Monsters break patterns.
Finding Sam alive again
Breaks Dean’s “normal” world.
Already awake in bed with Lisa before his alarm went off, Dean went through his now-normal day, which ironically paralleled flashbacks to his hunter past loaded with memories of Sam: salting eggs for Ben’s breakfast rather than salting doors for protection or graves for ghost-burning; loading tools into a pickup truck with Indiana plates rather than weapons into the Impala’s trunk; sawing wood instead of vampire necks and prying apart siding instead of coffins; sharing beers with a neighbor instead of with Sam; teaching Ben about engines in an echo of having done the same with Sam. Finishing a drink, he locked up the house and went to bed with Lisa – with a sawed-off shotgun and a bottle of holy water close to hand under the bed.
Out at night at a bar with his neighbor Sid, both agreeing they’d never expected to be living in suburbia, Dean deflected Sid’s questions about his past by saying he’d lived on the road and taken jobs no one else wanted, including pest control. When the pretty, strikingly tattooed barmaid stroked Dean’s arm in parting and left her name and number on his receipt, Sid laughingly wondered about his attraction for the opposite sex, while Dean observed they always zeroed in on the unavailable men. He and Sid separated at the curb, but as Dean reached his truck, he heard a cut-off scream from a building nearby, a hotel undergoing renovation. Grabbing a gun and a flashlight from the truck, he investigated, flushing only a couple of pigeons but finding a set of claw marks and a smear of blood on a wall. Back home, he checked the internet for news and used one of his old cop aliases to ask about any new reports of missing persons or strange activity at the construction site, but learned nothing. When Lisa walked in on him, asking about the call and wondering why he was up so late, he laughed off her concern and lied about setting up a poker date with Sid. On his way up to bed, however, in addition to locking doors, he raised the entry rug to check the integrity of the devil’s trap painted on the floor beneath it.
Driving through the neighborhood the next day, he spotted claw marks on a telephone pole. He checked the backyard of the nearest house, finding more claw marks through hanging laundry and on the door of a garden shed. Hearing noises from inside the shed, he pulled his gun and advanced – only to be startled by the neighbor’s Yorkie dashing out when he yanked open the door. Sid, jogging by, goggled at the gun, and Dean expanded on his pest control yarn from the night before to say he’d thought the dog was a rabid possum. Then he noticed sulfur on the floor inside the shed door. Disturbed, he hurried to his garage, flipped up the tarp hiding the Impala, and raided the weapons stash in the trunk to load a duffel bag. Hearing someone coming, he hid the bag beneath the car and busied himself at his tool chest instead, lifting a harmless hammer when Lisa appeared quizzically at the door to ask him about what Sid had told her about Dean, the gun, and the Yorkie. When she didn’t buy his line of patter and asked him flat-out if he was hunting something, he admitted he’d thought he was, but faked reassurance that he was pretty sure he’d gotten worked up over nothing. Acknowledging it had happened before and they both knew he was obsessive-compulsive on the subject, he asked if she would take Ben out to the movies and a restaurant while he ran a last sweep just to be sure, and she agreed.
With them gone, Dean pulled out a trunk holding his old leather jacket and John’s journal. As he started looking in the journal, the garage light flickered and he abandoned the book in favor of a shotgun. Investigating the noise and a rolling ball, he found nothing – and then turned to see Azazel, the yellow-eyed demon, taunting him about having been brought back by the apocalypse. Disbelieving and appalled, Dean shot him, but the demon grabbed him by the neck and started strangling him, gloating all the while about Dean not being able to outrun his past and asking how he could have believed the things he’d hunted wouldn’t come for him, how he could have thought he’d get to keep his normal life. As Dean lost consciousness, he saw Sam suddenly appear behind Azazel and swing his arm down and through the vanishing demon to slam a syringe of milky fluid into Dean’s chest.
Dean woke up disoriented on a bed in a seemingly abandoned house, seeing Sam sitting calmly watching him. Disbelieving and confused, he wondered aloud if Yellow-Eyes had killed him and he was in heaven, but Sam said he’d been poisoned and anything weird he’d seen had been a hallucination. With Dean too shocked and numbed by surprise to react, Sam ran the usual demonstration drills on himself, cutting his arm with a silver knife to prove he wasn’t a shapeshifter or revenant and drinking salted holy water to prove he wasn’t a demon or spirit. Still not ready to accept his reality, Dean approached him hesitantly, but finally surrendered to emotion and embraced him, breaking the hug only to ask how he’d gotten out. Sam said he didn’t know; just that one day he’d been down there, and the next he was lying alone in that field in the rain, with no leads to follow to learn what got him out. When he said he’d hunted for weeks with no luck, Dean, stunned by the time reference, asked how long he’d been out, and Sam admitted he’d been free about a year. Angry, Dean demanded to know why Sam hadn’t told him. Sam said Dean had what he wanted, and when Dean snapped that he wanted his brother alive, Sam asserted he knew Dean really wanted a family. He said Dean had and was building something, but if Sam had shown up, Dean would have just run off. Sam said he was sorry, but he’d felt Dean had earned some regular life, and he hadn’t wanted Dean to give it up. When Dean asked what he’d been doing for that year, Sam said he’d been hunting. Dean was appalled that Sam would have left him alone and gone hunting solo, but Sam said he’d been hunting with family. He ushered Dean into another room to meet Gwen, Christian, and Mark, all distant cousins in the Campbell family, raised to be hunters as Mary had been. When Dean asked how they’d never met, he got another shock: grandfather Samuel Campbell, whom he’d seen die in 1973, said the cousins had never known about them until he brought them all together.
