“Paint It Black” is the perfect title for this week’s Supernatural episode.
The tone, subject matter, and lyrics of the Rolling Stones song sets the stage so well for what happens. The track, from 1966, feels just as fresh and poignant for today. It talks, in metaphor, about funerals, about the heart, and about the world after such loss. The use of color—red and black—allows the listener to see grief painted throughout the song. In this episode, we see those themes captured in nearly every story—be it a loved one cheating, the loss of place within in a group, or the fear that the blackness is going to overwhelm us and twist us into something else. To counter so much of the morose found in “Paint It, Black,” we also see the quote, “He ain’t heavy, he’s my brother.” Its profound meaning is captured beautifully in Sam’s actions and words—and it provides a great contrast to the other stories taking place within “Paint It Black.” As we explore these two threads, we can find a deeper understanding of not only the various stories, but where each brother is at this point in the season—and perhaps where they see themselves going by its conclusion.
First, let’s start with Rowena.
Her story starts off simply. She’s summoned to her son’s throne room to explain why she’s gone out of her way to antagonize yet another courtier. In this case, she’s made them have two faces, something she’s told them she believes they have. Rather than being contrite—beyond her overly dramatic entrance of course—Rowena is proud of her achievement. She applauds herself for being witty and talented, much to Crowley and the courtier’s annoyance. This doesn’t seem to deter her, either. And as Crowley threatens to throw her back in the dungeon if she doesn’t stop these antics, she pulls another card from her deck: he wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t for her. She gave him life, after all. It leaves the King of Hell to ponder.
The second time we see her summoned, Crowley tells her that he sympathizes with her situation. After all, if his reason for living—”wreaking pain and havoc on earth”—were taken away, he’d be despondent and lost. He’d feel just as “stifled.” So, he decides that perhaps her request to talk to the Grand Coven is a worthy one, after all. Not going to simply plead her case to them on her behalf, though, he’ll bring its leader to her and let Rowena settle the matter all on her own. He’s brought Olivette to her, and the moment the two meet they immediately start to hurl insults. Rowena opens it by snarling, “You utter bitch!” to which Olivette retorts, “Bottom feeder!” It’s clear that time has not softened the animosity between these two.
Left alone with her arch enemy, the one that she’s been forced to flee for all these years, Rowena can’t wait to exact her revenge. It’s in this confrontation that we first see the lyrics to “Paint It Black” illustrate the story brilliantly, too. There’s two lines, “I wanna see the sun blotted out from the sky” and “My love will laugh with me before the mornin’ comes” that seem to fit well.
The first line here is clearly about Rowena’s need to rid herself of the Grand Coven’s threat. They’ve been after her for hundreds of years, forcing her to flee from place to place. And as we watch Olivette, despite being in chains, insult Rowena, we learn part of why she’s been out-casted for so many years. The orgy that Rowena conceived Fergus at? Apparently his father had been non magical—he hadn’t been part of the Coven or even a witch. It was a moment the Coven couldn’t forgive. Not only had she slept with this man, she had carried his child to term, thus polluting the bloodline she possesses. It’s the only absolute transgression we’re told about here, but Rowena had been ostracized for having her child.
Olivette than goes further to attack Rowena, snarling at her, “Now look at you? Consorting with demons.” Instead of inflaming Rowena or making her feel shame, we see her swell with pride. She quickly tells Olivette that not only has she been captured, she’s also now standing in that “spawn’s” palace. Not only had she given birth to Fergus, he had risen to become none other than Crowley, the King of Hell. Olivette had been brought to her by that very spawn—and now the High Priestess of the Grand Coven will pay for her maltreatment of both Rowena and her son.
It’s why she wants to blot Olivette out—just as the song lyric suggests. Remove her and remove the threat. Earlier in the season, we saw Rowena state that she had a nasty spell to finish her off, and she goes about preparing it to exact her revenge. She sets everything up and speaks the spell, watching gleefully as the other witch starts to succumb painfully to its dark magic. Just as it seems it’ll finish Olivette off, Rowena stops it, realizing her folly. No, she isn’t ready to make nice with the leader of the Grand Coven, she’d much rather punish her another way. And so, she turns her into a harmless and helpless hamster instead. Instantly, Rowena praises herself, declaring, “Genius!”
