Heaven’s civil war
Sets lost weapons loose on Earth;
Angels deal in souls.
In the police station locker room in Easter, Pennsylvania, a cop getting ready for duty liquefied into a puddle of blood in front of his horrified partner’s eyes.
Dean’s happy morning make-out session with Lisa ended abruptly when he woke from that pleasurable dream to the reality of sleeping rough in the Impala in a riverside pull-out. His desultory morning stretching contrasted sharply with Sam’s vigorous workout in his latest cheap hotel room. The prostitute who’d spent the night with Sam almost forgot to collect her pay on her way out, and invited him to call her on her night off; Sam watched her go, but threw her number away as his phone rang. Calling from the burger joint where he’d picked up breakfast, Dean reported being about eight hours away from the Campbell base, but Sam told him to join him instead in Easter to help on a case. Dean was surprised Sam was already working a case only a day and a half since they’d parted, but Sam just said he liked to work, ordered Dean to check in when he reached town, and abruptly disconnected, leaving Dean to wonder wryly who’d died and made Sam the boss.
On the outskirts of Eagle, something unseen watched a cop lackadaisically manning a speed trap and drinking on duty. Fielding a personal call on his cell phone, the cop irritatedly told the caller they would go to the funeral and then go to work, that it was nothing to do with them, and he shouldn’t call again. As he hung up, the unseen watcher rushed closer to the squad car, and the cop inside broke out in pus-filled boils, dying even as he tried to radio for help.
Dressed in FBI guise, Dean parked the Impala behind Sam’s Charger in front of the police station, talking to Ben on his cell phone as he got out of the car and walked to join Sam. Dean told Ben he knew Ben was lying because he lied professionally; he told Ben to tell his mom he broke the thing and take his punishment like a man. When he hung up, Sam teased him about molding the minds of tomorrow, and Dean held out a hand for the case information. Sam asked how Lisa had taken Dean telling her he was leaving, and without going into any detail, Dean said she’d been shockingly cool with it. Nodding, Sam observed casually that it was better for everybody. A little discomfited, Dean shifted topics, teasing Sam about driving a plastic piece of crap, and Sam countered by asking what Dean’s gas mileage was.
As they walked to the morgue, Sam caught Dean up to speed on the blood-puddle cop, and when Dean noted there wouldn’t be anything of him to see in the morgue, Sam pulled out the drawer with the newly-dead one covered in boils. Dean speculated about witchcraft being the cause, but Sam said he hadn’t found any sign of hex work. Noting there had to be a link between the victims, Dean asked about witnesses, and Sam named the first guy’s partner. Driving to his house in their separate cars, Dean cut Sam off to arrive first. When Sam asked if Dean had been racing him, Dean smugly denied it, saying he’d been kicking Sam’s ass.
The cop, Ed Colfax, answered the door in full uniform, but when the brothers identified themselves as Federal agents with follow-up questions about his partner’s death, he told them not to worry about it, that it was nobody’s business, and he slammed the door on them. Sam simply kicked the door open, much to Dean’s surprise, and they went in after him, discovering him sitting at a desk scratching the face off a photograph. Dean realized that all the faces in all the pictures displayed on the walls and furniture had been similarly obliterated. When Dean asked if his partner had any enemies, Colfax, scratching the top of his head through his hat, said yes. Pouring himself a drink, he said both of the dead cops had it coming and he would be next, but once he was dead it would be over and God would be satisfied. Dean asked why God wanted them dead, and Colfax, displaying steadily increasing problems with physical coordination and concentration, said it was because of Christopher Birch, a kid with no face and a planted gun. Blood began to run down his face from under his hat, and after saying how much his head had been itching, he collapsed and died. An odd whirring noise came from under his hat, and Sam shifted the cap off his head to reveal locusts crawling out of a hole in his skull.
Back in Sam’s hotel room, the brothers agreed the deaths sounded like a small-scale variation of the plagues visited on Egypt in the Bible. Sam pulled up information on Christopher Birch, discovering he’d been killed by the three now-dead cops following a car chase, and that all the cops had filed matching reports saying they’d had to shoot because he’d exited his car brandishing a gun. Wondering what angels were doing since the apocalypse had been averted, Sam speculated that Colfax might have been right about being targeted for divine retribution. Dean advocated calling Castiel, and over Sam’s dismissive objection that Cass hadn’t answered any of his many calls when he’d found himself free of Hell, Dean began a part-serious, half-teasing prayer for Castiel to show up. To both their surprise, Cass actually appeared.
