6.17 My Heart Will Go On: This Is About The Souls
Changing the past mints new souls
But fate still prevails.
A man working in his garage in Chester, Pennsylvania reached for his bottle of ale only to find it wasn't where he'd set it down. Retrieving it from a few feet away, he knocked over a jar full of nails. Reaching for a broom to sweep up the mess, he set a skateboard rolling behind him, and when his heel came down on the skateboard, he lost his balance and nearly skewered himself on a pair of garden shears. Shaken, he clung to a set of metal shelves while he caught his breath, but the shelves shaking when he released them dumped a pail of golf balls across the floor, and he tripped on a ball and fell. The ball he'd kicked bounced across the floor, tripped a mousetrap, and was catapulted through the air to knock away the stick holding up the garage door, which came rattling down onto the man's neck, cutting his throat.
At Bobby's, the brothers watched in worried discomfort as Bobby, poring through books at his desk, finished one bottle of whiskey and promptly started in on another. Losing their game of rock/paper/scissors even though Dean, as always, threw scissors, Sam cleared his throat to try saying something, but Bobby irascibly demanded whether they were going to just stand there or do something to pitch in and help, observing that Eve wouldn't simply gank herself. Dean said Bobby hadn't slept in days, and Bobby asked if he thought he was Bobby's wife. Sam offered that Rufus's death had been hard on them all, and Bobby angrily responded that it wasn't about Rufus, saying he'd known Rufus was done for the day he'd met him, and the only question had been which one of them would go first. He told them to bring him coffee and make it Irish. Trying to figure out some way to help him, Sam suggested getting him out of the house on a case, pointing to a series of freaky deaths hitting a family in Pennsylvania. Dean started to broach the idea to Bobby, but Bobby said he didn't want to do anything and ordered them to get out of his house. Walking out to their car, a vintage black 1965 Ford Mustang with two wide red-orange stripes blazed nose to tail over the hood and roof and wearing Kansas plates KAZ 2Y5, Sam worried about leaving Bobby alone, but Dean noted she'd called from the road and would be back in two shakes, and they drove off.
Back in the house, as Bobby fetched a fresh glass from the drainboard, he found a shotgun barring him from the bottle as Ellen, with a bag of groceries in her other arm, asked if he'd spent the whole time drinking and complained about things having gone to hell just because she was gone hunting with Jo for a week. When Bobby said he had a good excuse if he needed one, Ellen gently agreed, saying Rufus had meant a lot to her, too, and he accepted her sympathy as he couldn't accept the Winchesters'. When he asked if anyone had ever told her she was a pain in the ass, she kissed his cheek and fondly observed that was why he'd married her.
Searching the dead man's garage at night, the brothers found no sign of supernatural activity, but Sam found a thread of pure gold on the floor where the man died. They split up, with Sam checking courthouse records and Dean interviewing next of kin. One of Dean's targets was an ambulance-chasing attorney, cousin to the dead people, who threw him out after Dean followed up inappropriate questions about skeletons in his family history with a warning that he was in danger. Sam reported finding nothing in the records but four generations of picket fences.
Meanwhile, at a travel agency in town, an agent trying to sell a client on touring Cuba – like Detroit, a favorite tourist destination – suddenly froze in place as time around her stopped. A young blonde woman wearing glasses and carrying a book appeared in her office, took her keys out of her purse, and dropped them on the floor beneath the paper tray of the copying machine, then walked away. Time resumed as she left, with the agent searching for her keys after hanging up the phone. Spotting them on the floor, she reached for them, only to upset a vase of flowers onto the machine, spilling water into the works that caused sparks and runaway behavior. As the woman reached around the machine trying to turn it off, her scarf was caught in the automatic paper feed, and the machine strangled her to death. The blonde woman returned, examined the scene with satisfaction, and marked off a line of writing in her book as a gold thread from the tassel of her bookmark fell to the floor.
At night, the brothers searched the travel agency office. Dean asked if she was related to the other victims, but Sam confirmed she wasn't. Dean found the gold thread on the floor, so they realized that even though it clearly wasn't a family curse, all the deaths were related. Back at their motel, Dean called Bobby and Ellen to report what they'd found, and Ellen said they'd seen reports of at least 75 similar “accidents” nationwide, including a cluster on the West Coast that Jo and her group had been investigating, and the gold threads were at all of them. Ellen confiscated Bobby's bottle of beer while they talked. Dean asked how Bobby was doing, and she reassured him she was kicking his ass back to health and happiness. Dean asked if she was okay, and she answered that she just worried about them. She also volunteered that she and Bobby had turned up one common element: all the dead had ancestors who'd come to America in 1912 on the same ship, the RMS Titanic. The name meant nothing to any of them. Sam searched for information online and discovered through the Marconipages encyclopedia that it was the largest passenger steamship of its time and apparently had a close call with an iceberg on its maiden voyage, but disaster had been averted by the first mate, who spotted the berg in time to avoid it. Discovering the mate's name was I.P. Freeley, however – an obvious bad pun used on The Simpsons – he pulled up a photo of the crew, and he and Dean recognized “Freeley” as the angel Balthazar.
