Sam’s forgotten past
Spins a present spider trap;
A year earlier in Bristol, Rhode Island, Sam coldly fired his gun at four separate targets as Samuel Campbell uncomfortably looked on, and they left the building burning behind them. Sam’s arm was bleeding as they walked away, carrying machetes in hand, but he said it would hold until they got out of town. As they drove away in Samuel’s van, however, a deputy sheriff pulled them over, calling them Federal agents Roark and Wynand, and saying he couldn’t get hold of Sheriff Dobbs or anyone else on the phone. Samuel said they’d spoken to Dobbs earlier and started to offer a placating speculation about why he might not be answering, but the deputy noticed Sam’s bleeding shoulder and insisted on taking them back in his car, saying he’d arrest them if they didn’t come. Sam scoffed at the idea and turned away, but as the deputy reached for his gun and Samuel urged him just to take it easy, Sam spun around and hit the deputy, proceeding brutally to beat him unconscious. Samuel asked wryly if he didn’t think there were calmer ways they could have handled it, but Sam callously asked if they cared, and got back into the van. Less than pleased, Samuel still took the wheel and drove off, leaving the deputy lying in the road.
In the present day, Dean returned from a lunch run to find Sam watching television, trying to catch up on events from the year and a half he had missed. After snarking about whether Mel Gibson was possessed, given the turn in his recent behavior, Dean reported having had a conversation with Bobby, who said there had been no further developments concerning the “Mother of All” and everything was quiet. Sam’s phone rang with a text message consisting of nothing but his name and a set of coordinates, but he didn’t know who sent it. When he called the number back, it just rang without being answered. The coordinates mapped to Bristol, RI, where three women had disappeared within the last week, seemingly vanishing into thin air. Sam guessed the text could have come from another hunter looking for backup, since he didn’t even know how many other hunters he might have met while working with the Campbells, and said he thought they should go. Dean objected, not liking the mysterious setup, but Sam argued they couldn’t ignore a bunch of missing girls. Dean reluctantly conceded, but insisted that if things got squirrely, they would dump out, and Sam agreed.
On the way into town at night, passing the welcome billboard that touted Bristol as the place “Where Memories Are Made,” Sam had a disturbing flash of memory of driving past that same billboard in the van with Samuel. Noticing his sudden tension, Dean looked for a source and asked what was wrong, but Sam dismissed it as nothing. Catching dinner in a pirate-themed restaurant, comparing notes on the missing women, Dean observed the kidnapper had a type, given they were all hot brunettes, but Sam noted they had nothing else in common. While Dean took a bathroom break, a woman approached Sam accompanied by her husband, who looked decidedly unhappy with the woman’s obviously flirtatious attitude. The woman called him Agent Roark and asked if he was in town because the disappearances had started up again, and Sam, not remembering the couple at all, solemnly agreed and asked them to contact him if they learned anything. She asked where his partner, the big bald guy named Wynand, was, and as Sam floundered, Dean returned, saying Wynand was in sex rehab. Without using a name, Sam introduced Dean as his new partner, and Dean indicated they needed to leave. As the woman and her husband walked away to the bar, she touched Sam’s shoulder, and Sam had another memory flash, this time of fast and furious bathroom sex with the woman. Noting the cougar-look the woman gave him as the couple left, and the argument the couple engaged in at the bar, Dean asked what was up, and Sam, disturbed, said he thought he and Samuel must have worked a case in the town. Dean contributed his own corroborating evidence, Sam’s and Samuel’s faces in the background of a photo taken in the restaurant and posted on the wall. Dean hurriedly paid the check and ushered them out the door.
Back in the house they were squatting in, Dean hustled his packing and told Sam to hurry it up, but Sam argued they couldn’t leave. Researching on his laptop, Sam said five guys had disappeared a year ago and they’d never found the bodies, and reasoned that had to be the case he and Samuel had worked. With women going missing now, he guessed either he and Samuel hadn’t finished the case, or they only thought they had. Either way, he concluded the current case was his responsibility for not having gotten it right the first time. Dean argued they should call Bobby and get another hunter to deal with it, pointing out that hunters never took repeat jobs in the same town because they always left messes behind, and not repeating was one of John’s cardinal rules. Sam shot back that finishing what you started was another of their father’s rules, and he obviously hadn’t finished this one. When Dean continued to stare him down, Sam said he understood that Dean was afraid he’d stroll down memory lane and kick down the wall in his head to wind up drooling on the floor from his memories of Hell, but he insisted he couldn’t leave, saying since what was happening in the town was due to him having screwed up before big time, it was his responsibility to stop it. He pointed out Dean would do the same thing in his place, and Dean reluctantly agreed, saying he’d follow up on the brunettes while Sam learned what he could from the police.
