Wraith marinating mad brains
Spices Sam and Dean.
Susan, a patient at the Glenwood Springs Psychiatric Hospital in Ketchum, Oklahoma, refused her sedating medications because she was afraid the monster that killed her roommate was coming for her. Her psychiatrist, Dr. Fuller, suggested she had conjured up a monster to deny the tragedy of her roommate’s suicide. That night, she saw the screws fall out of the vent in her ceiling, and screamed for help. When the nursing staff, who had dismissed her screams as the usual nighttime disturbance, opened her door, they found her dead on the floor, her wrists slit.
The brothers were summoned by a former hunter in the hospital, Martin Creaser, who had known them as children and had saved John’s life many times, and Sam insisted they take the case. Traumatized by the horror of a hunt gone bad, Martin had voluntarily committed himself. Sam and Dean got themselves admitted by speaking the simple truth about hunting monsters and having begun the apocalypse. The cheery nurse who examined them was embarrassingly thorough about all the details, including a body cavity search. Once inside, Sam admitted he’d wanted to take the hunt to keep them busy because he was worried about the way Dean had closed himself off in the couple of weeks since Ellen’s and Jo’s deaths rather than sharing and dealing with his grief. Sam protested that Dean couldn’t keep all that emotion in, while Dean insisted on doing it.
Martin welcomed them, but confessed he didn’t have any real idea what they were hunting. He said there had been five deaths in four months, all said to be suicides, but admitted he hadn’t gotten a look at the bodies because he couldn’t bear to go near dead bodies any more. He said some patients had reported seeing something, but not being able to give a description. Before they could ask more questions, Dr. Fuller suggested Sam and Martin join in a group therapy session, telling Dean he would be placed in the afternoon group instead. The doctor observed that the brothers’ relationship appeared dangerously co-dependent and theorized they would benefit from some time apart.
In the group session, another patient, Ted, who had seen Susan pulled screaming away from her door, insisted on talking about the monster hunting the patients. Another patient said she had seen it too, describing a lobster-clawed alien. Dr. Fuller redirected the conversation, maintaining there were no such things as monsters.
In the day room, Dean – playing checkers with himself – was interviewed by the clever and pretty Dr. Erica Cartwright. Joking with his Hannibal Lector impersonation, Dean and the doctor engaged in a mutual question and answer session, with the doctor asking questions about Dean – how much he slept, how many drinks he had in a week, when was the last time he’d been in a long-term relationship, and then talking about his father – while Dean mentioned the suicides and asked questions about sulfur, cold spots, or other strange things to help define whether the monster in the asylum might be demonic, a ghost, or something else. He continued to use the simple truth as his justification – that he hunted monsters, and was hunting one here – and answered her questions with the truth, at least until she brought up John.
Reunited after their separate encounters, the brothers planned to visit Ted and talk about what he’d seen. They were interrupted by another patient, Wendy, who proceeded to kiss Dean ardently by way of introduction, and then walked off. Dean started to reconsider his opinion of the hospital, while Sam protested that he couldn’t hit on an inmate.
Meeting again after dark, using improvised lockpicks to escape their rooms during the short period while the nurses would be on their rounds, they went to question Ted, only to hear him scream and see him pulled up and back from the door. In the moments it took Sam to pick the lock, with Dean pressing him to hurry and Sam snapping irritably at the implied criticism, Ted was killed: they opened the door to find him hanging by the neck from a pipe on the ceiling.
Still later, the brothers investigated Ted’s body in the morgue. Feeling his neck, Sam discovered a puncture wound, and inserted a probe to discover that the hole penetrated all the way into his brain. With Dean keeping watch outside the morgue, Sam used a bone saw to slice open Ted’s skull, discovering his brain desiccated and shrunken to a fraction of its proper size. Alerted to someone coming, they got the body back into its drawer and the evidence of their work hidden just as the perky nurse walked in, asking them what they were doing there. At a loss for explanation, Dean opted for a demonstration of insanity, dropping his pants and jiggling his dangly bits while crowing, “Pudding!” The nurse ushered them back to the ward.
