Then: We start with a montage of some of the Winchester brothers' most memorable deaths and Bobby's voice saying "how many times have you two died anyway?" This can't be good news for what's to come. Castiel's trying to find God, and wants to do it using the amulet that Sam gave to Dean and that has been special to Dean ever since.
Now: Dean awakes in a motel room to find Sam sitting up in the next bed and two balaclava-wearing men holding shotguns on them both. Despite the balaclavas, Dean recognises the hunters, Roy and Walt. They are here to kill Sam because he started the apocalypse. They're not the only ones who want to do it either, since the events of Free To Be You and Me apparently word has gone round the hunter community. In short order Sam is shot and killed by Walt, who doesn't want to hear any explanations. Roy is less happy about killing Dean: after all, Dean didn't start the apocalypse. Neither Walt nor Roy want Dean on their asses for the rest of their lives, though. Dean tells Roy that when he gets back he's going to be pissed, so lets get the show on the road. Down Dean goes. Who knew at the start of Season 5 how often that bloody title card would segue directly on from the action in the show?
After the title card, Dean awakes in the Impala, Knocking on Heaven's Door playing on the radio (second time on the show for that song, after Houses of the Holy). The Impala's on a lonely road with trees on either side, the kind of two-lane blacktop that Dean has spent so many of his nights travelling down. Dean gets out of the car to the sight of young Sam taking a large box of fireworks out of the trunk and asks himself if he's in a dream. He uses an old lighter he hasn't seen in years to start the firework show, and we see Dean's happy face lit up by fireworks in a very starry sky as he remembers 4th July 1996. "Dad would never let us do anything like this", says young Sam with a happy smile. "Thanks Dean, this is great." In July 1996 Dean would have been 17 years old. Older Dean doesn't qute know what to do with the hug young Sam gives him: did the 17 year old Dean?
The fireworks, and young Sam, disappear to flashbacks of the shooting in the motel. Dean's left wondering where he is when Castiel's voice comes over the Impala's radio. Dean wants Cas to stop poking around in his dreams: Dean needs some "me time". Poor Dean, who wants to remember being happy, and doesn't want even his good friend Castiel to know what form that dream of happiness takes. Cas needs Dean to listen: Dean's not in a dream, he died and is in heaven. Castiel's spell for talking to Dean over the radio is difficult. Dean doesn't care: if he's in heaven then where's Sam? Castiel just wants to know what Dean sees: it's a road. So that's the form that this stage of heaven takes for Dean: same old same old, even after death. Castiel tells Dean that if he follows the road, he'll find Sam.
Along the road, Dean comes to a house, decently painted and all lit up. Remember in Roadkill where Dean said "You know, just once, I'd like to round the corner and see a nice house"? Oh Dean. Inside this nice house is Sam at a Thanksgiving table with a family, sitting next to a young girl whose hand goes to Sam's thigh. The family don't notice Dean coming in, and carry on talking as though Sam was still sitting there even when he goes to the next room with Dean. Sam thinks he's dreaming. "Heaven? How are we in heaven?" "Clean living, I guess", says Dean. "You, I get, sure", says Sam. "But me? Maybe you haven't noticed, but I've done a few things?" "You thought you were doing the right thing." Says Sam, "Last I checked, it wasn't the road to heaven that was paved with good intentions." "Yes, well, if this is the Sky Mall it sucks" says Dean. "I mean, where's the triplets and the latex, you know? A guy has needs." Dean, we know that's your reflex deflection and self-protection mechanisms talking, not the real you: your little brush with Famine gave that away. Sam works out that he woke up in one of his memories. Dean did too: "That Fourth of July we burned down that field?" "Maybe that's what heaven is" says Sam, "a place where you relive your greatest hits". "So what, playing footsie with Braces there is a trophy hit?" asks Dean. Well yes, Sam was eleven years old and this was his first real Thanksgiving. No it wasn't, objects Dean, we had Thanksgiving every year. "We had a bucket of extra crispy and Dad passed out on the couch" says Sam. Ouch, that hurts.
