Dean makes a wager:
One day as Death for Sam’s soul.
He loses – but wins.
In an apartment above a Chinese butcher shop and grocery, Dean paid Dr. Roberts, an old associate of John’s who used to patch him up before losing his medical license, to kill and then resuscitate him. Dean asked Roberts to mail a letter for him to Ben Braedon in Battle Creek, MI if he didn’t make it back. When Roberts expressed surprise that he wasn’t leaving something for his brother Sam, Dean observed that if he didn’t make it back, nothing he said would mean anything to Sam. Using drugs, Roberts and his assistant Eva killed Dean, and started a three minute clock to bring him back.
Walking as a spirit, Dean summoned Tessa the Reaper, yanking her out of the Sudan. He tried to persuade her to summon Death, but she refused. Despite that, Death appeared, politely thanking Tessa and asking Dean what he wanted. Dean began by trying to bargain for the return of Death’s ring, but Death dismissed his attempt as hubris without leverage because it assumed he didn’t know where Dean had hidden the ring. He told Dean to say exactly what he wanted. Dean ventured he thought Death one of the few who could actually jailbreak Lucifer’s cage in Hell, and said he wanted Death to rescue both Sam’s soul and Adam. Death told him to choose just one because he didn’t normally bring people back, and while he might make one exception, he wouldn’t do more. Pressured, Dean chose Sam, but admitted he’d heard Sam’s soul had been damaged. Death agreed his soul had been flayed to the raw nerve. Dean displayed his ignorance of the integrity of souls by asking if Death could hack the Hell part off, but Death explained the soul could be bludgeoned or tortured but never broken, not even by him. Death offered the possibility that, although he couldn’t erase Sam’s Hell, he could put the intolerable memories behind a wall in Sam’s mind. Tessa warned the wall wouldn’t be permanent, and Death agreed nothing was permanent apart from him. Given the choice of Sam in Hell or Sam alive as long as the wall would hold, Dean told Death to do it, but Death warned he’d never agreed to do it, and instead proposed Sam’s soul as the prize if Dean won a wager. Exasperated, Dean asked what it would involve. Death admonished him for rolling his eyes and being impolite, and when Dean humbled himself, said he would retrieve Sam’s soul only if Dean would put on his ring and waer it for 24 hours, taking Death’s place. He warned Dean would lose if he took the ring off before the 24 hours were up, saying there would be no soul for Sam. Afraid but resolute, determined to save his brother, Dean agreed. He asked why, but even as Death started to explain, Dean woke up, coming back to life with a gasping breath. When he complained about having needed only five more seconds dead, Dr. Roberts responded that he’d been dead for seven minutes, and Roberts had been afraid he was gone for good.
Back at Bobby’s, Sam objected strenuously to Dean’s plan, saying he’d heard both Crowley and Castiel say getting his soul back would kill or incapacitate him. Dean explained about Death putting up a wall to block the memories, but Sam zeroed in on that solution not being permanent. When Sam continued to object, Dean argued he was trying to save Sam’s life, but Sam pointed out it was his life, and said it wouldn’t be Dean’s head that exploded when the scheme went sideways. Bobby asked about Death’s price, and after hesitating, Dean confessed the terms of the deal. He also maintained he was doing it. Sam left the room, saying he just needed a minute to wrap his head around it, but Dean and Bobby, guessing what was in his mind, followed him to the place in the junkyard where Death’s ring had been buried. Dean told Sam he was his brother and promised he wouldn’t let Sam get hurt. When Sam questioned him, he asserted he wouldn’t let it go wrong. Sam conceded he was trusting Dean, barely, and told him not to let it go wrong. Dean promised he wouldn’t and walked away, but under his breath warned Bobby to watch Sam.
Back in the house, Sam asked if this was the moment when Bobby would pull a gun and lock him in the panic room. Bobby asked if he had to, and Sam responded he didn’t, saying he guessed Dean had to do what he had to do. Watching him narrowly, Bobby mused that they all did.
Outside in the yard, Dean put on the ring – and found himself abruptly on a street somewhere else, being chided by Tessa as an unsuitable Death. She warned him she didn’t like the situation and didn’t particularly like him at the moment either. She told him to stick to the rules, and when he asked what they were, said he had to kill everyone whose number was up. She told him she had a list she wouldn’t show him, and said he had to touch them, they would die, and she would reap them. She warned him that if he removed the ring or slacked off, he would lose. She told him not to mess it up, and observed it wasn’t her job to be his babysitter.
Sam, meanwhile, summoned Balthazar to an abandoned warehouse. When Balthazar speculated about his stupidity in summoning the angel who wanted to kill him, Sam offered the rationale about desperate times calling for desperate measures, and said he needed Balthazar’s help. The angel observed that the last time around, Sam had threatened to “fry his wings extra crispy,” and Sam awkwardly tried to explain that away as a misunderstanding. He said he needed some angel advice he couldn’t get from Castiel, and blurted that he needed a spell or a weapon to keep a soul out forever. When he admitted he needed the information for himself, Balthazar first asked where his soul was, and then realized from Sam’s reaction that is was still trapped in Lucifer’s cage in Hell. Sam said Dean had found a way to cram it back into his body but he didn’t want it, and Balthazar agreed he wouldn’t, saying Michael and Lucifer were hate-banging it even as they spoke. When Sam asked if he would help, Balthazar told him he would do it for free because he would love to have Sam in his debt and because anything that would screw Dean would delight him. He told Sam he knew a spell and said the ingredients should be easy to find, but warned Sam he would need to scar his vessel to make it so polluted it would be uninhabitable, and the way to do that was by engaging in patricide. When Sam objected that his father had been dead for years, Balthazar said he needed the blood of his father, but his father didn’t need to be blood, and Sam realized he knew how to solve that equation.
