In the mid season finale, “The Things We Left Behind,” we learned exactly what Castiel and the Winchesters are truly fighting for: humanity. We saw it in several levels: from Castiel seeking out Claire to Dean's fear of losing even more ground to the Mark. Humanity was valued in oh so many ways. But in “The Hunter Games,” we learn that it is much more than this. It is a powerful force and it stands in opposition to another force that resides within us: that of the monster. We see this theme touched upon throughout the episode---from Crowley to Claire to the Winchesters. Humanity isn't simply meant to be valued---it is a driving force---and it may end up being the most powerful one of all.

First, let's look at Crowley and Rowena.

Rowena is Crowley's mother---and a powerful centuries old witch. She is also a living human being---with the necessities that come with it. She needs to eat, for instance. She's gone as far as to complain about the “swill” they feed her---and even offers to make dinner for herself and Crowley. She is also the King of Hell's prisoner. Because of this, it is Rowena that should be in grave danger. She should be concerned about her safety and her life---perhaps even her soul. On the surface, then, Rowena's situation appears precarious. Because Crowley is a demon, he should be the stand in for the monster inside of us all. And under any other circumstance, Rowena would be an avatar for humanity as a powerful force.

And yet, we see that it is precisely the opposite.

At the beginning of the episode, we watch Crowley meander down his halls, frightened and anxious. He is surrounded by his own court, and then viciously attacked not unlike Julius Caesar. As Rowena's soft Scottish lilt calls to him, we see him emerge from the vision. We can tell that he's haunted by what he has seen. As he walks away from his throne, we realize that this vision wasn't natural. It wasn't something the King of Hell worried about nor conjured up for himself. It's not some deep seated fear manifesting itself in some nightmare. Instead, his manipulative mother used her witchly powers to make him see such a terrifying prophecy.

Rowena uses all of her cunning to coerce the King of Hell into trusting only her. She uses even more magic to further that aim. Prisoner she may be, but being allowed to roam the court at large has given her the ability to exploit any weaknesses she may find in her demonic son. Rowena searches high and low for everything and anything she can use. And as she sits and listens to Crowley take a phone call from the Winchesters, she is already devising a plan to overhear their face to face meeting, too.

Rowena may be human, but she's also a supernatural being---this is clear from her age, guesstimated to be approximately 300. She casts an elaborate spell that allows her to eavesdrop on Crowley and the Winchesters as they discuss the First Blade and the plan to remove the Mark of Cain from Dean's arm. The brothers need the Blade in order to do this---and Crowley is the one that has it stashed some place safe. Rowena learns precisely where this safe place is and proceeds to twist Crowley's “underling” Guthrie into retrieving it first. She tells him that it is an order from the King, one that he must “obey” and so he does.

His reward is to find death on the end of an angel blade. Rowena quickly flips from being cold and callous in her cold blooded killing to emotionally distraught as soon as Crowley arrives to see what has happened. She talks fast and furious, bringing up that Guthrie had been plotting to kill Crowley. She tells him that he went and took the First Blade without permission. Crowley takes this in, recalling the earlier “vision” he saw of the same demon killing him violently.

Rowena then ups her game by planting a new seed into Crowley's mind: taking on the Winchesters. She wants them eliminated and fast---and she knows that bringing her son on board with that aim will make it much more feasible.

And yet, as we dig deeper into this game of manipulation, we see what Rowena truly represents. She is petty, devious, a liar, and cruel. She's over dramatic and callous. Rowena represents much of our worst characteristics. Through her, we see the monster in all of us manifested. The witch has no problem manipulating everyone around her in order to get what she wants. She will use visions and spells. She'll talk fast and furious. She'll twist people around into her view with the right moves and the right timing to make sure they follow her script---and she does it so well that she's starting to sway her son, Crowley, to consider her lies as truth.

But it's more than that. The vision that Rowena makes Crowley see is one of his own death, yes, but we've seen another monstrous entity use visions to manipulate its target this season. It didn't show that person's death. Instead it showed them their actions---that it was only a matter of time. The Mark of Cain taunted Dean, telling him explicitly that it was in control and that it would get what it wanted no matter how much the elder Winchester resisted. Taking this into account, Rowena not only stands in for our monstrous selves, she stands in as a metaphor for the Mark of Cain itself.

Rowena is going to manipulate Crowley to do whatever it is she wishes---just as the Mark will Dean. Her aim may be to use her son to rid the world of the Winchesters. It may be to rule Hell through her son as “the King's Mother,” or she may even seek to take the throne herself and rule as its Queen. Whatever her endgame is, she is going to use manipulation against Crowley and anyone else that stands in her way to do it.

