Castiel seeks God.
War’s sly, murderous deceits
Make Sam see the truth.
In the hospital, Sam was watching Bobby sitting moody and silent in his wheelchair for the third day running when Dean arrived, showing off x-ray pictures of his ribcage and sternum entirely covered with Enochian symbols. Castiel called Sam’s cell asking where they were and appeared at the hospital immediately after getting the answer, reminding them the symbols he’d carved into them made them invisible to all angels, including him. Hearing Cas, Bobby demanded the angel heal him, but Castiel said he was cut off from Heaven and had lost some of the power he formerly had. As Bobby turned away in disgust, Castiel told the brothers that although Dean’s plan to kill Lucifer was foolish and impossible, he knew someone other than Michael with the power to kill Lucifer, the same one who reincarnated him and translocated the boys from Lucifer’s prison to the airplane. Castiel said he was going in search of God. When Dean scoffed that God either wasn’t real or didn’t care, Castiel flared back in anger that he had killed two of his brother angels and rebelled, becoming hunted by Heaven, all for Dean, but Dean had failed and he and Sam had destroyed the world, meaning Castiel had lost everything for nothing.
Castiel admitted he needed something from them to help in his quest: a rare and powerful amulet that would burn hot in the presence of God. When Bobby said he didn’t have anything like that, Castiel indicated the amulet hanging around Dean’s neck, the one Sam had gotten from Bobby as a present for John but had given instead to Dean the Christmas he had learned the truth about the Winchester family business. Dean initially refused, but eventually, with great reluctance, loaned it to Castiel, ordering him not to lose it. Cas disappeared.
In the small town of River Pass, Colorado, hunter Rufus Tanner, trying to deal with a town apparently overrun by demons, used a satellite phone to call Bobby for help, and the brothers rode to the rescue. Arming up and walking in after finding the only bridge into town destroyed, they found the streets deserted but littered with the evidence of some massive, swift calamity: power lines down and still sparking, cars overturned on the road, one abandoned with its engine still running and radio playing, another with a baby carriage half under a wheel and blood on the street by the open driver’s door. Hearing a gun cock, they turned to see Ellen Harvelle confronting them. She tossed holy water in Dean’s face, and then led them to sanctuary in a church basement protected with salt lines and devil’s traps where a double handful of survivors had taken refuge. She welcomed them, then berated them for not having let her know Dean was alive. She explained that she’d been hunting with her daughter Jo when they got Rufus’s call that he was investigating omens and suddenly it seemed the whole town was possessed. She said they couldn’t find Rufus, and then she and Jo got separated. Sam observed that they had to get the people out to safety, but Ellen warned that they’d already made a run for it once and lost half their number. Sam advocated arming everyone in the group, since the more salt they could fire the more demons they could keep away, and Dean recalled having passed a sporting goods shop on the way into town. Dean tried to get Sam to stay with Ellen and start training the group, but Sam protested that it would be stupid for Dean alone to try to get guns and salt and look for Jo and Rufus. Sam realized that Dean didn’t want him going out among demons, but when Dean refused to admit it, Sam insisted on going.
At Sam’s insistence, they split up, with Dean going for the guns while Sam hit the local market for rock salt. While Sam was loading up, two teenage boys entered the store, and their eyes were demon-black. Surprising one putting drinks in his backpack, Sam attempted to speak an exorcism while they struggled, but had to resort to the knife as the fight went against him, killing them both. In the aftermath, he looked down at the blood on the blade and the floor and felt a powerful urge to drink it. Dean entered to see him standing there, the conflict plain on his face.
Back at the church, they taught the civilians how to handle guns, and Dean found they had one experienced soldier in their midst. Seeing Sam brooding, Dean asked what was wrong, and Sam shared his guilt and regret for having killed the possessed kids, saying he wished he could have saved them the way he did before – when, as Dean pointed out, he’d been hopped up on demon blood. Ellen announced that she was going out after Jo, and Sam volunteered to go with her. Dean tried to dissuade him and go in his place, and Sam realized that Dean was worried and didn’t trust him not to fall off the demon blood temperance wagon. When Dean responded to Sam’s challenge by asking if he would, Sam shoved him back hard in a fit of temper, and left with Ellen.
