One thing Supernatural does best is tug on multiple threads in its story, weaving them together so that each one is essential to the whole. The layers that this provides allows for deep insight into the story and its characters. Each layer adds another texture, another emotion, another clue as to what is being told. It gives us reason to pause and examine, to ponder the questions being raised, and to feel deeply with the characters as they experience the story on screen. In "Taxi Driver," we see both the individual threads of this single episode and the season start to twist together.
The first layer is the use of lore to tell their story. The show, in its chosen genre, has an endless repository of mythical and historical lore to draw upon to use as its vehicle. We see that in every episode, but one source continues to crop up. This source features prominently in this episode: Dante Alighieri's Divine Comedy.
In the Divine Comedy, we see Dante travel through the three realms of the afterlife: Hell, Purgatory, and Heaven. Supernatural has adopted that same format in many ways, but has changed it to suit its own story. Here, in "Taxi Driver," we see them refer to the passage between Hell and Purgatory. At the conclusion of the Inferno, Dante is led to Purgatory by his guide, Virgil. The show danced carefully around this by having Sam go in reverse. In the Inferno, however, this gate between the two realms is located in a particularly dangerous portion of Hell: the ninth circle in which Lucifer himself is encased in ice. It is only by walking behind him and through the portal there that one can make their way through. As it wouldn't do to have Sam step back into Lucifer's Cage, it makes sense that they would take the concept and change it to a backdoor, a hidden entrance and exit to Hell that will allow Sam to complete this second trial.
It's an interesting use of lore, subtle in its execution, but instantly recognizable to those familiar with the Divine Comedy.
Purgatory itself has been changed, too. Not a place where souls go to be "purged" of sins, it is instead the place where monsters go---allowing them to explain where the supernatural creatures they kill go. It's a unique twist on the Catholic concept---one that suits the show much better. In the Divine Comedy, it isn't much better than Hell. Souls there are punished for lesser sins---sins that can be purged over time and through prayers from the living still on Earth.
Here, by taking Bobby through Purgatory as an "innocent" we see them tie the lore together---subtly shouting out to Dante yet again as Dante himself was passing through the realms with a guide. Not only do they have Bobby guided out, they also have a living person visit two of the realms---bearing witness to them. Dante passes through each realm, allowed to interact with various figures he recognizes from life. Here, we see Sam enter Hell---and see it possibly as it is and not as one trapped there might. He sees various souls chained or locked in cells. It is startling---particularly that of the young woman repeating the mantra, "You came. I knew you would. I've been praying for it forever." Hell is not a pretty place---either for the tormented or the visitor.
This ties in wonderfully to the second layer: that of perception and perspective.
As Sam presses further into Hell itself, seeing the tortured souls pleading for mercy or answering their prayers, he locates Bobby facing a corner. He calls out his friend's name---only to find an angry Bobby and his fist landing squarely on his nose. No, Bobby isn't changed into a demon by his stay in Hell---he doesn't believe that this is Sam. He tells Sam, "Sorry Sam, but you're the 200th Sam I've seen today," leading us to see that his perception has been fooled with.
That doesn't change as they make their way back out. A demon steps forward wearing Sam's face to trick Bobby from the real Sam. Both plead with him, that they are the real Sam, that they have to go---and it leaves the old hunter with a choice. Which one does he stab? Which one does he follow? After debating momentarily, he turns to one and shoves the knife through, killing the demon and not Sam. He admits that it was "50/50." It's no wonder---after his time downstairs being taunted by various Sam and Deans for as long as he has, it'd be hard to know which one is real and which one isn't.
In many ways, this torment of Bobby makes sense. In Dante's version of Hell, the punishment devised fits both the sin and its severity in life. Those who murdered are drowned in blood for eternity, for instance. The more one murdered, the more submerged in the River of Blood they would be. In Supernatural, however, they make this a much more personal experience. For Dean, he saw Hell as an endless physical torture---and to face that without his brother. Evidenced by those that Sam walks past, we can imagine that whatever their worst fear or most painful experience is what torments them. For Bobby, this would be in the form of "his boys," saying and doing terrible things to him. Sometimes torture doesn't have to be physical---it doesn't have to involve blood and bone---it involves the heart.