Tessa told Dean people often would have questions for him, especially what it all meant. She wouldn’t give him the answers, saying it was up to him to figure it out. Going to collect the first person on the list, she took him into a corner store where a young robber was threatening the shopkeeper and his son with a pistol. Tessa warned no one could see or hear Dean, and told him to watch the scene play out. The robber threatened to shoot the man’s son, and warned the man not to neglect the cash drawer under the register. Opening the drawer, the man clumsily pushed the money bag toward the robber and off the counter. Cursing the man for his clumsiness, the robber bent down to retrieve the bag and then stood up again – only to be shot as the cashier pulled out the gun hidden in the lower drawer and fired it. Realizing the robber was his target, Dean deliberately delayed touching and killing him to let the man suffer for a minute more: then he touched the robber’s hand and saw him die. The man’s spirit appeared beside Tessa, asking why, and Dean, with relish, told him it was mostly because he was a dick, and warned him it would get hot where he was going. Exasperated, Tessa guided the robber on his way, and Dean, satisfied with the outcome, ruminated about the Death gig not being so bad. Moving on, Dean found himself facing an overweight businessman scarfing a slice of pizza, and guessed he was looking at a heart attack; on those words, the man collapsed, and Dean, abashed, realized his guess had been right. He touched the man, killing him, and the man’s spirit appeared beside Tessa, asking why. Dean rhetorically asked if it might have been the extra cheese, and the man agreed, but said it had been good. As Tessa began to escort him away, however, he turned back, asking what it all meant. Improvising, Dean said everything was dust in the wind, and looked pleased with himself, but the man objected to everything being reduced to a Kansas song. Tessa apologized, saying Dean was new, and led the man away.
Back at the junkyard, Sam walked into the house to be confronted by Bobby, who said he’d woken up and discovered Sam gone. Sam said he’d just been driving around, maintaining it was nothing big. Bobby eyed him narrowly and offered him a drink, and Sam accepted, sitting down at the table where a deck of cards and piles of chips just begged for a poker game.
At a hospital, Dean learned his next victim was a 12-year-old girl with a serious heart defect, the only family left to her young father, who was looking thought a photo album with the girl and already obviously mourning the loss of his wife, the girl’s mother. Seeing the girl’s innocence and feeling from his own experience with Ben a newly personal understanding of the barely-contained grief of her father, Dean flatly refused to kill the girl. Tessa chided him, asking if he’d thought it was all going to be armed robbers and heart attacks waiting to happen. Tessa told him he had to take her, and he asked who told Death which people he was supposed to take. Tessa said she didn’t know, and that things just were the way they were, that it was destiny. Dean protested that he’d spent his whole life fighting that crap, saying there was no such thing as destiny any more than there’s been an apocalypse. He said it was all just a bunch of stuck-up mooks who didn’t want human slaves asking questions. He said the little girl would live. Tessa marveled that he didn’t actually buy a word he was saying, asking if all the times he’d messed with life and death things had just worked out for him. He declared that what he knew was that he was Death, she was twelve, and she wasn’t dying today.
Bobby and Sam played poker, but as the game progressed, Bobby noticed Sam plotting an attack, marking the location of an open toolchest with a heavy wrench inside.
At the hospital, the heart surgeon explained to the girl’s father that the latest test showed the girl’s heart had simply healed, something he credited as an unexplainable miracle. He said he wouldn’t have to operate, and the man, grateful and delighted, wheeled his daughter happily back to her room. The girl’s nurse, Jolene, walked right through Tessa as she talked on the phone to her husband, shivering at the supernatural contact while explaining that surgery had been cancelled so she was getting off early. Tessa told Dean they had more work, and led him away.