What of Crowley? How is it that he is falling under her spell and wavering towards trusting her? Or is he? He's smart, savvy, and clever. Crowley knows not to trust her---and he most certainly knows not to mess with the Winchesters the way his mother is implying they do. It was he, who famously said, “Am I the only game piece on the board who doesn't underestimate those denim wrapped nightmares?” Why would he, then, even contemplate going against them---even for a moment---especially after what happened the last time he tried to stand in their way? That got him locked in chains and nearly cost him his throne.

And it nearly saw him cured.

Much of season nine, we watched Crowley struggle with what had nearly happened in “Sacrifice.” He was emotional, sentimental, and at times compassionate. He grew attached to several people that should have been nothing more than his enemies---or mere playthings in his own elaborate schemes. Crowley grew fond of both Winchesters on some level---evidenced by his aid in helping Sam purge Gadreel and his growing bromance with Dean as they prepared to face Abaddon. He truly seemed to mourn Kevin's passing. And, as the season unfolded, it was revealed that Crowley was not only feeling residual effects from his near cure, he was addicted to human blood and how it made him recapture the feeling from that experience.

Since then, he has kicked the blood habit. He's not nearly as emotional as the Crowley we saw watching Casablanca or fretting over Gavin going back to his own time. But we have to wonder, has what he went through forever changed the King of Hell? How is humanity becoming a powerful force here?

It's plain that there must be something residual lingering inside Crowley. Prior to his experience in that church, Crowley would have never bothered to listen to Rowena let alone allow her to roam his court. He would have seen her witchly manipulations for what they were and he would have most certainly ended any of her schemes to thwart his orders or rule---violently. Furthermore, Crowley would have used his mother's own games against her before ultimately destroying her. It's clear that Crowley is the apple that doesn't fall far from the tree.

In this case, humanity as a powerful force plays negatively---so far. He is weakened by these feelings. Crowley is not human---not anymore---so these feelings of sentiment or love or fondness leave him open to her machinations in ways he wouldn't have prior. It's obvious, despite his protests that she was a “horrible mother” or that she tried to sell him for “three pigs” or that she dosed him with whiskey, that he is having mixed feelings surrounding her presence. On one hand, he doesn't want to trust her---afraid that she'll “gum up my whole operation”---and rightly so. On the other, he seems to be intrigued and fascinated by what she may say or do next. Whenever she expresses any form of motherly affection, Crowley seems to soak that up, leaning towards her touches or showing some form of fondness. Humanity, as a powerful force inside him, is clouding his judgments when it comes to Rowena.

And yet, we can't help but wonder if they are truly as negative for him as we're being led to believe. It's clear that he is swaying towards her vision of taking on Sam and Dean---and of perhaps allowing her to have more power at Hell's court. This will only spell trouble for Crowley. But that powerful force also allows us to see Crowley's fondness for both brothers. After all, when they called upon him for the First Blade he thought they wanted to “go for a beer, catch a film.” It is possible that he may be able to tap into that emotion in order to stop his mother's endgame at some point---turn on her and join with the brothers as he did against Lucifer and against Abaddon for instance.

It's clear, though, that humanity is a powerful force at work within Hell's court, and it's one that not even Crowley may realize is there just yet.

What of the other characters and their stories? How is humanity not only being valued but emerging as a powerful force?

When we first meet Claire again, she is bouncing from group homes to foster homes to a surrogate “father” that has taken her in and given her a home. He owes a lot of money to a loan shark, and so he convinces her to steal for him. It would seem that Claire has found all the wrong people for all the wrong reasons---and has found herself traveling a dark path. Her story reflects so many of the stories surrounding the foster system. It is a human story---one full of tragedy and difficulties. Claire isn't fighting demons or angels or monsters---not in the conventional sense often seen on Supernatural. Instead, she's facing the human struggle of finding her place. She's simply trying to find a way to live.

As Castiel forces his way back into her life, we see the supernatural come back to haunt the young girl. The very angel responsible for her current predicament has decided to find a way to right his wrongs. The young woman resists, and that resistance leads Castiel to turn towards Sam and Dean. He isn't human, and so he turns to the only humans he knows. They end up following Claire to the very “home” she was building with Randy, and in a violent and vicious moment, we see Dean slaughter that surrogate father and all of his associates. This only scars Claire all the more.

In the aftermath, Claire wants only to get as far away from Castiel as she can. She informs the angel, “This isn't going to work. I mean come on you look like my father, it is his body, but he's dead and I get you feel bad. But, you, whoever you are, are nothing to me.” She doesn't want to hear anything about Dean---going as far as to say, “Dean Winchester is a monster.” Castiel tells her, “We all have a little monster in us.” Claire brushes that statement off, too, making her way out into the world to lick her fresh wounds.