Samuel guessed the same thing that had brought Sam up had brought him down at the same time, so they were both involved in whatever was happening. Samuel said he’d wanted to bring Dean in but Sam had been adamant about keeping him out, so they had – until this. Dean asked how Sam had ended up in his garage, and Sam explained he’d been attacked a few days earlier, poisoned by a couple of djinn. When Dean protested he’d thought djinn lived alone in caves like hermits, Sam said these didn’t; they could look like normal humans and blend in, and all they had to do to kill was touch to get their toxins into a human system. The victim would hallucinate his worst nightmares, ramping them up until he died. Sam said he’d survived because Samuel had a cure for djinn poison, and since he thought the djinn had attacked in revenge for the Winchesters having killed a djinn a few years earlier, he thought they’d have gone after Dean next. Realizing Lisa and Ben might also be targets, and not reassured by Samuel saying he had someone watching the house, Dean demanded Sam take him home. They arrived to find the house open and empty and Samuel’s watcher dead in his car outside. Frantic with worry, Dean grabbed a phone and dialed, but Lisa and Ben arrived, returning from their promised trip to the movies. Amid their surprise over seeing Sam alive, Dean bundled them up and took them to Bobby’s for safekeeping.
At Bobby’s, Dean learned to his shock that Bobby had known the whole time about Sam’s return and hadn’t told him because he was glad Dean would have a family and wouldn’t die a hunter. Furious, Dean asked why they couldn’t have put him out of his misery, saying he’d gone to Lisa and Ben only because Sam had wanted him to, and still didn’t know why they’d taken him in and put up with him since he drank too much, had nightmares, and had been half out of his mind with grief, collecting hundreds of books trying to find a way to get Sam back. Bobby said he hadn’t wanted to lie, but Dean had been as close to happiness as he’d seen a hunter get, and he was out of the life. Dean asked bitterly if he looked as if he were out.
Dean told Lisa Bobby would look after them while he and Sam headed out. When Lisa asked how long he’d be gone, Dean apologized, saying the monsters had come after him and he should have known that someday something inevitably would. He said he’d been stupid and reckless, observing that you couldn’t outrun your past. She realized he was saying goodbye, and he said he was sorry for everything. Infuriated, she responded that he was an idiot. When he protested that he’d been a wreck half the time, she snapped back that she expected a guy who’d basically just saved the world to have a couple of issues. She said he’d been amazing with Ben and what she had wanted most was a guy Ben could look up to, like a dad. She rounded on him for being sorry for something he considered terrible, which she had thought was the best year of her life.
Back at the Campbell’s safe house, Dean asked Samuel what the plan was. The Campbells were prepared to just gear up and wait for an opportunity, observing the djinn would be hard to draw out. Irritated with their patient inaction and with cousin Christian telling him to leave it to the professionals, Dean proposed drawing out the djinn by using Sam and himself at his house as bait. Samuel agreed and the clan relocated to Dean’s house, where the cousins were dismissively amused by the suburban family trappings and even Sam expressed amazement at finding golf clubs in Dean’s closet. Samuel told Dean he understood that Dean wanted a normal life, and said Dean reminded him of Mary. Attempting to persuade Dean to agree to give it up and come back hunting, Samuel said that in the last few months, they’d been working around the clock dealing with anomalies such as nocturnal monsters hunting in daylight, werewolves hunting at the half-moon, and creatures they’d never even seen before despite the Campbell hunting heritage going all the way back to the Mayflower. Samuel said it was an all-hands-on-deck situation in which all the Campbells supported each other, and that they needed Dean; that they were dying trying to get ahead of the situation and it wasn’t the best time for golf.
Casually checking in with Mark, the most taciturn of the cousins on guard outside the house, Dean learned there were three djinn off in the trees. Realizing the djinn wouldn’t approach while they were outnumbered, Dean persuaded Samuel to take the cousins and leave him alone with Sam to draw out the djinn. Sam promised to call them for reinforcements when the djinn arrived. Alone with Sam, Dean shared his sense of being overwhelmed by Sam and Samuel being alive and by his worry about what had arranged it and why. Dean asked Sam if he remembered the cage in Hell and when Sam said he did, offered himself as the one person likely able to relate if he would talk about it. Sam refused, asking why he would want to think about Hell when he was alive, breathing, and hunting with family again. Their conversation was interrupted when Dean, glancing out the window into the house next door, saw Sid and his wife convulsing and falling as a djinn – the tattooed barmaid who had touched him before his own hallucinations began – looked on and smiled. Over Sam’s protests that his friends were already dead, Dean snatched up two syringes of antidote and bolted to the neighbors’ house to attempt a rescue, saying it was happening because of him. Two of the djinn overpowered him there while the third waylaid Sam in Dean’s house as he began to follow his brother’s lead.