Bobby asked if Sam wanted another drink and headed to the fridge to retrieve more beer – but as Sam made his move, grabbing up the wrench and starting to swing, Bobby cold-cocked him with a billy club he’d stashed in the fridge. He turned away to collect a bight of rope, but when he turned back, Sam was gone, and he knew to his dismay that the hunt was on. Searching through the house, locking the door to the basement, he heard a floorboard creak and took cover in the same closet where he and Dean had retreated from the zombies in Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid. Sam rattled the knob and then began chopping through the door with an axe, telling Bobby he shouldn’t have cornered himself. Bobby snapped that he hadn’t – and triggered a trapdoor he’d installed since the last experience, dropping Sam through the floor into the basement. In the fall, Sam sliced up his leg pretty badly. He ran up the basement stairs and tried to batter his way out through the door into the first floor, but Bobby told him not to bother, saying the door and the frame had been reinforced. He asked what this was about, and Sam said he had to do it. Saying Bobby had heard what could happen if his soul was returned, he asked him to think about how bad it could be. He said it wasn’t as if he wanted to kill Bobby, and admitted Bobby had been nothing but good to him. When Bobby said he was making a mistake, Sam countered that he was trying to survive. When Bobby said Dean had a way to make it safe, Sam objected that the wall wasn’t a sure thing, and maintained Dean didn’t care about him anyway, but only about his little brother Sammy, burning in Hell. He said Dean would kill him to get that other guy back. Bobby commiserated, saying he knew how scary it was, but that the scarier thing right then was Sam himself. He said Sam wasn’t in his right head and wasn’t giving them much choice. When Sam didn’t answer, Bobby reluctantly went downstairs after him. Looking through the peephole into the panic room, he saw a stepladder rigged beneath the ventilation shaft, and the shaft grill hanging down to allow someone to climb up through it and escape outside. When he touched the handle of the door, his hand came away coated in blood.
Walking through the hospital in a silent fury as Dean asked if she was giving him the silent treatment, Tessa stopped at the sound of sirens and abruptly cursed. Paramedics brought in Jolene, the little girl’s nurse, who had just suffered potentially fatal injuries in a car accident. The doctor on duty told someone to call back the heart surgeon, who had also left after the little girl’s surgery was canceled, but it was too late. Tessa told Dean this had happened because he let the little girl live. When he accused her of having known this would happen, she denied it, saying she’d known only that he’d knocked over a domino. Tessa ordered him to take the nurse, telling him everything he did had consequences and asking if he wanted to set off another chain reaction. He protested the nurse had nothing to do with it, and she simply said it was too bad, but he’d put on the ring and had to do the job. Fuming, but seeing the emergency room crew unsuccessfully trying to keep the nurse alive, he reluctantly agreed and touched her hand, killing her. He faced her disbelieving spirit, watching as Tessa told her she was supposed to have lived for many decades and had children and grandchildren, but died instead because Dean had screwed up. He tried to apologize, but Jolene walked away. As she left, her distraught husband arrived, and Dean watched him break down in grief over her body.
In the little girl’s room, Dean watched the girl and her father happily planning a real vacation, but Tessa warned that he’d seen what happened to the nurse and told him he had to kill the girl because she was disrupting the natural order and would be followed by chaos and sadness the rest of her life. While Tessa talked, Dean, looking out the window, saw the nurse’s husband emerging from the bar across the street, weeping and clutching a bottle as he climbed into his car. Dean told Tessa to give him a minute, and blinked away from her to appear in the man’s car as he drove off, taking swings from the bottle and mashing the accelerator to the floor in an obvious attempt to kill himself. Dean shouted at him to stop, but the man couldn’t hear him. Desperate to save him, Dean finally pulled off Death’s ring, startling the man by appearing in the passenger seat yelling at him to hit the brakes, and grabbing the wheel to prevent the car from crashing into a moving bus, swerving it instead into hitting a parked car.
Saved by the airbags but crushed by his defeat in having lost Sam by taking off the ring, Dean staggered out of the car and shouted for Tessa, admitting his defeat and calling to her to at least send him home. Getting no response, he finally slid the ring back on, vanishing from the dazed man’s sight even as he found himself able to see Tessa again, watching him. She said she was sorry about his brother. He said they should just go, and when she asked him where, pointing out that he was done, he shifted them abruptly to the little girl’s hospital room, saying he had unfinished business. She told him it was over because he’d taken the ring off, and said she thought he’d wanted the girl to skate by. He responded that no one really skated by. Looking at the father, who’d fallen asleep in the chair by the bed, he told the man he should say his goodbyes, and almost as if he’d heard, the man woke up – just in time to hear the monitor alarms go off as Dean touched the girl, killing her. Standing with Tessa and the girl’s spirit, watching her father’s shock and grief, Dean first offered the empty reassurance that her dad would be fine, but then admitted that he didn’t know. He agreed with the girl that it wasn’t fair, but said there was a natural order to things. When she said the natural order was stupid, he agreed with her.
Following Sam’s blood trail through the junkyard, Bobby tracked him to a shed, but when he flung the door open, no one was inside – and Bobby was blindsided as Sam attacked him from behind, knocking him unconscious. Sam dragged him back into the house and tied him to a chair, placing the chair in the center of a spell-inscribed circle. Conscious, Bobby told him he didn’t want to do this, saying he’d been like a father to Sam, who said that was just it. He apologized without conviction, yanked Bobby’s head back to expose his throat, and started the downward slash of his knife – but Dean grabbed his wrist, announced he was home, and sucker-punched him, knocking him out.
