My second viewing of the episode was a little different, though. There were lessons to be learned from the wrestling tour’s troubles. Dean certainly took to heart some of the things said by his childhood idol, Gunnar Lawless, and if I consider the setting of the story, why would one expect the world of wrestling to be subtle? The entire sport is rough, even garish. It would be disingenuous if its characters were portrayed as anything other than brazen, in your face, macho roughnecks. Yet, just as the truth about what goes on in the ring is hidden from public view, so was the story behind the wrestlers’ lives hidden. A crossroads demon had his hooks into the champ? Why bring up crossroad demons in season 11? They haven’t been a big part of the story (as opposed to a convenient device to make Sam feel guilty) since… one of the brothers was fighting for his soul, which was before the brothers met Castiel, or Lucifer, angels or Crowley. The condemned was someone who Dean ‘worshipped’ growing up. Dean also worshipped his father, who was mentioned more than a few times in this story. Maybe there’s more to this story than first meets the eye, so that’s where we will begin unraveling the truth of this week’s threads.
Traumatized Children and their Families
Top Notch Wrestling brought back a lot of childhood memories for the Winchester boys.
Dean: You remember Top Notch wrestling? Those, uh, wrestling shows dad took us to when we were kids. Came across an obituary last night. Larry “The Hangman” Lee died. He was dad's favorite. Every time that noose would come out, dad would be up on his feet. Yeah, that was one of the few times I ever saw him actually happy.
Dean was thrilled to reconnect with some of the happy memories of his childhood.
Dean: Well, you drink enough, it'll be just like old times.Sam’s childhood was also reintroduced through his “first crush” on Rio, and with Dean teasing him,
Dean: Rio? You dog. Did you tell her you used to have a poster of her over your bed when you were a kid?
Even Crowley got in on the act of remembering his childhood. His personal lockup had a picture of presumably him as a child in Scotland (never mind the detail that an abandoned, orphan waif would not be the subject of a painted portrait), with Crowley remarking,
“Ah, the good old days.”
In revisiting the past, we were also reminded that Sam and Dean’s young lives were less than ideal.
Dean: I... Worshiped you, growing up. You know, when I was... when I was 10, I got my first B&E from borrowing some family's pay-per-view so that I could watch the cage match between you and the Tower of Power.
Gunnar: I'm not sure how I feel about contributing to your juvenile delinquency, but appreciate it all the same.
“Beyond the Mat” finally turned the focus of the season-long theme of traumatized childhoods away from victims and strangers and aimed it squarely at Sam and Dean’s difficult early years. John Winchester was referenced in Dean’s discovery of the obituary that established the premise for the entire story, but the drunk dad sitting behind them at the match rekindled Sam’s memories of John as well.
Drunk, Doomed Dad: Beer's cheap, kid's entertained... parenting. Remember, don't tell mom how many I've had.
Sam: Yeah. Now, that brings me back.
Dean: You want to not try and ruin one of the nicest things dad ever did for us, please?
The young boy being entertained by an over indulging father was the present day personification of young Dean. When Gunnar gave his glove to that little boy, Dean assuaged his disappointment saying, “It's all right. I'm not a child.”, but in fact Dean wanted to be that little boy in that moment. Just minutes later, that boy’s life became hauntingly similar to Dean’s, and he joined the long line of children traumatized by the supernatural when his father was also killed by a monster. Knowing exactly how he felt, Sam consoled the boy, and Dean identified with him saying, “Poor kid.” Then Rio emphasized again that there was another fatherless child,
Dean: Did you know the deceased?
Rio: I sold him some tickets. He had a kid, right?
The scenario of a boy who is taken to a wrestling match with his father, then loses him to a demon attack, that is in a round-about way connected to a crossroads deal for a soul, is a very strong parallel to how Sam and Dean lost their dad. This is all very curious. Why is John being brought up so prominently at this point in the series? Gunnar called everyone “kid”, reinforcing him being a stand-in for John. When tying up Dean he said,
Sorry kid. I don’t want to do this.He dismissed Harley in the bar saying,
Kid, I got no worries about that.He even attempted to plead his case to the crossroad demon saying,
“He’s just a kid”.
