Commentary and Meta Analysis
I'm suspecting I liked this episode more than a lot of people did. I wasn't happy to see the brothers still so out of synch, with Sam bringing Dean cake instead of pie and deliberately sneaking out on him and Dean unable to trust Sam, lying to him, and killing a sympathetic monster Sam had let go free, but I could see where they both were coming from and I appreciated both the insight the episode gave and the consistency it reflected. I also think it helped establish the course of the rest of the season, particularly taken“ as I think it was intended to be“ just as a continuing part of the other initial two episodes.
In this commentary“ my first completed one of the season, given how far behind I am on finishing the commentaries on Meet The New Boss and Hello, Cruel World“ I discuss Sam coming to terms with being a freak; the underpinnings of Dean's decision to kill Amy; theories on the Leviathans; and issues concerning hiding out successfully when you're on the run.
I've Been Around Enough Bad To Know Good When I See It
I debated two lines to use as the tag for my discussion of Sam, but while his candid acceptance of being a freak was way up there, I thought the young-Sam quote above was even more important. When combined with Sam's observations on himself, admitting his freakishness to Dean while maintaining that he was managing it, it speaks to Sam being equipped to come to terms with himself, to recognize that despite the missteps he made and the bad things he did along the way, he's still a good person at heart“ even as Amy was a good person, while her mother wasn't. And that's something crucial, something Dean hasn't been able to do for himself and needs to learn from Sam.
From the very beginning of the series, Sam was always afraid Dean would look at him as if he were a freak if he knew about his visions, then about the demon's plans for him, then about drinking demon blood and developing his blood-fueled powers. Sam always perceived and feared Dean judging him and finding him not human, finding him wanting, finding him not worthy of love. He did it again here: Look, I see the way you look at me, Dean“ like I'm a grenade and you're waiting for me to go off. I'm not going off. I may be a freak, but that's not the same as dangerous.¦ That's okay: say it. I've spent a lot of my life trying to be normal. But, c'mon“ I'm not normal. Look at all the crap I've done. Look at me now. I'm a grade A freak. But I'm managing it.
Most of the time in the past, I think Sam misread what he saw in Dean's eyes, projecting onto Dean the distaste and rejection Sam was afraid Dean would feel because Sam himself felt it, hating being different and fearing what he might become. In doing so, I think Sam missed the truth: Dean was always afraid for him, not of him, and never believed him a monster, at least not until Sam in When The Levee Breaks maintained he knew exactly what he was doing and intended it all. Sam knew Dean had been raised to hate and hunt the supernatural and thought that would color his view of Sam. He assumed Dean's reaction to him would be negative, and to prevent that, he hid things from his brother. But it was the hiding and the lying that triggered the fights and the anger that widened the chasm between the brothers throughout season four and into season five, not Sam unwittingly breaking the last seal unleashing the apocalypse. Sam came to loathe himself in season five for having triggered the apocalypse, thinking“ because he blamed himself“ that Dean also blamed him. It wasn't until Sam hatched the plot to trap Lucifer and Dean agreed to help that Sam finally saw the staunch truth of Dean's enduring love and used it to anchor himself and win.
Sam has changed since then, and for the better. Yes, he tried to hide his hallucinations from Dean in Meet The New Boss and Hello, Cruel World, but I submit his reason this time was different. When he woke from the strangling dream in Meet The New Boss and went in search of Dean and Bobby, I believe he meant to tell them what was going on with him until he overheard Dean's candid admission to Bobby that Dean was drowning in loss and clinging to the one and only unadulterated good he had left: the appearance that Sam really was okay. Sam resolved not to tell Dean the truth simply to leave intact the last life preserver still keeping Dean afloat. Once Death let the cat out of the bag, Sam came clean and admitted it all, however reluctantly. He backslid a little here, deliberately shutting out Dean and sneaking off to handle Amy on his own, intending to clean up in secret one more hidden mess that he perceived as his responsibility, but apart from that, Bobby had it right: It ain't like he's keepin' secrets. What you see is what you get. When Dean caught up and confronted him, he told the truth, including all the details of the past he'd never shared before.
