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"We're not Catholic."
"Defending Your Life," may have featured an Egyptian God, but the guilt contained within is clearly of the Catholic variety.
Dean is put on trial here, by Osiris, who will then weigh his guilt. Dean carries an awful lot of it around indeed, but most of it is misplaced and excessive---the definition of Catholic Guilt. Only one event truly condemns him: the killing of Amy Pond in the episode prior. It is the single thing that is eating away at him the most as the episode begins---especially after Sam thanks him for trusting him to let her go. It's not so much killing her that is making him feel guilty. It is the hiding it from Sam, the breach of trust that is making him feel guilty.
But before he ends up in chains before his judge, jury, and executioner, the Winchesters seem to have found an ordinary and black and white case. This episode, still early in the season, is yet more set up for what will come down the road. Most of Sam's cards are on the table---his hallucinations of Lucifer, his memories of Hell, and such. Dean's cards are slowly being laid on the table and turned over one by one.
It is obvious that they have no intentions to leave the case with Amy Pond twisting in the wind or forgotten---which is good. To make the event so significant only to drop it would have been a mistake. As it kept hitting Dean through the episode, it seems this might be something we see resolved by the mid-season finale perhaps.
This episode also evokes episodes such as season 4's episode "Are You There God, It's Me, Dean Winchester," with the raising of the witnesses and season 2's "Crossroad Blues" as they try to protect a man from the approaching Hell hounds. We also see parallels to "No Rest for the Wicked" and "Yellow Fever," with Dean facing a ticking time clock---although this one is far less defined. It's a nice touch bringing in darker and deeper currents into what originally appeared to be a routine salt and burn. It's also nice to see twists on older moments weaved through the current story. It still has that early season feel, refreshing and not overly complicated while giving us information for what is yet to come within the season later.
Each person that is killed by a ghost turns out to have killed someone. A man is run over on the tenth floor by a car---because he had backed over a ten year old little girl ten years earlier. A man that ran a dog fighting ring is killed by a spectral dog. They try to protect the last man from the ghosts of the two people he murdered in 1981. By law, he has served his time in prison and has paid his dues to society, but it turns out that he still harbors an intense guilt. It is his undoing---at Osiris's hands.
This is a classic example of the so called Catholic Guilt. Each person involved in this case has extreme and excessive guilt. The man who ran over the little girl, possibly while drunk, has made it a point to not forget that and went out of his way to turn his life around with the help of AA. He can't take back or forget what he did, but he shouldn't allow guilt about it to fester. The man that ran the dog fighting ring turned his life around as well, giving far more back and becoming a huge volunteer at the shelter. He may have started it at court order, but he most certainly seems to have learned and grown from the experience---and yet he too holds onto guilt for the crime he committed. And then there's Warren, who parallels Dean's own guilt most. He killed, in his youth, two store owners in an impulsive moment. He has never let that go, despite spending thirty years in prison. He lets it eat at him every single day.
The lesson guilt here is clear: guilt eats and festers, tearing a person apart. It is much better to learn from a mistake or wrong doing than it is to turn it over and over, further condemning one's self---especially after making amends or attempts to atone for past sins. It is a lesson Dean MUST learn.
As they investigate the case, it can't go unnoticed that Dean is struggling even more. His drinking is getting Sam's attention, even if he's uncertain of how to stop it. He appears to be going through the motions. They come back from the original salt and burn on the case, and Dean is exhausted. He asks Sam to take the first shower---but Sam is busy researching the next victim of the case while reading the paper. It is obvious that not only is Dean struggling with extreme guilt, he is also dealing with being in the life and questioning if it is what he wants to do or should do any longer. He feels hopeless and trapped, knowing that his attempts in the past to leave hunting behind has only brought him death and heartache---a lesson he most certainly learned the hard way with Lisa and Ben especially.
He is also grieving, albeit inwardly, for his angel friend Castiel, who has gone unmentioned deliberately by both brothers.
Once Sam realizes they aren't done with the case, he tells Dean to "suit up." Dean is stunned and manages to get Sam to ask if he's alright. In true Dean fashion, he stifles his distaste and exhaustion and does as his brother requests. Despite telling Amy Pond in the previous episode that people cannot change, Dean has obviously done so and is having a difficult time picking up old patterns and behaviors. He's trying to put forward the typical Dean Winchester facade, but it is crumbling quickly around him. He feels that he must do the expected, and therefore he makes the quips and does the investigation, but it's not the same as it once was to him. He goes skulking for chicks, but his heart isn't in that, either. Not if he has to do a pep talk. It is expected of him to sleep around and drink. And so, Dean does it in an attempt to keep his brother from asking him questions about how he's doing.