Ellen asked what was up between Sam and Dean, but Sam downplayed it as just the stresses of the job. Turning the questioning back on Ellen, he expressed surprise to find her hunting with Jo, after Ellen’s concern that Jo couldn’t do the job. Ellen agreed that Jo couldn’t, but said that since she would do it anyway, she would keep an eye on her. Sam spotted a chimney in use, and investigating the house, they saw an apparent gathering of demons, although since demons didn’t feel the cold, Sam wondered what they were burning. Before they could learn anything more, they were attacked by black-eyed people including Jo. Jo, struggling with Ellen, referred to her as a black-eyed bitch and told her to give her mom back. Ellen, puzzled, managed to knock Jo away. Sam shouted to Ellen to run, but before they could both escape, Rufus – also black-eyed – felled him, and Ellen fled alone back to the church.
Sam woke up bound to a chair with black-eyed Rufus in his face calling him an evil son of a bitch. Jo, also black-eyed, proceeded to douse him with holy water, and looked puzzled when he didn’t react. Rufus forced his mouth open with Jo’s help and started pouring in salt, speaking the exorcism ritual. Sam pleaded with them to stop and realize that something about this wasn’t right. In the doorway, he glimpsed Roger – one of the civilians from the church – smiling and fiddling with his ring, and then he looked up to see a devil’s trap painted on the ceiling above him. Rufus and Jo, looking at Sam and seeing him as black-eyed, wondered why their demon-banishing wasn’t working, even as he pleaded for them to listen to him.
Meanwhile, Ellen arrived back at the church alone. Realizing that Sam had been captured, Dean started automatically to go to his rescue, but with a roomful of scared people relying on him and looking to him for answers and help, forced himself to stop and think, to put a plan together. Ellen told him Jo was possessed and they had to get the demon out without hurting her, but went on to wonder why the thing inside Jo had called her a black-eyed bitch. She asked what kind of demons these were, that holy water and salt rolled right off, and observed Jo would have been wearing a charm against possession when she was taken. Deprived of the ability to call Bobby or Sam for help, Dean went back to basics and asked what had brought Rufus to town, whether there was a specific omen. The priest reported that the river had suddenly run polluted the previous Wednesday, and that the demon thing had begun the day after. The young veteran added that there had been a big shooting star the same night as the river. Dean recognized an omen straight out of the Book of Revelation, and pulled out a Bible to confirm it: Revelation chapter 8, verse 10. The priest identified the omen as a prelude to the four Horsemen of the apocalypse. Remembering seeing a cherry-red classic Mustang on his way into town, Dean asked which of the Horsemen rode a red horse, and the priest answered, War. Dean suggested that War could be messing with their heads, making the townsfolk think there were demons among them to make them turn on and kill each other, when there weren’t any demons present at all.
Sam, left alone with Roger, reached the same conclusion. War said that he hadn’t even needed to do much – take out a bridge, lay in a few hallucinations – and human fear and hate did the rest. He disclaimed responsibility, maintaining that people were vicious animals and didn’t need a reason to kill each other. He said that he just removed inhibitions. He slyly called Sam his poster boy, saying he could see inside Sam’s head and knew that ever since he’d killed what he thought were demons in the store, he’d been able to think of only one thing: blood. He said it was lust and power, same as always: that Sam wanted to be strong again, and not just strong, but stronger than everyone; and good intentions were a quick slide to Hell. Roger twiddled his ring, making it appear that he was bleeding, and then kicked over his chair and screamed for help, telling Rufus and Jo that Sam had done it and said that the demons were coming to pick them off.
Roger then showed up back at the church, saying he’d gone on a reconnaissance and seen that the demons were coming for them, to pick them off one by one. When Dean questioned him and tried to persuade the young soldier and others that this was not a demon thing, Roger winked at him and touched his ring again, and then pointed to Dean and Ellen, telling the others to look at their eyes, they were demons. Seeing the people react to the illusion and realizing that Roger was War, Dean hustled Ellen to escape.
Before leading the other civilians after them, the young soldier changed the ammunition loads in the guns from salt back to bullets and lead shot, saying that Dean and Ellen might have been demons all along, deceiving them into using the non-lethal loads. Rufus, meanwhile, was booby-trapping his sanctuary house with pipe bombs, reasoning that even demons resistant to salt and holy water wouldn’t move well in hosts with no limbs. Jo was reluctant, fearing to hurt her mother, but cooperated. When one of the bombs went off, they moved cautiously into the room to investigate, and Dean and Ellen attacked, trying to pin them down and force them to see the truth as they fought. Hearing Dean desperately urging him to think about the omens and realize that War was making him hallucinate, Rufus finally saw the black fade from Dean’s eyes.