Claire is being torn apart by two powerful forces: the monster in us all and the humanity that she so desperately needs to find. The monster she faces is one of emotional strife. Claire is angry---rightly so on many levels. Castiel singlehandedly destroyed her life when he possessed Jimmy. Everything that has happened since has only fed the beast that is her anger. Her mother left her. Her grandmother died. She has been bounced from home to home to home. Her surrogate “father” was brutally murdered in front of her. Everyone she cares about has left her behind in some way.

Castiel describes her as a “wounded animal.” He understands why she is upset by what Dean did to Randy. Sam points out that the man was using her, but he says, “She thought he was kind and for that she loved him---shows how little kindness there was in her life.”

It's undeniable that this young woman is damaged. She has lost a lot of her own self worth over the years as everyone and everything she knows continually gets taken away from her repeatedly. In many ways, we can see that she subconsciously chooses to find people like Randy or the couple in the bar that will exploit this weakness in her. She may not even realize that she seeks these types out to validate the feelings she harbors towards herself. And each time, these people only build further on the scars that have never quite healed.

And yet, we can also see that the powerful force of humanity is also strong within her. She may find these people and bond with them due to her troubled sense of self worth, but we also see innocence and naivety that speaks to the goodness and humanity she possesses. She feels safe when others try to “help” her as Randy did and as this couple offers to do.

Claire's story stands in great parallel to Dean. As damaged as she is, she is experiencing all of the same struggles with self worth and anger. She may not possess a Mark nor has she faced supernatural creatures head on day in and day out, but she has been forever altered by one's insertion into her life. Claire has spiraled out of control emotionally ever since, struggling to beat back the monstrous force inside her.

Claire expresses her rage at Dean, venting about what happened. She tells a couple she meets in a bar, “First I lose my first dad then I lose my second---and who killed him and trashed my life---the buddy of the guy who killed my first dad and wants to be my third dad.” In many ways, Claire is only blowing off steam. She has no plans to exact any form of revenge on Castiel and Dean for what happened at Randy's. Her anger is merely giving her word diarrhea as she unloads her inner pain onto these two people.

It also exposes some of her inner struggle with self worth and place in the world. The explanation of what happened has exposed how utterly messed up her life has become. She goes as far as to tell Castiel that any chance at a normal life is gone, remarking, “That ship has sailed.” It leaves her feeling empty and adrift. As she bonds with this couple, she is desperately seeking a place to anchor---and the fact that they've listened to her sad story gives her a place to possibly do just that. She turns a blind eye to their side glances. Claire is in desperate need of a friend and they know it.

And so this couple chooses to exploit her.

The couple agrees to help her take out Dean for revenge. She'll call him, lure him to a meeting spot, and they'll beat him---or worse. When it comes time for the meet to take place, Claire watches in horror as they sneak up on the unaware man. Unable to go through with the monstrous act, Claire calls out, alerting the hunter that these two are lurking in the bushes, brandishing a baseball bat and an ax. And she is forced to watch yet again as Dean may commit an awful slaughter before her, only to see him smash the ax down into the bench in restraint.

As we see her walk down the road, alone, she is approached by Castiel in his car. She is stunned that the angel managed to find her so easily here. He tells her that he found her because she had prayed to him. The young woman scoffs at this, only to be told that he picked up on a longing leading him to find her. She tells him, “I'm going to try doing things a little bit different---let go a little bit of the monster in me.”

It's a start. Claire must find a way to value herself as a person---and her humanity---if she is to channel it as a powerful force to beat back the monstrous force that is her anger. Claire will have to put these words into action as she seeks to rebuild her tattered life in the fresh aftermath of Castiel's newest interference. And yet, as we see the exchange unfold, we see her realize that someone is actually there for her, too. Castiel came to her just because she thought about him, even if fleetingly. She knows now that if she should ask he will answer. While she tells Castiel that she must do this alone, she knows that she is not. This is crucial for her to reclaim the power of her humanity.

And it is a great and promising possible foreshadow for the main story of “The Hunter Games.” That of Sam and Dean.

How does the opposing forces of humanity and monstrosity face off in the Winchesters?

We begin, much as we did with Crowley earlier, in a vision. Dean is being taunted by the Mark again, reliving the vision that led to his slaughtering Randy and the aftermath of the actual attack. He is tense and forlorn, sitting in his bedroom in the Bunker, clutching the arm branded with the Mark. We can see, in this moment, the two opposing forces battling inside him. And it's clear that the monstrous side is winning at this very moment.

