Sometimes the big picture can overwhelm us. Sometimes it can obscure things, making it hard to see what is truly important. It can make us focus so intensely on it that we can be left discouraged and frustrated. It can make us feel the goal is unattainable. It can be so consuming that we forget to remember why we started pursuing it in the first place. When that happens, we simply need to take a step back, bite off a smaller piece, and refocus on what is important again. We see this thread in the two stories taking place within “Safe House.” The bigger picture---the Apocalypse in one and the Darkness in the other---can make it hard to remember that the business of hunting is saving people. It can hide the true reason that hunters do what they do: humanity. In this hunt, then, both Bobby and Rufus and Sam and Dean reclaim that understanding. They both realize that it is the human element that matters---and while the first rule may be that they can't save everyone, they can indeed save enough to make a difference and to shine brightly for their fellow man.
First, the case itself is a mystery for both hunting pairs. Bobby is convinced that it is a ghost while Rufus is certain that they're hunting a Japanese specter in the baku. Sam and Dean struggle to figure it out, too, when they retrace Bobby and Rufus's steps. After all, “Bobby was always through.” It makes sense that he would have burned both of the bodies connected to the house. It is the design left behind that gives them the clue to know what they're really hunting. It isn't a ghost and it isn't a baku. It's a soul eater. In the “handful of years ago” it inflicted its brand of horror on a mother and son and in the present it is targeting a mother and daughter. The brothers piece together the lore about soul eaters, building upon what Bobby and Rufus knew about it then. They knew how to trap it. Thanks to the Men of Letters files, Sam and Dean now know how to kill it---but that will come with its own risks.
The soul eater itself has interesting potential foreshadow. Its very nature reminds us of Amara and her ability to consume the souls of her victims, taking them into herself. She's claimed that they're still with her---as the souls are still with the soul eater in the house it infests. It, too, can be trapped by an elaborate symbol that will protect the house from its ability to steal souls and attack. It, too, seems to exist in a realm that is outside time and space as we understand it. And, it is supposedly un-killable until Sam and Dean discover the hidden lore that exposes its weaknesses. It's all a fascinating layer to explore in relation to the over all season story---but it is part of the yet to be revealed big picture that can distract us from the true heart of the episode's story.
With Bobby and Rufus, we see them hunt this soul eater through their grumpy facades. On the outside, they are, according to the Head of the Neighborhood Watch, “two of the rudest people I ever met.” They're curmudgeonly, they're grouchy, and they're stand-offish. They're both very argumentative with each other every step of the way. On the surface, the likelihood that they're in this to truly save people and fight for humanity seems a bit of a stretch. Considering Rufus and using his religion to get out of doing the heavy lifting, and it's easy to think that he's trying to do this without getting too invested or his hands too dirty. After all, he tells Bobby, “Yeah. Well, if by backup you mean you do all the heavy lifting while I watch. It's Shabbat.” Bobby is reluctant, too, tied up in his concern for Sam and Dean as Lilith is ever closer to unleashing Lucifer and the coming Apocalypse. Why should he waste time with such a case when there are bigger fish to fry?
And yet, both “elder statesmen” hunters dig into the work, figure out what is going on with the case and are there for the victims in their own gruff ways. Seeing the mother distraught over her son, hearing the concern the doctor has for their well-being, and the worry that the mother was found just as unresponsive as the son shows just how much Bobby and Rufus take the work seriously. They do this to save people. They do this because it is the right thing to do. With their knowledge and experience, with their ability to figure the puzzle out, they both feel obligated to do whatever they can to solve the case. They don't want these people to die or face worse---knowing that the soul eater will keep their souls with it in its nest. Bobby explains, “Well, they wither, too. But they stay with the soul eater, keeping it fed in lean times. Sort of like a cud.” Instead, they will fight hard and take on risks to stop it before it is too late.
Also, Rufus is gentle in pointing out along the way that the “oldest rule of hunting is that you can't save everyone.” Bobby couldn't save the other hunter that he helped with one of these in the past, and he might not be able to save these people, either. It's the acknowledgment of their own humanity, their own limitations, and their own weaknesses. No matter how much they know, no matter how much they can stop monsters, there will always be those cases, those people, those circumstances where they don't walk away the hero and it is something they must accept if they are to ever have any hope of enduring the work. If they should run out of time and not be able to save the people here, they will have to accept that they did the best that they could.
