The Morning After
I thoroughly enjoyed Supernatural’s 15.15 episode “Gimme Shelter”. It intrigued me. There were layers upon layers of meaning in both plot and dialog, all skillfully delivered by excellent writing, acting and directing. I found myself listening intently, trying to decipher the underlying messages about the characters’ relationships and their current quest.
I enjoyed seeing Dr. Sexy again, this time as Pastor Joe. He was a charismatic guest star (obviously, given his prior role/name!) who made the soup kitchen scenes convincingly interesting. Welcome Back Steve Bacic!
I loved Castiel and Jack’s escapades. Castiel’s reactions spanned the full range of emotions, starting with humor, pausing momentarily in sincerity, and ending on horror and grief. At the beginning of the episode, Castiel was hilarious when, within moments of walking in the door, he scrambled to get up to speed on Mrs. Butters (“Mrs. What’s?”) and why he was being assigned to babysit Jack, perplexed at how “a murder investigation” would distract Jack in a good way!
Cas was then adorably forgiving of Jack’s naiveté as Jack bumbled their FBI covers and sought parental permission for a web ID. Cas must finally understand how Sam and Dean have felt all these years!
After his comedic intermissions, Castiel got more serious. At a moment of truth, he saved Jack from embarrassment by rendering a heartfelt testimony that was essentially a hero’s acceptance-of-self speech. Cas loves being a dad, and has found his faith again – this time in family instead of in God. To close the episode, Cas’ episodic emotional journey ended in shock when Jack revealed that they are all barreling down a path that will culminate in his death.
The Cas and Jack relationship is really special and fun to watch for so many reasons. Theirs was the one parent/child story in this episode that wasn’t based on parental neglect. I realize they were supposed to be the “B” story, with Sam, Dean and Amara moving forward the main plot line, but Cas and Jack’s hunt was more than 50% of this episode. Misha did a fantastic job taking the lead.
Emily Swallow was also mesmerizing as Amara in this story. Her cosmic presence in dealing with the boys was fascinating. I was disturbed by Dean’s conversation with Amara, however. It was a powerful climax to months of hand wringing, yet it surprised me in many ways. More on that to come.
I would stop short of saying that I loved the whole episode, though, because, as is customary for Davy Perez’ stories, it had a little too much graphic horror for me. The masked stalker, the Chucky-type teddy bear and the ghostly echoes of victims’ names down dark alleys were pretty on par for Supernatural, but the prolonged scenes of timed torture were over the top for me. Sorry Davy. Squeamish viewer here. Besides the horror, a few other aspects of the story also disturbed/bothered me. Let’s get into it!
“Gimme Shelter” was existentially about truth and lies. First revealed were the truths that Castiel had come to understand about his life, his faith and himself. His beautiful testimony to the pastor’s faith community about his journey and how comfortable he had become with himself and his family was one of the highlights of the episode.
Amara’s truths were revealed in her conversation with Sam and Dean. She talked about her own life journey with Chuck, trying to help Dean understand her cosmic perspective. She and Chuck are twins, and their separation created the universe (New Canon). She then demonstrated how well she understood Dean by patiently explaining how she tried to help him by resurrecting Mary.
The truths underlying Sylvia’s life - her belief in her God, her dad’s perceived failings, the lies she felt everyone around her were telling and living – were revealed when she was discovered to be the human “monster” capable of mercilessly killing her friends.
Finally, the truth that Jack has been hiding since his resurrection was revealed, stunning both Castiel and us.
It was interesting that in director Matt Cohen’s interview with Variety, he used the word “truth” to summarize the story:
Each of the four characters in these scenes — Cass, Jack, Amara and Dean — are fighting for their own thing for their own reason, therefore living their own truth in the eyes of God [emphasis added].
Each truth served as the climax of a story, or at a minimum, of teases that had been leading us along for months (in Jack’s case). That is one of the reasons “Gimme Shelter” was fascinating. You had to pay close attention because every few minutes a big revelation closed out or significantly advanced a story.
Since the universe supposedly must stay in balance, this episode was as much about lying as it was about telling the truth, and Dean’s “truth” started with a lie. When Sam asked how they knew they could trust Mrs. Butters in “Last Holiday”, Dean’s answered, “Look at her!” He had judged Mrs. Butters’ sincerity and intentions based on her benign outward appearance. Unfortunately, they all learned the hard way that a person’s appearance, words, body language or even their actions can veil their true motivations and allegiances. Hopefully Amara realizes this “truth” because Dean used this same strategy of donning a cool, convincing exterior performance to lie to her.
Amara: Can I trust you?
Dean: I would never hurt you.
