bardicvoice (bardicvoice) wrote,

9.01 I Think I'm Gonna Like It Here: There Ain't No Me If There Ain't No You

9.01 I Think I'm Gonna Like It Here: There Ain't No Me If There Ain't No You

Sam's inner debate:
Fight for life, or die in peace?
Dean loads angel dice.

Commentary and Meta Analysis

Put me on the list of fans who loved this episode. I know it created controversy among fans – hell, what episode doesn't these days, given the different lenses fans always watch through? – but it worked brilliantly for me. In this discussion, I'm going to look at angels in the human outfield; what was going on in Sam's mind as he lay in that coma; Dean's decisions; Castiel dealing with humanity from the inside; and the enigmatic Ezekiel.

What's An Angel Without Its Wings?

I had many questions at the end of last season about how angels falling would actually work. The show continued in its time-honored tradition, because this episode answered many of those questions while also raising more.

I was glad to see canon preserved in terms of angels needing human vessels in order to interact with the human world, and I appreciated Hael's comment about many angels still circling, looking for appropriate vessels. I wonder whether some angels may choose to remain incorporeal, and what powers those angels might retain; lacking physical bodies, what would limit their ability to go from place to place, or penetrate into places not warded against angels, for example? On the flip side, are they under an imperative to secure vessels within some time limit? We know from season six that human souls are a power source angels can tap. With the earthbound angels now cut off from Heaven and the power of the souls there, I wonder whether an angel who chose not to take a vessel might lose power or otherwise deteriorate over time because it was expending energy not renewed either by Heaven or by contact with the soul of its human vessel. Blocked from Heaven by Zachariah in season five because of his rebellion, Castiel gradually got weaker; will that happen to all the angels now on Earth, as they expend the power reserves they originally had and must rely on human resupply?

I was intrigued by what angels lost in the fall, as well as what they retained. Stripped of their wings, they evidently can still materialize their personal swords at will, but they can no longer will themselves physically from place to place once they have taken a vessel. They also can't recognize each other inside the vessels they've assumed. We know that angels could do that before: Castiel recognized Gabriel when he saw him in Changing Channels, even though Gabriel was wearing a human vessel he had never met; Gabriel duct-taped his mouth to keep him from telling the brothers. Hael knew Castiel only because every angel had already seen him in his human guise. Ezekiel and the nameless businessman/angel knew each other for angels through their weapons, their actions, and their beyond-normal strength, but it would seem angels could now hide even from each other by simply choosing not to reveal themselves. And if angels can't see through the human surface to recognize another angel, I wonder whether or not they'll be able to recognize demons possessing humans the way they always did before.

Some angels who secured vessels quickly evidently chose to masquerade as their human vessels while they got their bearings and decided what to do next. The family of the businessman/angel, for example, clearly had no idea that the man sipping orange juice at breakfast was anyone other than the husband and father they expected to see, and his abrupt departure took them totally by surprise. Every angel we saw on Earth before this was always purpose-driven, with no need or desire to blend in with the life of its human vessel, so this element of acting was never on display. Now, we may encounter angels who are hiding out in their vessel's guise, with their nature as angels not even recognizable by other angels unless they somehow betray their power. Undercover angels?

Hael's physically deteriorating host raises more questions. We've only twice seen angel vessels deteriorating in ways the resident angel couldn't heal, and in both of those cases, the angel was corrupt, suggesting that the deterioriation of the host was a symptom of the corruption of the angel. The first was poor Nick, eaten away by Lucifer and having to drink copious amounts of demon blood to stave off decay. Unlike Sam, Nick hadn't been prepared to become a vessel for Lucifer by being infected wih demon blood as a baby, which I think inoculated Sam against the kind of deterioration Nick experienced; Nick had the angelic vessel bloodline, but not the physical ability to contain Lucifer's unique combination of power and evil. The second was Castiel's Jimmy body after Castiel had absorbed all the monster souls in Purgatory, including the Leviathan; Death called him a mutated angel and observed that his overstuffed vessel was going to explode.

