I can’t fully judge this episode until I see the next one, because this story paused right in the middle – but I loved what I saw. My hat is off to writer Eric Kripke, director Robert Singer, and the entire production team.
I particularly loved the way the script and the production design combined to hint to us right from the beginning that we were inside Sam’s mind, traveling through a construct cobbled together from Sam’s memories. Visual touches, which might either have been mentioned in the script or worked out early on in the production design discussions, included the prominent use of the sign for Castle Storage, the place where the brothers had discovered John’s storage room in Bad Day At Black Rock (although we didn’t learn the name and see the sign until Sympathy For The Devil) – a place, not coincidentally, that stored memories of their childhood as well as weapons and supernatural artifacts; and the Nite Owl Hotel, the place the brothers had stayed in Live Free Or Twi-Hard (incidentally, they’ve used that motel name and sign before, notably in season five’s Fallen Idols, but that location was the 2400 Motel; this one was the Victorian, the same real location used in the vampire episode). Sam’s fake ID’s used rock musician names the show has used before. Every piece of set dressing in both the bar and the hotel had a familiar feel; I’d bet every single piece – well, except for the newspaper article on Dr. Visyak – had been used in earlier episodes. Another subtle telltale was the pretty bartender never introducing herself. Introductions are always mutual, but this one wasn’t – and when we saw Sam’s recovered memories, that made sense, because soulless Sam, never caring about her, probably never even learned her name. According to IMDB, her name in the script was Robin, but I’m pleased they never used it.
I also appreciated the way the script called back to previous events, such as Dean’s reference to “dreamscaping” Sam’s noggin – clearly a reference to Dean being tempted to enter Sam’s dreaming mind as they’d entered Bobby’s and Sam had entered Dean’s in Dream A Little Dream Of Me – being countered by Bobby’s warning that they couldn’t know what was going on in Sam’s mind and he couldn’t afford to be deprived of both brothers when so little time remained to stop the opening of the door into Purgatory. I was glad to see that potential being recognized and blocked by a rational reason. Dean putting the needs of the mission ahead of his personal need to abandon everything else to try to save Sam also reflected the growth he demonstrated back in Good God, Y’All when he consciously forced himself to see to the needs of the group rather than charging off half-cocked to Sam’s rescue. He had to let Sam fight this battle on his own, and – however much it hurt – he did, hoping and praying Sam would win.
Ivan Hayden’s visual effects crew clearly had to put in some overtime on this one. I was particularly impressed with the demon and angel assault swallowing and flipping the Impala; that was a great purely visual effect sold by having a real car upside-down, headlights burning, when it ended. And it’s a good thing the production has held on to all of its Impalas, including the one they wrecked at the end of season one! They weren’t about to put the hero car upside-down! I also loved the swirling silver light effect in Balthazar’s eyes as he died; to me, it called back to the light we saw in Death’s ring when Dean and Death put it on during Appointment In Samarra. I could wish we’d seen more creative evidence of what specifically happened to Sam in Hell than simply the same image we saw in Unforgiven of Sam burning alive, but I can appreciate both that they needed a visual shorthand to readily convey “this is Sam suffering a Hell flashback” and that burning alive forever, without respite, represents pretty much the worst and most painful fate anyone is likely to be able to imagine.
The sound crew gets a call-out for this episode as well. I enjoyed the way they played up significant sounds in Sam’s dreams, including the bartender’s voice melding into Dean’s, the Stones song crossing from the panic room into the car, and the sounds of Sam cocking the guns when he pulled them out of the trunk to go after soulless Sam. Sounds had an echoing dream-like quality inside the dream they didn’t have outside. The approach and assault by the demon cloud was sold as much by the sound as by the visual.
I have to call out one continuity error, just because it struck me. When Sam fled his soulless self in the woods, he paused early in the run, brushed his hand back under his jacket, came up with his handgun, then started moving again – but in all the following scenes where we saw him continuing to run, he had nothing in his hand, up until the very last scene in the run where he jumped down toward the riverbank, gun in hand. Oopsie! My guess is that editor Anthony Pinker put the gun-draw earlier in the final sequence of scenes than the script or director Singer had originally intended because one or both of them decided it flowed better there, but all the running scenes had already been shot without the gun in hand because they’d intended the draw to come later. Maybe someday we’ll get the chance to ask!
The performances were golden. Erica Cerra, whom I recognized as Jo from Eureka, had great chemistry with Jared Padalecki’s Sam, playing the nameless bartender. As the only memory drawn from his soulless year, she was the first voice inside him arguing against Sam’s quest to find himself and uncover the truth; I loved the way she was used to speak for Sam while at the same time presenting a real and striking individual character. It was a real gut-punch learning the truth when Sam said he remembered everything he’d done, and we saw how he remembered her. Somehow, I knew that was coming the moment I saw him walking back to meet her at the car, but the impact was all the more profound because Cerra played the role so effectively.
I will miss Sebastian Roche as Balthazar! I loved the character – he reminded me of Gabriel in terms of independence and snark, but was even more amoral and self-centered in an oddly delightful way – and how well he stayed true to himself. It didn’t escape my notice that despite all the main action taking place in the same room where Balthazar died, we never saw either his body or the ash shadows of his wings. I suspect that was a purely practical choice – since scenes aren’t shot in script or story chronological order, but are arranged for maximum efficiency, it would have been a continuity nightmare during the shoot to ensure that scenes in the room taking place after his death included the wings while previous scenes didn’t – but there may be an argument for Castiel – or God! – being able to restore Balthazar if he thought the angel had been sufficiently chastised by his death.
