Supernatural often tells its story through metaphor. Episodes such as "Heart," "Metamorphosis," Bedtime Stories," and "Houses of the Holy" are great examples of this. The formula works because it allows the monster of the week story on the surface to tell a parallel character story underneath. "Heartache" is no different as it tells Sam and Dean's story through subtle metaphor. It is a blending of their opposing views on the hunt, the life, and what to do after the gates to Hell are shut.
The Winchesters are on the trail of gruesome murders. The victims have had their hearts ripped out of their chests, all within six months of each other in various cities throughout the country. It turns out that a famous football player had died, and his organs had ended up dispersed to the now murderers. The football player, Brick, was actually a Mayan warrior that had made a bargain with the god of maize, Cacao. To stay forever young and vibrant, Brick must make a sacrifice each spring and each fall. The sacrifice is to take a victim's heart and consume it.
Those that have received his organs upon death are now fulfilling his centuries old ritual.
The case, on the surface, seems black and white. There are strange murders and they must be stopped. As the brothers start to investigate, however, they encounter roadblocks and misdirections. They can't figure out why the attacks are happening---and when they talk to one of the murderers, he is unresponsive, muttering a phrase repeatedly. While it isn't helpful at the time, it is a vital clue. The language is a dead one---Mayan to be exact.
After their suspect Arthur gouges one of his eyes out---one that had been transplanted a year prior---Sam does some research into their first suspect Paul Hughes. It turns out that he, too, had had a transplant. With two suspects committing the same crime in two separate events and locations it can only be deduced that both had received organs from the same individual.
As they put the pieces together, the Winchesters follow the clues to Boulder, Colorado. There, they encounter Brick's "mother," Eleanor. They question her about her son's accident, what lead up to it, and if he had picked up any new interests previous to his death. She is evasive and aloof, throwing up suspicions that there is much more going on here than meets the eye.
Sam and Dean wait until she is out of the house and return to investigate Brick's room. There, they make startling discoveries. Hidden behind a false wall in his closet are sports memorabilia, and various private letters to a woman named "Betsy" from a mysterious "Me." It is obvious that Brick has written them to this Betsy.
The letters touch on the metaphor encapsulated in the episode---particularly of each brother's story. In them, Brick says that he is so tired. It is obvious thus far into the season that Sam is having a difficult time hunting. His heart isn't in it and he has explicitly said that he spent the previous year out of the life. It is much more than being simply tired. Throughout the series, Sam has faced a dire destiny. He resumed hunting after Dean came to get him because he wanted to gain vengeance for Jessica's death. Once Azazel had been killed he remained in the life because he was facing a dark destiny---that of being the remaining special child of Azazel and later the vessel of Lucifer.
Sam's angered comment in "We Need to Talk about Kevin" expresses his frustration with the life explicitly, "So free will, that's only for you?" All his life, Sam has faced down hunting because he has had little choice. He did what he had to in order to survive and to thwart that dark destiny. Sam often used hunting as an outlet to do just that. If he could save as many people as possible, he believed that it would save him, too. He succeeded in defeating Lucifer, placing him back into the Cage.
But Sam has also seen hunting as not what he wants to do but what he must. It is a responsibility that he carries with him---thrust upon him by first his father and then Dean. Sam has imposed it upon himself, too. All other options are considered closed---and the mere thought of investigating a life outside of hunting is to be shunned. Sam, here, feels his free will is being compromised to an extent. It is possible that, even though he has stated he wants out that he might end up back in the life regardless. What Sam wants here is the chance to make that choice himself.
He punctuates this point when Dean discovers a response to a college application by stating, "I'm just keeping my options open."
The comment in Brick's letter about being tired also speaks to Sam's deep emotional wounds. He has lost everyone he loves due to hunting, to the life. The list is long and full of heartache. He has lost his mother, before he could even know her. He has lost his father, all without being able to say a proper goodbye. He has lost his girlfriend, Jessica. He has lost Jo and Ellen in a failed attempt to kill the Devil. He has lost his second father, Bobby. He has lost Dean multiple times---over a hundred times in a single day, to Hell, and most recently to Purgatory.
Dean. It all comes down to Dean for Sam here. In the the last year he has had to learn to live without his brother. When he said, "Nothing says family like the whole family being dead" in "We Need to Talk about Kevin," he meant it. He is tired of seeing those he loves end up dead, missing, or otherwise. To continue hunting is to ensure that he must endure losing his brother again---to watch what he swore he would never do again, as he said in "Mystery Spot, "Twice now I've watched you die, and I can't. I won't do it again, okay?" We see him echo this sentiment further when he begs Dean in "The Slice Girls, "But just don't -- don't get killed."
It is a tragic truth, one that Sam might no longer be able to swallow.