Now that he has a handle on being able to tell his hellucinations from reality, Sam really does seem to be dealing with and accepting who and what he is. He can admit just how drastically he went wrong in the past and acknowledge that the horror he went through in Hell is playing out now in waking nightmares. For the very first time, however, he's facing all of that“ his difference from normal, his errors, and his fears“ without being angry and defensive about it. As he finally realized in Sam, Interrupted, anger and fear were always at his core. Now the anger seems to have abated, and while the fear still exists, he's facing and naming it instead of running from it, and that is huge. And while he hasn't let himself off the hook for having unleashed the apocalypse, he seems ready to accept that he did the right thing in paying the price to stop it“ a price he's still paying, and willing to pay, because he's essentially a good man and can recognize that in himself.
While he's seeing himself pretty clearly, though, I think Sam is still misreading the worst of Dean's fear. I think Sam believes Dean is watching him so closely because he thinks Dean expects him to fall, to be overcome by Lucifer as he was in the past with catastrophic consequences for the world, and that's as mistaken as Sam thinking Dean would be as happy with cake as with pie. Yes, Deanâ€™s afraid heâ€™ll lose Sam to the broken wall, but I think his greatest fear about that isn't simply that Sam will fail, but that he will: that when some crisis comes, Dean will be helpless to prevent Sam from getting lost inside the Hell in his own mind, leaving just a physical shell behind. Dean's greatest fear is now, as I think it always has been, somehow failing Sam when his brother needs him the most, and everything in Dean's life has led him to expect that he will fail, because in his own mind, he always has.
And I don't think Sam has quite recognized or figured out yet how to assuage that particular fear. I think that's going to be Sam's real mission this season: making his brother see that. That's not going to be easy.
No Matter How Hard You Try, You Are What You Are
The hardest thing to watch in this episode was Dean utterly adrift, worried about Sam and unable to deal with it, then outright lying to Sam and going after Amy, killing her in front of her son. I'm sure a lot of fans hated everything about Dean's actions, considering them as belittling Sam and also being out of character for the man Dean had become after his realization in Bloodlust that not all monsters were, well, monsters in the evil sense of something meriting death.
I saw something different. I saw the Dean we've been watching gradually unraveling over the past six years finally reach the end of his rope and drop, condemning and executing himself as a monster in the person of Amy, accepting that he deserves nothing better and believing he's going to lose everything that matters anyway, if he hasn't already. I saw Dean surrendering the last vestige of hope he had left, effectively signing his own death warrant. I think Dean is now in the darkest space he's ever been in, and that's saying a lot.
And that broke my heart.
Ever since the end of season one, when he admitted to Sam in Devil's Trap that what he would do or kill for Sam or John scared him sometimes, Dean has considered himself something tainted, something twisted. He admitted as much to Jo in No Exit, and over the years, that has just gotten worse. It became exponentially bad after he died and went to Hell in No Rest For The Wicked. I still do believe that when he came back in Lazarus Rising, he told the truth about not remembering Hell, at least apart from the disturbingly vague flashes of terror and torment he and we caught in the very beginning and in the mirror in the hotel bathroom, and he didn't truly remember everything until the hallucination of Lilith assured him he did in Yellow Fever. From the moment the memories started to come back, however, they were unbearable, as evidenced first by his drinking and inability to sleep without nightmares, and finally by his admissions in Heaven And Hell and Family Remains that he had broken under torture and become a torturer in his own turn; even worse, that he had enjoyed torturing other souls. Since then, he's never stopped drinking, even though we've only ever seen him truly drunk once, in Yellow Fever. As we saw and heard him admit to Sam in Mannequin 3: The Reckoning, he also used drugs and cathartic violence to deal with the darkness.
The knowledge of what he had become and done in Hell remained with him and festered. Time and again, Dean rebuffed love and any chance at happiness as something he doesn't deserve because he believes at his core he's something evil, something wrong. On The Head Of A Pin brought it sharply into focus when Dean learned he had broken the first Seal by breaking in Hell when his father“ at least according to Alistair“ never had. He laid it out for Lisa in Exile On Main Street and Two And A Half Men, and then shared it with both Lisa and Ben in Mannequin 3: The Reckoning, after exposing it even more baldly to Veritas and to Sam“ who unfortunately wasn't equipped with a soul and thus able to appreciate it at the time“ in You Can't Handle The Truth. In all those episodes, as he showed earlier in Sam, Interrupted and 99 Problems among many others, he held himself responsible for the fate of others and didn't believe he deserved anything other than condemnation for having failed in his charge and for having become something monstrous even before he was briefly turned to a vampire in Live Free Or Twi-Hard. In Dean's mind, he perceived Hell as simply having uncovered an unpalatable evil he'd always contained but hidden from himself before: that in his innermost self, he enjoyed hurting others. Before Hell, it had come out sometimes only in the satisfaction he took in killing monsters, and had seemed acceptable in that context“ remember his savagely brutal sawmill kill of the vampire in Bloodlust?“ but in the aftermath of Hell, it marked him as bad in his own mind.