In return, Harley referred to Gunnar as “old man”, a slang term often used to refer to one’s father. When Dean first met Gunnar, Dean called him “sir” which was how Dean always addressed his dad. When Gunnar entered the arena, Dean chastised Sam, telling him, “Hey, Get up. Show some respect.” just as an older brother would teach manners to the younger sibling he largely raised. References to John were infused throughout the episode. The thwarting question is “Why?”
The parallel went beyond individuals, connecting the wrestlers and the entire Winchester family unit.
Rio told Dean,
"Maybe my boys are right. Maybe we really are cursed…."
“I can only afford to travel my boys.”
How many times has Sam wondered aloud if they were cursed? The parallels between the Winchesters and the wrestling company were reiterated several times. When the aged wrestlers were each introduced at the wake, the brothers’ expected future was paraded in front of them:
Dean: “The Scream” Casey Lyons. There's Wrecking Ball Calhoon. Wow. The Brooklyn Beast?
Sam: What happened to 'em? They're all...Broken.
Rio reiterated the parallel between the Winchesters’ lives and those of the wresting has-beens, saying
We spent a lot of time on the road together. We're like family, and lately, I've seen too many of my boys be put in the dirt. I knew Hangman for 25 years. He was a good man. Great family. I just can't believe he would do this.
Sam: Do what?
Rio: Kill himself.
Her assessment of the Hangman as a “good man” reflects the many times Dean and Sam have tried to evaluate their own worth and morals. Gunnar judged himself:
“I've never been a good man. I look in the mirror and I hate the face looking back at me.
There are a few broken mirrors in Dean’s history as well. After it was all over for Lawless, Dean disagreed with the man’s harsh judgement of himself,
Dean: Lawless was a good guy. He didn't deserve to go out like that, you know?
Sam: Dean, you know what? He made a bad decision.
Dean: We've been there. Yeah, you, me, now Cas.
Sam: Dean, we'll get him back.
Dean: We will. We just got to... Keep grinding. No matter how much it hurts, no matter how hard it gets, you got to keep grinding. And that's how we're gonna win.
Which leads us to how the wrestler’s saga influenced Dean’s thinking, and perhaps his final decision, in his fight with the Darkness.
The Darkness and Amara
Did Dean learn something about being too hard on himself, Sam and Cas when they’ve made mistakes? Might Gunnar’s end help Dean choose something other than a self-flagellating sacrifice of himself when the final opportunity to be a hero presents itself? Last week’s focus on sacrifices and this week’s focus on self-worth seem to be leading to a climactic evaluation of whether someone’s death is deserved or heroic.
“Beyond the Mat” asked the audience to remember the past through the dialog’s obvious references to the boys’ childhood. More importantly, though, I believe we were being told that their recent past, just a few years ago, when John made a deal and was killed, when Dean made a demon deal and went to hell, when Sam trusted Ruby and released Lucifer – all those mistakes or “bad decisions” will become relevant again. John seemed to be relevant again. Will the “Father figure” (capitalization intended) be of literal or figurative importance in the final confrontation with Amara?
Dean admired the wrestlers. He identified with the basic instinct and desire to fight. He even jumped into the ring, acting out a fantasy about having thousands cheer as he battled some legendary, larger-than-life bad guy. How did he not see the connection that that was already his life? In sympathizing with the wrestler’s plight, the parallel to his hunting life was made perfectly clear:
Dean: Town after town, putting your ass on the line for next to nothing? No money. No glory. Wow.
Sam: You realize you just literally described our jobs.
Gunnar and Dean even compared the scars they’ve each received on the job:
Gunnar: I've been beat up, spit on, stabbed, roughed up, but I will be damned if I didn't always get back up. One thing I learned... you got to keep on grinding no matter what's thrown your way.
Dean: Damn, you're awesome.
