Oh man, I don’t even know how to begin writing a review for “Houses of the Holy.” This is such an intricate, deeply emotional and technical episode trying to tackle in just one short hour the concept of faith and believing in something bigger than ourselves. This is a masterpiece with direction, set decoration, cinematography, VFX as well as acting. The visual storytelling in this episode is magnificent, but given this a Kim Manners outing, no wonder. That was his gift, knowing how to pull extra emotion out of every scene, making the impact of the story stronger than it already is. The theme of this episode is divine intervention and boy did they sell it. The use of lighting to show something ethereal at work is spectacular, making this one of Serge Ladoucer's best efforts, as well as the VFX team with their bright white light encounters.
Just the subject matter alone takes "Supernatural" in a wildly different direction, the belief in angels. Remember, this was when Kripke was still on his “no angels” bender. This is a season and a half before Castiel’s grand appearance in the season four opener. Still, the episode had us guessing, are angels for real? Is there something else out there beyond this crappy world full of monsters, demons and generally bad people looking out for the boys? It did make me take pause to consider. It also showed how both brothers were on opposite ends of the spectrum in this matter yet somehow came together in the end.
Houses of the Holy
This is an episode of firsts. First time the subject of angels comes up. First time that we find out Sam is a man of faith, praying everyday and wishing for something greater to save them. First time Dean told the story about Mary’s “angels are watching over you” and those being her last words to him. It is also the first mention of the archangel Michael and the infamous painting of him fighting as a warrior of God. That painting appears again in season five (and perhaps more?) and Michael becomes a significant figure in this series all the way to the series penultimate episode. This is also the first time we saw Dean and the Magic Fingers. So, with all that, no wonder this episode packs a punch.
(Anyone bring quarters?)
This was a deeper look into Sam’s inner vulnerabilities, aka that private world behind the tough facade that has been showing signs of crumbling in the last few episodes. Each of these "peeks behind the curtain" is becoming more revealing. He so wanted to believe the culprit was an angel, so much so he overlooked the obvious. The pressure is really crushing him now so no wonder he was so receptive to Father Gregory, being bathed in a white light offering redemption and benevolence. It gave him the hope he has so desperately craved lately. All he had to do is smite the wicked, which is technically what he does all the time. He needed that show of faith that someone upstairs approved of his actions and he wasn't bad. He needed some sort of sign that he wasn’t doomed. It’s really hard to shake that feeling of acceptance in a desperate situation.
Sam wasn't the only one facing a burden and the desire to be saved. The definition of redemption is “the action of saving or being saved from sin, error or evil.” Gloria was a prostitute. Zach was an alcoholic. Sam, someone with a rather dark destiny. All had the same thing in common. Good at their core, but life has thrown a few curveballs. They all deep down craved redemption and didn't care what they had to do to get it. They all desperately wanted to be saved, which is why they were chosen. No wonder they were willing to listen to the bright white light. It offered them purpose. It offered them hope. It offered them peace. But that’s the allure of peace, believing you are among the righteous no matter what you do. Gloria, for example, murdered a man. She had no problem doing it because the angel chose her for this mission, making her a servant of God. While on the surface one would see she was misguided, she did eliminate an evil person and did so with a clear conscience. Does this make her a bad? According to the Ten Commandments, yes, but the motivation was pure. Will she truly be happy being institutionalized for the rest of her life? One could argue she was already in a prison as a prostitute and now she is free. Ah, the fuzzy grey lines this show loves to draw.
Even Father Gregory’s actions were driven by the deep desire for redemption. He desperately wanted to bring hope and purpose to those who desired it. He saw all the suffering in his parish. He saw the moral and social decline in his part of town, yet carried on God’s work despite all the blight around him. He also heard a lot of confessions from the parishioners, making him helpless in knowing such horrible acts people committed. No wonder when he died his spirit turned toward Father Reynolds praying for a solution to the violence and bloodshed rather than moving on. He felt powerful in the great beyond, that he could do real things. He finally found his way to make a difference. But this is “Supernatural” and we know an unrested spirit tends to skew a few things, like assuming vengeance was needed to smite the wicked. After all, that’s what the archangel Michael did. He was a warrior of God. Angels are warriors. He must be an angel.
'An angel of the Lord appeared to them, the glory of the Lord shone down upon them, and they were terrified.' Luke 2:9.
