On the surface, “The Werther Project” was a very dark episode. It focused on the ugly consequences of dark magic and the tragic act of taking your own life. These themes were very real and have dire projections for the brothers’ future. Looking deeper, though, this episode also offered a few answers and one strong beacon of hope that may shine a light through their inevitable path of darkness. What were its messages?
Mark of Cain
The trigger for this week’s clash with supernatural forces was a search for yet another ancient book:
Rowena: Her decryption formulas, her codex…bring me Nadya’s codex and I’ll break this text right open and give you your cure.
Reminiscent of The Book of the Damned, this book also seems to have an embattled history of the good guys trying to keep it out of the hands of the bad guys.
Cuthbert in 1956: The Coven is desperate to get the codex back
Why did the coven want the codex so desperately? Are there that many ancient spells in untranslatable languages? If so, Rowena, who always aspired to be as powerful as the coven witches, now has her hands on the means to unlock ancient evils. That really can’t be a good thing.
The least moral member of the Men of Letters, their Master of Spells, thought it was so important to keep it out of the hands of witches that he safeguarded it behind a lethal enchantment. Yet Sam just handed it to a very powerful, ruthless rogue witch who has already shown a complete disregard for human (and demon) lives. The potential harm and risks of his quest for a cure just increased exponentially. The extent of the risks he is willing to take was precisely the point, though. Cuthbert poignantly pointed this out:
Cuthbert: Why are you all so small minded? We were brought here to do great things. To take risks. To bring the fight to the monsters of this world, and yet, to a man, you choose instead to molder in these stacks. You are not men. You are not men. You’re librarians. Nothing more.
That seemingly insignificant heated rant against the Men of Letters was actually very important.
On the surface, it was necessary to establish the background and location of the Werther Box. Secondarily, it added to our understanding of Cuthbert/Magnus’ motivations, thus fleshing out his character a bit more. Its most important purpose, though, was as a character exposé on Sam. The fact that Sam has adopted the Men of Letters legacy as part of his self-identity was repeatedly reiterated.
When he first justified the “case” to Dean, Sam revealed how completely he has adopted his legacy:
Sam: Werther’s a time bomb and it needs to be defused. Not only is this in our wheelhouse, it’s our responsibility.
Dean: Our responsibility?
Sam: We’re Men of Letters. It’s our legacy.
When Sam deciphered the riddle on the Werther box, he again reiterated his bloodline,
Sam: The Blood of our own. Men of Letters blood. Legacy blood. My blood.
…and in stopping Dean, Sam once again emphasized his connection to its maker:
Sam: Dean, don’t. It needs legacy blood. Enough to take a life.
The significant differentiation is that while Sam (and Dean) are Men of Letters, they are hunters too – the barbarians who were shunned by the strict “watchers” mentality of the 1950s Men of Letters. Even the boys’ grandfather was scandalized that his offspring were hunters. Hunters are men of action. They take risks every day. Cuthbert’s diatribe against the Men of Letters was that they were afraid to take risky actions. This dialog deliberately differentiated the researching, bookworm side of Sam from the rest of the intellects. Sam is not a librarian (by the way, apologies to all the librarians out there who got maligned in this exchange. Take into account the attitudes of 1956.). He may have MoL blood, but just as the demon blood didn’t define him, neither does the MoL blood dictate who he is. He is the “star child” who combines demonic with humanity, researcher with hunter. He combines his affinity and skills for research with his lethal field training and hunter instincts that finish the job.
I think this is an interesting ray of hope that Sam is not out of his depth with his current course of action. Yes, he is taking unfathomable risks to find a cure, but in him is the unique combination of both the research-based intelligence and the action-based hunting experience to inform his strategy. Superficially, this episode dug a deeper hole of lies and potential apocalyptic consequences for Sam’s desperation, but actually I think it was telling us that Sam is different from all those who came before him, in all lines of his ancestry (Cain and Abel as well as the more recent Men of Letters).
Thankfully, Robert Berens and Jared both warned fans of the delicate subject matter of the episode. I found all the suicide scenes gruesome, disturbing and uncomfortable. Even on rewatch I cringed and looked away as Sam bled himself to death. There is obviously a specific purpose to such a tragic theme.