The female djinn told Dean this was payback for the Winchesters having killed the djinns’ father, and said since he’d survived the first attempt to poison him, they would give him a double dose that would kill him quickly. Both djinn touched him. Swamped under hallucinations, he thought he saw Lisa and Ben returning to the house to walk into a djinn trap – and then saw Azazel telling him not to worry about the djinn, but to worry about him instead. In his delirium, Dean struggled to get home and sprawled unconscious on Sid’s floor, only to find himself in his mind abruptly lying on Ben’s bed seeing Lisa forced up to bleed and burn on the ceiling while she told him it was all his fault. Azazel prompted Ben to drink demon blood from his wrist and told Dean something would get the boy, even if it wasn’t this; that something was coming for them and Dean couldn’t stop it.
At Dean’s house, separated from his weapons, Sam resorted to using one of Dean’s golf clubs to beat down the attacking djinn. Having dealt with Dean, the other two also assaulted Sam, but Samuel returned in time, killing the male outright. He engaged the female djinn and told Sam to help Dean. Once Sam dashed out to the neighbor’s house, cousin Christian got a bag over the djinn’s head, trapping her arms behind her, and Samuel, telling the djinn they weren’t going to kill her, ordered Christian to get her in the van before the brothers returned.
Returning to his empty house, Dean took stock of the damage from the fight and asked about Samuel and the cousins. Sam said they’d left in a hurry and he’d be meeting them back at their place, and asked if Dean was coming with him. Dean refused, saying he was going back for Lisa and Ben. Sam said that, while he’d shoved Dean at them and wanted Dean to have a life with them, he’d thought at the time it would be possible, but he argued that Dean now would have to realize he’d be putting them in danger by staying with them. Dean countered they wouldn’t be safe either if he left them alone and unprotected, that he’d made them vulnerable the moment he’d knocked on their door, and the most he could do for them was go with the best option. Sam reluctantly conceded, but said he wished Dean was coming. When Dean asked why, noting Sam knew plenty of other good hunters and pointing out that he was rusty and had endangered both of their lives by charging out after the djinn, Sam responded that he had done so because he cared, that he just reacted to help people in situations where Sam wouldn’t even try. Dean scoffed that San would do the same, but Sam maintained that he wouldn’t and said it was just better when Dean was around. Dean offered him the keys to the Impala, saying she should be out hunting; Sam thanked him but refused, saying he had his car set up the way he wanted it. Dean walked him out and told him to keep in touch. Sam promised he would, said it was good to see him again, and left. Dean sadly watched him go, aborting the impulse to wave goodbye.
Commentary and Meta Analysis
From the very first moment of the episode intro being labeled “One Year Ago” instead of the iconic “The Road So Far,” Exile On Main Street proclaimed this would be different from every season that had gone before. The episode crammed in as much exposition as a pilot, introducing new characters and establishing new ground rules, and set the stage for the season with new mysteries and surprising and rich character developments that call for time and patience to resolve. In this discussion, I’m going to explore the changes in Sam and Dean both separately and together; spend a little time with Dean, Lisa, and Ben; and look at the structure of the Campbell family business. And I’m going to say up front that I have tremendous respect for what this episode accomplished and look forward to seeing where the season will go.
Why Would I Want To Think About Hell?
I would posit that the changes in Sam this season are much more dramatic than the changes in Dean, and I suspect his unique experience in Hell – once we learn about it – will help to explain a lot. I’m not making value judgments here about whose time in Hell was worse: I’m just saying the brothers’ experiences will have been vastly different, and since the brothers themselves are very different, they will deal with those experiences differently.
Dean’s experience was the more traditional one: his body died and his soul went to Hell, where he experienced concentrated personal torture focused deliberately and maliciously on making him break to become the demonic antithesis of himself, deriving pleasure from hurting others rather than helping them. When he was brought back at the beginning of season four, professing not to remember Hell – and I do believe he was telling the truth early on about not consciously recalling details – he struggled with shapeless nightmares of terror and blood that escaped his waking suppression and crawled into the bottle in search of oblivion in lieu of peace. When he did consciously remember Hell in full – which I believe happened in Yellow Fever, when his own subconscious spoke through his hallucination of Lilith to tell him that of course he remembered everything – he still tried to bury the memories in silence and booze, too guilty and ashamed to admit his ugliness to Sam. He finally lanced the boil in Heaven And Hell and Family Remains by baring his guilt to Sam, but the wound hasn’t healed. He was a victim who cooperated with his torturers, and that guilt and shame are with him still and always will be.
