In “LARP and the Real Girl,” Dean taught Sam how to transform from reluctant hero into willing hero. He showed his little brother that there was more to it than being serious and focused on the hunt—that being a hero came with its own rewards. He taught Sam that there were opportunities to be had, experiences to indulge in, and to enjoy what they do. That, however, doesn’t mean Dean doesn’t struggle, too. In “Trial and Error,” we see Dean stumble, facing a setback brought on by confronting one of his oldest wounds: his deal.
This wound is ripped open and laid raw after Kevin calls in distress. The brothers rush to Garth’s boat to check on him, concerned that something may have befallen the prophet. Instead, they find a tired but triumphant Kevin, who informs them that he has finally cracked the code to close the gates of Hell. It consists of three trials that must be completed with an Enochian spell. These trials also come with great risk, and he tells them that “Whosoever chooses to undertake these tasks should fear not danger nor death nor a word I think means getting your spine ripped out through your mouth for all eternity.” The first is no easy feat. Kevin informs them that they must “kill a hound of hell and bathe in its blood.”
Dean is enthusiastic, remarking, “Well hell hounds like to collect on cross roads deals so all we gotta do is track down some loser who signed over his special sauce ten years ago, get between him and Clifford the big dead dog. Easy,” but it isn’t that simple, as Sam says, “It’s not.” This trial is a dangerous one. They must get in between a hell hound and a doomed person, and kill it without getting killed themselves. Finding one is simple enough—as demons try to sign up as many souls as they can as often as they can—but the follow through has the potential to rub salt into some very old wounds. Dean may not show it here, but it has to be at the back of his mind, nagging.
The brothers locate a family in Idaho that have struck it rich on oil. That in itself is unusual, as Sam explains, “which is weird because geological surveys—.” There’s no doubt that someone there made a deal and with it being near the ten year mark since they gained their wealth, the hell hounds have to be nearby to collect. Sam and Dean head to the Cassity farm to find out who’s ticking clock is near zero so that they can complete the trial.
As they arrive, they find someone working on a tractor, and try to get their attention. The brothers are stunned when a woman emerges and offers them a job. Ever the opportunists when on the case, they don’t dissuade her from her assumption that they are looking to be hired farm hands. It’ll give them the in they need to scope who’s soul is up for grabs—and hopefully get in between that person and the hell hound.
Their first night there proves that they may be already too late. Carl Granville is married to Alice Cassity—and has been torn to shreds by hell hounds. They didn’t arrive in time to complete the trial, and now they must start from scratch to find another doomed soul to do it—or come up with another plan.
Dean has a “plan B” in mind—one that is suicidal. He determines that they should capture a crossroads demon in a trap and force it to call a hell hound up in order for them to kill it. It is a plan rich with folly and it is poorly thought out. Sam instantly points out its flaws by stating, “When Crowley finds out we’re dialing up Hell he won’t send one hell hound, he’ll send a hundred.”
What is most striking about Dean’s plan isn’t its weaknesses–it’s that it is a cry for help from one brother to another. Dean may be enthusiastic about closing the gates of Hell and doing this trial, but this particular endeavor is slicing deep. He is barely keeping his head above water, and while he may not have realized how raw the old wound would be prior to their arrival, after seeing what had happened to Carl he can’t help but be thrown back to his own deal—and his own experience being killed by hell hounds.
We’ve seen Dean confront the possibility of his death before. He’s approached it in various ways throughout the series. In “Faith,” as he faces his impending death, we see Dean be the realist. He is accepting of this, that this comes with hunting, and that it’s the luck of the draw. He tells Sam, “Look, Sammy, what can I say, man, it’s a dangerous gig. I drew the short straw. That’s it, end of story.” He’s not dwelling on what could have been or should have been or how things could be different. Dean is simply accepting the facts.
In season 2, as Dean comes to grips with his father’s deal—one that allows him to live—we see him start the struggle that will become most familiar in the subsequent seasons. He feels that he doesn’t deserve to live, that he has far outlived his expiration date, and that “what’s dead should stay dead.” Dean wrestles at various times with the concept that he has been given another lease on life, that this is an opportunity, not a punishment. It is where we see Dean start to truly grapple with his place in the world, with hunting, and what it all means.
