remains loyal to God and still believes in Him, and is striving to do what He would consider right.
Uriel, representing a faction of angels who had come to believe that Lucifer had been justified in his rebellion and deserved to be free, reenacted Lucifer’s initial fall and demonstrated that angels, like humans, have free will to choose. As disclosed in On The Head Of A Pin, Uriel was the antithesis of Castiel, an angel who disavowed God as a Father when he created humanity, resented God’s storied preference for humanity, and considered Lucifer a hero for having defended the rights of angels as God’s first children. He pointed to God’s failure to stop him as He had once stopped Lucifer as proof that God had abdicated His responsibility and didn’t care what the angels or anyone else did with the Earth any more. Uriel wanted to open the Seals in order to restore Lucifer to his former glory and angelic brotherhood. In pursuit of that goal, Uriel was willing to work with the demons to bring about the apocalypse, because the final Seal had to be broken to set Lucifer free. To Uriel, the apocalypse was irrelevant, a sidebar to being reunited with his beautiful brother, with the added bonus of destroying most of humanity.
Anna represented yet another face of angelic potential: an angel who chose deliberately to become human. She described angels in Heaven And Hell as being as cold and perfect as marble statues with no feelings and no choice, knowing nothing but absolute obedience, having to take God’s existence on faith or be killed. Given the assignment to watch humans on Earth for two thousand years but not interact with them, sick with longing to go home, and not understanding the purpose of her orders, she became disaffected and then chose to fall in order to avoid the punishment she feared for disobedience. Her very choice and motivation to fall, however, proclaim that her description was exaggerated, because her feelings prompted her choice, both things she claimed angels didn’t have. Unlike Lucifer and Uriel, she felt no resentment of humans, and actually preferred to become one. Unlike Castiel, she didn’t trust in God’s love, the Father she couldn’t pretend to understand; instead, she feared His anger and acted accordingly. Ultimately, unlike Uriel, she didn’t disbelieve in His existence – she was the one to argue to Castiel that angels may have been misrepresenting God’s word – but neither did she retain the kind of faith and love that Castiel still has. In rebelling against his own angelic hierarchy as represented by Zachariah, Castiel has taken a step along Anna’s path, but I would submit that his position is distinct from hers because his belief in and dedication to the service of God remains paramount, while hers seems equivocal. Still, if Anna hasn’t been terminated by Zachariah’s faction, I could see Castiel and Anna working together in the future.
Zachariah provides one more new perspective: an angel with political ambition. Like Uriel, he appears to dismiss the existence and relevance of God in the absence of direct evidence of His presence and His will. Unlike Uriel and Lucifer, he doesn’t seem to hate or resent humans; instead, he appears utterly indifferent to them, except to the regrettable degree that he needs to use and rely on them. Unlike Uriel, he clearly has no fondness for Lucifer. He told Dean he deliberately let Lilith break the Seals to trigger the apocalypse, but announced he would employ Dean at the necessary moment to stop Lucifer. That calls into question precisely when Zachariah and his faction realized both Azazel’s and Lilith’s intent. In In The Beginning, Castiel told Dean that the angels knew what Azazel had done to Sam, but not why; I wonder if that was true, or if the knowledge was something Zachariah kept from him even then. Zachariah planning to allow Lilith to break the Seals further implies he ensured Castiel and his garrison wouldn’t be able to rescue Dean from Hell in time, as Castiel described in On The Head Of A Pin, because he needed Dean broken not only to start the war, but to be able to end it as and when he chose, since prophecy dictated the righteous man who began it was the only one who could stop it. Zachariah wants the apocalypse because he’s confident his side will win the ensuing fight and he wants what would reputedly come afterward: paradise, with his faction in control. No more angels stationed on Earth to watch humans and wonder; no more orders to care for anyone else. I don’t think he’s the very top dog in the heavenly host at present, but I think he’s in the board room, wants to stay there, and is perfectly willing to give the orders that benefit him the most in the absence of clear direction from the CEO that he himself, not being one of the chosen four, has never seen and has chosen to doubt.