Sam and Adam will doubtless have experienced something very different. They both went to Hell body and soul; they didn’t die in any traditional sense. They wound up trapped in a cage in a level of Hell neither demons nor angels could even perceive: remember Azazel’s admission in Sympathy For The Devil of how long he had searched even to find any clue to the gate, and Uriel’s wistful, ancient – not recent – memory in On The Head Of A Pin of Lucifer’s long-banished beauty. Apart from its loneliness and isolation, we haven’t a clue about the nature of the cage, and that includes no knowledge about the relative passage of time within it.
We do know they weren’t alone in there, and the addition of Michael and Lucifer to the mix complicates the equation tremendously. Both angels had massive egos and a lock-focus on each other that left no room for anything or anyone else to matter – and Sam had denied them the ultimate grudge match on Earth both of them had committed to as their destiny. I don’t believe Sam could have subjugated Lucifer for any significant period of time once he’d achieved the ultimate goal he’d fought for – saving the world by taking over just long enough to jump Lucifer into the pit – so I do believe Sam was at Lucifer’s nonexistent mercy. And whether Lucifer and Michael simply focused on trying to destroy each other in a nonstop cage match or decided to spare a moment of brotherly unity to punish the upstart human soul who had consigned them both to prison in Hell, the outcome wouldn’t have been pretty. At best, I’m guessing, Sam would have been a helpless pawn, his desires and sensibilities brutally overridden by Lucifer without regard for anything he wanted or felt. At worst, he might have been the intended punitive target of two almost unimaginably powerful beings upset at his presumption. Adam too may have been a pawn, if Michael even allowed him to be aware, but he wouldn’t have attracted the same vengefulness and spite as Sam’s exercise of free will.
It further occurs to me that when Sam jumped into the cage, Lucifer was inside him; not just sharing his body, but inside his mind and wrapped tightly around his soul. We know from Lucifer’s discourse with Sam in the broken mirrors in Swan Song that Lucifer could feel what Sam felt; I wonder if that worked both ways, and if part of what forced Sam’s current seeming emotional disconnect was that he felt everything Lucifer did, in addition to his own direct experience. If that wouldn’t force an emotional overload and burnout, nothing would.
Whatever happened to Sam (and Adam) in the cage, and however long the experience seemed to him regardless of Earth time, Sam’s reaction to it on display in this episode echoed to me the real-world experience of many other survivors of traumatic events. Throughout the episode, Sam seemed detached both from the world around him and from the former intensity of his own emotions. He was calm, rational, logical, and distant, going through the motions but not fully present in the moment. Even when he reached out to Dean, he didn’t quite connect, answering Dean’s passions with only studied shadows of his own. It’s as if he knew intellectually what he should have been feeling, but didn’t quite experience it, as if his ability to feel strongly had been overloaded and burnt out leaving only vague echoes behind. The highs and the lows just seemed to merge into a steady state sameness, where what should have produced intense joy – Dean’s hug at their reunion, for example – brought only a slight, satisfied smile, and what would in the past have produced aching loss – Dean’s refusal to join him – created nothing beyond mild disappointment.
This kind of emotional disassociation has often been reported by combat veterans, prisoners of war, and others – like rape victims – who survived personal trauma and found it hard afterward to reconnect with their normal lives and the people around them because nothing seemed to matter as much as the horror they’d survived. It’s almost as if, having experienced something of such overwhelming intensity, their feelings – both positive and negative spikes – shut down to maintenance levels to avoid the risk of another emotional overload. I think that happened to Sam, and I believe he’s aware that something about it is wrong: I think that’s exactly why he wanted Dean to go with him and said it was just better when Dean was around.
You just went. You didn’t hesitate, because you care, and that’s who you are. Me, I – I wouldn’t even think to try.
Yes you would!
No, Dean. I’m telling you; it’s just better with you around, that’s all.
The quizzical look on Sam’s face when he contradicted Dean seemed to capture his own puzzled self-assessment, as if he looked within for the part of him that felt passionately and always used to spring to the defense of others and was mildly surprised not to find it. Dean was right: Sam always did care, and acted without thought for his own safety. Realizing that piece of himself is missing and a balance needs to be restored – and that Dean is a crucial piece of restoring that balance – is a huge step for Sam, I think. Dean had it right in The End when he told Sam, We keep each other human. They are each other’s therapy, as well as each other’s touchstones and anchors to reality.
I think Dean’s initial inability consciously to remember Hell and Sam’s current seeming inability to feel and emotionally engage both reflect common psychological defense mechanisms that evolved in the human mind as shut-off valves to protect our personality cores when horrible things overwhelm us. I think they are different but related, valid responses to trauma, and I hope we’ll see Sam’s adjustment and partial recovery as we saw Dean’s back in season four. Neither of them will ever be the same as they were, but they can both be better than they are.
