Spirit or angel?
When death stops evil people,
What clues to Sam’s fate?
Houses of the Holy was a high concept story, something Supernatural does better than any other current show that I can name. Is there a God, and does He influence what happens to people on Earth? How can you know? How do you live, in the absence of proof? How do you explain faith – having it, losing it, discovering it anew?
In Houses, losers inspired by the vision of an angelic figure in brilliant white light, accompanied by a feeling of rapture, stabbed perfect strangers in the heart and then immediately confessed to police. The boys discovered that the victims had been hiding evil deeds, including murder and pedophilia. Sam believed that the figure who inspired the killings was an angel, especially after it appeared to him with a mission, while Dean hewed to the more typical explanation (for the Winchesters!) of a vengeful spirit. In the end, the figure of light turned out to be the spirit of a murdered priest, shattering Sam’s desperate attempt to believe that a higher power existed and would watch over him, possibly saving him from what he fears is his demonic destiny. At the same time, however, non-believer Dean saw the would-be rapist/killer whom the priest had labeled as Sam’s target impaled through the heart in a freak accident so unlikely as to seem influenced by an outside power, prompting him to wonder if there was indeed some greater plan. Both of the brothers came away shaken from their earlier beliefs, but with no indication of how their questions may eventually be resolved.
In an earlier Supernatural University blog entry, Good, Evil, and the Problem of Pain, I discussed my theories about Sam’s and Dean’s differing perceptions of good and evil, and Dean’s evident lack of belief in a force of good or a personal god. I’ll admit, I loved seeing my guess on his lack of faith and its cause proven correct:
Dean: You know, I get it. You’ve got faith. Hey – that’s good for you. I’m sure it makes things easier. I’ll tell you who else had faith like that: Mom. She used to tell me when she tucked me in that angels were watching over us. In fact, that was the last thing she ever said to me.
Sam: You never told me that.
Dean: What’s to tell? She was wrong. There was nothing protecting her. There’s no higher power. There’s no god. I mean, there’s just chaos and violence and random, unpredictable evil that comes out of nowhere and rips you to shreds. So you want me to believe in this stuff? I’m going to need some hard proof. You got any? Well, I do. Proof that we’re dealing with a spirit.
We don’t yet know for certain why Sam has had faith, why he believed enough to pray every day, and to have done so for a long time, much to Dean’s evident surprise. He has admitted now that he needs to believe, because he is so afraid of what his destiny may be and he doubts the ability of any human strength to withstand or defeat it, but that does not explain why he possessed his faith in advance of being given reason for his fear. It’s clear that faith and what it means to each of the brothers will continue to be explored in future episodes, and I’m very much looking forward to seeing what we’ll learn.
Even Sam’s faith, however, has evidently been shaped and skewed by his hunter upbringing. His militant view of angels, reflected both in his discussion in the church with Father Reynolds and in his ability to believe that an angel could and would have directed one human to kill another in despite of the commandment “Thou shalt not kill,” was very much an Old Testament one, and one that fit with the hunter culture, not with contemporary Christianity. Avenging angels, angels with swords, fit in with the Old Testament accounts of God being a vengeful god, and of a rigid code of justice that supported the punishment matching the crime: an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth, a life for a life. Missing from that image was the more hopeful, peaceful, forgiving, and ultimately merciful view of angels from the New Testament, where they were generally messengers and guardians rather than warriors. In his desperation to believe that he had been vouchsafed a glimpse of an angel, Sam overlooked the very things of which Father Reynolds ultimately had to remind Father Gregory: that the God he worshipped was a God of mercy and forgiveness, not a God of vengeance and retribution.
We can only hope that Sam’s faith has not been irreparably damaged, that the miracle of Dean espousing faith, however fragmented, uncertain, and reluctant, may offset the disappointment of knowing that this situation did not give Sam the assurance he craved, that a higher power was in his corner. Personally, I believe that the ultimate solution to the dilemma of Sam Winchester lies in both his humanity and his brother, not in any external miracle that would let him dodge what demonkind have in store for him. But I also believe that his personal faith that he can survive and prevail will be vital to Sam’s survival. If he despairs, he may surrender; if he retains the courage to hope, he will retain the will to fight, and that may make all the difference.
Next week, we may see whether despair triumphs over faith and hope, and whether the demons may have found the weapon to drive Sam to give over the fight. Me, I’m betting that Dean won’t let Sam surrender, no matter what.
Random Parting Thoughts
We saw some new things in this episode. While we have before seen spirits assume a different shape than they did in life (witness aged Rose becoming a child again after her death in Playthings), this is the first time that we’ve (1) seen a spirit assume a different shape that others could see; (2) assume the shape because the spirit believed it to be true (Father Gregory believed that he’d become an angel); and (3) be able to prompt its viewers not only to action, but to experience rapture, to be convinced of the presence of grace and ultimate good.
Second, what convinced the spirit of Father Gregory that he had become an angel? The dead Father said that he had received the word of God, that he had been told to smite the wicked, that the rules of man and the rules of God were very different things. I have to wonder – who really set Father Gregory on his erroneous path, and showed him the lost souls in search of redemption – including Sam – whom he could tempt to follow him? I have my suspicions. Father Reynolds only reminded Father Gregory of what was right, guiding him out of his confusion to accept the mercy of release; but something had convinced Father Gregory’s spirit in the first place, and brought him willfully to forget what he, as a priest, should have known to his core: Men cannot be angels, and angels would not order humans to kill. Men could aspire to become saints, perhaps, but angels – even according to the Bible – were a separate creation.
Why do I think that this was all simply part of the yellow-eyed demon’s (YED’s) campaign to break Sam to his will? And Dean asking, if the “angel” wanted to stop people before they even committed evil, whether he maybe shouldn’t stop Sam, given that Sam was supposedly going to go evil – that made a point that Sam simply wasn’t willing to see.
On the technical side, Jensen and Jared were both superb. From the hilarious (Dean and the magic fingers) to the profound (almost everything else), their performances were flawless. Sera Gamble’s script was – well, a Sera Gamble script, with all the depth and nuance that implies. Director Kim Manners worked his usual magic of wringing every ounce of feeling from all of his actors. And the piano scores under the scene in the church between Sam and Dean, and in the last scene before Dylan’s “Knocking on Heaven’s Door” kicked in – I want those so badly, I’m going to wind up emailing Jay Gruska and pleading for them.
I’m certain that everyone else in blogland has covered all the wonderful lines in this episode, but just in case this minor one was overlooked …
Sam: We’ve gone pretty ghetto with the spellwork before, but this takes the cake. I mean – a SpongeBob placemat instead of an altar cloth?
Okay. I’m late enough as it is. Time to post this now.
Oh – and there will be a