But what of the other characters and stories? How is perception being blended with the layer of lore?
We begin the episode with Kevin, taunted by Crowley's slithering voice. It startles him from his sleep, increasing the paranoia we've seen the prophet display recently. He wanders the small boat house, trying in vain to find his tormentor. Crowley assures him that he'll take more than a finger this time, and we see Kevin collapse into a heap on the floor, blood pooled around him from the loss of his legs and his hand.
And yet, we know that this has to be in his head. Kevin isn't really falling onto the floor after losing his legs. He's not really experiencing the loss of a hand. Kevin is hallucinating this. It is warping his perception of the situation---making him erratic and high strung emotionally. We can hardly blame him. He is under great stress, trying to decipher the trials of Hell from the Demon Tablet as quickly as he can. He told Sam that he "needs this to be over," and he is sacrificing his health and his sleep to get there faster.
But sleep deprivation can't be the reason for his hallucinations. The obvious choice is that Kevin isn't hallucinating at all, but that Crowley is in fact taunting him telepathically and causing him to think he's been wounded this badly---but as the episode progresses, we see that things aren't as simple as that. Kevin believes that Crowley knows where he is so much so that he blurts out to Sam and Dean, "He's in my head!"
It isn't until we see Crowley confront one of his underlings that we see that this might not be the case. He barks at her, "I need Kevin Tran and I need his half of the Tablet!" If Crowley had been taunting Kevin as the prophet believes, he wouldn't be so frustrated here. It must mean something else is messing with Kevin---causing him to become more paranoid over time and now to hallucinate.
Supernatural has explored this realm before---particularly with Sam in season 7 and his difficulties hallucinating Lucifer. Reality and what we perceive of it is a big question---and season 8 has made it clear that perception and perspective are big keys to understanding the story at hand. It will beg us to question everything and everyone, too.
Since Crowley isn't doing this to Kevin, what is?
We know, from Kevin's explanation of the trials in "Trial and Error," that they will not be easy. He states, "The tablet says, "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." Certainly, this has come to pass for Sam. The trials have affected him physically and he has been damaged severely by them---but what of the prophet transcribing the Tablet itself? Could this be the Tablet's doing?
It would certainly explain how Kevin could perceive at the end that Crowley had not only spoken to him in his mind---but had appeared to him in person. In this way, he is being supernaturally manipulated by the Tablet. In ways, this could be a warning to the Winchesters, that their current undertaking could be too costly, too dangerous to complete. It is not simply Sam being affected by the trials---but Kevin himself. As he discovers more secrets about the trials, it causes him to see reality in a warped lens.
Dean is also encountering a perspective and perception difficulty of his own---in the form of Naomi. Finally, the elder Winchester gets to meet face to face the angel that had been manipulating Castiel. But this isn't the Naomi we've seen in the past. She's trying to play with Dean's perspective of the situation with a subtle hand. Instead of hurling him into an alternate reality as her predecessor Zachariah might have, Naomi tries to convince him with words alone that she isn't as bad as he thinks---that he has it all wrong.
Naomi is trying to spin what has happened into a tale of heroism on her part. She tells Dean, "After I rescued him from Purgatory, you mean." Yet, Dean tells her to stop, that he knows she told Castiel to kill him. She brushes that off, too, stating, "Yeah, I suppose that's how he would hear it." Even so, Dean sees through this, too, telling her blatantly, "I don't trust angels."
This doesn't deter Naomi from twisting the knife, from trying to pull Dean to her cause and side by telling him that Ajay has taken Sam to Hell through Purgatory. She isn't doing these things out of the goodness of her heart by any means---and while this admission may give Dean pause---he has to know that her attempt to warp his perception of Castiel's behavior after Purgatory is manipulative for nefarious reasons yet to be fully revealed. He must decipher the truth from Naomi's lies.