The brothers summoned Balthazar, who confessed to having prevented the Titanic from sinking ostensibly because he'd hated the movie and couldn't stand the Celine Dion song – and neither reference meant anything to the brothers. Sam protested that he'd thought angels couldn't change history, but Balthazar said since they'd averted the apocalypse, there were no more rules. Balthazar protested that he'd saved people, arguing the Winchesters loved that sort of thing, but Sam noted all those people had interacted with so many others over the years that the angel had totally upset history. Balthazar retorted the brothers had still averted the apocalypse, claiming it was only the small details that changed, like the brothers didn't drive an Impala – and didn't even know what that was – and Ellen and Jo were alive, when they'd been meant to die in an explosion. He argued they should agree he'd done a good thing: he'd saved two of their closest friends. When Sam protested that the descendants of the people he'd saved were all now being killed and there were many thousands more of them than there had been people on the Titanic, and Dean said they had to save as many as they could but they needed to know who was after them, Balthazar said they had him confused with Castiel, because he didn't care, and he disappeared.
The brothers called Bobby with the information about Balthazar having unsunk the Titanic, and he responded the information made sense because he thought he'd figured out what they were up against: one of the Fates out of Greek mythology, the three sisters who determined when and how people would die, spinning out their fate on a piece of pure gold. He guessed Fate was trying to clean up Balthazar's mess. He suggested the easiest way to resolve the problem would be to have the angel simply re-sink the boat, but Dean instantly refused. When Dean continued to refuse even after Bobby said there was a big difference between dying horribly and never being born, Bobby pressed for the truth about why they wouldn't consider it, and Dean eventually admitted that sinking the Titanic would cause a whole bunch of dominoes to fall – including ones that would kill Ellen and Jo. After a long moment of silence, Bobby ordered them not to let the ship be sunk, and they promised. Dean noted privately that given Bobby's current state, he didn't want to think about how badly off Bobby would be if he didn't have Ellen.
Trying to figure out how to save all the Titanic descendants when they didn't even know who they were, Dean observed that at least they knew one of them: the lawyer Dean had interviewed. Following the man, they stopped him on the street, only to see him nearly run down by a distracted van driver who'd spilled hot coffee on himself. Accusing Dean of nearly getting him killed, the man walked off shouting they were lucky he didn't sue them – and got hit and killed by a bus ironically carrying one of his advertisements. Sam glimpsed a blonde woman watching the accident from a closed restaurant construction site across the street, who made eye contact and then retreated back into the building. Thinking she might be Fate, Dean advocated talking to her, noting they had nothing to do with the boat and suggesting their “talking” could include using a gun. Against his better judgment, Sam went along. As the brothers began searching through the building, both they and time suddenly stopped, and the woman moved through the place turning on the gas on all the restaurant stoves and grills. When time resumed, Dean's flashlight failed and he pulled out his lighter – and as they opened a door and the lighter ignited the gas fumes, Castiel instantly transported them to safety in the woods of White Russia.
When Dean asked if he knew what Balthazar had done, Castiel said he could be impetuous. He also said Fate harbored rage against them because they'd rendered her obsolete by averting the apocalypse, and said she wouldn't stop until she'd killed them. He advocated killing her as the only way for them to survive, and said Balthazar had a weapon that would work on her if the brothers could draw her out into the open by taking chances and courting death.
Back at Bobby's, Ellen got a call from Jo about thirty more dead on the West Coast, and rhetorically asked what the boys were going to do. She observed the cleanest fix would simply be to sink the boat, saying that now they were all dying bloody, which wasn't the same as never being born. When Bobby protested that she was talking about people who were loved and would be missed, she asked what was up with him, and forced him to admit what he knew: that she and Jo would die if the boat sank when it should. Thinking it over, Ellen ruminated that if it was meant to be, then what happened would happen, but Bobby protested that nothing was meant to be. Bobby admitted needing her, and she gently said she knew.