Once Dean makes his deal in season 3, he expresses to Sam, “Truth is, I’m tired, Sam. And, I dunno, it’s like there’s a light at the end of the tunnel.” Sam is quick to remind him, “That’s hellfire, Dean.” Dean sees his deal here as a way to make right what was an unnatural extension of his own life. He will get out—when he dies. It is a very fatalistic view, and it consumes him for much of the season—right up until before the end when he tells Sam in “Long Distance Call,” “I wanted to believe so badly that there was a way outta this. I mean I’m staring down the barrel at this thing. You know, Hell. For real, forever, and I just—“
In Season 4, after Castiel and the other angels have raised him, Dean grapples with the aftermath of both having been killed by hell hounds and his time in Hell. We see this come to fruition in the episode “Yellow Fever,” as he is facing his deal all over again, confronted by Lilith in hallucination. Dean may have been willing to die in season 3 for Sam’s sake, but here we see the truth behind the facade, the true Dean under the bravado. He isn’t as suicidal as he leads on, nor is he as hopeless as he sometimes behaves. Dean doesn’t want to die.
That fact is precisely why in season 5 Dean refuses to become Michael’s vessel.
In “Trial and Error,” we see signs, evidence that Dean isn’t feeling as fatalistic as he has in the past. We see him put his new room together in the Men of Letter’s Bunker. His actions are done with care, consideration, and thought. The room is meticulous, pristine, and full of his things and personality. With care, Dean places a gun onto the wall next to others displayed, his bed is made neatly, and he lovingly puts his albums in order. This is not a man who feels there is little left to live for—or that he is trapped. He also reveals to Sam another hobby—grilling—indicating that Dean sees himself as much more than the “grunt” he expresses himself to be later on in the episode.
Sam manages to get Dean to hold off on his crazy plan by telling him, “Carl didn’t sell his soul for oil. He sold it for Alice.” It means that there is another person at Cassity Farms staring down a hell hound. It’s only a matter of time before they find that person—and kill the hell hound waiting for them.
They start to watch the Cassity family, coming together after Carl’s death, trying to discover who made the deal. As Sam is inside with the contentious family, he overhears them talk about a British salesman that had been there ten years prior: Crowley. It validates Sam’s suspicion that someone else in the Cassity clan had made the deal for their striking oil.
Margo and her father go out on a “hunting” expedition to kill the wolf responsible for Carl’s death. It is a foolish action, and as Sam tags along, once again the Winchesters are too late to prevent another deal being collected upon. Margo was the one that made the pact with Crowley so the family could make it rich, corroborated by her sister’s comment, “Margie used to say that—that if we were rich we’d be happy.”
With Margo’s deal being the one that got the Cassity’s their wealth, the Winchesters now have to determine if there is yet another deal. It is their only shot to accomplishing their objective here—or go with Dean’s ill conceived “plan B.”
While Sam stands guard over the family to determine who might also have a deal hanging over them, Dean goes out to scout. Before he does so, Dean makes his biggest cry for help when he says, “I’m a grunt, Sam. You’re not. You’ve always been the brains of this operation. And you told me yourself, you see a way out. You see a light at the end of this ugly ass tunnel. I don’t. But I tell you what I do know, is that I’m going to die with a gun in my hand. Because that’s what I have waiting for me, that’s all I have waiting for me. I want you to get out. I want you to have a life, become a Man of Letters, whatever. You with a wife and kids and grandkids, living until you’re fat and bald and chugging Viagara. That is my perfect ending and it’s the only one I’m gonna get. So I’m gonna do these trials and I’m gonna do them alone. End of story.”
We’ve seen Dean say things like this before—and truly mean them. We’ve seen Dean consider himself less than Sam in the past. Dean has struggled with his self esteem at various intervals, been blinded by his own self loathing, and has always considered his brother the better half, but this isn’t why he says this here. He may believe some of these statements, but underneath, in between the lines, Dean is begging Sam to help him. This isn’t about seeing himself as the elder brother simply existing to save his little brother. This is a cry for help. Dean can’t simply say so because it is not his nature, but here we see Dean reach out desperately to Sam—all while making the guise of pushing him away.
