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TV Review: Supernatural – “99 Problems”

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Oh. My. God.

Those were the words that rang in my head over and over as the closing credits of Supernatural's episode "99 Problems" rolled on my screen. What a poignant ending. If he wasn't already, this is probably the episode that forever endeared Dean Winchester to all Supernatural fans.

Dean is frantically driving the Impala, carrying an injured Sam away from a horde of demons. It looks like they are in the clear when suddenly they are faced with a flaming truck blocking the road. The demons break into the car and are about to drag the Winchesters out when suddenly other people arrive. They spray the demons with holy water from a fire truck and start what seems to be an exorcism ritual over a loudspeaker. One of them approaches and warns them that it’s the Apocalypse.

Needless to say, the brothers are shocked. They show the man, Rob, and his friends the contents of the trunk of the Impala to convince them they are on the same side. Their saviours take the Winchesters back to town, in Blue Haven (Minnesota), heavily barricaded by both physical obstacles (cement blocks) and demon-specific ones (demon traps). They enter a church where the Reverend is performing a triple wedding (apparently, the town has had eight weddings so far that week) and where all the guests are openly carrying shotguns. After the ceremony is over, the Reverend spends some time with the Winchester brothers and takes them to the church basement, where the townsfolk (including children) are making various demon-fighting weapons.

When the brothers meet Reverend Gideon’s daughter, Leah, they realise that she is a prophet, and she is the one who has been receiving messages and guidance from the angels to help fight the Apocalypse. A little concerned by this unusual turn of events, Sam leaves a message for Castiel on his voicemail (“I left him a message. I think.”). On the one hand, the brothers are concerned that the angels are using the townsfolk to do their dirty work, but as Dean puts it, as least they are “running to the exits in orderly fashion.”

The church bell rings and the bartender, Paul, tells the brothers it means Leah has had a vision. There is going to be another attack, and a team is put together, led by the Reverend and assisted by the brothers. The team defeats the demons (in a great fighting sequence) and the brothers can’t help but appreciate the fact that they are not alone (“I guess that’s what it’s like.” “What?” “Having backup.”).

But things immediately start taking a turn for the worse when Dylan, a local teenager, is killed while under the Winchesters’ supervision. At the funeral service, Dylan’s parents, Rob and Jane, blame the brothers for the death. While the Reverend struggles for words, Leah has a vision and predicts that Dylan and all the others who have passed on will come back when the dead rise come Judgment Day. Leah tells the townsfolk that they are the chosen ones, and if they follow the angels’ commandments, they will be given Paradise on Earth.

These new commandments preclude gambling, drinking, and pre-marital sex (“Dean, they basically just outlawed 90 percent of your personality!”). Dean tells Sam that it’s not their call to decide if this situation is acceptable or not. It seems like more of Dean’s I-don’t-care attitude, but he then goes to talk to Leah, and we realize that Dean desperately wants to believe what Leah is saying – even at the expense of his lifestyle. She tells him that while things will get very bad, their ultimate victory is inevitable. Dean admits that being chosen feels like a curse, and Leah points out: “Must be hard, being the vessel of Heaven and having no hope”

Meanwhile, Sam is at the bar with Paul for a now illegal drink. Paul is not comfortable with the new religious fervour that has gripped the town; he believes in being authentic, and not praying to a God he doesn’t believe in just because it’s the Apocalypse. Sam admits for the first time that he thinks God stopped caring.

When Sam joins Dean back at the motel, he informs him that the communications towers have been shut down, isolating the town from the rest of the world. Sam wonders if the angels are having their fun, but Dean doesn’t want to pursue the conversation. Despite the curfew, he goes for a walk.

The Reverend and some townspeople – including Jane – follow an upset Leah to Paul’s bar. The angels have told Leah that they can’t go to Paradise because there are still some people who are disobeying the commandments. They want to destroy all the alcohol and have Paul leave town, but he refuses. Dean, hearing the commotion, walks in on them and helps the Reverend try to keep tempers down. Amidst more commotion, Jane shoots Paul dead, claiming, “No one is going to stop me from seeing my son again.”

Back at the motel, Castiel appears to Sam. Castiel is so drunk he can barely stand straight. Sam brings Castiel up to speed on the situation in Blue Haven, and Castiel shocks Sam by revealing that Leah is not a prophet.

