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Happy 100th Episode Review, SPN!

In honour of SPN’s completely kickass 100th episode, I offer my very first episode review!

This was the Big Theme Callback/Culmination Checklist payoff episode, so I’m largely focussing on those story threads and the brother’s relationship, tracking as many as I saw (and I’m sure I missed some). I wouldn’t usually write a review this way, but the episode seemed to demand it. It was done so well, hitting the sweetspot virtually every time, that it continues to astonish me – the level of love and integrity the cast and crew bring to these guys’ story. I’m certain Show wouldn’t be as worthy of our love if they didn’t.

This episode was chock-full of family, identity, brotherly, Winchestery goodness. And, incidentally, whenever I note a  \o/, it's literal. I do not usually express this stuff on the outside, but watching this episode, my arms were punching up unabashedly like three times. That’s a LOT, believe me, and, even more unusually, they were all Sam’s.

So:

Aww, Zach’s bonding in Fired Loser Bar. This was a surprisingly sweet scene, since we’ve ever only seen him on-task; he’s never had a chance to show us the inner strain of being a middle-management angel, although he expressed it in Dark Side. I loved Zachariah’s expression at the lyrics of the song, and the genuine little “...Yeah?” of interest and fellow feeling he gave Stuart, who was thinking of moving on to “something to do with the internet”.

And then immediately the switch is flipped and we see he hasn’t really changed at all; he might show a miniscule moment of bonding with one of these “pig-filthy humans”, but he couldn’t care less about him in the big picture of getting his job back. Nicely giving us a little more character rounding, just a smidgeon of sympathy for him, before reminding us of the rest of who he is – and setting him up to be thoroughly killed off!

Enter ... Dean. Owie, Dean, getting ready for the Big Sacrifice, but more tidily and with more time to settle affairs than your dad had. Restrained and melancholy music, slow motion action, full of pain and exquisite sound detail, are combining to tell us “end of the road” as Dean is shedding each identity touchstone, in order.

Dad’s jacket? Check. Impala keys? Check. Colt 1911, with a pragmatically and symbolically empty clip, the weapon of a man done fighting? Check.

Then, more mundanely, the requisite letter, and the box addressed to the only person with a fixed residence who’s going to know or care? Check. Whiskey? Check and check. Take another swig, Dean, it’s never really helped, has it, but what the hell.

Hah, and he’s in Mike’s Travel Inn. Archangel, he’s on his way.

But wait – who’s that slipping in, out-of-focus, to stand between Dean and that wide-open door to surrender (with “100” on it)?

IT’S SAMMY!

\o/

Unfortunately for Writers, if they were trying to maintain the will he/won’t he tension throughout the episode, they just blew it then for me. The moment I saw Sam standing there, I knew everything was going to be okay. Especially so early in the run-time. There’s no way it can go wrong from here, it would be untrue to the emotion and staging of the moment, and everything SPN is, even if Writers spend the rest of the episode trying to pretend it will go wrong.

Not that I cared; Show has never been about plot-driven tension, as far as I’m concerned, and No Return delivered what I come here for in spades and pruning shears and trowels and a buttload of other gardening implements. (Or playing card suites. Or whatever the “spades” mean in that expression. What does it mean?)

Dean is so surprised that Sam found him in the Big Rogue Brother Trackdown, while Sam deprecates that it’s not that hard to figure out. Not for these brothers, but it’s the first note of affirmation (in an episode which is a veritable metronome of them) that Sam has really, truly come to understand Dean.

Cue the Big Umpteenth Argument, but this one's significant because we finally get Sam’s Big Apology (which is what his admission that running away – not the act of leaving, but the turning away from family – was wrong, every time, is). Sam finally gets to be on the receiving end of being abandoned, and Dean finally gets to say the Big Screw You of his pain to Sam’s face.

Sam invokes Bobby, working on something – always a talisman of hope for the brothers in the past, and Dean rejects it, calling BS. Sam then says he has to stop him, and Dean has a moment that completely makes me wibble: his trembly little breath, before he throws that familiar jab of Sam’s addiction in his face.