My guess from Zachariah’s dismissive comment about the “grunts on the ground” rebelling had they known of the plan to let the Seals break is that Castiel – barring his new-found empathy for humans – represents the majority of the angelic host, and that most angels simply haven’t thought that their leaders might be giving questionable orders in the absence of specific direction from God. Castiel himself isn’t rebelling against God; he’s challenging Zachariah and everyone taking orders from his faction. If he can persuade others that they are being misled, as he himself was, the focus of Heaven may change, and so may the outcome of the broken Seals. And if he can start by persuading Chuck’s protective archangel, the initial shift in the balance of power may be dramatic.
And that’s the crux of the matter to me. It seems that in Supernatural’s cosmology, God has given His angels the same free will He gave to humans. To me, the absence of God’s direct intervention in the story doesn’t imply the absence of God, but rather an opportunity given to all of God’s creation to choose their own course, and either to have faith and do good or not. The mortal consequences may be harsh, particularly on the helpless human innocents caught between the mighty on both sides, but every one of the players, powerful or not, has his or her own choices to make, and none of us know what the final outcome will be or how God will ultimately reward good and deal with evil. There are no guarantees and no expectation of fairness; only faith. And faith is hard.
You Didn’t Need The Feather To Fly
For me, the second most shocking revelation of the night, right after Zachariah’s admission that he and the other current leaders in Heaven wanted to bring about the apocalypse and end the world, was Ruby telling Sam that the blood didn’t matter. It wasn’t the blood. It was you and your choices. I just gave you the options and you chose the right path every time. You didn’t need the feather to fly; you had it in you the whole time, Dumbo.
I think all of us have wondered why Sam apparently needed demon blood from Ruby to boost his power to control and destroy demons this season, when the other psychic children made and chosen by Azazel were able to trigger and expand their powers back in season two just with their minds. My own theories included the kids tapping into Azazel’s powers through their blood link to him and that well of power being drained when Dean killed him, or Sam needing more power in order to take on demons more powerful than those Ava had controlled, or Sam simply not being able to fully trigger his power because he never lost his fear of it. It would appear the latter idea was closest to the mark, if Ruby was telling the truth and if I’m correctly reading the implication that all the power was in him all the time, and the added demon blood was window dressing and misdirection.
Back in All Hell Breaks Loose, both Ava and Jake remarked on how easy it was to access their power and how quickly they could learn to do new things with it the moment they gave in to it. I would submit Sam couldn’t do it either then or later precisely because he was too afraid of what it would make of him to accept it and give it control. Sam always had a particular horror of being a freak; we saw that in the past in After School Special, and we heard him voice it any number of times in episodes from Home and Nightmare to Simon Said and Metamorphosis. From the moment he knew Azazel had plans for him, he was afraid of letting those plans come true and turning into something evil. He was so afraid that in Playthings, he made Dean promise to kill him if it ever happened. When he saw Azazel feed him demon blood in his vision of the past in All Hell Breaks Loose, he was appalled and asked if it meant he had demon blood. He feared being taken over and turned evil by an alien power, but what he feared even more was being found a monster inside his own mind, by his own deliberate choice.
After Dean died, Sam professed not to care any more, to be willing to do anything first to get him back, and when that failed, to get his revenge on Lilith for Dean’s death and his own self-destruction. Despite that, however, we saw in I Know What You Did Last Summer that he still couldn’t make his exorcism power work even after lessons from Ruby. I think he still couldn’t surrender enough control to the trigger Azazel had placed inside him even when he consciously tried, because he was subconsciously resistant to giving up control. When he tried to use the power and got headaches and nosebleeds, I think it was because he was fighting himself, not giving in to the power out of fear that doing so would mean he really was a monster.
Ruby hitting on the idea of feeding him demon blood to apparently make his power work was a brilliant stroke on her part. My guess is it happened accidentally during their first rough sexual encounter with a bite or a scratch drawing blood, and Ruby tying that to his first successful pulling of a demon shortly thereafter. Having the power come ostensibly from the demon blood made it something outside himself, something he was controlling through his own choice and decision, however distasteful and perverted on its face, to take and use what Ruby was offering. It meant that he and not the blood was in control, because he was choosing to drink or not.