I also think Sam’s emotional disassociation may help to explain adequately the single element about the episode I found hardest to accept: Sam’s deliberate choice to conceal his return from Dean. I went on record at the end of last season saying the one thing I desperately hoped the writers wouldn’t do was to have Sam hide his return from Dean as a cheap narrative tactic – meaning every negative connotation of that expression – to create artificial tension and dramatic conflict between the brothers. I said then I thought it would be wrong from the perspective of the character’s development to make Sam so unbelievably cruel and to have him, especially after all his hatred and horror of having been manipulated by others, high-handedly manipulate Dean, even for his own perceived good.
I still don’t like that choice, but given Sam’s current apparent emotional state, I can rationalize and accept it now as I couldn’t before. The biggest stumbling block for me was getting over how Sam – loving, compassionate Sam – could possibly leave Dean in the unbearable agony of thinking his brother in torment in Hell, especially knowing from his own personal experience after Dean’s death precisely how that felt. If I’m right about Sam’s current emotional disconnection, however, there’s an explanation that works for me: Sam literally couldn’t feel the depth of Dean’s pain, because he can’t actually, emotionally, recall and experience again the depth of his own. Intellectually, then, he would understand Dean was hurt by not knowing, but he could offset that pain by the perceived benefit of Dean’s growing family bond with Lisa and Ben and internally justify the rational argument that Dean was better off where he was. That kind of balanced tradeoff equation flat-out doesn’t work in the irrational mess of human emotion, but it works perfectly in the dispassionate logic of rational calculation. Sam is calculating perfectly well; what he’s not doing is truly feeling.
Another thing I think was contributing to Sam’s perceived coldness and emotional distance throughout the episode was the disparity in time between what he and Dean were experiencing. For Dean, everything that happened was shockingly new and totally unexpected; Sam, on the other hand, had a year to acclimate to it all, a year in which he also knew his brother was alive and safe. By the time Sam actually did have Dean in front of him in the flesh, he’d doubtless already imagined a dozen variations on how their reunion would go, while Dean had never even been able to fantasize a reunion at all. I think all of Sam’s reactions were thus muted not just by the dampening effects of his Hell experience on his emotional range, but by his having rehearsed any number of possible scenarios in his head multiple times before he ever confronted the reality of Dean seeing him, while Dean was running on a time-delay of emotional shock. Sam was a thousand steps ahead of Dean on the reaction index, so they were out of step. Rather than the mutual discovery of relief and joy reflected in their shared reunion hug in Lazarus Rising, then, this repeated the one-sided reactions of Dean to Sam’s resurrection in All Hell Breaks Loose, Part 2 and of Sam to Dean being alive for real at the end of Mystery Spot, both situations in which only one had experienced a new revelation while the other didn’t have a clue.
I Know It Wasn’t Greeting-Card Perfect, But We Were In It Together
I never had a problem with the roles Lisa has played in Dean’s life – from fond memory of a bendy one-night stand in The Kids Are Alright to idealized dream image of unattainable family in Dream A Little Dream Of Me and 99 Problems to safe harbor in the post-apocalyptic storm of Swan Song – and I love what the writers made of her and Ben here. She wasn’t and isn’t the love of Dean’s life, nor is he of hers; that was never the point. But what she and her son became was an anchor to hold Dean to sanity and to life when he lost everything else that mattered, and I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say they saved him. They’ve definitely been a critical element influencing all the ways Dean has changed since he lost Sam, and love has been a real part of that.
Dean’s year in brotherless exile changed him in many ways, but I would posit these developments grew organically out of Dean’s essential character in gradual response to his changed life circumstances. Faithful to his promise to Sam, he left the hunting life behind, but he didn’t abandon or ignore his training or his instincts: he kept his guard up and protected his new family as best he knew how, taking hunter precautions against supernatural attacks. He used the same chameleon ability we’ve seen in him before – remember how easily and comfortably he slotted into the P.A. role in Hollywood Babylon or how perfectly he became Dean Smith in It’s A Terrible Life (admittedly, with a memory-transplant assist there from Zachariah) – to make new friends in the neighborhood and fit in on the construction job. The only odd note was his need to make the cover real for a protracted period of time; to stay in one place and endure. To do that, he needed to internalize the values around him, and he did – although he still employed cover stories (pest control?) to do it.
But what he brought to Lisa and Ben wasn’t faked. They knew the truth about him and about hunting. They saw him at his most broken when he turned up at their door only and because Sam had sent him there, knowing Dean would desperately need something and someone to keep him afloat. Ben aroused the same protective, paternal instincts he’d developed taking care of Sam; the same traits we and Sam had seen in him whenever he was around frightened kids in such episodes as Dead In The Water, Something Wicked, and The Kids Are Alright. Lisa didn’t need Dean, but she had plenty of reason to be grateful to him and to care about him, and she had the strength to face fear. In sending Dean to Lisa and Ben, Sam was both wise and compassionate; he understood his brother then in an empathic way he seems to have lost while in Hell.
Dean let himself be domesticated and even came to value the ordinary as he never had before. We saw glimpses of that in his dismayed reaction to the Campbell hunter invasion of his home. He’d trampled on ordinary lives with the same dismissal during his hunting days – remember his disdain for suburbia in Bugs, for example – but now, he resented the Campbell’s and Sam’s evident disregard for the middle-class trappings of his life, from the comforts of his home and reminders of his inclusion in Lisa’s and Ben’s family to the discovery of his golf clubs.