But it’s lost its sting for Sam since he refused to take more demon blood, in the very presence of Famine (which was the Big No for that arc, but bold caps will have to wait for if I review Valentine). However, it shows that Sam’s betrayal is still an open wound for Dean; he just wants to push Sam away, backfoot him, not have to fight him. Dean will fight if he has to, but he knows that even if he wins it’ll break him even further.

Yet Sam has finally remembered that he fights smart really well, and brought angelic (rather than demonic) help. Heh.

At Bobby’s, Dean is still throwing verbal punches. It’s not going to be the hope of Bobby figuring something out, or his almost-father relationship with Dean, or even the promise made at the end of Curious Case that he wouldn’t check out of the fight, for Dean, that’s going to turn this sucker around. Dean’s past all of that, and way past any rebuke or fury Castiel can bring to bear on him, later on, either. Everything that defines him – hunter, warrior, general, friend, son, free will advocate, brother – he’s repudiated, acknowledging no claim they have on him.

Castiel flits off to get the person we were expecting, either because of spoilers or because (in my case) we see the name “Jake Abel” in the opening credits and bounced a little in our seats. (And apparently angel mooks have the same wardrobe department as demon mooks, just another little visual cue to remind us that they’re basically all the same and Show is humanist to the core.)

Hi Adam! Welcome to the loony bin. Right out of the gate, you have the most Winchestery of agendas driving you, to rescue or be reunited with a beloved family member through a self-sacrificial deal. That, and that attitude of yours – yeah, you’ll fit right in.

The establishing shot for this scene, of the four of them gathered around Adam, just screams of John. It’s fitting for this episode that John is practically the pivot in the room between his sons, his estranged buddy who inherited them, and the angel they’ve sucked into their wake. You can almost see him standing there, where the directions of eyelines intersect. Beautiful staging, again.

It is John – his personality and influence – that has shaped this moment through the people in it, way more than any other agent in the cosmos. And John’s formative presence is strong, almost overwhelming – in the beginning. As the episode’s events unfold, reflecting the progression of the whole series, his sons finally move beyond the patterns he set, to define and assume their own roles and relationships in the Big Coming Of Age. As John would feel is about time, I think.

This particular scene establishes that Sam and Dean, in spite of where they’re at, have now recovered all of their easy chemistry and communication; exchanging glances, rolling eyes, they’re tracking with one another as they process Adam’s new information. They don’t agree about what to do about it, but they get that about each other, too.

As for that information, obviously the angels don’t have a Plan B for the Bropocalypse. But it is established that Adam could be Michael’s vessel, in much the same way, I think, that Nick is Lucifer’s – a body to allow him to get in the game (which is how I think Michael is going to make an appearance in the finale episodes, given the end of this one).

We have Sam playing to strength, using his brain (yay!). We have Dean so very sick of Castiel being stroppy and blaming him for his own free will choice and its consequences (in a way that will make a nontrivial section of the audience very, very happy). Adam’s channeling John so hard in some of his lines – like, “It is the devil, right, so we gotta stop him” – that it makes me shiver. They’re delivering the goods to a very wide spectrum of fans here.

And then, classic:
Determined Sam: But there’s another way!
Guardedly interested Adam: Great. What is it?
Satirical Dean: Well, we’re working on the Power Of Love.
Sardonic Adam: How’s that going?
Cheerfully derisive Dean: Mm. Not good.

Oh, Dean. You have no idea, do you, that the writers are cackling gleefully as they have you disparagingly predict your own redemption. You’re just getting a kick out of not having to be Dean in any of this, not be the desperate older brother who has to come through somehow. You’ve left that behind you.

Which means Sam has to step squarely into Dean’s shoes, delivering the Big Give Me Some Time speech. I’m begging you. Trust me. Give me some time. Does he even notice he’s echoing the exact thing Dean has said to him nearly every time he’s about to run off to do something bullheaded and half-cocked? Finally, he feels what it is to be a big brother begging the little one to have faith in him, and be denied. This episode is the capstone for Sam’s journey of discovering his brother, putting actual first-hand experience to the intellectual knowledge he’s acquired of him.