Dean rises and goes to the fractured mirror above his sink, staring at his broken expression. The mirror reflects just how he feels inside---broken and shattered by what has happened. In it, we can see the inner battle between human and monster taking place. We can see him wavering, tipping towards the Mark as it further attempts to wrest control from the elder Winchester.

As Dean goes to join his brother and Castiel, he overhears them talking about what happened with Randy. He interjects, “That was a massacre, is what it was. There was a time I was a hunter, not a stone cold killer. You can say it, you're not wrong. I crossed a line.”

This statement is crucial to understanding the battle now raging inside Dean. And it is something we saw in Claire's story, too. Dean lacks the self worth to see his own value----either as a person or a hunter. It also leaves him to question his own humanity. He doesn't see himself as having any---not anymore---and he knows that it's large part due to the Mark itself.

It leaves them with only one choice: find a way to remove the Mark.

The problem they face doesn't seem to be in any of the lore the Men of Letters amassed over the years. In fact, the Winchesters seem to know more about it than the secret society ever did. And there's the quandary about the missing Demon Tablet. Even if they were able to find it back, the problem would remain. Neither Sam nor Dean could read it to learn the secrets to removing the Mark---unless they somehow could reach Kevin's ghost.

The leaves them with a worst case scenario. They will have to talk to the last person they want to: Dean's murderer. Metatron, as the Scribe of God, is the only one that knows precisely what was on the Demon Tablet and how to go about removing the very Mark that has twisted Dean into the monster he's slowly becoming all over again.

Castiel and Sam retrieve the rogue angel, dragging him promptly to the Bunker to wring the answers out of him. To their surprise, the Scribe seems to be helpful, wanting to help them “pop that Biblical zit.” He tells them, then, perhaps the worst news yet when it comes to removing the Mark. They'll need the First Blade, the very weapon that activates the Mark and gives it even more power to push Dean to kill viciously.

It leaves them with no choice but to then call Crowley---another worst case scenario. They're now relying on both the Scribe of God, the architect of the angels' fall, and the King of Hell.

Crowley is non plussed about this plan, telling them emphatically that they're nuts for wanting to get the First Blade, a weapon that makes Dean go “mental every time he touches it.” But, he yields, telling the brothers that he will retrieve it. After he does, he tells Dean that he will hold onto it until he knows they've got the answer on how to finish the removal. He won't hand it over until then.

In light of this news, Dean rushes to the dungeon to question Metatron. He doesn't get Sam first. He is far too eager to learn the next step, and as the Scribe had been surprisingly cooperative earlier, he thinks that he'll get his answer quickly. Metatron, left alone to think, sees things differently. He sees it as an opportunity to get something he wants in return. He tells Dean, “First one was a freebie cause you're you. The rest are gonna cost you.”

Dean, frustrated, starts to lose his temper quickly with the angel. He demands to know the next step, warning Metatron that he won't pay. Dean locks the door, promptly getting ready to carve the answers out of the angel if need be. Metatron is pleased to see that Dean will give in. At the start of this interrogation, we see Metatron become the voice briefly for the Mark of Cain. He is egging the elder Winchester on, telling him to “go darker, go deeper.” Each time Dean strikes him, he seems a little more pleased.

And he refuses to give up the next step. As Dean reminds Metatron of all his sins, Metatron also feeds the other monster already inside of Dean: his lack of self worth. He reminds Dean that it was his actions that also led to the consequences of season nine. It was Dean that had tricked Sam into being possessed by Gadreel. It was Dean that kept Kevin at the Bunker. And then he drops the hammer, telling the elder Winchester, “And then my personal favorite -- Dean Winchester. Whose entire existence is defined by a war on the dark and monstrous, bromancing his way around the country with the King of Hell.” Each word stings deep inside Dean, punching even more holes into his already damaged self worth. After all, how can he stand up for humanity if he himself is a monster?

The Mark of Cain feeds on this exchange greedily---even going so much as to start glowing furiously as Dean begins to exact his revenge for his death and for everything Metatron has done. He is desperate, too, trying to gain answers to his dilemma. And at every step, the Mark, a manifestation of the monster inside of us all, feeds on his other inner monsters. It drinks up all of Dean's lack of self worth and his anger. In turn, it whips Dean into a frenzy, getting him to cut the Scribe deeply, carving deep into his flesh with the angel blade. It pushes Dean so much so that it nearly makes him kill Metatron. In many ways, this makes sense. The Mark of Cain is merely trying to survive. Metatron---and his “billions of fun facts” are nothing more than a threat to its existence on Dean's arm. Get Dean to kill him, and that threat goes away.

