On the surface, it would seem that the two stories in “Beyond the Mat” run on parallel lines never to meet. Dig deeper, and we can see that they not only intersect, they reflect one another. Each builds on the other in subtle ways that allows us to explore character, motive, and the conflicts yet to come. Each story, while happening independently of one another, has great impact on the other---even if those ripples have yet to be truly felt or understood. It is through comparing and contrasting Crowley and Lucifer's meeting with Sam and Dean's case that we can see the vast differences and the subtle similarities that will have deep impact on the Supernatural world. By examining these parallel story-lines where they diverge and intersect, we can discover how they echo one another---and perhaps shape the remainder of the season.
First, let's examine Crowley and Lucifer.
At the beginning, Lucifer is clearly looking for another Hand of God. After coming so close with the small hunk of the Ark of the Covenant, the Devil will take anything he can get now in his need to arm himself against the Darkness. A Hand of God may be his only chance to force Amara from the game-board and give him the chance to take total control. He knows that other weapons like it are out there---other objects that God created are waiting to be found and used to his advantage. So far, the demons he's commanding haven't found him a new one---but he knows that Crowley must know something or is hiding something. And so, the Devil hatches a dastardly plan.
In the meantime, however, that doesn't mean that Lucifer is above humiliating the former King of Hell. Tormenting his former successor is a source of high amusement, and he knows he can punish Crowley publicly in the most evil of ways. He's dressed him in garish shirts. He's locked Crowley in chains. Little by little, Lucifer has set out to break Crowley's spirit all in an effort to control him and crush him. He notices that Crowley has paused in his diligent work scrubbing the floor with a toothbrush. Finding that not humiliating enough, Lucifer bends down and extracts the toothbrush from his grip. He tells him, “You may---with one little tweak. Use your tongue.”
This could not be a more humiliating experience for Crowley. After all, he had been their former King, their leader, and feared by all the other demons as the most powerful. Now, the remnants of his court and the newcomers to Lucifer's are standing around watching him with disdain and hatred in their eyes. He is forced to be a slave. Crowley has been reduced to this---and any hopes he may have of truly gaining his former glory and power are quickly dimming as he succumbs to Lucifer's horrible order. He licks the floor slowly, the humiliation clear in his expression.
Not all hope is truly lost for the former King of Hell, however. One of those who stood watching is now trying to get him free. Simmons tells him, “You're not a slave, a dog. You're Crowley. And the Devil should be afraid of you.”
It would seem that Crowley may be able to reclaim things after all. They aren't able to simply walk out the door, though. There are demons blocking their way out, but Crowley quickly dispatches them with fast fighting and sure strikes. She asks, “How did you?” and Crowley replies, “I'm Crowley,” in his first act to reclaim his place and himself from Lucifer's torments. He returns to his normal attire---an elegant black suit and tie. He puts confidence back into his step. Now all he need do is go to the lockup where he keeps all of his treasures. He tells Simmons, “Now, let's go find the ace up my sleeve.”
When they get there and start to look around the vast collection Crowley's amassed, he walks up to a plain looking box. He informs her that inside is the Rod of Aaron, created by God on the sixth day. It, too, is a Hand of God. It, too, will have the power to defeat Amara---and in Crowley's case, Lucifer. She wants to hold it, to which Crowley retorts, “With all due respect, Simmons, I don't think you can handle my rod. ”
It's Lucifer's cue to enter and the ultimate showdown between these two begins. Crowley has yet to open the box, and as Lucifer nears it, he taunts Crowley by saying, “You really thought you could double-cross me? Me?! You know I invented the double-cross, like literally. Of course I couldn't have orchestrated all of this without the lovely and talented Simmons here. She uh---she hates you, btws.”
Crowley seems helpless, defeated by the very minion that seemed to be an ally. He can only watch as Lucifer prepares to perhaps take the only weapon Crowley has to use against the Devil. He knows that once Lucifer has it, he'll most likely kill him---or worse as Lucifer threatens, “Oh, puppy, you're not going to like what comes next.”