And that makes me question why Hael's young vessel was eroding. I suppose it's possible that people descended of angelic vessel bloodlines may vary in their innate ability to contain an angel's power, that the genetic predisposition might be diluted if the one ancestor who transmitted the bloodline was generations in the past, or reinforced if both parents carried the trait. That remains to be seen. But there may be another reason.

Perhaps angels who stray too far from their intended roles as the guardians of God's creation – angels who seek power for themselves or who do evil, as Hael was planning through her attempt to dominate Castiel – are starting down the road of corruption following Lucifer's and Castiel's examples, and perhaps that corruption manifests in the physical condition of their vessels. If that's the case, it may be possible to discern an angel's true nature from the physical health of its vessel. Corrupt angels may also need to change vessels periodically.

We didn't see any such deterioration in Raphael, Zachariah, or Uriel despite their warped natures, but all of them still had access to the full resources of Heaven and were being supported by Heaven's bureaucracy, making them arguably still under orders on Heaven's mission. Anna, however misguided she was in attampting to kill John and Mary in the past, was still acting to preserve what she perceived to be the greater good, attempting to avert the apocalypse and save the world; a goal not selfish or evil in itself. Now, no angel except Metatron has recourse to Heaven or its power; from what we can tell, they're on their own. And that makes me wonder if what they do and why they do it may have more visible effect on them than ever before.

Because I'm You, And You're You, And All Of This Is You

The most important thing to me about Sam's internal dialogue during his coma was bearing in mind that everything he and we perceived was all Sam. Bobby and Dean – except for Dean/Ezekiel in the cabin scene – were never actually there and were not speaking or acting for themselves; they were simply giving voice to Sam's own thoughts. That's a device the show has used often before, including all of Sam's delusions during When The Levee Breaks and Bobby in Death's Door conjuring Rufus as his guide and mentor. Even Death may or may not have been there for real. (I think he was; see later)

When he accepted the truth of the situation, Sam's first ironic observation was that the whole reason he stopped the trials was not to die. Discovering himself dying anyway, he had no clue how to avoid it, and that's where the argument was stacked against him from the start. All of “Dean's” exhortations to fight rang empty because there was nothing Sam could see to fight against. How do you fight to live when you don't know what to attack or how to do it? He couldn't craft a mental quest to piece himself back together as he did in The Man Who Knew Too Much, picturing himself fighting and killing the separate facets of his personality and consciousness to reintegrate them into a single soul. This time, the damage was physical and pervasive, not something psychological or spiritual that he could personify and overcome. The part of Sam arguing that he should fight to survive kept using the “I've got a plan; I'm working on it” phrase that Dean always uses when he hasn't the foggiest notion of what to do and is just forging ahead blindly in the desperate hope of stumbling through the right door. That repetition showed Sam's growing frustration with not knowing anything he actually *could* do to save his own life.

On top of that, Sam's own recent life experience has perverted his perceptions of life and death, and those perversions dominated his internal debate. Every mention of life came only with expressions of constant struggle, fighting, loss, and pain, reflecting the worst of what his life has been for years now. There was no mention of love, laughter, happiness, or achievement as being a part of that life. Death, on the other hand, promised rest, peace, satisfaction, contentment, and beers with friends in Heaven as the well deserved reward for all his sacrifice on Earth. Is it any wonder death looked more attractive? The game was rigged.

The next question is why, but I think it's not hard to fathom a response. Sam has always been different from Dean in part because he visualizes life in terms of finishing tasks and accomplishing goals, while Dean sees an ongoing mission that will end only when its purpose ceases to exist – and for Dean, that purpose is and always has been saving people and protecting family, most especially Sam. Their definitions and choices are different because they are different. In uncertainty, Sam is a planner, someone who prefers to lay out a rational course with a logical end; Dean generally goes with his gut and intuition on the theory that action is more likely to produce a lucky effect than inaction.