Three of the last five episodes have contained, if not specifically focused on, a human being who was driven to suicide by an undesirable supernatural force that had overtaken them. 10.15 “The Things They Carried” contained the suicide of the soldier who lit himself on fire while hosting the Khan Worm. In 10.16 “Paint It Black”, the ghost drove its victims to robotically kill themselves. Even 10.17 contained a reference to suicide when Crowley asked his mom, “I assume you had a reason for this little suicide run of yours”. I missed that subtle reference to the thread because the episode’s story didn’t specifically involve a suicide. Obviously, this week’s episode (10.19) brought this suicide thread to the forefront of the story. First, two Men of Letters agents in the 50s then 4 members of a family in the 70s (including Aunt Pauline) were all wiped out by a spell that drove them to trancelike suicidal acts. 50 years later, the surviving daughter and Sam and Dean are each affected.
Now that we know Sam was also immediately infected by the self-deprecating suicide inducing spell, Dean’s accusations make a lot more sense:
Dean: What were you going to do, huh? You don’t have a plan. You don’t have a defense.
I thought that was shockingly harsh, and an abrupt turn-around from Dean’s contrition and humility in the car. Now I understand that was Sam’s self-flagellation for letting the evil out of the box. With good reason, he immediately jumped to imagining Dean’s condemnation, just as Dean always feared John chewing him out when he made a mistake or didn’t live up to his dad’s expectations of perfection. Again, the episode treated us to a veiled insight into Sam’s point of view. Sam’s first stage of feeling his life is worthless was Dean’s disapproval. Sam’s illusion also explains why the parlor door wouldn’t open until after Susie had killed herself. He would of course imagine himself as being too late, of not being able to “save” the innocent so the death would be his fault.
The next stage of Sam’s hallucination and self-condemnation was the most disturbing revelation of what he’s thinking about himself:
Susie: Survived 40 years in this house, keeping that thing on lockdown then one visit from a putz like you
Sam: I’m sorry, ok. I’m so sorry.
Susie: Lot of good sorry does me. Look at me. Go on! Look at me! There she is. The first casualty of your misguided mission. But what’s another human life to you? Anything’s worth it as long as you two make it out alive! And how’s that search going? Any closer to a cure? You think Dean’s the wild card, the loose cannon. But don’t you see? Making deals with witches, opening Pandora’s Box down there – you’re the reckless one. You’ll do anything to keep clinging to that doomed brother of yours. How many more will die Sammy? You know it! You have to be stopped! And the only one who can stop you is you! Do it Sammy! End this farce once and for all!
So Sam is tormented with doubts and fears about his actions. Do the ends justify the means? Does he have the right to risk lives to save his brother? Is he the real monster between the two Winchester brothers? The Men of Letters were right, though. Susie’s death was not Sam’s fault – it was Magnus’. Eventually someone would have tried to open the Werther Box. In fact, the boys truly did have a responsibility to tie up that deadly loose end left by the extinguished Men of Letters. None of these rational thoughts can enter into a suicidal spiral, though. Sam was ready to die to get one step closer to the cure. The story brilliantly hid the fact that his death was driven by the suicide spell because it wasn’t an act of hopelessness, it was rather an act of desperate, if not noble, self-sacrifice:
Sam: The Codex…path to the cure…If it wants more it’ll get more.
At the last minute, yet again, Dean saved Sam. Before that drives some of you straight to insanity, what really happened, again in the deeper interpretation, is far more significant.
The brothers solved the unsolvable puzzle, they broke the unbeatable spell, together.
It was who figured out what had to be done. Sam took the risk to go against common sense AND Dean’s explicit orders to stop looking for a cure and found another clue and the location of a cursed object. Sam then deciphered the code, read the Latin, solved the riddle and gave his blood. At the last moment, Dean stopped Sam from dying, which is the exact same thing that happened at the end of the trials except this time Dean finished the work Sam had started. They worked together to accomplish their goal. They brought together the MOL intelligence to solve the riddle, the hunter’s courage to take the risks, and the brotherly teamwork to accomplish the impossible. Together they were able to do what the Men of Letters before them both failed to do and were afraid to retry, and what Sam and Dean had failed to do at the end of the trials. Just like when they ended the apocalypse, they finished what they started. This was the undeniable message of hope for the brothers.
The troubling path to this victory remains, though. Benny’s articulation of Dean’s thoughts gave us keen insight into Dean’s contemplation of self-sacrificing suicide. It also explained Dean’s solo vampire hunt.
Benny: This place you don’t have to go looking for a fight. All you need to do is be still for one moment and that fight will come to you. That’s why you’re here Dean. That’s the purity you crave – to kill with no consequence.
Dean: No. Benny. I don’t want to fight anymore. I’m tired of fighting.