What I love most about Sam here is how gracefully he assimilates it. He doesn’t take his newfound understanding and try to be Dean; he uses it to restore Dean. He’s finally learned that his role is to be Sam to Dean, just as Dean’s role is to be Dean to Sam. And that that’s okay. Equally valuable, complementary, but not identical; and even with all the mirroring they do of each other, not interchangeable. Stronger together? They damn sure are now.

Then Adam gives us: “John Winchester was just some guy who took me to a baseball game once a year.” Which raises the question of just how close ghoul!Adam in Shark was to the real Adam. Personally, I see no real discontinuity between this statement and the relationship John had with Adam as represented by the ghoul. At this point, real!Adam has been eaten alive, come to learn that his mother was too, spent time in heaven, and talked for who knows how long with the angels, being told who knows what. That’ll rearrange a guy’s perceptions and priorities right there.

Moreover, it’s not a statement made in a vacuum; it’s made after Sam presents “blood and family” as a reason for him to side with the Winchesters. He’s emphatically making the point that his blood loyalty is to his mother; he’s her son, not “John’s boy”. It’s a relative statement (no pun intended), not an objective one: “We may be blood, but we are not family. My mom is my family.... So no offence, but she’s the one I give a rat’s ass about, not you.”

Note also that this characterizes Adam as a sweet, gentle, optimistic guy – and a hardass waiting to be unleashed the moment you destroy his family. Sound like anyone?

The next conversation he has with Sam shows that he and his mother had at least some level of codependence, to which the bonding he had with John couldn’t compare. But he also affirms that he was desperate for a father, would have taken anything. That alone convinces me that he was glad for the contact he had with John, that they did bond, that it did mean something to him – that he would have taken more if he could.

Anyhow. First panic room scene! Where the first line of dialogue tells us that Dean can’t (or won’t) identify any intense expression as anything other than sexual, any more than many among the fanbase can or will. While making those fans, again, very very happy. (Or maybe he’s just taking the opportunity to be an ass, because Castiel has been pissing him off. Not out of the question.) Now that was sneaky, Writers.

The brothers are united in not letting Adam be the angels’ buttmonkey, and we have the next beautifully subtext-rich line:
Dean: Naw, you’re not gettin’ me.
Sam: No, no, no, I get you ... perfectly.

Which he does. \o/

With the Big Angsty Fatality Namecheck rolling along nicely, we head right into the Big I’m Tired speech; Dean’s tired of fighting. Again. Only this time it’s fighting who he’s supposed to be, which is interesting, because for the last two seasons we’ve seen him on a spiral of losing himself. The only identity he has left to him is the only one that’s sounded loud, clear and consistent in that whole time: the angel’s destined chosen one. It’s become an anchor; an unwelcome one, sure, but the only one which hasn’t given way on him. What he’s really tired of is not knowing who he is. No longer fighting this ages-long-ordained designation has at least given him some measure of relief.

Sam doesn’t yet know what to do with this, because he hasn’t seen the full reality of Dean’s rejection of the brother bond yet. Which he is now shown, with gentle, remorseless finality; Dean doesn’t believe. In him. It’s the Big Succumbing To Destiny, only contrary to the fears of fans for several seasons, it’s Dean who falls. The once-champion of free will in the face of all Sam’s fears, tells him it’s just a matter of time. No way around it.

Dean hasn’t yet seen how far Sam’s come; is afraid to see, because that might ask him to do the most painful thing: hope. More than that, saying that Sam can’t avoid destiny absolves himself for the same thing. And he’s so far gone that I think he really believes it.

Dean’s rejection sets the stage for Sam’s ultimate discovery of strength – that it is not his brother who will prop him up, keep him from falling. Dean’s continual refrain of “that’s not gonna happen, because you’ve got me” has totally given way beneath him. Sam will discover that he has the will, within himself alone, not to fall. It is that confidence in himself, as much as in Dean’s true identity, that enables him to do what he does in a few scenes’ time. The combination of Dean’s earlier belief in him, and the humbling discovery of where his own anger and self-righteousness has led him, has made him into a man who can stand alone and say no. Heartwrenching, painful as this moment is, he could not learn this about himself any other way.