I know many fans were upset with the idea that Sam would choose to die and leave Dean behind, especially knowing from prior experience that losing Sam is Dean's own personal Hell. I heard fans protest that Sam, in surrendering to death, appeared selfish and weak. I didn't see it that way. I saw a strong man given a terminal diagnosis and unable to find a way around it making the best of his situation by finding a way to accept dying on his own terms, including the commitment to not let anyone else – particularly not Dean – get hurt again on his behalf the way Dean had done before by selling his soul to bring Sam back. Unable to see a feasible path to survival, Sam couldn't see any way to protect Dean from the pain of grief, but he tried to guard against worse.

And at the last, when Dean – and I do firmly believe that *was* Dean, propelled into Sam's mind by Ezekiel – begged him to listen, said he could help, and laid the full stakes on the line by saying flat out, “There ain't no me if there ain't no you,” Sam stepped back from the seductively attractive, guaranteed peace of death and asked his brother, “What do I do?” In doing that, I think Sam acknowledged his own very real desire to survive as well as his understanding of how vital his life was to his brother's continued existence, but he also displayed his helplessness, his utter lack of knowledge of any way he *could* live, and surrendered to Dean's judgment. I maintain that was a leap of faith on Sam's part, a leap propelled by his deep love for and abiding trust in his brother, and I can't imagine anything more brave and loving.

I Meant What I Said At The Church

Dean is once again keeping a massive secret from his brother. Under other circumstances, I'd have been the first to complain about the show having been there and done that before, but this time, I'm fully on board with Dean's choice. And before you pillory me, let me explain.

Was Dean high-handed and selfish in what he did, deliberately colluding with Ezekiel to trick Sam into saying “yes” without realizing that he was acceding to angelic possession? Yes, no question. Do I think it was wrong? Yes, even as Dean *knew* it was. Would I have changed it? No, no more than Dean would have, and for all the same reasons. Will Sam be pissed when he learns the truth? Yes, no question. Will he be entitled to be pissed? Yes, no question. Will he punish Dean? Probably. Will Dean accept his punishment? Yes, because he will know and feel he earned it. Will Dean think the price was worth it? Yes – because he spoke the absolute truth of his heart when he said “There ain't no me if there ain't no you.” Will Sam eventually forgive him? I hope so, because I do believe Sam loves his brother every bit as much as Dean loves him, and will understand that love, need, and faith were the core of Dean's decision. Do I think the process will be easy? No way in freaking Hell.

Secrets between the brothers have never ended well, whether it was Dean hiding his soul deal, the knowledge that he'd killed Amy Pond when he'd told Sam he'd let her go, or his relationship with Benny; or Sam hiding his knowledge of Mary recognizing Azazel, his demon blood addiction, or his soullessness. I see this secret as being qualitatively different, however, because this time Dean went into it knowing exactly how and why it was wrong, and is keeping it not out of shame or fear of Sam's reaction, but purely to keep Sam alive.

Dean's choice was part and parcel of what he told Sam at the church: that there is nothing and no one Dean would put ahead of Sam, ever. That might seem strange in the context of Dean blatantly disregarding Sam's own acknowledged desires – Dean knew Sam would rather die than be possessed by anything – but I think two things were operating here. First and foremost was Dean's pathological need for Sam, the very same thing that led Dean to sell his own soul, pledge his service to Heaven, hunt for a way to free Sam from Hell, become Death to get Sam's soul back, and fight his way out of Purgatory. He knows it's wrong and his ultimate weakness, but Sam being alive is essential for Dean's world to be real. Sam has to be alive for Dean to put him first. Sam *is* Dean's world, and no matter what some fans may advocate, I believe that's never going to change within the show; I believe it can't change, because Sam is the weave that patterned Dean's life since he was four. The year Dean spent with Lisa and Ben believing Sam dead and in Hell was as alien and strange to him as the alternate dimension of The French Mistake, and he became a different man to live there. To remain the self he recognizes, to feel himself complete and whole inside his skin, Dean needs Sam to be alive. Is that selfish? Yes. But it's also the very essence of Dean as we've come to know him. Dean resists change.