Looking through the peephole at Sam, lying unconscious and handcuffed to the cot in the panic room, Dean told Bobby he couldn’t keep doing this, asking what he was supposed to do and whether he was supposed to tie Sam up every time he tried to kill someone. He acknowledged that cuffs and the panic room wouldn’t hold him anyway, and Bobby agreed he was capable of anything. Through the peephole, he saw Sam wake up, and their eyes met and locked, Dean’s troubled gaze on Sam’s implacable one. Then Dean shut the peephole and trudged upstairs – to find Death waiting, eating a bacon dog from a stand in Los Angeles and offering Dean one. When Dean hesitated, Death ordered him to sit. He told Dean he wanted a treat before he put the ring back on, and as Dean turned the ring in his fingers, Death observed it was heavier than it looked and sometimes, you just wanted the thing off. Setting down the ring, Dean admitted he’d flunked, and said he’d sucked at being Death and screwed up the whole natural order thing. Death asked, if he had the chance to go back, whether he’d simply kill the little girl without hesitation or fuss, and Dean said he would, knowing what he knew now. Death said he was surprised to hear that, and then added he was also glad. Dean told him not to get excited because he just would have saved the nurse, but Death said he thought it was a little more than that. Saying Dean had gotten a hard look behind the curtain, Death observed wrecking the natural order wasn’t so much fun when he had to mop up the mess. Death acknowledged this was hard for Dean, saying he threw away his own life because he assumed it would bounce right back into his lap, but he warned that a human soul wasn’t a rubber ball. Saying it was vulnerable and impermanent, he nonetheless added it was stronger than Dean knew, and more valuable than he could imagine. He said he thought Dean learned something. Dean responded that he thought Death knew he wouldn’t last a day, and when Death protested mildly he didn’t know what Dean was talking about, Dean countered that he’d lost, but said Death should have the balls to admit the game was rigged from the jump. Pinning him with a cold gaze, Death said most people treated him with more respect, and when Dean began to apologize, Death cut him off, saying they were done here and he was going to go to Hell to get his brother’s soul. Dumbfounded, Dean asked why he would do that for him, and Death responded that he wouldn’t do it for him. He said Dean and his brother kept coming back, that they were an affront to the universe and caused disruption on a global scale. But he continued that he had a use right now, that he was digging at something. Calling him an intrepid detective, Death said he wanted Dean to keep digging. He said it was about the souls, and Dean would understand when he needed to.
As Death began to put on his ring, Dean asked desperately if the wall thing was really going to work, and Death called it seventy-five percent. Then he put on the ring and disappeared, and Dean pelted down the stairs, calling to Bobby to open the panic room door. Death appeared inside as Sam shouted at him to get away from him, but Death calmly set down his cane and opened a medical bag, drawing out the brilliant light of Sam’s soul. Telling Sam he would put up a barrier in his mind and that it might feel a little itchy, he warned him not to scratch the wall because he wouldn’t like what happens. Sam turned to Dean, begging to him not to do this and saying Dean didn’t know what would happen to him, but Dean watched with fear and resigned, committed pain as Death reinserted Sam’s soul and Sam screamed in agony.
Commentary And Meta Analysis
I loved this episode. I had a little problem with the failure of the causation logic Tessa presented, but I was able to handwave that pretty easily and just dig into the meat of a powerful, tasty story that barreled along on the engine of great performances. In this discussion, I’m going to explore why Sam needs a soul; contemplate Dean and Sam as affronts to the universe, what that had to do with the Apocalypse, and what it may mean for the world now; and speculate about what may be behind Death’s surprise decision to grant Dean Sam’s soul even though he lost the wager.
Dean Doesn’t Care About Me … He’ll Kill Me To Get That Other Guy Back
Nothing demonstrated the absolute need for Sam to regain his soul nearly as much as Sam’s cold-blooded attempt to murder Bobby in order to block his soul’s return. Sam’s memories of Bobby’s kindness and love, stripped of all their emotional content, couldn’t compete with his primal survival instinct, which translated into a willingness to do anything at all in order to prevent Dean from forcing his soul back into his body. There was no hesitation at all in his decision, and despite his words, no real regret for what he would have done to Bobby. His own survival in his current form was all that mattered. Even Sam’s calculated gamble in letting Dean be turned by the vampires didn’t approach the ruthlessness he displayed here; at least then, he did it in the full knowledge that Samuel had a probable cure for what Dean would experience. His terminal plans for Bobby, however, demonstrated once and for all that Sam without a soul was too dangerous to remain alive, and had nothing truly in common with the boy and man he’d always been.
Sam’s justification to Bobby – that Dean didn’t care about him, but only about his brother burning in Hell, and he would kill soulless Sam to get his own Sammy back – displayed his utter and absolute dissociation from himself. Despite having all the same memories as fully integrated Sam, soulless Sam saw himself as a distinct individual fully separable from the brother Dean remembered. He flatly admitted he wasn’t Dean’s brother any more, not in any way that mattered. That more than anything made the point that, at least in the world of Supernatural, self truly resides in the soul, not the body or the mind. Real-Sam may often have distanced himself from his brother – think of his disavowal of his family in the pilot, and the schism between the brothers that steadily widened in season four and much of season five – but the one thing he never did was deny their brotherhood, however strained.
Sam was right in believing Dean, lacking any other choice, would have killed his soulless body and mind not only to get his true brother back, but ultimately as the sole means to protect others from his utter ruthlessness. Having lost all hope in losing his wager with Death, Dean was clearly contemplating having to kill Sam when he looked in on him in the panic room and asked Bobby what he was supposed to do, observing he couldn’t keep locking Sam up. He couldn’t bring himself even to say the words, but the thought was on his face and in his eyes, and the despair of it was crippling.