While talking to the roommate of one of the missing women, Dean found one of “Agent Roark’s” business cards, and learned that Sam had questioned the women because one of the missing men had lived in their apartment building. With a little persuasion, Dean discovered Sam and the missing woman had been sexually involved.
As Sam, wearing his FBI suit, arrived at the police station, the cop he’d beaten unconscious on his previous visit immediately pulled a gun on him and arrested him, locking him up on suspicion of murder for all the disappearances. The deputy told him he had to be stupid, coming back, and said the FBI had no record of him as an agent. He demanded to know where the bodies were, including the missing Sheriff Roy Dobbs, and when Sam protested he didn’t remember anything, left him locked in the cell. Hours later, after nightfall, a woman came into the cellblock demanding to know what happened to her husband, the missing sheriff. She said she knew who he was and what he did, and called him Sam. Looking at her, Sam began to have more flashes of memory, seeing her with her husband, the sheriff, talking with Sam and Samuel and learning that they weren’t Feds but hunted monsters. Sam recalled having objected to the woman being there, and hearing Roy say she worked with him at the sheriff’s station and anything they said to him, they would tell her as well. Surfacing from the memory, he stated the obvious, and she retorted that her husband had disappeared and they had disappeared, and she was left wondering what to think, whether they’d killed him or some thing had. She said she just wanted to know what happened, and Sam earnestly agreed he wanted the same. He told her something happened to him and he didn’t remember anything, not even her name. He asked her to believe him, pointing out that if he’d remembered having been there before, he’d never have walked up to the police station. He promised he could find answers, but not from inside the cell. Telling him her name was Brenna, she considered for a moment, and then unlocked the cell, saying that they needed to find rope for him to tie her up to sell the idea that he broke out of jail.
The woman who’d spoken to Sam in the bar, drinking boxed wine in her kitchen despite her husband’s silent disapproval, headed into her basement for a box to replace the emptied one. The light didn’t work, and as she cautiously headed down the steps, a hand snaked between the risers and grabbed her ankle, making her fall down the stairs. She screamed at seeing whatever approached her.
Back in their abandoned house the next morning, Sam was listening to a police scanner while going through his research notes when he heard a noise outside. Pulling his gun, nervous and jumpy, he got behind the door before it opened – and found himself pointing his gun at Dean. Snidely pointing out he’d been right about revisiting the town being a bad idea, Dean asked him how it felt to be a fugitive again, and filled him in on having learned Sam had biblically known one of the missing women. They heard a radio call reporting another missing person, and Dean blocked Sam from moving, saying he would check it out and insisting Sam stay in the house. Sam agreed and Dean left – and the moment he was gone, Sam headed out.
Leaving the house after talking to the missing woman’s husband, Dean called Sam, getting his voicemail and leaving the message that he’d figured out the common denominator: all the missing women had sex with Sam the last time he’d been in town. Dean warned that the text message and the disappearances were all bait in a trap for Sam, and ordered Sam to call him back.
Sam, meanwhile, surprised Brenna in her home. She demanded to know where the latest missing woman was, angrily noting that no sooner had she let Sam escape than the woman disappeared. Sam said he needed her help, that he needed the case files her husband had made about the disappearances the previous year, and admitted he knew they weren’t in the police station because he’d broken in there in search of them already. He promised they could find out what happened last year and stop what was happening now. Against her better judgment, she admitted the files were upstairs, and went to get them.
While she was gone, Sam flashed on having spent a casual evening with Brenna and Roy talking about hunting over beers. He remembered Samuel saying the moving-around lifestyle was great when they were young, but it got tougher with a family. He reminisced that when Deanna got pregnant, they didn’t know what they were going to do, but concluded Mary was a blessing. As Samuel went to get more beer, Brenna noted that he missed Mary, but observed they at least had each other. Sam quickly said Samuel hadn’t been around when he was a kid and they had more of a business relationship. When Brenna asked if he had any other family, Sam remembered hesitating, then dismissively saying that family just slows you down.
Brenna startled him out of the memory when she returned with the box of files, and as he looked at a photo of one of the missing men, he had more memory flashes, including peeling a web or cocoon away from the man’s face. An evidence bag containing white fibers brought the flash of Samuel, over dinner in the Buccaneer restaurant, saying his best guess was an arachne, a monster from Crete no one had seen in two thousand years, and one he didn’t know how to kill. Sam proposed a plan to use bait to draw it to a park central to the other disappearances. Increasingly uncomfortable with the memory flashes, Sam asked Brenna if he could take the box of files for a few hours, and she agreed. He turned on his phone as he walked out the door, getting Dean’s voicemail message even as he saw tatters of white fiber webbing blowing in the breeze at the side of the porch. He set down the box to investigate the webbing, and something with multi-faceted eyes watched him. He was so absorbed that he jumped when a hand touched his shoulder, and he nearly shot Dean as he whipped around. Irritated, Dean said he’d figured Sam would try talking to Brenna, and said they had to get him out of there. As they left, the multiple eyes watched Sam.