I think the second thing driving Dean was his powerful intuition that Ezekiel was trustworthy. Dean's intuitive judgments of people have usually been good. He's sometimes been betrayed, and now he fears desperate wish fulfillment might be tainting his senses, but his gut-level instincts are very strong and solid. I think they were telling him Ezekiel was in earnest about being willing to help and then willing to leave, and that sense combined with his own desperate need for Sam to live tempted him beyond reason. Despite being as non-religious as they come, Dean is nonetheless a creature of profound faith in one belief: that as long as Sam is alive, they'll find a way to make things work. In that respect, Dean is being honest about putting Sam first – but he knows exactly how duplicitous he is being otherwise, and it's going to torment him until Sam learns the truth, exacts punishment, and – hopefully – eventually forgives him, staying alive in the process.

And had Dean chosen otherwise, we'd no longer have a show. This is the story of Sam and Dean, and it needs both of them to survive.

I'm One Of You: I Will Never Stop Being One Of You

Castiel learning what it means to be human will doubtless provide many of the season's lighter moments, but I think it also promises a wealth of profound exploration of the human condition.

Despite having occupied a human vessel for several years now, Castiel almost never had to deal with human realities. As an angel simply using Jimmy Novak's body as a convenience to interact with other humans, he didn't share his host's emotions or physicality at all. Only when he was cut off from Heaven after his rebellion did he begin to experience typically brief fragments of human sensation. He experienced pathological hunger from contact with Famine in My Bloody Valentine, but could dismiss the unpleasant consequences of overeating the same way he could undo his vessel being shot or stabbed by human weapons. Steadily losing power, he got drunk in 99 Problems, and wound up unconscious, hospitalized, in pain, and unable to transport himself in Two Minutes To Midnight. Brought back after his Leviathan misadventure with no memory in The Born Again Identity and cared for by Daphne, a religious woman who called herself his wife, he thought he was human, but he could heal people and didn't eat. He didn't think twice about those oddities because Daphne simply accepted both them and him as a blessing from God. I don't think he was experiencing a true human life at the time, but he had no gauge by which to tell the difference.

Still, all of his past experiences with human limitations and human biology were isolated and brief. This really is the first time he's fully having to appreciate what it means to be physically human not as a temporary inconvenience, but as a way of life. And it didn't surprise me or strike me as odd that he wouldn't accept that reality until it was forced on him by direct experience; hence his initial assertions – even after having scraped his hand and felt pain – that he didn't drink water or eat.

Castiel still knows he was an angel, and that is so much a part of his identity – after all, he's been an angel for longer than human beings have existed! – that I believe he will never truly think of himself as being other than an angel, no matter how powerless he is. Like Anna before him – the only other angel we know of who lost her grace and then inhabited a human body – he can still hear angels talking. He hasn't lost his memories. He's experiencing a forced shift in perspective, one that both opens and limits him to human senses, but he retains the ability to compare and contrast that to what he perceived before, at least to the extent his now human mind can retain and grasp the knowledge of what he was.

I think the huge challenge for Castiel will be reconciling his human limitations with his angelic sense of self and his sense of responsibility for all the actions that brought him to this point. Like Dean, Castiel carries a massive load of duty and personal responsibility; unlike Dean, who adopts way more than his share, Castiel has earned most of his sense of guilt. He always tries to do the right things, but as has often been the case with Sam, his good intentions have led him down wrong roads and resulted in unintended consequences he would never have chosen had he known they would accrue.

Now he's determined to try to make up for his failings by helping angels and by helping the Winchesters. I think he's viewing his humanity as his new penance, much the way he saw his sojourn in Purgatory as just but insufficient punishment for his theft of souls and insane harrowing of Heaven. And he's already learned through his experience with Hael that nothing about his new life will be easy. All he wanted to do was help – but the first angel he tried to help threatened to end it all, and his reflexive defense response was to kill her. He's going to be struggling with moral complexities every single day.

