At the end of “About a Boy,” Sam told Dean that they would figure out the Mark of Cain---and Dean responded, “Damn straight.” They had managed to put away a case, save someone, and learn something about Rowena all in one shot---along with experiencing a hunt without the Mark hanging directly between them. They learned to take risks---but in “Halt and Catch Fire,” they learn another important lesson: to reclaim their lives from the Mark.
When the episode begins, the brothers are in the Bunker, discussing the finer points of a new culinary hybrid: the croisookie. Dean is proud to eat it, relishing in its strange and slightly disgusting properties while Sam is staring at it in awe. But they still have something important to discuss---namely that Castiel is closing in on Cain, perhaps the only person that might know how to remove the Mark. Sam tells him that the angel spotted him somewhere in Illinois, not too far east of the Mississippi. It sounds promising. It sounds like they're starting to figure out what to do about the Mark and that soon they'll have the means to finally get rid of it.
Dean, however, doesn't agree. He tells Sam, “Don't you think that if Cain knew how to remove the Mark he would have done it---like centuries ago?” He goes on to say that researching the Mark hasn't gotten them anywhere. He says, “Trying to find a cure for this thing, it's like a dog chasing it tail, there's no end in sight and you just end up dizzy.”
As of late, they've both been intensely focused on finding a way to remove the Mark. They've gone through all the lore books in the Bunker---so much so that Dean ended up combing through them endlessly to the point that Sam begged him to go on a case with him. They've questioned Metatron about it, getting only one clue: that the “river ends at the source.” And they've looked at anything and everything that may help them get rid of its influence over the elder Winchester. So far, nothing has taken.
Instead, they've found themselves frustrated, spinning their wheels. In many ways, the Mark, without fully taking control of Dean, has managed to take control over their lives.
This is no different than those who face chronic illness. The disease becomes all consuming. It's about tests. It's about finding the next cure. It's about experimental procedures or treatments. Every waking moment can be centered on how this disease is affecting one's life. Every decision and discussion can quickly be laser focused on it---reducing a person not to their humanity but to the disease they fight. It can also leave someone to feel like they've already lost the war to it when it becomes their identity.
We've seen, in Dean's situation, that become much the case. He's been so honed in on the Mark---that without realizing it he's become its slave in a different way. Sure, it's driving him to kill. Its hum is an ever present noise in his ears. The Mark is that part of him that is feeding on all of his inner pains and drives and twisting them to its purpose. Dean has lost some of the fights against it---as he did facing Dark Charlie and beating her---but others he's won, too. He didn't give into it and kill everyone after he returned to his true age. He only killed Hansel and Katja. It's clear that we've seen Dean manage to take Sam's words to heart---that it has to be him that stands up to the Mark and that the “powerful force” that will overcome the Mark has to be Dean himself.
And yet, we can tell that his intense focus on getting rid of it has allowed it a new power over him. It's clearly consumed his life. That can be as bad if not worse than actually giving into its dark influence. For Dean, that's not really living anyways. He wants more than that. So, he cuts Sam off to point out a case that they can take on. It sounds rather simple---a mere salt and burn. If it can get him out of his head space for awhile, he'll take it.
Sam is not as excited, but decides to go along with his brother none the less, knowing that it's better than watching his brother lock himself away in his room, after all.
The brothers arrive and question the girl that saw Billy's truck go off the bridge---by itself. She tells them that the air conditioning was at full blast without being turned on, that the navigation app they used went haywire, and that the truck seemed to have a mind of its own. For the Winchesters, this is a simple haunting. They need to know if Billy's brother, Joey, had anything left that was tied to him. After all, something had to give the ghost of Joey traction. Their witness informs them that no, there were no dog tags and no, Joey wasn't buried. The only tie they have is the truck. It was Joey's.
What's interesting about this case is how familiar it seems---how it reflects so many of their earlier cases after Sam rejoined his brother after Stanford. The brothers are working a college campus, looking for information to stop a ghost. It's simple compared to the complex cases they've handled recently---no one is split into two, no one is de-aged, and there's no mystery creature to contend with. It's a ghost---and for Dean's purposes this case is largely what he needs now.
Sam and Dean both do.
