Symbolism can make a story’s rich tapestry all the more fulfilling and illuminating. It can add layers and depth revealing fresh insights. It can come in dialog, in music, and in visual cues. “Form and Void” makes use of all of these to tell its story—but most of all it uses Catholic symbolism to convey so much.
The Prayer of St. Francis provides a great contrast of good and bad. It recognizes the dark and the light of the world. Its simplicity makes it endure after all these centuries—and while debate rages if the celebrated saint even wrote it, that is but a moot point. Its simple lines of “Where there is hatred/let me sow love” and “grant that I may seek to understand as to be understood” resonate with so many—Catholic and non-Catholic alike. It is this contrast and plea to rise above the bad by humbly asking for the good that threads throughout this episode. We are shown the Darkness and its tendrils sweeping through, cursing some of the people of Superior, Nebraska. We see the threat of emptiness and hopelessness in Billie’s warning to Sam, and we see a void of love, peace, and joy in the fates of Jenna and her grandmother. We see hatred and injury in Castiel’s story—despite his efforts to try and pardon and console. And yet, the promise of the St. Francis Prayer remains steadfast in Sam’s story—and can show us that not all is lost. That pardoning leads to being pardoned ourselves is still very much a possibility—but only if we are willing to try.
Let’s start with the bad things, the things we wish to replace in the prayer and examine how they shape the fabric of this episode. How does hate, doubt, despair, and injury fit into the story? How does focusing selfishly on wanting to be understood or being loved rather than understanding or loving expose our vulnerabilities to the Darkness or the evil of the world? How do these things lead to conflict—often with deadly consequences?
When we first see Castiel, the two angels that took him rouse him rudely. They want to know one thing only: where is Metatron. They will not take ignorance as an excuse. Instead, they will injure him as they feel they’ve been injured. Their orders aren’t to kill him, no, but they will take their time in torturing him. After all, it is Castiel’s fault that they’re in this situation. It’s his trust in Metatron that led to the Fall. To make matters worse, he freed the rogue angel now turned human. They can’t believe that he is unaware of Metatron’s whereabouts. After all, the Scribe is now powerless. He doesn’t have any grace, so Castiel should have been able to track him. Castiel admits that Metatron tricked him once again, so one of them quips, “So you’re just stupid.”
The angels here are falling into the undesired emotions of injury, hatred, and darkness. They seek more to be understood than to understand. No matter what Castiel says, they find his words empty and meaningless. They find his pleas for mercy a mockery. It is his fault they have to have a door to Heaven. It is his fault that the factions fight upstairs—at least in their view. Efram and Jonah stand in for so many angels that may wish to pay back all the harm Castiel caused. So they torture him by cutting his face, stabbing an angel blade painfully into his shoulders and cutting his chest just enough for it to hurt.
Castiel pleads, “Mercy, Brother, please!” This particular plea stings deep. Efram mocks him more, remarking, “Brother? Huh! What are you?” Efram, especially, is angry. He finds it laughable that Castiel considers himself an Angel of the Lord, that he’s part of their family. As far as Efram is concerned, Castiel lost that status by always choosing the Winchesters over Heaven. He allows this rage to consume him, telling Castiel, “So, see you’re not my brother, and if I had it my way, I’d take this blade, stick it in your heart, and call that a damn good day.” He wishes Castiel would simply give them the answer to their question. At that point, he’d be useless to them, and it wouldn’t matter if he brutally murdered this angel.
On the other hand, Castiel tries to follow the other half of the prayer, desperate to break through to them. He knows that he is guilty of the crimes they accuse him of—they’re right. He does side with Sam and Dean, and he has made mistakes that harmed Heaven. He knows they have every right to be angry with him for what he’s done—and yet he knows that his own bloodshed will not stop the carnage. His death will only be one more angel slain—another statistic in the body counts. Castiel wants them to see that he pardons them for what they’re doing—perhaps in hopes that they may do the same for him. He may not want them to forgive completely or to avoid punishments, but this torture is senseless. It does nothing for Efram and Jonah besides feed their darker emotions and rage.
Castiel, for all his efforts to understand his brethren, however, fails in doing so. His failing is that he wishes for them to understand him. As he tries to defend his reasoning about losing Metatron in the wind, he loses his grip on trying to understand them. It’s understandable that he would waver here, considering the pain they’re inflicting. Their actions make it impossible for them to have any hope of bridging gaps or finding common ground. Efram and Jonah punish him so brutally that any time he tries to explain what happened or why he can’t give them the answer they want, they simply refuse to listen. In kind, Castiel loses a little more ground in his efforts to reach them. His struggle against the spell Rowena cast doesn’t help by any means, but he certainly is losing patience nonetheless. It is this loss of patience that will be his undoing in trying to reach through to his brothers.