Despite the penance aspect of his existence, though, I think he's also going to be enraptured by the continual process of discovery that characterizes human life. I hope he's going to retain his capacity for perceiving and appreciating beauty, because that's something that always endeared him to me. I'm not talking about simple physical beauty here, although that applies to his appreciation of the physical world; I'm talking about his innocent gift for seeing into hearts and valuing what he finds there. On top of having to deal with angels, he's now going to encounter the best and the worst of how humans deal with each other, and I hope he'll be able to retain his inclination to look for the best in people and be happy when he finds it. I fear for him encountering bullies, evil, and violence before he learns how to deal with them and protect himself without losing his capacity for trust and faith in others.

This whole arc will present an intriguing contrast to the only other long-term humanized Cas we saw: the powerless, flippant, bitter, orgiastic, stoner Cas of The End. I think there are major differences that will set the two apart; I don't think we'll see our current Cas giving in to the hopelessness that afflicted his alternate future self, if only because our current Cas is so aware of all the ways he brought his fate upon himself and feels so strongly the need to redeem himself by saving others. How to accomplish that without his angel powers and without being overwhelmed by the growing awareness of his human limitations will be a challenge I look forward to seeing.

I'll also be fascinated to see how his relationship with the Winchesters changes because of his humanity. Always before, there was at least a bit of condescension on Castiel's part, an awareness that he was an angel while they were just human. Castiel always knew he couldn't be hurt by a human, and that colored every action he took. Similarly, the Winchesters were accustomed to calling on Castiel when they needed help; they felt an emotional link to him, but he was always also as much a resource and convenience as a potential friend and ally. Now his utility will be limited, but I expect his emotional compass will be broadened. The parameters of the relationship will change. At least for a while, the Winchesters will be the stronger part of the equation in all respects for the very first time; that's going to take some adjustment on everyone's part.

Purely on the physical side, I have to note that there's a world of difference between being intellectually aware of something and actually experiencing it for yourself. Castiel has doubtless seen everything there is to see about human bodily functions, but to feel them himself, from the inside? Reading or watching a film about sex is a totally different experience from romping with a partner. Now apply your reaction to that sentence to everything else human you can think of … *grin*

Are We Creatures Of Wrath, Or Compassion? I Would Argue The Latter

I like Ezekiel, and I'm inclined to trust his goodwill. I have several reasons. One is Castiel's smiling recognition of him as a good soldier; Castiel obviously knew him personally, while he clearly didn't know Hael as anything more than a passing acquaintance in Heaven. The second is Ezekiel's own demeanor. His challenge to the angel attacking Dean in the hospital garage was pointedly pro-human, and while he proved a canny fighter, not succumbing to a sneak attack, he initially was ready to welcome the businessman/angel as a brother, had the angel not played him false. That spoke to me of genuine goodness on his part, but without most of the naivete Castiel displayed when he first appeared.

My third reason is his care for his first vessel. The man he'd been inhabiting prior to transferring into Sam was understandably confused when confronted by the doctor, but apart from his lack of memory appeared perfectly intact. That was worlds away from Raphael having left his discarded vessel a drooling idiot in Free To Be You And Me, and I can't imagine that Zachariah or Uriel, in their contempt for humans, would have dealt any more fairly with their vessels.

Finally, I'm swayed by Ezekiel's compassionate understanding and willingness to leave Dean and Sam alone when Dean confirmed that Sam would rather die than be possessed by anyone. That could have been just a cleverly calculated ploy to push Dean over the edge, but I don't think it was. Angels can be Machievellian – I remember Zachariah vividly – but I just don't get that vibe from Ezekiel. If I'm proven wrong, I'll print and eat these words, but I don't think I'll need to do that. I think Ezekiel's a good guy.

I do wonder how he was injured during the fall, when we haven't yet seen any other angel similarly hurt. His vessel didn't appear wounded at all until after the fight with the businessman/angel, so I think the critical damage was to Ezekiel's angelic form and essence before that enounter, as Castiel was hurt by Naomi's probes. I believe Ezekiel could have healed himself in his first vessel over time as Castiel always did; I don't think he needed to possess Sam specifically to accomplish that. But why was Ezekiel hurt, when other angels appeared uninjured? Did he perhaps resist Metatron, or oppose others seeking to dominate humans? Was he injured before the fall, opposing Naomi? I look forward to learning his backstory.