We also got tantalizing glimpses of his struggles along the way, from his protestations to Lisa that he’d been a wreck half the time to the hints in dialogue about his prior tussles with hunter paranoia (Dean: I just – I got this – I don’t know. Spidey sense. Lisa: Okay. Are you hunting something? Dean: Honestly? Uh – at first, I thought that I was, but I’m … pretty sure that I got worked up over nothing. It’s, uh, you know – it happens. Lisa: Are you sure? Dean: I tell you what. Just because, you know, I have an OCD thing about this, why don’t, uh, why don’t you and Ben go to the movies, hit the Cheesecake Factory, you know, hang out with the teeming masses and I’ll do one last sweep, just to be 100%?). He admitted to Bobby and Sam that he’d been out of his head with grief, drank too much, and had nightmares, and sought obsessively for a way to get Sam back despite Sam’s orders to leave it alone. Hiding the Impala under a tarp in the garage spoke eloquently of pain and loss too great to face, and of his determination to move on while still being unable to let go. All of those things fit the patterns we’d seen in him before.
But what made the difference was Lisa’s and Ben’s willingness to accept him, issues and all. I loved the scene on the stairs between Lisa and Dean when she made very clear what she had gotten out of the deal, in exchange for dealing with Dean’s brokenness: a partner she valued who provided a loving father for her son. That exchange, and all the dialogue exchanges between them throughout the episode, evidenced a mature comfort and real partnership that had nothing to do with romantic notions of love and everything to do with living together as a responsible team in friendship, love, and respect.
At the same time, we saw from the very beginning that something crucial was missing; that Dean was still hollow at his core, gutted by Sam’s sacrifice and by his own fear that he didn’t deserve and would lose this family as he’d lost everything else. He knew happiness – we saw his genuine smiles with Lisa, Ben, and even Sid in his day-long montage – but what we saw in the very beginning, in his already being awake and sad even before the alarm ever went off, was a pensive melancholy redolent of his loss, of the vacancy in his heart where Sam always used to be. We saw that all the way through the episode, and not least at the very end, when he let Sam go his own way while he determined to remain with Lisa and Ben to protect them. I thought it telling that Dean’s worst nightmares as revealed by the djinn poison – even after seeing Sam alive again – weren’t about Sam, but about losing the other family life he had; about failing Lisa and Ben because of who and what he was and all the baggage he brought with him. In his own mind, he’d already failed Sam, but Sam had also earned the right to make his own choices and go his own way. Forced to choose, Dean felt more responsibility toward Lisa and Ben, who didn’t have Sam’s training or the support Sam had found in their Campbell family connections. His tension in staying with Lisa and Ben came only from his own fear that he couldn’t outrun his past, that he would draw danger to them and be unable to prevent it from destroying them.
That’s why, in a way, I think the writers didn’t need to create conflict artificially between Sam and Dean by making Sam conceal his return from Dean. I think Dean might have been ready on his own, even if he’d known Sam was back, to give Sam his freedom and make his own bid for family, based on his development arc from the beginning of season two through the end of season five, but I also think the tensions of that decision could have challenged the brother bond and made Dean question his own choice as selfish and unrealistic because of the way it endangered Lisa and Ben. He might indeed have gratefully abandoned the Braedens much earlier had he known Sam was back, but he also might have decided he’d sacrificed enough to have earned a family of his own and felt secure enough in Sam’s ability to hunt without him – particularly in company with kindred experienced hunters who were also family – to have made the same decision on his own, without Sam’s artificial manipulation, to stay with and protect his new family and leave the hunting to others. We’ll never know that now. But what we will learn is what happens from this point on, as monsters continue to confound expectations and Dean continually has to choose between competing imperatives.
We’re Counting On Each Other Right Now; That’s How It Is With Campbells
Apart from the Campbells themselves, whom we first met during Dean’s time-trip to In The Beginning, every hunter we’ve ever known has come to the job through personal tragedy. We don’t know all their stories, but we know enough: Bobby having killed his possessed wife (Dream A Little Dream Of Me, Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid); Gordon having killed his vampiric little sister (Bloodlust); and Tamara and Isaac having lost a child to something supernatural (The Magnificent Seven), just to name a few. And of course, John, Dean, and Sam having lost Mary to the Yellow-Eyed Demon, with all that followed.