Soulless Sam’s fear of death or other termination was very real, and seemed to him a perfectly valid rationale for taking any possible steps to avoid it – but that very choice was the antithesis of the Sam who overcame fear and willingly accepted death and damnation to save the world and his brother. Selfishness and selflessness are polar opposites, and though they coexist in all of us, how we choose between them defines who we truly are. Like Dean, I have to believe that the real Sam wouldn’t have made the choice this soulless fragment did, and that there has to be hope both that Sam can be complete again and that, once he is, he will absolve and forgive Dean for having made unilaterally and over the vehement objections of his incomplete self the dangerous choice of reuniting him with his soul.
You’re An Affront To The Universe, And You Cause Disruption On A Global Scale
Based on Death’s comment, I’m going to bet the brothers are going to discover that all the current weirdness of monsters acting out of pattern – not to mention everything else being strange – began because (a) they exist; (b) they are both repeatedly alive when they shouldn’t be, thus constantly introducing increasing instability into the natural order of things; and (c) they stopped the Apocalypse and thus set the entirety of the future of Earth on a different course, since it continued when it had been expected to end. How that all ties together metaphysically, I don’t pretend to know, but I’m going to do some speculating here.
All these thoughts grew out of my ruminations about the effect of the brothers’ unnatural existence on the world after something Tessa said: You saw what happened to the nurse. Go and kill that girl, Dean. I tried to tell you what you already know. She’s disrupting the natural order by being alive. You of all people know what that means. Chaos and sadness will follow her for the rest of her life.
Tessa intimated that anyone disrupting the natural order by being alive when they shouldn’t have been – whether by failing to die when nature would have dictated or by being brought back to life after death – would inevitably cause a ripple-effect cascade of unintended negative consequences warping everything and everyone around them until they finally died and stopped disrupting the natural order. According to Tessa, the cumulative unnatural negatives to everyone else would always outweigh the transient happiness to isolated individuals from any unnatural gain. In this case, she suggested the joy of Hilary and her father in suddenly being able to plan for a future wouldn’t last, and would be counterbalanced by grief inflicted on others that otherwise wouldn’t have happened.
If that’s true, then all the accumulated messy sorrow, grief, and madness of the Winchesters’ lives, with all the concomitant effect they’ve had on others, may be the direct outgrowth of the very first domino that got knocked over – and that wasn’t Dean’s deal for Sam’s life back in All Hell Breaks Loose, Part 2, or John’s earlier deal to save Dean In My Time Of Dying, or Sam’s even earlier unwitting substitution of another man’s death for Dean’s in Faith, but Mary’s deal to bring John back from the dead all the way back In The Beginning. Chaos and sadness certainly dogged John following his resurrection, and since his sons were with him, they were also affected. If Tessa is right, the negative spiral would only increase over time, and each successive unnatural act resulting from Sam’s, John’s, and Dean’s choices would just have magnified the effect and extended its effects across time. So: Mary resurrected John, and from that act Dean and Sam – who otherwise wouldn’t even have existed – were born with their futures already unnaturally warped.
You might say Dean and Sam should never have been born, and their very existence thus was, from the beginning, a violation of the natural order, triggering the whole cascade leading to the aborted Apocalypse and everything that followed.
It boggles the mind.
It also suggests the mechanism Azazel, Lucifer, and the impatient rogue angels in Heaven used to trigger the Apocalypse. According to what we learned over seasons four and five, despite their constant, self-serving claims that the final battle was preordained and thus inevitable, angels and demons both admittedly deliberately manipulated events to make things happen as they were written, and all of those manipulations were designed not to serve the natural order, but to disrupt it to produce the specific conditions necessary to fulfill the prophecy. Let me explain.
We saw in Lucifer Rising that Lucifer understood what it would take to set things in motion: he ordered Azazel to breed his special children to produce the ideal vessel he would need for his predicted battle with Michael. In every case we saw during In The Beginning, Azazel executed that commission by making a deliberate deal against nature to gain access to a potential future child: he killed one boy’s abusive father out of turn in an untimely accident, and promised the recovery of another girl’s beloved but terminally ill father. Ultimately, he killed Samuel and Deanna Campbell and John Winchester to pressure Mary into a deal, and violated nature by bringing John back to life, all with the goal of producing Sam to serve Lucifer. Later, after Dean had been manipulated predictably into selling his soul to buy back his brother’s life, the demons gleefully admitted in I Know What You Did Last Summer that they had Dean precisely where they wanted him, and we finally learned in On The Head Of A Pin that Dean’s torture and breaking in Hell was rigged as a precondition to trigger the Apocalypse.