Sam, on the other hand, seems eager. Too eager. Too at peace with the life. Sam is in the eye of a hurricane, waiting for it to crash ashore and wreak havoc. We know the storm is still swirling each time Lucifer manages a whisper and Sam shoves his thumb ruthlessly into his healing palm. He may have accepted his lot in life, but he is far from being adjusted. The proverbial shoe Dean mentioned will drop. It's only a matter of time before the hurricane revs up and starts to tear Sam apart.
At the bar, Dean encounters the pretty bartender. As he starts to drink, he lets it slip that he feels guilty for killing Amy behind his brother's back---in generic terms of course. She tells him, "Now you feel bad? Well, Dean, if you had to, why feel guilty? That doesn't make any sense."
While this might not entirely apply to what Dean did to Amy, this is a lesson he must learn. It also ties into the guilt that he harbors and is revealed in his trial later on. Unfortunately, his confession isn't simply told to the bartender. Osiris, trolling for his next victim, has also heard and plans to make Dean his next mark.
Meanwhile, Sam investigates the apple orchard, tracking the dirt left behind at each crime scene. The fact that this is an apple orchard harkens all the way back to the season 1 episode "Scarecrow." Bobby calls him on the phone to tell him what the case is about, letting him know that it is Osiris and that he targets the guilty. He says to Sam, who is well aware of Dean's struggles despite his elder brother's attempts to hide it, "This guy hones in on people who feel guilty. Who does that sound like to you?"
It makes Sam call Dean repeatedly, trying to make certain that his brother is safe. Dean doesn't answer his phone. The bartender does. After he meets up with her and hears what happened, he rushes to the barn to save Dean.
This is where the true guilt of this episode sets in. Osiris is aware that Sam is present and calls him out into the courtroom where he has put Dean in chains. He is not pleased and demands that Sam leave---until Sam steps forward to be Dean's lawyer. This is the glimpse of what Sam could have been if he hadn't been pulled back into the life---feeding Dean's Catholic Guilt Monster. He is quick on his feet and argues effectively.
The first witness is a hard one to swallow: Jo Harvelle. She died in the hardware store, giving them time to hunt down Lucifer only to fail in making a kill shot with the ineffective Colt. It is something that wore heavily on both brothers---but Dean in particular. It is a sore spot, too. It's not hard to imagine that he feels guilty for her death, and Osiris is ready to feed upon that.
Dean's guilt is highly excessive here and has been long nursed. He saw her as a little sister, even if she had when alive wished to be more to him. Because he saw her as a younger sibling, her death proved to him that he was once again a failure at being a big brother---the true kernel of guilt here. Dean didn't light the fuse. He didn't rip her guts out. What happened in the hardware store was not truly his fault and to hang onto such guilt not only gives Osiris what he needs to condemn him, it also eats at Dean's psyche needlessly.
Sam stands up to question her, asking, "So why'd you start? To impress some loudmouth ass you just met... Or 'cause you wanted to be like your dad?"
Jo answers immediately, "Daddy issues. Definitely."
This is not the answer Osiris wants to hear. He was expecting Jo to blame Dean, to condemn him for her death. Instead, she brushes that charge aside. Hunting is dangerous, and any case could end a hunter's life. Any one, even one that seemed as green as Jo did, knows this about "the life." He makes her disappear and calls his next witness: Sam himself.
It may seem odd that the Egyptian God would call a living person to the stand, considering he uses the dead to do his bidding, but here it makes sense when one goes beneath the surface. This trial may have ended with Dean's conviction, but that was not its point or goal. Osiris was teaching Dean a lesson about himself and his life. The trial was meant to expose to Dean---and in part to Sam---Dean's excessive guilt. He meant to teach Dean the lesson that there are things that just happen and are out of one's control---another hot button issue for Dean. Being in control is crucial for him, and it is something he doesn't feel he has or has had for some time. His guilt for things such as Jo's death is highly misplaced and Osiris is trying to point that out to Dean. It's the only reason to bring Sam to the stand. As he can read the guilt in a man's heart, he also knows what causes that guilt in the first place.
Osiris alleges to Sam, "But were you or were you not happily out of the family racket until Dean showed back up in that gas guzzler? Ah-ah. The truth, now."