Much to Lucifer's surprise, however, the box is empty. Crowley is holding the Rod of Aaron in his hand, smug and pleased that he's managed to trick the Devil. After all, he shouts at Lucifer, “You really think you could double cross me? Me? I perfected the double cross---like literally.”
It would seem, then, that Crowley has the upper hand. After all, the power of this Hand of God infuses him. It will give him the ability, the strength, and the power to annihilate Lucifer here and now. He can then reclaim his throne, return to his place as King of Hell, and perhaps also stand against the Darkness with this in his possession. Just as he unleashes the power, Simmons jumps in the way, taking the brunt of the blow.
Much like the other Hand of God, the Rod of Aaron only has one strike in it. As Lucifer stands up, he rubs the back of his head to discover that he's bleeding. He approaches a stunned Crowley, unable to draw upon any more power and says, “You made me bleed my own blood!” The fight is on and Crowley has no choice but to flee before he can be killed or worse by the Devil.
This confrontation has some key reflective moments with other characters within the season. Clearly, Crowley's attitudes prior to being taken out of the small dog kennel he's been held in reflect a slave mentality. He had been broken by Lucifer's power, and by the death of his mother on some level. His subservience, his willingness---and at times eagerness---showed that Lucifer held something profound over Crowley. And yet, that bond or that enslaving that Lucifer's put upon the former King of Hell only held so much weight. Lucifer complained endlessly of Crowley's defiance---noting the spark that remained or the traitorous thoughts that lingered in his head. Lucifer knew that much of Crowley's attitude was real---and yet it was also very much an act to buy time for an escape to perhaps piece together a revolt.
The bond that Crowley and Lucifer share isn't that hard to understand. After all, Lucifer is the ultimate creator of demon kind. He is their Father as God is his Father. No matter what Crowley may think or feel about the Devil, on some level he recognizes this fact. It would certainly lead him to want to please Lucifer or to find a way into his good graces. It would explain why he'd give into the most humiliating demands. And yet, that defiance shows that while Lucifer may have won over much of the rest of Hell, Crowley still realizes and recognizes that this angel has no love for demon-kind. He understands that Lucifer threatens him and the rest of demons with his freedom and ultimate plans. While he may have them searching as he tells them, “You're gonna look high, look low, far and wide. Search every warehouse, every farmhouse, every hen house, outhouse, and doghouse,” Crowley understands and recognizes that Lucifer will resume his slaughter of their kind once he gets what he wants---Amara's destruction. With her out of the way, he'll be able to resume his Apocalyptic cleansing of both humans and demons. With that knowledge, Crowley will always choose to stand against the Devil and will always fight back with any means necessary to do so.
This relationship, then, reflects the strange bond that Amara seems to hold over Dean. Crowley may have seemed willing to go with Lucifer's demeaning demands, but he truly was not. Dean may have been unable to follow through on killing the Darkness and may feel a strange pull towards her, and yet he does not want anything to do with her. In some regards, Crowley's absolute defiance and ability to break free from Lucifer's sphere at the end of this episode may be a foreshadow that Dean can somehow eventually do the same when it comes to the Darkness. This may also foreshadow a similar double cross, this time executed by Dean as he “pretends” to yield to the bond or side with Amara on some level only to stab her in the back---perhaps literally. It will be a definite struggle, but in the end, Dean can too find a way to throw off the bonds that hold him in her sway.
How, else, then, does this story intersect with the ones the Winchesters themselves experience in “Beyond the Mat”?
Simply, the bridge is seen in the enemy they face: a rogue crossroads demon. With Lucifer in charge, the Dante construct that forms Hell is in jeopardy. The Devil simply does not care about its success or failure---and he isn't watching to see what the other demons outside the court may be doing. This is clear in his absolute indifference to the soul collections and numbers. This leaves the demons Crowley would have reigned in before to do as they please. In this case, this demon is choosing to gather souls for his own gain. As Lucifer is threatening Crowley personally, his rule over Hell is threatening the very operation Crowley's spent years building. In the long run, it may topple one of the very after life realms, possibly sending the others into some disarray.