The townspeople launched an attack on the house before the hunters could seek out War. Dean raced to release Sam, who pinpointed the ring as the thing War had used to make people see what he wanted them to see. Sam and Dean went after War while Rufus, Jo, and Ellen tried to prevent the townpeople from killing them and each other. Confronting War at his cherry Mustang, acknowledging that they couldn’t kill him, Dean held him pinned while Sam used the demon-killing knife to cut off his fingers. The ring fell along with the fingers, and just like that, War and the Mustang were gone, and the townspeople’s hallucinations and fear-induced rage vanished, leaving them sober and realizing the enormity of what they’d done.
Afterward, Dean looked at War’s ring and teasingly asked Sam if they would make a pit stop at Mount Doom. The moment’s lightness was short-lived as Sam, over Dean’s half-hearted protest, said he knew Dean didn’t trust him, but also realized that he didn’t trust himself. Admitting to how messed up he knew he was, he confessed the problem wasn’t the demon blood or Ruby, but him; how far he would go. He admitted he was scared of what was inside him, and was in no shape to be hunting. He said he needed to step back because he was dangerous, and hesitantly offered that they should go their separate ways. To his surprise and dismay, instead of fighting back, Dean quietly agreed with him, saying he was spending more time worrying about Sam than doing the job right, something he couldn’t afford now. Sam apologized, and Dean offered him the Impala. Sam declined, taking his pack and his bag out of the Impala and hitching a ride.
Commentary and Meta Analysis
I loved this episode. For all its pain and loss, for all that it hurt terribly to see the brothers decide to separate in the end, it was the mature and honest choice for both of them. They both need time for reflection, something the apocalypse is not likely to grant them in any significant amount, but something they couldn’t get at all if they continued in each other’s orbits while simultaneously trying to avoid the issues and the otherwise inevitable fights. The maturity in their sad agreement holds out the hope that after a period of self-adjustment, they’ll be positioned to fit back together again without chafing. Their concern for each other also says louder than any words that the love between them is undiminished despite the anger, the uncertainty, and the mutual sense of betrayal and mistrust.
My meta discussion this time around is going to focus on the development in and between the Winchester brothers, the nature of Supernatural’s version of the apocalypse, and Castiel’s position and quest for God.
I Was Expecting A Fight
Things are moving at a breakneck pace in the Supernatural universe. Good God, Y’All began mere days after the events of Sympathy For The Devil, and near as I can tell, no more than a week and odd days since the end of last season’s The Rapture. The Winchester brothers have had to deal with staggering blows and revelations on an almost daily basis with practically no time in between to process, share, and come to terms with them. We’ve been mulling these things over for months, picking at old scabs, but for Sam and Dean, they’re all raw and fresh and bleeding.
This episode was the brothers’ first hunt together since their brutal split in When The Levee Breaks. In the beginning, Dean was still trying to practice his usual avoidance while pretending everything was normal and would be fine, while Sam was still smarting from his brand-new awareness of Dean’s lack of trust and on the defensive about his own actions, frustrated that his apology and acknowledgment of his mistakes hadn’t been enough to restore the balance. This really came out in Dean’s reluctance to let Sam leave the church to confront demons and the temptations of his addiction both on their first foray and when Sam volunteered to go with Ellen, and in Sam’s frustrated anger response both times.
You don’t want me going out there.
I didn’t say that.
I didn’t say that!
Fine – then let’s go. ... I’ll get the salt. You get the guns.
We’ll go together.
Dean, it’s right there. Can we at least do this like professionals?
Oh, that’s right, I forgot: you think I’ll take one look at a demon and suddenly fall off the wagon, as if, after everything, I haven’t learned my lesson.
Well, have you?
[Shoving Dean hard back into the wall.] If you actually think I …!
Dean refused to be baited and fight, although he couldn’t resist a stab at irony when Sam’s reaction to killing the boys in the market was regret for not having the power to save them by puling the demons out of them. Sam reacted out of annoyance and anger at Dean’s consistent refusal to trust him. Only when War forced Sam to acknowledge how his own internal need to be strong and in control led to him rationalizing his decisions did Sam finally realize that his apologies to Dean and all his good intentions hadn’t ever addressed the real issue: the darkness within himself that had nothing to do with demon blood and everything to do with needing to be strong. Even with the physical symptoms of addiction removed, the lure of the blood remains because of the easy and assured way it answers Sam’s own psychological needs.