The Campbells are a different matter entirely: a clan that’s hunted throughout history, presumably launched by some very-long-ago tragedy but perpetuated through a kind of family business that raises children deliberately into the hunter culture from the beginning. Before we met Samuel, Deanna, and Mary and learned the truth about the Campbells being hunters, we learned along with Sam in The Kids Are Alright that the family and friends of Mary Winchester, nee Campbell, had been demonically targeted and systematically eliminated throughout the years of Sam’s life, presumably to prevent their informed interference in Azazel’s plans. I’m guessing the general success of that winnowing is the reason all of the Campbells we met in this episode, apart from resurrected Samuel, were very distant kin – two of them third cousins and the third something indeterminate several times removed. I’m also guessing that demonic anti-Campbell pogrom is why none of the Campbell cousins evidenced any vestige of the normal cover lives Samuel, Deanna, and Mary seemed to pursue; I think they’ve been on the run for a while, all pretense of normality gone. Christian, Gwen, and Mark seemed barely housebroken when they invaded Dean’s home, hardened by hunter callouses with total disdain for suburban normality; quite a departure from Deanna’s homemaking, and one not explained simply by the passage of culture years.
I’ll say this up front: I don’t trust the Campbells. The obvious part of my distrust stems from Samuel’s secretiveness about spiriting away the captured djinn before the Winchesters could learn she wasn’t dead. Samuel and the cousins clearly have an agenda they haven’t shared even with Sam, despite him living and hunting with them. Whether that involves concerns about disagreement with their methods – do the Campbells torture for information? Is djinn blood the secret to their antidote to djinn poisoning? – or simple Campbell distrust of anyone, even other relatives, who weren’t raised in the fold, I don’t know, but I’ll be watching to find out. I also want to know whether Samuel was indeed snatched down out of Heaven, or pulled up from some darker place; we have only his word for how and from where he returned to life.
But the distrust goes further and started earlier. The Campbells clearly keep to themselves and don’t mix with other hunters. During Dean’s sojourn in 1973, Samuel said outright that he didn’t trust other hunters, and when Dean told Daniel Elkins where the Colt would be, with a family of hunters named Campbell in Lawrence, Elkins said he’d never heard of them. Bobby never indicated any knowledge of the family either despite being plugged into an impressive set of contacts, which suggests to me that they keep themselves to themselves and fly below the radar much the way John tried to, but with even more success courtesy of generations of experience.
We know from Everybody Loves A Clown that John had kept his sons in ignorance of most of the hunter culture, limiting the boys’ contacts to just those people John trusted intimately, including Bobby, Pastor Jim, and Caleb. The brothers’ discovery of Harvelle’s Roadhouse and the existence of many hunters, many of whom knew John at least by reputation, was a profound shock to them. I suspect now that the Roadhouse hunters hadn’t a clue about the Campbells, either, which would make them a very secretive, stand-offish, exclusive clan indeed.
Christian, Gwen, and Mark displayed all the traits of a self-contained elite: arrogance in their own knowledge and abilities, dismissal of the potential contributions of others, disdain for the ordinary. Their attitudes just rubbed me the wrong way for trust or affection. And something else really bothered me: for all Samuel’s kitchen speech to Dean about unity, sticking together, mutual support, and concern for members of the clan dying to hold the line against the monsters, none of the Campbells had any overt reaction to the death of the unnamed watcher whom Samuel had set on Dean’s house. There was no anger, no grief, not even a bare professional acknowledgement that they’d lost another one. That makes me wonder how they’d react to losing Sam or Dean, or anyone else who mattered to the brothers but wasn’t part of their core, their heart family. And while Sam and Dean may be Samuel’s grandsons, they clearly aren’t considered part of the true Campbell family by the rest of the clan we’ve met. Not yet; and maybe not ever.
Sera Gamble’s advent as showrunner was an auspicious one, I think, and fitting for the successor to creator Eric Kripke. I loved all the subtle touches in her script hinting at things past and things to come, and the twisty layering of new mysteries on the characters we thought we knew. Everything was new, and yet all that had gone before was still there. The core was no longer everything in the past, though; there was nothing in the teaser about all the complex mythology that had gone before, nothing about demons or angels or destiny. Instead, everything boiled down simply to family: to Sam’s sacrifice, Dean’s loss, and the bitterly painful promise to make a new life and live on.
I loved the new title card, too. The shattering glass seemed a perfect metaphor for so many things: the abrupt shattering of Dean’s fragile new life; things generally falling apart after the aborted apocalypse; breaking the rules of monster behavior; Sam being broken, and not just out of Hell. And maybe even Sera breaking the glass ceiling and becoming a showrunner, when women are still in the minority there.
As usual, I’m going to get my criticisms out of the way first. I don’t think the episode was perfect. A few things in the script bothered me. I’ve already discussed the whole thing about Sam hiding his return from Dean; I’ll just say I’ve mostly made my peace with that, for the reasons I already discussed. I had a harder time accepting Bobby’s concealment of the truth, especially given the understanding of Dean’s heart that he’s always displayed, but I’m willing to buy his choice as the expression of his fervent desire, after all the grief-laden events of the past couple of years, to see someone he loved – who had already died more than once – safe and with a chance at normal life. All they’ve been through would warp anyone’s judgment, I guess.