Despite this, Rufus also shows his concern for Bobby in various ways. He's surprised when he comes upon Bobby at the start of the case. He asks incredulously, “Why are you sleeping in your car, Bobby? It's lunch time.” When Bobby refuses to give him an answer, he doesn't give up. He can tell that something is bothering his partner and he won't let Bobby fester with whatever it is. At every turn, he keeps asking him that question. Bobby brushes him off by reading the case results on the house. So, Rufus remarks, “Oh, so you're not gonna answer me, huh?” Finally, his persistence pays off when he can extract it from Bobby that he's worried about “his boys.”
The exchange is full of humanity because the conversation is honest and open and thoughtful. Rufus had genuine concern for Bobby and what he's going through, but he also knows that it will only get harder for his friend as the Apocalypse draws nearer all the time. He points out yet again the oldest rule, and states softly, “Your boys? Hey, hey, alright. Okay, papa bear. But you know more than anyone, Bobby... Even if we find a way to keep the world spinnin', not everyone's gonna be on that bus ride home. Sacrifice, greater good, all that jazz. ” It isn't dismissing Bobby's concern, it is not ignoring Bobby's obvious human reaction to the situation they're all in. Instead, it is a quiet admission that perhaps Bobby can only do so much---that he himself is indeed human and that pushing himself so far and so hard will not stop things in the end. Rufus is recognizing that drive to do more with less in his friend---and he knows that he has to be the listening board here along with the advisor that points out his friend's humanity to him.
Bobby, too, encounters the human story in the episode when they face the soul eater head on. He is the one that is pulled into the nest as they're searching the house and preparing to paint the trap symbol on the wall. He's the one that has to confront and comfort the little boy that was trapped in the first place. It is this encounter that shows Bobby's humanity best. He connects easily with the boy, telling him that he's there to help save him. He wants them to stick together. He knows that if they should separate it'll be easy for them to get lost in this nest and possibly never come back out alive. Bobby must also set aside the mind tricks it plays on him, too. He is taunted by dark visions. His very humanity is being tested by them as he is forced to see Sam and Dean dead before him. It is to devastate him, to make him feel hopeless, and to make him succumb to the soul eater's whims. It is his fortitude to shake them off and continue that allows him to tap into his humanity.
Unfortunately, it's not enough as the soul eater uses his need to help the little boy against Bobby. It overwhelms him, taking physical possession of his body in order to protect itself from the symbol Rufus is painting on the wall. It speaks with Bobby's voice, and yet it is clear that it is not Bobby at all. It is not Bobby that wants to harm Rufus or drag him into the nest. Rufus challenges the soul eater, telling it, “Rock salt. Bobby can handle it. Why---so you can show me a bunch of messed up stuff in there while my fabulous body rots out here? I don't think I want to take that route.” It will take all of Rufus's strength to fight back and to reclaim Bobby's humanity---and his life from said nest. By fighting back and managing to buy enough time, Rufus can finish the symbol and free Bobby. In so doing, he can then throw away the “oldest rule.” In the end, he does just that as he relays to Bobby that their victims are both now alive and well, free of the nest and restored to their full health. Bobby teases that he's going soft, and he hangs up curtly, stating, “Soft this.” Even so, it is clear that the lesson has been learned by Bobby and Rufus.
And yet, Bobby and Rufus aren't the only ones that need to learn this.
Sam and Dean must also go through the same trial and tribulations. After they discover what they're hunting, they know that is a race against the clock. If they don't hurry, it will kill both Naoki and her daughter, Cat. Now, they must paint the more complex symbol---together---in order to not only trap the soul eater but kill it for good. It will not come easily. They will face surprises they do not see coming in order to do it. It is these surprises that will test them---and their humanity the most.
At the start of the case, though, Dean is caught up in his drive to find anything on Amara or how to save Castiel from Lucifer's grip. He's driven to solve the big picture. In his view, they shouldn't waste time on hunting things that aren't going to help with that. He's reluctant because he knows they should focus on stopping another universal threat from destroying everyone. Even so, this case is the very thing he needs. It will take the bigger picture to scale---and reveal itself in a new way to him and to Sam.