Benny: The Mark aint. So you can’t leave. Don’t want to stay. Bit of a bind aint it? Good thing there’s always a third way out. You can’t say you haven’t been thinking about it.
Dean: That’s aint gonna happen. Ever.
Benny: Come on Dean. I know you can see it. The purity. The Honor.
Dean: There’s no honor in that!
Benny: Well, you just want to wait for the Mark to reclaim you? Go out swinging topside? Then what? Maybe kill a few humans? Kill Cas? Kill your brother? Yeah, that’s mighty honorable. I forgot about your plan. You gonna get Sam and Cas to put you down? You really think they’re gonna keep that agreement? Come on! Dean, let’s say they do? Do you think they’ll ever recover from that? It will ruin them. This little back up plan of yours – I know you’ve been thinking about it for a time. I know it’s been gnawing at you. You can’t leave that job to them.
Dean: You’re right.
Benny: You make the right choice in here….you won’t ever hurt anyone ever again. No one need to know, Dean. What happens in Purgatory, stays in Purgatory.
Dean: I’d do it, if I really had to, I would. But the real Benny would never let me. You know what else won’t let me. This thing on my arm. For better or worse, the mark – it wants me alive. Thanks pal, but no thanks.
Dean thought through the suicide enough to realize that it wasn’t an option for him. I think his last words on the subject definitively remove this as a potential direction for the plot. A different portion of his inner dialog was equally interesting, though:
Benny: Well look at that. A perfect circle. Don’t look at me, Chief. You chose the way.
Dean’s subconscious “perfect circle” acknowledged that the choices he made have brought him back to a no-win battle with death but it was also an ironic reference to the endless loop the boys are trapped in. The replay of the situations faced in seasons 4 and 5 is not lost on Dean. Lucifer told him, “We will always end up….here.” and Dean hears Benny tell him:
Benny: You, me, left, right, but no matter which way you turn, you keep ending up here.
Not only is the plotline being repeated in reverse, but the canyon of despair is echoing back the same words to Dean on each step of his journey. No matter which way he turns, he will always end up…here. (“The End”)
While “The Werther Project” clarified why Cain and now Dean cannot end their curse through death (a mythology point that has been implied a few times but not entirely understood), it heightened the idea that suicide is a distinct option for Sam.
Sam doesn’t see suicide as a punishment or a way out of his perceived failures. He sees his death as his redemption. He told Charlie last week that he is OK with dying. In fact, he is more than OK with it. He gave his life (at the end of season 5) to save the world from the ultimate demon; he offered his life at the end of the trials to save the world from the host of demons, and now he is willing to give his life to save the world from the unstoppable descendent of the very first demon. Sam is once again going to use his own death to save the world from a demonic threat.
Sam taking his own life would also eliminate the opportunity for Cain’s curse to be fulfilled. A brother can’t kill a brother if Sam sacrifices his own life willingly to save the supernaturally possessed, doomed Dean. We have speculated that this should break the curse. What about the rest of Cain’s prophecy? Sam has already stated the he “will kill Crowley”. Of course, there is a very good chance he was lying to Rowena, but if we take that at face value, this episode lined up Sam as the killer of two out of the three potential victims predicted by Cain and reiterated by Benny. Sam will kill Crowley, then Sam will kill himself to break the curse. The only gap that hasn’t yet been addressed is Castiel’s death. I’ve been wondering how Castiel’s plotline was going to dovetail into the main storyline. Is there any scenario where Sam decides he has to kill Cas too? Will his desperation make him the “real monster” that he fears (as voiced by Susie)? He, not Dean, first kills Crowley, then kills Cas, then kills himself to free Dean?
Beyond furthering the definition of Sam’s character through his MoL heritage, “The Werther Project” storyline also began to establish Sam’s relationship with witchcraft magic. Rowena’s characterization of Sam as an “amateur”, placed him in the beginner ranks in her estimation:
Rowena: It’s not recommended for amateurs. In inexperienced hands, the invocation has a way of fizzling out.
Sam: I’ll take my chances.
When Rowena’s warning proved justified and Sam was unable to execute the disarming spell effectively, it is curious that Sam’s suicide inducing vision of Susie was ended by the image of Rowena. The devious interpretation of this rescue is that Sam believes witchcraft is now the answer, i.e. that witchcraft can save him (and Dean). By the way, when Rowena appeared at the house, it didn’t occur to me that Sam was still hallucinating. He was lucid enough to see the real world around him – Susie killing herself, Dean immobilized in his trance – so I was lulled into believing that Rowena was part of the reality not the hallucination. Through this personification of Sam’s thoughts, though, he repeatedly revealed his fear that he couldn’t master magic:
Sam’s Rowena: “I had a feeling you’d be in over your head.”, then again:
Sam: There is no “we”
Sam’s Rowena: Fine. Take this on by yourself but the odds are totally stacked against you.