Back at their abandoned house, Dean summed up the situation as a monster wanting to kill Sam specifically, and Sam said it was an arachne, admitting he’d begun to remember things. Dean asked what else he remembered, and Sam reassured him it was nothing to do with Hell, which didn’t reassure Dean at all. Sam offered the thought that things were just coming back to him and maybe it was natural, and Dean’s instant response was that they were leaving. When Sam protested, Dean said flatly they weren’t the only hunters on the planet, and Bobby and Rufus could clean it up. Sam protested they had no leads, and frustratedly said he knew what did this, but just couldn’t remember. Angry, Dean yanked the files away from him, saying he didn’t think Sam got the risk involved, and asking if he understood that every time he scratched the memory wall, he was playing Russian roulette. Sam said he understood Dean was worried, but observed it would either happen or it wouldn’t, and he was starting to think he’d done bad things here and didn’t care if it was dangerous – he just needed to set things right. He said he had a soul now, and it wouldn’t let him just walk away. He announced that he was staying, and needed Dean to back him up. Dean reluctantly agreed, and they started to assemble all the information they had in their own spiderweb of links and maps, tacking the pieces up on the wall.
Looking at the completed pattern, Sam began to experience more memory flashes, and finally had it all. He remembered calling Roy to sucker him into position in the park, since he fit the victim profile as Sam and Samuel didn’t, and countering Samuel’s objections about keeping Roy ignorant by saying they needed a good performance and Roy would be fine. Samuel said it wasn’t the way he was used to doing things, and Sam welcomed him to the future. In the park, they saw the waiting Roy jumped by a fast-moving, vaguely female figure, but by the time they ran up, Roy was gone. Samuel wanted to search, but Sam argued they were already gone, and said it didn’t matter because he’d activated the GPS on Roy’s phone so they could track where he went. Samuel was appalled to think Roy was nothing but spider-bait to Sam, and Sam back-pedaled, assuring this had only been his back-up plan, but Samuel observed he was about as cold as they come. The signal led them to a waterfront building. Inside, they found all the male victims wrapped in cocoons of fiber. When Samuel freed one man’s face, they all awoke, and Roy begged for help, saying he couldn’t feel. Sam asked where the spider was, and the woman attacked him, flinging him into a wall. Samuel shot her multiple times, but the bullets had no effect, and she flung him aside too. Sam came up swinging a machete and beheaded her, and that seemed to work. Samuel advocated calling an ambulance to help the men, but Sam, citing information on brown recluse spider bites, maintained they were poisoned beyond hope, with poison eating them alive, and shot each man in the head to put him out of his misery, first telling Roy he had been a hero and then telling Samuel to fetch the gasoline to burn the building and the bodies. With the memories in his eyes in the present, Sam told Dean he knew what happened.
At the sheriff’s house, Brenna got up to investigate a noise, and discovered Roy, his face disfigured and his eyes sporting double pupils, telling her he loved her. The phone rang – Sam calling supposedly to check in – and she asked him to swing by. Sam told Dean he knew she was in trouble. They drove to the house, but Dean noticed the light on in the shed. Investigating, they found Brenna, who asked Sam if it was true, what he had done to Roy. Roy attacked from behind them, flinging Dean into a hanging net and slamming Sam up against the wall, telling him to answer the question.
A short time later, with both of the Winchesters immobilized by web cocoons, Roy continued his discussion with Sam while Dean surreptitiously sawed at his bonds with a piece of broken glass. Roy revealed the female arachne hadn’t been in the town to feed, but to breed: she had bitten the men to turn them into arachne themselves. Bullets and fire didn’t kill them, and they fled after Sam and Samuel had left them for dead. Roy said what kept him going was thinking about killing Sam, and he couldn’t understand why Sam wasn’t getting all the clues, until Brenna told him about Sam’s amnesia. When Sam asked where the missing women were, Roy said they were scattered to the wind, and they were like him now; all of them, monsters, like the other missing men. He congratulated Sam on making many monsters by killing one, and noted the only question was whether he would kill Sam, or turn him. Breaking free, Dean dove for one of the fallen machetes, but Roy tackled him and quickly got the upper hand, beginning to strangle him. Brenna grabbed one of the brothers’ machetes and cut Sam free, and Sam snatched the machete from her and beheaded Roy.