Walking openly through the town the next day, the brothers waited to meet their fate, encountering one potentially deadly situation after another – a man shouting and running toward them, who was just heading for someone beyond them; a skateboarder and a guy on a BMX bike, both of whom nearly collided with them; a man walking two aggressive big dogs; walking deliberately between two men juggling knives, hatchets, and then fire batons; encountering a man with a malfunctioning staple gun – and emerging unscathed.. As they wondered when the hammer would fall, it finally did, as an air conditioning unit being lifted onto a roof above them fell toward the sidewalk – and time abruptly stopped as Castiel confronted Atropos.
She complained that he and the Winchesters had destroyed her work. She said God had given her a job, that they all had a script and she'd been really good at what she did, up until the big prize fight when they'd thrown out the book. Castiel maintained freedom was preferable, but she objected that what they had was chaos and noted that no one in Heaven would even talk to her when she went in search of what to do. She said she needed to know what would happen next, that it was what she did, but Castiel said her services were no longer required. She noted she hadn't complained or said anything until he had gone too far by not just changing the future, but by changing the past. He claimed the Titanic had been Balthazar's action, but she countered that Balthazar had been under Castiel's orders, that Castiel had sent him back to save the ship in order to have more new souls available to power his war machine. She said he couldn't just mint money, that it was wrong and dangerous and she wouldn't let him do it. He said she wouldn't have a choice, so she offered him one, saying if he didn't go back and sink the boat, she would kill his two favorite pets: the Winchesters. He threatened her, asking if she really wanted to test him, and she reminded him she had two bigger sisters, saying if he killed her, Sam and Dean would become target number one for simple vengeance, and since he had a war to fight, he couldn't watch over them every minute of every day. Castiel ordered Balthazar to stop even as the other angel was approaching from behind to kill her, and realizing Castiel was capitulating, Balthazar shrugged and said they should go sink the Titanic. Time resumed and the air conditioner smashed to the pavement – but Sam, Dean, the angels, and Atropos were all gone.
Dean and Sam woke up in the Impala at Bobby's salvage yard to Celine Dion on the radio singing My Heart Will Go On. Clambering out of the car muttering about crazy dreams, they realized they'd both had the same one – and Castiel appeared to say it wasn't a dream at all. He said he'd insisted Balthazar go back in time to correct what he had done because it was the only way to be sure the Winchesters would be safe. Disconcerted, Sam said he'd killed fifty thousand people for them, but Castiel, after an uncomfortable moment, said he hadn't: he said they'd never been born, and asked if they wouldn't say that was far different from being killed. Dean asked about Ellen and Jo, and Castiel quietly said he was sorry. Still trying to come to grips, Dean asked why he and Sam remembered it all, if the angels had changed everything back and essentially erased that entire alternate timeline, and Castiel said he wanted them to remember, that he wanted them to know who cruel and capricious Fate really was. He said they were the ones who had taught him you could make your own destiny, that you didn't have to be ruled by Fate and could choose freedom, and he still believed that was worth fighting for and he wanted them to understand that. Dean asked if Balthazar had really altered the past over a chick flick, and Castiel, avoiding his eyes as he lied, agreed that's what happened, and then disappeared.
Entering the house, the brothers found Bobby finally asleep on the couch with an open book on his lap. Pitying his loneliness and pain, the brothers agreed not to tell him about how much better his situation had been in the alternate timeline. Dean gently removed the book, covered him with a blanket, and turned out the light.
Commentary and Meta Analysis
I've always found time travel and temporal paradox problematic at best, and I've got some issues about it here as well, but I loved a lot of what it gave us in this episode. In this discussion, I’m going to explore the role of Fate, Castiel’s motivations and actions, and the family that wasn’t.
You Don't Have To Be Ruled By Fate. You Can Choose Freedom.
The tension between fate, destiny, and free will has been a favorite topic of Supernatural throughout the series. Angels, demons, and the Fates alike were largely wedded to the concept that destiny was predetermined and divine prophecy laid out the path, but I submit that even they – whether they admitted it or not – exercised free will in their pursuit of their interpretation of prophecy once God was no longer obviously on the scene.
From all we learned in seasons four and five, especially in Lucifer Rising, The Song Remains The Same, My Bloody Valentine, and Swan Song, Zachariah and his angelic ilk, knowing the Michael/Lucifer prize fight prophecy and impatient to attain the angels' paradise on Earth that Michael’s victory was supposed to win for them, deliberately stage-managed events to arrange the conditions specified in the prophecy to bring about the apocalypse. That ultimately included influencing John and Mary to fall in love so they could produce sons of an angelic vessel bloodline, and then tweaking events so those sons would fittingly mirror and spiritually embody Michael and Lucifer. Dutiful, faithful demon Azazel, seeking to free his father Lucifer, did his part by locating Lucifer’s prison and then following his orders to mold Sam into a suitable host by feeding him demon blood and using demons hidden in teachers and friends to prod him subtly along the path. Both Michael’s and Lucifer’s factions thus manipulated events to bring about their prophesied prize fight, each believing they would win. In the end, however, free will triumphed when the Winchesters found a way through their own love, choices, and actions to stop the fight and take both Michael and Lucifer off the board.