I'm eager as well to learn what Ezekiel's position will be on the broader issue of dealing with Heaven and the fallen angels. Whether or not he already knows that the Winchesters possess the angel tablet and are working with the prophet who can translate it, he will know that in very short order. Even if he genuinely believes in his mission to be a conservator of God's creation and a protector of humankind, how will he perceive that mission in connection with his current exile from Heaven? Will he be more focused on protecting things as they are, or driven to pursue regaining Heaven from Metatron and restoring the normal function of the creation God left behind? Which mission will take priority: saving Sam, or saving Heaven and the angelic host? Was that broader picture the ulterior motive behind his decision to answer Dean's prayer in the first place?

I'm also very curious about the balance Ezekiel will have to strike to keep Sam alive and functioning, but unaware of his internal angel. I suspect Ezekiel is going to find it harder than he thinks to walk the line. Dean will hate every moment he sees anyone but Sam looking out of his brother's eyes, both because it will remind him of his transgression against Sam's free will and because it will bring bad memories of Sam soulless, insane, possessed by Lucifer, or jonesing for demon blood. Dean will fear every single time he sees or hears Ezekiel instead of his brother that he made the wrong choice and that his brother will curse him for it forever. I wonder what will happen the first time they encounter angel warding and Sam can't walk through. And I wonder how long it will take Ezekiel to heal the massive amount of damage Sam suffered during the trials, including the changes Castiel said in Goodbye Stranger had damaged him in ways even Castiel couldn't heal. Is Ezekiel going to discover it impossible to heal Sam all the way? If some part of the trial damage is permanent, what would that mean for Sam? When Sam inevitably learns about Ezekiel's presence, might he possibly have to choose between not just life and death, but between life as he's known it versus life handicapped in some way?

The challenge of giving the Winchesters an angelic ally has always been limiting that angel's power in order not to overshadow the brothers' human skills and heart. Putting Ezekiel inside Sam and obliging him to remain hidden from his host is a fascinating twist on that theme, and I look forward to watching it play out.

Production Notes

I'm a bit out of practice and this is taking longer than I planned, so I think my production notes are going to be a bit shorter than I would otherwise have wished. But here goes!

First off, I loved the script by showrunner Jeremy Carver! I definitely did NOT see the twist of Sam's angelic possession coming, and while I've still got some questions and issues about the whole falling angels thing, I am on tenterhooks to see how this season plays out. This episode sucked me in on all levels, and I didn't come up for breath until it ended. Visually, it was stunning, and the performances, direction, and editing all brought it home and punched my heart. And closing with “We've got work to do” was perfect!

Okay: as is my custom, let me get my nitpicks and criticisms out of the way first. As I mentioned earlier, I was glad to see canon largely preserved with regard to the whole thing about angels needing to find human vessels, and I loved the way the show called back to previous episodes with angel voices shaking buildings and shattering glass in the process. However, I still have major metaphysical headaches over Metatron having made Castiel human simply by taking his grace. Does Castiel now have a human soul? How could that even come about, since souls are – judging by My Heart Will Go On, anyway – generated through human conception? If he doesn't have a soul, what makes him, him? And what happened to Jimmy Novak? The show has been silent on Jimmy through the past couple of Castiel resurrections. Castiel certainly appears to be alone in his body, unless Jimmy is going to manifest along the way as a split personality disorder. (I don't believe that for a second, by the way.) Anna's graceless angel self apparently took the place of a human soul in a child conceived the night she fell, making her the only angel in a body not technically a vessel with residence negotiated from its human owner; when she reappeared in On The Head Of A Pin wearing a copy of that body after the original was destroyed by her re-powering, she said she had called in some favors to get the body back. Is the body Castiel is wearing now just a copy of Jimmy's? My head hurts! (Late addition: Robbie Thompson confirmed by Twitter that Castiel is indeed alone in his body, and that Jimmy is gone – jpresumably (this is me, not Robbie!) in Heaven.)