Breaking glass and lights changing show that something's up: Dean tries to talk to Cas on the radio so that they can take the escalator downstairs. Cass comes through the static on a black and white television instead, telling Sam and Dean that the light is Zachariah is looking to return them to their bodies. Great says Sam. "You don't understand", says Castiel, "You're behind the wall, this is a rare opportunity. You have to find Joshua." Whats so important about Joshua? "He talks to God." So? "You think maybe, just maybe, you think we should find out just what the hell God has been saying?" Castiel swearing? Oh boy, more evidence of the amount of time he's been spending with Dean. The road will lead Sam and Dean to the Garden and to Joshua, and Joshua can take them to God. "So what do you think?" Sam asks Dean. "I think we hit the yellow brick and find this Joshua cat." Sam's surprised that Dean wants to look for God. "Come on Sam, we're royally boned. So prayer? The last hope of a desperate man." Yes, Dean is desperate, we saw that so clearly at the end of My Bloody Valentine, and he's ready to take help from wherever he can get it, even if that's God. Sam was out of it on demon blood when Dean said that prayer, though, and it's not the sort of news that Dean would have passed on, so Sam can be forgiven for not being aware of this development.
So Sam and Dean walk out of the front door of the Thanksgiving house, but there's no road there, just trees. Back in the house Dean starts opening doors, looking for the road. The nearest he gets is a closet with a Scalextic set like one he had as a boy, but when Sam and Dean look up from the toy they are in a bedroom in different clothes, including a T-shirt for Dean that says "I wuv hugz". It's a good thing Dean's in heaven, that man would so not be safe wearing that T-shirt anywhere on earth.
Dean recognises the bedroom: they are home, in Lawrence, Kansas, where Mary feeds Dean with a glass of milk and a peanut butter and jelly sandwich with the crusts cut off. Mary can't see Sam because it's not Sam's memory. Sam would like to carry on looking for the road, Dean just wants one minute with this memory. But now John is on the end of the phone and Mary's not happy with him. Dean remembers this: Dad and Mom were fighting and Dad moved out for a couple of days. "But Dad always said they had the perfect marriage" says Sam. "It wasn't perfect until after she died" says Dean. That's a zinger. Dean goes to comfort Mary with a hug: "It's OK Mom, Dad still loves you. I love you too. I'll never leave you." "You are my little angel" says Mary. "How about some pie?" Ah, here we have another reason for Dean to like pie. Sam is upset: "I just never realised how long you've been cleaning up Dad's messes." Dean deflects again "Whatever, lets just keep moving." Sam and Dean start looking round the house for a way out. Sam finds a card of Route 66 which takes them into one of Sam's memories: a cabin with a golden retriever called Bo. At first Dean doesn't understand: Sam had a dog? Then he gets it, "Is this Flagstaff?" "Yeah", says Sam, happily feeding cold pizza to Bo. "This is a good memory for you?" asks Dean. "Yeah, I was on my own for two weeks, I lived off Funyuns and Mr Pip." Dean's not happy. "Wow. You don't remember, do you. You ran away on my watch. I looked everywhere for you, I thought you were dead. And when Dad came home..." "Dean, look, I, I'm sorry, I never thought about it like that." "I get it", says Dean, "lets roll."
Out of the cabin, the road appears again with a rundown house opposite. "What memory is this?" asks Dean. "I've no idea", says Sam, "come on, let's go. Road? God? Remember?" Won't work, Sam, Dean's on the case. "Wait a minute, wait a minute. This? This is the night you ditched us for Stanford, isn't it? This is your idea of heaven? Wow. It's only one of the worst nights of my life." We've seen so many of the bad nights in Dean's life now, and this one is still at the top of the list? Oh Dean. Sam has some idea what this is doing to Dean. "I can't control this stuff" he says. "Seriously?" asks Dean? "This is a happy memory for you?" "I don't know, er, I mean I was on my own, I finally got away from Dad." "Yeah, he weren't the only one you got away from." "Dean, I'm sorry, just...." "Yeah, I know, you didn't think of it like that." "Dean..." Yup, Sam is trying is say the right things here but the facts are against him. Dean's good times were with Sam, Sam's good times were away from Dean. And Dean know it. "Come on. Your heaven is somebody else's Thanksgiving. It's bailing on your family. What do you want me to say?" "Man" says Sam, "I never got the crusts cut off my PB and J. I just don't look at family in the way that you do." "Yeah but I'm your family..." "I know" "... and we're supposed to be a team. So it's you and me against the world, right?" "Dean. It is", says Sam. "Is it?" For once, Dean's serious and to the point, he's not deflecting, and he's genuinely questioning. But there's no time for him to express his thoughts or Sam to respond: there's a bright spotlight shining and Zachariah has found them.