So Castiel seems to decide to give it a shot, but we all knew that wasn’t going to work, and we have another Big Panic Room Untimely Escape. Dean’s on the loose. Adam gets visited by Zachariah in his dream, where we’re treated to a snide commentary on the boys’ codependency, a few flashes of Winchester orneriness, before a few choice words about Adam not belonging, not family. Adam’s real family is his mother, and Zachariah has him back on the hook. If Zachariah has learned one thing in this whole mess, it’s where the Winchester levers are.

Dean has a cute exchange with one of those fringe religious nuts, paying off the angels’ human spy network thread from The End. And then Cas “happens” to him. Brutally. We get another Big Self-Destructive Just Do It, discovering that Dean is quite happy to go suicide by angel, and unlike his fists, Castiel’s verbal assault doesn’t make a dent. However, Castiel eventually steps off and Dean gets hauled back to Free Will base camp. Which just lost Adam. *headdesk*

Who is sitting in the green room, in for a world of disillusionment. If Zachariah has failed to learn one thing in this whole mess, it’s to never betray a Winchester and then ever stand in front of him with a smug look on your face. If he doesn’t get you, another one will, eventually. Even if they currently hate/distrust/despise/never want to see the other again, it doesn’t mean they won’t kill you for him, and you won’t be expecting it, either.

Zachariah’s way off about a lot of the interdynamics of the brothers, by this point, which makes sense, as they’ve come a long way since he last saw much of them. And arguably he never entirely got their relationship in the first place. Yes, Dean and Sam are both going to come to get Adam, but they don’t “put aside their differences” to do so, as he predicts. Instead, Dean refuses to budge from his difference and Sam chooses to believe the difference won’t ultimately matter.

Adam looks gutted, and in true Winchester fashion comes back with brittle, futile defiance. He does fit right in with that attitude! And, true to form, receives some horrible physical punishment in consequence, so once again we all agree that Zachariah has to die until he’s dead.

Second panic room scene! Beginning with another sweet note of sheer comfortableness between the brothers, Sam asking how he’s doing and Dean joking about not pissing off nerd angels. By this point, they have both rejected each other as much as is humanly possible for them – Sam at the end of last season, Dean at the end of this one – both believing that there was no other way.

Yet, here and now, they are still here. Together. Talking. Accepting. Loving, whether they want to or not. Throughout this scene, even with everything at stake, they are able to feel and say absolutely anything without disrupting their connection. There is no miscommunication (although Dean is yet to understand why Sam does what he does, because he hasn’t resumed being Dean yet). They’ve accepted they can’t change the other, not their agenda or choices, and they don’t try. In hitting rock-bottom they have also found bedrock, and the relationship is finally truly stable. And it was worth waiting for.

And Sam puts his full understanding of Dean, and his faith in him, on the line, and unlocks the cuffs holding Dean to the cot.

\o/

You know what you just did there, Sam? You just saved the world. Oh, sure, there are some technicalities to iron out, but that moment right there, that choice to turn to family and trust in it, to trust Dean to be Dean, is what did it.

Of course, Dean doesn’t know that yet. He kind of thinks you’re crazy, but what does he know? He’s not thinking straight. He’s forgotten who he is, but he’s about to be reminded. He’s forgotten that he put that faith in you, when he let you walk away at the end of Good God, Y’all, and that you’re mirroring that act of faith now, and it’s all going to be okay. It’s the answering Big Letting Go of Sam to Dean and, in that, the Big Affirmation Of Free Will (again by the opposite brother than we expected), trusting that “When push shoves, you’ll make the right call.”

Because. He’s still your big brother ... and you know, now, exactly who that is.

Castiel does the boxcutter sigil thing, showing just how far he’s come as a down-and-dirty scrapper, even if he never started out as a one of the warrior angels. Plus, Misha!chest! (I just hope they’re not working toward a shirtless Bobby to complete the set. I like our boys in layers, and much as I love Bobby, he needs to stay clothed.)