What this means, if it’s true, is his addiction isn’t a physical one at all, but a psychological and spiritual one, and that makes it all the scarier. That he is addicted was demonstrated conclusively by his very real withdrawal agonies in When The Levee Breaks. Psychological stimulus can provoke real physiological response for both good and ill – think of the importance of attitude and belief in healing and recovery, and the negative effects of depression on health – with the frightening consequence that treating the physical symptoms provides little to no relief and has no effect on the source. If Sam has become addicted to the use of his power – if the effect of using it at greater and greater levels created the corresponding demand that he use it in order to feel normal or good – then weaning himself off of it presents a formidable challenge because he has to police his own mind. It’s not like alcohol or another physical drug – like demon blood – where you could restrict or prevent the intake to break the hold or reduce the effect. Other people can help an addict not only by reinforcing his or her willpower, but by helping them physically stay away from the temptation of their addiction. But how could you help an addict whose drug was always inside his own mind, with a fix as readily accessed as a thought?
This suggests one major part of the story of season five may be Sam’s struggle against himself to remain human and not to use his power, or to somehow remain human while using rationed amounts of his power, when it’s more than just a hunger and the apocalypse itself is under way, with his power perhaps the only way for Sam and others to stay alive. We saw his eyes go fully demon-black when he exerted himself to kill Lilith; how much has that changed who he is and what he can do? Does using demonic power erode morality, and did that contribute to Sam’s slide this season, to him always choosing the way Ruby wanted him to go? Now that he’s aware and acknowledging his responsibility, could he manage to use it and still remain himself, finding the kind of balance that sweet Andy did in Simon Said and All Hell Breaks Loose,, or would he gradually become a demon and lose his humanity along with his compassion? I will say that his ability to realize and accept what he did, combined with his heartfelt apology to Dean at the end, tells me that the essentially good Sam we know and love is still very much alive and present and nothing about his fate is a foregone conclusion except that he – like Dean – will try to make up for what he’s done.
Another question concerns how much of his ability may be humanly innate and how much is due to Azazel having dosed him with demon blood when he was six months old. Through the dead nun, Lucifer told Azazel, You must find me a child, a very special child. I suspect what he needed was a living human – an essentially good living human – to twist into a demon as he had done with Lilith, because only her equal, a demon made like Lilith from life, not from the tormented soul of someone already dead and in Hell, would have the power necessary to kill her and thus break the final Seal on his prison. That was in October 1972. We know from In The Beginning that Azazel visited multiple women during the next year, making deals to gain access to their children ten years later. Did those very deals seed the potential in the children, and his later visit when they were each six months old simply turn a key in the lock, or was his careful and deliberate selection of potential mothers driven by something within the parents themselves that might produce suitable potential in their children? I also believe that Ruby was lying through her beautiful teeth when she told Sam it always had to be him, for two reasons. The first was that after Azazel had seeded his first crop of kids in Sam’s generation, he evidently did it again ten years later, and was visiting the new crop of six-month-old kids just as his first crop came to maturity and started to manifest their power: witness baby Rosie in Salvation, and the pattern John detected that made him realize the demon who’d killed Mary was on the prowl again. To me, that implies Azazel wasn’t certain that any of his first crop of kids would actually be the right one, heir to all the right circumstances to meet Lucifer’s needs. The second was that Azazel’s elimination round competition among his first generation psychic kids winnowed down the field to two, and then to one – and that one wasn’t Sam, but Jake. Only Dean’s despair and sacrifice brought Sam back into play. Dean’s sacrifice may have been exactly the thing that caused Sam to be the perfect choice, with Dean going to Hell to become the righteous man to break the first Seal dovetailing with Sam being made the instrument to open the last Seal, but that level of complexity makes my head hurt and implies too much domino-style predestination to be acceptable to my free-willed soul.
My one question on this theory of Sam’s power being entirely in his mind and not affected at all by the demon blood Ruby fed him concerns Anna’s comment in When The Levee Breaks: You saw him. He’s drinking demon blood! It’s so much worse than we thought. Was it the depravity of the act or her understanding that it meant Sam himself was being twisted into a demon that prompted her reaction, or was the drinking of demon blood more of a factor than Ruby told Sam at the last? Guess we’ll just have to wait for season five.