The next morning, when the brothers described what they’d found to Martin, the older hunter showed them his journal and guessed they were up against a wraith, a creature that fed on brain juice. He told them even the touch of silver would burn its skin, but warned a wraith could pass for human, its true appearance revealed only by looking at it in a mirror. They split up with Sam going in search of silver for weapons and Dean stationing himself where he could see two corridors and the day room in a mirror, scanning everyone who passed by. Dr. Cartwright asked what he was doing, and he told her the truth. When she asked why he had to hunt monsters, he first made the joke he couldn’t find anybody else that dumb, but added that it was his job, because someone had to save people. She asked if there was a quota of how many people he had to save, and he told her he had to save everyone. He explained it was the end of the world, the apocalypse, and if he didn’t stop it and save everyone, then no one would and everyone would die. She responded with genuine compassion that it had to be horrible, the weight of the sense that six billion people were depending on him, and asked how he could get up in the morning. Dr. Fuller walked by with a friendly greeting, and Dean saw the wraith in his reflection in the mirror.
That night, amorous Wendy bypassed Dean to kiss Sam instead, saying she wanted him now because he was larger, and then walked away again. Sam equipped himself, Dean, and Martin with silver-plated letter openers he had found on the desks of various nurses’ stations. After lights out, Dean and Sam split up and went hunting Dr. Fuller while Martin maintained that he was useless and couldn’t help. Sam saw the doctor and attacked, cutting his arm, but wound up in a fight with two orderlies. With brutal efficiency, Sam disabled both orderlies and went after the doctor again, stopping only when Martin caught his arm at the last minute, urgently pointing out that the doctor’s skin wasn’t burning where he’d been cut. He wasn’t the wraith.
Later, Dean picked the lock on Sam’s room to find him drugged. In a moment of clarity between bouts of drug-induced silliness, Sam warned that the doctor wasn’t the wraith. Dean agreed he’d made a mistake although he couldn’t understand it, because he’d seen the wraith in the mirror. Stripped of his usual inhibitions, Sam wondered out loud if Dean was going crazy for real and seeing things, saying he’d been at least half-crazy for a long time, at least since he came back from Hell. Dean insisted he’d made a mistake but said he would find the thing, and Sam, surfing on the drugs, told him it was okay because Dean was his brother and he still loved him.
The next day, Dean encountered Dr. Cartwright in the corridor. When she mentioned that he’d missed their session and asked if he was still hunting, he snapped that people were dying and she should leave him alone to do his job and save lives. When she said it wasn’t her life she was worried about, he insisted that he was fine. She replied that even he couldn’t believe that, because all the pressure and guilt he was putting himself under was killing him. She warned him that he couldn’t save everybody – and then remarked snidely that these days, he couldn’t save anyone, that he got Ellen and Jo killed, shot Lucifer but couldn’t destroy him, couldn’t stop Sam from killing Lilith, and broke the first seal. She ridiculed him, asking how he could possibly think he could beat the devil when all he did was fail, and proclaimed the world would burn and there was nothing he could do about it. When he asked her who she was, a nearby orderly told him to settle down and said there was no one there. The image of the doctor said she was in his head and he was going crazy, and then disappeared. Walking away, frightened and unnerved, Dean saw every person he passed reflected in mirrors or glass, and all of their reflections looked like wraiths. Fleeing from them, he found his path blocked by a locked door, and curled in on himself.
That evening, Dr. Fuller visited Sam, who apologized for attacking him and tried to persuade the doctor that he’d come to realize there were no such things as monsters. The doctor said monsters were the least of his problems, compared with the anger and rage inside him. He said Sam had been barely human when he attacked, like a man possessed. Sam begged for a second chance, and the doctor told Sam he’d be allowed to go to the day room, but any further outburst would see him transferred to a facility geared toward handling violent inmates. In the day room, Sam encountered Dean, who told him the problem had always been him – not the demon blood, but Sam’s own arrogance and lies. Sam found himself surrounded by other inmates accusing him, saying they were all going to die because of him. Sam began trying to shove them away, taking wild swings – but there was no one around him, and the orderlies ran in to subdue him as he punched and fought the air. The real Dean, much different from Sam’s hallucination of him, sat at an out-of-the way table, trembling and asking what was going on.