Sam walked Brenna back to the door of her house, trying to apologize, but she slammed the door on him. Packing up at the abandoned house, Dean asked Sam if he was okay, and Sam admitted Dean had been right; they shouldn’t have come back to Bristol. Dean offered that at least Sam had killed the spider-man, and when Sam asked if he was trying to say what Sam had done was a good thing, Dean told him that soulless Sam wasn’t him. Sam objected, saying it was him. Giving up, Dean asked if he could get Sam anything, and when Sam asked if Dean was his waitress, Dean said he was just trying to make Sam feel better, and told him not to be a bitch. Totally missing the old “jerk” rejoinder, Sam said instead that he was fine. Dean said sourly that he looked fine, and added he was just trying to say that everything would be okay. Sam started to ask what else his soulless self might have done, given what had happened in Bristol, but in the middle of his sentence he collapsed in a seizure. Dean raced to him, telling Sammy to talk to him, but his eyes were fixed and staring, and inside his mind, Sam found himself in the midst of fire, burning, and he screamed.
Commentary and Meta Analysis
I really enjoyed this episode for multiple reasons, particularly including the effective use of flashbacks, the creepiness of the developing mystery, and seeing the brothers further reestablishing their relationship. In this discussion, I’m going to examine the current state of the brothers’ relationship, given the threat hanging over their heads; look at Sam directly confronting his soulless self; and speculate about the link between the Mother of All and the arachne.
I Know What You Think is Gonna Happen, But It Will, Or It Won’t
Watching the dynamics between the brothers in this episode was simultaneously fascinating and frustrating. It was fascinating because it illustrated their very different responses to the threat looming over Sam and the reestablishment of their partnership balance, and it was frustrating because Sam falling back on secrets and lies seemed to be repeating old mistakes and forgetting hard-earned lessons.
Their very different approaches to the threat to Sam were illuminating. That threat defined and bounded Dean’s entire world. We saw in Like A Virgin Dean’s reluctance to let Sam hunt at all, given his fear that anything might be the trigger blasting a hole in the wall protecting Sam’s mind. That remained his overwhelming fear now, even beyond a hunter’s logical, eminently rational desire to avoid stepping and becoming mired in the mess left behind from a previous hunt. Losing Sam again – and particularly losing Sam because of a unilateral decision Dean himself had made to take the gamble of restoring Sam’s abused soul to his body – would be a crippling spiritual blow to Dean. Thus, I think Dean’s fear was doubled, encompassing both fear for Sam’s potential agony, madness, and death – a fear made all too immediate and real by his own vivid memories of Hell – and fear of what experiencing Sam’s fate would do to Dean himself. And the most frightening part of that whole situation was not knowing what one innocent, unpredictable, unavoidable thing might be the straw that broke the proverbial camel’s back. How do you live, when any moment, any stimulus, might explode a bomb?
Sam’s approach to dealing with the threat was very different from Dean’s, for at least two reasons. I do think Sam definitely understood how terrifying the prospect was for Dean, but Sam himself simply couldn’t live and function in the constant acknowledgment of a fear he couldn’t completely accept or define – given that, unlike Dean, he didn’t remember the vivid horrors of Hell and thus, I think, couldn’t really visualize what experiencing that would be like – or one that involved a consequence utterly outside his control. And I would submit that, despite Death’s admonishment that Sam not scratch the wall, the consequence really did remained outside Sam’s control purely because Sam is human. If I were to tell you not to think about a German Shepherd dog, what’s the first thing you’d think about? Woof, woof. We’re hard-wired to respond that way. Similarly, any outside stimulus is likely to trigger related memories in our brains, because our sensory impressions are wired into our memory storage structure. So the smell of chocolate chip cookies may bring back memories of Mom in the kitchen, and the sound of a favorite song may bring with it the instant recollection of dancing to it with our first love, complete with all the emotions we felt at the time. Sight, sound, smell, taste, and touch are all hotlinks to memory, and those things are beyond our conscious control. Sensory stimuli can be so powerful at unlocking memory that they can even overcome hypnotic suggestions to forget things. Even if Sam tried not to remember, rather than seeking to understand, I think whatever tripped the Hell memory would have set him off. I am guessing, by the way, that what triggered his seizure was Sam wondering open-endedly what other things were buried in his memory, when he wasn’t focusing on a specific set of sense-memory impressions linked to a certain case or set of events; I think that broader curiosity was in fact what tripped the immediate trigger.
I don’t think Sam had any real control over memory flickers surging to life in response to external stimuli. Being both unable to block them and desperately curious to see them and understand what he had done, Sam dismissed the danger. Instead of internalizing and obsessing about the fear as Dean did, Sam chose to stop thinking about it consciously at all. Since he couldn’t predict exactly what might bring down the wall, and couldn’t do anything to affect the outcome either way, he consciously turned away from worrying about it, simply noting the wall would either fall, or it wouldn’t. His ignorance of any way to anticipate and thus possibly avoid the danger led him to rationalize that, since the danger would be whatever it was whether he courted it or ignored it, his best course was simply to do what he felt he needed to do and accept whatever consequences came. While that wound up multiplying and exacerbating Dean’s fear, it proved an enormously practical coping mechanism that allowed Sam to continue functioning, when he otherwise might have cowered in a corner.