Yet, Dean also allows himself to warp his own perception of another character in the story: Benny. Upon finding that Ajay was dead---thus leaving Sam stuck potentially in Purgatory---he calls his vampire friend. He begs him to let him send him back to Purgatory---temporarily---so that he can lead Sam back out the same way. What Dean does to himself here isn't a supernatural twist of perception---it is of emotional manipulation.
Confronted with Benny in person, Dean's emotions run high. He feels that he has let his vampire friend down, that he hasn't been there for him, and that he walked away. This may be true, but he decides to discard what Benny says, hope trying to replace the guilt he carries. Benny blatantly tells him, "I don't belong here." It's a clear indication that once Dean sends Benny to Purgatory to rescue Sam that the vampire isn't coming back. He's tired, worn down by trying to fit into a world that just doesn't seem to have a place for him any longer. And yet, Dean wants to believe so badly, perceives that he can help his friend if only given the chance, and he says emotionally, "When you get back topside, we'll fix that."
He may have been able to pull the veil over his own perception here---manipulated himself to believe that Benny would return---but it's possible that he does this to give himself the courage to behead his friend. When Sam and Dean are reunited, he learns that Benny didn't make it, that "he didn't want to come back, y'know. I'm sorry." The figurative spell he weaved for himself falls completely away, and Dean quietly states, "You're probably right."
It is this that leads into another layer of "Taxi Driver" and of season 8 as it has progressed: that of Sam and Dean's relationship.
It is in this gentle exchange between the brothers that we see a maturing of their relationship. There wasn't an angry confrontation, no secrets were kept here, and they simply addressed the difficult situation head on---together. To prove this further, we see Sam acknowledge that he may have been wrong about Benny---that his perception of the vampire, connecting to the second layer well here, was misguided. He tells Dean, "He's a little different than I thought."
More than this exchange, we see that the brothers are facing other things directly as a team. The trial complete after Naomi stopped Crowley's interference, Sam recites the spell only to collapse onto the ground in agony. Dean is right beside him, concerned and lending his presence as support. Sam's words may sound as if he is trying to hide what is going on, but we can tell that he's not hiding---that it is painful and affecting him greatly. He only wants to reassure both his brother and himself that he will be fine, that this pain will pass and that it was worth the effort.
Between "Trial and Error," and "Goodbye Stranger," we saw Sam try to keep his struggles with the trials to himself---but it isn't a malicious act or an attempt to cut his brother out of the loop. It was a natural reaction to his own fears, to his own struggles with what these trials were doing to him. In seeing Dean tell him, "I can carry you," we know that they will face these together, that neither has to do this alone. It's not unlike Dean's care for Sam in season 2---as he reassured Sam that he would choose to save him and protect him from whatever Azazel had planned---yet it has a much more mature flavor here.
Dean doesn't simply see Sam as his little brother, the one he was sworn to protect on order of his father, but as an equal in need. They both realize that what they are undertaking is difficult. Unlike the demon blood in seasons 1 and 2, planted there against Sam's will, these trials are of Sam's choice. It is through these trials---albeit begrudgingly---that we see Dean accept that his brother is not only grown up enough to make his own choices, but that he is capable. They are entering these trials of their own free will, with their eyes wide open that the end result could be detrimental to one or both of them. It is a path of their own choosing, and it is in this that they are finding themselves not on opposite sides, not as big brother protecting little brother, but as true equals that have their share in the process.
We know that it isn't just Dean supporting Sam here, either. In "Trial and Error," we saw Sam extend the olive branch to Dean, stating that he could help him reach that light at the end of the tunnel. In this way, they are carrying one another---being the "stone number one" for each other they so desperately need. The brothers cannot allow their past arguments to divide them. They cannot allow their differences stand in their way. Instead, they must accept them and work with them to build the team they know they can and should be. It is only through their open communication and honesty that they will manage this---and we see in "Taxi Driver" that the brothers are continually committing themselves to this.