After lights-out, Dean broke into Martin’s room, babbling about going crazy and seeing things, and saying Sam was in lockdown because he’d gone crazy, too. Still trying to make hunter sense of his insanity, Dean asked Martin if the wraith might not only feed on madness, but also induce it, because while he and Sam might someday go crazy from all they’d experienced, it didn’t make sense they’d both succumb in the same day. With Martin’s help grounding him to reality, Dean theorized Wendy as the wraith, reasoning she could have infected both of them through her kiss, like the siren in Sex and Violence. With Dean clearly unable to function on his own, Martin went with him to Wendy’s room. Hearing a scream, they broke in to find the wraith in the form of the cheerful nurse feeding on Wendy through a spike that had emerged from her wrist. With Dean handicapped by fighting through burgeoning madness and Martin through fear, Martin still managed to slash a cut across the wraith’s palm and she retreated, cradling the burning wound. In the corridor, she told two orderlies she’d been attacked by two inmates in Wendy’s room, and then went to the room where Sam was confined. He saw her image in the mirror, and she teased him about hunters not living up to their reputation. She said all it had taken was a touch to infect them. Telling him that crazy brains tasted best, she denied responsibility for his situation, telling him the anger was all his and all she had done was crank up what was already there.
In Wendy’s room, Martin realized Wendy was still alive despite her slit wrists and the wraith feeding. He ordered Dean to go after the wraith while he tried to save Wendy, and attacked the orderlies to buy Dean time. Following the trail of blood drops from the wraith’s injured hand, Dean staggered through warped perception until he found her in the lockdown room about to feed on Sam. Despite admitting he didn’t think things would go well, Dean attacked anyway, touting being crazy. The wraith disarmed and pinned him, extending her feeding spike, and he broke it off. She back away, hurt and screaming, and he killed her with the silver letter opener. With her death, the madness passed off. He freed Sam and they ran from the hospital as the alarms went off.
Reaching the empty lane where they’d hidden the Impala, Sam hesitated, admitting the wraith was right. He said most of the time he could hide it, but he was mad at everything all the time and didn’t know why. He admitted that Ruby, Lilith, and the demon blood had all been excuses, but the anger was inside him. Dean told him to stop, asking what it mattered, whether Sam was going to take a leave of absence or say yes to Lucifer or what. He told Sam to take all that crap and bury it, forget about it, because that’s how they kept going and didn’t end up like Martin. He asked – even begged – whether Sam was with him, and with hesitation, Sam agreed. They got in the car and drove off.
Commentary and Meta Analysis
When this episode ended, I initially felt disappointed because I hadn’t learned anything new about the boys, they hadn’t really confronted the divisive issues between them, and the script suffered from myriad typical horror genre weaknesses. As I started working on this commentary, however, I began to regard the episode more and more favorably as I realized that while I hadn’t learned anything new, Sam and Dean did realize things they hadn’t consciously acknowledged before, things they needed to face in order to move on, and what they learned was both consistent with who they are and something that, although they experienced it separately, brought them together. This discussion is going to examine what the boys learned and the fundamental personality differences between them that affect how they process and react to it.
How Do You Get Up In The Morning?
In his interviews with Dr. Cartwright – and it really doesn’t matter whether they were all hallucinations, or whether the first two might have been real, because the effect on Dean is the same – Dean admitted his reality (his inability to sleep, his excessive drinking, his lack of human relationships), acknowledged his beliefs (he has to save everyone, no one else will if he doesn’t, the welfare of the world is his responsibility), and faced his perceptions (he always fails, he can’t save anyone, and the end of the world is his fault). We’ve known about all these things for a long time, but for Dean to put them on the table and actually look at them openly was a rare experience. For him to share any part of them with anyone but Sam or Bobby – even if it turned out the person he thought he shared them with wasn’t entirely real – is a significant new step.
We’ve known about Dean’s hero complex from the beginning of the series. The drive and positive need to save people has been part of his character from the start: remember his talk with Sam about the family business in Wendigo, and his quiet depression at the end of Dead In The Water because he hadn’t been able to save everyone. We’ve also known about his perceived lack of self-worth and his accompanying self-sacrificial tendencies for most of that time: remember his doppelganger’s declarations in Skin about everyone leaving him and his own belief in Faith that he didn’t deserve to be saved, especially not in preference to anyone else. His sublimation of all of his own desires to his father’s mission was constantly on display from the pilot on, and was specifically discussed in such episodes as Asylum, Something Wicked, Shadow, and Devil’s Trap. John’s loss and Dean’s grief and guilt over it colored all of season two, especially in Children Shouldn’t Play With Dead Things and Crossroad Blues. His self-abnegation and self-worth issues were rooted in his relationship with John, fed on his boyhood fear, after his mother died and his brother was placed in his charge, that he wouldn’t measure up to being what his father and brother needed and expected him to be, and would wind up abandoned and alone because he’d let them down.