So we’re back for a repeat of the Big Green Room Deal, and Zachariah’s second chance, in the same place where he completely botched it in Lucifer Rising. Wonder if it’s going to go any better this time?

Sam lets Dean walk in alone, putting further proof to his stated faith in him. Demonstrating how little Zachariah has a handle on things, he’s set up the Big Family-Baited Trap (echoing both Shadows and the confrontation in John’s lock-up in Sympathy, where Dean first learns that he’s the Michael Sword). It’s one of the few things Zachariah could do to even begin to get Dean’s back up, when he was ready to walk up and give himself to the angels. Then again, it’s been made clear by this point that Zachariah’s pettiness is driving his decisions as much as his desire to close the deal; even so, he’s shooting himself in the foot.

Ready or not, Dean does not take kindly to this kind of thing, and he really doesn’t like you, Zachariah. So, well done. Your desire to get back at Dean has just set the ball rolling on reminding him who he is: one of a family of genetically-mandated diehard loyal jackasses, who tend to walk into traps and react ballistically, and unexpectedly, to being manipulated. Which means you have to try the Big Brother-Torture to force him to do what he was intending to do anyway, which I hope felt satisfying, because it’s all going to go downhill from here.

The token Big Won’t Be So Easy attempt, which Zachariah flicks aside, and the Big You Sonuvabitch as Zachariah cranks up Dean’s loathing for everything he represents, while beating the destiny drum hard. There’s no choice, there’s never been a choice. Dean’s primed to say yes in the first place, and even so, he’s discovering he’s stalling to say it, begging Zachariah to stop rather than just say yes.... So maybe Zachariah does know what he’s doing, knew better than Dean how much extra incentive he’d need to say it. Even if he doesn’t know the current state of the brothers, he has come to know Dean pretty well.

And so we finally witness the Big YES. No fooling, no lying, conceding defeat, and it wasn’t Sam, it was Dean. I bet Writers had a lot of fun plotting those lines, and it goes to show just how much the brothers infect and inspire each other with their beliefs; Dean’s perpetual insistence on free will convinces Sam that it is truly possible, and Sam’s repeated succumbing to the tugging of destiny convinces Dean that there’s no other way.

There’s the Big Betrayal Heartbreak in Sam’s face, and Dean can’t meet the eyes of either brother. His shame is signalling that there is still more of who he is that he didn’t realise he still had. But he’s not lying, and Zachariah triumphantly calls down Michael, and Dean knows we’re in the Big Past The Point Of No Return.

... Aren’t we?

“He’s coming,” says Zach, bursting with self-satisfaction, but honey, it’s already too late. You gave Dean just a second too long to look at Sam and rediscover who he is, his one core essence that he cannot shed. He is Dean: the big brother who cannot, will not, ever willingly let his little brother down.

A tiny smile, a wink, and in that we feel the dawning of Sam’s Big Dean’s Here And It’s All Gonna Be Okay relief, even before he does. His big brother has always come for him, and always will.

Clearly, Dean didn’t come with a contingency plan, so he’s winging it, but really that’s what he does best. He immediately hones in on Zachariah’s weak spot: self-preservation. A decidedly non-self-sacrificial dedication to the cause. But even as Dean’s revising the deal, we can tell from his tone – that silky, furious, pugnacious, familiar tone – that he’s coming up fighting. He’s got the bit between his teeth and he’s ready to fight everything to not let Sam down. The deal is already well and truly over; and even if he can’t ultimately escape Michael, he’s taking everything in reach down with him. Because he’s Dean.

He takes the shot (as if only Sam would come in armed), stabs Zachariah in the face, or near enough, and kills an angel. But, Show, you said only angels can kill angels – and OMG DOES THIS MEAN DEAN’S AN ANGEL???

I’m going with no. The prediction may come back to bite me, but as I said, Show is humanist to the core. It has always been through-and-through humans against the supernatural, demonic or angelic. To make Dean or Sam special because they’re really angels (or because of being tainted by demon blood) is completely antithetical to everything they’ve affirmed in the last five seasons. They’re special because they’re human, because as humans, out-numbered, out-powered, not-a-hope-in-hell, they still choose to stand and fight.