Sam and Dean make a break for it, but Zachariah is clear about the futility of this. "Wow. Running from angels. On foot. And in heaven. With out of the box thinking like that, I'm surprised you boys haven't stopped the apocalypse already." A snap of the fingers and it's suddenly daylight. "Guys. What's the problem? I just want to send you back to earth, that's all. That is, after I tear you a cosmos of new ones. You're on my turf now, boys." How wrong is that, that Zachariah's turf is in heaven where Castiel's not allowed? "And by the time I'm through with you you're going to be begging to say yes. Guys, come on. You can run but you can't run." They still try though, and are rescued by a dorky-looking superhero-wrestler who turns out to be Ash, holed up in the Roadhouse in his corner of heaven and with sigils on the door to keep out the angels. The Roadhouse even smells the same - blood, Bud, beernuts, the best smell in the world - and comes with cold beer and side benefits: "Up here? No hangover". Ash has theories about heaven which take in Disneyworld without the anti-semitism: everyone has their own slice of heaven with the Garden at the centre, although people can share their heaven if they're soulmates. Ash's special skills let him move around between individual heavens and find the Winchesters, apparently not for the first time. Those boys die more often than anyone else Ash has met, but they don't remember the being in heaven parts because the angels Windex their brains. Sam wants to know whether Ash has found anyone else, and asks about Ellen and Jo: Ash didn't know they were dead. He hasn't found John or Mary but does bring psychic Pamela along to the party and she's in a Ramones T-shirt and no longer blind.
While Sam and Ash are geeking out over Ash's practical applications for string theory, Pamela explains that Dean was right in Death Takes a Holiday when he told Pamela she was going to a better place: "My heaven? It's one long show at the Meadowlands. It's amazing." Dean's not convinced: "Spending eternity trapped in your own little universe while the angels run the show, that's lonely. You know, that's not Nirvana, that's The Matrix." "Attic's still better than the basement" says Pamela. Dean can't disagree, and as far as we know only Dean and Lucifer are in a position to make that particular comparison from personal experience. But even so, "This place feels real. But it's a Memorex. Real is down there." Close enough for Pamela, though, she's happy and at peace. So if Dean lets Michael take him for a test drive a lot of people die but then they come to heaven. Is that so bad? Should Dean be fighting it so hard? No answer to that one because it's time for Ash to send Sam and Dean on their way, but not before Sam gets a hug from Pamela and Dean gets a very sweet kiss. For Ash this is only au revoir: "Not to be a downer or anything, but I'm sure I'll see you boys soon."
The brothers aren't on the road to the Garden, though, but back home in Lawrence, Kansas again. It's night, and this time Dean needs to leave but Mary needs to tell Dean about her nightmare, the night she burned. With blood appearing on her nightgown, Mary says she never loved Dean, that he was a burden she was shackled to, and then her eyes turn yellow: "Look what it got me." Sam and Dean are trapped while Mary talks about the smell and pain of burning on the ceiling, and the silver lining in death of at least being away from Dean: "Everybody leaves you Dean, have you noticed? Mommy, Daddy, even Sam." Yeah, Sam recognises that. "Ever ask yourself why? Maybe it's not them. Maybe it's you." Along comes Zachariah, who not only admits to setting this scene but says he's just getting started, and ups the ick factor even further by kissing Mary on the neck and referring to her as a MILF. "In heaven I have six wings and four faces, one of which is a lion." Boasting, huh? Zachariah's in need of a boost to his self-esteem: thanks to his failure to manage the Winchesters he's no longer respected as an eternal employee of the month on the fast track. Instead everyone's laughing at him for not being able to close the deal on a couple of flannel-wearing maggots. So he's going to be the angel on their shoulder for the rest of eternity.
This happy little business meeting is interupted by a sweetly polite older guy who needs to speak to the Winchesters, boss's orders. "Fire me if you like, but sooner or later he's going to come back home and you know how he is with that whole wrath thing." So Zachariah takes himself off, and Sam and Dean are left in a glass-domed botanical garden with Zachariah. It's another childhood memory: Dean and Sam went to the Cleveland Botanical Gardens on a school field trip. God's on earth, although Joshua doesn't know why or where: "We don't exactly speak face to face." Dean's heart's not exactly breaking to learn that God might be lonely. Sam wants to get a message to God, but in fact God has a message for Sam and Dean, and it is ostensibly an unhappy one. "Back off. He knows already. Everything you want to tell him. He knows what the angels are doing. He knows that the apocalypse has begun. He just doesn't think it's his problem." "Not his problem?" says Dean. There's disbelief for you. Back to God's message. "He saved you already. He put you on that plane. He brought back Castiel. He granted you salvation in heaven. And after everything you've done too", this last addressed to Sam. "It's more than he's intervened in a long time. He's finished. Magic amulet or not, you won't be able to find him." "But he can stop it", says Dean, and there's faith for you, "he could stop all of it." "I suppose he could. But he won't." "Why not?" asks Dean. "Why does he allow evil in the first place?" asks Joshua. "You could drive yourself nuts asking questions like that." "So he's just going to sit back and let the world burn?" "I know how important this was to you, Dean. I'm sorry." "Well, forget it", says Dean, "just another deadbeat Dad with a bunch of excuses, right? Nah, I'm used to that. I'll muddle through." "Except you don't know if you can this time. You can't kill the devil. And you're losing faith. In yourself, your brother, and now this. God was your last hope. I just, I wish I could tell you something different."