My other major negative comment is a bit of a quibble, but … given that Sam and Dean had both already survived djinn poisoning, I was bothered by Sid and his wife dying so quickly, and by Sam’s automatic assumption that they were already dead only heartbeats after they fell. If they died so fast, Dean should have been dead long before Sam could have reached him with the antidote at the end of the episode, since he’d been given a double dose to ensure a quick death. Perhaps his prior experience with djinn venom and his innate strength of will gave him advantages the civilians didn’t have, but that still felt sloppy and contrived. The execution was sloppy, too; it would have helped if we’d at least seen Sam scoop up a syringe full of antidote before he dashed out the door.
Enough on the criticism, though, and back to the main event. I loved Phil Sgriccia’s direction, as always, and particularly liked how he and editor Tom McQuade assembled the whole day-in-the-life montage and set it to Bob Seger’s “Beautiful Loser.” Once again, the perfect song for the perfect moment; what a statement about the essential emptiness of Dean’s new life, despite the good things in it, because of the absence of Sam and the ever-present fear of losing what he had as he’d already lost everything else. There were a lot of small but crucial directorial beats throughout the episode that just struck me as perfect, including the camera shots from Dean’s skewed perspective when he first woke up to see Sam; the hilarious Yellow Fever callback with the Yorkie; and Dean noticing a contemporary black Impala passing by (oops: my bad - it was a Mazda. Mahalo for setting me straight, popoki_ehu !) just in time to draw his eyes to the claw marks on the telephone pole.
Add to those beats all the delicious performance ones Sgriccia drew from his cast. Because television is such a collaborative medium, we rarely if ever get to know exactly who was responsible for a moment that sang on screen – whether it was an actor’s choice in giving a reaction or a line, or the director’s call for a specific approach on a take, or a discussion among multiple players – but there were too many of those perfect, subtle beats in this episode for me to list them all. Particularly sparkling bits for me included the delightedly alive expression on Dean’s face when he thought he’d get to see Bobby’s surprise and joy at Sam’s resurrection, only to realize Bobby had already known; the curious, slightly surprised look on Sam’s face at the end as he considered his odd lack of caring about others; and every single moment between Lisa and Dean. I thought Jensen Ackles, Jared Padalecki, and Cindy Sampson rocked their performances. Jensen’s portrayal of Dean’s melancholy at both the beginning and the end simply ached, and his reactions to the whole sequence of shocks and emotional punches felt devastatingly real. And despite Dean’s domestication, he captured the essence of the hunter still at Dean’s solid core. Jared’s disconnected Sam hurt me as much as it did Dean, for all the things it said about how damaged he is emotionally, no matter what appears on the surface. I thought Cindy brought a calm and quiet strength to Lisa that hinted at a long and often rocky but ultimately mutually rewarding year of a mature, caring, full partnership relationship between Lisa and Dean. I loved the way she captured Lisa’s ability to realize and signal her knowledge when Dean was lying to her, and the way she gave him room while not letting him duck away.
Jim Beaver never fails to bring Bobby to vivid, believable life, even in a circumstance where I found the character’s scripted motivation difficult to parse. I loved Mitch Pileggi as Grandpa Samuel in In The Beginning, and I’m beyond delighted they found a way to bring him back to life for this. I’m dying to learn his ulterior motives and hidden agenda, but I know his face will never betray any more than the moment calls for. I don’t have an opinion to offer yet on the Campbell cousins; we didn’t see enough of them for me to have reactions.
The makeup and visual effects crews get a special call-out for the living tattoos on the djinn. The way they spread as the djinn attacked was creepily effective, and I appreciated that interestingly updated echo of the first djinn we encountered in What Is And What Should Never Be. And back to the script for a moment, I liked the touch of the djinn, rather than walking stupidly into the Winchesters’ trap, creating a trap of their own by using Sid and his wife to draw out a rescuer. I was sorry for the neighbors – and I do wonder how their strange demise will be handled, since this time, Dean isn’t just leaving the scene! – but I was glad the djinn got a little credit for brains. On yet another note, I had to laugh at the teasing shout-out to Jensen’s mania for playing golf; I can’t really see Dean doing it, but the juxtaposition was hilarious!
Jay Gruska’s underscore wove in the themes he’s used before for Dean’s commitment to family, and that was the perfect touch for this episode. And I’m beyond delighted that he and Chris Lennertz have finally released a soundtrack score for the first five seasons, with lovely suites of their music.
I missed seeing the Impala in all her glory, but having her under a tarp in Dean’s garage made a perfect symbol for Dean himself: the hunter dusty from disuse and currently out of action, hidden under the cover of camouflage but still there, still fully equipped, ready at a moment’s notice. Sam’s refusal to take her – his insistence on remaining his own man with his own car (I liked the Charger, by the way; pure contemporary muscle!) set up his own way – seemed at once both a refusal to step back into old patterns and a marker placed on his bet that Dean would need her himself.
The theme of this episode for Dean may have been that you can’t outrun your past, but that just calls to mind something else: as Shakespeare said, “What’s past is prologue; what to come, in yours and my discharge.” In other words, everything that went before just set the stage; what happens on it now is in the hands of Sam and Dean.