Last week’s mid season finale for Supernatural was superb, giving us a character study of Bobby Singer and getting Dean back in the game, while showing Sam’s continuing hallucination problem. “Death’s Door” resonated on many levels, but most of all, it painted a portrait of the core theme of this show: the importance of family.
Family can mean so many things: the place of greatest safety or greatest fear, a place of love or a place of pain. It can be the nexus of our deepest damage or it can be home. In this episode, we see all of these nuances as Bobby Singer tries to outrun his reaper to help his boys.
Bobby has been a loving if cranky presence in Sam and Dean’s life since he was first introduced. Over the seasons, Bobby developed into a father figure to the boys. In this episode we get to see that relationship from Bobby’s point of view, and it makes for very powerful television.
The episode opens with the impact of Bobby’s danger on Sam and Dean. In “How to Win Friends and Influence Monsters,” Leviathan Dick Roman shot Bobby in the head, and “Death’s Door” opens with Sam and Dean frantically trying to stop the bleeding while racing to the hospital. The boys are almost incoherent with grief and fear. They’ve lost so many people, as Dean chokes out when Sam tries to get him to talk about the possibility of Bobby dying. Dean refuses to accept he can lose Bobby, too.
The boys share raw grief, but show it differently. Dean digs himself deeply into a state of denial, demanding to know when the doctor will operate to remove the bullet every time he hears Bobby may die. He won’t contemplate his life without Bobby, but the rage seething just below the surface shows he is aware Bobby may die. The scene where Dean punches the glass case before telling the hospital administrator to walk away telegraphs the roiling emotions inside the elder Winchester.
In this state, he’s almost relieved to spot Dick Roman sitting in his limo outside the hospital. Dean can’t heal Bobby, but he can hunt Leviathan. He can avenge Bobby. In a wonderfully written nod to last episode, Dean is back in the game, with Bobby himself providing the reason why. Jensen Ackles delivers a powerful performance as Dean’s ferocity takes even Roman aback.
Sam is in a very different state. He too is shocked and grief-stricken. Unlike his brother, he doesn’t turn away from the pain. Sam has always tried to face what scares him, tried to find his way through to a better place. He desperately tried to handle the power of his demon blood as a force for good and indeed found a way to turn what had first been a weakness to strength as he faced down Lucifer. It’s no surprise he tries to get Dean to join him in facing the possibility of Bobby’s death.
But it’s also no surprise Sam is terrified at the thought. And that the terror weakens his hold on his hallucinations. Sam is full of conflicting emotions as he reaches for rationality in the face of Dean’s denial, but feels the instability EvilSam referred to in “Slash Fiction”. Sam’s quiet fear as he stares into space while pressing the scar on his hand to remind himself what is real is as affecting and worrying as Dean’s anger. He may be hoping the whole incident is a dream, but I strongly suspect Sam has Lucifer in his head, taunting him. And that won’t be any healthier than Dean focusing on his rage.
That rage calls up the shade of John Winchester, who was so consumed by the need to avenge the loss of his wife, he forgot what his boys needed from him as a father. There is no doubt John loved his sons. Indeed, he sacrificed himself for them, refusing to allow Dean to die. But in his own words to Sam, he was so focused on revenge and on keeping Sam and Dean safe, he became a drill sergeant instead of a dad. Fortunately for the boys, they do have someone in their life who offers them love without strings, even if it does usually come with “idjit” attached.
Bobby spends the episode walking through his strongest memories, both good and bad. The writers take the conceit of a dying man’s life flashing through his eyes and use it to allow Bobby to evaluate himself as a father.
Bobby “awakes” from being shot, but quickly realises he’s in a coma and dying. He also remembers he has to get a message to Sam and Dean, a plan his reaper has no time for. But Bobby is as wily when he’s unconscious as when he’s awake, and he gives the reaper the slip in order to call up his memory of his partner Rufus. Rufus had his own near death experience, and he tells Bobby he needs to dig down to his deepest most painful secret to find the door back to life.