We saw Dean finally starting to face and deal with both his self-esteem and father issues in season three, especially in Dream A Little Dream Of Me when he finally asserted to himself his right to live and acknowledged his staunch care of Sam, and let his rage at John off the leash. He’s continued to quietly process his relationship with John in the background since then – witness his reactions in such episodes as Jump The Shark and Fallen Idols – with the result that his attitude concerning his relationship with his father is now a healthier and adult one. He’s learned to acknowledge John’s very human failings and excesses – including the mistakes John made concerning all of his sons – without losing his essential love and respect for his father.
Dean’s self-worth issues, however, got decidedly worse after his sentence in Hell, exacerbated by his realization not only that he broke and took pleasure in torturing others to escape his own pain (and therefore believes he didn’t measure up to John, after what Alistair told him in On The Head Of A Pin), but that his breaking began the apocalypse. Because of that, it’s not just the actual memories of Hell that rob him of sleep and drive him to seek oblivion in booze: it’s what those memories mean to him in terms of his own perceived weakness, failure, guilt, and shame. Combine that with the expectation placed on him now by the angels that defeating Lucifer and thus ending the apocalypse is his responsibility, and the weight is crushing. Those memories and self-critical perceptions fed his downward spiral throughout season four and reinforced Sam’s sense that Dean was different, fragile, emotionally crippled by his experience in Hell. Sam’s apparent criticism and seeming condescension, in turn, further contributed to Dean’s self-defeating belief in his own worthlessness. That was a vicious spiral only broken in the end by the combination of Dean’s essential love for Sam, commitment to saving people, and stubborn refusal to give in to Zachariah as he’d surrendered to Alastair. Although in Lucifer Rising Dean failed to prevent Sam from unwittingly freeing Lucifer, he successfully rededicated himself to the family business, and began the long, slow climb out of despair.
We haven’t directly seen Dean’s broken sleep and heavy drinking this season as we did throughout season four, but that may simply be due to the nature of this season’s stories having given us few glimpses of sleepy-time domestic moments with the brothers. We did get hints in The End that these behaviors continued when Dean told Castiel that he needed to get at least four hours of sleep once in a while, and snagged a beer out of the fridge at 4 AM when Sam’s call woke him. However, exigency clearly overrode any tendency to dwell on his own problems and self-worth issues. All this season, we’ve seen Dean committed to confronting the problems of others and the concerns of the larger impact of the apocalypse. He’s been focused on stepping up to the plate to lead humanity in the fight against the forces of Hell – witness his actions as a team commander in Good God, Y’All and Abandon All Hope, for example – and that has left no time to wallow in his own morass of grief and guilt.
I mentioned earlier that it didn’t really matter whether Dean’s early encounters with Dr. Cartwright were real or not, because their effect on him was what mattered. With that understood, however, I will say I believe his first two encounters were real, not hallucinatory. I may very well be wrong, and we won’t know the answer for certain unless the truth comes out in an interview with Kripke or the writers, but I’ll explain my reasons. The first interview evidently happened not all that long after the brothers were infected by the wraith. Since their symptoms seemed to become progressively worse over time, I don’t think Dean would have experienced a full-blown hallucination so early on. I also don’t think a hallucination woven by his mind would have called him by the diagnostic terms the doctor used. Paranoid schizophrenic, yes – but suffering from narcissistic personality disorder and religious psychosis? Not so much. Prior to the doctor’s approach, he seemed perfectly content to play at being crazy as he played checkers with himself; opening the door to analysis was uncomfortable and risky, and not something I think his subconscious would have engineered without prompting. He was clearly still thinking about the conversation afterward when he encountered Sam in the hall, and was disturbed by the whole experience.
The second interview – the one conducted while Dean watched people passing in the mirror – also felt real to me, mostly because the doctor offered compassion Dean has never been inclined to grant himself. Dean was forthright about admitting he believed he had to save everyone, saying if he didn’t do it, no one would, and everyone would die in the apocalypse. Her response about it being a crushing weight to bear, feeling that six billion lives depended on him, and her question about how he got up in the morning facing that burden was not just a recognition that the mission was an impossible one, but an offer of understanding that no one could assign blame or guilt for the failure to fulfill it. Dean can’t cut himself that kind of slack, so I don’t see him hallucinating this form of expiation for his perceived sins. The third session, the definitely hallucinatory one, demonstrated that clearly, with the unreal image of the doctor speaking all the things that Dean has always said of himself within his own mind: that he’s a failure, that he can’t save anyone, and that it’s all his fault. I found the doctor’s physical resemblance to Meg’s current vessel eerily discomfiting in that scene given the way her lines echoed things Meg told him. Those accusations were Dean typically chastising himself; in part, that’s why I believe the earlier compassion came from an external source.