Back on the case the brothers dig through more items in Brick's room. Oddly, it seems that Eleanor's clothes are also in his closet. The photos in the hidden space yield another important clue. Brick is far older than he appears---and Eleanor isn't what she seems, either.
Armed with this information, the brothers return to talk with her---this time without beating around the bush. Dean calls her out, saying "Or should we call you Betsy."
Eleanor relents, letting them into the house where she divulges Brick's true identity and secret. Brick is a Mayan warrior, and until recently leading up to his death, had lived for sport and combat. He had made a deal with the god of maize, Cacao, to remain vital and young. Brick would switch sport every so often, retire, disappear for awhile, and reemerge with a new name. He had fed off the thrill of the sport, reveling in its rush.
Here, we see Brick's story reflect Dean's. He is consumed by sport, trying out as many as possible. Brick is the ultimate adrenaline junkie, feeding upon it both through his ritual sacrifice and his conquests in sport. Dean, since returning from Purgatory, has shown himself to enjoy the rush of the hunt. He throws himself wholeheartedly into it, and says to Sam, "I know when I am at my best. And that is right here, driving down crazy street, next to you."
Dean embraces the life fully, trying to make the best of it, finding purpose through it, and feeding upon it. It makes him feel good, feel important, and gives him something to do. It is what he knows he is good at, and so he no longer tries to fight what is his nature. The height of the hunt, for Dean, is a rush. It allows everything else to fade away---everything he has endured, and everything he has lost. Just as Sam is trying to escape it to avoid repeating the losses of the past, Dean is using the life to cope. To fall idle is to leave Dean with no choice but to face both himself and what has happened to him.
We see all the chinks in the facade. All last season, Sam used hunting in a similar fashion. He was a shark, always on the move, never at rest. Sam was trying to outrun and outgun the hallucinations he carried from the Cage. He became super focused on hunting and the life. Here, we see Dean cope with his time in Purgatory in much the same way. He has become the shark, always looking for the next hunt, the next kill, the next thrill. Dean is trying to fill the void. He has spent a year constantly battling for his life, and the battlefield he left behind is trailing him everywhere he goes. Rather than trying to step away from it---as Sam is doing---Dean tries to find it. He seeks it out deliberately. Dean is afraid that if he should stop moving that he will die---just like a shark. In Purgatory, that was particularly true from what we've seen. Defeat an opponent and a new one emerges to take its place. Now that he is back on earth, he can't shake that mentality.
Dean has always had abandonment issues, and he has never wanted to hunt alone. In the Pilot he tells Sam, "Yeah, well... I don"™t want to." He has always needed a partner, someone to watch his back, someone that is going through it with him. He says to Sam in "Heartache," "Seeing as I have so many other brothers I can talk to about this stuff." Dean still doesn't want to do this alone---and to him hunting with his brother is what he wants to do. Brick's fear of being left behind by Eleanor comes to play here for Dean's fear of being left behind and alone. He has no desire to do this by himself. It is Dean's way of trying to recapture a simpler time as well. To him, being on the road with Sam is pure. He wants to convince Sam here that facing the world together, fighting side by side, is truly their best option. Brick felt the same about Eleanor and could not imagine facing another sports career without her. Dean can't possibly imagine living the life without his little brother, too.
"Heartache" blends both of these storylines into a distinct and clear metaphor for each. Brick is as much Sam as he is Dean.
Brick wanted to find the next mountain to climb, the next trophy to win, the next new sport to conquer. He spent nearly 1000 years doing it, again and again and again. Brick was unable to stop. He wanted the taste of victory fresh in his mouth at all times, the fame, the fortune, the idolization. Brick wanted the glory. We see that in Dean's enthusiasm in the hunt.
And yet, Brick stands in as metaphor for Sam's desire for normal, for more. Eleanor is Betsy, and it is in watching her fade and age that causes Brick to rethink his desire for sport. He loves her, has chosen her to live by his side, and yet she is to wilt and die while he remains young and vital. He realized that Eleanor proved there was more to life than winning another championship. There was more to life than an endless string of victories or records. Eleanor confirms this when she says, "In that time, Brick himself had changed - inside. He wasn't just the warrior who's only reason for living was combat. We were deeply, deeply in love." Eleanor symbolized to Brick what he could have---without sport---a quiet and peaceful life without the rituals and traps of his bargain with Cacoa. Brick realized most of all that Eleanor was going to leave him in death---and so he left her first.
The desire for normal, here, is also a mask. Sam may truly want that again, but he knows seeking it out will push Dean away, too. He is using it to hide his real motivations from his brother. It is no different than Dean's mask of cocksure hunter. Despite the final image with Amelia treating Sam to a birthday cake, there is much more to Sam's behavior here. He has seen Dean leave him behind too many times---by dying in the Mystery Spot, by going to Hell, by going to Purgatory---and to insulate himself from that pain, Sam has decided that once his responsibility to close the Hell Gates is finished that he will leave Dean instead. He can't watch his brother die yet again---and he knows if they stay together and continue to hunt, that is precisely what he will witness again. It is the biggest scar Sam carries, the greatest traumatic stress he cannot salve.
