Three Weeks Later
How many times have you rewatched Supernatural’s 300th milestone episode “Lebanon”? In a rare alignment of the planets, all three Winchester Family Business reviewers – Alice, Nate and I - had virtually the same opinion of the episode. We overwhelmingly loved the family reunion with Papa Winchester. We loved the reconciliation between John, Sam and Dean. We loved that each son had individual time with their dad, that he apologized for his mistakes, that they forgave him for his shortcomings, and that he told them he was immensely proud of his boys. We loved John and Mary together, seeing a sentimental side of Mary not often shown. We loved the acting, the tears and the hugs. All three of us wished the “hunt” side of the story and the home town trip down Lebanon’s Main Street would have been saved for its own episode rather than stealing precious minutes away from what was going on in the bunker, but that is easily fixed with the fast-forward button on our DVRs.
When it came time to look at the episode analytically, I expected that any seasonal threads that might have been woven into the plot would have appeared only in that begrudged monster-of-the-week side of the story, using the boys’ routine activities as a connection to the ongoing myth arc. However, when I got past wanting to watch only the emotional scenes, I was utterly amazed to find the episode was FULL of threads! Actually, there were just as many if not more threads in the milestone reunion as there were in the hunt!
Having a choice, or more precisely not having a choice, was specifically mentioned four times in the story. Notably, it was always John and Dean who evaluated events by framing their options.
John: I mean, me versus your mom? That's not even a choice.
It would be quite reasonable to expect Sam, Dean, John and Mary’s dispassionate logic to be incapacitated by the emotions associated with having to choose who would live and who would die – mom or dad. At dinner, the looming consequence of their no-win options made them all incapable of even talking with each other. Words were simply crushed by the weight of their sorrow.
John: Near as I can tell, we have two choices. All right, we can think about what's coming. Or we can be grateful for this time that we have together. Now, me I choose grateful. So, to whatever brought us together, we owe you one.
But John was able to move past the emotional chokehold by seeing things as black and white – this choice or that choice, me or them. Without a moment’s hesitation or doubt, he sacrificed himself to save his wife and family.
This is exactly how Dean is evaluating his situation with Michael and the Ma’lak box. How many times has Dean said that he has no choice? To remind us that he feels backed into a corner, he screamed his frustration at the teen who was hesitating with a much smaller ethical choice of saving his friends or saving himself from consequences:
Dean: So, you're telling me that the answer to all of our problems is sitting right outside in the car…
Sam: Listen, that car is dangerous, okay?
Dean: Swear to God, if anything happens to that car –
Eliot: Please, I don't wanna die!
Sam: Die? Why -- Why would you…? Just tell us what you saw.
Eliot: I don't wanna narc.
Dean: You don't have a choice!
Remember in 3.10 “Dream a Little Dream of Me” Dean’s alter ego accused him of not having anything that was uniquely his, separate and apart from his Dad? Dean idolized his father. All Dean ever wanted was to be like (and be liked by) John.
Dean’s ultimate success in becoming a younger version of John was made clear in this episode by the similar way they evaluated their Kobayashi Maru decisions.
Given the horrific price Dean is being asked to pay, Sam and Castiel are still fighting the logic of Dean’s choice. They are, as of yet, unable to act on the supposedly irrefutable no-win choices Dean sees, acting instead on their emotions of love and empathy for Dean, and the fear of losing him. In the analogous situation with John, Mary voiced that same emotional stance when she whispered to John through her tears “I hate this”, yet she had to let him go anyway.
Did John having to sacrifice himself, with his family tearfully helpless to dispute his decision, foreshadow that Dean will also have no other way out in the end, with Sam and Castiel looking on, desperately unable to dispute the logic that the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few… or the one? Dean has made the exact same choice as John. Since the stakes are higher and the consequences greater, he is giving Sam and Castiel time to accept his choice or find an alternative, but that doesn’t mean that he truly believes the ultimate outcome will change. His parallel to John is striking, and disturbing.
Talking… about Guilt and Forgiveness
Zachariah: Speak, Ubu, Speak.
Talking was a prominent theme of “Lebanon”. It was the first thing John demanded of his boys:
John: You boys better tell me what the hell is going on right now….
