Escaped fighter Dean
Disrupts Sam's new life of peace.
New quest: Word of God.
Commentary and Meta Analysis
I'm afraid this won't be up to my usual standards – I'm hideously hard-pressed right now juggling the career I'm leaving, the career I'm starting, family matters, and my fannish heart – but I had to return to blogging "Supernatural". I hope you'll forgive the absence of the episode summaries and the scattershot and incomplete nature of the commentaries, at least until my life takes on its new proper proportions in January. I promise to try to do better then, although I think the summaries are toast. Alas.
In the meantime, this discussion explores my thoughts on Purgatory, Dean, and Sam.
I Guess Standing Too Close To Exploding Dick Sends Your Ass Straight To Purgatory
In "Supernatural's" cosmology, Heaven, Hell, and Purgatory have all been represented as dimensions distinctly different from Earth where our normal rules of physics and science don't apply. The key rule that evidently applies in all three places is that the pre-defined programming of the dimension defines perception within it, and perception – not tangible physical substance – defines reality.
From all we've seen, the human and monster souls inhabiting each place after death perceive it from the only comprehensible point of reference they have: their physical Earthly existence. Accordingly, they experience themselves as having the same bodies they occupied on Earth and interpret what happens to them in physical terms related to those bodies. Heaven, intended as a reward, is set up to foster each individual reliving happy memories in solipsistic bliss, with only rare instances of true soul-mates sharing their afterlife. Hell, intended as a punishment, is constant physical, emotional, and/or psychological pain and torment, and was set up to be shared so the inhabitants could inflict that pain on each other, reinforcing the soul's evil until humanity transmutes into demonkind. As the realm of all the monsters designed to hunt and kill, Purgatory is apparently the eternal shared twilight/night of predators forever on the hunt for each other, which – depending on the perception of the individual predator – could be either punishment or reward. Winners who live for the hunt – the adrenaline junkies among monsters – might consider Purgatory as monster Valhalla, while lesser monsters, especially the ones not bright enough to learn new tricks, or the ones still possessing human conscience who aren't fully invested in killing, could very well find the situation to be virtual hell.
In each case, however, the bodies of the inhabitants of Heaven, Hell, and Purgatory aren't really the ones they died in. Those bodies were buried, drowned, burned, or otherwise physically destroyed or decomposed on Earth. Each place itself seems to dictate that an arriving soul dress itself in a copy of his or her familiar body to make sense of the afterlife environment – and in particular, that it be a viable copy that didn't reflect the injuries that killed it. But as we learned from Dean's season four memories of his experience in Hell, his body there could be tortured to death – burned, broken, dismembered, eviscerated – only to be miraculously restored simply so his toment could start all over again.
I'm going to guess the situation in Purgatory is similar. Considering the Leviathan were Purgatory's first inhabitants and were imprisoned precisely because they would have eaten all the rest of God's creation, I doubt the rest of the monster souls would have lasted long unless, as is the case in Hell, they were continuously re-created. Because of that, I would bet death in Purgatory is no more permanent for a monster than death in Hell was for Dean. I suspect the bodies of those vampires Dean and Benny killed would have faded away after a while, and the vampires, literally re-incarnated in those same bodies, would have awoken somewhere else on the plane to start hunting and being hunted all over again.
All that said, I think it's also clear the most powerful denizens of each realm could affect the shape of the realm's reality as perceived by its lesser inhabitants. We saw Crowley impose his own stamp on the perceived nature of Hell in The Man Who Would Be King when he replaced what he saw as the mindless boredom of unending physical torment with his psychological twist of forcing damned souls into eternal queues waiting for ends that never came. We saw Zachariah affecting what the brothers experienced in Heaven in Dark Side Of The Moon each time he caught up with them, especially when he finally trapped them in the Winchester home and introduced his puppet version of Mary. Similarly, I would guess that Dick or Eve or someone else high in the monster heirarchy could exert some control over portions of Purgatory, perhaps changing the surroundings from forest to buildings and disguising a continuing hunt as a seeming escape, or making the end of a hunt appear as transformation into yet another monster rather than simple death. Who knows? I wonder what we'll see ...