As evidenced by Zachariah in multiple episodes, most openly in Lucifer Rising, the middle-management angels were equally guilty of tampering with the natural order and manipulating events to suit themselves. In My Bloody Valentine, the Cupid claimed the heavenly hierarchy – from which we know God had already been long absent, given comments by angels in episodes from Heaven And Hell on – had deliberately matched John and Mary with the specific intent of producing human brothers with the appropriate angel-hosting bloodline (something we learned was essential in The Rapture and The Song Remains The Same) to fulfill the terms of being mirroring vessels for Michael and Lucifer. According to the Cupid, John and Mary wouldn’t have become a couple absent the angelic tampering, so even their pairing was a perversion of the natural order. We saw Zachariah altering reality to produce his desired results, for example, by changing the voicemail message Dean had left to a different one designed to push Sam over the edge into cooperating with Ruby to unwittingly release Lucifer. And it became horrifically clear that Zachariah deliberately delayed the rescue of Dean’s soul from Hell – another perversion of the natural order – until after he had broken, setting the apocalyptic dominoes in motion. The angels were the ones who unnaturally restored Dean to life in Lazarus Rising and brought both brothers back in Dark Side Of The Moon. And let’s not even get into what Trickster Gabriel did in repeatedly killing and resurrecting Dean in Mystery Spot, all trying to make a point about the futility and deadly consequences of the brothers’ self-sacrificial obsession with each other.
I have my own little suspicion that the much-vaunted prophecies about the Apocalypse never reflected God’s intent for His creation, but simply reflected His foreknowledge of what would happen as the natures of angels and demons played out when they were left to their own devices. This posits that God understood and could foresee the continuation of the dispute between Michael and Lucifer, and did nothing to impose any different outcome than the one the brother angels pursued because of their own characters, personalities, perceptions, and beliefs. The wild card was the very human free will that ultimately derailed that deliberately engineered apocalypse: Dean’s steadfast commitment to his brother and his human refusal to yield to Michael and fate, combined with Sam’s choice to save the world and redeem his earlier bad decisions by making himself a trap for Lucifer. The irony of that in the context of this entire discussion, of course, would be that, if I’m right, neither Dean nor Sam would have existed as part of the natural order in the first place. If Lucifer, Michael, and their angelic and demonic minions hadn’t deliberately tried to bring about the end, they wouldn’t have brought into being and shaped the very two men who spiked their plans and changed the whole world game.
It amuses me to think Death was being absolutely literal when he described the Winchesters as “an affront to the universe causing disruption on a global scale” not just because they keep coming back in violation of nature, but because they weren’t supposed to exist in the first place, and their very existence has changed things fundamentally in ways only God and Death could fully comprehend. Mind you, I think both God and Death may enjoy the Winchesters precisely because they are so out of pattern and unique. They may be exhausting and somewhat irritating for Death to deal with because cleaning up after them requires constant effort to match their constant disruption of the fabric of existence, but they also afford marvelous opportunities to relieve the boredom and ennui of otherwise repetitive and predictable nature, and their peculiar position and abilities may provide unexpected leverage for God and Death to subtly make things happen in despite of the plans of angels, demons, and others who want to control humanity.
It’s About The Souls. You’ll Understand, When You Need To
Despite considering Dean and Sam an affront to the universe, Death nonetheless granted Dean the gift of liberating his brother’s soul from Hell and encouraged the continuation of their disruption of the natural order. The question is, why.
Through the device of forcing Dean to perceive directly the consequences to others not only of his own decisions, but also of anything happening in defiance of the natural order, I think Death sensitized Dean to something he’d long understood on the personal level but didn’t and couldn’t previously appreciate on the macro scale.
Dean already knew from his own experience how defying the natural order could warp lives: he carried the guilt of knowing a stranger had died for him in Faith and the guilt, shame, and grief of understanding his father had sold his soul and gone to Hell for him. In The Magnificent Seven, he admitted his selfishness in knowingly having inflicted that same pain on Sam by having sold his own soul to restore Sam’s life.
Dean has also known for a long time that his actions can have adverse consequences on others. In Faith, for example, he was tormented by the realization that doing the right thing and stopping LeGrange would deprive Layla of the very same second chance at life he’d been given. Knowing that, he didn’t even try to fight when the Reaper came for him; he would have expiated his guilt at living by forfeiting his life to her. He knew his interference had robbed her of new life, and telling himself they’d done the right thing didn’t make the consequences any more palatable.
What I think Dean hadn’t perceived before, however, was the true potential reach of such effects and their impact on others at a more distant remove. That’s what I believe he learned through seeing the nurse’s death and her distraught husband’s attempt at suicide as the unintended, unforeseen consequence of Dean’s decision to save the little girl. What I think he still hasn’t quite realized is the extent to which his own continued unnatural existence – and Sam’s, Samuel’s, and even Bobby’s as well – must be having ripple effects on other people he doesn’t know, even as the little girl’s life affected the nurse’s husband despite the man never having known the girl. Having gotten this particular lesson, however, I think Dean may be ready to start perceiving the broader consequences spreading out from the four of them flapping their butterfly wings. I think he’s almost ready to begin seeing connections he previously would have dismissed as coincidences or as unrelated events. And with that increased awareness, he may be more careful of the actions he chooses to take, especially those in defiance of the natural order, precisely because he now understands that their effects may reach further than he ever considered before.
And I wonder how that may tie in to the reason Death gave Sam back his soul and told Dean they should keep digging, and the clues he gave in telling Dean that while souls were impermanent and vulnerable, they were also stronger than Dean knew and more valuable than he could imagine. I suspect Death might not have brought back Sam’s soul if Dean hadn’t evidenced developing caution with regard to making wholesale changes in the natural order. With his newfound awareness, Dean may be less of a loose cannon, while still being an effective wild card. The added need to maintain that caution for Sam’s sake also serves as another potential control lever to keep the Winchester reality-correction mechanism within certain bounds.