We learned in this episode that Fate still has a role to play, even in a universe built by free will. The three sisters comprising the Fates of Greek mythology, the Moirae – Clothos, who spun the thread of life; Lachesis, who measured its length; and Atropos, who determined how death would occur and cut the thread of life with her shears – managed when a life would begin and when and how it would end, but had no influence over what a person did with their allotted time. In Greek mythology, no decision you made would avert your destined time and form of death as predicted by the Fates, but how you lived your life and what you did with it were still up to you. They appeared to play the same roles here.
Supernatural's tweak on the mythos of the Fates was to include them within the pantheon of the Judeo-Christian Heaven – Atropos said God had given them a job, and spoke of having gone to Heaven to get guidance on what they were supposed to do when the apocalypse didn't happen – and to indicate that Castiel's manipulation of the past, by using Balthazar to manufacture fifty thousand new souls out of unsinking the Titanic, usurped the role of the Fates by spinning and changing the lengths of threads of life where none should have existed. I submit that Atropos exercised her free will by concocting fateful ends for all those people she thought deserved to die because they weren't supposed to have lived. Her rage at Castiel, while born initially of his having worked with the Winchesters to render unpredictable the future that prophecy had led her to expect, was focused much more on his sin of having dared to change the past. Having lost the comfortable assurance of knowing what was supposed to happen in the future, Atropos was utterly undone by realizing the past hadn't gone as she knew it was supposed to have happened.
I think that tells us the Fates, like angels and unlike humans (except for those whose memories were shielded by angels), could perceive when time had been altered. Atropos clearly shared Castiel's ability to stop and manipulate time while operating outside it. We saw her stop time in the garage, the travel agency office, and the restaurant construction site in order to rearrange physical things to trigger events that would lead to “accidental” death; similarly, we saw Castiel stop time in order to confront her outside of it and to save the brothers from the falling air conditioner. I presume the Fates were less powerful than angels and couldn't have gone back in time to set things right or this story wouldn't have taken place, because Atropos and her sisters would have set about killing the Titanic survivors long before this episode's story began, but that's a logic problem with the basic concept of the story that I'll address in the production notes, rather than here.
My essential point is that this concept of Fate doesn't contravene the primacy of free will, and supports rather than negates Castiel's comments at the end of the episode about the importance of all of us being able to make our own destiny, being able to choose freedom instead of believing ourselves doomed and ruled by fate. For us as well as for Atropos, that choice brings with it uncertainty, unpredictability, and a lot of discomfort about what our roles should be and what we're supposed to do, but – like Castiel – I still believe it's worth fighting for, and much preferable to giving in to the fatalistic, passive belief that we are victims, that whatever will be, will be, and can't be affected in any meaningful way by what we choose and how we decide to face and deal with things.
Free will doesn't mean we get to do whatever we want or have things all our own way. Our choices are always constrained and bounded by the choices and actions of others and the laws of physics, among other things. But how we choose to deal with those obstacles and limitations is still up to us. Whether we surrender or whether we fight is in our own hands and our own minds. Whether we curse the dark or feel our way through and look for a light is our choice to make.
Choice matters. Free will is ours, and ultimately matters more than fate. I firmly believe that how I live matters one hell of a lot more than how long I live or how I someday die.
All that said, I suspect we may see Fate again. I was curious about Castiel wanting the brothers to know who Fate really was; I think Castiel expects Atropos to continue watching them, and wanted them to be on their guard. After all, she threatened certain action against the Winchesters if Castiel killed her, but she never promised they would be safe if Castiel left her alone.
I'm Trying To Save The Ones I Have
We heard at least two compelling truths in this episode, one from Atropos and one from Castiel. I think Fate was dead on point when she diagnosed Castiel as being desperate, willing to try anything, even arranging for a knowingly wrongful multiplication of souls to augment his available power, in his attempt to win the civil war in Heaven. And I think Castiel told the simple truth in answer to Dean’s observation that he needed new friends when he responded that he was trying to save the ones he had.