And yet, it's also grateful in may ways to the Scribe. It's greatest sources of power internally come from Dean's struggle with his self worth and his place in the world. He used to see himself as a hunter---now he sees himself as a killer. It his his self hatred and his anger that give it the power to manipulate and control him. And Metatron provides a clear and devastating outside voice to all of those internalized demons that Dean faces daily. He is pointing out with cruel precision everything that Dean already beats himself up over---prodding and pushing salt further into every wound so that the Mark can further decay Dean's humanity. As much as Dean wallows in these feelings already, it is this reinforcement that the Mark relishes in. It'll give it more power since this is from an outside source validating everything Dean already feels.

Sam and Castiel manage to burst into the room in time to pull Dean off of the Scribe. In the aftermath, the brothers talk about the crux of this episode---and the possible remainder of this season. Sam tells Dean, “So, I've been thinking, look. Cain still has the Mark, right? And he's lived with it, for years he's lived with it. So yeah, the Mark is strong, but Dean maybe there's a part of you that wants to give into it, and maybe you have to fight that, you know? Maybe part of that powerful force has to be you.”

While Metatron stood in for the Mark of Cain's monstrous voice, Sam stands in for Dean's humanity here, giving it a voice that has been nearly drowned out by the Mark's vicious manipulations and Dean's self-loathing. We see it in his quiet but protective presence in the first interrogation of Metatron. He keeps an eye on his brother almost as much as he does the rogue angel---and we see him keeping a close eye on his brother's mood. And as they walk the halls after Metatron tells him they need the First Blade back, it is Sam that raises concerns, wanting to keep his brother safe and his humanity intact. When Sam pulls his brother away from Metatron, we see him as the voice of humanity take physical form. His brother yields to him, allowing him to shepherd him away so that Castiel may usher Metatron out. He smothers the Mark's dark intentions with that action, and Dean stays behind his brother's protective form as the two angels go by.

“The Things We Left Behind,” showed us that humanity was valuable and worth fighting for. Sam is suggesting that is far more than that. He's suggesting that it is a tool---a weapon worth wielding---against the darkness and monstrosity that seeks to consume Dean. He is standing with his brother, championing the best traits that make Dean with this statement. It is an affirmation and validation on the truth that Dean needs to desperately find: that his humanity is not only worth fighting for---that it is a powerful force that is able to not only contend with but overcome the Mark itself.

We see this clearly when Dean is lured by Claire to the park. He sits patiently waiting for her to appear. As she warns him hastily about the attack brewing behind him, we see him easily overpower and overthrow his attackers. He picks up the ax one meant to use on him, and we see his face morph into the monstrous anger that has proceeded violent and brutal killings since acquiring the Mark. He raises that ax high over his head, fully intending on slaughtering these two foolish people---until Claire screams in horror and distracts him.

We see him hesitate, and in that brief moment, Dean can finally take Sam's words and put them into action. He continues to raise the ax high, but when he brings it down in a violent swing, he doesn't do so to cleave these people. He slams it into the park bench and lets it go. It is clear that the powerful force that is his humanity has been reawakened---that while Sam wasn't there to pull him back again physically, his words had made an impact.

As we go further into the season, we're left with the great battle that is waging inside Dean. The two powerful forces that are fighting for dominance inside him will only continue to do so with greater ferocity. But will the Mark's “monster in us all” win out over Dean's humanity? Or will Dean find his way back to the hero's path?

However he does it, he will have to learn to value his own humanity---and rely on Sam to be its powerful voice.

Kathryn Netwon returns as the troubled Claire Novak. In “The Hunter Games,” we see her explore more in depth into Claire's story and emotional state, giving us a complex and layered character. She makes us sympathize deeply with the young woman when she is confronted yet again by Castiel. The anguish in her facial expressions and her voice as she tells Castiel that he's nothing to her captures so much of the inner turmoil and grief that has shaped Claire's character. As we see her in the bar, we can't help but see the little girl underneath all the anger shining through. She may have rough edges and be furious by what happened back at Randy's, but we can't help but see how lost she is. Newton conveys this well in her body language as she explains to the couple how she ended up here. She keeps her eyes largely cast down and adds a slight tremor to her voice that gives us a sense of how much this event has impacted her. She looks like a lost child when sitting with them at the fire, going with their plan to set a trap for Dean. As he arrives to meet her, Newton shows us Claire's inner turmoil at allowing this plan to come to fruition. She allows the little girl we've seen trapped inside out, crying out in horror to stop the blindsiding attack---and as she watches Dean pull back on killing them, we can see the mixed emotions of horror and relief flicker across Claire's face. Newton's best scene, however, is when she is confronted yet again by Castiel. She is much sweeter here than she's been to this point, and we can see that she's willing to at least try and move beyond what happened not only with Randy but what happened all those years ago with Jimmy. Her soft delivery of the line, “I like you better in the tie” makes her endearing, and as she walks off into the sunset we're hopeful that she'll hold to her pledge to try and let go of the monster in her. We won't know how much she's succeeded at it until we see her again sometime in the remainder of the season.