Gunnar was living a version of Dean’s life. Both sold their souls and were sliced up by attacking hell hounds, but as Farawayeyes so eloquently pointed out in her review of “The Vessel”, motivation and the reason for sacrifice make all the difference in the world. Gunnar sold his soul because he was desperate to be recognized for his talent (or for money or fame or other self-indulgent reasons). Dean sold his soul for love of others. Gunnar killed innocent people to delay his damnation. When faced with his final hour, Dean gave his brother advice and love, and stood his ground. Gunnar came around to finding his courage in the end, but his journey took several innocent people with him.
As obvious as Gunnar’s parallel is to Dean, the wrestler’s parallel to John is also important. John also sold his soul (again for more altruistic reasons than Lawless). Was the whole point for Dean to receive advice from his “dad” to find the resilience and just keep “grinding”? That might have been what Dean needed to hear to motivate him to keep going in his battle with Amara. His final words of encouragement and determination to Sam seem to indicate that it worked. The lessons in mistakes, courage and meaningful deaths also have foreboding messages, though, and they may all play a part in Dean’s state of mind at the critical last moment. What do you think?
Betrayal and Weapons of War
Crowley and Lucifer’s drama more openly laid the groundwork for the final battle with Amara.
Lucifer: You really thought you could double-cross me? Me? You know I invented the double-cross? Like, literally.
Was Lucifer referring to when he betrayed God, or was there another double cross he perpetrated? I have theorized that there is much more to the story of how Amara was originally trapped and jailed. Did Lucifer betray Amara? His egotistical bragging about the double cross screamed importance, but Crowley’s repetition of the claim brought even more attention to its significance.
Crowley: You really think you could double-cross me? Me?! I perfected the double-cross. Like, literally.I’m sure we’ll learn the secret of the final battle that entrapped Amara in the critical last few episodes, but all this talk of double-crossing just piqued my curiosity. Simmons' betrayal of Crowley also foreshadowed a future double-cross.
The details of how the Hands of God can be used as weapons against Amara are being slowly revealed. Something Crowley said was worth noting:
So, if this can hurt something as powerful as the Darkness, I wonder... What can it do to you?
He didn’t presume it would kill Amara, just hurt her. Maybe the touch of God’s power weakens her long enough for forces to overpower and trap her. We’ve seen her weakened once already, by Heaven’s smiting or consuming angel grace (We don’t exactly know which…although a reader sent me a great theory about this that I’ll have to reveal at some point). Maybe being touched by pure Good takes away the power of pure darkness. It’s a working theory anyway.
The Rod of Aaron was also a “use once then discard” deal, so I can already hear Sam or Dean say “We only have one shot at this so make it count!” in some critical, dramatic moment in the final season 11 episodes. A curious inconsistency, though, is slightly troubling. The Arc of the Covenant relic shot through one submarine’s hull, thousands of feet of ocean (they mentioned the depth of the sub so someone can look that up), and the hull of a war vessel on the surface of the water, destroying both the sub and the surface vessel. Why, then, was the power of the Rod of Aaron stopped by just one tiny demon body? Simmons was killed (notably sacrificed herself, which is worthy of discussion on the sacrificing theme of season 11) but Lucifer’s body behind her was barely scratched. Is there a difference in power between God’s relics, or is this just the result of a tiny detail overlooked by a new writer? There isn’t enough evidence to be sure yet. What is your opinion?
The emergence of a crossroads demon was also interesting as it applied to Crowley. That was his recent past. That was his “job” before Yellow Eyes and Lillith were killed and he assumed the throne of Hell. Why was his past also being resurrected? All of this fits together somehow, we just need more pieces to the puzzle.
Last season, we ended up learning that the most innocuous monster of the week stories held the biggest clues to the season’s myth arc climax. Maybe that will be true of this episode. It held enough mystery that I’m not willing to dismiss it and to respect that there really might be quite a bit more to this episode than I originally thought...
…but I still don’t like wrestling.
How about you?
Pictures courtesy of http://www.springfieldspringfield.co.uk
Transcript courtesy of http://transcripts.foreverdreaming.org