I’m afraid, however, that Castiel may not yet have learned, even with the Winchesters’ sterling example right in front of him, that good intentions can pave the road to Hell. Castiel lying to Dean for the very first time in my memory by claiming the fiasco with the Titanic was all just Balthazar’s whimsical doing was his second clearly wrong step down a very dangerous road – the first, I would submit, having been approving Balthazar using the brothers without their knowledge as decoys in The French Mistake. We’ve known for a long time that lying to and hiding information from each other has always made things worse for the Winchester brothers; I hate to think what will happen when they realize Castiel lied to them, even if they understand that he did it out of shame for what he’d done and why he’d done it.
I am terribly curious to learn what is going on in the civil war in Heaven and why Castiel is so hard-pressed. Back in The Third Man, when he first told the brothers about the angelic civil war and the weapons missing from Heaven, he admitted he was desperate to retrieve them because, as he put it, Whoever has the weapons wins the war. By the end of Caged Heat, Castiel admitted the war wasn’t going well for him. His alliance with Balthazar in The French Mistake supposedly got him the weapons Balthazar had stolen, but he didn’t try to pursue his presumed immediate advantage by killing Raphael when he had the chance; instead, he let Raphael retreat. Judging by his choices in this episode, that didn’t work out well for him, and his situation remains desperate.
I don’t doubt for a moment that Balthazar was the one to hatch the plan to unsink the Titanic as a way to procure more souls as a power base for their rebellion. After all, Balthazar was the first angel we know of to actively trade in souls when he sold a piece of the staff of Moses to young Aaron Birch in exchange for his soul in The Third Man. I also don’t doubt that part of Balthazar’s motivation was his whimsical distaste for the James Cameron movie; after all, he could have accomplished the same end by intervening to prevent virtually any past disaster that had killed a lot of people, so picking the Titanic, of all possible things, could well have come down to his personal preference lottery.
Alternatively, if angels could perceive all the ways in which the world would change as a result of tweaking time, unsinking the Titanic might have been very attractive to Castiel precisely because it also restored two more of his few human friends, Ellen and Jo, and further improved the quality of life for Bobby and the Winchesters. I don’t believe Castiel knew ahead of time that would happen, however; we’ve long known that angels aren’t remotely omniscient. But I do think those added benefits made living with having made that choice a bit easier for Castiel, at least until things began to go so horribly wrong as Fate set about correcting course and forced him to confront the wrongness of what he had done.
I think Castiel’s alliance with Balthazar has been problematic at best, given Balthazar’s flighty and amoral nature. We learned they were friends in the days before Castiel rebelled, and I believe that genuine friendship, along with Castiel’s desperate need for the weapons Balthazar had stolen, prompted Castiel to choose badly in going along with Balthazar’s ideas. I would guess that affiliation has also complicated Castiel’s leadership position, because I can’t imagine many angels appreciating Balthazar’s feckless, flippant irreverence. It never bodes well for a leader if his followers can’t respect or trust his associates.
I also wonder what vision, if any, Castiel actually has of what he truly wants to accomplish in Heaven. When we first met him in season four, he was a foot soldier distinguished only by his absolute, unflagging, unimaginative loyalty to God and his superiors; he had no command ambitions of his own and evidenced no personal desire other than serving God well. His gradual disillusion with Zachariah and his other superiors in Heaven upon learning they had lied to him and the other lesser angels and were actually scheming to bring about the apocalypse while pretending to forestall it gradually led him to accept Dean’s defiant call to join Team Free Will, but he was persuaded to that position not because he wanted to be free, but because he believed it was the right thing to do.
In trying to do what’s right, I think Castiel remains a servant of God, but I’m betting it’s increasingly hard for him to have faith in knowing what’s right in the absence of the surety he always had before through God. I wonder if the heart of Castiel’s difficulty in succeeding in the civil war in Heaven is because he doesn’t have and thus can’t convey to other angels a plan and a vision they could accept as defining their purpose and their goals. With the long-foretold apocalypse averted and God not on the scene to offer new instruction, all the prophecies and commands that defined angelic life no longer pertain; that’s got to be hard for the members of a social structure that was so rigidly grounded in hierarchy and order to accept, deal with, and understand. What do you do with yourself when the whole purpose of your life has apparently ceased to exist? According to Castiel, Raphael has been advocating putting things back the way they were by getting the apocalypse back on track, apparently in the belief that logic and order would be restored and things would again begin to unfold the way they should, according to the prophecies in which the angels always believed. That must be attractive to a lot of angels because it’s a mission they can understand and one that would put them back into the comfortable structure of knowing what’s expected of them and how their success would be measured.