I’m going to go out on a limb and guess both that this will tie in to the quest for Purgatory and the balance of the civil war in Heaven, and that it has definite implications for Sam’s future well-being. And I think Death has a definite stake in the first that could explain his actions here. Death very pointedly said he wasn’t returning Sam’s soul as a favor to Dean, which suggests he was doing it either as a favor to someone else – God, perhaps? – or directly to benefit himself, and I can definitely see a potential for the latter.
In Two Minutes To Midnight, Death told Dean that he was bound much against his will to be at Lucifer’s beck and call, and said that while Dean couldn’t release him from that spell, he could use Sam’s plan and the power of the Horsemen’s rings to empty the bullets from Lucifer’s gun. Dean agreed, and although he was lying at the time, having no intent to let Sam jump into the pit, he ultimately followed through on his promise, and Lucifer was caged. That meant Lucifer could no longer command Death, but apparently left Death still harnessed to Lucifer’s wagon and subject to his bit and bridle if he should ever escape again.
I wonder if the force still binding Death has to do with the power of souls, and if understanding the nature of Purgatory and being able to utilize the power of the spirits assembled there could provide the means to free Death permanently from Lucifer’s bonds. That would provide very personal incentive for Death to encourage the brothers’ curiosity and deliberately utilize their penchant for throwing wrenches into even the most massively constructed plans; just look at what they did to the Apocalypse. And part of what makes the brothers so effective has to be the way they – as two otherwise normal, free-willed humans – nonetheless stand so apart from the natural order, with all the ripple effect that induces on the world around them. Even when they don’t realize it or mean to be, they’re the hinges on which events and reality swing, and I think that makes them potentially very useful to someone who wants a certain door to swing a certain way.
I’ve speculated before that the souls in Purgatory might be a power source that could affect the outcome of the civil war in Heaven and the balance of power in Hell, depending on who found the way to tap and harness that source. Now I wonder if souls aren’t just what it’s about, but are what it’s all about – and if they always have been.
Along those lines, I further suspect that Death’s comment about the strength of souls was aimed directly at Sam. Much has been said about how badly damaged Sam’s soul is, after spending over a year as a ragged scrap helplessly shredded and torn between Lucifer and Michael. Angels, demons, and Death all agree Sam’s living, human mind and body couldn’t cope with experiencing what his soul endured. Death’s comment about impermanence and vulnerability come to mind. Death put the memories and the pain behind a wall in Sam’s mind to protect him, with dire warnings about what would happen when and if that wall came down.
But I think Death’s observation about the great strength of souls holds out the distinct promise of hope that, given enough time left in peace, Sam’s soul could heal. Sam and Dean are already poster boys for the resilience of the human spirit; both of them have been through things that would have left most people as catatonics, gibbering idiots, or actively suicidal alcoholics. They’ve both skirted close to the line on that last one already, but haven’t yet gone down the drain. I think this is just one more challenge for them to face and find a way to surmount, and I do believe they will – albeit not without pain, fear, and suffering along the way, especially if it appears the wall might fall before they’ve had a chance to shore up the structure of Sam’s life and sanity enough to withstand the collapse.
I also wonder if there may not be a potential quest building here, perhaps involving an active search for things that could help Sam’s soul heal. Given the way the show always has its own spin on things, I’m curious about what interpretation Supernatural might put on the references in the books of Genesis and Jeremiah to the sovereign healing properties of a “balm in Gilead;” I could see the writers springing off from the literal accepted meaning of a real-world, resinous gum from the bark of a kind of tree in Gilead that didn’t grow in Jordan, to a more mythical, spiritual one. After all, if there are stolen heavenly weapons on the loose being traded for their value, it would make sense that biblically legendary good things might also have been stolen by Balthazar or other enterprising rogues, and might be in the wind for our brothers to find ...
I’ve said it before, but I’ll say it again: I loved this episode! From concept to script to performances to direction to editing to final presentation and soundtrack, it rocked in so many ways that I run out of words. But I’ll share the ones I have anyway.
In keeping with my tradition of getting my criticisms out of the way first, I will say I had one little beef with the script by Sera Gamble and Robert Singer. I’m going to go on about it at a little length only because it takes a fair number of words to explain, but despite that, it’s a small thing and winds up being adequately explained away. So read the following few paragraphs with that in mind; they don’t really matter.
My issue with this episode was a script detail: the failure of the causation logic Tessa presented, which was the linchpin around which Dean’s decisions turned. Dean saved the little girl, and Tessa maintained the girl’s nurse died out of turn because of what Dean did.
Tessa: You let the girl live. Nurse goes home early, gets in a crash she wouldn’t have. And she needs the heart surgeon. Where’s he?
Dean: You knew this would happen!
Tessa: No; just knew that you knocked over a domino.