While Dean may not want to take on this hunt, remarking, “We can wrap this up quick, get back to hunting Amara, get Cas back, I mean hey, you said it yourself. This case was supposed to be a layup, ” he is invested in it once they've met the victims and realized what the stakes are. He is gentle with Naoki in the hospital and we can see his concern flare when he sees another child harmed by a supernatural being. While it may not be the monster he's ultimately after, he can do something about this one and save this little girl. After all, Dean's always been good with children and drawn to their suffering in particular.
The brothers have to settle who will go into the nest with yet another “Rock, Paper, Scissors,” round---one that Dean will lose. Regardless, he will take on this risk if it will save both mother and daughter. Much like Bobby, it is Dean's time in the nest that will draw upon his humanity most and show him what they're really fighting for against both Amara and Lucifer. They may be the ultimate target for now, but it is saving these people, remembering their value, and facing his own humanity that should be the foundation for everything. It is this experience that draws the big picture into clearer focus and allows him to understand why he does what he does. Dragged into the nest violently, Dean will face all of these questions and find their answers when he needs them most.
Dean is tested by horrific visions and by the fears that are buried deep inside. Some of these fears are always floating on the surface---in particular seeing his brother dead. It will always be Sam struck down. He sees this briefly, understanding that it is a falsehood, and yet we can't help but notice that he staggers under its power. He is still pierced deep by it as a nightmare that he knows has come to pass and can come to pass all too soon or often. Dean has to find his own strength to push past it. He cannot allow it to seduce him into despair or to forget his mission in this case. As hard as it is for him to see his brother this way, he must help the real Sam and therefore draw upon his own human strength to push it aside and thwart the soul eater's plans to feed on him and the others.
As he finishes his portion of the symbol, setting the table for Sam's killing symbol, he's faced with Cat. The little girl is quiet but obviously frightened. Even more heartbreaking is the air of despair that clings to her. She has been here longest in this latest round. Taken first, she has been in the nest long enough now to see those that have been there for years or longer---that “cud” that the soul eater will feast upon in lean times. She tells Dean that they are the “sad people.” Dean may not have wanted to take this case on, but confronted with the little girl face to face and speaking with her directly, he taps into that humanity he has to reach past this sadness.
She tells him that she shouldn't talk to strangers, so he quickly introduces himself. He says, “And that---that is a solid rule. My name's Dean Winchester. See, I'm not a stranger.” Dean makes his much larger frame less intimidating by seeming to fold in on himself as he hunches his shoulders. His expression softens as he speaks to her. It shows the gentle man under the gruff and rugged exterior. It allows him to build trust between him and Cat. She hasn't seen her mother in this nest yet, but Dean assures her that they'll find her and that they'll find a way out of this place. It's why he's there at all.
In this brief exchange, Dean faces the truth of the big picture head on. It is saving someone like this little girl. No matter how dire it seems or how urgent it is that they stop something like Amara, it is the fundamentals of hunting that matter most. It is humanity that matters and it is in fighting to do what is right that will allow them to triumph over that other big picture in the long run. No matter how reluctant Dean may have been about this case, it is saving people like Cat that always remind him of this truth and give him the strength to continue when it seems that everything is lost. Dean must hold onto this moment in the future---and remember the good that resulted from it, too.
Much like Bobby, though, he too is possessed and forced to attack his brother. The soul eater will not go quietly or without a fight. It knows, in part, what they're trying to do. In making Dean do this, it is not only testing him, it is testing Sam in this case.
Sam, the one that found this case originally and decided they should keep hunting even when the leads are dry on their big picture prizes, has been taking its lessons to heart from the start. His compassion towards Naoki reveals his humanity clearly. He is empathetic and gentle with her in how he questions her about her daughter and the house they just moved into. He's truly concerned about their situation and gently tells her, “Well, we're here to help any way we can.”
That isn't limited to just the victims in this case, however. He's also very much concerned by how the drive to stop Amara and save Castiel is stressing his brother. He wants to remind Dean of his mission statement from earlier in the season. He wants to “save people” and while he's just as driven to stop the Darkness and stop Lucifer, Sam knows that they have to do what they can when they can. Saving people here is a good thing and can help them in the long run. It'll keep them from festering on the search or burning out on the lore that won't yield new clues or answers. It'll give them a chance to rest on that front---let them recharge and recognize their human limitations while giving them something to focus on that will bring positive results. It's why, at least at first, Sam's so willing to call it a “lay up.”