Sam took the angel to task for showing up in response to Dean’s first call when he’d ignored every earlier plea from Sam, asking if the angel liked Dean better. Castiel, as literal as ever, admitted apologetically that he and Dean shared a more profound bond. Dean took Sam’s side, pointing out Sam had gone to Hell for all of them and deserved attention and answers, but Castiel protested he had no answers, and told Sam directly that the angels had no idea who had brought him back from the cage or why. He said he hadn’t responded to Dean’s prayer either, but had come because the biblical plagues were caused not by angels, but by the Staff of Moses, a divine weapon stolen from Heaven, and he needed their help to recover it. He admitted with shame that in the continuing absence of God after the fall of Zachariah’s corrupt regime, Heaven had fallen into chaos, and powerful things that had been safely held under the old regime were stolen in the confusion. Knowing angels weren’t wielding the Staff, the brothers looked to human motives and decided to question Birch’s father, who had agitated for an investigation of his son’s death.
Birch’s younger son, Aaron, tried to persuade his father to give up his obsession with Christopher’s death and the police investigation, but his father told him to go away and play. Without warning, Sam, Dean, and Castiel appeared in his living room, simply translated there by Cass, and without giving him time to focus on the peculiarity of their arrival, Sam played the FBI card and told him they knew the truth, that the cops had murdered his son and planted the gun on him. Birch agreed, saying with satisfaction that the cops who had done it were now getting theirs, but when Cass and the Winchesters accused him of killing them, he reacted with honest shock. Impatient for answers, Cass advanced on him, but young Aaron appeared in the doorway brandishing a short stick like a pistol and told them to leave his father alone. Castiel confirmed the stick pistol was a sawed-off portion of the Staff. He put Birch to sleep with a touch, then appeared beside Aaron and took the Staff away before the boy could react. Dean told Cass to take it easy and tried to reassure the boy even as he questioned him, saying they needed to know where he’d gotten the Staff. Aaron said he had prayed to God every night for justice against the men who had killed his brother, but God didn’t answer. Instead, he claimed an angel did, saying he could have justice but he would have to take it himself. Castiel asked if the angel had given a name, but Aaron said no; he’d just given him the Staff. When Dean probed further, realizing the boy was lying about simply having been given the Staff, Aaron eventually admitted he’d bought it, giving his soul in exchange. Dumbfounded, Dean asked if that could even happen, and Castiel said it never had before. He added that angels buying souls could explain why the Staff had been cut into pieces: more pieces meant more product, and more souls.
Castiel put Aaron to sleep, scooped him up, and translated them all instantly back to Sam’s hotel room, intending to discover the identity of the angel by reading the internal mark or brand that his claim would have laid on the boy’s soul. When he admitted the process would be excruciating for the boy, Dean objected to torturing a kid for information, but Cass maintained the stakes were too high to allow him to care about that. Dean appealed to Sam for support, but Sam, after getting a negative answer to his token question about whether there would be any permanent damage, sided with the angel and blocked Dean when he would have interfered. Cass stuck his hand into the boy’s chest, and while Dean looked sickened and dismayed, Sam watched simply with focused interest as the boy screamed in agony, lit up from within.
When Cass withdrew his hand and let the boy sleep, he looked pensive and sad, saying he’d thought the responsible angel a good friend who’d been killed in the war. No sooner did he say the angel’s name, however – Balthazar – than another angel appeared in the room, thanked him for the information, and attacked, saying Raphael sent his regards. The Winchesters ducked out of the way of the fight, during which both angels were disarmed. When Cass charged his attacker, their momentum carried them right out the window, falling several stories to land on top of Sam’s car, demolishing it. The other angel disappeared and Cass reappeared in the room, pulling together the elements he needed – a bowl, holy water, myrrh, and some of Dean’s human blood, taken without asking – to conduct the ritual to locate Balthazar. Along the way, in response to their demands for information, he revealed there was a civil war underway in Heaven between his faction and Raphael’s, because Raphael wanted to restore the old traditional order and put the apocalypse back on track to end things as destiny had always dictated. He maintained that locating Balthazar and recovering the stolen weapons would be essential because whichever side had the weapons would win the war. When they asked why he hadn’t told them this earlier, he confessed to being ashamed, apologizing and saying he’d expected more of his brother angels.
Hearing sirens approaching, Sam nervously asked how long the spell would take, but Castiel almost immediately said he’d found him and they should go. When Dean asked about the unconscious boy, Castiel asked if he didn’t think the police would take him home, and then simply translated the three of them to the grounds of the mansion where Balthazar was living. Castiel went in search of Balthazar while the brothers prepared for interference from Raphael.