Sam asks a reasonable question at this point, "How do we know you're telling the truth?" "You think that I would lie?" "It's just, you're not exactly the first angel we've met." "I'm rooting for you boys, I wish I could do more to help you, I do. But I just trim the hedges." "So what now?" asks Dean. "You go home again. I'm afraid this time won't be like the last. This time God wants you to remember."
Back to the motel room, with two Winchesters asleep on their beds in bloody clothes, a large number of empty beer cans explaining just how Roy and Wal got the drop on Sam and Dean at the start of the episode. Waking up gasping for breath, Sams asks Dean if he is alright. As Dean says, "Define alright." Dean's immediately on the phone to Cas, who is looking for loopholes as the guys pack their bags. "Maybe Joshua was lying." Sam's sorry, but he doesn't think he was. "You son of a bitch", says Cas, looking upwards. "I believed in..." "I don't need this anymore." He tosses the amulet back to Dean. "It's worthless." And then he's gone.
Sam's not giving up. "We'll find another way. We can still stop all this, Dean." "How?" "I don't know, but we'll find it. You and me. We'll find it." Dean doesn't have any words left, he just picks up his bag and walks out, dropping the amulet in the bin as he goes out.
There is so much packed into this episode, and as always with a great episode, many different strands to pick out and different interpretations that could be made. I'm just picking out a couple of immediate reactions.
The first is that there's truth in advertising in the T-shirt Dean is wearing in heaven: Dean has a deep need to be shown love and affection. But in this episode I wonder whether Dean is starting to see the disfunction that their messed up childhood created in the relationship between him and Sam, and perhaps also to move on from it to a healthier attitude, one closer to the one that Sam, because of the sacrifices Dean made, has been able to have all along. They are brothers, and love each other, but in the future that relationship is not going to be the unhealthy be-all and end-all for Dean that it has been in the past, and which is perhaps one of the things which has stopped him from forming other close relationships. This is a painful process, but they are growing pains. At the same time, Sam is seeing for himself, for the first time as an adult, just what their childhood cost Dean, and what Dean needs from him. That too will help the relationshp become healthier, more equal and more adult.
Castiel "I believed" in the past tense is just heartbreaking. He's tried so hard to find God in the belief that God would help, and now he's told that God won't do intervene anymore. Both Castiel and Dean are being tested by Joshua's words, and it's not surprising that they feel the way they do. After all, there's a precedent for feeling that God has deserted them in their darkest hour: "My God, my God, why have you foresaken me?"
While Joshua may have been telling the truth as far as he knows it, does he know everything and has he told everything he knows? Is he a reliable narrator? There's not much in the way of evidence either way as yet. But there is one thing: Joshua said God said he was finished with intervening, and that Joshua himself just trimmed the hedges. But it was either God or Joshua who sent Sam and Dean back to earth, alive and with their memories intact. So it's clear that one or other of them, or both, haven't yet given Sam and Dean the whole truth. And surely their only reason for sending Sam and Dean back to earth is because their job on earth, doing God's work, is not yet done.
Dean dropping the amulet into the bin was a recognition that he can't hold on to Sam the way he has been. A recognition of Castiel's devastation. And a sign of disillusion with the faith Dean may have begun to find when praying to God at the end of My Bloody Valentine and at the start of his conversation with Joshua. Like Castiel, Dean now seems to believe in the existence of God. But also like Castiel, Dean now doesn't believe that God will help. At the end, though, Sam was trying to give Dean what he needed, a belief in a way forward. If Sam keeps at it, he can help bring back Dean's usual fighting attitude.
Hey, Dean is back on earth and those hunters who killed him and Sam had better watch out. I hope we get to see Roy and Walt's faces as they realise Dean wasn't kidding when he said he'd be back.