“Trial and Error” is a mixed bag. It’s the episode that kicked off the trials, a big season 8 arc, and history has proved this one to be essential, like all the way to the series finale essential. Still, despite all that, I would only call it partially brilliant.
Most of the time, “Trial and Error” was just plain annoying. Dean was written way out of character while Sam was super practical and calm. The family that was behind this whole story was cringeworthy and unwatchable and the dialogue much of the time was atrocious. In other words, the writer of this episode, Andrew Dabb, was trying way too hard. However, the Hellhound scenes were quite intense and there were two pivotal brotherly scenes, so it did have some value. It also pushed the season 8 plot bunny forward by a giant leap, which was important at the time.
The whole episode started with Kevin, who was clearly a mess. I had to remind myself why Kevin was putting himself through his misery, but then his conversation with Sam gave me the answer. It totally bummed me out. It’s just another raw deal Kevin got ever since he met the Winchesters. Every demon is after him and his mother and he needs this to be over. Too bad it doesn’t happen for him. Actually, it’s really sad to go back and watch Kevin knowing how things ended for him. None of it was fair. F*** you show.
But then we get to enjoy a few heartwarming minutes of Sam and Dean settling into their new home. Okay, it’s mostly Dean, but it’s sweet. He’s excited about finally having his own room! Heck, we all are. The decor is simple but quintessential Dean - guns, weapons, albums, and most important, a picture of him and Mary. It’s clean, no funny smells, no creepy motel stains. He even has memory foam that remembers him! I was smiling right along with Sam. They even have a real kitchen where Dean can fix some really mean burgers. Ah, I could watch this for a whole hour. Sam and Dean going on a decorating spree - visiting flea markets, charming boutiques, comic book stores, Walmart…okay, I’ll stop.
But yeah, Kevin calls and it’s over for a matter of minutes. Rats. Should have known since I know what show I’m watching. Kevin tells them that closing the gates of Hell involves a spell that has to be spoken after completing each of three trials. The translation he shares about the trials is priceless!
“The tablet says, "Whosoever chooses to undertake these tasks should fear not danger, nor death, nor..." A word I think means getting your spine ripped out through your mouth for all eternity.”
After this, Dean flies off the rails for the rest of the episode. He was very high strung, saying things that were totally off, and he was so oblivious to Kevin who was clearly struggling. He goes into full dick mode and gives Kevin pills to get through it? Even Sam was worried about Kevin and let Dean go on with his bullshit anyway. Grow a pair Sam! I mean, how could he let Dean say this when Kevin is clearly hurting?
Sam, we are on the one-yard-line. It is time to play through the pain.
(Great job of foreboding there Sam)
Then it’s just a string of inexplicable lines from Dean that make me wonder how the hell these lines ever made the editing process. This is Dean’s response when he finds out that the first trial is killing a Hellhound and bathing in it’s blood?
“Yeah. Hey, if this means icing all demons, I got no problem gutting some devil dog and letting Calgon take me away.”
What??? It just gets worse.
“Hellhounds like to collect on crossroads deals. So all we got to do is track down some loser who signed over his special sauce 10 years ago, get between him and Clifford the big dead dog –easy.”
Aww man, bad dog jokes? Is that what he’s been reduced too? It just doesn’t stop. We then have to endure multiple scenes involving the shallow Cassity family who all deserved to be dog chew toys. Those scenes were summarily fast forwarded during my rewatch. Who thought any of this would be entertaining? Of course before we get through any of that, we have to endure more horrific lines from Dean:
I think we've still got some Jesus juice left in the trunk. All right, I'll take care of the, uh, the X-ray specs. You stay here. Do not let J.R. and the gang out of your sight, all right?
I gut old yeller out there, and maybe – just maybe – you walk away. I don't – you're meat.
And when one of you starts bugging out, we'll know who's on tap to be puppy chow.
Well, you camp here, figure out who whored their soul. I'm gonna go scout the grounds – see if I can't gank Huckleberry Hound before he makes his next move.
Huckleberry Hound? WHERE THE F*** IS MY TV BRICK??
I mean really, Dean was so anxious, so eager, so gung-ho, so fueled up on something that wasn’t right. He was so desperate he proposed reckless plans, like when they missed the first Hellhound opportunity. He wanted to summon a crossroads demon and demand a hellhound. Sam was at least thinking clearly, that plan would have Crowley unleashing a hundred hellhounds. “I want to kill a Hellhound and not die.” How could Dabb write Dean so recklessly and Sam so overly practical? It does explain a lot of Dean and Sam’s characterization in season 15 I guess.
Alright, I got all the bad stuff out of the way. Eventually, things settle down and get better. First is the pivotal scene between Dean and Sam, where Sam wants to help Dean on the Hellhound hunt. Dean outright refuses and his reasons why pretty much prophesies the final episode of the series. Dean is going down swinging and Sam will carry on his life. This is what was meant to be. It’s really sad to see Dean jump into this default mode so easily after all they’ve been through, even though I know it is hard to break this habit since it’s been ingrained in him since he was 4 years old. It may be understandable, yet when you hear Dean saying these lines to Sam, doesn’t your heart sink a little?
Dean: Because of the three trials crap -- God's little obstacle course. We've been down roads like this before, man -- with Yellow-Eyes, Lucifer, Dick friggin' Roman. We both know where this ends -- one of us dies... Or worse.
Sam: So, what -- you just up and decided it's gonna be you?