Bobby begins by reliving the worst moments he ever had with his wife. Up to now, I assumed it would be having to stab her to death—twice—but no, Bobby has an even deeper pain. Three days before she was possessed, Karen had asked Bobby to have kids with her and to her shock, he said no. The only explanation he gives is that he breaks everything he touches, which doesn’t sound like the Bobby we know. But the small boy running away from Bobby in his dreams knows those words all too well.
The small boy is young Bobby and he is a terrified child. Bobby in turn appears very nervous of the boy, letting us know he has secrets he doesn’t want to expose. The writers contrast Bobby’s discomfort with his young self with a lovely scene of Bobby taking young Dean to the park to play ball instead of practicing with firearms. A later scene shows Bobby arguing on the phone with John, telling him Sam and Dean sometimes just need to be kids. He ends the call by angrily telling John, yes, he is aware he is not the boys’ father.
But in so many ways, he is. Rufus points out to Bobby how good he was with Sam and Dean, wondering why he didn’t want kids with Karen. That question takes Bobby to a memory of himself as a boy, with an abusive alcoholic father and a broken terrified mother who blamed her son for provoking his father. Clearly, Bobby’s childhood was terrible and he tells Rufus he never wanted kids because he was afraid he would turn into his father. But the speed that he exits the memory without looking for a door tells us there’s more to the story.
Bobby is able to push back the memory because he has to escape his reaper. The reaper is stern with his quarry, telling him in no uncertain terms he is dying and it is his time to go. Bobby has other ideas and manages to cast a spell to trap the reaper. The reaper points out to Bobby the encroaching blankness is a sign the bullet is killing his brain cells. He is losing his memories, bit by bit. With a hint of pity, he tells Bobby he has done enough. Why will he not leave Sam and Dean? Bobby answer comes from his heart: “Because they are my boys.”
The man who was so afraid to turn into an abusive father in fact turned out to be the father Sam and Dean needed so badly. Bobby’s version of fatherly love is based on how he can help his sons grow, not on what they owe him. The contrast with his own father could not be stronger.
We see that as Bobby realizes he has to follow his young self one more time to his memory of his parents. This time, he speaks to his father, challenging him when his father says Bobby breaks everything he touches. This hateful speech pierced Bobby’s youthful heart and he’s been hearing it in his head ever since. But now that he is dying, Bobby can see he made his own path in life.
He tried to avoid fatherhood, but instead of getting what he wanted (as the Rolling Stones would say), he got what he needed. Facing his father, Bobby says, “Well as fate would have it, I adopted two boys and they grew up great. They grew up heroes.”
As cathartic as this speech is, Bobby is not yet done with this memory. He watches his young self get a gun to protect his mother from getting beaten by his father. As his father laughs, Bobby pulls the trigger. Even at that age, he is a good shot.
Far from comforting her son, his mother is horrified and whispers “God will punish you.” On this show, the words are somewhat ironic, as God did not interfere even in the apocalypse. But Bobby did a good job of punishing himself for many years. Finally, he is able to comfort his young self, telling him, “This is where you learn they pretty much never say thanks when you save them.”
Bobby has lost none of his determination to save Sam and Dean and he escapes his reaper again by taking the door back to life. Sam has just finished saying goodbye when Bobby regains consciousness. The boys are overjoyed, until they realise Bobby has a message for them. He manages to write down some numbers on Sam’s hand, but can only manage one word: “Idjits.” And Sam and Dean know they are loved.
Bobby’s brain is too damaged for him to stay, and he flat lines, returning him to his favourite memory. Sam and Dean are over for a movie night, arguing on the couch over candy and action heroes, as brothers do. It’s a simple memory, far from the apocalyptic fights the three engaged in over the years. It is a memory that shows Sam, Dean and Bobby as a family.
Bobby managed to turn the same house which scarred him so badly into a home. In this tale of loss, Bobby’s home is a light in the darkness for himself and for his boys. As the episode shows, it doesn’t matter the house doesn’t exist anymore. Bobby’s home now resides in Sam’s and Dean’s hearts. That’s the message the reaper has for Bobby. He can go now. The boys will be fine without him. The episode ends as the reaper asks, “Stay or go. What’s it going to be?”
Despite the appearance of a cliffhanger, I can’t see Bobby choosing to stay, becoming a ghost with no memories. He is a hunter and knows what happens to souls that don’t pass over. What did you think?