Dean didn’t flinch when he ‘lied to Amara’s face’, as Castiel predicted he would do. Dean didn’t look away. His voice didn’t falter. I bet his heart beat was even steady (because Amara would have been able to hear it change). Outwardly, he looked like he was steadfastly vowing that she could trust him. Maybe he was telling himself that he wouldn’t be hurting Amara because he expects Jack to deliver the fatal blow. While strictly the truth, leading someone who trusts you into a trap meant to kill them is hurting them. Sorry, poker face or not, that was a whopper lie.
… and Lies
I don’t think Dean knew the conversation would go in that direction when he asked Sam to stay in the car, but it’s lucky that Sam wasn’t still sitting next to Dean when Dean lied. Sam had already expressed doubts about them setting up Amara. He had been understanding and honest when he talked with her. I think he would have betrayed their ruse by looking over at Dean in shock, or shifting in his chair, or doing something else that would have revealed his surprise at the detached commitment of Dean’s lie, and his own discomfort with being complicit in their deceit. I’m with Sam on this one.
Sam: I get not wanting to talk about it, I do… but what we’re planning on doing – killing Amara.
Dean: Well, we’re not the ones pulling the trigger.
Sam: Sure, but we still have to find her, then if we find her, we have to lie to her. We got to set her up for her own death.
Dean’s part in his entire, private conversation with Amara made me uneasy. Like Amara, I was surprised by his initial change of topic to his mom, but I totally get why Dean wanted to understand Amara’s gesture to bring back Mary. Even though he was initially thrilled to have his mom back, her death forced him to relive all the pain of losing her a second time. Is it better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all? That is basically the question he asked Amara. Why did she set him up to feel gutting grief all over again?
As Amara explained it, her “gift” showed sincere compassion. She was truly trying to help Dean grow past his scarred-over traumas and the resulting fantasies he had created for himself. She was trying to free him from lies and give him a sustainable truth.
Amara’s explanation of why she brought Mary back to Dean was the second distinctive, memorable dialog in this episode (the other being Castiel’s testimony). Amara’s conversation with Dean (and the preceding part of the conversation with Sam) gave me more insight into Amara than all of season 11. It partially redeemed her past tantrums at her brother, and positioned her as a more compassionate (albeit disinterested) god than Chuck. I was impressed that she was able to maintain her empathy, even when faced with Dean’s rage.
I think it was that contrast – her unruffled composure and my feelings of acceptance and sympathy toward her in that moment contrasted with his display of rage - that first made me uneasy when Dean and Amara were talking. Yes, he’s repeatedly stated his anger at being Chuck’s puppet but Dean’s been so calm and logical lately. In “Galaxy’s Child”, he quietly analyzed the tactics of their plan. He was calm in the car when he told Sam that yes, they were going to lie. He whimsically joked when he ‘assigned’ Sam’s case to Jack and Castiel. It was a scene of the grownups leaving for a few days and setting up entertainment for the “babysitter” to do with their son to keep him occupied. Dean even had fun in “Last Holiday” both celebrating with family and hunting.
The underlying truth of his rage was so effectively hidden, I had forgotten about it. Another example of outward appearances being deceiving. Jensen’s stunning performance was a whiplash reminder of who Dean is at his core, and of his on-going grief.
It was also surprising that he could show his true self to Amara. Maybe he cares for her, or trusts her, more than he is willing to admit to himself. His rage was raw and honest, and usually locked away. He trusted Amara with his deepest emotions, then used their connection to validate his lie that he could never hurt her. I was lured into their bonding, which is why I think his lie was so jolting. There have been just a few examples when Dean’s lies were truly betrayal, and I felt this one added to that list. She may be his “enemy” in that she’s a supernatural, cosmic being nicknamed the Darkness, but that lie felt wrong. The stakes are high and he’s thinking he has no choice to beat the odds they’re up against, but it feels like a lie that is going to backfire.
Besides Dean’s pre-meditated untruth, lies were emphasized elsewhere in the episode. Poor Connor was killed because Sylvia felt he “lied” to her. She thought he wasn’t honest about his true self when he dated her, letting her believe he was interested in her when in fact he was gay. Maybe he didn’t yet know or admit to himself that he was gay. Maybe he truly saw her as just a friend, but since she didn’t know the truth, she carved “Liar” into his chest and killed him.
The big reveal was of course Jack’s confession that he has been lying to everyone. Here was our answer to last week’s tease that Sam felt Jack was “hiding” something. It turns out Jack knew more about Billie’s plan, even though he repeatedly said she hadn’t revealed any details. He is being turned into a nephilim-with-a-soul bomb, a throw-back to Dean’s soul bomb from season 11 in their first attempt to kill Amara. So Jack truly is a Winchester – he’s committed himself to a suicide mission to save humanity. Now both he and Castiel are under death sentences!