Dean comes back to the motel the next morning, covered in Paul’s blood, surprised to see Castiel (“Where the hell have you been?” “On a bender.”). He sets matters straight: Leah is the Whore of Babylon, who rises when Lucifer walks the earth: “And she shall come, bearing false prophecy. This creature has the power to take a human form and read minds.” The real Leah has probably been dead for months; the demons are under her control and the exorcisms fake. And the reason why Leah is doing this is to lure the people into performing acts – like Jane killing Paul – that will send them to hell. The way to kill Leah is to drive a stake made of a cypress tree from Babylon into her. But this has to be done by a true warrior of God, and what with Castiel rebelling against Heaven, Sam going demon-blood crazy (“Sam, of course, is an abomination”) and Dean losing hope, the only true warrior at hand is Reverend Gideon.

At the church, Jane is seeking comfort from Leah, and her father is deeply troubled by what she is telling Jane. He is even more troubled when, at church, Leah tells the congregation that there are a couple more sinners left in the community that need to be taken care of, i.e. burned alive. When the Reverend tries to stop her, Leah threatens to expose him as a sinner too.

A bewildered Reverend Gideon has his world spun on its axis when, after Castiel brings him to the motel room using his power (thus convincing him he’s an angel), he is told who Leah really is. As the small band prepares to go face Leah, Dean gives Castiel aspirin to help him with his hangover; Castiel admits that he doesn’t know how Dean handles having a deadbeat Dad.

Under Leah’s supervision, the ‘good’ townsfolk are herding the ‘bad’ ones into a basement closet, including kids. But when Leah tells them to burn them alive, Jane and Rob realise that something is wrong. Leah heads over to Gideon’s office and is ambushed by the foursome. But Gideon wavers as ‘Leah’ begs her father not to hurt her, which gives her enough time to overcome Castiel, Gideon, and the Winchesters. Leah runs back to the basement where she turns the townspeople against Gideon by claiming he’s a demon. A fight ensues and Leah straddles Dean. As she is choking the life out of him, he reaches for the stake and runs it through her. To everyone’s surprise, including Leah’s, it kills her; Dean somehow still qualifies as God’s warrior.

Back at the motel, while Sam tends to a bleeding Gideon and Castiel is lying on one of the beds, still a little fuzzy from Leah’s attack, Dean takes the Impala and leaves. He drives all night and arrives the next morning at Lisa’s house. She asks him if he’s alright, and he admits that he’s not. He tells her that he wanted her to know that when he does picture himself happy, it’s with her and Ben. She’s shaken by this admission, and realises that Dean is about to do something stupid. She begs him not to do whatever he’s thinking of doing, and he tells her that he has to before leaving.

Michael Shanks guest starred in this episode (to the joy of SG1 fans, Pip  in particular). He was, as always, quite fantastic and although it's probably not quite doable, I'd love to see him in another episode of Supernatural.

The title of the episode, of course, has to do both with the episode number (which is, you guessed it, 99), as well as a reference to Jay Z's song, "99 Problems" (although the chorus would have to be reworked somewhat to suit this episode).

When the Winchesters first walked into Blue Haven, I couldn't help but be reminded of the future Dean saw earlier in the season, in the episode “The End” (504). The visual reminder of what could be makes the march toward a bad ending seem all the more inevitable. Thank you, Julie Siege, for toying so with my emotions so.

I think I have been watching and analyzing way too many episodes of Fringe lately, because I couldn't help but wonder if the church's address (number 9160) has anything to do with, well, anything. It was just so prominent and stood out. I of course thought of the Bible. But where to look? Since I’m no Bible expert (I read it and have yet to understand 1% of it), so I’d love to hear from someone who is. J.J. Abrams, I blame you for messing with my head. I shudder to think of the consequences had I also been a Lost fan.

Castiel provided for sombre levity in a way that both suited the hopelessness of the character and that of the situation while staying true to the acerbic wit and humour of the series. First was his voicemail message (“You have reached the voicemail of…” “I don’t understand. Why do you want me to say my name?”). Then, of course, there was Drunk!Castiel whose drunken desperation is a poignant contrast to his previous seemingly unshakable faith in God. Misha Collins’ performance, enhanced by that of Jared Padalecki as a surprised yet still in control Sam and that of Jensen Ackles, as a not-quite-hopeless-but-getting-there Dean made the scene between the three of them (when Dean comes back to the motel to find Castiel there) priceless.