If you doubt the importance or applicability of that, let me digress into real life for a moment. I work in Washington, DC, almost spitting distance from the White House. When the terrorist attack of 9/11 occurred in 2001, we learned quickly that the airliner that crashed in the field in Pennsylvania had been aimed at DC before the passengers tried to regain control and brought it down short of its target. One of my friends at work became obsessed with fear about another terrorist attack happening in DC and possibly hitting our office as collateral damage, simply because of our proximity to the White House. She couldn’t let go of that fear, and it crippled her ability to work here. The only way she continued to work was to take an assignment somewhere else, far removed from the target area. She couldn’t bring herself to do what Sam did.
Another example: a few years ago, we had a sniper shooting random targets in the area. Someone at a gas station, someone else at a grocery store parking lot, someone unlocking a car on a street. The sniper roved across Virginia, Maryland, and DC for months, killing people who had absolutely no connection to each other and following no pattern of gender, race, sex, location, or occupation. I saw perfectly ordinary people scared to go outside their homes because they might become targets, and no amount of logical reasoning that, given the population of the area, the likelihood of being the next victim was vanishingly small, reduced their fear. Their fear – like Dean’s here – almost became a living thing of its own, taking up residence in their thoughts and limiting their ability freely to live and simply enjoy their lives.
Dean will always be Sam’s older brother. No matter how old they get or how much he trusts Sam to be able to handle himself, there will always be a solid core of protect Sam at Dean’s heart. That is no reflection on Dean’s opinion of Sam’s competence or skill: it’s simply a fact. It’s in Dean’s psychological and emotional nature to define himself in terms of his relationships to other people, and the dominant relationship of his life revolves around Sam. That’s history, and no one can change it.
That said, one long-running theme of this show is that relationships change and grow over time, and we have to change and grow with them. The hardest lesson Dean has had to learn along the way was to concede Sam was a grown man entitled to make his own informed decisions, and to abide by the consequences of Sam’s rational choices no matter what they were or how grievously they would affect him. Dean laid it flat on the line in their junkyard conversation at the beginning of Swan Song. He finally, formally acknowledged Sam then – a Sam no longer driven irrationally by a demon-blood addiction or brainwashed by a manipulative demon – as his independent equal, and he threw in with Sam’s plan to try trapping Lucifer even at the acknowledged cost of Sam’s life, despite admitting it went against every fiber of his being.
Dean remained true to that decision here. Despite being openly terrified that Sam’s inquisitiveness would bring down the wall in his mind with catastrophic consequences, and despite emphatically disagreeing with Sam’s insistence that fixing things was Sam’s responsibility, he listened to Sam’s arguments, recognized his emotional needs, and ultimately – however reluctantly – backed Sam’s play, even against his better judgment as a hunter. They hashed it out as equals. It was plain to Dean and to us that Sam felt strongly enough about his perceived need to set things right that he would have stuck to his guns, made his own choices, and gone his own way alone here as he had in similarly emotional circumstances before; for example, when he decided to go after John rather than obeying John’s orders in Scarecrow, when he insisted on continuing to work the Doc Benton case with or without Dean’s help in Time Is On Our Side, or when he admitted not trusting himself and being unfit to hunt at the end of Good God, Y’All. On each of those uncommon occasions, the brothers had split up and agreed to go their own ways, intentionally putting their separate needs and goals ahead of maintaining their partnership. In the first two instances, they each felt too strongly about their respective positions to yield to the other; in the third, they both reluctantly agreed that separation was the best course. This time, however – as frankly occurred most times in the past – the brothers stayed together despite their disagreement, with one brother giving in to or simply humoring the other’s more strongly held position. This time Dean chose, out of his own need and in response to Sam’s plea, to back Sam up. And that hasn’t been a one-way street in the brothers’ history; if you need proof, just remember how often Sam bent to Dean’s will in indulging a whim, pursuing a case where he thought there wasn’t one, or in employing a strategy he thought ill-founded – think of such episodes as Dead In The Water, Children Shouldn’t Play With Dead Things, The Usual Suspects, Folsom Prison Blues, The Kids Are Alright, Jus In Bello, and Monster Movie, just to name a few.