Before Efram can do significant damage, Hannah bursts in, demanding that they stop this. She pleads for them to listen, to not follow this violent impulse, and to trust her judgment. And yet, it is clear that holding Castiel here rather than taking him to Heaven as he wanted is done on her order. As it dawns on Castiel and he asks her blatantly, she cannot deny the truth. It is written in the expression on her new male vessel’s face. She, just as Efram and Jonah, is to blame for what has happened in this room. She is just as culpable and has descended into their doubt and despair.
Unfortunately, it is working with them that will cost Hannah her life. As they battle about what to do with Castiel next, they attack each other viciously. Castiel, nearly about to be angel hacked, fights his way out of the chair. He uses the spell Rowena cast to his advantage, overpowering his brothers and killing one. But it is much too late. Too much of the hatred has been sown. Too much injury has occurred to be pardoned by Heaven. Before he can stop Efram, he has already stabbed Hannah to death, leaving him to retaliate or be killed himself.
Finding himself full of despair after this, Castiel has no choice but to turn to those he knows will try to find an answer—a cure to this spell. He knows that he will have to shun Heaven again—as they have shun him. He will turn to the Winchesters and seek their consul, dig through the Men of Letter’s papers and books, and he will try to find an answer. If he can somehow cancel what the witch has done to him, maybe there will be hope again—and the next time he should try to reach out to his Heavenly family he can have better luck—maybe.
But all of these things Castiel experiences are largely external—are largely done to him or around him. Excluding his self-defense maneuvers, Castiel isn’t the one doing the sowing of hatred. He’s not the one unwilling to understand. He isn’t the one refusing to pardon or to face up to the injuries he’s caused. Most of those things were done by Efram and Jonah. So if he isn’t the prime example of these darker and undesirable qualities, than who is?
Simply put, it is both in Crowley and principally the Darkness that we see the worst of these qualities. Their actions at the farmhouse show just how powerful they truly can be—and how easy it is for these darker emotions to slither their way into our lives and our hearts. Crowley and the Darkness are metaphors for just how we allow ourselves to let these things in—and how easy it is for them to control us in ways we aren’t even aware of—until it is too late sometimes.
Crowley poses as a priest. He’s been sent in to assure Jenna’s grandmother after Amara has shown her powers. His presence is meant to soothe, to provide a salve to their fears. He’s supposed to deal with this situation, make this baby a pure innocent again, and return them to peace and joy at having a little child in the house. He’s meant to help their faith in a higher power—in God’s grace—and to console them in this frightening moment.
And yet that’s not what he does at all. Crowley uses this to his advantage, appearing benign and friendly. He’s polite. He easily charms both women, and he knows just what to say and how to say it so they don’t suspect a thing. His mask is perfect to them—but it doesn’t fool Dean. Upon learning that he is the priest meant to exorcise this baby, his face tells the story. He knows that Crowley is here for no good—and yet he can’t exactly out the King of Hell to Jenna or her grandmother. If they’re both here, they might as well work the case together and find out what they’re both here to learn: just what is the Darkness?
Just as Crowley used the guise of a priest to worm his way into their home, Amara, the Darkness, does one better. She has come to this place as an innocent. A small newborn baby. She will get what she wants from them simply by being in their home. All she really has to do is wait—and yet she becomes impatient. Though this form gained her entry into the world, it is weak. She can’t move on her own as a baby. She can’t do what she wants to do—so she decides to sow fear.
Using her telekinesis, she makes the baby supply box topple, giving her access to the wooden letter blocks. After the commotion, both Jenna and her grandmother rush in to find the letters floating over the crib. She slams each one into the wall, leaving a demand in its wake. There is no question as to what Amara wants. She tells them, “FEED ME.”
The question is feed her what exactly? She is no ordinary baby, after all. No peas and carrots will suffice for her. Instead, she’ll want something far more substantive. She’ll want something far more valuable.
Despite having seen the baby do this and knowing that her grandmother has called in a priest to handle the supernatural situation, Jenna can’t help but be drawn to Amara. It’s easy to forget that this baby did something frightening—-may be as her grandmother says, “has the devil inside it”—-when she smiles so cute and seems so harmless. Jenna leans over, inspecting the now seemingly normal baby when its too late.
The Darkness asserts itself, sowing its very name within Jenna. Amara was hungry alright—hungry for a human soul. She takes it, sucking it right out of the woman, leaving her an empty pit. Jenna has become a soulless void, a manifestation of all the undesired qualities we want to counter. She makes her way calmly down the stairs, confronting her grandmother brutally. There’s no anger, no sadness, just a calm as she kills her grandmother. The action itself is devoid of emotions.