Inside the house, Cass found evidence that another piece of the Staff had been used: frogs. In a nightclub-lit music room, Balthazar bid him welcome, saying he’d been told Cass was around. He revealed the dead vessel of the angel who had attacked Cass in Sam’s hotel, felled by the plague of frogs – including one emerging from the dead man’s mouth. When Castiel said he’d grieved for Balthazar’s death, Balthazar apologized, but said he’d wanted the other side to believe him dead. Cass protested that he knew Balthazar as an honorable soldier, not a common thief; the other angel disputed the “common” but agreed that he’d stolen a lot of things, not just the Staff of Moses. Cass pleaded for Balthazar’s help, and the rogue said as far as he was concerned, he and Cass were the same as they’d ever been, brothers, and of course he would help. When Cass said he needed the weapons, however, Balthazar told him not to ask that. He said Cass, in stopping the big fight, had torn up the pages of the script for all the angels, freeing them all from rules and destiny. Balthazar said Cass had proven angels could do anything, so he was trying everything, claiming it didn’t make any difference since God wasn’t coming back. Castiel protested vehemently that of course it made a difference, because if they could beat Raphael they could end the civil war in Heaven. Balthazar maintained Cass was misguided in believing he could stop the fighting; he said it would never stop, and advised Cass to grab something valuable and fake his own death. Castiel sadly concluded he’d gone insane and warned that his holiday was over because Raphael knew about him, but Balthazar answered Raphael could try him any time because he was armed. A peal of thunder announced the arrival of Raphael and two other angels, and Balthazar took the sound as his cue to vanish.
Raphael and his henchmen split up on approach. Sam intercepted one of them, brandishing the angel sword Cass’s attacker had dropped. The angel contemptuously appeared beside him with his sword at Sam’s throat, asking if he really thought he could knife-fight an angel, but Dean rhetorically asked who was fighting, instead using his bloodied hand to activate an angel-banishing sigil drawn on the wall. The second angel appeared inside the house and charged Castiel despite Cass’s plea for him to stop, and Cass threw his own sword to impale the angel even as he mourned his brothers’ refusal to listen and stop fighting. Raphael appeared behind him, saying they wouldn’t listen because their hearts were his. He brutally beat Castiel and threw him down a flight of stairs. As he drew back for the killing blow, however, saying he didn’t think God would bring Castiel back this time, Balthazar appeared behind Raphael and shouted to him to stop, telling him to look at his junk. Balthazar brandished a glowing crystal, and as Raphael looked at it, his human vessel turned to salt and crumbled like Lot’s wife looking back on the destruction of Sodom in the book of Genesis.
Castiel was bemused that Balthazar had come back for him, but Balthazar made light of it, observing Cass would have a head start since Raphael would need to find a new vessel. Before he could blink out until the next time, however, Dean lit a ring of holy oil surrounding him and demanded he release his claim on Aaron Birch’s soul. When Balthazar indignantly protested, calling Dean a hairless ape, Sam held up the jar of holy oil and pleasantly threatened to immolate the angel if he didn’t cooperate. Balthazar appealed to Castiel, but Cass acknowledged the hairless ape had the floor. Balthazar chuckled reluctantly but then agreed, and after a moment’s concentration, told Dean the boy’s debt was cleared and his soul was his own. When Dean asked why he was buying up human souls, Balthazar responded incredulously that they were the only things worth buying, asking rhetorically if Dean had any idea what souls were worth, what power they held. He demanded to be released, and even as Dean scoffed at the idea, Castiel extinguished the flames to let him go, saying his debt to Balthazar was cleared. Balthazar disappeared, and as Dean protested, Castiel also vanished.
Packing up the Impala, Dean had to clear out space to fit Sam’s gear in the trunk. Among the things he moved was an accurate, homemade mask of a Wendigo, which Dean somewhat embarrassedly admitted was for Ben’s Halloween costume. As they prepared to get into the car, Dean asked Sam if he was okay, saying there had been a few times he’d gotten Dean wondering. When Sam looked confused and asked for an example, Dean mentioned Sam just standing by without protest when Castiel had tortured the boy, seeming not to care. Sam said he was with Dean, but reasoned they needed the intel, and said Dean was wrong in thinking he didn’t care. Dean insisted something was different with him, and Sam agreed, saying he’d been hunting nonstop for a year and supposed he was a little rough around the edges. Dean said he got that, but didn’t think he was getting the whole scoop. He said Sam went to Hell and he knew what that did to a guy, but Sam countered Dean knew what going to Hell had done to him, not what it had done to Sam. He said Hell had tortured Dean and he thought it probably still did, but he maintained that he was fine. When Dean, stung, asked if Sam was saying he was stronger than Dean, Sam disagreed, saying only that they were different. They got into the car, but Dean was not reassured.