I think this all goes way back. All his life, Sam never felt strong and in control. We saw that most clearly in the flashbacks to his childhood in A Very Supernatural Christmas and After School Special, and we heard it in every frustration he raised about dealing with John in such episodes as Bugs, Nightmare, and Dead Man’s Blood. He was the son of a domineering father obsessed with the hunt who through his example tried to mold his sons in his own image. I’m not slamming John for that; I truly think he was trying to do the best he knew how to keep his sons safe in a supernaturally hostile and frightening world by giving them the discipline and skills to hunt and survive while he sought his revenge on the thing that killed Mary and threatened his family. The life they had wasn’t the one he had wanted to give them, but it was the best he could see. John wound up respected by other hunters even if he couldn’t be liked because he insisted on competence, on being the best he could be at what he was doing, and he demanded the same of his sons. In the process, and all without intent or understanding, he caused Dean to believe his worth was wholly dependent on his ability to follow orders and protect his brother, and he alienated Sam by denying him the chance to make his own decisions and choose a different path. I think John respected Sam’s intelligence and stubborn determination, but found them frustrating at the same time because they led Sam to question him in ways Dean – who never felt that same need for control – never did.
Sam has the same kind of driven personality as John did, but was never able to assert it fully until he defied John to go to Stanford. His few years of freedom came to an abrupt and shattering end when Jess died the same way that Mary did, even as he faced the uncertainty of discovering his scary and painful new visions and began to wonder what was wrong with him. Confronted by all that change, fear, and uncertainty, he fell back initially into the long-established patterns of his brother relationship with Dean and his conflicts with John. He’s been on a journey of self-discovery ever since, one complicated by learning in bits and pieces about the role Azazel had forged for him and how he’d been tampered with in pursuit of that end.
Sam’s quiet admission at the end of the episode demonstrated just how far he had come, and reinforced that he needs to take the next steps of his quest alone.
I know you don’t trust me. It’s just … now I realize something. I don’t trust me, either. From the minute I saw that blood, the only thought in my head … and, and I tell myself it’s for the right reasons, my intentions are good, and it feels true, you know? But I think, underneath, I just miss the feeling. I know how messed up that sounds, which means I know how messed up I am. The thing is, the problem’s not the demon blood, not really. I mean, what I did, I can’t blame the blood, or Ruby, or … anything. The problem’s me. How far I’ll go. There’s something in me that … scares the hell out of me, Dean. In the last couple days, I caught another glimpse.
So, what are you sayin’?
I’m in no shape to be hunting. I need to step back, ‘cause I’m dangerous. Maybe it’s best we just … go our separate ways.
Dean’s had his own similar epiphanies about the scary things at his core, about how far he’ll go and what he can become. He expressed it first in Devil’s Trap, after having killed first Meg and then her demon brother’s human host: Killing that guy, killing Meg – I didn’t hesitate, I didn’t even flinch. For you or Dad, the things I’m willing to do or kill, it’s just, uh – it scares me, sometimes. Later, after selling his soul to Hell, it got much, much worse: I enjoyed it, Sam. They took me off the rack and I tortured souls and I liked it. All those years, all that pain, finally getting to deal some out yourself – I didn’t care who they put in front of me. Because that pain I felt? It just slipped away. No matter how many people I save, I can’t change that. His warning to Castiel in On The Head Of A Pin that if they sent him in to torture Alastair, they wouldn’t like what came back out was his acknowledgment that, given the right circumstances, he could again become as much of a monster as any demon, simply by giving in to the ugly human weaknesses he’s done so much to bury again.
However, where Dean has had to face his own inner demons for a long time and acknowledge that they were always a part of him, Sam up to this point had only ever seen his darkness as something apart from himself, something alien that wasn’t really a part of him. He saw it instead as what Azazel had done to him in feeding him demon blood, and as what could come out of that if the demon blood took him over. There was no acknowledgment that his own human drives and needs, his own human personality, could make him, like Dean, as dark as any demon simply through his own choices. This is a new thing for Sam to confront. It’s part of what any addict has to face and work though as well: that it’s not the drugs or the alcohol that makes the addict, but the human drivers and needs within.
Even as Sam said it, he clearly expected Dean to react the way he always had in the past, to fight to reassure Sam that things would be all right and to keep Sam by his side. He was obviously surprised and disappointed – even though he clearly, genuinely meant what he said – when Dean didn’t resist. It must have felt like a rejection, even though it was only the third overt acknowledgment by Dean I can remember that Sam was and had to be his own man, fully capable of making his own choices and standing on his own. The first two came only after bitter fights: in Scarecrow, when Dean said he was proud of Sam for being his own man, and in Time Is On My Side, when Sam refused to accompany Dean after Bela and insisted on hunting Doc Benton on his own. This time, there was no fight, no anger between the brothers, and I think that is huge.