Castiel, on the other hand, appears to be uncertain even in his own mind about what role the angels should play in this unscripted version of the future history of Heaven and Earth. I think he’s reluctant to kill other angels because in his heart he believes they are mistaken and misled, not evil, and killing them would be wrong. I think he wants to persuade them to his side, but can’t clearly convey what that means because he doesn’t even know how to express it to himself. I suspect the others on his side have no unifying principle or common vision of the future at all, and thus form a much looser, less organized, and inherently weaker alliance than Raphael’s focused and goal-oriented army. As Castiel has continued the fight, I think he’s found himself forced increasingly into grey areas and questionable choices, always trying to do what’s right but feeling compelled in the process to do things he senses are wrong because the price of losing – the destruction of the Winchesters and their human world, who now appear to Castiel to form the culmination of God’s creation with all its complex embodiment of free will – is too much for him to pay. With the best of motives, he’s intentionally taken actions as callous, brutal, and wrong as torturing a boy for information, deliberately putting Sam and Dean at risk as unknowing decoys, and dealing in the currency of human souls like a demonic commodities trader seeking advantage, and I think that’s eating at him and making him question himself even as others question him, with no more answers to offer.
I don’t believe Castiel ever lied to Dean before he agreed here that Balthazar had unsunk the Titanic on a whim. He’s said things that turned out not to be true, but he believed them at the time based on what he’d been told. Unlike Balthazar and Zachariah, Castiel never learned to lie without shame, and all the times before when he spoke to Dean and Sam, his eyes were direct and clear. This was the first time he couldn’t meet Dean’s eyes because of the falsehood in his own, and I’m a little surprised that neither of the brothers picked up on that glaringly aberrant behavior as being Castiel’s “tell.” Those previously clear and guileless eyes are why I believe Castiel was telling the absolute truth in The Third Man when he said he didn’t know who had brought Sam and Samuel back or why, and I truly believe he didn’t know Sam’s soul was missing until his delving for Sam’s soul found nothing in Family Matters. I think this was his first and last venture in soul-trading, brought on by listening to Balthazar when he shouldn’t have.
I think this episode really was all about the souls – not just the many Castiel and Balthazar manufactured by unsinking the Titanic, or the two in the Winchester’s bodies that Castiel found worth the forfeit of all the others, or even the ones in all the living humans on Earth – but also the ones in angels and monsters, in Heaven, Hell, Purgatory, and on Earth. I think that whoever or whatever brought Sam back soulless – and I’ve never believed Crowley had the mojo – did that with intent to illustrate the value and importance of a soul, to drive home to the Winchesters and their allies the importance of understanding the role of souls.
I don’t think it’s an accident that Fate said the exact same thing to Castiel that Dean heard from Death in Appointment In Samarra: It’s about the souls.
Back then, Death said he wasn’t retrieving Sam’s soul for Dean.
I wonder whom he was doing it for.
You’re Talking About People – People Who Are Loved. Who Would Be Missed.
At least three times in this episode, different people made the observation that never being born was different from and better than dying. We heard the same from the Winchester brothers themselves back in The Song Remains The Same when they tried to persuade Mary to leave John and never give birth to the two of them in order to avoid all the heartache that followed. That justification made restoring the timeline and erasing all the Titanic survivors and their descendents arguably easy. They weren’t really real, so making them never have been wouldn’t have had any impact on the people who remained in the altered timeline.
But it was a different thing to confront knowing that someone you loved would cease to be. Having Ellen and Jo alive in this timeline because of all the little things that changed as a result of the Titanic not sinking made the stakes of undoing that change both real and high. I loved the depiction of Ellen and Bobby as a couple, and it made me wonder how many other things about the timeline had changed precisely because they were together and there as an extended and heart-solid family to love and support Jo, Sam, and Dean.
This wasn’t the first time that pairing was suggested in this show, either. As soon as I realized Bobby and Ellen had wed, I flashed back to the false memories Zachariah had crafted for Dean in It’s A Terrible Life, when Dean Smith said, My father’s name is Bob, my mother’s name is Ellen, and my sister’s name is Jo. Zachariah hadn’t had to reach very far to make that thought convincing to Dean, with the way Dean builds his life around family.
Forgive me for indulging myself here for a moment, but I couldn’t help speculating about how the Singers came to be and all the ways having them together might have made the world we know different. Looking at the “B&E Auto” sign, which had obviously been up for a number of years although clearly not as long as the “Singer Auto” one we’ve always known, I jumped to the conclusion that Bobby had probably been to Harvelle’s Roadhouse, perhaps during his hunting days with Rufus, and married Ellen some time after Bill Harvelle died. Ellen and Jo being together with Bobby at the salvage yard would have made Jo and Ellen’s relationship different, too, perhaps with Ellen less fiercely overprotective and Jo consequently not chafing so much at being held back, becoming more mature and competent at a younger age. And if all of them were together when Sam and Dean first met them, even before John died and they turned to Bobby for help, the brothers’ family support structure would have been more solid and established right from the get-go, with a mother and sister flavor as well as a surrogate father.
