Thank you, Andrew Dabb, for giving me such an amazing episode for my first review on this site. “Road Trip” has it all—excellent writing, excellent performances, and excellent personal and mythological arc development.
I have enjoyed season nine so far, but I had a few niggling doubts about the exploration of the brothers’ bond. It’s not that I don’t think the boys could stand a real heart to heart; it’s that the first half of season eight left me gun shy. But it looks like Carver decided to take another pass through this story point, and judging by “Road Trip,” we’ll have few less pot (and plot) holes this season as we journey into dark territory.
The episode has so much goodness packed in, it’s hard to know where to start. Thematically, Dabb picks up the “I did what I had to do” refrain from the last episode and looks at it from a few different angles. Dean is teetering on the brink of broken as he keeps a lonely vigil over Kevin’s hunter’s funeral. His protective instincts have always led Dean to assume guilt when bad things happen, but this time is a little different. This time, he really is responsible and not because he was trying to save the world. He was trying to save Sam.
Dean is well aware his choice to lie to and manipulate Sam into accepting possession was problematic to say the least. That Metatron was then able to use Gadreel as a Trojan horse to strike at Kevin is almost more than Dean can bear. The entire situation leaves him coping by putting one foot in front of the other, focusing with laser precision on what he can fix. Perhaps to some viewers’ astonishment, that’s getting Gadreel out of Sam by killing the angel—and Sam in the process.
I was not surprised at Dean’s decision. Despite his unwillingness to let Sam die, he has always cared about Sam’s soul and more than anyone else, knows what Sam sacrificed to define himself and take back his fate. In season five, Dean realized he not only had to accept Sam would sacrifice himself, he had to help his brother do it. And he did.
In season six, Dean realized having his brother’s body and mind alive on earth without his soul stripped away the sense of self for which Sam had sacrificed so much. Dean made the unilateral decision to force Sam’s soul back into his body even if it killed his brother. When Sam’s soul, rather than his life, is at stake, Dean protects it at all costs, because he knows Sam’s soul is what he truly loves.
So with a rogue murderous angel possessing Sam, Dean is prepared to try to put things right by killing Gadreel, even if that means killing Sam. He knows his brother well enough to know he would rather die than be the kind of vessel Lucifer had in mind. And Dean’s well aware of the irony that he himself facilitated the possession he now needs to end by any means necessary.
Fortunately, Dean calls on Castiel to help him, and Cas offers his friend two things: hope for a way to save Sam and a kinder way to view his flawed decisions. Without disputing the wrongness of Dean’s decisions, the angel tells him his motives do matter, that in fact in the end, motives are key. I loved that, because I think we are getting a good hard look at several characters’ motivations.
Castiel has his own need to believe motives matter, because he too made flawed decisions for what he still thinks are the right reasons. I loved that he reframed Dean’s “dumbass” with “trusting.” Sam, Castiel and now Dean have all made dumbass decisions that at the core were about trust and love. I suspect that Castiel’s resurrections are a sign the angel’s willingness to follow his own sense of right represents how God hopes his angels handle the new concept of free will. And that concept includes the space to make mistakes.
Sam needs to learn this lesson as much as Cas and Dean do. He’s spent his life fearing what is inside him, looking at other lives with longing because he feels so flawed. I think it’s no surprise that young Sam, unable to articulate or understand his fears, chose to run away from his life as often as he could, and that pattern continued in his adult life until the Apocalypse made him take a stand and define for himself who he was.
That tendency to run seems to me to be integral to understanding why Sam was content to die. Last season, Sam was upset with Dean’s fatalistic view of life and acceptance of death, telling his brother he would teach him to hope. But in fact, we found out Sam was really operating on fear—fear that he was in some way permanently tainted and that Dean didn’t really love him or forgive him his errors.
The scene between the brothers in “Sacrifice” when Sam finally articulated his fears and Dean reassured Sam of his love was very powerful. I was surprised when the season nine premiere, which directly followed the events in “Sacrifice,” showed Sam still ready to die. I wasn’t sure what to make of Sam’s mental state—was it really so different from his desire to die because he felt he just let Dean down over and over again? What changed in the short amount of time between leaving the church and Sam’s collapse?