Commentary and Meta Analysis
With this episode, I think the final pieces of the plan for the season have been laid on the table. We already knew we would be pursuing the mysteries of Sam’s return from Hell and Samuel’s resurrection from the dead, the reasons behind monsters behaving differently, and all the stresses of having family; now we know we’ll also be hunting weapons missing from Heaven and seeing another facet of angelic civil war. I suspect all those threads will eventually tie together. Perhaps we’ll learn some of those missing weapons are playing a role in the change in monsters. Perhaps key monsters were themselves once created from humans as part of the war between Heaven and Hell, as Lucifer created demons by warping the once-human Lilith, and there may be new threats of that happening again. Perhaps the restorations of Sam and Samuel are part of the civil war or are intended to be part of stopping that civil war; perhaps all of Creation living as God’s family is where explorations into the nature of family will go. I don’t know. But I’m eager to find out!
In this discussion, I’m going to look a bit more in-depth at the currency of souls; weapons and angelic war; and Sam being hurt but feeling no pain.
Do You Have Any Idea What Souls Are Worth, What Power They Hold?
Balthazar’s rhetorical question about the power of souls harked back to the crossroads demons being able to grant any wish in exchange for a soul. Crowley made that explicit point last season at the end of The Devil You Know when he admitted to Bobby that he needed a soul to make the magic work. The soul powered the wish; not the demon. The demon just had the tools to shunt the power of the soul into making real the focused intent of a wish.
I’ve always wondered what limits apply to a crossroads deal. From In My Time Of Dying through Crossroad Blues, All Hell Breaks Loose Part 2, and both The Devil You Know and Two Minutes To Midnight, we’ve seen life, fame, fortune, health, resurrection from the dead, and specific intelligence data each delivered in exchange for a soul. Deals arose not only from greed and despair, but also from love. Self-sacrificing purity of spirit and intent, however, didn’t change the outcome of the deal; when you gave up your soul to a demon, you went to Hell. I suppose the point of such a sale being evil was that, no matter how much you intended to benefit someone else through the deal, every such deal was ultimately selfish because you got precisely what you wanted, not what another would have desired, and no matter the cost to them. For example, Dean would never have agreed to John dying in his place, nor would Sam have allowed Dean to go to Hell to bring him back to life. I have to wonder where a soul sold to an angel would wind up, however, and what the angel would do with it.
I think there have to be limits on what a soul-fueled deal could accomplish. I suspect, for example, that the power of a single bartered soul wouldn’t have sufficed to open Lucifer’s cage, or else Azazel would have been making deals long ago to trade people the things they wanted in exchange for them also wishing for Lucifer to be free as part of the deal. I doubt that souls sold for wishes could have short-circuited the complex setup requiring the breaking of 66 seals – the first and last of which were very specific – to open that box. There must be some balancing point between the value of a wish and the value of a soul. What the market will bear is definitely part of it – witness the crossroads demon in All Hell Breaks Loose Part 2 commenting on the adjustments available because of Dean’s desperation – but there must be some particular base value on a soul linked to the power of what you could do with it.
I also suspect that deals might not work to grant what someone doesn’t really want, so unless someone passionately wanted Lucifer out of his box, I think wishing it just as an addendum to something else the person truly desired couldn’t have worked to make it so in any case. Judging from what Crowley did to give Bobby back his legs, on the other hand, I’m guessing a soul-bought wish could be used to give people what they genuinely desired even if they left out the specific words in their wish.
One set of deals puzzles me a bit, however, because their terms didn’t specifically include a soul. I’m talking about Azazel’s arrangements to gain access to the children being bred to produce a suitable vessel for Lucifer. Without gaining the currency of a soul, I wonder how Azazel would have delivered on the wishes he granted, including restoring John to life In The Beginning in exchange not for Mary’s soul – he was explicit about her keeping her soul – but just for permission to enter her home one time in the future. I would guess that he still needed the power of the soul to engage the magic and thus acquired a marker on the soul at least in temporary loan, but released it after using its power to start the wish machine; that would fit with what Crowley deceitfully offered Bobby, for example. In that same vein, I’m betting Azazel needed the power of John’s soul to be able to possess Tessa the Reaper and use her to return Dean’s life; far from John’s soul being a sweetening of the deal for the Colt, I think his soul was the truly essential component to Azazel being able to give John what he requested.
Our intangible souls theoretically make us who and what we are; they endow us with life and meaning beyond the physical and set us apart from purely material things. Religions argue that a soul is beyond price, and each soul is unique – so what are the limits on what could be done with a bartered soul? What’s the base price of the soul commodity? I’m thinking we’re going to learn.