There Is A Right And There Is A Wrong Here, And You Know It
The importance of personal choice and acceptance of personal responsibility have been major themes throughout Supernatural, and this episode put them front and center. With a little help from Bobby and some angelically enforced passivity, Dean realized he’d been wrong when he’d given up and gone all John on Sam, and even though Sam never heard the apology he sent, from the moment he made it, Dean recovered his focus on doing what was right for his family and the world. For the first time, he also accepted his responsibility for triggering the onset of the apocalypse without drowning in it, taking it as having happened and moving on to deal with it. Sam learned from Ruby that she had deceived and manipulated him and that his own choices, not the insidious effects of demon blood, had made of him precisely what he’d feared to be. That realization clubbed him down with self-loathing and despair, but when Dean came charging in, he rose to the occasion and chose again, this time helping Dean kill Ruby and then apologizing to him. Dean challenged Castiel to forget the party line and blind obedience to orders and decide instead to do what he knew was right, no matter the personal cost to himself and his long-held beliefs, and Castiel chose to take his stand and help Dean, even facing heaven’s most powerful weapon to do it. All of those individual choices set the stage for the next season, with Sam and Dean again side by side and with Castiel squarely in their corner.
Destiny, the show’s other favorite thematic horse, was also in the race, but I’d submit Choice crossed the finish line first. We heard destiny from Zachariah’s mouth, and Castiel’s, and Ruby’s, and Chuck’s: that this all was long foretold, that it had to be, that everyone’s roles were preset – and yet despite that, in the end, Castiel and Dean stood unforeseen in Chuck’s kitchen, and Dean reached the convent even though Chuck had not seen him there.
We know from The Monster At The End Of This Book that Chuck doesn’t see everything and doesn’t always correctly interpret what he sees. Since we didn’t see the pages of his story this time, we don’t know where his vision of this moment ended, but I don’t believe it matters, precisely because we’ve already seen there’s enough ambiguity in Chuck, as in any oracle, to put different interpretations on what he predicts. Castiel abandoning the script to make it up as he and Dean went along – never thought I’d hear an angel quoting Han Solo and Indiana Jones – simply requires that we change the inflection we put on the words.
I would also point to the difference between the Book of Revelation as we know it in the Bible and the revelatory stories as told by the characters in Supernatural. The biblical apocalypse is triggered at the behest of God, who sends His angels at the appointed time to break the seals binding creation and unleash the end of days. Supernaturalcites instead to its own scripture with a story of a premature apocalypse being triggered by demons figuring out how to break seals themselves and disaffected angels letting them do it. I could offer one interpretation that there are two competing revelations concerning the end of the world, and that may mean the demonic one – the one we’re seeing – is doomed to fail because God’s is the true one. If that’s true, where would it leave the angels like Zachariah who just want to get the show on the road and over with?
There’s also the question of the source of Chuck’s visions. If those visions are divinely inspired, as Castiel clearly believed, then Chuck still having visions suggests that Zachariah is wrong and God is still in the game offering guidance – although the guidance coming through Chuck’s fallible human brain means that he may not interpret or render it correctly. And if Chuck’s visions are not from God, then what power was Zachariah relying on when he used those visions, or what he assumed Chuck saw in those visions, to help bolster his own course of action as something predestined and therefore right?
The destiny versus free will fight isn’t over, but I’m with Dean in free will’s corner.
There’ll Be Peace When You Are Done
Hearing Kansas’ Carry On Wayward Son under the montage at the beginning of this episode gave me hope as it always does, but this time, it even factored into the story.
Zachariah and Castiel both separately offered Dean peace as the reward for following the game plan. Zachariah’s offer was crass: And when it’s over, and when you’ve won, your rewards will be – unimaginable. Peace. Happiness. Two virgins and seventy sluts. Castiel’s was more on point, proffering a cure for Dean’s pain, guilt, anger, and confusion: In paradise, all is forgiven. You’ll be at peace. Even with Sam.