The choice of the location, Blue Haven, is quite interesting. Of course, there is the fact that ‘haven’ is a place of safety, a sanctuary of sorts. Then there is the fact that the colour blue represents sadness in English (feeling blue) and it represents being drunk in German (being blue). Yet at the same time, a blue sky is related to optimism. Is this a way for the writers to let us know that although Dean is feeling blue and Castiel is being blue, the sky is going to become blue again one day?

The question of Ben's paternity wasn't quite addressed, but the implication always was and remains that he is a Winchester. He and Lisa are thus a weakness that can be exploited against Dean by both Lucifer and Michael. The former can use Ben and Lisa to create a trap that would simultaneously help him get rid of Dean but also break Sam and make him say yes, and the latter can either use Ben to convince Dean to say yes, or just use Ben as a vessel.

Which would make the Jesse angle, explored at the beginning of the season in the episode "I Believe the Children Are Our Future" (506), all the more interesting, as the children would not only be our future, but guarantee that there is a future in the first place. I hope this is an angle that will be further exploited in upcoming episodes (or in season six).

By the way, I still think that Michael should use Sam as a vessel. Just saying – not only he would have an insanely strong body to work with, but Sam would be, erm, too 'full' to say yes to Lucifer.

Paul’s quip about ‘eight weddings so far this week’ is a reminder of how, in times of desperation, humans tend to seek solace not only in a higher power, but also in one another.

I love how the writers combined two concepts, that of false prophets and hopelessness. The last couple of episodes seem to have been an exploration into the very depths of hopelessness, and this one is how vulnerable it makes a person to falsehoods.

Leah’s power doesn’t only come from her ability to control demons or to read minds but mostly from her ability to use the townsfolk’s desperation at facing the Apocalypse to create a false sense of hope. She manages thus to sweet-talk her way into the confidence of all the townsfolk, to the point that she is able to manipulate good people into shooting one another and setting others on fire. “Beware of false prophets, which come to you in sheep's clothing, but inwardly they are ravening wolves” (Matthew, 7:15).

I found it all the more striking that the power over the congregation passed from a person who had it because of his faith in God, Reverend Gideon, to a person who faked it, Leah, at a moment where the Reverend, out of humility, was unable to express himself. It’s a reminder that false prophets often sound too good to be true, while real ones often give us answers that we at first don’t always find helpful. Interestingly enough, while false prophets are a valid concern all must be keenly aware of and on the lookout for, they are also the reason for many to reject religion outright.

The other concept, that of hopelessness, while still centered on Dean, is also starting to involve Sam (about time!). I must admit that I am fascinated by Dean right now, and no, it has nothing to do – for once – with any fangirling. Rather, it's a fascination born out of the identification of parallels between what he is going through and what many people around me are going through. Quite honestly, it's also something that I myself have gone through.

Despite everything he has been saying, and despite the way he has been acting, the fact that Dean was considered a ‘warrior of God’ begs reflection. It implies that to a certain extent, hopelessness and questioning are a normal part of the path a servant of God should tread. This would mean that even Castiel might have been able to kill Leah, despite his reservations (“And you’re an angel.” “Poor example of one.”) It also makes me wonder if in fact, Dean does have, deep down, hope – but that he is so afraid of having that last hope dashed that he is protecting it behind a thick wall.

And I repeat: I really wish Sam would take a more prominent role, and I would love the writers to work on developing his relationship to hope. Why does Sam still have hope? Does he – since he admits to Paul that he thinks God doesn’t care anymore? Or is it related solely to a need for redemption for breaking the last seal and jump-starting the Apocalypse?

This episode seems very à propos, what with all the problems we are having in the world, from wars to conflicts to families breaking apart to natural disaster after natural disaster. “Witness how the world is being afflicted with a fresh calamity every day. Its tribulation is continually deepening.  … Its sickness is approaching the stage of utter hopelessness, inasmuch as the true Physician is debarred from administering the remedy, whilst unskilled practitioners are regarded with favour, and are accorded full freedom to act.”

But we can’t rely on blind faith to help us out of it, but rather on intelligent devotion. The question for me has now become: where is the line between having hope and becoming a blind follower? We don’t want Dean to become a blind follower and just have hope for the sake of having it. But for that to happen, he needs to figure out how to keep hope alive without becoming susceptible to false prophets. By the same token, how can Castiel rekindle his hope? And will Sam’s need for redemption be enough to keep him going?