Beyond the subconscious warning to himself, the fascinating part of Sam’s hallucination was that since Rowena wasn’t really there, Sam must have performed the “Illuminia” spell to see the writing on the box himself! It was masked and subtle, but that is the only explanation for how he was able to read the riddle that led to the bloodletting. The boys have used spells before (to find people, to call angels and demons, etc.) but this seemed different. This episode specifically called the incantations magic, and gave us our first examples of Sam entering the world of witchcraft.
Am I wrong on this?
The other foreboding exposition from Rowena was her analogous warning about a curse having complete hold of Dean:
Rowena: Oh the spell’s got its hooks in deep. You want him woken up? You’re going to have to rip this enchantment out by the root.
While Sam’s mind was solving the immediate problem of the warding spell, his subconscious may have been telling him what he fears about the Mark of Cain. It has its hooks deep into Dean and it will take going back to its roots to undo the spell. Back to the Cain and Abel story maybe? Back to undoing the act of brother killing brother? Isn’t her prediction just different words for “the river ends at the source”?
Dean: You were right. I shouldn’t have gone off solo like I did. It was stupid
Dean: and selfish. It was a douche move.
Earlier in the season, we highlighted the “you were right” angle of the truth thread. Dean not only admitted his error in judgement, he echoed his realization that his suicide missions were selfish. He apologized a second time at the end of the hunt:
Dean: That says something doesn’t it. Werther splits us up in there and we’re both on the brink of death. Sorry about yesterday. Going rogue on you like that.
Sam: You know what Dean? Don’t apologize. I think that makes us even.
Dean: The universe is trying to tell us something that we both should know by now. We are stronger together than apart.
Then Sam lied again about the codex! He has assuredly made up his mind about his course of action, regardless of Dean’s newfound, perceived openness. Dean’s point, and as I’ve suggested, the point of the episode, is still valid though.
Together the brothers won the day against forces much greater than themselves.
Here were my take-aways from this milestone episode:
– Sam is aware of and tormented by the riskiness of his actions.
– Increasingly, Sam is turning to witchcraft as a solution.
– Dean has thought of suicide as a way to end the catch22 nightmare of the Mark of Cain but realizes that the Mark won’t let him die. For me, that ends speculation about Dean’s potential suicide. We are still left with examples of him pulling a “Dean Winchester”, though (“About A Boy”), i.e. sacrificing what is best for himself to save Sam (and others). I don’t want to forget that important precedent, so he may still make some other desperate move at the last moment.
– Sam already tried to give his life to save Dean (via the hallucination). There are strong clues that this is where the story is headed. The question is, will this save Dean, will Dean save Sam, or will they finally work together to defeat the supernatural spell that has plagued the world for millennia?
Sam has “pretty hair”. Now even the writers are making fun of his hair!
The music was again absolutely perfect. If we all look past the romantic connotations, the words talk about the suicide spell casting a green light into the eyes of its victims. It is also a perfect reflection of how Sam sees his situation and Dean right now (I am NOT talking about Wincest. I mean the weight Sam’s feels to redeem himself and save his brother at all costs):
“I Saw the Light” by Todd Rungren:
It was late last night
I was feeling something wasn’t right
There was not another soul in sight
Only you, only you
So we walked along
Though I knew there was something wrong
And the feeling hit me, oh, so strong
Then you gazed up at me [lol, Sam IS taller than Dean]
And the answer was plain to see
‘Cause I saw the light in your eyes
In your eyes
But I tried to run
Though I knew it wouldn’t help me none
‘Cause I couldn’t ever love no one
Or so I said
But my feelings for you
Were just something I never knew [reference to the argument in “The Purge”?]
Till I saw the light in your eyes
In your eyes
But I love you best
It’s not something that I say in jest
‘Cause you’re different [-] from all the rest
In my eyes
And I ran out before
But I won’t do it anymore
Can’t you see the light in my eyes
In my eyes, in my eyes, in my eyes
I think this episode was superb by all measures. Since so many people share this opinion, I didn’t take time to convince you, instead focusing on all the plot possibilities it presented. Hopefully, I’ve found a few of its intended implications, but we are always stronger together than apart. So let’s start working together to figure this all out!
Images courtesy of www.springfieldspringfield.co.uk