Ruth Connell continues to flesh out the manipulative and charming Rowena in “The Hunter Games.” She's over the top and hilarious in her interactions both with Sheppard's Crowley and with Guthrie. Connell makes the character graceful on screen in the way she moves. We can see her---in the black dress---as a spider weaving webs around the court of Hell, laying various traps for her victims. Connell conveys this well in the way she uses her gestures. She touches various items through out Crowley's storeroom, almost like leaving an invisible thread trail. And we can see her scurrying around as Rowena convinces Guthrie that she's harmless---or that he should do as she asks because it is an order from the King. Connell makes Rowena intriguing when she casts the spell to overhear the Winchester's conversation. It's all in how she builds the skull display that plays a part in the actual spell. While her pose with the white eyes is a trick of VFX, we can see that Connell relishes in showing us Rowena's satisfaction at learning new ammunition to use against Crowley---or the Winchesters she met once before. There's a smugness, too, in Connell's performance. As Rowena flagrantly sits on Crowley's throne, she seems comfortable and pleased---until caught. She relishes, too, the high place of being the King's mother---almost taking an old title from the Tudor dynasty as her own: My Lady, the King's Mother. Connell also shows us how easy it is for Rowena to flip on a dime as she goes from callous and cold to dramatically frightened when Crowley catches her in the act of slaughtering Guthrie. And as she talks fast to convince her son that she was merely protecting his court, we see Connell pour as much charm into that scene as she possibly can---all in the hopes that Rowena's latest manipulation game will work. Now that she's set the stage for her possible endgames, we're left to wonder just what else Rowena has in store for Crowley---and Sam and Dean.

Curtis Armstrong reprises the cunning and spiteful Metatron. He is as smug as ever, gleefully crowing to Castiel that he would eventually get out of Heaven's prison. Metatron may not have broken out by any means, but any chance outside of the prison gives him the opportunity to manipulate or frustrate his captors. Armstrong plays this brilliantly, making the Scribe one we love to hate. He's cruel and capricious in his interactions with Sam and Dean. Armstrong has great screen presence, making the angel a force to be reckoned with, even while in chains. He uses his chemistry with both Ackles and Padalecki to fuel the tension in their shared scenes, giving his character a clear stance in opposition to the brothers. While he's a cruel and evil character, he also has some funny moments. His almost hurt voice as he remarks, “But I'm your dickwad” draws some laughs---especially as it opens the door for Ackles to make a confused face in response. His best scene, however, is the scene he shares with Ackles. As he's bound to the chair, throwing back all of Dean's sins into his face, we can see Metatron relish this opportunity---all through Armstrong's delivery and facial expressions. Not only does he see it as a moment to wield great power over the man he already murdered once, he takes the time to truly enjoy it. As Dean gives in further to the Mark, Armstrong shows us that while Metatron enjoyed pushing Dean that far, the consequences have left the Scribe more than afraid. He realizes he may have gone too far far too late, nearly having his life taken in the process while Dean viciously carves his chest. As Metatron is hauled away, we see his anger only increase at the Winchesters as he spits at them that he'd choose death over helping them next time. Now that Metatron has given them the first step---and a clue about the river ending at its source---we're left to wonder when we'll next see Armstrong reprise the role of Metatron.