And this defines the biggest difference between Sam and Dean, I think, and also the essence of their very different experiences in Hell. Based on what we've seen of Sam's memories through his hallucinations and what we've heard about Dean's, I think their experiences in Hell were very different, and perhaps boil down simply to this: Sam's memories of Hell are of being a victim, while Dean's memories are of having become a monster to escape being a victim.
Think about it for a minute. The brothers' presence in Hell came about through very different mechanisms and served very different goals. Dean was deliberately enticed into Hell to be broken according to prophecy to become the Righteous Man who would break the first Seal by shedding blood in Hell. Alistair was committed from the outset to obtain one outcome: making Dean betray and disavow himself by agreeing to become a torturer of others and even learning to enjoy it. Sam, on the other hand, wound up in Hell incidentally because he used himself to trap Lucifer there; he sacrificed himself to save the world, and his reward was to be tormented for his interference by Lucifer and Michael, who were stuck in a cage in Hell because of him. From Sam's hallucinations, it appears Lucifer set out to punish him in every way he could for no other purpose than averting boredom and making him pay for having derailed the apocalypse and denied Lucifer his expected place as ruler of the new world order.
Now both brothers are back on Earth, both still with memories of their time in the Pit“ but I think those times and memories were very different, and those differences resonate. And I think they mean Dean despises himself for a failure and a monster and has no hope at all, while Sam understands redemption and realizes that while he made mistakes and did colossally bad things, he also sacrificed and continues to work to correct them. He still holds himself responsible for the effects of what he did, but he doesn't believe at his core that he merits damnation. Instead, Sam has hope and believes in the transformative power of doing the right thing.
I think that defined the difference in their approaches to Amy. Sam perceived Amy as a mother preserving her son, an essentially good person who, despite being born a predator, resorted to killing only when pushed to the limit, and chose arguably evil targets when she had to kill. He rationalized her actions as the product of her love for and drive to protect her son, and saw in her a reflection of the same family love that's driven the Winchesters to kill things to protect each other. Dean also saw a reflection, but perceived Amy as a monster no different from him, someone who even with the best intent would rationalize her kills and kill again whenever a suitable justification presented itself.
In that perception, I emphatically do not believe Dean was regressing to his former, pre-Bloodlust black-and-white view of seeing all supernatural creatures as evil and meriting death. Instead, I think Dean was seeing himself in Amy and judging her as he judged himself. He didn't challenge her as a monster. Instead, I submit he saw her as a person, and more than that: he saw her as someone exactly like himself, someone who, given an incentive, had succumbed to the darkness lurking within and would do so again. But, people: they are who they are. No matter how hard you try, you are what you are. You will kill again. Trust me: I'm an expert. Maybe in a year, maybe ten; but eventually, the other shoe will drop. It always does. He took no joy or satisfaction from killing her, but did what he thought duty required based on the darkness of his own experience. He even displayed warped compassion by killing her quickly and unexpectedly, and laying her gently down on the bed as she died. That was a far cry from Dean's usual callous treatment of monsters in the past, and demonstrated to me that she was a person to him.
Dean had ample reason to believe what he said. He knew what he would do, if presented with a danger to Sam. He had seen what Amy would do, when presented with the need to save her son. Given the same choice again, there was no question what she would do. And similarly, no question what he had become or what he would be willing to do. Conversely, he saw her son as someone still innocent, someone who still might choose not to kill“ although if the boy chose to come after him, Dean couldn't say he'd be unjustified.
So, was I disturbed when Dean killed Amy? No question: I was. But what disturbed me the most was what Dean's action said about how he viewed himself and his world, and how he hid all of that from Sam by faking acceptance of Sam's choice to let Amy go.