Patty McCormack brings the tragic story of Eleanor to us. She shows how secretive and protective she is in the first encounter with the brothers, literally cutting the interview short by telling Sam "There's always one more question." McCormack is stiff in her performance here, holding all the cards to her chest. She doesn't want anyone to discover the truth. After it has come out, however, she shows us a devastated Eleanor. She is subdued, quiet, and grieving. She knows that what Brick did for centuries was wrong---but she loved him anyways. To lose him when she had anticipated being the one to die first is heartbreaking. McCormack shows us just how painful it is in her soft spoken explanation, "Every ten years he would reemerge with a new look, a new name. And me, I was the wife and I was the woman in hiding and then when I got into my 40s I became Brick's mother." It tugs at us, revealing just how much she's lost. McCormack makes us feel sympathy not just for her, but also for the warrior, Brick, whom we never see on screen.
Kyra Zagorsky gives us a creepy monster in the form of Randa Moreno. Her character inherits Brick's greatest organ, his heart, and becomes as powerful as he once was. She is determined to keep it, and Zagorksy delivers in the fight scene between the brothers and the others that have Brick's transplanted organs. She provides some sass here, making the monster of the week dark. Her delivery of the line, "You can't imagine who I was before, this shy awkward little thing from Georgia with a heart condition" is delicious and creepy.
Alan Ackles makes his first appearance to his son's show in its eighth season. He plays a no nonsense cop, filling the brothers in on the vague details of the case against their first suspect. He has a strong presence on screen, and his chemistry with both his son Jensen and Jared Padalecki is palpable. It is brief, but a treat to see.
Jensen Ackles gives us an intense Dean. He is exuberant in his desire to hunt, and we see it in his behaviors. Ackles shows us a Dean that is in his element---yet lets us see that it is a mask. He has purpose and is seeking it---in the next case, in the next monster to kill---but with subtle body language and tone of voice we can tell that there is more to Dean's story here. Ackles puts a gruff face on for Dean, particularly in scenes that he confronts Sam about not being enthusiastic about the hunt. He makes sure that they sound harsh---in true Dean fashion---but tucks in a sliver of vulnerability that belies Dean's true fear---of being alone. Directing wise, Ackles proves again here that he has a skilled eye for the complete story---not just Dean. The choices he makes in camera angles adds to the story's impact, particularly that of the death scenes. It keeps the mystery there, all without losing any of the metaphors being woven into its fabric. His choice of close ups on both Sam and Dean's faces, particularly their mouths, as they read the letters gives it an intimate feel. It reflects their contents well, subtly telling this aspect of the story through visual alone. Ackles also has soft lighting for the vulnerable scenes, such as when Eleanor is telling Sam and Dean about Brick and harsh lighting for the brutal murders that enhance their creepiness. Ackles continues to grow each time he directs, and that is the case here.
Jared Padalecki presents us with a conflicted Sam. He wants to be with his brother, and yet we see Padalecki add a layer of detachment to his performance as Sam tries to pull away. He is focused on the case, but we can sense that he is only doing it out of a sense of obligation. Padalecki brings a subtle nature to his acting, and it boosts the impact of Sam's story here. He is subdued at times. That doesn't mean that Padalecki doesn't draw upon his comedic skills as well. That, too, is subtle, in little lines dropped throughout the episode---particularly when they discover that Eleanor and Brick are sleeping together and when he tells Dean ""Oh. Thanks Dean. Now that image is permanently etched into my retinas." The brief scene we see with Amelia shows an on edge Sam, always looking over his shoulder and never quite sure he should accept the good things in life---in this case a birthday cake. His most powerful scene comes when he tells Dean that he will walk away once they close Hell. It is heartbreaking in its subtext, the weariness in his words and the sadness apparent on his face. Padalecki sells it here brilliantly, and we can't help but wonder what else is going on in Sam's story---what else might be weighing upon the younger Winchester?
Dean: Two hearts ripped out six months apart? That's got to be a ritual, man. Or at least some sort of heart-sucking, possessed satanic crack whore bat.
Dean: Personally I prefer the Keith Richards version.
Paul Hayes to his victim: I do a lot of cardio.
Detective in Minneapolis: Thor he ain't. You think he's gonna grab Freddy Fitness here and throw him down and rip out his heart. I don't think so.
Eleanor: There is always one more question in life, isn't there?
Sam: One of the greatest QBs to ever play the game is over 900 years old.
Sam: Brick Holmes, heart eater. Who knew?
It looks like next week we're going to see a return of werewolves---and handheld cameras.