Mark Sheppard returns as the King of Hell in “The Hunter Games,” facing the new intrigues and dangers of his court with his mother in the thick of it. At the episode start, we see Crowley wander a hall in anxiety, almost as if he's running from the court that he rules with an iron fist. As he glimpses his underlings, Sheppard shows us how terrified Crowley is in this moment---especially as they swarm him. It's all in his facial expressions and his body language as he seemingly shrinks. As he emerges from the terrible vision, we see a haunted look flicker across his face. As he goes about his business of ruling, Sheppard shows us that Crowley isn't nearly as enthused about things he relished in the past---such as reading contractual documents. He also shows us just how Crowley has changed from the demon manipulating Castiel in season six or targeting the Winchesters in season eight. There's a softness in Sheppard's portrayal that not only makes us sympathize with the character---but reveals the underlying subtly of Crowley's changing story. Sheppard shows us that there's more humanity inside the demon than there used to be by how he listens to Rowena or how he pauses in horror to stare at Guthrie's body. Sheppard, as always, has great chemistry with both Ackles and Padalecki as they tell him that they need the First Blade in order to remove the Mark. He puts all of Crowley's shock into the line, “It's insane. You want me to procure the most dangerous weapon on the planet for Dean Winchester, the man who goes mental every time he touches it? I thought you wanted to go for a beer, catch a film.” It captures beautifully Crowley's fondness for the brothers and shows off Sheppard's comedic timing as Crowley explicitly explains why this is a bad idea. Having him say this out loud makes it sound so ridiculous---and we can't help but snicker a little. Now that Rowena is slowly worming her way further into Crowley's court, we're left to wonder just who the King of Hell will ultimately side with: his mother or the Winchesters?

Misha Collins presents a layered and rich Castiel in “The Hunter Games.” At the start, we can sense all of his guilt and grief at what happened at Randy's---and how it ultimately pushed Claire further from his reach. Collins also captures the concern the angel has for both Winchesters in light of the Mark's growing influence. He builds on the growing chemistry between him and Padalecki as they continue to share more and more scenes together alone. There's a sincerity in his conversation with Sam that Collins conveys well. The way he says his lines captures so much of the trust Castiel is building between him and Sam, too. He's not merely Dean's friend---he's truly become Sam's, too. When we see him reunite with Claire, Collins shows how his chemistry with Newton is also developing. He shows the character's deep concern and frustration as Castiel tells her, “Claire that's not true, I'm in large part responsible for how your life unfolded. I have a responsibility to help you.” Collins also shows his great comedy when Castiel tells Dean that he'll text Claire's number to her. The way he delivers the line, “I like texting---emoticons” is genuinely funny and sweet showing that while Castiel has become much more savvy with technology and pop culture there's a lot of the core awkward angel we first met. When he and Sam have to rush to stop Dean from killing Metatron, we see Collins put all of Castiel's power into his facial expression. While the angel eyes may be a VFX trick, we can see him using his body language to make this scene strong and palpable. At the end, as he reaches out yet again to Claire, Collins shows how Castiel has become much more compassionate, too. He listens patiently to the young woman, and he explains softly how he found her. Now we're left to wonder how he'll help both Claire and the Winchesters in their quest to remove the Mark.

Jensen Ackles gives us a complex and emotional performance in “The Hunter Games.” From the first moment we see him, we see the lost little boy Dean tries to hide---and a facet that Ackles portrays so very well. Sitting alone in his room in the Bunker, we see the desolation, the loss, and the fear all in his expressions. The way Ackles clutches his arm conveys just how much the Mark is truly effecting and weighing upon Dean. The grip is tight and forceful. No words need be expressed. And as we see him approach the fractured mirror to glimpse himself, we see him realize just how haunted he truly has become in the aftermath of what has happened in “The Things We Left Behind.” And our hearts break when Ackles delivers the line, “That was a massacre, is what it was. There was a time I was a hunter, not a stone cold killer. You can say it, you're not wrong. I crossed a line.” It's in the slight tremble of his voice, the despondency in his expression, and the self loathing that laces through the words as he says them that makes them even harder to hear. Ackles projects all of Dean's fears and sorrow with this opening dialog. Ackles shows Dean's restraint in the first confrontation with his killer. Despite his comment, “Screw the Mark, let's just kill him,” we see him hold back, vibrating almost with the effort not to give into the impulse. It's etched into his fierce features and its captured brilliantly in tight body language. Ackles makes Dean look like he's about ready to spring at a moment's notice, adding to the high tension of the scene in so many ways. Even in a tense moment like this, Ackles shows subtle humor in the momentary befuddled expression he gives after Metatron declares, “But I'm your dick wad.” As the brothers discuss the plan to reunite Dean with the Blade, Ackles shows just how he uses gestures to capture the dialog. We can almost sense in the fast pace they walk that Dean's either running towards it or away from it---and he makes the words come alive with hand gestures that punctuate each word. When confronted by Castiel about their plan to retrieve the Blade, Ackles shows us all of Dean's weariness and grief. We can almost see the weight of it all settling onto his shoulders in this moment. As Dean goes to ask Metatron about the next step, we see Ackles amp up his performance. He's almost relaxed at the start, asking rather simply for the answer to what he has to do next. As he listens to Metatron start to name his price, we see his temper start to boil---his arms cross, his body language becomes tense, and then he takes out the angel blade to slam it onto the table and lock the door. As he delivers his speech about getting the information from the Scribe, Ackles makes his facial expressions frightening. We can almost see the moment the Mark has started to tug on him anew---and how he is losing ground the more time goes by. Dean's interrogation of Metatron is one of Ackles' best scenes in “The Hunter Games,” as we see him in a word chess match with the Scribe---and giving in to the impulses to lash out physically. Ackles makes this scene suspenseful with each strike, each cut on the angel, and with his harsh voice. And as Sam pulls him away from Metatron, Ackles shows us Dean crumpling against his brother, almost as if the weight has become too heavy. In the aftermath, we see him vulnerable and dejected, facing what he almost did. As he listens to Sam, emotions like regret and sadness flicker across Dean's face---only to bloom in a hope as we see him absorb what Sam's saying about him and his struggle with the Mark. He doesn't have to explicitly say any of this. Ackles has told us it all with just his facial expressions and the softening of his eyes. And as Dean springs Claire's trap, we see Ackles show us that Dean truly internalized what Sam said as he shows extreme restraint against his attackers. We are anxious as we watch him wield the ax---and instead of hacking them into pieces, we see him cleave the bench instead, giving not only Dean---but us---hope that he can fight back. As the season progresses, we're left to wonder just how much darker it'll get before Dean can either overcome or remove the Mark.