Whoever Has The Weapons Wins The War
Civil war between angelic factions seems a strange thing to me not in principle, but in practice as conceived by Supernatural; it’s an area where I’ve always had some conceptual difficulties, and this episode hasn’t made those any easier for me to deal with. Angels themselves are apparently mutable, mostly incorporeal beings of great power whose appearance depends in part on where they are and who or what is viewing them. They’re relativistic. For example, Zachariah boasted in Dark Side Of The Moon that in Heaven, he had six wings and four faces, one of which was a lion, and the Winchesters saw him in the guise of his human vessel only because their perceptions – even in Heaven – were limited to the human. Castiel’s natural appearance burned Pamela’s eyes out of her head in Lazarus Rising even though she perceived him simply within her mind: he later indicated to Dean that certain special people could see his true visage and hear his true voice. In this episode, Castiel said he’d spent the last year as “a multi-dimensional wavelength of celestial intent,” from which I gather he evidently wasn’t either on Earth or possessed of a human body.
The entire point of the angelic conflict in season five hinged on the need for Michael and Lucifer to engage in their combat physically on Earth, wearing human bodies appropriate to their situation, to bring about the prophesied apocalypse. This material aspect to angelic warfare strikes me as very odd; they can disagree in whatever heavenly form they naturally wear, but when it comes to a fight, the conflict apparently must be physical, take place on Earth, and involve the use of human vessels. (Or presumably, since Zachariah referred in Lucifer Rising to having administered other planetary enemas, to involve the use of the dominant physical lifeform on whatever planet was at issue.)
The divine weapons now in the wind after Balthazar’s theft also strike me as odd precisely because they were presented as material things with tangible physical substance that were sequestered in Heaven – which isn’t a place, except when it is – and were stolen to be released on Earth. I’ve had problems with Supernatural’s cosmology of angels and Heaven before, most notably in Heaven And Hell which posited angel Anna physically falling from Heaven with her separate Grace visibly as meteorites through the night sky, and this conundrum of material things in immaterial Heaven strikes me as more of the same. I’m getting the sense the writers conceive of Heaven almost as another physical dimension partially overlapping with our own.
The nature and role of these weapons in this war are also odd, because the weapons we’ve seen so far – the Staff of Moses and the Salt Crystal – are effective against humans, but don’t appear to harm angels. Balthazar observed Raphael would need to take the time to locate and inhabit a new vessel after the one he had worn was turned to salt; presumably his soldier angel, whose vessel was slain by a plague of frogs, was similarly de-vesseled but not killed. That leads me to believe these weapons can kill a human vessel – something ordinary human weapons can’t do when an angel is in residence, at least from what we’ve seen in such episodes as Lazarus Rising, On The Head Of A Pin, and The Song Remains The Same – but not the angel inside. That would make these things different from and considerably less potent than the angels’ own swords, which kill both vessel and angel. They would also appear to be much less potent than an archangel’s innate ability to smite and outright kill another angel within a human host body, which we saw Michael do to Anna in The Song Remains The Same and Lucifer do to Castiel in Swan Song, and heard about Raphael doing to Castiel in Sympathy For The Devil. And that makes me wonder why Castiel would believe that whoever possesses these weapons would win the war, unless the means of “winning” simply involved each side killing all the humans the dissenter angels on the other side could embody as vessels, leaving them without any physical means to prosecute their fight. Divorce the angels from the physical, and the war is over. Or take it one step further, and just get rid of all the pesky humans.
If either of those is the name of the game, then finding and destroying the weapons is imperative, because I wouldn’t trust them in anyone’s hands. Dean was right to refer to them as nukes.
Another part of the physical/immaterial conundrum surrounding angels that bothers me is Castiel’s continuing incarnation in Jimmy Novak’s body. When Castiel reinhabited Jimmy’s body at the end of The Rapture, Castiel warned Jimmy he wouldn’t age and wouldn’t die, saying if the previous year had been hard, he should picture a hundred or a thousand more just like it. Their bond evidently became permanent then, as it wasn’t in the beginning. Castiel has been slain in Jimmy’s body twice, and twice brought back to life in it, presumably by God. I suspect Jimmy’s body – and Jimmy’s soul, for that matter – have no separate existence apart from the angel any more. I wonder where Jimmy has been and what, if anything, he’s experienced during the time Castiel was incorporeal. And I wonder what would happen to Castiel if Jimmy’s body were killed. The apparent permanence of their bond is different than we’ve seen from almost any other angel, with the curious exceptions of Gabriel, who evidently adopted one human form and stuck with it for ages, and Anna, who was somehow given back in On The Head Of A Pin the same human form into which her de-angeled essence had been born, the very same body earlier destroyed in Heaven And Hell when she regained her angel Grace. With these odd cases front and center, I’m having trouble figuring out the rules that apply to angels inhabiting human forms, and thus to the efficacy of divine weapons loose on Earth.