But whether the doctor was real or not, I hope her observations and compassion in their first two encounters help Dean realize how inhumanly impossible his personal expectations are. He needs to acknowledge his own human limits and accept not being responsible for everything. He needs to stop taking on the guilt for consequences from the choices and actions of others, or he’ll destroy himself and lose the ability to do anything. Watching him, with Martin’s help, fight his way through his hallucinations and crippling self-doubt to fight and kill the wraith was encouraging. Now he needs to take the lessons he learned to heart as he progresses to the bigger fight.
I’m Mad All The Time, And I Don’t Know Why
Sam and Dean have always processed and dealt with things differently; it’s part of their innate personality structures. I think Sam’s pervasive, underlying anger is a sterling example of that difference, and I believe it derives from the way he perceives the world and its relationship to him. I don’t for a minute believe his anger is a result of infection from the demon blood Azazel fed him as a baby; I think it’s innate to him. I’m surprised he never consciously noticed it before, given the way he’s always been inclined to pick apart and analyze things, but then again, how many of us not in therapy or studying psychology actually turn that logical lens of critical inspection on ourselves? Sam finally realizing and admitting his anger, his lack of understanding concerning its source, and the way it makes him vulnerable to bad decision-making is a huge positive step.
We’ve had examples of Sam’s flash-fire temper throughout the series, beginning with his seething impatience and frustration in Wendigo and Dead In The Water. We learned right from the pilot that Sam and John had butted heads all of Sam’s life. The violence of Sam’s rage was on display not just in Asylum, where the doctor’s ghost artificially incited it, but whenever his frustration boiled over, whether the target was John in Dead Man’s Blood or the high school bully in After School Special. That latter glimpse into the past vividly demonstrated the long history of Sam’s internal anger and how an external stimulus could prod it into boiling over into calculated physical violence. We saw more examples of that later in his life, particularly in Sam’s cold execution of Jake in All Hell Breaks Loose, Part 2, his bitter retribution killing of the crossroads demon in Bedtime Stories, and his desperate assault on the witches in Malleus Maleficarum, not to mention his steady escalation throughout season four as he pursued power and revenge, even learning how to kill demons with his mind.
All of that begs the question of why Sam is so angry and always has been, when the same isn’t true of Dean. Both of them grew up in forced and unnatural circumstances over which they had little influence. John kept them on the move, constantly uprooting them from schools and towns, training them to become hunters in their turn, denying them the normal lives and opportunities they could both see around them. Their lives were shaped by things beyond their control: Mary’s deal and death, Azazel’s plans and interference, John’s obsession and authoritarian mindset. John’s expectations meant that both of them were refused their own dreams and desires. In the present, both of them have been told repeatedly that even though they are now adults supposedly making their own choices, they have unpalatable, inescapable destinies they are prophetically doomed to fulfill with no true hope of denial or evasion.
Being the youngest and under his brother’s orders as well as his father’s, Sam had even less control over his early life than Dean, fueled by the additional resentment of realizing he’d been lied to for years. But I don’t think this additional layer of Sam’s perceived powerlessness was enough to set the brothers apart on the internal anger scale. I think it’s something much more fundamental, rooted in their very different personalities. I believe it boils down to Dean always having seen the world as it is and adapted himself to accept it, while Sam saw the world as it could be and tried to force external things to change to fit his vision. From what we’ve seen of them, I think Dean always tended simply to make the most of what he had, while Sam always strove to reach the better things that glittered outside the fence. I would submit that Dean’s approach of adjusting his personal expectations to fit the limited available options gave him both more success and more emotional reward than Sam’s constant struggle to have different options from which to choose.