As Dean stalks off into the night, we have to wait and see just how Sam responds to his brother’s pleas.
It is Dean that discovers the last person to make a deal at Cassity Farms. Ruled out earlier because she is the help, it is indeed Ellie. She is Dean’s avatar in every way. She is doing all the things he did in season 3. She tells him, “Why would I run? All I wanted was one last meal, some good tunes, and maybe—” Ellie hides behind a false bravado, goes out of her way to check off items on her bucket list, and is very accepting of her fate. She has sold her soul for a family member, too—in this case her mother. She tells Dean firmly, “I did it for my mom, Dean. What would you do for your mom?” Ellie also has her own celebration song, not unlike Dean’s choice in “Eye of the Tiger,” with “Touch Myself.” Dean is stunned to learn that she knows that there is evil lurking out there when she says, “It’s coming for me.”
Ellie also reflects Dean’s true nature underneath the fatalistic and bravado mask—she too is scared. She also has no desire to go to Hell. She reveals to Dean that she didn’t know there was a ten year limit. Crowley had left that tidbit out in all the deals he made here. Ellie only realized that it was happening now after Carl was killed. Now that she knows that time is up, she begs, “I don’t want to die.”
After Ellie hallucinates Dean as a monster, he realizes that time is drawing close, that the hell hound is nearby and prepares to kill it. He dons the glasses singed with holy fire so to see his quarry, and steps out, leaving Ellie behind in a goofer dust circle. Even though he couldn’t get out of his own deal in the end, Dean isn’t about to let Ellie face the same fate—he won’t let her be ripped to shreds by them if he can do something about it.
It charges Dean, throwing him against a wall, knocking both glasses and knife free. In that moment, Dean is reliving his own deal coming due, trying to scramble against a monster he cannot see. Stubbornly, he has decided to face this alone, and it could possibly cost him his life—but he is not alone.
His cry for help was heard by his brother—despite Dean’s warning that he would put a bullet in Sam’s leg—and he has arrived just in time.
Wearing the glasses, Sam can see his target and shoots it with rock salt, turning its attentions and temper onto him. He races to get the knife, all the while the hell hound is snapping in his face. Able to see what he is doing, he holds it back by its throat and slices its open—in front of a stunned Dean. It bleeds out on him, the trial nearly complete. They had set out to kill a hell hound—and that is what they have done.
In doing so, Ellie has been saved from facing the same fates that Carl, Margo—and Dean had once faced. She is not being dragged to Hell—and as long as she hangs onto the hex bags they provide her, she will be safe.
Sam, through out this episode, has been also experiencing his own story. As he takes in Dean’s room with us, we see him put on the annoying little brother, doing something that he has never had an opportunity before—to mess up his older brother’s room. He casually throws a candy wrapper onto the pristine floor—all to get a reaction his brother usually gets out of him: an unamused face. He is fond in his teasing about Dean knowing about kitchens and cooking—and pleasantly surprised by the results. Sam is boyish in his taking the burger with them on the way to Kevin’s.
Dean’s not the only one “nesting,” as Sam starts to find the optimism surrounding them in the form of the Men of Letter’s Bunker. He, too, is settling in, trying to soak up as much of the vast library’s resources as quickly as possible. He tells Dean that he’s been reading a bit of “everything.” Just as Dean has begun to personalize his room, Sam is also realizing what this place truly is: theirs. This can become anything they wish it to be””and as such he knows that it is worth fighting for. It is another reason why he must answer Dean’s cry for help.
As we see him interact with Kevin, we see Sam take on a mentor role, telling the young and tired prophet that “this whole saving the world thing, it’s a marathon, not a sprint.” It is in this that he has accepted the lesson his brother taught him in “LARP and the Real Girl,” that it is best to be the willing hero and not the reluctant hero. If one doesn’t take time for themselves and find the little joys along the way, it can cause burn out, making everything for naught. If one doesn’t survive being the hero, how can they enjoy it, after all?