And yet, there's clear differences to this case than the way they would have tackled it ten years ago. Then, they would have posed not as FBI, but as fellow college students. Then, the local police would have been suspicious, not welcoming of their presence. Then, this young college girl witness would have been flirting with Dean all the while giving the brothers the information they needed. After all, Dean is attractive now---as he was then.
But that's not what happens at all. Instead, Dean is ribbed for being a part of “Generation X.” Not once does this girl try to flirt with him. And it sets up Sam to gently “poke” at his brother's age, too---especially in light of last week's predicament. Dean, not stupid by any means, has no need of any navigation app---so wouldn't see the need for or want to know about any “talking maps.” And as he pieces together what she's saying about what happened, he drops a reference that anyone his own age would have recognized---Christine. It's not that Dean's unattractive---to this girl he's simply too old, now.
That being said, we see Dean choose to reclaim part of his life while on this college campus. She may not be interested in him---but he's most certainly interested in the array of college co-eds floating about on campus as they walk around. Even so, Dean seems half hearted in his attempts, making off hand comments about being sorry he made Sam leave campus all those years ago, or turning to follow a pair of girls to draw Sam's flabbergasted, “Focus.” Dean knows its normal for him to do these things---and do them he will. It's part of who he is, and if he's going to reclaim himself from the Mark's influence or its ability to consume his life, this is one way he'll do it.
Dean also takes to eating in large quantities. What started with the croisookie has bloated into a tray full of “Freshman 15” food items. Gleefully, Dean deposits Sam's “cafe au lait for the lady” and proceeds to dig into his pizza and Chinese. He's always enjoyed copious amounts of food, and where else can he get such a wide array of junk all on one heaping tray? The food amount itself seems like another signal that Dean's reclaiming his life---but he pulls Sam into it as he listens to his brother talk more about the case.
To Sam's dismay, Dean eats as sloppily as possible. It's clear that he's having fun, and part of having fun is playing the role of big brother and grossing him out. Noodles dangle from his mouth as he talks, an exaggeration of how much food he can eat in one bite all to draw the slightly disgusted face from Sam. It works, and it gives their interactions the look and feel of their earlier cases together. It's light and easy---there's just the simplicity in his antics that make this life worthwhile.
Sam, for his part, seems just as comfortable on this case once he's settled into it. Sam's stubborn, so there's no way he's simply ready to walk away from the Mark by any means, and yet here he is invested fully on this case. Just like his brother, Sam needed to take a breather from hunting into ways to remove the Mark---rather he admits it or not. In “About A Boy,” he had a taste of working with his brother without it---but it was still all wrong for him. His brother was too young physically for him to fully enjoy it. Here, he can truly appreciate what Dean is doing for him---for them. He's having fun and Sam can't help but have fun with him.
It gives their banter the ease and comfort that makes it a delight to watch them work, too. As Sam pokes around their second victim's computer, he makes the comment that he'll go through her deleted files. Dean seems surprised that he can do that, and with gentle amusement, Sam tells him, “You know nothing's ever deleted from the Internet, right?” As Dean ponders this answer, we can tell that perhaps Dean's deleted something, and now Sam wants to know what it is. It's all unspoken, like much of their communication when they're so in sync with one another.
As they figure out where the mysterious “810” is, they encounter a grieving widow who tells them that a girl has been leaving flowers at her husband's accident site every day. It's their first clue that they've perhaps found their ghost---after all, it wasn't Joey, despite burning his wrecked pick up truck. She describes the girl doing this---and the brothers realize that the roommate of their second victim may not have told them everything, after all.
It's too late, though, before they can get to her and learn the truth to stop this ghost as another victim is claimed. The culprit this time is due to excessively loud music that bursts his eardrums and kills him. It leads them to asking the girl, Delilah, to help them figure out who might be next on this spirit's list. She pronounces, “I am,” and spills the awful truth about the night their spirit, Andrew Silver, died. He was on his way home when they crashed into him, sending him straight into an electrical pole. It was their distracted driving---tweeting, posting on Snapchat, and goofing around, that caused the tragic accident.
Delilah tells them his death, however, was no accident. Their distracted driving may have caused the crash, but it's their actions afterwards the shaped what is happening now. She had begged Billy, the driver, to call the cops. He refuses, citing that he's already driving with a suspended license after his DUI, and he won't go to jail. They're to keep this “accident” secret at all costs. Now, it's caused almost everyone in that vehicle to die---all but one. Delilah is the only one left.