I think there’s a case to be made that Sam’s desire to die was less Zen than a need to feel he was forgiven his sins, that he’d done enough to atone. Death gave Sam the choice to stay or go, which is different than we’ve seen with any other reaper. It was only his time if Sam wanted it to be so. That Sam decided he did want to die may mean he is still defining himself as flawed—and he’s running.
All of which brings me back to this episode and what it sets up between the brothers. Dean, having allowed himself to be pulled out of balance by his fear of losing Sam, swings to the opposite end of the pendulum and decides he needs to leave Sam instead. He feels he is the flawed one, using and discarding people in his quest to do right, hurting everyone he loves. He’s been down this road of self-blame before, and I don’t think it bodes well that this time he’s travelling without Sam, because Sam has always been his anchor so he doesn’t go adrift.
But Dabb wisely adds in hope to the brothers’ heartbreaking scene. Sam is understandably upset with Dean, and he accepts it when Dean says he lives in muck and won’t bring anyone else down with him. But he does not agree with Dean’s assessment. He knows Dean is not responsible for the cost of war and that they are not the only heroes.
Ellen and Jo for example made a decision to die as hunters because they believed in Sam and Dean’s mission. Bobby not only died a hero, he also knew Sam and Dean saved his life the minute they entered it, as they gave him a reason to love. Dean’s friends may often die as collateral damage, but that’s because they are in the war alongside the Winchesters. I think Sam’s statement to Dean that he has not understood the real problem will be key to the entire arc.
Sam chooses to stay rather than leave and his words leave an open door for Dean to walk through when he’s ready. That’s already a huge change in the relationship. Dean has already faced that holding on to Sam too tightly could very well cause Dean to lose everything important about their relationship—his willingness to kill Gadreel and therefore Sam made that very clear.
What both brothers need to do now is admit to each other what drives their worst decisions. Sam has always wanted to be someone other than Sam Winchester, because of he’s afraid of what is inside himself. His willingness to die may well be another manifestation of not wanting to live as himself.
Dean has always felt he loves more than he is loved, and that fear colours the protectiveness he feels toward Sam, making him hang on too tightly, especially when Sam shows he wants to leave. Many of Dean’s issues began with John, who loved his son, but put far too much responsibility on him too young.
If both boys can finally admit to their fears, I think both the desire to run and the desire to hold on too tightly will finally dissipate, allowing them to truly feel they are together by choice, as “Sacrifice” suggested. Sam and Dean have always been stronger together, and the bad guys know it, but each Winchester hasn’t had a clear perception of his own feelings, never mind his brother’s.
Wow, that was a lot about the bond! There was, of course, lots more meaty stuff going on. I loved both Castiel and Crowley in this episode, and both are also struggling with who they are and what keeps them from being what they want.
Castiel has chosen to be an angel, but he’s been changed by his brief stint as human—and perhaps also by his stolen grace. He is an intriguing combination of kindness and anger in this episode, and I wonder how much of the anger is human emotion and how much may be the influence of another angel’s grace. Cas’s expression when he punches out Gadreel is rather odd, as if there’s more going on there than meets the eye.
Crowley is an intriguing blend of self-interest and empathy, as he begins his campaign to unseat Abbadon. I believe he genuinely feels badly about Kevin, and the demon knows exactly what to say to Sam when Sam remembers what happened to his friend. As Crowley says to Dean, he’s the goodest person Sam, Dean and Cas have to rely on at the moment.
I love when Crowley is an unwilling ally to the boys. Mark Sheppard does shades of grey as beautifully as he does snark. The demon showed why he’s a force to be reckoned with when he demonstrates to Abbadon her vicious nature will be a hindrance to her, not a help, in the battle for Hell. And is that yet another sign of the change in Crowley? I’m as intrigued to see what Hell will look like under Crowley as what Castiel’s vision of Heaven will be.
It’s a sign of how rich this episode is that I could go on—but won’t! Well, I have to mention how welcome it is to see both Tahmoh Penikett and Alaina Huffman back. I’ll end by saying the performances this episode by all four main players were superb. The fact that such a sad episode made me impatient for more road trips shows how adept these actors are at playing all the notes of a scene.
Well done, everyone.
(Note from Alice - Join me in welcoming Gerry Weaver to our writing staff! She comes to us from Blogcritics where she's been doing SPN reviews there for a few years. We are thrilled to have her on the team).