This story hit on Dean’s vulnerabilities too, showing his vehement lack of faith. He wouldn't believe for a second that this is an angel or any higher power at work. It was a spirit. There’s no such things as angels, or God, or anything but them. If there was, his family wouldn’t be dead. His cruel upbringing without his mother wouldn’t have happened. They make their own destiny because all they have is each other. But the fact that Dean stepped in and took on Sam’s mission meant that he believed the spirit, even though the source was suspicious to him. Talk about being your brother’s keeper! He did have a bit of a breakthrough in the end though, accepting the possibility that fate plays a hand in all this. His words could have come partially from trying to make Sam feel better, but I think he also meant it. The culprit he was chasing was meant to die one way or another. Perhaps it was God’s will. He certainly didn’t know what else to call it.
(The choice of lighting here is brilliant to drive home what Dean saw. It's no accident that the only lit spot is where the rod entered the car. It screams "divine intervention.")
Then there’s the mystery itself. To the audience, we’re left to wonder, who was right, Sam or Dean? On the surface, this is a basic blueprint for a ghost story. Dean had a good case, a spirit was the likely culprit. That’s practical thinking. But as the mystery unraveled, how many were also rooting for Sam to be right? Maybe, just maybe, that there was a higher power watching over them? A messenger from God asking Sam to do God’s work and finally getting that redemption? I’m sure the reactions were split, just like the brothers, between those with faith and those without.
It does make you wonder how two brothers of such close quarters all these years ended up on complete opposite ends of the spectrum when it came to faith, even though they have suffered the same losses. Sam’s confession that he prayed every day stunned Dean, just showing how much Dean has shunned acts of faith by not even noticing that about Sam. It makes you wonder, would Dean have accepted the mission of the angel if he had seen the sign instead of Sam? Would that have given him that “seeing is believing” moment that he talked about? I’m guessing probably not, because Dean had vehemently rejected any possibility at that time. Heck, look what convincing it took Castiel in season four! For me though, Sam's heartbreak that it wasn't an angel at the end was crushing. Even acknowledging Dean was right stung a lot. The use of "Knocking on Heaven's Door" while he delivered his words of how he's drowning in evil delivered the big gut punch to an already sad situation. His dark destiny is still upon him and he is getting more desperate. This speech was more like a resignation that he likely can't escape his destiny. I just wanted to give him a hug.
Tonally, this episode is a masterpiece. There are so many visual cues of divinity and light, really driving home the theme of the story. First, there was use of numerous religious symbols all expressing some sort of faith in a higher power. There were the angel figurines in Gloria’s apartment...
Then there’s Sam visiting Gloria in the insane asylum. Interesting how the turn of events from “Nightshifter” had Sam taking on this visit instead of Dean. He was wearing crisp white, symbolizing purity, with that angelic look of empathy on his face. It’s rather stunning to see Sam in all white like this, isn’t it? At least when he’s playing himself.
There’s the lighting on the faces after being visited by the spirit. Amazing VFX.
How about the angel statues, all lit by that single white light:
Angels are watching over you Dean!
Or just that white light shining over the brothers...
Sam’s Heavenly sign...
And the appearances in general of Father Gregory...
Then there's the gorgeous, very moving scene in which Father Reynolds puts Father Gregory to rest...
I recently got Jerry Wanek's book of "Supernatural" sets from the 15 seasons in full color. The motel room from Houses of the Holy was in there. Oh man, it looks so dingy in this episode. What a shame, it's quite colorful and spectacular.
The book (photos from my iPhone):
The church in this episode is St. Andrew's-Wesley United Church, in a very well known place in Vancouver, right across the street from the Wall Centre on Burrard Street where the "Salute to Supernatural" conventions in Vancouver used to be held. I stayed in the hotel next to it twice, each time my room overlooking this beautiful gothic cathedral with gorgeous stained glass windows. It's just as stunning on the inside. Luckily, it's in a very nice neighborhood! The same church was used in season ten's "Paint it Black."
We also learned a very important lesson. Just remember, when doing your seance with a Spongebob placement as an alter cloth, it must be Spongebob side down. Thanks show! That would have been an embarrassment otherwise.
Overall Grade, an A. Reason it's not an A+? Because, the previous episode was an A+ and the next episode is an A+ and they are slightly more enthralling. Still, this one comes very, very close. They were certainly on fire this season.
Back in 2009, I did one of those Television Without Pity style full length recaps for "Born Under A Bad Sign." At the time, I only did such recaps for big favorites of mine, and this one struck me from the first viewing. This was Jared's breakout episode, elevating him to entirely new heights with his acting. It also pushed the tension level and the whole Sam possibly going evil thing to 11. I mean, we really believed he could go evil after this. It was an A+ episode for me. If you love this episode as much as I do, then I suggest setting aside a large block of time, grabbing a cup of coffee, and reading through this very detailed recap and review. If not, then you know how much I loved it and you'll look forward to my next review. Coming up next, "Tall Tales."