But what of the other lyric? What of the “My love will laugh with me before the mornin’ comes” line? It’s easy to see it as two things in Rowena’s case: her magic and her son, Crowley. On one hand, it’s obviously about her own magic. Now that she’s managed to eliminate Olivette’s threat, she can perhaps go about taking over the Grand Coven herself. She’ll be able to practice her magic without having to watch over her shoulder. It’s no surprise that Rowena loves magic—and when she pleads to Crowley that they are the supreme authority that can and will determine if she can practice or not, he simply tells her, “Forgive me. I hadn’t noticed you’d stopped.” Rowena, much like other magic users we’ve seen on Supernatural, is addicted to her magic. It’s probably the one true love she’ll ever have in this world.
The other half of that “love” is clearly her son, Crowley. When he comes to appraise what she’s done to Olivette, he’s appreciative of her skill. He’s pleased that his mother did so well and that she got what she wanted. And she turns to him, stating, “You see, we’re not so very different.” That doesn’t mean, though, that she’ll get everything she wants. Told that the Men of Letters led to the destruction of the Grand Coven’s power, she learns that they have hidden bunkers throughout the world, and that two remaining American chapter survivors are out there. They’re none other than the Winchesters, and Rowena tries yet again to push Crowley against them. Crowley tells her flat out, “My relationship with the Winchesters is my business. I’ll handle them. I’m not killing them.”
For now, she’ll have to accept blotting out the sun in Olivette and that she’s gotten the last laugh against the Grand Coven.
What of the monster of the week case? What of the spirit forcing those to murder?
The song title, “Paint It Black” gives us great insight into the ghost story this week. In it, we’re told about a nun that has a lost love. She had been a muse to a painter, and in the process she had fallen madly in love with that painter. He was painting her portrait, making the masterpiece of his career with her. While the title of the episode may point to this element, it’s the song’s lyrics that really allow us to dig deeper into this story. For, not unlike the song itself, Isabella’s story is a tragic one. It, too, ended in a brutal death.
She tells Sister Mathias about her time before the covenant, and how she had spent hours and hours with her love, Pierro. They had been happy times. She tells the other nun, “I had never been close with a man before that.” The longer she sat for him, the harder she fell for him, feeling as if they were meant to be. Pierro confessed to Isabella that she was his inspiration, that she made him a better painter, and that she had elevated his art all the more. Seeing it as a moment to make her own confession, Isabella told him that she was in love with him. Rather than having the happy ending, Pierro told her that he already was pledged to another. No, Pierro wasn’t in love with someone else. He told her that he was already devoted to his art. He could only offer Isabella friendship.
When we look at the lyrics for “Paint It Black,” we can easily see the line, “I see my red door and it has been painted black,” refer to Isabella’s heart. She was very much in love with Pierro. Her heart was rich and red for him, and she had given it to him freely and openly only to have it rejected. After, she tells Sister Mathias that she “could not eat, could not sleep” and at that point her family had decided to put her into the convent. She states, “It was as if I had died.” Since the song itself is about a death—possibly that of a young woman—this line becomes key to understanding how devastating her story truly is.
Now that Isabella has become a vengeful spirit, however, we can see even more lyrics apply to her story. The line, “I see the girls walk by dressed in their summer clothes/I have to turn my head until my darkness goes” apply to her anger and hatred of the men that are having affairs with other women—that they, too, are treating their women the way Pierro did her. We learn that while Pierro had told her that he had chosen art over love with a person, when she breaks free from the convent one night, she goes to his studio. There, she prepares to ruin his masterpiece. Instead, Isabella finds Pierro caught in the arms of another woman—that he had given his heart away to another. In a moment of passion, as her heart—the red door—has turned black, she stabs Pierro to death brutally, leaving his lover shocked and appalled.
She’s now inflicting it on her newest victims, hovering around the confessional and overhearing various men tell the priest of their sexual transgressions against their wives or girlfriends. She overhears them tell the Father about their casual sexual encounters, or how they made promises they never meant to keep. Each time they leave, she finds a way to kill them. The first victim we see, she takes over ands guts with a candle stick. The second, she possesses a wife, following the couple back to their home. There, she takes a pair of scissors and forces the wife to reenact her brutal murder of Pierro. And, after Dean confesses about how he wronged “Gina,” she punishes the priest for forgiving him. He is brutally murdered on the altar.