Dean allowing Sam to go off on his own and admitting that worrying about Sam was impeding his own duty as a hunter was a measure of just how far Dean has grown. Sam is still the single most important person in his life – witness how reluctant he was to take off the amulet, the symbol of Sam’s love he’s worn since Sam gave it to him when they were 8 and 12, and loan it to Castiel – but his eventual willingness to relinquish the amulet serves to show, I think, that he’s no longer defining himself and his own worth purely on his relationship to Sam, and that he can choose to put duty to a greater good ahead of his personal desires. His hard-fought, painful choice not to rush off immediately to Sam’s rescue but to formulate a plan for all the survivors shows how much he has grown as a leader and an independent man.
And the surest proof to Sam that Dean’s agreement was not rejection was this: Hey, do you, uh, want to take the Impala? That offer was as close to Dean saying, I love you, I do trust you, and I know you’ll come back as the elder Winchester brother could ever come.
In short (okay, sorry, in long), I think that this was a healthy and necessary decision on the part of both Winchesters, and that their agreement, however reluctant and sad, bodes well for their partnership being stronger than ever when they come back together after Sam wrestles down his demons and Dean learns to balance command obligations and personal feelings.
Wait, Just Back Up … It’s The Apocalypse?
I’m sure some people are disappointed that the apocalypse on display in Supernatural is not a big flash-bang, destruction of New York affair, but I think the budget limitations mandating what creator Eric Kripke has referred to teasingly as the “Walmart apocalypse” have actually made it better. The thought that the apocalypse isn’t an instantaneous thing but might be happening right now, heralded by natural disasters, wars, pandemics, climate change and the like, and we’re just not noticing, is scary. It makes us wonder about the people we’ve seen on street corners proclaiming that the end is near, and what it would mean if it really were true. What would we do differently, if we believed the world was coming to an end? Would we treat other people better, or try to save ourselves? It’s worth thinking about.
It also makes an excellent backdrop to the story of the Winchester brothers. Big, blazing, high-speed, effects-ridden stories of overwhelming destruction wouldn’t have room for the depth of character development that makes this show so addictive and so real. Keeping the immediate stories of the apocalypse small and focused enough for the Winchester brothers and their allies to be front and center makes what happens to them matter. It’s hard for us to encompass and thus to care passionately about millions of anonymous people caught in some overwhelming, distant disaster; it’s hard not to care about seeing someone we know and love, like Bobby, suffering both immediate and long-lasting consequences from being on the front lines in the war against evil. Personalizing conflict and tragedy makes it more real and meaningful to us, because we can see ourselves and our families and friends in it; it’s the way we’re wired. So keeping the main stage stories small and intimate makes them more emotionally powerful than the big blockbuster style of storytelling could ever be. Even something epic like The Lord of the Rings succeeds because it draws you into the lives of a few key people and follows them through the larger events; it’s the impacts on those few that matter.
Another part of this is that the Winchesters have always driven just a few degrees off reality, but still in clear sight of the world we live in. That’s been one of their attractions. It’s very easy to suspend disbelief for those few degrees when the rest stays on track.
Somehow, I don’t believe that the series will end with the literal end of the world. My personal suspicion – and I have nothing but my own imagination to base this on, so this is in no way, shape, or form a spoiler – is that the brothers Winchester will ultimately be instrumental in putting the genie back in the bottle and stopping the apocalypse before things reach the point of no return. I would bet that the season and eventually the series will end with the world continuing much as it is now, with most people other than those directly affected – like the survivors of River Pass – unaware that the end was averted or postponed by the efforts and sacrifices of the Winchesters and others, and with hunters still needing to hold the line against the supernatural evils still threatening humanity. In other words, I expect Supernatural to stay only the same few degrees off the world we all live in as it has always been, and in so doing, to stay as relevant to our understanding of human nature and the importance of human choice and acceptance of responsibility as it has done so far.
And that would be a lot harder to do if it blew up New York, wiped California off the map with an earthquake, or sank Florida, all in the name of a quick and dirty apocalypse.
I’m Gonna Find God
Castiel was a fascinating addition to the series last season, and his continuing journey promises to be equally compelling. When we first met Castiel, his confidence, faith, obedience, and unwavering dedication to God were the keystones of his character. As the season developed, so did Castiel. His connection with Dean and increasing exposure to humanity began to make him question his certainty and his orders. After being chastised by his superiors for getting too close to his human charge, he retreated from that emotional connection, but as his orders and his superiors’ actions continued to diverge from what his conscience told him was right, he began to question again. Ultimately, he defied Zachariah, helped Dean escape, and then sent Dean to stop Sam while he himself tried to buy time and hold off the archangel.