I had three little chuckles over some art department items. First off, I haven't seen regular gas below $3.00 a gallon anywhere for a long time, so that Long Peak, CO gas station would be a mecca for fuel bargain hunters! And second, I know Dean is a tall guy, but I swear some of the angel warding symbols on those hospital room walls would have required even Dean to use a step-stool! Finally, East Coast TV and radio stations have call signs beginning with “W,” not “K.” :)

Enough on the critique side. I know many fans hated both the idea that Sam would choose to die and the whole concept of Dean dismissing his brother's free will to subjugate him to an angel. I've already talked about both of those things in my meta pieces, but I have a few more things to say on the subject. First off, I am profoundly glad that the writers didn't choose to wave away the consequences of Sam having undertaken the trials. From early on, it was clear they were having a profound adverse physical effect on Sam; it would have been cheap and very wrong to wipe that all away simply by abandoning the trials before completing the last step. Dean facing Sam's death yet again and still not being able to accept it didn't undo for me all the growth Dean has experienced over the years, because all the while he's been learning to give Sam his space and accept his decisions, he's also grown more dependent on having Sam at his side. That co-dependence is part and parcel of these characters, dyed in their psychological wool over more than thirty years, and that's a structural element of the show; if it ever went away, so would Supernatural.

I also didn't have a problem with the idea that Ezekiel would be able to conceal his presence from Sam's awareness, at least for a while. We've seen victims of demonic possession wake up with no idea and no memory of what was happening to them; most times when they knew what was going on, it was because the demons deliberately made them watch as another way to torture them. Unlike demons, angels need the permission of their hosts, but Sam saying “yes” fulfilled that requirement for the moment, even though he did it without full knowledge of what he was agreeing to.

I do not doubt that such angels as Zachariah, Uriel, and Raphael were much less than fully truthful with their vessels in order to gain their access. I also suspect that as soon as they were in residence, they deliberately closed off their hosts from conscious awareness to prevent them from changing their minds and evicting the angels. In The Rapture, Jimmy said he didn't remember much of his experience as Castiel's host, but he likened it to being chained to a comet. Still, he didn't evict Castiel, and I think that may have been due in part to never really having had the opportunity to consciously consider and protest what was happening to him, and in part to not having the concentrated strength of will to shout down the angel. Once Sam gave his consent in Swan Song, we saw Lucifer able to muzzle and suppress him, until Sam finally managed to retake control.

Ezekiel noted that his position inside Sam would be precarious in part because he himself was much weaker than normal, but I think it's also due to Sam – unlike every other vessel we've ever met – being left fully conscious and in the driver's seat, not squashed away safely in a sequestered corner of his mind mostly insulated from his body's experiences. And Sam already has the experience of battling Lucifer for the sanctity of his mind; if it came to a fight, my money's on Sam.

I loved the new “burning wings” title card by the VFX crew, and George Thorogood's “Who Do You Love” was a great musical selection for the recap. The VFX crew also did a particularly lovely job making people disappear from Sam'd dream.

I was delighted by a lot of director John Showalter's choices, and all the work in camera, editing, and post played them up brilliantly. I especially loved the off-kilter angles applied to shots in the dream Impala, with the image tipping forward or back as “Dean” and Sam talked. That rolling image was the first visual clue to things not being what they seemed. And Sam's “Enough, both of you! I can't hear myself think!” line made me laugh out loud, since their entire conversation was Sam thinking!

I have yet to be disappointed in Serge Ladouceur's lighting, but it was especially good throughout this episode. The dark colors and stark contrasts in the dream Impala played up the conflict between Sam and “Dean,” while the rich, deliberately heavenly lighting in the “Bobby” woods promised peace and serenity as an irresistible counterpoint, and carried over into the masculine comfort of Death's cabin. The hospital – a gorgeous set by Jerry Wanek and his crew – was deliberately sterile, offering stark reality with nothing of comfort or reassurance. Major props to the set design and stunt crew for all the exploding glass in the scene with Dean – in the body of Jensen's stunt double Todd – running down the corridor; that was wild!