It is the first murder that brings Sam and Dean to the scene. How do the song lyrics fit Dean’s story, however?
At the start, Dean is as he’s been since “Halt and Catch Fire,” determined to reclaim his life from the Mark. He tells Sam, “Eye on the ball, not on the Mark.” They’ve got mysterious deaths and a case to solve. People are dying, and they have to stop it. It’ll keep them “busy.” They make their way to the police station and learn that their victims are Catholic—something that doesn’t surprise Sam as they are in Massachusetts. Dean, however, takes it as a lead. He even goes as far as to say, “I’m feeling good about this.” It’s almost as if he’s trying to reassure himself of this as much as he’s trying to convince Sam, however. And so, they end up going to the church and talking with the Father and Sister Mathias about the deaths.
The priest is stunned that the wife of one victim would kill her husband. Sam and Dean know that she was stunned that it had happened and that she doesn’t know why. In fact, she hadn’t known about her husband’s cheating—something he had confessed to but the priest wouldn’t talk about. It leads them to think that they perhaps have something lingering around the confessional—something they’ll have to investigate further. It also means they may need to lay some bait for it, too.
As Dean talks with Sister Mathias, he is curious about her change in life style—what made her leave the world behind to become a nun complete with habit? Why would she cloister herself away? She had told Isabella that many had ended up in the convent because something in the outside world had overwhelmed them. It’s something Sister Mathias reiteratives to Dean when she tells him, “Well, in my case I felt I had no choice. My life had become painful, there was hopelessness. I felt I had to find something larger than myself to focus on. A kind of mission, I guess. ” It allowed her to find a higher calling—something she’s sure Dean wouldn’t necessarily understand.
It gets Dean thinking. After all, he’s struggling with how overwhelming the Mark has been. He’s tried to reclaim his life by resuming the family business in earnest, but after his confrontation with Cain, it’s seeming harder and harder to simply do that and not face things. The lyrics to “Paint It Black” point this out clearly as the line, “It’s not easy facin’ up when your whole world is black,” states. Dean’s feeling despondent and lost. He’s feeling as if he’s only left with one option on the table—that he’s going to go down swinging—but before he loses his battle with the disease that is the Mark of Cain, he’ll save as many others as he can. In the meantime, he’s not faced up to other things surrounding the situation—he’s not dealt with how he’s put on a brave face to try and convince his brother that he’s not facing inner turmoil. Dean wants Sam to think he’s at peace with this—and yet it is clear that he is not.
This becomes clearest when we see him enter the confessional. What starts as a simple ruse to snag the vengeful spirit, Isabella, into going after one of them turns serious quickly. It’s as if, in the brief conversation, we’re seeing Dean start to face some of the facts he’s been hiding from till now—and he’s most certainly not finding it easy to do so. He starts by telling the priest about “Gina,” a woman that he’s enjoyed spending time with, but he admits to not being honest with. It’s clear that “Gina” is really Sam—at least when we forget the bit about the sex and possibly the lasagna. He tells the priest, “I let them think we have more of future than we do, you know. Ah, Gina.” Underneath the humorous and somewhat exaggerated nature of Dean’s confession, we can easily read between the lines and see just how serious it will become.
After the priest gives him his penance—his list of prayers to profess—to help him start his soul search, Dean turns even further in on himself. We see another line of the song apply here, as Dean does more introspection on his situation: “I look inside myself and see my heart is black” and know that it’s not in reference to his love or heart turning that color as we see it for Isabella—rather this is his emotional state. Dean feels so devastated by what happened with Cain, and his push to hunt in “The Things We Carried” and now in “Paint It Black” prove that he’s trying to outrun these feelings—all in hopes to keep them from swallowing him whole. The moment he slows down and acknowledges them, he realizes how black his emotional state has truly become—and perhaps how much darker it’ll become.