When the series first began, we quickly saw that Dean actually enjoyed hunting. He took pride in his skill, found satisfaction in saving people, and delighted in a good fight. Sam, who had forsaken the hunt in pursuit of the safe normality he craved, plainly didn’t share Dean’s zest for it, considering hunting a temporary necessity to find their father and the thing that killed Jess. Sam made it very clear in Shadow that he intended to go back to his “normal” life as soon as the demon hunt was over, while Dean – in one of the first times we ever saw him bitter about it, and began to understand that part of his joy in the hunt was simply that it was a family affair – maintained it would never be over because there would always be something to hunt. It was immediately established that Dean was the obedient older son and Sam the rebellious younger one, and that Dean was content with the hunters’ ragged-edge lifestyle while Sam craved the normality he had always been denied. We learned that Dean was physical and mechanical, sensory-focused and talented with his hands, while Sam was imaginative and intellectual, mind-hungry for wider horizons. Sam’s anger thus initially seemed just the perfectly normal outgrowth of his discontent, while Dean’s lack of anger seemed suited to his comfort and compatibility with the non-traditional life he was living.
Only as the series progressed did we begin to get glimpses that Dean wasn’t as invested as he appeared to be in the life John had chosen for them. We learned from his doppelganger in Skin that he’d had dreams of his own he’d given up for the sake of his family and the hunt. We – and Sam – discovered in Devil’s Trap that once upon a time, he’d wanted to be a firefighter. We saw in What Is And What Should Never Be, The Kids Are Alright, and Dream A Little Dream Of Me that he did wish he could have normal things, especially home, love, and family. He told Jo in No Exit that he wished like hell he could do something else, but it was too late for him because he didn’t know anything but hunting. It would seem then that Dean actually had as much reason for anger and rage over the frustration of thwarted dreams as Sam did, but he never went that way. Instead, he compromised: he sought out whatever joy he could find in the life he was living to counter his deeply buried yearning for unattainable things. He resigned himself to his lot, and persuaded himself he was happy with it.
The question remains why Sam chose conflict while Dean chose compromise. Part of that may be in the personality hardwiring I mentioned earlier – sensory Dean living in the now of immediate reality and intellectual Sam living in the future of idealized imagination – but I think Dean’s early experience of loss also played a role. Only six months old when Mary died, Sam was too young to remember anything of that night or of the normal, happy life before it. For Sam, that loss wasn’t entirely real because he didn’t have any direct experience of it. All Sam knew growing up was what he had at the time, and he could see very clearly how little that was compared with what it could have been and with what others had. I think Sam perceived anything would have been an improvement and saw nothing but possibility – a good thing – in reaching for it. Four-year-old Dean, on the other hand, had known a stable and loving home only to see it burn with his mother inside, and had watched his gentle, strong, and happy father transformed into a very different man by that tragedy and its aftermath. Having lost so much already, I think Dean’s choice to find ways to be content with his life may have been driven subconsciously by his little-boy fear of losing the rest of what he still had: his father, his brother, and his place with them. Where Sam saw and wanted to pursue opportunities for things to get better, I think Dean always saw chances things would get worse. Sam saw things worth having and fighting for, and got increasingly frustrated and angry when they were denied; Dean clung to what little he had, and tried to avoid conflict in order to avoid more loss.
Their patterns of choices have made both brothers predictable. Their awareness now of how that predictability can be used against them has to influence how they make decisions from this point on. Dean began that process by forcing himself to be willing to accept formerly unendurable loss: witness his refusal to let Zachariah manipulate him by threatening Sam and Bobby in Sympathy For The Devil, as well as accepting Jo’s and Ellen’s sacrifice in Abandon All Hope. Similarly, Sam’s new awareness of his rage trigger will hopefully translate into him stopping to think before acting on what he feels when his anger is the spur. Sam needs to learn the same lesson as Luke Skywalker: hate and anger are powerful and easy, but lead to the dark side. And whenever Sam needs a reminder, all he has to do is remember Lucifer telling him, You keep fanning that fire in your belly. All that pent-up rage? I’m going to need it. Anything Lucifer wants is a bad thing to give him.
That’s How We Keep Going
Sam’s appalled realization that he was massively angry all the time at everything without knowing why, and that his blind fury was at the root of many decisions he’d made about his family, Ruby, Lilith, and even Lucifer, was a major revelation likely to have profound effects as the story continues. While Sam apparently accepted Dean’s passionate exhortation to bury it and move on, I don’t see that happening. Oh, I believe Sam won’t talk about it for a while, sparing Dean the immediate, present discomfort of watching his brother wallow in verbally expressed introspection, but I don’t think either of them will actually forget about it. They can’t afford to.