Sam knows that this lesson isn’t the only thing his brother has taught him throughout the years. Though he has expressed doubt in the past about Dean’s scholarly pursuits, he knows that he owes everything he knows to his big brother. In “Fresh Blood,” Sam tells Dean, “Yeah, because I’ve been following you around my entire life. I mean, I’ve been looking up to you since I was four, Dean. Studying you, trying to be just like my big brother.”
Sam didn’t learn how to hunt from their father, John. He learned it from his brother. And he knows that Dean still has much to teach him.
He also knows that Dean is smart and capable. It is Dean that invented rock salt rounds and adapted a walkman into an EMF detector. It is Dean that can come up with some of their brilliant strategies in taking down a monster or facing down their big bad of the season. Dean may doubt his smarts, but Sam knows better. It’s only a matter of getting his stubborn brother to see it.
While it hurts him to see Dean’s setback, Sam does not let it discourage him from what they must do. While Dean is trying to push him away and trying to go it alone, Sam stands his ground, showing that he is no longer just the little brother, but Dean’s true equal in every way. He tells Dean firmly, “I want to kill a hell hound and not die. How about you?” Sam is as resolved as ever—and throughout that resolve we see the hope that Dean needs to hang onto.
In answering Dean’s cry for help, Sam does it twofold: word and deed.
Sam’s killing of the hell hound isn’t his proving to Dean that he is grown up or independent of his brother—nor is it even an affirmation that they are indeed equals. He doesn’t have to do that here. Instead, it is Sam showing that when Dean needs help—even help he would never ask for—that his little brother will be there to pick him up. His pressuring Dean to allow him not only to complete the test by doing the spell, but also to complete the other trials isn’t his pushing Dean away either. It is an opportunity for them to work together. Sam knows that he can’t do it alone. He needs Dean to help him do this as much as Dean needed him to help him here. If they want to succeed at closing Hell, they must do it together, as brothers in arms.
Sam’s killing of the hell hound is also for Sam’s sake. He has been haunted by the multiple times he has had to witness his brother’s death—in “Mystery Spot,”—and more importantly at the claws and teeth of hell hounds in “No Rest for the Wicked.” Sam was powerless, forced to watch in horror as his big brother, his hero, was savagely ripped to pieces in front of him. As much as Dean has been affected by this case and what the hell hounds and Hell did to him, Sam has a wound around it just as old. Here, now, Sam can do something about it. His brother has been knocked aside, is now the target of the angry hell hound. Either Sam kills it here or watches, again, his brother die. He has been struggling with that since Dean’s return from Purgatory—knowing that he just cannot take seeing his brother die again. We saw this aspect of Sam’s pain explored in depth in “Heartache.” He understood why Brick would choose death rather than watching Eleanor die. Now, now Sam can take action, do something about it, and start the healing of his own wounds. His killing the hell hound makes up for that terrible moment when he watched Dean’s life be ripped out and his soul dragged to Hell right in front of him. Sam has sought retribution for that for years. Now he has had it.
To back up his actions, Sam tells his brother in an emotional push, “Closing the gates. It’s a suicide mission for you. I want to slam hell shut too, okay? But I want to survive it. I want to live. And so should you. You have friends up here, family. Hell you’ve even got your own room now. You were right, ‘kay. I see light at the end of this tunnel and I’m sorry you don’t. I am. But it’s there. And if you come with me, I can take you to it.”
It is a contrast to season 3’s dialogue about Dean seeing the “light at the end of the tunnel,” and Sam retorting that it is “hellfire.” They are seeing a light at the end of the tunnel here—one where they can survive the fight. For a long time, the brothers have seen themselves as a Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid duo, destined to go down in a blaze of glory. They have determined that if that is the case, they will do so together, fighting. But here, we see a different path start to emerge. There is a bloom of hope here, and Sam is cultivating it for all its worth. The possibilities for the Winchesters has never been brighter—or nearly as endless as they are right now.