Dean: I'm a grunt, Sam. You're not. You've always been the brains of this operation.
Dean: And you told me yourself that you see a way out. You see a light at the end of this ugly-ass tunnel. I don't. But I tell you what I do know -- it's that I'm gonna die with a gun in my hand. 'Cause that's what I have waiting for me -- that's all I have waiting for me. I want you to get out. I want you to have a life -- become a Man of Letters, whatever. You, with a wife and kids and -- and -- and grandkids, living till you're fat and bald and chugging Viagra -- that is my perfect ending, and it's the only one that I'm gonna get. So I'm gonna do these trials. I'm gonna do them alone -- end of story. You're staying here. I'm going out there. If landshark comes knocking, you call me. If you try to follow me, I'm gonna put a bullet in your damn leg.
(Great job of foreboding there Sam)
Sigh. Ah well, the tension suddenly turns up to eleven and the Hellhound hunt gets rather exciting. In a flash of brilliance thanks to Kevin, Sam and Dean get to wear special glasses, ones where they can see the Hellhound. Yum. It’s dark, the creature is lurking in the shadows somewhere, there’s an innocent victim (in this case Ellie) that needs to be saved, and the shaky and distorted camera work is brilliant. First AD Kevin Parks did a brilliant job in his directing debut.
What was even more brilliant, we actually got to see the Hellhound this time! It was just scary! It wasn't so much a dog as it was a freaky ghost like creature with big fangs and red eyes. Yikes! Dean encounters the beast, but in that typical and somewhat predictable twist of fate, he’s bested by the creature. A nice swipe of claws to the abdomen does it, and the knife goes flying. Just as he’s about to become puppy chow (his words, not mine), Sam shows up with a well timed shotgun blast to piss it off, goes for the knife and ends up wrestling with the beast on the ground. When he sliced that creature in defense and bathed in its black blood, it was such a stunning visual. The trials had begun, Sam was the chosen one, and I felt Dean’s devastation. He failed.
(Dean's in two kinds of pain here)
(I don't think that black blood is going to wash out of those shirts)
Now it’s time for pivotal brotherly moment number two, and I can’t help but think that Sam’s speech is one that Dean would have said at an earlier time. This used to be that old Dean Winchester grit and determination whenever the chips were down. I guess Sam learned from the best. It’s all the more reason I’m despising this season 8 version of Dean:
Sam: I'm closing the gates. It's a suicide mission for you. I want to slam Hell shut, too, okay? But I want to survive it. I want to live, and so should you. You have friends up here, family. I mean, hell, you even got your own room now. You were right, okay? I see light at the end of this tunnel. And I'm sorry you don't -- I am. But it's there. And if you come with me, I can take you to it.
Dean: Sam, Be smart.
Sam: I am smart, and so are you. You're not a grunt, Dean. You're a genius -- when it comes to lore, to -- you're the best damn hunter I have ever seen -- better than me, better than dad. I believe in you, Dean. So, please -- please believe in me, too.
Of course, Sam says the spell, falls to his knees in agony, his arm glows yellow (look at those veins!) and then he recovers with a reassuring, "I can do this." Naturally, Sam's confidence is mirrored by Dean's absolute cause for concern. Aww Dean, you're making me feel for you again! I'm worried too.
I guess in a way, it was good that Sam ended up taking on the trials. For Dean, it would have been a suicide mission. For Sam, he wanted to live. That is until he got to the end of the trials and decided he’d rather die then let down Dean again. Yeah, it really doesn’t add up, does it? But hey, that’s another episode that I already reviewed, so we’ll let that go for now.
The VFX guys deserve huge kudos for the Hellhound scenes. I’m glad there was a clever and believable way to see the Hellhound (still loving those glasses) yet still generate an element of fear when it was lurking in the shadows. Plus, the ghostly fierceness of the beast was pretty wicked. They especially earn major congratulations for making something this pretty look this bad:
I do have one problem with what was revealed in this episode. Crowley didn’t tell Ellie about the ten year timeline? He wouldn’t do that! Even Yellow Eyes was seriously into the rules. Crowley was a stickler for them. There were boundaries writers, follow them!
I do question how quick it was for Sam to find the Cassity family. Talk about hitting the easy button. How long was Kevin in that shower?
This is more of a reflection on season 8 in general, but my biggest disappointment with the whole closing the Gates of Hell storyline is we all technically knew it wasn’t going to happen. The show wasn’t ending and they weren’t going to get rid of demons. The problem was the lack of clarity as to what that really meant. Was the whole ritual truly going to get rid of demons forever? What about the ones roaming the earth? Would they be trapped on earth or sucked back down into Hell before the gates closed? I wanted to see them succeed, if nothing else to explore the ramifications of what they did. Like maybe a world without demons wasn’t the bed of roses Dean thought it would be. Perhaps with all the angels roaming the earth, having no demons around to keep them in check would have created disaster. Better yet, maybe angels and demons were trapped together on earth, the trials instead expelling all demons from Hell, creating total chaos. I’m sure there would have been another tablet with a universal reset button that could have changed it. There always was something. But no, they didn’t have the guts to go there.
Overall grade, C-. Just like a lot of Dabb’s scripts, it was 5 minutes of pivotal brotherly moments, 5 minutes of really cool action and 30 minutes head scratching exposition and filler. What sold this, like every other episode, are those deep looks of concern that Sam and Dean show for each other. Coming up next…”Freaks and Geeks?” Man, I hate that episode. That review might not be pretty.
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