The most disturbing and frustrating thing about the whole experience – to me, anyway – was the way Sam immediately hid his flashbacks from Dean and then deliberately lied about agreeing to obey Dean’s orders and stay in the room and out of sight after his jailbreak. That was a depressing throwback to Sam’s pattern of deceit throughout season four, when he was constantly lying about using his abilities, hiding his demon blood addiction, and working with Ruby, and thus widening the rift between himself and Dean by making it impossible for Dean to trust him. . It argued that Sam hadn’t learned anything about the importance of being honest with Dean from what happened in season four, despite both his later acknowledgment that he’d been wrong and his desperation throughout season five to prove himself trustworthy again
While this troubled me, I would posit not only that it wasn’t unexpected, but that it represented a realistic choice for Sam to make despite the lessons of his past. I would argue that obsessive secret-keeping is and always has been integral to Sam’s nature and would be the single hardest habit for him to break, because hiding information – particularly about himself – and lying to protect it has been second nature all his life. In that respect, he and John had much in common. But I think his reasons for the lies here were a bit different than his reasons in the past, and I’m encouraged both that he came clean as quickly as he did and that Dean both realized the lies and reacted from understanding the basis for them.
I addressed our human propensity for keeping secrets in a Supernatural University post from several years ago, one I think I might update and revisit again. I posited then that we as humans have four primary reasons for keeping certain things secret: to protect ourselves; to protect others; to fulfill demands of duty; and to preserve a tactical or strategic advantage. I also submitted that our reasons for keeping things secret relate directly both to the nature of those secrets and to our personalities, and that relationship would often dictate more than one reason for keeping or revealing a given secret.
At the time, I identified Sam mostly with keeping secrets to protect himself, especially from the psychological and emotional pain of being identified as a freak and rejected by other people, particularly Dean; and also keeping secrets to preserve tactical or strategic advantage, keeping open his options for action while preventing other people from deducing what he would do based on knowing what information he possessed. As examples of the first reason, look at Sam’s reluctance to let Dean know about his psychic abilities, something he hid entirely until Home, and his deliberate choice not to tell Dean about his vision in All Hell Breaks Loose Part 1 about having been fed demon blood as an infant – something that didn’t come out until he accidentally slipped up in Metamorphosis over a full year later. Both times, I think he hid truths about himself because, knowing how fiercely Dean hated the supernatural, Sam was afraid Dean would look at him differently. Similarly, I think his decision to sneak away during the middle of the night in Hunted to investigate the other psychic kids on his own was a foretaste of all the times he would slip away secretly during seasons three and four to escape Dean’s eyes and knowledge while doing things he knew Dean wouldn’t approve, keeping himself free from Dean’s interference by hiding information about what he was doing.
I think both those motives were still in operation here, but I think another major driver this time was Sam’s desire to protect Dean. Sam did understand precisely how frightened Dean would be of any suggestion that the wall might be coming down. I think Sam initially tried to hide his flashbacks and his determination to keep digging not only to prevent Dean from knowing about and trying to stop his continuing investigation and to hide from Dean the shameful, brutal ugliness he was realizing lay at the core of his soulless self, but also to try to keep Dean from being afraid for him. He failed on all three counts because after the harsh lessons of the recent past, Dean these days can at least sense when Sam is hiding things almost as well as Sam has always been able to see through the bravado to Dean’s fears.
Let’s Be Crystal Clear: It Was Me
In my review of Like A Virgin, I noted the difference between Dean and Sam in terms of how they related soulless Sam to the Sam we know and love. Dean flatly rejected any identity between Sam and his soulless self, and made clear he didn’t blame Sam or hold Sam accountable for any of the things his soulless self had done. He saw soulless Sam as lacking the crucial piece that made Sam, Sam: his human soul, home of the empathy, compassion, and love that would have modulated his every action if it had only been where it belonged.
I postulated that Sam held himself responsible for his soulless self’s actions precisely because, having a soul, he could remember a time when he had walked the same dark path of soulless Sam’s decisions without the excuse of lacking a soul. I think my guess was borne out here, because as Sam began to recover memories of what his soulless self had done in Bristol, he could see an almost straight line back to the decisions he’d made in season four. He wasn’t fully himself then either, wrestling with his demon blood addiction and being artfully brainwashed and reprogrammed by Ruby, but he did things along the way that would have sickened him before and certainly sickened him after, culminating in killing the innocent nurse host to gain the blood power to kill Lilith and open the gate in Lucifer Rising.
While Dean doesn’t blame him, Sam blames himself; I think mostly because he realizes from his own pre-Hell memories that he had the capacity within him to make cold and ruthless choices without regard for human cost. He had done it before, after all, and while he’d done it while under non-human influences, the thought that directed and justified it had been his own.
Mind you, I’m with Dean; I don’t think re-souled Sam is to blame for what soulless Sam did, precisely because, having already learned the lessons of seasons four and five, Sam as his complete self would never have done what his soulless self did. The only way I think he would bear any true responsibility would be if he had somehow arranged or agreed to let his soulless self out of Hell, but I don’t think that kind of deal was involved.