That openness continues when Dean states honestly, "I buried Benny, but I didn't burn his bones."
Dean didn't have to admit this. He could have kept it secret---left it and Benny's body to fester in the ground---and waited for it to become yet another bomb to blow up in his face later on, but he didn't. As Sam had been honest about Benny staying behind, Dean is honest about his dim hope that the vampire can return later. He knows that Sam may not agree, but he is willing to take that chance, to plead his case that Benny is an important figure---a brother in arms worth the time.
Rather than becoming defensive or angry, Sam is accepting. He states, "So go ahead and leave the door open if you want." Sure, Benny is a vampire, and they are discussing the possibility of returning a monster topside, but this isn't as much about the vampire as it is about Sam accepting his brother. As Dean has had to concede on the trials, Sam must accept that Benny is a part of Dean now. He is not a threat to him nor a threat to their relationship---he is merely another person of import in Dean's life.
It is significant growth that progressed through the season---allowing us to see the distrust and anger of the earlier half of the season be replaced with an understanding and cohesion that will allow the brothers to succeed in their endeavors. They know they have a difficult road ahead of them. Having faced down as many supernatural beings as they have---and with the world hanging in the balance no less---they know they truly have each other that they can rely upon.
It is this layer that is most important. It is the brotherly bond that ties everything together, makes it more than a simple science fiction/fantasy show. It is their bond that shows us that we, in our everyday life, don't have to go it alone. In many ways, throughout the seasons, Sam and Dean stand as a testament that love can conquer all---but only if we work at it. We have seen the brothers struggle with their own issues and divisions in the past. We have seen them quarrel and nearly throw in the towel. We have seen the brothers hurt one another and the rifts that has created.
After all, love is hard. It takes work. It takes diligence. Seeing the brotherly bond mature here proves that its hard won ground is possible. As hard as it is to face the things the Winchesters face daily, it is renewing their bond that takes the most effort. That's not necessarily a bad thing, either. It means that they are growing, changing, becoming a better partnership over time---and it takes all their dedication to make it happen.
It is their dedication and devotion to one another that makes it work. It is because Sam and Dean know that if they don't do these things out of love that their path is meaningless. It has to have purpose, it has to have reason, and what better one to choose than love? It is what allows them to bear their scars, face down their foes, and beat the odds over and over again. We have seen them argue that their bond in the past has been a weakness, a way for their enemies to destroy them, but time and time again it is their very bond that allows them to prevail.
It is their brotherly love that triumphs---and it is that love that will carry them through to the end.
Assaf Cohen played Ajay, a Rogue Reaper or Coyote. He shows Ajay's disbelief at the Winchester plan well, hiding his anxiety about being caught under a layer of sarcasm. We can sense through Cohen's portrayal that this isn't Ajay's first under the table deal. He may also be willing to guide Sam to Hell, but he won't go with him the whole way. Cohen shows that Ajay is reluctant to do this at all in his body language and voice. Once caught by Crowley, we see Cohen shift Ajay from sarcasm to placating to try and save himself. Cohen does this by talking fast and offering his food. Ajay tries to downplay his activities, and we see Cohen have him play dumb to stall for time. We see Ajay's fear in Cohen's tense frame. It doesn't work, and we see Cohen put all of Ajay's disbelief on his face as Crowley delivers the killing blow.Amanda Tapping presents a much gentler and friendly Naomi. Throughout her appearances on Supernatural, Tapping has made Naomi rigid and firm. She's been militant in her style, commanding and cool. Naomi has been forceful with Castiel, maintaining an iron grip on the angel. Tapping has made her smug and self assured---and recently frantic and vicious. In "Taxi Driver," she tones down Naomi's hard edge and tries to extend an olive branch to a hesitant and suspicious Dean. Underneath her kinder performance, Tapping makes sure we can sense how calculating Naomi truly is. She's jockeying for position here, trying to find any footing with the Winchesters in order to bring them into her scheme to acquire the Angel Tablet. Tapping's best scene is facing off against Sheppard's Crowley. The angry outburst at being labeled a bureaucrat and the show of power reminds us that she's still the hard edged angel she's been since being introduced. The soft expression that crosses Tapping's face has a nice spice of self satisfaction at besting Sheppard's Crowley as Naomi sends Bobby's soul on its way to Heaven. Tapping keeps Naomi mysterious---we know that she wants the Angel Tablet and to prevent Heaven from being closed, but we don't know why or what else she hopes to gain.