Sam is right when he tells Dean about the things that they do have. Dean does have a room—one that can become his sanctuary in time. He has friends in Kevin, Mrs. Tran, Garth, and Charlie. While so many were lost during the previous seasons—Jo, Ellen, Ash, Rufus—Bobby—they are now acquiring new allies and new friends. It is worth fighting for—and Sam wants Dean to remember that.
Most of all, Dean has family in Sam, and Sam closes Dean’s objections down by stating, “I am. And so are you. You’re not a grunt, Dean, you’re a genius. When it comes to lore…you’re the best damn hunter I’ve ever seen. Better than me, better than dad. I believe in you, Dean, so please, please, believe in me too.”
It is the very life raft Dean needs to pull himself out of this setback. He can’t let the past—his deal and his subsequent time in Hell—derail him now. They have so much to live for and after they close Hell there’s more waiting for them both. We also see here that when one brother stumbles, when one needs a helping hand, the other is there. It is beautiful in its simplicity, that underneath doing these trials, underneath the dark world they live in, that these two will be there for one another through thick and thin.
Sam, even in the darkest of times, has been a hopeful character. He sees good in other people, sees worth in their fight, even when he struggles, and loves deeply through it all. We see it in his steadfast faith in prayer, his attempt to save Madison, and even at his darkest hour in “Swan Song,” that he knows his sacrifice will save the world. Even when Sam finds himself—as he did in season 5—in need of redemption, there is hope there. Its flame has always burned inside his heart, being a beacon to both brothers when they need it most. All of these aspects of his character lace through this speech, as one brother answers another brother’s cry. He may have endured many dark periods in his life, faced down dire destinies, and grappled with his own place in the world, but Sam has always had hope underneath it all. Now it is the gift he offers freely to Dean.
It is in this that we see Sam and Dean’s future become bright. There is a light at the end of the tunnel for them and it could be glorious—but only if Dean takes Sam’s offer to lead him there.
The Cassity Clan played by Tamara Braun, Alisen Down, Candice May-Langlois, and Francis X McCarthy provides for some hilarious moments. They provide much of the comic relief amongst the drama. Each member of the family seems to slice deep, push buttons, and thrive off the fight. Cindy, played by Braun, tells McCarthy’s Noah to “Get cancer and die, old man,” to which he retorts, “You first, sweetie.” On the surface, none of these characters are particularly likeable, but we can’t help but find the humor in Sam’s uncomfortableness in first monitoring and then guarding them. Each actor here feeds off the other, making their one liners zip and their confrontations comical against the backdrop of demon deals and Dean’s setback.
Danay Garcia brings Ellie to life here. She is no nonsense, appraising the boys quickly before agreeing to hire them on. Garcia makes Ellie endearing quickly as we learn more about her. She is passionate, evidenced by her pleas to feed the animals organic grain. Garcia puts all of Ellie’s determination and resolve into her carriage, but it is her facial expressions that give her true emotions away. With slight smiles we see Ellie’s amusement, with brief glances Garcia conveys Ellie’s interest in Dean, and with tight frowns we see her fear and sadness about what will happen to her with her deal due. She has good chemistry with Ackles here, and it is in the scenes discussing her deal that we see her character become fully realized through her performance. Garcia makes Ellie likeable, which makes us invest in her story.
Osric Chau shows Kevin’s further growth, showing his drive and obsessive side in closing the gates. We see him go through a grueling period, getting up early and spending his days working hard on the tablets well into the night. Chau makes sure Kevin looks tired and worn down when the brothers arrive, his voice nasal and thin. He looks older than his age, and we can see through Chau’s performance that his experiences as the prophet have forever changed Kevin. Even so, we see his absolute joy in telling the brothers that he has cracked the code, and his delight upon getting a hug from Dean for the effort. Chau conveys this through just the tone of voice—putting all of Kevin’s pride and relief into it. After his talk with Sam, we hear the steel that is starting to form his back bone as he tells Sam that he will not rest until he is done. We hear his heart break as he tells Sam that all his mother does is cry. Chau has made Kevin an interesting character, one that we care about and want to see survive.