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About Sahar

  • Jaim

    Great review! I thought it was interesting how Sam has become the brother with a renewed sense of hope or at least determination whereas Dean seems lost. However, even though Dean is lost he still seems to have enough faith to kill Leah, unbeknownst to himself. This moment in the show reminded me of a scene in the mini-series of Stephen Kings’ “The Stand”(if you haven’t seen it you would probably enjoy it). Mother Abigail is talking to Rob Lowe’s character about the role each of them will play to defeat Satan and what God expects of them. Then Rob Lowe’s character writes(his character is deaf) that he doesn’t believe in God, wherein she replies with a laugh, “It doesn’t matter if you don’t believe in God because God believes in you.” I think that this sentiment is being subtly displayed within Supernatural right now. Dean and Castiel are feeling abandoned by God and also unsure what they are fighting to save, but even with that crisis of faith, they still have an urge to fight. Dean, most of all, still is able to defeat evil and be that God warrior.

    I wonder that if Sam’s renewed sense of determination to do the right thing will again lead him astray(i.e. becoming Lucifer’s vessel)and he will make a choice that seems like it’s for the greater good but actually will only fuel the apocalypse even more. He is a man who is easily swayed by a sense of self-righteousness. He believes he’s right and that’s enough for him to take action whereas Dean can see the shades of gray. Ironically, in the beginning of the series I would have characterized the two in the opposite manner. However, Dean seems to have more of an intuitiveness about this rough fight between good and evil than Sam. I think some of this has to do with Dean being on the road most of his life, never getting off time like Sam was able to do.

  • Thank you Jaim! I’m really happy you liked the review. I haven’t yet watch “The Stand”, but the scene you mention is quite reminiscent of the current situation in Supernatural. And your reflection about Sam’s sense of determination to do the right thing could lead him astray is an excellent one. Fans seem to think that because he made that mistake before, he can’t make it again. However, Supernatural has proven to us time and again that it’s a pretty ‘real’ show – barring the supernatural occurrences, lol – real enough that the characters are not typical two dimensional ones that only go forward. That’s not who irl people are; we take two steps forward, one step back, we spin around, we do somersaults… Which is what Sam and Dean have been doing. In short… It’s an excellent question and you never know 😉

  • Jaim

    I too like the realistic aspects of the Supernatural universe. The creators don’t want characters to become completely saved or completely beyond redemption or how else would we as an audience relate. I think fans think that Sam wouldn’t be careless enough to make the same mistake, but I wonder how much of his decisions are fueled, unbeknownst to him, by the demonic blood that is flowing within his being. He was forever tainted by that blood as an infant and even more so by ingesting it during the previous season. How do we know that this isn’t having a subtle power over his decision-making? Consciously, he thinks he’s looking to end the apocalypse yet all of is actions may still lead to him becoming the vessel. I almost wonder if this has to happen, which is why God isn’t interfering, because this eventual confrontation between Michael and Lucifer leads to a new beginning of sorts. I remember reading Paradise Lost, and the narrator making a point to show that Lucifer, even in hell, couldn’t use his wings to fly over the fire lake until God deemed it so. Although Lucifer tried to thwart God and failed he was still a creation of God, a creation God knew would become a force to fuel doubt within humanity. I have a feeling that God knows what Lucifer will do not only because God is omniscient but because Lucifer is still a creation of God. God knows what role Lucifer must play because he created him to play that role.

    Ultimately, the way the confrontation comes together depends on the choices that Dean makes, because he is still a pure vessel(untainted like Sam) and truly has free will. Sahar, do you think that this apocalypse may be necessary for something else to occur? I get this feeling that the end conflict needs to happen for something else to come in to fruition. No one ever thinks about what comes after the apocalypse. We always assume that nothing is left but maybe that isn’t truth.

  • Dundus

    The exact phrase for what would be required to kill the Whore of Babylon was “servant of heaven,” not “a true warrior of God.” I think the semantics are important, since Michael and Zachariah seem to be in charge of heaven now, and all of Team Free Will is endorsed by God.

    Also, the episode was set in Blue Earth, Minnesota, not Blue Haven. It’s come up before, as the home of Pastor Jim, which is weird since they didn’t refer to him at all in the episode. Perhaps that’s lying on the cutting room floor somewhere.