My problem with the way this was presented is simply that it doesn’t logically follow. Supposedly, the nurse and the heart surgeon were both able to go home early because Hilary’s scheduled surgery was canceled on account of her miraculous recovery, which happened because Dean spared Hilary – but if Dean had killed Hilary on schedule, her heart surgery would also have been canceled in almost the same timeframe, simply because the patient would have died. Unless dealing with the aftermath of the little girl dying would have detained the nurse for some reason, she would still have been able to leave early … so where was the causal relationship between Dean’s decision to spare the little girl and the nurse’s supposedly untimely death?
This glitch made me stumble a little during the episode – the curse of an overly picky logical mind! – but in the aftermath I waved it off as correct simply because the nurse didn’t leave at exactly the same time she should have. Hilary would have died earlier and the surgery would accordingly have been cancelled earlier, if Dean had properly executed his Death duty. I figured the nurse, in the proper course of events, would have been able to leave earlier than she actually did, because Dean’s action delayed the cancellation of the surgery by inserting another examination step. That let me say Tessa was right about the cause/effect relationship, but the script simply took the timing issue in the wrong direction.
And given that was my only significant issue with the episode – an ultra-picky nit I could still logic away! – I’m obviously reaching for one thing to criticize!
Everything else, I loved. I laughed at the little detail of the Chinese butcher instantly sizing up Dean as “hunter” and simply pointing him back to Dr. Robert. That spoke volumes about Dean simply fitting the obvious “hunter type” and being an automatic candidate for Dr. Robert, and the butcher’s simple, matter-of-fact assumptions tickled my funny bone. Another detail I adored was Dr. Robert and Death both quoting 75 percent as the success chance for the things they were proposing, given that in the original story of the merchant’s servant trying to avoid Death, he rode about 75 miles to reach the distant town of Samarra, which was, of course, where Death expected to find him. Another detail I loved was both Dean and Sam using the identical justification of “desperate times” with pretty much the identical vocal inflection for the otherwise unconscionable things they were trying to do – Dean, killing himself to try summoning Death, and Sam, summoning Balthazar to ask for help.
I also loved the script for having Dean ask Death to save both his brothers. Recognition of Adam’s fate has been generally lacking in the show this season; I liked seeing confirmation that Dean had not forgotten his other brother. It was inevitable that, forced to choose, Dean would have picked Sam – but I truly hope we will get to see that Adam is not forgotten and that, ultimately, he will be returned to Heaven and reunited with his mother.
One more script feature I have to point out and smile about was Death referring to Dean as “intrepid detective.” That was sweet because it references comic book mastermind Ra’s al Ghul’s pet name for Batman. Death basically called Dean Batman, but he was too rattled to notice!
I truly appreciated the elements of Mike Rohl’s direction, too, and with them, the editing by Tom McQuade. Having Death get up and walk away even as Dr. Roberts and Eva made the first attempt to resuscitate Dean, and having Death move away again every time they made another attempt, was a beautiful combination of direction and editing reinforcing script. Rohl also does a great job with action sequences, and the scene of Dean in the car with the nurse’s husband was superb.
I do not have enough words to express my admiration for Julian Richings, or my gratitude for the casting directors who located him and the folks at Supernatural – directors, producers, or a combination of the two – who chose him to portray Death. Richings is simply, utterly perfect. He blew me away in Two Minutes To Midnight and repeated that feat here, and I bow to him. If I ever get the chance to meet him, I will thank him effusively; he has made an indelible impression and deserves more rewards and accolades than I can give. Yes, he was that good. I’m confident we’ll see him again in the future, and I will be very glad of it.
Horror staple Robert Edlund as Dr. Robert was hilarious, providing some much-needed levity. His greeting for Dean seemed of a piece with him last having seen Dean as a little boy; he did everything but actually pinch his cheeks, and that made me laugh out loud. Nancy McKeon as Tessa remains a favorite. Tessa’s progress from compassion in In My Time Of Dying to pointing out hard truths in Death Takes A Holiday to growing increasingly irritated with Dean interfering in her job here kept a nice line going on her character’s evolution, and while I prefer her compassionate side, I can appreciate the irritation too!
Jensen Ackles and Jared Padalecki have been outstanding this season. Jensen conveyed all of Dean’s pain and grief and fear brilliantly. His empathy for the grieving father kept Ben and Lisa in the forefront of the story even though he didn’t mention them. Jared has obviously had a blast portraying sociopathic Sam, and I have really appreciated what he’s been doing, but I’ll confess – I am really looking forward to having Real Sam back with all the emotions we’ve missed, especially the chance to come together again with his brother. I wonder how Sam will feel about the decision Dean made to get his soul from Hell and force it back into his body; I wonder what things he will remember, and how he’ll deal with them. And given Sam’s curious nature, we all know he won’t be able to resist scratching at that wall, despite any fear of the consequences.
A few quick final notes. Jay Gruska is the best in the business at original scores to support highly emotional scenes. He’s the go-to composer for almost every piece of music characterizing Dean’s heartbreaking love of family and sense of loss whenever he faces something he simply can’t fix, but also can’t bear to lose. And the visual effects team gets a callout for the beautifully subtle light manipulations that brought Death’s ring to life whenever it was put on. That was very quiet, but very effective.
I have great hope for the rest of the season, come the new year. Until then, keep rewatching!