Peace is something Dean has never known. While it’s arguably what he’s always wished, as visualized in What Is And What Should Never Be, it’s a wish he’s never spoken because he’s never thought it possible. It’s never going to be over. It ends bloody or sad, that’s just the life. First season’s Shadow, this season’s Criss Angel Is A Douche Bag, the message is the same; there is no end, there is no winning, there is no peace. There’s just endless striving, endless fighting, endless responsibility always for others. This is the ultimate statement of Dean’s lack of faith in God and belief in Heaven, but despite its fatalistic bleakness, it’s also his ultimate rejection of destiny and fate precisely because it goes on.
This time, Dean rejected peace at the price Heaven’s angels offered, preferring the pain and the guilt and even Sam exactly as he is, to preserve the world and people and families, what he sees as important and real. He read the angels’ there’ll be peace when you are done as a mockery and a cheat. Dean was badly beaten down this season with his estrangement from Sam, his horrific and shaming memories of Hell, and his realization that his failure to endure triggered the apocalypse, but what he learned in this episode simply reinforced that he’s not about to give up any more or to lay his weary head to rest, not yet, not when saving people comes first.
Dean still doesn’t believe in peace and probably never will, but what makes him a hero is that he damned well will carry on anyway. And for that matter, so will Sam.
I loved what Eric Kripke gave us in this season and this episode. The estrangement between the brothers hurt a lot, but the way he and his writers brought it full circle to reprise all the themes of previous seasons and reunite the Winchesters in time for the apocalypse made it all more than worthwhile. The addition of complex angels to the mix of humans, demons, and other supernatural entities further enriched the tapestry of the show, and the character development this season brought to both of the Winchester brothers was extraordinary. This season was amazing and I hated to see it end.
This story made two out of three winners for Eric Kripke scripts this season. I loved his Lazarus Rising and thought Lucifer Rising made a suitable bookend. There are still significant parts of Heaven And Hell that make me wince, but this script had none of those problems for me. The only part of the script that really rubbed me wrong was Dean’s line about wondering whether Sam had ever been his brother. I could – although with difficulty – accept Dean being so discouraged and depressed by the end of his last encounter with Sam as to give up (temporarily, until he recovered his mind) on chasing after him, but voicing doubt about Sam ever having been his brother? No. Not the Dean I know. That line felt like a character misfire to me. The rest of it, however, had me on the edge of my seat, and the very end made me cheer for the brothers being together again the way they belong despite the myriad troubles still between them and the cliffhanger about the advent of Lucifer.
I also really enjoyed Kripke’s direction on this episode. I had a strong feeling of the presence of Kim Manners; I think Kripke’s style and technique drew a lot from the master on this one, from the clever ways he shot the scenes of angels appearing and disappearing to the transformations both to and in Dean’s gilded prison, especially including the very subtle, gradual desaturation of the bright color as Dean learned the truth about Zachariah wanting the apocalypse. (If you’re wondering what I mean by that, watch that scene again, and compare the color and the quality of the light on each successive time you see Zachariah reflected to infinity in the mirror; note how bright the gold is on the sofa when he first sits down, compared to how dull it appears by the last time you see him in the mirrors, and note how it continues to fade through the end of the scene and remains dull every time we return to the room. We’ve seen it done quickly before – at the end of It’s A Terrible Life, for example – but this slow leaching of color as the hideous truth gradually sank in was magnificently effective. Thank you, director of photography Serge Ladouceur!!) Those were things I think Kim might have done, had he lived to direct this episode as he did all the other season finales. The whole image of Zachariah being reflected to infinity in the mirror was delicious, especially as it played off his line about this not being the first time the angels had delivered a planetary enema; the hint of an eternity of time and an infinity of worlds was mind-blowing. The heartbeat pounding under the scene of Sam confronting and killing Lilith drove the pacing of the scene, and the timing of the shots and cuts was flawless. Kudos to editor Tom McQuade for that! Christopher Lennertz’s score contributed a lot to the atmosphere.