Before, though, Sam and Dean can discover that, they need to get out of the Bunker. Surfing the Internet, Dean comes across an obituary for a wrestler they had watched as kids. He tells Sam that it was Hangman, remarking, “He was Dad's favorite. Anytime that noose would come out, Dad would be on his feet. It was one of the few times I ever saw him actually happy.” Having spent so much time in the last week looking for anything new on a Hand of God or Amara, Dean knows they should get out of the Bunker for awhile. Why not go to this funeral? Sam objects at first, knowing they still have a lot of work to do. Dean simply replies, “I'm burnt, man.”
As they go to the funeral, they're pleasantly surprised to see so many of their childhood heroes. All of them have come to pay their respects. Dean is most pleased to see Gunner Lawless there---and the little boy trapped inside emerges as he babbles to say, “Should I go say hi? I'm going to go say hi.” Nervous and excited, Dean doesn't just babble at his brother. He proudly tells his hero, “You know, when I was-when I was ten I got my first B&E 'borrowing' some family's pay-per-view so I could watch the cage match with you and the Tower of Power.” This is the Dean that is normally buried underneath so much gravitas. This is the Dean often walled away by guilt or anger or other negative emotions. This break away from their endless lore search has been good for him so far. While Lawless isn't entirely thrilled to have contributed to Dean's juvenile delinquency, this moment is a good one for the elder Winchester.
The match itself is fun for Dean as he cheers on Lawless. Unfortunately that good moment doesn't last as the dad that sat behind them is killed brutally. Suddenly, their vacation away from the job has been truncated and they must find out what is happening. That doesn't mean, however, that Dean won't have some fun. Going back into the arena, he discovers he's alone. That little boy that he bottles up so tight normally is back out in full force. It is just Dean and the ring, and he quickly pretends that he is just like his wrestling heroes making the grand entrances and putting on the grand show. It's a fun moment---one that shows the inner playfulness Dean possesses beautifully. Despite the tragic circumstances surrounding their extended stay with Top Notch, he's taking this opportunity to have a little fun and indulge a childhood fantasy.
As he sits at the bar with Lawless, he's watching everyone with his trained eye. Even so, he's still very much in his hero worship mode, trading war wound stories with this battle hardened wrestler. Lawless tells him about a smashed bottle cut. Dean shows him a bite wound. It gives Dean a chance to bond with someone he admires. And while the ending is tragic for his hero, Lawless also reminds Dean of a truth he already knows. He tells Dean, “I've been beat up, spit on, stabbed, roughed up. But I will be damned if I didn't always get back up. One thing I learned, you gotta keep on grinding no matter what's thrown your way.”
Sam's been busy, too. He's pieced things together, and they learn quickly that someone has died on every leg of the wrestling tour---all made to look like some form of accident. If not for the strange “satanic” symbol, that might be all this is. Obviously those who have died are being chosen for key reasons---and now they must find out why.
Much to their disappointment, Sam and Dean discover that it isn't Harley as they suspect---it's Lawless that is behind the deaths and disappearances. And yet, he's not doing this on his own. He's doing this under the compulsion of that same crossroads demon that's operating on his own volition while Lucifer looks the other way and Crowley's on the run.
It is here that the brothers learn their separate lessons and experience their own angles. Dean, faced with Lawless, wonders why he'd be working with this demon. How had it come to this? Why would he kill for someone like this? Dean needs to know why someone he idolized as hero---and had gone to watch the night before simply to get away from the gruesome world of hunting for one night---would be in this predicament. Why would Lawless listen to this demon? Why would he follow through on the order to kill him? Dean pegs it immediately, knowing that Lawless made a deal. He understands. After all, he's been there all too many times.