Apart from their relative effectiveness against angels, I do wonder if some of the divine weapons may prove to be linked either to the new strangeness in monsters or to the origins of monsters. Ever since we learned that Lucifer created demons by warping human souls, beginning with Lilith, I’ve wondered a little if other human-type monsters were also engineered by Lucifer or by high-level demons deliberately corrupting humans to spread more chaos and evil in the world, and now I wonder if some of Heaven’s weapons could have been – or might be now – perverted to evil use. We know from earlier episodes that humans can be made into vampires and werewolves by infection; how did the first vampire or werewolf come to be? Are all things evil traceable back to Heaven’s wars and Lucifer’s initial fall? Are there potential cures in some of the weapons of Heaven?
In my review of Exile On Main Street, I proposed Sam’s emotional disconnection as a valid psychological reaction to his traumatic stress experience in Hell, about which we currently know nothing, and which I also proposed was very likely extremely different from Dean’s. I’m still inclined to believe that.
Sam’s insistence at the end of this episode that he’s okay fits that diagnosis. He acknowledged he was different – something we’ve seen him realizing every now and again without either fully understanding the reason for it or reacting to it emotionally – but unlike Dean, he didn’t see anything insupportably wrong in that difference. He specifically acknowledged what he knew had happened to Dean – that he had been tortured in Hell and doubtless was still tortured by remembering what he had done there – but used his own lack of pain in comparison to conclude he hadn’t been hurt at all.
I don’t think he’s lying: I believe the truth is he feels no pain, because he can’t. Whether those centers of feeling were overloaded and temporarily burnt out by outside forces, or whether he turned off or rerouted the pain receptors into pure focused logic and drive in an attempt to save his sanity and justify his continued survival, the end result is the same: he feels no pain. And since true compassion involves the perception of and desire to ameliorate another’s pain, even his appreciation of the concept of compassion is a purely clinical thing with no emotional component. I would propose that feeling nothing wrong, he can’t believe anything is wrong; he believes he’s fine because he can’t and doesn’t sense anything hurting.
I think his single-minded commitment to non-stop hunting fits this diagnosis as a further subconscious defense mechanism preventing him from looking too closely and seeing the flaws in his emotional rewiring. In the past, Sam was always the introspective one picking at emotional scabs, but introspection now would likely tear off the bypass and turn all his internal emotional alarms back on full-force. Pure focus on the hunt keeps his eyes safely on the outside prize and leaves the internal minefields undetonated. And that’s behavior we’ve seen before when pain and loss were too much for him to take: just look at his robotic obsession in Mystery Spot, or the way Ruby played him in I Know What You Did Last Summer and On The Head Of A Pin. Grief, love, loss, and pain simply couldn’t be borne: all that remained were focus, determination, mission, and hate.
Sam’s lack of feeling also came across in his night with a hooker. There was no connection or caring in sex involved at all; he just used her pragmatically to scratch an itch and discarded her afterward. That’s a very sharp contrast not only to Sam as he used to be, when his moral compass didn’t even encompass casual sex, but to the inner torment that drove Dean to drink, nightmares, and needing human connections even before he admitted beginning consciously to remember Hell. The brothers definitely react differently to unbearable stress.
There are physical conditions akin to this psychological one. Diabetics can lose the sensation of pain in their extremities; so can lepers. Feeling no pain, they have to be careful not to burn or cut themselves, because they can do dramatic and irreversible damage without perceiving it at all. Even if they see the physical damage, they can’t sense it; nothing hurts. Despite the lack of pain, however, the injury is there; and I submit the same is true of Sam. Not feeling pain, he asserts that he’s fine; I’m waiting for the moment the nerve block falls and the real pain connects.
If this were any other show, I’d stop this discussion at the psychological diagnosis level, but this is Supernatural (and if it weren’t, I wouldn’t be writing this blog, anyway). Given the nature of the show, I have to take another step and wonder whether Sam’s psychological symptoms may be attributable to a spiritual source, not just a psychological one; if his injury may be of the soul, not just the mind. Given this episode’s emphasis on the power inherent in souls and the surprisingly broad commodity market for them, I’d be remiss if I didn’t question the state of Sam’s soul as well as his mind.