And that brings me to wonder what happens when a real human body is transported to the dimensions of Heaven, Hell, or Purgatory. Lore says it can happen, and we think we've seen it twice. Let's look at lore, first. Catholic religious tradition includes the Assumption, positing that Mary, the mother of Jesus, was assumed into Heaven body and soul at the natural end of her life. Before that was the Ascension of Christ himself. Opera dramatizes the story of Don Giovanni, dragged away to Hell for his lust. And long before even Don Juan, was the early, pre-Goethe version of the tale of Faust, who sold his soul to the Devil. Goethe rewrote the tale to have Faust be redeemed and evade Hell, but in the early versions, guess where he wound up, and how?
We haven't seen anyone assumed bodily into Heaven on Supernatural (Anna said in On The Head Of A Pin that her human body was destroyed when her angel grace was restored in Heaven And Hell, so her disappearance then doesn't count), but we saw Sam and Adam fall bodily through the gate into Hell in Swan Song, carrying Lucifer and Michael along with them, and we saw Dean and Castiel disappear from Sucrocorp's lab along with Dick as Dick died, only to see Castiel – still wearing Jimmy's host body – call on Dean to awaken in Purgatory. So – were their living human bodies truly where their souls wound up? The jury's still out on that one, I think, but my guess would be their human bodies didn't survive the transition. I think they wound up in matching bodies that followed the different physical rules of their new realms. Perhaps their actual human bodies remained caught in the interface between dimensions, ready to serve as the template for their return to Earth – but I believe their new Hell and Purgatory bodies would have correlated with the standards for Hell and Purgatory, meaning, among other things, that they could be damaged and magically renewed, and wouldn't have required food, water, sleep, or bathroom breaks as truly human bodies (and embodied minds) would. If their real human bodies did make the transition, I think they would still be subject to the magical rules of the local realm – so, not aging, subject to renewal, and capable of dying and being magically restored.
So the bottom line of all of this is: I believe Dean essentially was wrong when he angrily protested to Sam, “I wasn't dead!” For all intents and purposes, at least to those left on Earth, I believe Dean was physically dead. Even if his real physical body was magically transported to Purgatory, it abided there by Purgatory rules, and that would have presumed major changes – the least of which would have been the loss of any need for sleep or physical sustenance – and wouldn't have left any trace on Earth. Similarly, I'm guessing Castiel was affected by the power that sucked Dick back to Purgatory precisely because he was contained within the human body of his willing host, Jimmy, making him subject to the same type of transference that affected Dean, right down to presuming the same physical appearance.
When Dean arrived in Heaven during Dark Side Of The Moon, his experience was essentially identical to his arrival in Purgatory. He simply awoke there, with no understanding of where he was or how he had gotten there. In both instances, Castiel told him where he was. After some prompting, he remembered in Dark Side the death that had led to his presence in Heaven. He evidently didn't remember actually dying in Survival Of The Fittest, but he remembered boning Dick, feeling the energy pulses emanating from him, and then waking up in the Purgatory woods. I would posit those two experiences as being in essence the same. But no matter how dead he was in Earth terms, there was clearly a door that would let him back to where he belonged. In Dark Side, the door was God's will as expressed by Joshua, that the brothers remember the experience and learn from it; in We Need To Talk About Kevin, the door was evidently also God's will, in terms of God having defined an escape route designed for humans not meant for Purgatory.
All of this also points to me not believing for a moment that Castiel is dead and gone. Dean never said the “dead” word – only Sam did – and Dean was evasive and looked guilty as hell while dodging the issue. I wouldn't be at all surprised to learn Castiel had resisted making his own escape out of a sense that he needed to do penance, or refused to abide with Benny, or got lost somehow/somewhere along the way, or was hijacked by the rules of Purgatory because he was an angel wearing a human host in a place that had never been meant to hold either angels or humans – but there's no way at all I would believe he was truly dead. And if he couldn't take the same escape route used by Dean and Benny, I'm betting he had access to another one – a door designed by God for angels in human hosts who didn't belong in Purgatory any more than did a pure human like Dean.
That Purgatory – and similarly, Heaven and Hell – have a certain peculiar reality and physicality unique to them, however, is suggested by Dean bringing tangible weapons out of Purgatory with him. That makeshift scythe-blade he took from the vampire he killed is a thing of Purgatory, and it fascinates me. I have to wonder what power it may have beyond the obvious virtue of its sharp edge ...