Ty Olsson returns as Benny, and yet we can tell in his performance that this is goodbye. He is resigned---best seen in Olsson's expressions and in the tone of his voice. He puts a great sorrow in that drawl, and what we've suspected about Dean's vampire friend is undeniable: Benny doesn't want to live. What makes Olsson's performance beautiful here is that underneath the broken man he presents we can sense that Benny is also at peace with his path. He is also a loving character, shown best in his understanding what Dean is asking of him. Olsson's best scene by far is with Ackles, as we see vampire and hunter face off not in the usual way but in a heartfelt hug and tears. Despite Dean hatching a plan, we can hear it in Olsson's voice that Benny has no intention of returning, that this is it. Olsson doesn't have Benny flinch when the blade slices his head clean off---which makes it almost harder to take. Once back in Purgatory with Sam, we see that inner peace shine through Olsson's soft expression and carriage. He feels that he belongs there, and if that he can get Sam back to Dean that any debt he may have felt he owed the hunter will be paid. It's hard to watch Olsson have Benny surrender to the vampires waiting to viciously tear him apart---but the question still begs to be answered, where do monsters go when they die in Purgatory? It's heartfelt and tragic ending to a character, and although we all could see it coming, Olsson makes it memorable and moving in his performance.
Osric Chau continues to grow as an actor playing Kevin Tran. The frightened little rabbit he presented in "Reading Is Fundamental" is long gone. Chau has grown well into Kevin's skin, showing us just how far the character has come. Here, Kevin is paranoid. He is frantic and anxious---all the while being burnt out and tired. Chau presents it well, letting us see how much Kevin is struggling with his task. He's afraid for his life and what Crowley might do---and yet we can sense in his performance that Kevin isn't exactly in touch with reality. Chau also makes us sympathize with Kevin well. He didn't ask to be involved in this, but he is, and he's having a difficult time dealing with that. Chau puts it in Kevin's body language and facial expressions, making him at times look defeated. His tired expression belies not just how the tablet effects Kevin, but how the process of carrying its burden as translator day after day has worn him down. Chau's best scene is facing off against Sheppard's Crowley as he begs the King of Hell to leave him alone---followed by the sheer horror and anguish on his face at learning that his mother is dead. Chau showed us a total breakdown in Kevin---cuing us in that the prophet was not only near his breaking point, but had gone way past it. Now that he's snapped, it'll be interesting to see what Chau brings to Kevin the next time we see him.
Mark Sheppard presented two different Crowleys. In one, he is frustrated and thwarted. Crowley is scrambling to stop the Winchesters from completing more trials. Sheppard shows us how desperate Crowley is becoming as he snaps at underlings. His voice is strained and his body language is tense. We can tell through this that maybe what Kevin believes to be happening really isn't. The other Crowley is taunting. Sheppard pulls out all the stops as Crowley teases Kevin. He shows that the King of Hell---even potentially as a hallucination---thoroughly enjoys torturing. Sheppard seems to have fun playing this version of Crowley. He's smug and pleased as Crowley corners Kevin. Sheppard knows just how to make Crowley's cruelty play here. We can hear the King of Hell's pleasure in the tone of his voice. What really made his performance in the episode is just how different each Crowley was. One was frustrated, trying to find the next plot to stop the Winchesters, the other vicious, cruel, and victorious. It'll be interesting to see which one we end up with by season's end.