The casting directors for this show continuously find the most amazing people to play in it. I was delighted by the return of Jim Beaver as Bobby and the mesmerizing Julian Richings as Death. I ran out of words to describe how very good both of them are long ago; every time I see them on my screen, I simply lose myself in the reality of who they are. I'm inclined, by the way, to think Death was really there; I debated it, but came down in favor of reality if only because Dean – the real Dean's mind and heart, speaking through Ezekiel – interacted with him, and to me, Death's nod to him marked Dean as himself, not the mental construct Sam had previously dismissed. And if you need proof that the Bobby of Sam's coma was a construct rather than the real thing, just remember this: while Bobby's ghost told the brothers to go when it was their time in Survival Of The Fittest, his rescued soul in Taxi Driver told Sam that he wasn't the retiring type, and he invited the brothers to find a way to spring him clear of Heaven. I had a lot of issues with Taxi Driver, but that moment wasn't one of them.

Tahmoh Penikett – a favorite of mine since his time on Battlestar Galactica and Dollhouse – obviously sold me on Ezekiel being genuine, and while I look forward to Jared Padalecki elaborating on the distinctive character Tahmoh created, as he did so well in the courtyard scene with Jensen Ackles, I hope we eventually get to see Ezekiel back in his original vessel and interacting with both Winchester brothers. I can't wait to see Sam confronting Ezekiel directly; that's going to be worth the price of admission, with two intense actors rocking the scene! Grace Phipps did an effective job as Hael going from uncertain angel to scheming threat. Even minor players like the good Samaritan pickup truck driver and the biker on the phone were note-perfect.

By this point in their careers, I think Jensen and Jared could inhabit Dean and Sam almost without thinking about them, but their gift is they never do it by halves. The “Dean” of Sam's coma was a version of Dean, not the real thing, and it showed in Jensen's performance. The anger, humor, passion, and conviction were there, but not the gentleness, not the absolute, accepting love that wrapped Sam in Dean's arms in the church. Sam's perceptions were being filtered through the debate he'd set up in his mind, and since the side in favor of life was hampered by Sam's lack of knowledge about how he could survive, the Dean presenting the argument was necessarily incomplete. The complete Dean was present in the hospital, the courtyard, and the final scene with Sam in the car.

Jared did a wonderful job not only displaying Sam's confusion, loss, desperation, and resolve, but also embodying Ezekiel in Sam's body. He and Tahmoh mirrored Ezekiel's mannerisms with perfection. I know Jared relishes the challenge of playing a non-Sam character in Sam's body; I'm looking forward to seeing it!

I have to give a call-out to the sound design people. If you're watching on television with non-surround speakers, you might be missing details; I always notice additional things particularly about the depth of the sound field when I put on my headset and watch the download from iTunes. This time, pieces that really leapt out were the intrusion of hospital sounds and Sam's heartbeat into the dream Impala and the dimensional nature of Castiel's auditory hallucination of angel voices. I know I'm more sensitive to the sound aspects these days simply because sound has become my profession; I would love to meet or chat with Don Painchaud and his entire sound crew someday!

In his internal debate about living or dying, Sam unconsciously stacked the deck against his own survival by emphasizing all the things that make human life hard: struggle, conflict, anger, pain, loss. All too often, I think we, like Sam, lose sight of the very things that make even the hardest life worthwhile: love, concern for each other, generosity, acceptance, forgiveness. Sometimes, we need to take a leap of faith and place our trust in someone else to find our way back to ourselves. Every time we do that, we take a risk – but don't you think life and love are worth a risk?

Want to read my commentaries and meta earlier? They always post on The Winchester Family Business a few days before they appear here. Check!

Tags: castiel, dean winchester, episode commentaries, haiku, jared padalecki, jensen ackles, jim beaver, meta, misha collins, myth, philosophy, psychology, sam winchester, supernatural, supernatural university, television production, theology, winchester family business

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