Sam and Dean then spent a presumably considerable (unknown) amount of time catching him up on the past 12 years of their lives. John next wanted to talk candidly to Sam, to understand his son’s feeling for him, and the status of their relationship.
John: Sammy, tell me the truth.
Sam: I don't want to talk about that.
John: You didn't have a problem talking about it before you left.
Sam was hesitant to bring up the past because it holds bad memories and hurt feelings for him. Instead, he chose to talk about reconciliation and forgiveness. Still, it was important that John asked his son if he was hurt.
Dean again mirrored his dad’s actions by also expressing concern for the feelings of his child, asking his “baby” if it was hurt:
Dean: Baby, baby, please tell me you're not hurt.
If Baby could talk, I’m sure it would have reassured Dean it was okay, just as Sam reassured John!
Dean then also had a chance to talk privately with his dad, a conversation that resulted in Dean hearing exactly what he had longed to hear since childhood:
John: I am incredibly proud of you.
All three Winchester men were mature and present enough in these moments to hear and accept what was being said to them. Then when they realized that their dream reunion had to end, Sam and Dean’s first thought was again about how to find the words needed to save their family from pain.
Dean: How are we gonna tell Dad?
Sam: I don't know. How are we gonna tell Mom?
These and other soul-bearing conversations were a huge part of what made “Lebanon” so memorable. Both the boys and fans had ached for these conversations for over a decade. It was cathartic for everyone to have the family finally take the time to honestly acknowledge and express their feelings – making this a true milestone for the Winchester family, Supernatural as a series, and the fans’ emotional bond with the story being told.
None of these conversations would have been nearly as poignant if no one “heard” or accepted what was being said to them. Instead, John acknowledged Dean’s, Sam’s and Mary’s heart break, and in return he gave them the encouragement they needed to let him go. In short, he listened to his family, and they listened and heard their dad.
Before this episode, I never noticed listening and talking being inserted together as a word pairing into characters’ conversations. Do you think this signifies the true give-and-take respect that the brothers have developed over the years? They honestly seem to be trying to consider each other’s opinions, just as John sincerely respected his grown sons’ mastery of their lives and their craft.
The word “listen” was used eight times in the script. Seven of those eight times it was Sam who was asking someone to listen; most of the time imploring Dean to listen to him.
Sam: Dean, listen to this -- hangman's rope, fairy dust, John Wayne Gacy's cigar box.
Dean: So we're talkin', like, 31 Flavors of weird, huh?
Sam: Pretty much, yeah. Listen, Jack and Cass are out with Jules and her crew, but when they get back, they can give us a hand cataloging of all of this.
Dean: Listen, my brother and I, we just need to talk to this girl, okay? So, if you could help us out, I would really appreciate it.
Post Office Lady: Oh, now, Dean, I can't just go around handing out addresses all willy nilly. I took a vow.
Lady: But, um I can tell you where to find her mother.
Dean: Oh. All right.
Sam: Listen, Dean, there is a wanted poster for you hanging in the post office.
The most chilling line in the episode may have been this one:
Sam (to Dean): Listen. You, um … You're right. You want some company?
Sam relented and agreed that Dean was right all along, then Sam offered to go with him. Were the writers talking about going to the grocery store or to the bottom of the ocean?? Couldn’t it be both??
I’d like to pause here to note that the words of the Dean girl at the post office stuck with me: “I took a vow.” In “Prophet and Loss” Sam said to Dean “I gave you my word, didn’t I?” Taking a vow and giving your word are both ways to say you've solemnly promise to do something. It reminds me of the promise that Castiel made to the Shadow. Are there other examples of promissory notes that might come due? It seems important to me, like a thread that’s just beginning, or that’s been there all along that we’ve missed.
Just as it was significant that Sam repeatedly asked Dean to listen to him, it was ironically Dean who repeatedly asked people to stop what they were doing.
Sam: But, Dean -- Dean, listen. How did this happen?
Dean: I don't know. You said that the pearl gives you what your heart desires, right? So, my heart desired -- I've wanted this, man. I've wanted this since I was 4 years old.
Sam: Okay, I know, and I love this, too, Dean. I do, honestly, but messing with time. You know how this ends. Things change.
Dean: Yeah, great -- we got our family back together. I'll take that change.