I have one last parting comment on this topic. In Dark Side Of The Moon, Ash noted that very few people could perceive each others' Heavens. The only exceptions he noted were (1) true soul-mates and (2) himself, with people he guided. I would posit a third exception: people like the Winchesters, who were being given a lesson.
I mentioned before that Heaven, according to Ash, involved people reliving their own best memories or – as described by Pamela when she talked about the Ramones concert – favorite desired experiences. Given that paradigm, it made perfect sense that Ash's Heaven would include him literally hacking Heaven, figuring it out to the point where he could visit others' Heavens at will. Unlimited access to information was pretty much Ash's Heaven.
The Winchester brothers' experiences in Heaven didn't quite track with that setup, if only because the brothers – once reunited – did not enjoy each others' experiences at all, however happy their individual experiences were for them. I know many fans guessed the Winchesters were an example of soul-mates, but I don't think that was true. I'm betting Ash's soul-mates were people so attuned to each other that not only could they not be happy apart from each other, but whatever made one of them happy would have done the same for the other. That is truly rare because most of us, even when we acquiesce to another's wishes, have at least a little selfish core of our own wishing we could have spent the time differently. Sam found particular happiness in the times he escaped the hunting life, including his couple of runaway weeks in Flagstaff and the night he departed for Stanford. When Dean realized those were good memories for Sam, he was crushed because they were horrendous memories for him. Sam didn't get to share Dean's first Heaven experience – lighting up the field on the Fourth of July – but would likely have enjoyed it if he had. Dean's second Heaven memory, however, wasn't something either brother could truly enjoy; little-boy Dean trying to comfort Mary during her brief separation from John was bittersweet at best.
That the brothers shared those specific experiences with each other in Heaven, despite them being not uniformly happy, hinted strongly to me at the time that their experience of Heaven was being manipulated. They had an illicit guide in Castiel, but I don't think that was enough to defeat the normal programming. I believe most people – well, other than Ash – wouldn't have found another's real Heaven; I think they would have found only their idealized version of that person within their own Heaven. For most people, Heaven seems to represent wish fulfillment, and that is inherently selfish – by which I mean not that people don't desire joy for others, but that Supernatural's Heaven seems to play to whatever brings happiness to the individual experiencing his or her dreams. The aspects of it that they would have shared with others, I think – like Pamela indulging in rock concerts – would only have been shared with constructs who simply supported the primary soul's joy.
Sam and Dean, on the other hand, both experienced and shared true memories that meant something at least partially positive for one of them, while being acutely painful for the other. I have always believed that their experience of Heaven was being tailored to them in order to provide a lesson – or possibly more than one lesson, with separate influences being exerted by God and by Zachariah.
Time Flies When You're Running For Your Life
One of my best friends in law school way back in the 1970's was a Vietnam vet. He was an Army Ranger whose time spent in-country involved jumping out of helicopters to conduct search and destroy missions in enemy territory. When we first met, years after he'd demobbed, he was still preternaturally aware of everything going on around him, and you really didn't want to trigger his startle reflex because his combat reflexes were still engaged and potentially lethal. Watching Dean in this episode reminded me of him: Dean was constantly on edge, overstimulated by the normal sounds and sights of our civilized world, always marginally ready to strike. He wasn't even aware of why he was reacting the way he did, especially in the motel with Sam at night when he couldn't relax or even sit on the bed rather than the floor. In some sense, Dean's still in Purgatory, still in-country, and still at war.
Dean's relationship with Benny promises to be fascinating to me. Their meeting in Purgatory was full of wariness. Dean being willing to take Benny's soul into his body for their mutual escape from Purgatory speaks volumes about how far they came from that first moment to that escape, and Dean hugging Benny and accepting being called “brother” after returning Benny's soul to his bones and seeing him re-enfleshed was astonishing. I can't wait to see what happened between their introduction and their escape to cement so peculiar and unexpected a friendship. I have no doubt Benny saved Dean's life in Purgatory more than once, and suspect Dean returned the favor even before he'd made up his mind – but I want to see what happened to make Dean trust him enough to bring him out and treat him as a friend, even though he clearly doesn't trust him back on Earth.