Jared Padalecki gives us a subtle performance as Sam. In the opening scene with Castiel, Padalecki makes Sam an understanding and concerned character. It's in his soft expressions, his quiet voice, and the way he holds himself as he delivers the dialog. Padalecki has been growing his chemistry with Collins since Sam and Castiel have had to be in more one on one scenes, and this scene shows just how far the two of them have come in building a bond as characters. They start discussing Claire and Castiel's worry for her---and end on Dean before the elder Winchester interrupts. At every step, we can tell that Sam cares about Castiel's troubles---and it's all in how Padalecki conveys this moment. That doesn't mean Sam doesn't have an edge. We see his anger and grief all over his face as they're forced to rely upon Metatron's knowledge. It's clear in the moments he is restraining Metatron, his voice hard as he tells the Scribe that he's there to provide information. And as the truth about Dean is slowly revealed, Padalecki need not say a word to show Sam's hand---that Dean is back but no longer a demon and yet that there's something wrong. It's all in the subtle flickers of grief and fear that make their way across his otherwise stoic face. The pain that Sam feels comes flooding out in the way Padalecki delivers the line, “You killed my brother.” As they confront Metatron together, Padalecki shows us just how impatient the younger Winchester is becoming with the Scribe. He is terse when he addresses the angel---captured best when he calls Metatron a “dickwad.” And yet, we can see under the surface of the performance that Sam is keeping a close eye on Dean, trying to get this over with quickly before his already on edge brother is pushed too far. Padalecki shows it in the slight fidgeting and how Sam's eyes flick back and forth between the angel and Dean. As the brothers walk down the hall, Padalecki amps up Sam's concern in how fast he says his dialog, showing us just how frightened he is by this new plan of action---and what it might mean for his brother. It's also shown well in the way he chases after Ackles, giving us further insight into how worried Sam truly is. As they settle into research and to wait for Crowley's call, Padalecki shows us that Sam's keeping watch over his brother. It's in glances. And when he and Castiel are left alone, Padalecki shows us that Sam is tuned into Dean's inner fears when he tells Castiel that Dean's “afraid he'll pop a cork.” The sheer panic, however, when Sam realizes Dean isn't making a sandwich is palpable. The way he runs down the hall towards the locked door says it all. There's a desperation in the way he pounds on the door, trying to get in and stop Dean. And when he finally manges to pull Dean off of Metatron, Padalecki shows us that Sam's not afraid of Dean---but for him. His gestures of holding Dean back conveys a protective streak, too, keeping himself between his brother and the angel that murdered him. Padalecki's best scene is the one he shares alone with Ackles. His speech about the powerful source being Dean himself shows the hope Sam has---and the the deep belief in his brother. It's all in Padalecki's soft delivery and the way he turns towards Ackles to give this speech. Now that they know how hard it might be to remove the Mark---how will Sam handle his continued role as care giver?

Best Lines of the Week:

Metatron: But I'm your dick wad

Sam: So yeah, the Mark is strong, but Dean maybe there's a part of you that wants to give into it, and maybe you have to fight that, you know? Maybe part of that powerful force has to be you.

Crowley: You never sung me a lullaby, you dosed me with whiskey until I passed out.

Dean: You know us, when we screw ourselves we like to go whole hog.

Next week, Dean faces off against----Charlie?