I said at the beginning of this section that I thought Dean was now at his darkest point ever in the history of this show. I mean that. When John died and left him the enigmatic warning that he had to save Sam or kill him, Dean floundered at first, but then found himself in his commitment to save Sam no matter what. When Dean went to Hell, he knew why he'd done it and counted Sam's life worth the price. When he came back, he was broken, but he had Sam, Bobby, Castiel, and a mission to help sustain and ground him, and while it was hard and he made mistakes, he eventually found his own free will up to the task of doing what he thought was right. When Sam went to Hell, Dean knew“ however painful the thought“ that Sam had done the right thing, redeemed his prior failings through his sacrifice, and knowingly accepted the consequences, and all he could do to honor Sam's choice was live as Sam had wished him to live. In addition, while they couldn't make up for Sam's loss, he had Lisa and Ben to love and protect, and I have to believe that helped anchor him to living, even though he still drank too much and always carried grief and guilt. When Sam came back different, Dean set himself to put his brother back together again, and succeeded“ but only under the cloud of the warning that Sam's Hell memories could leave him worse than dead if they came to the fore, and if that happened, there would be no way to put him together again.
On top of all that, everything Dean has seen in the past few years has predisposed him to believe hope is an illusion and he“ and everyone“ will always fail. His father died and went to Hell for him, when he never believed himself worthy of that sacrifice. He broke in Hell and became his own worst nightmare. He didn't understand and couldn't reach Sam in time to prevent him from breaking the last Seal in Lucifer Rising. He couldn't save Ellen and Jo, and their deaths became apparently meaningless when he couldn't kill Lucifer with the Colt in Abandon All Hope. He couldn't stop Lucifer and Michael, and could only be present while it was left to Sam to act and sacrifice himself in Swan Song. He couldn't both protect and live with Lisa and Ben in season six, and knowing him nearly got them killed. During his brief stint as Death in Appointment In Samarra, he couldn't predict or deal with the expanding consequences of having interfered in the natural order to save the little girl, forfeiting the bet he thought was his only means of getting Sam's soul back and still having to reap the innocent little girl to begin to set things right. In Mommy Dearest, he saw Lenore“ his own personal conversion poster child for monsters not always being evil and killing them not always being right“ overcome by her vampire nature despite her best resolve, begging to be killed before she lost control again. Finally, he couldn't stop Castiel in The Man Who Knew Too Much either from opening Purgatory or from breaking the wall in Sam's mind, and he lost his best and most peculiar non-human friend to monster possession and seeming dissolution in Meet The New Boss and Hello, Cruel World even as he saw his brother drowning in the rising tide of his Hell memories and hallucinations.
Is it any wonder that Dean now sees only darkness and despair and believes that the monster within anyone“ himself particularly included“ will always get out? I would submit he's clinically depressed and has been so for a long time. I've written a lot about that before, especially in 99 Problems. (You can skip the rest of the links in this article if you like, but this is one you really might like to follow, if you haven't read it before¦) The long and short of it is, all of Dean's history for the past six years has been, to his mind anyway, a tale of mounting failure and loss, and he's finally at the point where his previous coping mechanisms“ drinking, drugs, sex, violence, and soldiering on despite futility simply because that's what a Winchester does“ are failing to do the job of keeping him in the fight any longer.
Despite Dean's dark journey, however, I'm going to go on record and say I emphatically don't believe the message of Supernatural is that Dean's right in believing there is no hope and he's doomed to failure and losing Sam. Quite the contrary. This show has always been about family, love, free will, making choices, making mistakes, accepting consequences, trying to do the right thing, and seeking“ and gaining“ redemption for failure. The brothers have always taken turns falling down and lifting each other back up; they've been each others' counterweights from the beginning of the show, and they're the stronger for it. Now I think it's Sam's turn, despite his own problems, to be the light in Dean's darkness. However damaged Sam is, heâ€™s coping, and much better than Dean; Sam has hope. Sam believes in good. It may not be in God any more, but Sam again has faith“ in Dean, in Bobby, in his own chance to persevere. His faith in Castiel was proven when the angel answered his prayer in Hello, Cruel World and admitted he needed help, expressing honest remorse for his mistakes. Sam's willingness to believe in and act on friendship, love, and the hope of the victory of good began the salvation of Castiel, and I, for one, don't believe that journey is over. And to borrow a different Christian allegory, while Dean is currently in the Slough of Despond, sinking in the mire of his perceived sins and their guilt, The Pilgrim's Progress didn't end there, and I don't think Dean's story will, either. I'm hoping Sam may be his Help to give him a hand up and set him back on the road, encouraging him to let go of his self-loathing and self-blame and leave them behind in the Valley of the Shadow of Death, and to rediscover the essential goodness at his core.
And as for all the darkness these characters have been through, well“ there would be no need for salvation if there hadn't been a fall, would there?
- Next >>