The new Castiel, resurrected after being destroyed by the archangel guarding Chuck, is very different. In many ways, he’s like our first view of him in terms of his once again absolute belief in God and in his fierce and competent warrior demeanor, but at the same time, he’s become much less angelic and more human, although I don’t believe he realizes it yet. He blamed his rebellion, his exile from heaven, his loss of power, and his choice to kill other angels directly on Dean and Dean’s failure to stop Sam from killing Lilith and thus opening the final seal triggering the apocalypse. That’s an emotional reaction, not a rational one, and based on what we’ve seen and heard of angels, they’re more rational than emotional. Castiel isn’t being rational.
If Castiel were being rational and angelic, he would have to own up to the role he played in all of this. His gradual loss of faith in his superiors was due not to Dean’s influence nearly so much as to his realization that his orders increasingly didn’t track with what he perceived to be good, to reflect the will of God. It took both Anna and Dean to force him to admit that saying he couldn’t fully know the will of God didn’t exempt him for recognizing when a choice was evil and wrong. He finally had to decide that obeying orders he could feel were wrong was unacceptable; that being under orders didn’t absolve him of culpability for executing orders that weren’t right. For as long as he just did as he was told despite his doubts, he was responsible for the results of his actions – and those results included aspects of the deepening estrangement between Sam and Dean and the actions they took in ignorance because he didn’t tell them the truth when he learned it.
It’s unclear precisely when Castiel learned the full truth of Zachariah’s plans and realized that his angelic superiors intended to bring on the apocalypse by priming Sam to kill Lilith, and to choose when to terminate it by holding Dean in reserve against Lucifer until they felt the moment was right. Castiel definitely learned at least part of the truth well before he shared it with Dean, however, and that delay undoubtedly played a large part in Dean’s failure to stop Sam.
At the moment, however, Castiel is feeling his exile and his loss, and he’s doing a very human thing; he’s finding someone else to blame for it in order to lessen his own guilt. Dean was the catalyst for his change, and thus became the target for his emotional transference. Along the way, however, I think he’s going to take a tumble off his high horse, because he’s going to have to confront his own culpability and take responsibility for his own choices. He never killed another angel until after Dean had failed to avert the apocalypse, so saying that he did it for Dean and then Dean failed him is a blatant lie.
Castiel’s search for God is as much metaphor as literal, I think. His conviction that God resurrected him and transported the Winchester brothers to safety isn’t based on direct knowledge, but on faith – but Castiel’s faith was sorely tested last season and the discovery that his superiors had misled him for their own purposes has left him with no one he trusts to interpret the will of God. His search for meaning and validation will, I think, lead him to a better understanding of both humans and himself – and part of that will require him to rethink his angry outburst of blame to Dean. I suspect he won’t get anywhere close to God until he first becomes honest with himself, and realizes that he’s searching for redemption for his own failures.
I have some issues and questions concerning this episode, but they pale in comparison to the depth of my respect for what Sera Gamble, Jared Padalecki, Jensen Ackles, Phil Sgriccia, and the entire production crew achieved in it.
Okay: let’s get the quibbles out of the way first. I loved seeing Ellen, Jo, and Rufus again. My only issue is that I wished we’d gotten more of them, particularly interactions between Jo and the boys. It’s unclear how much the rest of the hunting community knows about Sam and Dean. That Dean died and went to Hell seems to have made the rounds, but that he’s back and how his return was achieved is much less obvious. Do other hunters know that angels are walking the Earth again, but not necessarily to the benefit of humans? Similarly, there’s no acknowledgment yet that other hunters know anything either about what Sam learned to do with his mind or how he did it. I’m curious to see what fallout happens when all of that hits the fan. And that’s all not going anywhere close the whole business about breaking seals.
But on the more personal level, I strongly wish we could have seen some hanging relationships developed further. The last time we saw Jo was Born Under A Bad Sign, when she was brutalized by possessed Sam, did battlefield surgery on Dean, and got left behind with the sad realization that Dean never would call, not the way she had once wished. Admittedly, this meeting was in the middle of a war zone and things happened fast, but I’d still have liked to see more of these characters reconnecting once the fight was over. I’d also like to know why Ellen still thinks Jo couldn’t cut it as a hunter, if that’s anything more than a mother’s protectiveness. I suspect these bits were a casualty of time and the necessary focus and pacing for the episode. If there were scenes written that actually did get shot and then wound up cut, though, I hope they turn up as extras on the DVDs.