I can understand why Dean called Purgatory “pure.” Ever since Bloodlust all the way back in season two, when Sam forced him to confront the dichotomy of vampires who didn't kill humans and didn't deserve simply to be killed as monsters, Dean found himself dealing with innumerable shades of grey. Where once things had been simple and certain – If it's supernatural, we kill it – they became muddled. Monsters had good reasons for what they did and chose not to hunt humans; human hunters pursued monsters to satisfy their own agendas, whether they merited killing or not. Dean's life as a hunter had become enmeshed in complexity, and that came home when he killed Sam's friend Amy in the expectation that she couldn't resist her monster nature any more than Dean himself could resist being a killer, something of a monster in his own mind.
Purgatory stripped that all away. By all indications, life in Purgatory was simple: you killed, or you died. Everything there, with the singular exception of Castiel, was evidently out to kill him. That freed him from the dilemmas that had driven him to drink. He could kill without question because everything there was out to get him, and deserved to be there because it had been a monster, a hunter and killer of humans, on Earth. After the near-paralysis Dean had confronted in his latter days on Earth, trying to do the right thing and kill only the right monsters, the certainty of the simple rightness of his cause must have been … refreshing.
And yet – some of the humans who'd been turned into monsters must have been reluctant. We'd seen that in living ones, including Lenore the vampire, Lucky the skinwalker, and Ellie Visyak, whose monster nature we never even learned. I have to believe Dean met some of their spiritual kindred among the dead in Purgatory: monsters who didn't merit killing because they were reluctant to give in to their hunter//killer nature. So even Purgatory must have had shades of grey, although we haven't seen them yet.
The good thing about Purgatory, I think, was that it let Dean ground himself once again in certainty and recover his self-image of who and what he is: a hunter, someone who saves people and hunts things. I am not blind to how twisted that perception is, given Dean aiding and befriending a vampire and helping him escape Purgatory, but I can't help but rejoice that it has apparently gotten him out of the rut of guilt he's been digging for himself ever since he learned that John had sold his soul for him, and then that he himself had broken in Hell and opened the first Seal to trigger the apocalypse and all the evil that befell. Even though "Supernatural's" version of Purgatory as the home of monsters is far removed from the Chrsitian sense of Purgatory as a place for the purification of souls before their entry into Heaven, I think it nonetheless served the Christian purpose for Dean. Similar to Sam in Hell, I think Dean in Purgatory expurgated much of the accumulated guilt he's been carrying, and is better, stronger, and happier for it.
I Guess Something Happened To Me this Year, Too
I've already written my thoughts on why I felt it wouldn't have been out of character or beyond the pale for Sam not to have searched for and tried to rescue Dean. In brief, I think Sam had reason to believe Dean dead and gone beyond his reasonable ability to recover, and think trying to move on with his life was a healthy choice for him to make. Mind you, I don't think we've yet seen anything close to all there is to see about what happened to Sam after Dean disappeared, but I'm not twitched about the decision he made to abandon hunting and not to try to get Dean back. I suspect we'll see through flashbacks just how badly losing Dean gutted Sam. My guess is that hitting the dog was simply the last straw of grief and guilt that broke the Sam-camel's back; the event that let all his bottled-up emotion out, lancing the boil and finally starting the process of healing. Sam acknowledging that he finally realized not only that he couldn't save everybody but also that it wasn't entirely up to him to stop all the evil in the world was a healthy thing, and a sharp contrast to the misplaced guilt and responsibility that Dean has always carried and finally admitted to in Sam, Interrupted.
I will point out that, of the brothers, Sam was always the more rational one, the one more driven by calculation and reason. Dean was always instinctual, always a gut-jumper, reacting on intuition and emotion more than logic. That's not to say Dean doesn't have a thinking brain; on the contrary, he could assemble facts and then leap to an intuition-driven conclusion with often uncanny accuracy. And saying Sam was more logic- than emotion-driven doesn't take away anything from the depth and strength of his heart; it's just that he would always try to think first before letting his heart sometimes rule.