Dean’s advice – You’re going to bury it. And forget about it. Because that’s how we keep going. That’s how we don’t end up like Martin. – is both good and bad. In the immediate term, Dean is absolutely right. There’s a war on, and they don’t have time to lie back on the couch and sort through the psychological issues in the middle of the fight. In that respect, Dean’s lesson on compartmentalizing is something learned by every successful cop, soldier, emergency responder, surgeon, and caregiver. During the emergency, during the action, the job comes first. It has to, or other lives are lost. All of the emotional things that interfere with efficient action – horror, grief, pain, pity, revulsion, fear – need to be set aside until the immediate crisis is past.
The danger with Sam doing that on this particular bit of understanding is that he can’t really afford to forget. He needs to remain aware that his anger is his weakness, and he has to be critical of it when making a decision to be certain he knows whether his reasoning is colored by his anger and therefore suspect. At the same time, however, he can’t stop making decisions, or give over all his choices to someone else to make out of fear that the anger may be driving him to wrong decisions. It would be all too easy for Sam to paralyze himself by mistrusting every decision he makes. To some extent, he needs to do his best to be right, but then take the leap and trust in his choice, not second-guess or analyze himself to death. Paralysis by analysis can kill just as fast and thoroughly as a wrong decision.
The other side of the coin is that compartmentalization is a healthy strategy only in the short term. Sooner or later, all of the emotions and experiences shoved into that box need to come out and be laid to rest in their turn, or they haunt the heart and mind where they’re confined. Sam was right in the beginning of the episode, when he observed that Dean couldn’t keep it all inside all the time. Dean’s nightmares and flashbacks, his inability to sleep and his need to drink to take the edge off, are all textbook markers for the breakdown of emotional compartments.
The problem for both the Winchesters is that there’s never a good time. There’s never a break, and hasn’t been for a couple of years, now. There’s only pressure and expectation and fear, always increasing as the days count down to Armageddon. They need to find time to be able to deal with their internal demons, but none of them are amenable to quick fixes. And the war won’t wait for them to deal.
So the Winchesters keep going, because it’s what they do.
Maybe they’ll get a chance to deal in season six.
I have to say that Andrew Dabb and Daniel Loflin, as a team, are my least favorite writers in the current Supernatural stable. Sorry, guys, but someone has to be at the bottom of the list! That still puts them above the industry standard, but in my eyes they trail masters like Sera Gamble, Jeremy Carver, and Ben Edlund because they still lack subtlety in writing the characters and aren’t yet adept at smoothly weaving the theme of the brothers’ relationship into the monster or action plot so both stories thoroughly reflect each other, rather than just connecting at the corners. They also clearly and gleefully share Eric Kripke’s admittedly sophomoric sense of humor. Since that’s the same one with which Kripke endowed Dean, I can’t fault them too much for it, but I do feel they generally carry it just that little bit too far, often regressing Dean in particular from a character into a caricature in pursuit of a laugh.
The logic and plot holes in the script, while typical of the horror genre, bothered me even more than usual this time because they really stretched credulity past the snapping point. In particular, the idea that the hospital staff would not have noticed that all their recent “suicides” had suffered obvious puncture wounds penetrating deep into the brain (even if there weren’t autopsies showing the brains had been freeze-dried) just wouldn’t pass the laugh test. How much more intriguing might the monster part of the story have been if the hospital authorities, while overtly denying both the patients’ fears of and their own sneaking temptation to believe in a monster on the loose, had actually been conducting their own hunt for a presumed serial killer hiding in plain sight amidst their otherwise non-violent patient population? Making them oblivious idiots instead of worried investigators with a mystery to solve was lazy writing. Maybe there’s an argument that the wraith had infected the staff as well as the patients, reinforcing their tendency to see only what they expected to see, but that implies a whole new level of mental control on the part of the wraith over a large number of people. I also have problems – which I mentioned as well back in Julie Siege’s Fallen Idols – with Sam suddenly making like a coroner and cutting open bodies autopsy-fashion. Last time I looked, his education was pre-law, not medical forensics, and he used to be the more squeamish of the brothers. While he might have become hardened and grown out of the latter, he never had the opportunity to develop the skills for the former.
Less blatant but still bothersome on the belief scale were such convenient details as Martin being allowed to keep his hunter’s journal, silver-plated rather than cheap utilitarian brass or steel letter openers lying around, unbelievably lax security for a mental institution, and the wraith coincidentally making the hunt easier and more obvious by massively accelerating the body count just as the boys arrived.