Dean is proof enough that the two are interconnected. His soul was tormented in Hell, but that punishment was reflected in his mind once he returned, with further mind-mediated effects on his body. Sam went to Hell body and soul; I wonder whether damage to or fragmentation of his soul may be part of what’s wrong with the Sam who came back, if his disconnectedness from the fullness of his soul, from the complete essence of himself, is contributing to making him both profoundly emotionally different and not capable of apprehending the depth of his difference. And that makes me wonder if the power and value inherent in his soul were in part what enabled his release from Hell; if his freedom from Hell may have been part of an exchange, with a portion of his soul held as the price with or even without his conscious knowledge. I don’t for a moment believe Sam’s soul is missing, but I wonder what marks or names on it Castiel might find if he reached into Sam’s soul as he did into Aaron’s. Another alternative may be that the subordination of his soul to an angel during his imprisonment left him at least temporarily with the same kind of emotional disassociation we’ve seen angels display; call it a spiritual bruise or numbness, the impression of an angelic blow on a human soul. Either way, I suspect the brothers’ pursuit both of monsters and of divine weapons will connect with Sam’s memories of Hell and ultimately lead to Sam feeling again.
Whether Sam’s condition is one of soul or one of mind, or one of both together, I’m still betting there’s a moment coming when the walls will come crashing down and his disconnected pieces will reunite with profound emotional consequences. I do believe Sam’s experience of Hell was very different from Dean’s, and I think his recovery will be equally different – but I also believe we haven’t lost the essence of Sam for good. I think reuniting with Dean was the single most important element missing from the process of reconnecting Sam with himself, if only because their brother bond won’t allow Dean to stop trying to get Sam back to being the brother he remembers no matter how much Sam resists. I wouldn’t be surprised if Sam still comes across afterward as harder and more pragmatically accepting of collateral damage to win, but I think that if he does stay harder, it won’t be without an understanding of why he feels less empathic and more goal-oriented than he was before.
Writer Ben Edlund always manages to bring the funny even in the midst of drama, and this episode was no exception. My problems with the episode weren’t with his writing, but were based mostly in the story’s extension of existing cosmology I had found problematic before (see the earlier discussion on angels and weapons) to establish the continuing civil war in Heaven as the backdrop for divine weapons being loosed on Earth. The threat of a recurrence of the aborted apocalypse by traditionalist angels seeking to reset the clock and replace lost pieces on the board felt a bit hollow and forced; we’ve been there, done that, and got the t-shirts, so going back to that particular well again doesn’t seem attractive. Then again, to have the divine weapons quest be significant, there had to be a reason for angels not to be able simply to locate the weapons and put them back under lock and key, and a continuing schism over the rulership of Heaven serves that purpose.
I’ll get the rest of my criticisms out of the way right up front, as is my custom. The biggest remaining one for me was Castiel simply appearing where the brothers were, when so much had been made in season five about the Enochian sigils branded into the brothers’ ribs making them invisible to all angels, friends as well as enemies, and even to super-powered Michael. Throughout last season, Castiel needed to be told where the brothers were before he could come to them; that was the source of a lot of cell phone humor, for example in The End and My Bloody Valentine. Angels could touch their relaxed human minds in dreams – think of Anna with Dean in The Song Remains The Same or Zachariah with Adam in Swan Song – but unless the dreaming human shared his location, the angel couldn’t find his physical presence. Perhaps verbalized prayer broadcast into the air could serve as a beacon to trump the invisibility sigils, but if that were the case, the brothers should have been able to pray to Castiel to hear them last season and not needed the crutch of cell phones. Folk may argue that prayer could be overheard by any angel, making it an undesirable and therefore unused form of communication last season when they were consciously hiding from Zachariah, or that Castiel might have been unable to hear prayers as he lacked full access to his angelic powers then, but it would be nice to have it addressed and understood. I generally snort at obvious “explainers” in dialogue (remember Hollywood Babylon?), but for a point this big, I think we may need one.
My second niggling issue was our guys having been able to set up the holy fire trap for Balthazar in precisely the right spot. They obviously weren’t pouring the oil around him while he chatted with Castiel, or while Cass’s fight with Raphael was underway, and they didn’t have enough oil in the jug to have laid traps everywhere, so … that was a little too convenient. I had fewer issues with the banishing trap outside, because if the brothers assumed Raphael’s soldiers would case the joint before entry, looking for traps, it wouldn’t have been hard to pick a likely spot for part of the unit to pass by.