In this way, the Darkness makes us see there is little reason to hope, she makes us wonder if there is any light left. It doesn’t get any brighter when Dean and Crowley discover Jenna smashing all of her grandmother’s angelic figurines—another Catholic visual that ties us to the prayer shaping the story. Dean wants to help her, wants to understand rather than be understood. He wants her to stop doing this and tell them why she’s done what she did.
In this way, Dean is trying to adhere to Sam’s plea from “Out of the Darkness, Into the Fire.” He is trying to approach this carefully, ask more questions, find a way to help Jenna after this has happened before he simply kills her. In this way, Dean is embodying the best of the St. Francis Prayer—and providing a perfect mirror to his brother, Sam, as they struggle through their separate fights. He wants to understand her rather than be understood. He wants to truly help her and save her after what has happened with Amara and the Darkness infected Superior, Nebraska. Dean, as we’ve seen him before, is calm in his approach. We can tell that he’s startled by Jenna’s personality change. She’s not the woman he met trying to save a town—or the woman who adopted a baby willingly. This Jenna is far too cold and unpredictable. Even so, he doesn’t want to hurt her or startle her. She’s still someone worth saving and someone he’s willing to fight for—against whatever has done this to her. He gently says, “Jenna, listen to me, whatever’s happened, whatever’s going on, we can fix it, okay?—Just come with us, okay?” It is a starting point—a beacon of hope to all the despair around him that Dean at least tries.
It’s Crowley that diagnoses the young woman. He knows outright that she is soulless. The battle is underway and Dean, trying to wrestle her down ends up finding a soulless Jenna harder to take down—all without hurting her as much as possible, of course. After all, Dean can’t save her if he ends up killing her. His most potent moves are off limits. It makes the battle longer than normal. This drama bores Crowley all too quickly, and he shows just how phony his disguise really is. He kills Jenna, slamming her hard enough into the ceiling to fall dead at Dean’s feet. It leads them to turn on one another yet again, battling it out before they can reach the Darkness as she makes her escape. Now that she’s been fed, she can move and find more souls to devour.
And yet there is another example of this compare and contrast—this plea for the good to replace the bad found in Sam’s story and those he encounters.
Despair and sadness is explored in the reaper, Billie. She laments, singing “O Death,” as a tribute and elegy to her former boss, Death. Nevertheless, she is still on duty and she is still reaping souls. She has come to Superior, Nebraska to handle the deaths of the rabids, taking them onto the next life. There, she confronts a dying Sam, warning him of the Empty. This information makes all hope and faith flicker. If there is a void, a place nothing can come back from, and if reapers can send souls there, it may be even worse than Hell itself. It is oblivion—an erasure of existence and the worst possible after life we all fear may be our final end. In the unknown that is death, we all see it as a worst case, a nightmare that we shy away from. It is why we adhere, in part, to particular religions, desperate that there is something better for us in the next life.
To know that there is a bottomless void would be too much to handle for anyone.
And yet, Sam knows that he may face just that. It is in his story we truly see the countering of the darker parts, those undesired feelings we want to replace. Just as he is facing the worst possibility, given to him by Billie—that he is unclean in the Biblical sense—he turns to faith. He turns to hope. As long as he can still move, reason, and fight, Sam will try to find that cure and start righting the wrongs he feels he committed.
At the start, Sam leads one of the rabids into the hospital so he can study them. He needs to know what they know. He needs to see it, to hear their story, to figure it all out. The way he does this is ripe with more of the symbolism, the subtle nature of this episode’s undercurrent of the St. Francis Prayer. Robert Mitchum’s voice lures this man, talking of one hand of love and one hand of hate, and as the monologue concludes, his voice says, “it’s love that’s won and old left hand hate is down for the count.”
This little snippet says so much and yet sits within our subconscious, waiting to be discovered. It is covert in how it sums so much up of what Sam hopes will be the truth in the long run—not only in finding a cure but in finding a way to defeat the Darkness itself. It is a beautiful message, all hidden in plain sight while Sam snares one of these rabids.
The man he lures into the hospital is able to talk—but is clearly infected and struggling against the anger. For his protection, Sam has handcuffed him. Sam asks his name, only to have the man snap, “Bite me.” Rather than showing anger or striking him, Sam shows patience. He is gentle with this man in a way that shows just how he is trying to emulate the other half of the prayer. He wants to understand this man, not combat him. He wants to gain his trust, to find a way to build hope, and to console him on some level.
It is in Sam’s gentle nature that so much of the St. Francis Prayer finds life in “Form and Void.”