Being the more rational and reasoning of the two, however, Sam was more likely to run the numbers and rein in his heart with logic, and that logic would have said his chances of locating and recovering Dean were miniscule. And while I take vehement exception to the statement made in interviews that the brothers had agreed not to look for each other, because – hello! – that's something they never did, it is true that Dean had argued passionately against Sam falling into the Winchester self-sacrificial trap and trying to get him back from death and Hell in No Rest For The Wicked, and Sam similarly sought to extract a promise from Dean in Swan Song that Dean wouldn't try to break him out of Lucifer's cage, if only because the danger of unleashing Lucifer again was too great. Each of them ordered the other to get on with life and let the dead stay dead. Both of them broke those resolves, but neither succeeded in getting his brother back by doing so.
I would like to think they both learned from those experiences, and that learning in part drove Sam's decision this time to abide by the rules and not try to get his brother back from the death that had most likely claimed him. We may learn differently, but I would hope Sam's logic and past experience played a role.
And before I leave this topic, one more thing. Dean's discovery of the unanswered messages from Kevin begging for help was a shock not only to Sam, but to us. That Sam would have severed his ties to hunting totally, even to the extent of ditching all of his phones and never checking their messages, was nothing I'd expected on the basis of his recent past. Even when he stepped aside from hunting in Free To Be You And Me, he kept tabs on omens and called in his deductions to Bobby, despite being unwilling to follow up on them himself.
I suspect what he took away from that bitter experience, though, was that the only way to break all his ties to hunting was to do it totally. He'd gotten sucked back into the hunter world back then precisely because he'd served up the clues to another hunter. I think that affected his decision this time around to shut the door on that world entirely and bring nothing through to his new existence, and in retrospect, Sam doing that math made perfect sense to me.
Leaving Kevin in Crowley's hands, while it doubtless grated on whatever sense of personal responsibility Sam had left after flailing over Dean's loss, also made sense to me as something Sam could have swallowed and conceded. Entirely alone, with no knowledgeable support and no one to guard his back, Sam had no chance against Crowley. Crowley could have and probably should have killed Sam right there in the Sucrocorp lab after Dick died and Dean and Castiel disappeared. That he didn't spoke to me of three things: first, that the writers knew killing Sam would end the show; second, that Crowley enjoyed the exquisite taste of Sam's despair; and third, that Crowley – who alone of their enemies has never underestimated the Winchesters – reasoned there might yet come a time in the future when Sam could be a valuable tool, if the right leverage were applied.
For his part, Sam had no real chance to rescue Kevin. Yes, he could have summoned Crowley into a devil's trap, but Crowley – knowing full well what he'd be after – would have hedged his bets as he did against Bobby in Weekend At Bobby's, and wouldn't have come alone. Sam against a hellhound or three, or a hellhound plus multiple guard demons, wouldn't have been a good bet. Kevin also had other guardians who should have been wathcing out for and working to rescue him, given that angels had always been tasked with the protection of prophets. The Leviathan murdering angels in order to snatch Kevin, particularly on the heels of the disarray in Heaven occasioned by Castiel's godhood insanity, doubtless left the garrison rudderless and confused, but I think it would have been reasonable for Sam to expect that, on the basis of their past actions, the angels would have been likely to go after Kevin once they had their house in order. I'd evidently have been mistaken on that account right along with Sam, given that Kevin was still on his own a year later, but I still think it was a reasonable expectation on both Sam's part and mine.
Leaving hunting has always been shown to be a proposition with questionable success. Particularly for hunters like the Winchesters, there's always the danger that your hunter past would catch up with your mundane future. It happened to unprotected Adam and his mother in Jump The Shark when the children of the ghoul John had killed sought vengeance. It caught Sam with the hunters in Free To Be, hit both Sam and Dean in Dark Side when Roy and Walt went after the harbinger of the apocalypse, and began the end of Dean's life with Lisa and Ben in Exile On Main Street when the children of the djinn he'd killed came after him. I have to wonder just how successful Sam truly was in abandoning the hunter life this time, given the melancholy flavor of his nighttime departure from Amelia and the dog, which imparted the sense both of him having left many times before and perhaps that he was leaving for the last time now, and the fact that Sam was being watched by someone in the shadows. I've already shared my guess that the watcher in the shadows might have been none other than Dean, casing his brother before approaching him like a wary Army Ranger investigating whether a village in enemy territory was innocuous or a trap; but it could equally well have been someone else from his past, like Meg or another hunter blaming him for the evils of the past. Only time and more flashbacks will tell.