Sam: That's not what I mean.
Dean: Stop. Just stop, okay? Look, can we just have one family dinner? Just one?
Dean: No, no, no, no, no, no! Cass. Cass. Stop it.
Dean: But say we could send Dad back knowing everything. Why stop there? Why not send him even further back and let some other poor sons of bitches save the world? But here's the problem. Who does that make us? Would we be better off? Well, maybe. But I got to be honest. I don't know who that Dean Winchester is. And I'm good with who I am. I'm good with who you are. 'Cause our lives -- they're ours. And maybe I'm just too damn old to want to change that.
Whereas in “Prophet and Loss” Dean specifically said “Stop me”, in “Lebanon” he switched to asking people to stop doing what they were doing. Do you think this shift indicates that now he’s asking them to stop interfering with his plan, i.e. to stop opposing him? No one else said the word “stop” in this episode. Could that be because Sam and Castiel succeeded in stopping Dean so now that is not on their mind as much as keeping his attention (i.e. that he listen to them) until they can find an alternate solution?
Truth vs. Secrets
John: So, you saved the world?
Dean: More than once.
John: Then it's all true. God, the Devil, you boys smack in the middle. Now you live in a secret bunker with an angel and Lucifer's kid. And you've done this whole time-travel thing before?
Dean: A few times.
Time Paradox Sam: I mean, God bless kale -- am I right? Truth is -
Real Sam: All right…
This episode continued the seasonal threads of secrets and truth. We know that Castiel is keeping the secret of his deal with the Shadow (the Empty Being) from the brothers, and Cas has made Jack complicit in his lack of truthfulness. Next week’s episode trailer teases that this isn’t the only secret Jack is keeping. It’s also laughable that Sam asked three teenagers to keep the biggest discovery of all time a secret!
Eliot: That was a ghost.
Sam: Yeah, yeah, okay, listen. I know you need -- or you want some sort of rational explanation for what happened here, but there isn't one. My brother and I, we hunt things. Evil things that shouldn't exist.
Dean: And we are damn good at what we do.
Sam: Yeah, but if most people out there knew the truth, if they knew what was out there --
Dean: They'd lose their freaking minds. So what you saw here today, we're gonna keep that our secret.
How long do you think it will be before they have to deal with the teens spilling that “secret” on the internet? While we’re talking about dealing with things…
Teen: Whatever their deal is, they got an awesome car.
Bad Guy Pawn Dealer: I'll tell you what. I'll make you a deal.
Why are people talking about deals?? I was struck by John's words at dinner "We owe you one." I didn't expect him to be a grace at dinner type of guy. Taken in the context of deals, though, the Winchesters received something so now they are indebted. It's a subtle reminder that they rarely get something without there being a price to pay.
Do you think a deal is how Dean will get out of his catch-22 situation? With an archangel and the fate of the world at stake, who has the juice and what could possibly be traded for such a big deal? Who’d be foolish enough to make such a deal? In 14.1 “Strangers in a Strange Land”, Sam emphatically turned down the deal that was offered to him by the ambitious wanna-be-King demon. Were "Lebanon"'s deal references just keeping Castiel’s deal on a slow simmering back burner? Personally, I vote for there only being one deal per season to worry about!
Old vs. Young
Obviously, the teens were inserted into the episode to enhance its appeal to newer, younger audiences, so I’d like to post a question to the high school and college aged viewers/readers: Does having teens in the story make Supernatural more relevant or more interesting to you? Does it matter that Sam and Dean interact with people who look, think and act like you? I’m frankly curious if this is a worthwhile strategy for a 14 year old show.
Regardless of viewers’ opinions, the studio continues to emphasize the ages of our boys.
Sam: Um, I'm looking for a -- a local kid, a teenager -- Max something.
Cook: Kids ditch school. Some of them head out to this old house on Route 36 -- throw a party. It's a small town, man. Kids got to blow off steam.
Then there’s one of the legitimately funniest lines of the episode:
Eliot: Where did they even come from? Them or their weird sidekick with the trench coat. And what about that kid with the dumb Bambi look on his face all the time?