Things that definitely worked, however, included the character of voluntarily committed hunter Martin Creaser. Not only was he another flavor of possible future for the Winchesters, assuming they survive their assault on the apocalypse; he was an effective character in his own right. For all that he was broken and knew it, he found a way to function despite his terror and feelings of worthlessness, and spurred Dean into doing the same. Both in terms of the writing and of the performance by guest Jon Gries, Martin was memorable. I have to wonder if Martin might see himself differently now, knowing that he rose to the occasion and functioned effectively as a hunter again, when he thought he never could. Having gotten back on the horse once and managed to stay in the saddle, I wonder if he might find the fortitude to try resuming life outside the hospital. I’d enjoy seeing him make a go of it.
The whole premise of the boys using the simple truth of their lives to be admitted as mental patients was delightful. I was glad the script also pointed out the obvious flaw in that plan: that the boys flaunting being hunters made it easy for their target monster to trap them instead. I had to laugh at the doctor picking up on the children’s book Babar the elephant reference while being utterly oblivious to the boys sharing names with rock stars Eddie and Alex Van Halen! The perfect flip of Folsom Prison Blues, where Dean had talked an unwilling Sam into getting locked up to help another friend who’d saved John’s life in the past, was another nice example of the way the brothers constantly switch roles in the series. The timeline reference to Ellen and Jo’s recent deaths and Sam’s concern over Dean burying his grief was both a lovely callback to the brothers’ parallel situation at the beginning of season two and a nice demonstration of the way this show maintains continuity and the consequences of actions and events.
The use of mirrors was excellent, too. Director Jim Conway enjoyed playing with mirrors visually while Dabb and Loflin played with them metaphorically. Mirrors have always been important in Supernatural, and to have mirrors in play here, with the glass ones revealing the truth of the wraith’s real appearance and the human ones revealing the truths of the Winchesters to themselves, was a nice touch. I also liked the very spooky unscrewing of the vent, although I had to wonder about the wraith using that for access and closing it up afterward. On the other hand, the distortion shots establishing Dean’s hallucinatory environment were standard horror tropes and not my favorite. I’d have liked to see something more subtle that would have cued in the apparently gradual overlay of real world with hallucinatory one. It bothers me a bit that I still don’t know whether Dr. Cartwright was ever real or not.
I loved that we finally got to see Sam’s realization that he’s always been angry and that when he makes decisions in anger, his rational brain isn’t the one in the driver’s seat, even though he’s argued that it was. I liked Jared Padalecki’s performance of Sam coming to grips with that realization, and not having a clue how to deal with it. Sam grew in this episode. I also enjoyed the drugged scene for its content. Sam babbling his thoughts and fears that Dean was not only going crazy, but had been at least half-crazy for a long time reminded me of Dean, under Andy’s mind control in Simon Said, being forced to admit that he was afraid Sam might be right about turning into something bad. Truth comes out. But I particularly delighted that in that same scene, Sam – with none of his usual inhibitions or walls in place – solemnly declared Dean was his brother and he loved him. That declaration, combined with the nose tweaking and silly boop! that followed it, was solid proof for Dean that his Sammy, the brother he’s loved all his life, is still very much alive inside our current Sam, and loves him just the same. Dean referring to Sam as always having been a happy drunk was obviously reaching back into the happier past he had referenced in The Benders, when he said if Sam had two beers, he’d be singing karaoke. Our more recent experience of Sam as a drunk has been much darker – Playthings and I Know What You Did Last Summer come immediately to mind – but I think that was due to Sam having been trying deliberately to drown his sorrows, not simply becoming drunk from an excess of booze.
Jensen Ackles shone in the scenes with Dr. Cartwright. We’ve rarely seen Dean tell the truth to a stranger, but here, he had a license for it and served up truth in spades. When she offered the compassion of recognizing the burdens he placed on himself and asked how he got up in the morning, I thought Jensen nailed Dean’s response.
While I have issues with Sam doing autopsies, I thought the make-up and effects crews did a great job with the brain dissection, and with the wraith’s feeding spike.
Dr. Fuller had it right: monsters are the least of the Winchesters’ problems. The brothers’ inner demons and how they recognize, confront, and deal with them both separately and together have always been the most compelling aspect of the Supernatural story. That Sam and Dean keep going and keep fighting to save others despite their inner conflicts and weaknesses is what makes them heroes, and keeps us coming back.
Now on to Swap Meat ... Sorry I'm so late! I'm working hard; stay tuned.