I had to wonder if the whole sequence of how the brothers averted the apocalypse might have changed – not just Ellen and Jo not dying during an attempt to kill Lucifer with the Colt, but maybe the brothers coming up with a whole different approach to derailing the apocalypse, one not including all the pain and estrangement between them that the real timeline held precisely because they both had other sounding boards they loved and trusted who could have kept them from making the missteps they did and savaging each other along the way. I couldn’t see that Mustang holding the kind of family importance the Impala always did, so it couldn’t have been the catalyst for Sam’s salvation; something else had to have been in play. The brothers in the alternate timeline had a practiced rhythm and comfortable ease with each other we haven’t seen in years; watching them moving in perfect synchronization to summon Balthazar was a treat.
And all of that was the gift, I think, of all of them having been loved.
I wish they could have had that in the real timeline. I wonder how much of the alternate one the brothers actually do remember, and whether they’ll have more to regret than just realizing the loss Bobby doesn’t even know he suffered. Now we, like them, miss Ellen and Jo all the more.
From a production standpoint, I loved this episode. Sure, I had some basic logic problems with the “changing history” concept, but I found the execution of the idea wonderful, especially in terms of the genuine emotion involved and all the little details that supported the altered timeline.
Okay: my criticisms first, as always. My major problem revolves around the standard difficulty of dealing with the skewed logic of a story built around the way changing history would affect a current time. That's not a fault of the script by the team of Eric Charmelo and Nicole Snyder; it's an issue with the concept itself, and exists because the immediate present and very recent past are the only things in the story that concern us. The point of changing history, however, is that everything would have changed from the moment history was altered; a change made in 1912 wouldn't have taken instantaneous effect in 2011 just because the instigator of the change chose to make it in 2011. All the things that happened differently in the intervening years would have happened then along the way, including people surviving when they should have died, probably dying differently when they should have lived, and having offspring who should never have existed. There would have been no logic in Fate waiting until 2011 to begin correcting the situation, especially given that we saw Atropos being able to stop time and operate outside of it exactly like the angel Castiel, except that we needed this story to happen all in the present day in order to have it be all about the Winchester brothers and also in order for the pattern of victims to be obvious to our characters. Further, if Fate knew who was supposed to have died along the way as well as who should never have been born, it would have made sense for her to have targeted Ellen, Jo, and any similar others as well as the Titanic descendants and the Winchester brothers as part of righting the overall balance. This paradox was para-doctored.
Beyond the basic time-loop story logic issue, one performance thing bothered me a little. Most times, I have no problem at all with episodes mixing humor and drama; indeed, tragedy and comedy living not just side-by-side but inside each other is one of the things I like best about Supernatural, because that's how it is in reality. This time, however, the difference in how certain scenes were approached and played in order deliberately to play up their humor aspects felt unusually artificial to me. It struck me particularly in the brothers' immediate facial reactions to seeing the lawyer get creamed by the bus – those were deliberately comedic horrified expressions, not the genuine appalled surprise we saw for the boat death in Dead In The Water, for example – and in their intentionally exaggerated “walking-on-eggshells” bit in the “tempting Fate” sequence. While the second one was definitely very funny, it just didn't feel organically real. I don't know whether those were actor choices by Jared Padalecki and Jensen Ackles, direction from Phil Sgriccia, or a combination of them all, but it felt just a little off from the norm.
That’s it for my criticisms. I loved the idea of Bobby and Ellen being a couple, and Jim Beaver and Samantha Ferris sold their marriage beautifully as a complex partnership of strong-willed equals solidly grounded in love and mutual respect. All of the emotion between them and among them and the brothers rang genuine, deep, and true. It would have been nice to have seen Alona Tal as Jo, but I can understand a multitude of reasons why that didn’t happen, starting with the difficulty of fully conveying the complex flavor of Jo’s alternate timeline relationship (virtual kid sister, maybe?) with both of the Winchesters in a quick snapshot short enough to fit in a 42-minute episode along with everything else. And with all the stunt and effects work and the music, this had to have been both a tricky episode to shoot and a particularly expensive one to produce, making the expense of another actor difficult to justify. My hat is off to Phil Sgriccia for pulling it all off so cleanly, and to editor Nicole Baer for assembling it into a fun whole. Cutting the “tempting Fate” sequence to the tune of Blondie’s “One Way Or Another” was nothing short of brilliant! I never would have expected to hear Celine Dion in the soundtrack – at least, not until I saw the title of this episode! – but I didn't expect Barry White, Burl Ives, Rosemary Clooney, Joey Ramone, or Chris DeBurgh either, and all have been used to great effect. (Shoot me for a sentimental sap, but I actually liked the Titanic theme song back in the day – at least until it proved utterly impossible to escape! And now I blame Supernatural for me not having been able to stop singing it again … because, speaking as a singer, it is fun to sing ...) Chris Lennertz's underscore also broke my heart at the end as Dean spread a blanket over Bobby. I want that gentle, mournful music cue!