So Sam simply says, “Okay, Bite Me, how long have you been infected?”
It is in remaining calm that will grant Sam answers. Unsurprisingly, this tactic works. He doesn’t have to hit him or push his buttons or cajole him into telling him more—and it is a stark contrast to the angels torturing Castiel for their own answers. He needs to simply be gentle. By giving “Bite Me” some pudding and letting him tell his story in his own way, Sam learns the truth about how this disease works. This disease is unconventional—not one that works by any time table or general symptoms list. Instead, it seems to afflict each person differently—killing some faster than others, driving others to rages and murder sprees sooner—and so there’s no real way to put a pattern together.
In that moment, Sam totters on the precipice of doubt and despair—couple that with his encounter with Billie, the Reaper, and its no wonder Sam is struggling to remain hopeful. It leads him to a chapel to pray—another allusion to the cornerstone of the episode’s story. Sam is humble in his efforts. He’s quiet. There’s no boasting or begging for himself. There’s no pleas to save him. Sam is resigned to the fact that he may die. Instead, he sums up the St. Francis Prayer in Winchester speak. He puts all the same heartfelt emotion, the same desires, the same beliefs that there’s something better out there into this one moment.
Sam humbly prays, “So, I know it’s been a long time but… Dean and I, we’ve been through a lot of bad, but this is different. This is my fault, and I don’t know how to fix it. And if I have to die, I’ve made my peace with that, but please Dean deserves better. Dean deserves a life. There are people out there, good people… who are going to suffer because of me, and I’m not asking you to clean up my mess. Hell I don’t even know you’re out there, but if you are, and if you can hear me, I-we need your help God. We need to know there’s hope, we need a sign.”
For his efforts, he’s met with silence. Even then, though, Sam leaves the chapel quietly, not defeated and not angry. As he walks out, he is accosted with a brutal image of perhaps his time in the Cage—he’s assaulted perhaps by something yet to come. We’re left to wonder if it is a sign from God, expressing His displeasure or an assault from the infection Sam has. He shouts out, “What does that even mean!”
Sam’s quest for understanding is what will allow him to find the pardon he so desperately wants but will never ask for. He will dig deeper even as he begins to fail. He’s bombarded with more brutal images of his time in the Cage, memories that had once nearly overwhelmed him. And yet, it is both these terrible things, these dark memories, and Billie’s words that will give him the key he needs to save himself—and those afflicted just like him.
It is this seamless symbolism that fleshes out the story—it shows a clear delineation of the two halves of the prayer wonderfully. Where there is doubt, Sam will spread faith. Where there is despair, he will find hope. Where others may try to be understood, he will understand. Where there is darkness, he will spread light. For the injury caused in the release of the Darkness, Sam will find pardon in learning the cure. He will give this knowledge away to those he saves—for it he will receive gratitude.
As Sam struggles to connect the Bible passages and Billie’s words while succumbing—passages that read: “Everyone will be purified by fire as a sacrifice is purified by salt,” and “I have found David my servant; with my holy oil have I anointed him”—he takes a sponge of holy oil and lights it on fire, holding it near his throat. The passages themselves are key symbols, yet to be truly understood but profound in relation to Sam’s very actions. What he’s doing is risky, considering how easily he can set himself on fire. He needs to know that he’s learned the way to save others—and he wouldn’t test this on anyone else if it should do more harm than good. He will take that burden on alone.
The despair, darkness, hatred, doubt, and sadness that permeates so much of the negative half of the prayer surges to its strongest point here. Sam is struggling to do this not only because he feels sick—his inner voice of hatred, the doubt he feels about his goodness, his sadness and fear while in the Cage—words that Lucifer may have used on him—all surge forward, overwhelming him nearly. They bombard and attack, trying to stop him. This darkness inside him knows that light is coming to dispel it away.
And yet, that voice starts to fade and is silenced as he uses the holy oil. It works, burning out this poison in a visual and active symbol for burning out these darker sides of ourselves. Sam prayed for a sign. Sam prayed to receive all of these gifts to be able to bring these good things to the world. In this cure he has received it.
After all, he must start somewhere if they are indeed to curb the Darkness.
Like a little candle, Sam has lit hope’s flame. In the vast Darkness, that light will shine brighter over time, passed from one person to the next—just as it was passed onto those he cured. The Darkness may be the Emptiness Billie mentioned. It may try to sweep over the world and drown it. It may try to find a way to destroy through hatred. It may cause great injury and spread doubt and despair in its wake.
But it will not snuff this small candle—or the chance that Sam and Dean together will find a way to stop it. In the end, they will find hope by adhering to the precepts of the prayer, living its hopeful words.
In that way, they will find pardon.