Adam, the only other person on the planet who can host Michael, falls victim to plot necessity and gets left behind, so that both Michael and Lucifer can have a physical presence in the showdown and Sam and Dean have another personal, family reason to fight. That’s my other prediction, and I’m stickin’ to it.

And we have the Big Driving Relationship Talk, the Big You Didn’t Let Me Down and the Big I Have Faith In You affirmations of each other’s resumption of identity and roles. It feels wrong in any vehicle other than the Impala, but is actually right. One, they didn’t have the Impala – they took the angel express to California, and she is presumably still back at Bobby’s. [Edit: wait, no, she's not – she's still way back at Mike's Travel Inn, isn't she? That's just sad.] Two, the Impala is reserved for overcoming, for family victorious, and we’re not there yet. Writers are saving it for a bigger impact in the coming episodes, probably, much as they saved true brotherly reconciliation for this one. It sucks that she’s not in the 100th episode apart from her keys, but that’s the way it goes, because Three, it symbolically reinforces the boys turning forward, into the fight, not in Dad’s car. This is their decision, their fight, their identity, their mission, not those bequeathed to them by John. That’s not to say that they won’t by choice incorporate everything good John left them into that, but that’s the whole point; they’ve achieved the Big Grown Up stage where they can choose.

What’s that, Dean? You’re making the Big Screw Destiny, We’re Doing This Our Way speech? It’s everything Sam’s been waiting for, everything we’ve been waiting for, and the music and our hearts soar as Sam sums it all up for us with a quiet, profound, “Sounds good.”

Comments

( 6 speakses — have a speak )
deepbluemermaid
Apr. 21st, 2010 02:33 am (UTC)
DUDE. I friended you for the Leverage/TPB crossover of epic awesomeness, and got stellar SPN commentary into the bargain! This is really insightful stuff, pointing out a bunch of things I missed and getting to the heart of the boys' relationship and roles.
themonkeytwin
Apr. 21st, 2010 02:36 pm (UTC)
YAYS! I love a bargain :)

Man, this ep was so much fun I couldn't help but write about it. The worst thing is now I kind of really want to go back and go through all the episodes, evaluating them from the perspective of everything we've learned since. I've been thinking about that for a while, but the amount of fun I had doing this one means I will almost definitely do it.... Just not yet. Too much to do first! Aaargh....
erinrua
Apr. 22nd, 2010 06:31 am (UTC)
I think I used up all my words over in my own episode review, but I wanted to say thank youfor all your thinky thoughts! I've really enjoyed your review, as it helps me further consider the many delicious points this episode made, and think deeper even than I was.

Thank you so much for all this! I've saved to mems for future enjoyment. :-)
themonkeytwin
Apr. 22nd, 2010 05:09 pm (UTC)
Hey, it was completely my pleasure! You're welcome. I'm just glad you enjoyed it :)

I keep thinking my well of words have run dry - and then I read something else, and I'm like, "ooh, ooh, ooh, and -!"
datenshiblue
May. 11th, 2010 02:55 am (UTC)
*cheers!*

Very very fun read on this review. I enjoyed it thoroughly, and I can honestly say my reactions to the episode were very much along the same lines.

There are very few shows that can actually pull me forward on my seat. Some shows, some special episodes, and this was one of the most memorable in the current season.

Only 3 days to go till the finale... I'm excited, a little scared, but generally preparing myself for what I believe will be an amazing wrap to the season, and the arc.

So much of it started right here. Thanks for the walk back through, it was great. :)

<3
themonkeytwin
May. 11th, 2010 06:21 pm (UTC)
Yay! Glad you enjoyed. This ep was definitely a home-run with bases loaded for SPN. And they resolved so much, and set up so much for the last episodes.

*is excited and a little scared and getting prepared with you*

Their season finales have yet to disappoint. It's going to be awesome!
( 6 speakses — have a speak )

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