Lawless, beholden to the demon, reflects much of Dean's struggle with Amara, too. It's also another key intersection of the two story-lines in this episode. As Lucifer holds sway over Crowley, this demon holds sway over Lawless. This demon has been keeping him from going to Hell in exchange for killing others. This demon makes him do these terrible things all because ten years earlier he had wanted the wrestling title so badly. Dean's stunned that this is the reason he sold his soul. Lawless wanted to hear those fifty thousand cheering his name. He had wanted that glory. Dean remarks, “You only had the title for a week.” Lawless retorts, “Desperate and dumb.” It's clear, however, that Lawless hates what he's doing and who he's become while under this demon's control. He doesn't want to kill Harley or watch the demon torment him with his taunts. Harley did what Lawless couldn't, after all. He said no. That's perhaps what Lawless wished he had said. If he had, he wouldn't perhaps be in this situation or forced to do these things. In many ways, he's looking for an exit to it all---and that's exactly what Dean will give him.
While the demon is too busy taunting Sam, holding him in place while Lawless dispatches Dean, they hatch a plan. Dean gets the demon's attention and draws the brunt of his attack as he's flung hard against the wall. This double cross also connects brilliantly with the double cross Crowley pulled on Lucifer, too. The demon smug about his triumph doesn't even think to see the knife coming for his back as Lawless strikes the killing blow. In that moment, Dean's released Lawless from the terrible power that this demon held over him. In so doing, he is shown his own path to freedom perhaps. He must sever the bond that Amara has over him as this demon held over Lawless. And while Lawless delivered the killing blow, Dean must remember that Lawless didn't do it alone---something that he must keep in mind if they're to truly take down the Darkness.
It may be up to him to overthrow her hold, but Dean cannot and should not do it by himself. Instead, he must remember that he has his brother on his side. Witnessing this should give him hope---even if Lawless ended in a tragic and terrible end as the hell hounds held at bay finally came in and killed him. Lawless had been freed from the demon---and Dean can be freed from Amara, too. It will take everything Dean has---but it will also take others to help him, too.
But what about Sam? How does he learn from this? At the beginning of the episode, Sam is reluctant to leave their important work of finding a new Hand of God. He remarks to Dean, “Uh, don't you think our plates are a little full? I mean it's bad out there, Dean.” Considering what Sam endured while facing Lucifer alone and knowing what he does about Dean's connection to Amara, it makes sense that he'd want to keep working on the research.
And yet, Sam also knows they do need a break and will stand with Dean's decision to pay their respects to their father's favorite wrestler. At the funeral, when they learn of the memorial match, it is Sam that says they should go. After all, “Why not? The world is still gonna be screwed tomorrow, right?” He can tell that this would be a good distraction not only for Dean---but for both of them. Dwelling on the darkness they're facing---both figurative and literal---will only get them into a rut. Sam knows this. So, they'll take the night off and indulge in some nostalgic fun---even if Sam says, “I remember the Top Notch shows being grander, you know, top notch.”
Along with that line of thinking, they're stunned to realize that the wrestlers are only being paid $25 for the night. It seems pointless. Dean states, “You think about that. Town after town putting your ass on the line for next to nothing. No money, no glory. Wow.” The statement makes Sam chuckle quietly and retort, “You realize you just literally described our jobs.” It's easy to see why this match resonates with each of them---as both get on their feet and cheer on Lawless straight to the finish. They're largely facing some of the same things---enduring some of the same issues all with little recognition or respect. While what Sam and Dean do may do much more to save lives or the world at large, these men entertain people with their wrestling and seem to get so little back in return. It makes them identifiable heroes---releatable and akin to Sam and Dean in ways others may never truly understand. Sam knows they also need this, too.
Their well intentioned break is interrupted tragically by the death of the man sitting behind them. And like Dean, Sam had his own lesson to learn with this case, too. He had his own encounter with the demon. The demon singled him out clearly to taunt him. While he dispatched Lawless to eliminate Dean, he held Sam captive by the sheer use of his demonic powers. Sam asks him point blank, “Does Crowley know you're doing this?” Certainly, Sam knows that Crowley is no friend or ally, but he also knows that demons don't generally do anything without the King of Hell's permission. Those that break those rules typically end up dead or far worse. In many ways, Sam's feeling out what might be happening within Hell itself. He's fully aware that Lucifer is free and it wouldn't be surprising to learn that he's taken over the place in the process.