I think he’s wise to accept responsibility and seek to make amends, however, both because other people are not going to know or understand that the Sam in front of them wouldn’t have done to them what they remember and blame soulless Sam for doing, and because his acts of contrition reinforce and amplify his own humanity. I can’t help but think that will help strengthen and heal his soul. The trick for him is going to be not to let his perceived guilt weigh down the balance. He needs to learn to be able to forgive himself for not having been there, rather than blaming himself for what happened when he wasn’t in control. He needs to remember why he went to Hell in the first place: not because he deserved it, but because he was willing to save everyone else by surrendering himself.
She Was Here To Breed
We learned from Roy that the arachne, like all the other humanoid monsters we’ve met all season, was deliberately seeking to multiply her kind. Precisely how this ties into the Mother of All isn’t yet clear, but it obviously does. Dean’s report from Bobby was that everything was quiet on the Mother front, but I think what’s actually happening is simply more of the same – monster consolidation, multiplication, and planning before the Mother makes any direct move.
As soon as I heard her named, I wondered if the Mother of All might be Supernatural’s take on Echidna, the half-woman, half-snake called the “Mother of All Monsters” because she gave birth to most of the famous monsters of Greek myth including Cerberus, the three-headed dog guarding the gates of Hades; the many-headed Lernaean hydra; the Colchion dragon that guarded the Golden Fleece; and the snake-haired female Gorgons, among others. The idea of all the monsters having a common antecedent brought the Greeks immediately to mind. The Greek poet Hesiod described her home as a cave “deep down under a hollow rock far from the deathless gods and mortal men” – I wonder if that suggested Purgatory to someone?
As pure unadulterated speculation, I wonder if the Mother, like Echidna, was literally the origin of other monsters, producing each individual Alpha through procreating with someone – Lucifer, perhaps? – to reproduce its own kind whether through infection, as do vampires, werewolves, skinwalkers, and arachne, or through sexual mating with humans, like rugaru and shapeshifters. If she was the literal mother, I wonder if she could communicate telepathically with her Alpha children the same way the Alphas can apparently communicate with their own offspring, as we saw the Alpha vampire do in Live Free Or Twi-Hard, and sense their locations as we saw the Alpha shifter do in Two And A Half Men.
Next up, I wonder if the reason monsters were static for so long, always keeping to the same rules and not having new kinds of monsters appear, was that the Mother of All was out of reach, perhaps imprisoned in Purgatory as Lucifer was imprisoned in Hell, unable to generate new types or endow her existing ones with new skills. And that leads me to speculate about whether either the opening of the seals on Lucifer’s cage or the rebalancing inherent in the Winchesters’ short-circuiting of the apocalypse and the subsequent jockeying for position in Heaven and Hell may have weakened the barriers between Earth and Purgatory, allowing the Mother’s voice to reach her Alphas in much the same way as Azazel was able to communicate with Lucifer once he found the convent sitting on top of the box and applied the lever of mass murder of nuns to crack open a speaking tube.
If so, it would make sense to me that the monster buildup and the changes in monster rules could be the result of the Mother being able to communicate with and further empower her children, ordering them to build up their numbers and prepare for a power grab of their own.
And if that’s the case, this wasn’t a simple monster-of-the-week episode, but another battle in the upcoming war, and it’s a battle the humans lost because, as Roy observed, in killing one monster, they inadvertently created many more – rather like lopping heads off the hydra only to have two more heads popping out from each hewn-off neck.
I really enjoyed this episode while I was watching it; it had a suspense and immediacy that sucked me in. Watching Sam unraveling the present mystery through visions of the past and learning exactly what he’d been like without a soul while watching Dean trying to control his fear of Sam’s curiosity breaking the wall was both exciting and scary to me. I frankly hadn’t expected the wall to crack quite so soon, but I’m glad the creative team isn’t dragging things out. I’m expecting this was only a crack, not the wall totally falling, and I’m guessing that whatever caulk or mortar gets applied to let Sam remain functional will be a stopgap measure only and the threat will continue, and that’s fine with me; I just liked getting this down payment on the ultimate payoff. That said, I really, really hope we pick up the next episode exactly where this one left off, because I want to see the moment of Sam’s conscious return, not hear about it after the fact. Show, please – don’t tell!
My usual nitpicking elements turned up after the first roller-coaster rush was over and I had time to think. That’s when the weak spots in the script by Dabb and Loflin turned up, and as is my custom, I’ll get my criticisms out of the way first. All but one of them had to do with simple plot logic. First, having both Dean and Sam deciding Sam would visit the police station after the brothers already knew he’d hunted in the town before was a “Doh!” boner moment precisely for the reason they’d been arguing over staying in the town: hunters tend to leave a mess behind and Sam obviously was known and recognized as part of it. Even though Sam hadn’t yet remembered at that point that he’d assaulted the deputy, any mess with five missing bodies, one of them the sheriff, was going to have involved dealings with the police, so having Sam actively investigating and showing his face there was a potential problem, especially since the disappearance of the sheriff, followed by the disappearance of the “Federal agents,” would likely have prompted an inquiry into the Roark and Wynand IDs even without soulless Sam having beaten a deputy unconscious. Another head-scratching moment was Sam leaving the sheriff’s house with Dean after having spotted the web fibers hanging from the porch roof. He’d already recalled Samuel identifying the monster from the evidence fibers, so – why walk away from evidence that there was a monster hanging around that specific house? The script needing time for Roy to talk to Brenna and complete setting the trap for Sam wasn’t an adequate explanation for Sam just turning away from the evidence that the quarry he’d hunted before was right there, right then.