As the case gets more complex, Sam willingly admits his folly, knowing they don't get cases like that. He knows they'll have to take on great risks and face dark things in order to reap the rewards they seek. However, Sam knows that it'll be worth it in the end if they can save a woman and child---if they can snatch two human lives back from a supernatural threat. It may just take more digging into lore and facing down more frightening aspects of the creature they hunt. It may mean having to endure yet again dangerous and heartbreaking things that could leave fresh wounds and scars. Sam has accepted that this is his life and that this is what he wants to do. It is part of the bargain in their mission to take on these risks.
Sam, outside of the nest, is painting his half of the symbol. He's working on finishing it when he realizes that Dean is behind him. As soon Dean went into the nest, Sam dragged Dean's body into the kitchen to keep an eye on him. Upon seeing his brother's milky white eyes and harsh expression, Sam knows that Dean is possessed. He's not facing his brother or fighting him. He is fighting the soul eater itself---and that frightens Sam. Like Dean, he must face this horror with all of his humanity. He must fight back, even if it means physically striking his own brother down. Sam fights hard against the soul eater, not wanting for a moment to lose his brother to its nest.
It taunts him, telling him lies and making promises it cannot keep. The soul eater knows it must break Sam emotionally. It tries to turn his humanity against him by telling him, “You know your brother wants to go to the Darkness; he needs to go. But I can keep you safe, both of you. Forever.” The knowledge that this creature does exist in a realm outside time and space does have its temptations. It could be the answer to keeping Dean out of Amara's grasp---and yet Sam sees its folly precisely for what it is. To go into the nest is to die and to leave the world behind to the mess that both the Darkness and Lucifer will bring. To give into this is to throw away his very humanity and Sam will not do it for one moment. It would undo all his attempts to redeem himself, to commit to the mission of “saving people, hunting things, family business,” and it would make him no better than this creature.
Once he can subdue Dean's possessed body, Sam has bought enough time to finish the symbol. Just as the soul eater makes another charge, the sigil lights up and the monster is destroyed, leaving a confused and distraught Dean in its wake. It is the most human moment in the entire episode. Without hesitation, Sam rushes to his brother, cradling him close. He simply whispers, “Hey, hey, Dean---Dean. You're good. You're good. I got you.” His gentle gestures of rubbing his brother's arms and patting his head in reassurance show his human bond with Dean explicitly. Sam, better than anyone, knows just how Dean feels. He's been possessed by so many different things and he knows just how nerve-wracking and confusing it can be in the aftermath. He understands the feeling of violation. He knows that Dean may remember some of this and be haunted by the actions his body took while under the power of another. And so, Sam feeds his own strength to Dean in that moment, simply allowing his brother to feel his presence and to draw upon it as he recovers his wits.
In the end, they managed to save both Naoki and Cat. They managed to stop the monster. And yet, the case continues its lessons. As they leave the house, Sam asks Dean what he saw. Dean tells him that he saw Bobby there. He's not sure if it was the nest or not, but states, “I don't know. Maybe it's like-like you said before, that Bobby and Rufus' trap sigil forced their souls out of the nest back then, and that the soul eater was just making me see things. However, if Bobby did go into the nest back then, and you said that the nest exists outside of space and time, then... Theoretically, couldn't he and I have been there at the same time? Right? ” The question hurts Sam's brain---and yet it is clear that perhaps they can draw comfort from this. It is two human souls passing one another in a moment of time after the same thing: to save people.
Sometimes the big picture isn't the big picture at all. Sometimes it's the little picture, the little things that matter most. Sometimes it is saving the one or the few that will snowball into saving the many. Sometimes, the big picture is truly “saving people, hunting things, family business,” and it is the humanity that guides us that matters. It is the lesson Bobby, Rufus, Sam and Dean all must learn---and it is a lesson that resonates with us in the real world as we face the challenges of our every day lives. To recognize the humanity in one another and to embrace it is truly the biggest picture of them all.