I’m glad Mark Sheppard will have the chance to be back as Crowley someday. Castiel leaving him alive made perfect sense to me – use the devil you know, after all – and I think he could make a worthy occasional adversary in the future. I suspect he’ll be keeping his head down for a while, though, not to have it taken off; after all, having lost his latest protector in such spectacular fashion, he’s probably going to be occupied with stabilizing his power base in Hell and avoiding attention from Heaven. Crowley has become a signature role for Mark Sheppard, and I can’t imagine a better demon either in the story or real life.
Misha Collins gave us a whole new Castiel here. He was sad and pensive early on as he clearly contemplated what he was about to do, resolute as he renegotiated the deal to cut Crowley out, dismayed and afraid when Raphael threw in with Crowley, briefly cunning as he figured a way out – and then spooky as Hell in the final confrontations, full of confidence, radiating control, and smiling with the calm assurance of absolute God-like power – and absolutely, hideously wrong. His Castiel really embodied the essence of the point that just because you can do something – he did manage to contain the souls without blowing up, after all, so his plan worked that far – doesn’t mean you should.
Incidentally, I am not freaking out over the news that Misha will not be a series regular in season seven. That doesn’t necessarily mean we won’t see Castiel during the season beyond the season opener. For my part, I expect we will. The major difference between a regular and a guest star isn’t how often they appear, but how they are paid. A regular gets a salary for a guaranteed number of episodes whether he or she is used or not; it’s the kind of contractual relationship that gives a studio a priority claim on an actor’s time. Remember when Supernatural couldn’t get Sterling K. Brown, who played Gordon, more than twice in season three, for Bad Day At Black Rock and Fresh Blood? That’s because he was a regular at the time on Lifetime’s Army Wives, and Lifetime dictated his availability. Because Supernatural couldn’t get him for more episodes, they shortened his original character arc; that was something Eric Kripke talked about at the first L.A. Supernatural convention. Naming an actor a regular for a season is a pricey thing for a studio because the regular gets a pre-approved salary even if you don’t use him as much as you expected to, so choosing not to name an actor as a regular may be a purely budgetary decision. You’ll note we didn’t actually see a lot of Misha as Castiel this season, despite Misha being a regular; the story design just didn’t wind up involving him that much, because the nature of the story called for Castiel’s role to be a hidden one. Similarly, a guest star – like Jim Beaver, who has declined to be named a regular precisely because he didn’t want to commit to that much time away from his daughter in L.A. or to limit his options – might even wind up being used more than a named regular, depending on the demands of the story.
Speaking of Jim, I loved the teaming of Jim Beaver’s Bobby and Jensen Ackles’ Dean. These actors work so well together; I never question the reality of their characters. Their interactions here were all powerful, especially Bobby keeping Dean grounded when he couldn’t do anything to help Sam. Jensen’s Dean pleading with Sam to wake up and then reluctantly but resolutely departing on the mission just hurt my heart. And watching the two of them realizing that Castiel was essentially insane and trying to figure out how to approach him without setting him off was chilling. Humoring him was the only available option to let them scope out the territory, but once Castiel called on them to worship him, well – don’t see that happening.
Jared Padalecki did a wonderful job playing four different aspects of Sam: memory-wiped dream-narrative Sam, soulless Sam, Hell-Sam, and imperfectly reintegrated real-Sam. He succeeded in making them all distinctly different, and yet all Sam. They all walked, talked, and moved differently, and to accomplish that in the course of a single episode was an acting tour-de-force. I wonder whether we might see partial echoes of the different Sams in the new season as he tries to balance all the memories and sort out who exactly will be in charge; whether there may be crisis moments when soulless Sam or Hell-Sam manage to take the lead, for example, or if real-Sam will always manage to keep hold of the reins. Real-Sam was in charge at the end, holding on by sheer grim determination, but I wonder how long he’ll be able to keep that up. I do trust he will endure and triumph in the end; I still believe that hope is what Death held out when he told Dean in Appointment At Samarra that the human soul was stronger than he knew.
I can’t stress enough that, despite being the season finale, this was an incomplete story, intentionally so. Even though Supernatural hadn’t yet been renewed when this episode was written and shot, it was pretty clear, speaking just from business terms, that the show would be renewed, so the production team took the reasonable gamble of cliff-hanging the hell out of this tale on the assumption they’d be back in the Fall to write the next chapter and resolve the crisis. It may be frustrating in the extreme to us fans, but it’s the current nature of the business to employ suspense to bring an audience to the Fall premiere, and I accept that. I won’t conclude my thoughts on season six until I’ve seen the start of season seven.
I do promise to take some time during the hiatus to look back on season six and to speculate on season seven. I’ll say up-front that I suspect I liked season six better than many folk did. It was darker than I think most people were expecting the story to be at this point, after the extreme night of the apocalypse, and the noir nature of the storytelling, because it deliberately hid and made mysteries of so many things, demanded more patience than I think a lot of fans were willing to extend, but I suspect that folk who watch it again now knowing what was going on will have more appreciation of how the season was designed as a whole. I don’t think it worked quite as well as its creators hoped precisely because it demanded too much of a willingness to wait for the curtain to be pulled back – and speaking as a fan of the brother bond, it was really hard to watch an excruciatingly long half-season of soulless Sam working with off-balanced Dean rather than seeing the brothers finally truly together again after the extended trauma of seasons four and five. And it ended on such a dark and jarring note, leaving so much for the next season to illuminate, that I think a lot of fans stumbled over it.
For my part, though, I think season six will stand up well on re-viewing. I’m guessing this was the first season where the actors were cued in to what was going on from the beginning, because they had to know in order to play the number of layers required to convey not just the apparent surface story, but the real one – Sam being soulless, Castiel pulling unseen strings – playing out in the depths. That was ambitious and audacious in the extreme for any TV series, and I hope fans will give it a re-watch with that in mind.
And isn’t it September yet?