Direction and performance are always linked, so I have to mention the work by Jensen Ackles, Jared Padalecki, and Misha Collins in particular as it ties in to the scenes. Whether this was scripted or a choice by one or both of the two actors or made in combination with the director, I especially adored the moment when Jensen ducked Dean’s head down and sideways to catch Castiel’s eyes and draw them back, forcing Castiel to look full into Dean’s face when he was trying to avoid facing him at all. Wow. I also loved the way Kripke introduced his first shots of both of the brothers by using the exact same technique, coming from out of focus into tight shots on their faces to show their abstraction and reinforce that each was thinking exclusively of the other. Ruby’s car being the only point of color in the scenes of the farmhouse was very effective. Jared’s portrayal of Sam’s realization of the truth was just heartbreaking, and he put so much grief, shame, pain, and contrition into Sam’s I’m sorry to Dean at the end that two simple words spoke volumes.
Jensen, Jared, and Misha all did spectacular work. I’m running out of adjectives for them because they’ve already put dibs on every superlative, so it’s probably a good thing that this will be my last review until next season; I need to find more words! In her swan song as Ruby, Genevieve Cortese pulled out all the stops. I enjoyed finally being proven right about Ruby, and the scene when she just had to crow about how awesome she was to have pulled off her job convincingly paid off her role as someone who’d spent two years in a high stress undercover assignment with no up-front rewards. The way she tried to reassure Sam that it was all good and he would be rewarded was creepy in the extreme, demonstrating that she really did care for Sam in a very twisted way, pride for his accomplishment as her trained pet wound around with satisfaction at his fall and disdain for his continued refusal to believe that he had done it to himself at her urging. I enjoyed the build across the last several episodes as Ruby showed more and more of her true colors, gloating and smirking whenever Sam wasn’t looking while showing him solicitude mixed with steadily increasing irritation and impatience the closer they came to the dénouement. I will admit that I was glad to see the brothers united in killing her, working seamlessly as a team in a way that they haven’t for far too long; it was a fitting end.
The set designers and decorators had a field day with Dean’s gilded prison. The décor was a trip, and the changing details to eliminate doors, repair walls, and swap out artwork to go from paradise to Hell were a treat. I loved Dean breaking the porcelain angel and then being embarrassed when Castiel showed up, and the silent presence of the harp was such a delightful dig at the romantic view of Heaven and angels. In terms of using set dressing, I enjoyed Kripke shooting through the harp strings and through the room lattices and pillars to give us unexpected views and use and show off the set to its full advantage. The effects people outdid themselves with Lilith’s blood running and pooling to form the iris – like a camera lens – opening our view to Lucifer’s cell, and that image of the brothers side by side, hands fisted in each other’s jackets and eyes fixed on the opening being washed out by brilliant light is going to stick with me right up until the season five opener. The black on white reverse of the normal end title was perfect.
At the Creation convention in Los Angeles last year, Kripke said the show has about a 15-page bible describing the overall story arc, and that he always knew as part of it that we wouldn’t see Lucifer. I wonder whether that has changed, or if we’ll still never actually see Lucifer, as I’m sure we’ll never see any other angel in its true shape (bad form to burn out the eyes of your viewing audience, don’t you know!). I’m reminded that Kripke loves twists, because at that same convention, in response to a question about why we saw demons but no angels in Supernatural, he said that we’d never see any of that “sappy Touched By An Angel stuff” in his show, but he did allow that if there were down and dirty versions of angels, then maybe … This season, we definitely got his “down and dirty” version of angels, so who knows what else he has in store? He himself said he’s learned never to say never!
I’m dying to find out what happens to Sam now that his eyes have once gone fully demon-black, and what it is about Dean having been broken in and rescued from Hell that will make him able to stop Lucifer – and I’ll note up front that nothing says he’ll kill Lucifer, so anything may be on the table, from redemption to trickery to Lucifer finally finding a human he could like. And there’s that pesky apocalypse thing, with angels and demons at war and our world made their battlefield. It says a lot that I trust Kripke, his writers, and this entire cast and production crew to pull it off despite their bare-bones budget.
I will definitely be back for season five, and I’ll bring as many more friends as I can find!