With regard to War, I loved his personalization, but really wondered about making his hallucinatory powers dependent on a device. The Lord Of The Rings shout-out amused me no end, but – defeating War, even temporarily, by depriving him of a magic ring? Not so much. War reminded me a lot of the Trickster in terms of his reality manipulation abilities and in the apparent impossibility of a human being able to kill him. I understand that there had to be a way for the humans in the tale to triumph over the Horseman, at least if we’re going to believe that humanity has any chance to defend itself against the enormity of Armageddon, but the ring thing just felt … weak. And contrived. Are the other Horsemen going to be similarly equipped with devices on which they rely, such that figuring out the device and depriving them of it is going to be the way to defeat them? That feels lame compared to the power they’re supposed to have. And now that Dean has War’s ring, I have to wonder what will become of it and its power, assuming that it could be used by anyone other than a Horseman. Will there be a temptation to use the device for good ends, to parallel Sam’s struggle concerning using his powers? I think that’s an obvious anvil the show is likely to avoid, but I may be wrong and there may be more to it.
Turning Dean’s amulet into a direction finder for God was fun and delightful on the one hand, and problematic on the other. The fun part is that fans have been asking about the meaning and power of the amulet ever since we first saw it. Learning in A Very Supernatural Christmas that Dean always wears it because it was a heartfelt gift from Sam, one originally intended for John but given to Dean instead, made it special with nothing else needed. Having it turn out to possess a virtue that no one ever suspected, when in all likelihood Bobby provided it to Sam with an assurance that it was special when he believed nothing of the kind just to make Sam feel good about having a gift to give his Dad, is amusing and sweet. However, having it turn out to be the means to find God, which not-so-coincidentally wound up in the possession of the two brothers manipulated by angels and demons to become the prophesied tools of fate and the apocalypse smacks uncomfortably of predestination for a show so committed to lauding free will and human choice. I’m just saying …
Finally, I had a little problem with Roger being able to slip out of the church basement with no one noticing and no one the wiser. That room seemed to have only one door, barricaded and guarded, but no one ever noticed Roger leaving? Okay, you could argue that his hallucinatory powers befuddled them, but it made me stumble both when I saw him in the doorway smiling at Sam and when he returned to the church claiming to have seen the demons coming to attack and no one – not even Dean or Ellen – was caught by the inconsistency of never having noticed him leaving. Took a really long bathroom break? Whatever.
But all of those are teensy little nitpicks. I thought Sera Gamble’s script rocked as hard as the music Phil Sgriccia managed to insert. The dialogue left us understanding more than the words said about the situations and feelings not only of Sam and Dean, but of Bobby and Castiel, and I doff my hat to the psychological depth on display. Jared Padalecki took the words and made them Sam’s own, and inhabited the moment perfectly. Sam’s defensive reaction to realizing just how much Dean doesn’t trust him; his temptation by the blood; his attempts with both Dean and War to deny his feelings, and then confronting them; everything up to and through his final exchange with Dean and his sad stroking of the Impala as he left was a pitch-perfect and multi-layered effort by Jared. He must have been wiped by the end of every shooting day, given what he was putting into this.
Jensen Ackles as Dean was a match. The evasiveness of his eye contact with Sam until he had to connect and say the things that hurt them both; watching him automatically leap to rescue Sam and then force himself to stop and think, consciously putting the needs of the many ahead of the needs of the one for the first time in his life; seeing him not fight even though Sam clearly expected and wanted him to – again, this was a complex and real depiction of a very human man growing and changing, and I thought Jensen nailed it.
Jim Beaver as Bobby is being given the chance to build on his already solid foundations for the character. It’s clear from the events of this episode that there won’t be any quick fix for Bobby’s legs, and that means a serious challenge for Bobby’s spirit. We saw Bobby’s bitterness and despondency and have to wonder what those will mean for his continuing relationship with the Winchester brothers, with all of them knowing he wound up crippled precisely because of his love for and affiliation with them. But we also saw something else that seems the key to his character; his need to respond to help others. When Castiel spoke about the amulet, Bobby’s mind was engaged; when Rufus called to ask for help, his own problems were suddenly the least of Bobby’s concerns. I think Bobby, fully as much as the Winchesters, is driven to help others, and that need to help will prompt him to find ways to keep fighting despite what he’s lost. I look forward to seeing what Jim Beaver will do with Bobby as this story line continues.
Phil Sgriccia keeps action in context really well. Any fight scene he shoots, you can follow. In this episode, that was a combination of his direction and Tom McQuade’s editing. I loved the brothers’ arrival at the town, with the time and attention given to their walk down the street, building the creepy eeriness of a place so strangely and forebodingly desolate on such a bright, sunny, normal day. The contrast was all the more pronounced for the town having been decorated for a celebration, welcoming guests to its “Pioneer Days.” Phil is the producer and director I most associate with the perfection of music use in the show (could anyone forget his use of Styx’s “Renegade” in Nightshifter, including the way he extended the intro to encompass Dean’s final line?), and this episode was a sterling example. Foreigner’s “Long, Long Way From Home” was dead-on for the recap, and not only have I been waiting to hear Norman Greenbaum’s “Spirit In The Sky” in the show, but the transition from music cue to having it be the song playing on the car radio was sheer brilliance.