Jensen Ackles breaks our heart in this episode. He starts off with showing us a contented Dean, proud and pleased with the room he has fashioned for himself. We have the emotional punch of him talking to his mother’s picture, and Ackles makes sure we feel Dean’s love and grief with the simple whispered, “Hi Mom.” Ackles gets most of the humorous lines here, too, but keeps them subtle. Dean is boyish in his joy about memory foam, petulant in his missing his room when on the case and again in the stables with the horses, and full of dry wit about Kevin’s living situation. Ackles turns Dean on a dime from content and amused to scared and full of bravado. In his delivery of Dean’s speech about how things will end for the elder Winchester, we see Ackles make it clear that this is not a statement of fact, but more a cry for help. He is hard edged and wound tight—especially in his treatment of the Cassity family. With Ellie, we see Ackles make Dean softer, understanding, and compassionate. He can relate to her—even before he knows the deal is due—and we see that in their various interactions. Ackles presents a drowning Dean well, making us want to console him ourselves, and reassure him that while he is feeling his way through the dark that it will be alright. He makes us—even when Dean is in full hunter mode—see the little boy inside through his performance. Dean can sometimes seem like a simple character that sees things in black and white or one that shoots first and asks questions later, but through Ackles we see that Dean is an extremely complex and layered person. He is equally the brother in need of help, but he is the capable hunter and big brother, too.
Jared Padalecki shined on every level in this episode. He brought out a subtle playful side in the early portion of the episode, playing the annoying little brother to a T when checking out Dean’s room. His nonchalant dropping of the candy wrapper and smug amusement at Dean’s exasperation was priceless. Here, Padalecki shows us a Sam that gets to indulge in something he has never had the chance to—mess up his big brother’s room—and he does so with quiet joy. For once, the tables have turned and it’s Dean making the classic bitch face. Padalecki knows how to sell it here, making it a fun moment, a calm before the storm. His taking the burger with him as they rush to Kevin’s aid is also a delight, and well played by sheer expression and the mad dash and grab. As the story progresses and Sam sees the state Kevin is living in, we see Padalecki shift gears. He goes from playful to serious, showing both his care and compassion for the overwhelmed Kevin. Padalecki gives Sam’s advice meaning and power with the timbre of his voice and the soft expression on his face, showing us that Sam understands just how Kevin feels, having walked that path before. He doesn’t have to emphasize anything to sell this. He simply has to speak softly and sympathetically to get the point across. It’s nice to see Sam take on a mentor role here, not unlike his quiet conversation with Kevin in the church back in “We Need to Talk About Kevin.”As they start to investigate the Cassity farm, we see Padalecki shift yet another gear. He becomes the hunter, determined and focused—but still compassionate. Despite Ackles’ Dean being hard on the family, it is Sam that apologizes and tries to remain patient—even if they do push his buttons. But Padalecki really shines best in the scene after the hellhound is dead. As Sam argues with Dean about completing the trial, Padalecki turns the emotions up. He makes his voice softer and his expression even more open. He lays his heart out on the table here, taking us right with him. It builds momentum, reaching its crescendo when Sam begs, “I believe in you, Dean, so please, please, believe in me too.” The emotional delivery of this line by Padalecki adds punch, and we can’t help but feel the hope here. It’s simple and pure in its honesty and powerful upon impact. Padalecki manages to sum up both Sam as a character and his relation to Ackles’ Dean with this single line—that no matter how dark it has been for him, Sam has always had hope and has always looked up to his brother. In this single moment we feel a fundamental shift for the brothers. Padalecki knew just how to deliver this speech, pulling Ackles’ Dean from the brink and sweeping the audience up right with it.
Best Lines of the Week:
Dean (to horse): I hate you.
Dean: I miss my room.
Cindy: Get cancer and die, old man.
Noah: You first, sweetie.
Sam: I want to kill a hell hound and not die. How bout you?
Dean: You get them clear, I spike Fido, crowd goes wild.
Sam: I am. And so are you. You’re not a grunt, Dean, you”™re a genius. When it comes to lore…you’re the best damn hunter I’ve ever seen. Better than me, better than dad. I believe in you, Dean, so please, please, believe in me too.
It looks like this week the brothers must stop misguided witchcraft—and help an old friend.