The brothers, once again reclaiming their lives from the Mark, choose to split up. It is Sam that suggests to Dean, “I'll go back to the accident site and check it out. Stay here with her.” This points to his trust in his brother---in “About A Boy” he had risked his brother questioning witnesses alone, knowing that his brother might end up in a situation where he could succumb to the Mark and slaughter people again. Dean didn't, and now Sam, without even having to state it out loud, is giving his brother another chance to reclaim his life from the Mark's hold. He's giving Dean the chance to protect this young woman.
For Sam, he's also reclaiming something, too. As comfortable as he's been working with his brother on this case, he's also needs to help others as much as Dean does. For him, that's consoling Andrew's widow, Corey. After he pieces together that Andrew is using the power lines connected to the WiFi tower to go after his victims, he makes a stop at the house. He knows he's risking stepping on her toes by asking to talk to her about the strange situation of this haunting, but before he can really explain why he's there again, Corey tells him that she knows it's her husband.
Sam sits with her, simply listening to her story patiently. Through the years, Sam has been the one that consoles the victims in their cases. It's always been something that he's drawn towards, giving them the space to express their emotions surrounding their supernatural or emotional experiences and having someone truly listen to them. That's what Sam does here, and in doing so, he helps Corey as much as Dean is protecting Delilah.
Up until now, we can tell that Corey has been alone in this. She tells Sam that after her husband's death, someone had started chatting with her on the Internet. She had thought it a cruel joke at first. Someone had to be playing games with a widow's grief. And yet, they seemed to know things that only her husband, Andrew, would know. Over time, she grew to know it was him and would spend time talking with him. It was like having him back all over again for Corey.
That is, until Andrew started killing the college students responsible for his death. She tells Sam, “What was I supposed to do? Call the cops and tell them the ghost of my dead husband was picking off co-eds?”
Sam listens sympathetically to this. After all, he can relate to her feeling of being alone---and needing someone to listen to him. In a way, listening to her story also helps him with his own grief and situation. Dean may be with him right now---and he's relishing every moment they have on this case. It matters not if it's Dean chasing after co-eds or stuffing his face full of gross food or protecting another girl. Sam will take every precious moment they have and cherish them for what they are. And yet, he can relate to Corey's story about Andrew's change.
Her story is a warning. It's not a guarantee that Dean will fall again to the Mark. Sam knows this---and yet he also knows that the odds are stacked against them. He is watching his brother during this case with a bittersweetness. It's another sign that he must reclaim his life---and the life he shares with Dean---from the Mark if they have any hope to beat it. Listening to Corey's story reminds him of the threat they face---and yet it also gives him yet more reason to keep fighting for his brother, too.
Meanwhile, Dean faces Delilah's tough questioning. She wants to know how he deals with something like this. She may have never met Andrew, but she can't stop thinking about him. She can't move beyond what happened all those months ago when she didn't do anything---didn't try hard enough to stop the car or to call the cops before it was too late. She feels so guilty----and in many ways, it has consumed her life as the Mark has Dean's recently. She doesn't sleep well, she drives to the site every day to drop off flowers, and she's “obsessed with someone I never met.” Delilah is just as trapped as Andrew and Corey---and she can't stay that way if she is to move on and reclaim her life.
Dean gently answers her query, telling her, “Whiskey. Denial. I do my best to make things right, whatever they may be... For you maybe it's, maybe it's coming clean. You know finding a way to ask for forgiveness, but not breaking the bank at your local florist, I mean real forgiveness. You can't just bury stuff like this, you gotta deal with it.”
This statement is advice Dean needs to give---and to hear. Too often, he has dealt with things like this through drinking and denial. But to face the Mark, he'll have to do so differently. He'll have to face the mistakes he's made and face the person it wants him to become if he is to truly deal with the situation at hand. It's as if, when he delivers this statement, we see Dean reach an epiphany. He's realizing that he's been going about the Mark and its removal in all the wrong ways. He let it consume him, and in doing so, he's done nothing but go in circles and dig himself deeper. Dean has to deal with the Mark head on, yes, but by simply focusing in on it so intensely, he's lost sight of how to do that. To take a step back as he's doing in this case---helping a young woman deal with a haunting and the tragic circumstances that lead to this---helps him to see the bigger picture. After all, focusing so intensely hasn't gotten them anything. They haven't found a way to cure the Mark, and so taking a step back might let that answer come to them rather than chasing after the carrot without reward.