I also loved the way the script, blocking, and direction combined to emphasize the brothers being closer together emotionally and spiritually than last season even while consciously moving them physically further apart. Despite the friction between them, the brothers had a hunting synergy that was missing all last season: albeit with some irritation, they listened to and fed off of each other’s ideas while together, they independently assembled the slightly different information available to them to reach the same conclusion about their adversary while apart, and they even had a brief simultaneous line delivery. Their accord in taking on War at the end was seamless and without the need for words, much as their uniting to kill Ruby had been in Lucifer Rising.
The final scene called back strongly and I think deliberately to the closing scene of Children Shouldn’t Play With Dead Things. The majestic natural surroundings were the backdrop for an intensely personal revelation that should have seemed small and insignificant in comparison to the expansive sweep of the world, but at the same time, spoke to en emptiness as big and enormously consequential as that world: the utter and complete inability to help someone you love deal with something overwhelming inside himself. In Children, Sam wasn’t able to do anything to help Dean deal with his survivor guilt and absence of self-worth other than sit beside him in silence; in Good God, Y’All, Dean wasn’t able to do anything to help Sam find his inner balance other than give him sad but loving leave to go and find himself. In Children, emphasizing being together but still apart, the brothers sat side by side on the symbol most closely associated with Dean; in Good God, emphasizing being apart but still together, they sat across the width of a table, directly facing each other and their problems, and Sam touched the Impala in farewell in lieu of touching Dean.
The production crew get a major shout-out from me for this episode. They always do a brilliant job, but it’s usually so seamless that it draws no attention to itself and thus gets overlooked. This time, though, logic says that even a location scouting team as skilled as Supernatural’s Russ Hamilton and his crew couldn’t have found a bridge so perfectly destroyed as the one we saw in the show just in time to use it for shooting, and constructing what we saw would have taken the entire design budget. That means that bridge was computer generated – at least the destroyed part of it was – but nothing except logic gave that away. That kind of subtle special effects work, not being as flashy or obvious as explosions and light effects, usually escapes notice, but I couldn’t miss it this time. Wow! And double-wow for reinforcing the reality by having Jensen/Dean kick a stone over the destroyed edge. That was perfect. I also appreciated the attention to detail in the lack of flashy special effects when Sam used the knife on the two teenagers. We didn’t see the usual fire-flare we associate with the knife killing demons, which was a major clue to the boys not actually having been possessed. And coloring all those actors’ eyes demon-black when they needed to be was an effort on the scale of the storming of the police station in Jus In Bello. The logistics behind having the Supernatural shooting crew essentially take over the entire small town of Matsqui Village in Abbotsford for the time it took to prep and shoot the scenes in the streets and yards boggle the mind.
There were a couple of in-joke funnies to enjoy, too, like the banner over the street proclaiming co-producer and production designer Jerry Wanek as Grand Marshall for the town’s Pioneer Days events. I don’t know what behind-the-scenes role Lee Lee Laschuk plays that got her named as Rodeo Queen – I haven’t seen her name in credits – but I really hope that somebody in the production department cues us in! My hat is also off to the art department folks for the x-rays of Dean’s sternum and ribs: someone really did their homework, to use real Enochian symbols in all that dense profusion!
I delighted in the work done by the guest actors on this episode. Samantha Ferris as Ellen, Alona Tal as Jo, and Steven Williams as Rufus felt like old friends. Titus Welliver as Roger/War was superb! Given the insidious way War apparently operates, we may not see him played by Welliver the next time out of the box – he’ll likely have moved on to a new disguise appropriate to his new circumstances, much like a demon jumping hosts – but if there’s a logic to keeping Welliver’s appearance, I hope we’ll get the chance to see him again. The others I thought particularly good were Shawn Roberts, who played the young veteran, and Michael Bean, who played the priest.
The title of this episode caught me precisely because I’d used the Edwin Starr song it came from in the soundtrack of a short story I wrote during the countdown to the new season. War! – ugh, good God, y’all, what is it good for? Absolutely nothin’! In this episode, though, that proved not to be true. War was indeed good for something: he made Sam see things he’d been hiding from himself, and that opened the door to healing the breach between the brothers.
But the price was high, and it hasn’t been fully paid yet.