The demon states coldly, “Crowley is Lucifer's bitch boy, which is why I'm doing this.” He goes on further to explain that he's building his own personal soul “nest egg.” It's imperative that he acquire his own power source---and since souls are still the highest rated currency, he'll gather as many as he can by using those he's made deals with to harvest them all on his own without any regard to the current operation of Hell.
That being said, being told point blank by this demon, “With the Darkness out and the Devil running Hell, it's every demon for he/she/shimself,” strikes home how dangerous it has become with Lucifer free. He's harnessing Hell for his own means---the search for a Hand of God---but his removal of Crowley at its helm has repercussions that will be felt far and wide. Sam knows this. After all, the Dante construct that they live under and one Sam knows Crowley champions is under threat from both Lucifer and Amara. Sam realizes this now. It could, if given enough time and momentum, tilt things off kilter or create many other soul collectors like this demon. How many others are running a similar scheme?
Sam also knows that Lucifer does not care for one moment about this. Lucifer's long term plan once he's secured his place at the top of the food chain will be to eliminate both human and demon kind. Having been trapped in the Cage for as long as Sam has---and having had the Devil torment him throughout the years as he has---Sam understands this to be Lucifer's ultimate end game. Right now, he's focused on the Darkness, but Lucifer will return to that interrupted plan. So those that are collecting souls right now while chaos reigns can do so without worry or concern that they'll be punished. Crowley isn't in charge to stop them.
Sam's always known this---but having it proven up close is still a blow. It means that chaos is soon to burst forth perhaps. It means they may have more to worry about than just the Darkness or Lucifer's personal attacks/influences on them. It means that Hell in particular is spiraling out of control and may spill over in ways that are not only dangerous but dire to the universe as they currently understand it. Hell thrives on order and structure, and Lucifer clearly has no qualms about destroying that as evidenced by his blind eye towards this rogue crossroads demon.
After Lawless has killed his former boss---eliminating this rogue demon---Sam feels just as helpless as his brother as they watch him surrender to his fate. He understands that Lawless made a mistake. He understands that his choice ten years earlier has come home to roost and will have its own consequences. That doesn't mean, however, Sam wishes this terrible fate on anyone. This man was a childhood hero for them. He was someone they could relate to and in some ways a reason to fight to save more people. His mistake has cost him his soul, and now they know he'll be suffering for an eternity. This truth hits home hard and even though Sam states, “Dean, you know, he made a bad decision. We've been there,” he knows that this is a hard pill to swallow.
Not only did this demon reveal to him how desperate the situation outside has become---the devastation it's wrought on Dean is now apparent. Sam can tell that what's happened with Lawless has tore Dean up inside. Their pledge to save all the people fell short here. Lawless may have accepted his fate, but Dean wishes they would have been able to save him or stop the deal coming due. Sam knows that it could impact his brother in ways he may not even admit. It's why he openly asks his brother if he's okay. He knows that Dean doesn't like to talk often, but if he offers gently perhaps he'll get his brother to open up. It's also not hard for Sam to see that correlation between Lawless and this demon and Amara and Dean. It's not hard for Sam to see that Dean may see this failure---this outcome---as Dean's own potential outcome. He knows Dean may see it as his own prophecy.
And yet, Sam won't let that happen, either.
As Dean tells him, “Keep grinding. No matter how much it hurts, how hard it gets, you gotta keep grinding. And that's how we're gonna win. And we're gonna win. We're gonna save Cas, we're gonna ice the Devil, and we're gonna shank the Darkness. And anyone that gets in our way. Well, God help 'em,” Sam is eager to agree. He responds, “Damn right.”
After all, it is their united front that will allow them to win---and not let those like Lawless die in vain. It'll be in winning against all of these foes that will allow them to truly triumph.
All they have to do is keep grinding---and fight together as that unified Winchester team