While I enjoyed seeing Mitch Pileggi continue Samuel Campbell, the way he was written to be completely passive in the flashbacks – watching Sam, clearly troubled and disapproving, but never making a single move to stop him – made me think he was just being used as a device rather than being developed as a character, and that troubled me. I also had a little trouble with Brenna being so easily convinced by Sam first to let him out of the cell, and then to cooperate with him despite another woman having vanished immediately after she’d let him out. I could excuse the first part readily enough by combining Brenna’s positive need to find out what happened to her husband with the knowledge that Samuel and soulless Sam had pretty openly shared the real truth about hunting with Roy and Brenna, including details about how their lives worked, the existence of the supernatural, and the difficulties of hunting a monster you didn’t even know. She at least was disposed to consider that things might not be what they seemed. But having another woman – and one who’d been associated with Sam – disappear right after the jailbreak strained her acceptance a bit for me, but not enough to disturb my enjoyment of the story.
That’s it on the story criticism front. There were other aspects I particularly loved, from all the brother interactions to the incredibly apropos aliases employed by soulless Sam and Samuel. Roark and Wynand are characters out of Ayn Rand’s novel The Fountainhead. In the novel, architect Roark – the hero of the story – pursues his own creativity and goals without any regard for the opinions of others, preaching the value of ego and the need to remain true to oneself. Roark doesn’t empathize with others or put anyone else’s needs ahead of his own goals and vision. Soulless Sam certainly adhered to Roark’s virtue of selfishness, although taken to an even greater extreme. Similarly, Wynand may parallel Samuel, but if he does, there’s clearly more to Samuel’s story; Wynand first befriended and defended Roark, then caved to pressure to denounce him, but finally gave up the power he thought he’d had and asked Roark to build a skyscraper as a monument to the spirit that was Roark’s and could have been Wynand’s.
The structure of the story being built around flashbacks really worked for me, particularly the way director David Barrett shot them in black and white, utilizing odd angles and extreme close-ups to unsettle us even as we watched, and the way editor Anthony Pinker cut the flashes into the present with jerky little internal focus jumps just added to that. This was Barrett’s first outing on Supernatural, but he’s been around the industry a lot in the past ten years, including recent stints on The Mentalist, The Gates, V, Cold Case, and Castle, among others. And he had one definite connection with Supernatural before he ever arrived: he’d directed Jensen in two episodes of Smallville: Run in 2004 and Lucy in 2005.
I loved the look of this episode. Serge Ladouceur’s cinematography is always incredible, but the lighting in the cellblock, particularly during the nighttime scene with Brenna, was particularly gorgeous. Red-gold light on the side of Sam’s face casting one side into shadow with the other lit by normal light almost seemed to echo how he’d been split in two by Hell, and the colors emphasized his warmth and humanity. By contrast, the black and white flashbacks, besides providing a striking and distinctive look, also played up the extreme difference between Sam and soulless Sam, graphically establishing soulless Sam’s coldness and absolute nature.
Among the episode’s guest stars, I particularly liked Brenna, played by Miranda Frigon, for her depiction of a compassionate woman overtaken by a grief-laden mystery; Roy, played by Joe Holt, who went from friendly, approachable lawman to revenge-driven monster with the help of a creative makeup job and unique contact lenses; and Debbie’s silent husband Don, whom I think, but can’t guarantee, was played by Thomas Bradshaw. Despite saying only two words in the entire episode, Don spoke quite eloquently with his body and face to convey his disapproval of his philandering wife and his clear awareness of her sexual relationship with “Agent Roark.” My hat’s off to a background player who really sold his role!
Jared Padalecki did a spectacular job in a difficult pair of roles, switching between soulless Sam and the Sam we know and love without missing a beat. Jensen Ackles brought all of Dean’s constant fear about Sam’s curiosity breaking through the wall, along with his desire to just be able to keep Sam safe and cheer him up as he’d done in simpler times.
All in all, I enjoyed this episode because it moved the brothers’ relationship forward right along with the story of Sam’s buried memories, and – I think – contributed to the mythology of the season by slotting into the “Mother of All” storyline.
And I can’t wait for the next chapter!
The icon on this is one of mine, from a screencap by raloria. Thanks, sweet!
This entry is also available over on The Winchester Family Business, my other home!