Seeing Jim Beaver reprise the role of Bobby Singer was an extra treat. Not unlike his surprise appearance at the end of "Party On Garth," it was highly emotional and powerful. Bobby was as crotchety and loveable as ever. Beaver easily fit back into the fabric of the show---and this time he gets to spend time with Padalecki's Sam, showing just how much these two connect. His down to earth performance makes Bobby truly the everyman, even here as a soul trapped first in Hell then later guided through Purgatory. Beaver shines best opposite Padalecki while they traverse the harsh landscape of Purgatory. We see Bobby and Sam fall into an easy routine, familiar with one another. We can sense in Beaver's performance that this is bittersweet---but that flavor fits well with the material, making it have even more impact. Bobby may have spent over a year away from his boys, but he most certainly still knows them more than anyone else---and knows just what advice and how to dish it out. Beaver delivers that here with his no nonsense style, hitting home. Hopefully we'll have a chance to see the old hunter in season 9 in some manner!
Jensen Ackles pulled out all the emotions for this episode as Dean. He is the concerned hunter, worrying about Kevin, the concerned brother fretting over Kevin, and the guilty and grief stricken friend when it came to Benny. Ackles makes us feel for Dean throughout this entire episode, showing us the truth underneath the elder Winchester's rough exterior. He's a deep and loving man, and when he has drawn someone into his heart that it is for life. Ackles breaks our hearts when we see him opposite Olsson's Benny for the final time. Our hearts shatter with Dean because Ackles shows us in just his eyes and his voice that this is shattering Dean. Later, when confronted with Sam's struggle with the trial, we see Ackles make Dean the concerned older brother, trying to lend a hand in any way he can, even if it's just being there asking if Sam's okay. Dean's resigned grief shows extremely well when confronted with Benny's loss at the end, and Ackles conveys just how hard it was for the elder Winchester to let him go. It wasn't all high emotions, however. Ackles makes sure to slip in a subtle moment with Chau's Kevin. Once again Dean is denied the ever elusive pie, and we hear the little boy trapped inside the hunter as Ackles delivers the line, "That's my pie." We also get to see that hard edge Dean wears so well when confronted with Naomi---and we can sense just by body language that he doesn't trust her.
Jared Padalecki showed us a determined Sam. Even so, we can tell through the tightness in his voice that Sam isn't taking this trial lightly. Sam must do it alone, however, and Padalecki shows us that Sam won't allow for argument in his forceful delivery of his lines. Once in Hell, we see sympathy for those trapped there flicker across his features. In this episode we get to see Padalecki perform a dual role, if only for a moment, and like Bobby we can't tell which one is the real Sam and which one is the demon. His chemistry with Beaver made their scenes flow well---and in his subtle style we saw Padalecki show Sam's deep emotions at being reunited with his father figure. Padalecki shared great scenes with Olsson's Benny, albeit brief. In the very moment Sam calls Bobby off Benny, we see Padalecki show how the hunter's perspective has changed concerning the vampire through his body language and soft tone. We sense that he knows not only has Benny made a great sacrifice by coming back to Purgatory to help him, but that Benny isn't coming with. Padalecki shows us Sam's horror and sadness upon seeing Benny surrender to the vampires as he exits. In telling Dean about Benny, we see Padalecki make Sam's expressions soft and his voice gentle. He conveys Sam's sorrow for Dean's loss in a quiet manner, and that makes the performance all the more powerful. Underneath all of this, however, we can sense Sam's fear about what the second trial will do to him.
Best Lines of the Week:
Bobby: Already said goodbye to you Sam, it didn't seem to take.
Crowley: Something is going on. My hellhound has been killed. Winchester Jumbo-Size is trying to break into the mothership. And that prophet of theirs is madly translating away.
Crowley: What you people never seem to understand is that you are nothing. Fleeting blips of light. I am forever.
Ajay: Smuggling a mortal across the border is risky enough, but gate-crashing a Winchester into Hell seriously blows.
Sam: The Rabbit hole - this is nuts.
Dean: That's my pie.
Benny: When Dean Winchester asks for a favor he's not screwing around.
Charlie's back next time. Wonder what trouble she can get the boys into when they visit video game land?