Okay: enough on the criticism side. There was a lot to appreciate in this episode, and I’m not just talking from the shallow end of the pool about shirtless Winchesters or about my delight in the return of Castiel. Nobody else writes dialogue like Ben Edlund: Castiel’s quotey fingers and “multi-dimensional wavelength of celestial intent” were instant Edlund classics. His banter between the brothers was also perfect, from the running competition between the cars to the snark over praying to Castiel. Sam may be feeling no pain and no real depth of compassion, but his brotherly sarcasm and humor cylinders – both things more intellectual than emotional – are working just fine, and that came across here. Also wonderful was Dean’s continued connection to Ben and Lisa and the tension between hunting and fatherhood. Finally, Edlund’s creation of Balthazar struck me as a brilliant companion to his existentially depressed teddy bear in Wishful Thinking. Made aware of his unlimited free will at the same time as he perceived the apparent futility and irrelevance of his entire previously dutiful existence (Dad’s not coming back. You might as well blow coke and jump on the bed), Balthazar flipped the switch into pursuing aimless, amoral self-gratification – but he still retained concepts of loyalty and friendship, enough to bring him to Castiel’s rescue. I’m betting we haven’t seen the last of Balthazar, and I’d be delighted to see Sebastian Roché playing him again. Since angels tend to stick with dedicated vessels, unlike body-jumping demons who have many more potential choices, I’m hoping that’s a good bet. I loved Roché’s chemistry with Misha Collins’ Castiel, and watching Balthazar rediscover purpose through Castiel’s dogged determination would be interesting.
Speaking of Roché and Collins, I’m always impressed with the performances director and executive producer Robert Singer draws from his cast. This time, that included the fun of Singer directing himself in a little cameo – smile for the white-coated coroner sitting at the desk and pointing to something in a file as the brothers walk by! Among the guest cast, Adom Osei did a particularly lovely job as young Aaron Birch. In his apparent swan song as Raphael (given the salting of his human vessel), Demore Barnes regrettably wasn’t given much to do; I’d have liked to have seen more to explain Raphael’s position in the war, but there wasn’t enough time for the episode to do that. After the delight of seeing Barnes in person at the Vancouver convention, I’m sorry to think he won’t be back on the show; he was a treat!
Jensen Ackles and Jared Padalecki continued to bring the goods. For all that I’m impatient to learn the full truth about Sam’s time in Hell and see Sam become emotionally whole so the brothers can grow together again – with all the fireworks between the brothers I’m certain that will entail! – I’ve been enjoying seeing Jared deliver a very differently mannered Sam, both there and not-there. It’s so jarring to me as a viewer to see the old harmony between the brothers playing almost perfectly in a funny scene (car racing, praying for Castiel) and going totally discordant the moment it turns dramatic; I can only imagine how tricky that is for the actors to play after years of creating a different inter-character dynamic, but Jared is definitely selling Sam’s difference and Jensen is selling Dean’s disquiet. I’m also really enjoying Dean’s flashes of fatherly responsibility and maturity, along with his own disbelief at times that he’s actually playing that role for Ben and enjoying it.
The makeup and visual effects people really upped the ick and squick factor in this episode, bringing alive the personalized plagues of Egypt. On the makeup front, I had to wonder whether the absence of Castiel’s handprint on Dean’s shoulder was meant to be a visual cue to the bedroom scene being a dream, not reality; all I can say to that one is, I immediately thought “dream, maybe peaceful beginning leading into nightmare” and not “last happy morning sex.”
The visual effects people also get kudos for the virtual destruction of Sam’s Charger (unless I’m mistaken, that was a visual effect, not a truly crunched car!), and I give very high marks to the stunt crew for that double high fall. I do wish photos of the stunt hadn’t leaked before the episode aired; I’m not a spoiler junkie, and prefer to experience the show’s stories in real time (unless I happen to get to watch shooting in person; then all bets are off!). Despite knowing the Charger would meet its demise here, however, the effect wasn’t totally spoiled since no one had let slip Dean’s Okay – silver lining! reaction. That was priceless!
For the record, I liked the Charger as a symbol: I think it’s the most overtly muscular-looking contemporary car on the road, and with its sleek black lines and tinted windows, it embodied our dark, hard, and secretive returned Sam very nicely. I knew it wouldn’t be long for this world if only because we couldn’t get banter between the brothers as long as they were in separate cars, but mostly because Sam wouldn’t be home until he was in the Impala with Dean. The Impala, after all, has been the site of most of the essential arguments, confessions, and admissions between the brothers since the very first episode. I think being trapped in the Impala together will help raise the heat on their relationship crucible to the temperature necessary to create the new brotherhood alloy, a metal stronger than either brother alone.
With this episode, I think the stage dressing for the season has finally been set and all the major themes introduced; I believe this is where the story really begins.
I think I’m ready.
The most amusing icon on this post is by tiptoe_icons . Thank you!