Jerry Wanek, John Marcynuk, and the entire design team get major props from me for this one. Our first clues about things being different were extraordinarily subtle, starting with the set dressing of Bobby's house: the place was neater and cleaner than most times we've seen it, but not to the almost obsessive extent occasioned by the return of Bobby's dead wife in Dead Men Don't Wear Plaid. It was simply the well-used but obviously cared-for home of active hunter/researchers, still with books everywhere but not in haphazard piles on the floor, and with subtle feminine touches in the presence of a potted plant and the organized lack of clutter on the kitchen counter. The “B&E Auto” sign was nicely aged to show that Bobby and Ellen's partnership wasn't recent, but had been established for more than a few years, and the photo of the two of them beneath the sign, especially as it contrasted with the photo of Bobby alone beneath the old “Singer Auto” one, packed a real punch. The use of incidental art to reflect the many changes in the world was superb, from travel posters advertising Cuba and Detroit as tourist destinations to the online encyclopedia being styled “Marconipages” in tribute to the inventor of the wireless radio telegraph, whose company employed the telegraph operators on the Titanic. Other lovely Titanic references incorporated into the show included the travel agency being named “E.J. Smith,” since Edward J. Smith was the captain of the doomed ship, and the brothers' motel being the White Star, since the Titanic sailed for the White Star Line. And the bus that killed the lawyer not just carrying one of his “Justice Matters” advertisements on the back, but being on route number 666? Just too good! That death was worthy of the Trickster!
Ivan Hayden's visual effects crew also gets a big shout-out for making the stopped time sequences wonderfully seamless, particularly including such touches as the brothers' blurry reflections appearing in the sheet metal surface of the falling air conditioning unit as they looked up to see it coming down, and the mix of practical and visual effects that sold Castiel's rescue of the brothers from the gas explosion. Everybody involved in all the stunt sequences, especially the boys' “tempting fate” walk, gets an ovation from me for brilliant timing and execution. The transport guys get a nod for putting the alternate timeline Sam and Dean in a showy 1967 Ford Mustang – almost exactly the 1965 Mustang Eric Kripke talked about having in his initial vision of the show, until his car-guy neighbor dissed the pony car as “pussy” and instead sang the praises of the intimidating Impala four-door hardtop with its body-holding trunk! I loved Jensen’s Dean giving the Impala a gentle pat at the end, acknowledging her solid presence.
Apart from my little nitpick on the Dean and Sam humor bits being a little too self-consciously played for laughs this time around, I enjoyed the performances. It was wonderful to see Misha Collins giving us all the layers of Castiel’s conflicted feelings about what he was doing and how he was doing it; seeing him duck his eyes away from Dean’s while agreeing that the Titanic had been all Balthazar’s doing positively shouted that Fate had been right when she’d said Balthazar had been acting on Castiel’s orders, and that Castiel was too ashamed and worried about their reaction to admit to the brothers that he’d been manufacturing souls for his war machine. Sebastian Roché is so obviously having a ball playing Balthazar that his delight translates into the character and leaps off the screen; his reaction to being stopped from killing Atropos cracked me up. And Katie Walder’s very prim, proper, and meticulous Atropos – while a far cry from the usual crone depicted in Greek mythology! – was a superb addition to the overall pantheon of powerful beings. I loved the idea of Fate being unsettled at no longer having a script and therefore not knowing what was supposed to happen, and insisting that she needed to know. In effect, Fate couldn’t live comfortably in a world ruled by free will, and I thought Walder captured that well. In acting terms, she also stood up to both Misha and Sebastian with a confidence that sold her character’s power and strength, and succeeded in putting both angels in their place in a way I think few characters ever could.
For all their inherent difficulties, stories like this one that play with time and reality can change our perceptions of concepts, things, and people we thought we knew. I think this episode did that in spades.
This is so late going up, I'm not certain it matters to anyone. Sorry about that. :(