So Cas leaves to “find another way.” Where is he going?? They have all the lore imaginable in the bunker! Maybe he’s going to Heaven to ask Naomi? Is that the soap-opera style “dun-dun-dun” cliffhanger secret he was going to tell Dean? The more they misdirect our attention to Cas and Jack being the answer, the more I’m convinced it will be Sam and Dean who save the world.
Let’s go back to the fact that Dean asked Amara about her “gift” to him. It’s understandable that he needed to explore that curiosity to process his grief, but with the world at stake, I wasn’t expecting him to take time to deal with his feelings. I’m glad he did, because it appeared that he was surprised by and accepted Amara’s answer. It was one of the more “healthy” things he’s done. Just last week Sam told him that burying his trauma wasn’t dealing with it. Yay, progress!
But giving “gifts” suddenly took on the importance of a thread. Last week, Jack gifted the MoL portrait to Mrs. Butters, a memento that she said she’d treasure always. Sam, Dean and Jack also gave her the gift of her freedom, which meant the world to her. This week, Dean was compelled to question Amara’s gift from 4 years ago. Is someone going to make a sacrifice as a “gift” to the people they love?
Healing, Compassion and Balance
Demon Zach: What even am I? I mean in more of a work/life balance sense?
Zach’s mid-life crisis parallels Castiel, and to some extent God. All had/have lost their way and their purpose. But in his search for answers, Zach specifically mentioned balance. It was perhaps the only mention of the word, but the concept was woven throughout the story. (Note: Since Zach made a surprise appearance at the end of the episode, his on-going role in the plot is another cliffhanger.)
“Gimme Shelter” balanced the destructive separation that results from lying with the beautiful restoration of healing. Cas healed the thief’s hands and the social media maven’s wounds. His own wounds of self-doubt and loathing seemed healed by his newfound peace of mind. Dean was partially healed by Amara’s explanation about Mary, then she specifically reminded us of darkness and light, destruction and creation. Balance was woven into the episode through text and example. Even the pastor’s perspectives on religion seemed to balance all the different ideologies, finding healing in their common ground.
Pastor Joe: Lead with compassion on this one.
That’s what the group did last week with Mrs. Butters and they made an ally out of an enemy. Amara’s gift to Dean was done out of compassion. Jack tried to reach out to Sylvia with sympathy and compassion. Cas said,
I used to just follow orders, without question, and I did some pretty terrible things. I would never look beyond the plan. Of course, when it all came crashing down, I found myself lost. I didn’t know what my purpose was anymore. Then one day something changed, something amazing. I guess I found a family, and I became a father. And in that, I rediscovered my faith, and I rediscovered who I am.
I’m really beginning to hope that this recent emphasis on compassion (which evolved from the former thread on talking and communicating) foreshadows how they resolve their differences with Chuck and Amara. Chuck is lost. He doesn’t have a purpose. Maybe, out of compassion, Sam, Dean, Cas and Jack help Amara and Chuck reconcile and become a family again. Maybe Chuck becomes a grandfather, and takes Jack under his “wing”, thus rediscovering who he is. Sylvia told Jack,
Put your faith in God, not in people.
Maybe Jack is supposed to end up with his blood family, not his adopted family.
Listen for traps, the ghoulish attention to fingers and hands, and what is it with Jack busting through/down doors lately?
In Matt Cohen’s interview with Variety, he said about his directorial choices, “I wanted to put the weight on the God storyline, with the pastor and the soup kitchen and the major, major difference in how our characters in this episode all view God and are dealing with God.”
The episode’s setting obviously studied the overlapping concepts of faith, religion, formal vs. informal worship, service to others, journeys of understanding of self and of God, fanaticism and community. I temporarily set those aside, aware of their importance and relevance to a plot about killing god and freeing humanity from worshipping or being influenced by god, but also aware that additional preaching about ‘god is a monster’ and religion as a misguided hoax would take me out of the story. I need to rewatch the episode through that lens to sort out what was being said. It seemed balanced, but its repetitive undertone distracted me. For now, I internalized only the characters’ journeys to not get pulled into religious commentary. Feel free to begin exploring that aspect of the episode in the comments.
So “Gimme Shelter” gave us a lot to think about. Just as the pastor offered safe shelter from the harsh realities of the world, this episode delivered a balance of truth with lies, pain with healing, despair with compassion, rage with calm. Maybe the ending won’t be so bleak after all.
I raised many questions, and the episodes raised even more, so please share your thoughts below!
Catch up on Nightsky's "Threads" reviews! Links can be found on her writer's page.