I am delighted beyond words to see Jeremy Carver return to "Supernatural" as the new showrunner. I loved all his previous work, especially the way he wrote the relationship between Sam and Dean, and I do trust him to have their threesome – by which I mean the two brothers and their interrelationship! – firmly in mind as he plans the future of the series. I have great respect and abiding affection for Sera Gamble and the daring she brought to her stint as showrunner, even though her efforts did not fully pan out as she so clearly hoped, but I rejoice in the new hope and fresh blood that Carver brings. And setting up an extension of the existing mythology to encompass a quest for the Word of God to be able to close the gates of Hell forever? Inspired! How many Words of God containing the esssence of creation remain to be found and deciphered? This could definitely extend over more than one season.
This episode featured a great stage-setting script by Carver, lovely direction by veteran Robert Singer, brilliant lighting (as usual!) by Serge Ladouceur, and the first outing of the newly revamped visual effects team now under the leadership of Mark Meloche, picking up the reins from Ivan Hayden. Speaking of the visual effects team, the new title card was stunning – were those Word of God hieroglyphs flickering in the letters? – and I've got one real question: was that “Palms Motel” exterior with the backwards sign a visual effect? It didn't have quite the feel of reality to me, coming off a bit arty and flat … but beautiful nonetheless. Nicole Baer did her customary stellar job of editing. The script had a lot of territory to cover and a whole season full of idea seeds to plant, and I thought it accomplished that well.
While I'm waiting to see how all the big things resolve, I did have a few minor questions. I had to wonder how Benny knew exactly where his body was buried in that unmarked grave in the Louisiana cemetery, particularly to be able to give Dean directions on how many steps to take from the windmill (which, by the way, I loved seeing again: hello, old friend prop from many other episodes!). Did some later arrival to Purgatory fill him in on where his body wound up, or was he killed in that grave fifty years ago, and did that funeral he was watching relate somehow to his family or his own death?
I loved the look and feel of the Purgatory woods, especially after having been there on the location tour. And I laughed to recognize the field with Crowley and the goats, and loved knowing that Benny's grave in the North 40 DOD lands was right beside the slab where they built the 2.21 diner and not 50 feet from the crossroads, and that the road Dean walked down toward Benny's grave was the selfsame one where the Yellow-Eyed Demon gave Jake the gun by the railroad tracks later warped in 2.22.
I applaud the use of the color desaturation process they're applying to all the footage of Dean in Purgatory; it sets such a totally distinct tone for the Purgatory flashbacks that you can't mistake when and where you are as they happen, and it helps to add to the spooky, creepy, sinisterly menacing feel of Purgatory. Sam's flashback to the situation with the dog, on the other hand, seemed more color-rich than the present-day footage; I'm curious to see if that continues, or if it was just an artifact of the veterinary clinic.
Performance-wise, Jensen and Jared were wonderful to watch, as always. Ty Olsson was brilliant as Benny, and I can't wait to see more of him and learn the full story of his Purgatory partnership with Dean. And I had to laugh when I realized he'd played Lenore's right-hand man – sorry, vampire – Eli in Bloodlust! Eli and Benny seem worlds apart! Liane Balaban didn't have any real opportunity yet to give depth to Amelia, but I'm looking forward to finding out what about Amelia helped pull Sam out of his aimless spiral.
I have more things to say about the episode and the production overall, but I just don't have any more time right at this time, and I'd really like to see this go up before the next episode airs!
Suffice to say for the moment that I thoroughly enjoyed this episode, need to watch it again, and cannot wait to see where Carver and company are taking us! I especially want to know what happened to Castiel; Dean's whole story in Purgatory; exactly what happened to Sam after Dean and Castiel disappeared; and why the angels haven't intervened to secure the stray Words of God on Earth … Oh, and I hope we get to keep the rock music this season, because opening with Jethro Tull and Styx was wonderful!
Bring it, season eight!
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