The spirit of Andrew comes for his last victim while Dean is watching over Delilah. To stop him from being able to attack her, Dean smashes all the electronics the spirit may use to launch an attack. When that fails, he flees with her down into the basement, hoping there is no Wi Fi for Andrew to hijack. He's wrong as a phone left by another college student starts to buzz. Instead of merely using the phone as a weapon, however, Andrew has used it to bypass Dean's fresh salt lines. He's manifested to attack Delilah directly---and Dean's nothing but a nuisance.
To try and draw Andrew's attention away, Dean slices through him with iron and tells him, “Andrew listen to me, you have every right to be pissed. But take it from me, the more you kill the crazier you'll get, the blood fuels the rage. So it looks like to me you got two choices: you could keep killing, and become something you don't recognize; or you can move on, 'cause that is the only thing that will give you peace. So it's up to you man, pain or peace. ” It's the second epiphany Dean has---putting forward a reason to reclaim his life further from the Mark. Andrew needs to hear this, yes, because he is becoming a vengeful spirit that will not and cannot let go, but it is Dean that needs to hear this, too.
Dean's reward is to be attacked by Andrew, choked so that he can no longer speak. The ghost has decided to kill Dean, too, so that he won't interfere with his mission to kill Delilah, the last person responsible for his death. Dean had smartly sent a distress text using the phone found in the basement, alerting Sam to their predicament.
Upon getting it, Sam calls that phone back, allowing Corey to reach out to her husband one last time. Just as Andrew is about to be lost forever, nothing more than a vengeful ghost lashing out at everyone and anyone, it is Corey's voice that draws him back. This is a beautiful metaphor for Sam's ability to call Dean back to himself. He's been able to do so since his brother acquired the Mark. He did it after Dean killed Magnus. He's called his brother back to answer his phone when they were trying to hunt down Metatron and Abaddon. Most recently, Sam managed to pull Dean off of Metatron, stopping him from killing the Scribe. The act may have been physical, but the steadying presence Sam provided in that moment gave Dean the ability to recenter himself.
In many ways, this too, represents a way for the brothers to reclaim their life from the Mark. The Mark may be powerful---and Dean may have to face it internally alone---but it is Sam's ability to center and reach through to his brother that provides a counter balance to its control. It is Sam's voice, Sam's presence, and Sam's steadfast faith in Dean that has allowed Dean to get this far. This is a great metaphor that signifies that Sam will continue to do so as they go forward. It is in their brotherhood that they'll reclaim their lives.
As the case concludes, and they drop Delilah off to visit Corey, they wait to see if the grieving widow will welcome the visitor. The two women seem to bond over their shared supernatural experience, and Corey welcomes Delilah in. Sam remarks that Andrew's not the only one to find peace. Dean pauses, and he says, “My peace is helping people, working cases. That's all I wanna do.”
Sam, worried that his brother is giving up the fight they've been so invested in recently, protests. He doesn't want his brother to give up when they may finally make a breakthrough. But as Dean tells him, “No, I'm not going to give up. I appreciate the effort, okay I do. But the answer is not out there, it's with me. I need to be the one calling the shots here, okay? I can't keep waking up every morning with this false hope... I gotta know where I stand or else I'm gonna lose my freaking mind... So I'm gonna fight it, till I can't fight it anymore. And when all is said and done, I'll go down swinging, ” we can see the full message of reclaimation take full effect. Dean knows this is a risk---after all, it's the lesson he learned in “About A Boy.” By not making the Mark and its removal his main focus, he's opening the possibility that he could succumb to it. He knows that it'll be there, humming in his ears at every turn, and yet he chooses not to let it control him.
This is a step forward---and while Sam is still fiercely committed to finding a way to cure Dean---we can tell that this is the path Dean must walk.
And we also know that if Dean is to succeed in doing so, he'll need Sam to walk it right with him. It's the only way that they can reclaim their lives---their brotherhood---and the family business of “saving people, hunting things.”
What other weird foods do you think Dean will try next? How else do you think Sam and Dean will reclaim their lives?