Ha! Out of the mouths of babes comes the harsh truth! It’s not all that hard to believe that’s how Cas and Jack would look to others! I have to admit, Sam and Dean looked like parents when they forced the teens to line up on the couch while they lectured them on the foolishness of their ways! When did the brothers stop being kids themselves? Dean even reflected on how much wiser his is now than he was in his youth. Time passes so quickly.
Zachariah: So, I'm going to ask one more time -- who's been playing "Back to the Future?" And you're going to tell me…”
In addition to being an ongoing thread, “Lebanon” showcased time as the entire basis of the epic Winchester family reunion. Team Free Will has been racing against time all season – to find Dean, to save Jack, to save Dean, etc. Even though time was still working against them in this episode, it was different in that several people (Sam, Dean, Zachariah, John) had prolonged conversations about the drawbacks of time travel being a solution to their problems.
Sam: I was right -- messing with time changed things.
Dean: Well, I mean, I'm still hunting, but you're Internet famous. So, what -- is there two of us running around here?
Sam: No, I don't think so. I think it's a temporal paradox. We pulled Dad here from 2003, right? So time is self-correcting. Our timeline is changing to this new one.
Since John and Dean were so strongly aligned in the story, i.e. one was just a younger version of the other, it seems that the writers were ruling out time travel as a way to save Dean. Our heroes’ experience with changing John’s timeline should serve as a cautionary tale against them time traveling to rid Dean of Michael. Did you read more into time being such an important part of this episode?
Almost every other season 14 thread was mentioned in “Lebanon”! Let’s go through them all rapid fire:
The boys “acquired” a mother lode of occult artifacts from the pawn shop, complete with a ledger that describes each one and its powers! Beginning with the Chinese pearl, it’s a virtual certainty that these trinkets will be pulled into several stories in the future. I’m dying to know what would have happened if Sam pulled the chord on the creepy teddy bear!
John: I just I just had one hell of a dream. Yeah. No, it was a good one.
Even though Sam, Dean and Mary can remember their family reunion as a real event in their timeline, it was nothing more than a dream to John. Dream walkers, Djinn “nightmares” and now cathartic family milestones are all taking place within the context of dreams. As of yet, their significance or foreshadowing isn’t obvious to me. What do you make of them?
Cleaning up... in Water
Curious that Sam and Dean’s moral-of-the-story conversation took place while they were cleaning up the dinner dishes at the kitchen sink. Is this whole season about “cleaning up their messes”? Water is also a significant thread this year, for obvious reasons! Metaphorically, they used water to cleanse them of their past (dinner's mess) but might water be the solution to cleanse Dean of the mess he got himself into with Michael?
Sometimes I group numbers together with the time thread, but in this story, their paths diverged. A countdown maybe? Ideas for why specific numbers seem to be used so much?
This was said 8 times in this episode! Right vs Wrong, and its corollary Good vs. Bad, are always subtle suggestions as to how we are supposed to judge events, statements, characters, etc. Either that or the actors have all picked up the same go-to phrase!
John: I'm on my way back. I'll see you soon.
John had to leave his family – again. It was traumatic, but it was for the best. Are the writers taunting us that Dean leaving is truly for the best in the long run?
Yeah, I figured you got that one.
It would have been easy to have simply loved “Lebanon” as a feel-good story that rewarded characters, actors and fans for 14 years of patient perseverance and loyalty to the Winchester family business. Instead, it was surprising to learn that it skillfully continued the season’s ongoing myth arc, intertwining subtle threads of foreshadowing between its more obvious emotional moments. Don’t get me wrong. I could still do without the monster-of-the-week invading my 300th episode tear fest, but at least now I can see how it may have sewn ideas that will be slowly revealed during the next 300 episodes.
Castiel: Mary, Sam, Dean. What happened?
Sam: What Happened?
Dean: Well, there's a story.
It sure is a story. An epic story. A story that has so far taken 14 years to tell, with still many more miles to go.
Here’s to the never ending Supernatural saga. Long may it reign.
Please add your thoughts below, then catch up on my prior season 14 Threads reviews, and all my other reviews and articles since season 8, by going to my Writer Page!
Additional Screencaps courtesy of https://www.homeofthenutty.com/supernatural/screencaps
Transcript Quotes courtesy of https://www.springfieldspringfield.co.uk/