He tells the priest, “What if I said I, I didn’t want to die… yet. That I wasn’t ready. ” Dean is admitting out-loud some of the things he’s been hiding from, and the more the talks about these feelings, the more we see how black he feels inside. He’s so despondent about his situation, and he continues, “Now. Recent events made me think I might be closer to that than I really thought. And I don’t know; there’s things, there’s people, feelings that I-I want to experience differently than I did before, or maybe even the first time. ”
To punctuate it, when asked about his belief in God, Dean simply tells the Father, “I believe there is a God. But I’m not sure he believes in us”
While he sees himself emotionally black inside now, there’s another lyric that seems to fit Dean’s situation well. It reads, “No more will my green sea go turn a deeper blue” and it’s clear that we can apply that to Dean’s fear that he will eventually succumb to the Mark and become demonic again. His eyes, as fans are often pleased to point out, are green, and so they would most certainly lose that color if he were to truly lose out. They would be painted black—as the song suggests happen to the red door and to the world.
When the brothers discover what they’re truly dealing with, thanks to Sister Mathias and her help, Dean goes with the nun to find the priest and warn him. After he finds him dead, he decides to lead the sister out of the church, hoping it’ll buy them time to protect her from the spirit. Instead, it’s too late and he’s faced with her possessed by Isabella. She quickly disarms and attacks him, preparing to yet again relive the murder of her once love, Pierro. As if rubbing salt further into Dean’s wounds, she tells him why she killed the priest—because he had forgiven Dean for his behavior towards “Gina” and the other women. She finds that “unforgivable,” and while we see Dean push against her and bark to Sam that he should burn the journal, we know that Dean will take what she’s said here and find his heart all the blacker—his despair all the darker for it.
“Paint It Black” certainly captured so much of the story taking place within this episode. The Rolling Stones song held such meaning and weight, being the thread that seemed to tie them all together neatly—and yet we have a contrast in Sam’s actions and words. While everyone else seemed to be tied to the morose song, Sam was connected to a quote seen outside the church: “He ain’t heavy, he’s my brother.”
Sam is frustrated from the very start that they’re taking this case. We can see him on his phone, searching for the Mark again perhaps. He may be looking to contact someone for information. Sam is focused on finding anything and everything new about the situation—hoping he’ll finally stumble upon something that will help. He’s certainly distracted as Dean tries to impart the case facts to him, only giving in when Dean drops the line, “Keep the eye on the ball, not on the Mark.” For Sam, this case is a diversion from their true mission—the mission his brother is hiding himself from by taking upon another.
And yet, he’ll go with this and help his brother solve the case by donning the fed suits, following the leads, and going through the motions. If it’ll help Dean out, Sam will do it. It doesn’t mean he has to agree with Dean—or even like it, but he won’t simply walk away, either. He’s committed to helping his brother, and if this is how to do it for the time being, that’s precisely what Sam will do. After all, if it can keep Dean from falling further into despair—to the point of locking himself away in his Bunker room no less—than Sam’s all for it. He just wishes that case was a bit more personal than this one.
As they learn that the Sister has been keeping Isabella from them—that not only does she indeed believe in ghosts contrary to her earlier statement, she’s been talking to them. Sam wants them to slow down before they “finish” this case Dean rushed into so quickly in the first place. They find all the artifacts that were shipped over from a monastery in Florance, Italy and gather them together. They learn that their spirit had lived and died there in the 1500s. Sister Mathias had read about Pierro’s murder, and there she learned the truth about Isabella’s fate. She had brutally killed her former love so viciously that the local authorities had considered her a witch. For her crime, they had burned her at the stake. It means that her body—already out of reach regardless—was already burned to ash.
The only thing personal enough to their spirit is Isabella’s journal. She wrote all her deepest secrets—things she could not say and no one wanted to hear—into its leather bound pages. Dean is pretty certain that this has to be the thing tethering Isabella to this church. Due to its existence here, she’s able to hop into a body and make her kill before being pulled back to the church. This journal holds her here, filled with her own emotional secrets and pain—powerful enough to infuse her spirit with the power to harm and kill even after being burned alive. To Dean, there’s no doubt about the solution. Burn the journal, end the ghost. It’s as cut and dried as it gets.
And yet, Sam’s hesitant to simply do this. He wants to support his brother, and he wants to do what will help Dean—in this case working a case alongside Dean if it’ll keep his mind from wandering too deeply down dark paths about his fate and the Mark’s power—and yet he isn’t ready to simply follow through and burn it. The journal being Isabella’s tether seems almost too easy, like there’s just something more powerful that would keep her here. Isabella loved Pierro, sat for hours for a painting—a portrait of herself—and was so deeply connected to this man’s art, that to think this journal would be her reason for staying makes little sense. It just doesn’t have the right level of attachment for this ghost. The more Sam thinks about the case and what they know, the more he’s bothered by the easy solution. He knows better than to accept the easiest solution first—and his analytical mind won’t let him simply make the quick judgment when he knows Dean’s life is in the balance. Burning this journal—the only source of information they have on Isabella’s life—might rob them of vital information they need to truly extinguish her spirit.
So, like Sister Mathias before him, Sam starts to page through it, reading about the very painting Isabella described. She talks about an unspeakable practice of mixing blood into the paint Pierro used—and how it simply wasn’t enough. She expresses how joyful it made her feel to make this sacrifice for this man. Isabella wanted to be more than just a portrait. She wanted to be a physical part of Pierro’s work. And so, she cut off the tip of her finger, giving it to the artist to grind up and mix into the pigments. Sam is shocked when he reads her statement, “I was one with the painting.”
In that moment, Sam knows the truth about what he must do. Rather than burning this journal as his brother demanded, he’ll find her portrait and burn it. It has her actual remains laced throughout it. It has more power to keep her tied to this plane of existence than any ink and paper ever could. So, Sam digs it out of the pile of yet to be archived artifacts and promptly starts to set it on fire. It does the trick, and not only has Sam stopped Isabella from forcing Sister Mathias to repeat her own gruesome murder of Pierro, he’s stopped Isabella from killing his brother.
As the brothers drive away, we see Sam take another action that proves he’s carrying his brother: he’s driving the car. Typically, Dean makes a big deal about allowing Sam to drive Baby when they are together. A statement is typically made about rewarding Sam or about placating him for some transgression. Certainly, Sam’s actions in solving the case may have warranted this reward—as Dean tells him, “You know if you had burned the journal we wouldn’t have known how to kill her would we?” and yet this just doesn’t seem to be enough for Dean to hand over the keys, either. In extreme cases, Sam takes the wheel because Dean can’t due to injury. And yet, here, we can see that Dean’s physically fine. He’s unharmed from Isabella’s attack.
Instead, we can see in his expression that he’s feeling a bit blacker—referencing back to that title—than before they started this case. To follow up his actions with words, Sam tells him, “You know, you were in that confessional a long time… Look man I’m just saying, I’m your brother, Dean, if you ever need to talk about anything with anybody, you got someone right here next to you.” Sam wants to talk, he wants to know where Dean’s at mentally and emotionally. He has to know what he’s up against, what he’s dealing with, and where his brother is at if he has any hope of helping his brother, after all. He wants the openness they’ve cultivated recently to continue. Dean has been honest with him—open and vulnerable in moments when they have some quiet. Sam speaks these words in hopes to remind Dean of just that fact.
All he can get is a defeated, “Okay.”
To continue, fiercely adamant that Dean should be more willing to fight back against the Mark, Sam says, “I heard what Sister Mathias was saying about you know, hiding pain by taking on a mission, and I know that’s what you’re doing, that’s fine I get it I’m for it too. But I don’t buy for one second that the Mark is a terminal diagnosis; so don’t go making peace with that idea, there has to be a way, there will be a way, and we will find it, that’s what we do. So believe that.”
Sam states this, in part, to try and snap his brother out of his despondency. He wants Dean to get irritated, to get agitated, and to reclaim the fire that seems to becoming dimmer. Sam wants him to know that he’s not blind, and that he sees what Dean’s trying to hide even if the elder Winchester thinks he can’t see it. And yet, he’s also ready to admit that he’s willing to stand by Dean in that decision of taking on a mission—that he’ll help carry Dean through that portion, too. Where Sam draws the line, however, is seeing the Mark as Dean—and we’ve been shown in metaphors and symbolism through out the season—as terminal. It’s not in Sam to simply let his brother fall into that pit or to let it come true—and he’s determined he’ll carry his brother to a cure.
In any case, Sam took on the weight of his brother—and he didn’t find it to be heavy. If that doesn’t help Dean fight back the blackness threatening him now, nothing will.
What other lyrics in “Paint It, Black” fit well with this episode?