This review of Supernatural’s “Holy Terror” is very late, so I’ll start with my apologies. I had a huge time crunch last week, which made finding time to write difficult. But the episode itself also made writing difficult. I’ve needed time to decide what I liked, what I didn’t and what is intriguing but also worrying. “Holy Terror” was a mixed bag, though it did its job of leaving me on tenterhooks for the rest of the season.
“Holy Terror” is the best episode to date from uneven writers Eugenie Ross-Leming and Brad Buckner. They deliver some emotional moments that will resonate for some time to come. The less successful angel war is a bigger problem than any one writer, so I’ll let them off the hook for that narrative thread. Hopefully, the angels get a lot more interesting in the second half of the season.
I simply do not care about this war or the angels drawing up sides. Neither Malachi nor Bartholomew stand out as characters to me. Bart in particular seems like Dick Roman Light. My current hope for this story line is all the angels, barring Metatron, kill each other somewhere off screen. Sadly, I don’t think this will be the case.
Now, I would love to see more of Abbadon. Abbadon and Crowley are more intriguing on a phone call with each other than the angels are slaughtering each other by the dozens. I’m crossing my fingers the writers have just been holding Abbadon in reserve for the second half of the season and she’s going to be a major player.
Where “Holy Terror” delivers is in exploring the relationship issues in the show. The subtitle of the episode should have been: “I did what I had to,” as various characters either make morally dubious decisions or have previously made ones go wrong.
Castiel has been exploring and appreciating many aspects of being human. From the annoyance of having to pee to the complex emotions surrounding sex, he’s embraced feelings he’s never had before and made the best of his expulsion from heaven and the Batcave. However, his last episode showed he still feels a responsibility to put heaven right, and this episode, he fully commits to that role.
Unfortunately, first he finds Dean still cannot allow him near Sam, so they cannot work together, and then he falls into Malachi’s unscrupulous hands. Cas does what he has to in order to escape, lying to his dual captor/rescuer in order to cut his throat and steal his grace.
If Cas knew stealing grace was an option and yet opted not to steal Hael’s, we can only assume grace theft is considered a horrible act by angels. Cas says his decision makes him as barbaric as the angels who were torturing him. It’s an interesting place to take Cas, as he has made poor decisions for what he thought were the right reasons before and lived to regret them. But when you hang with the Winchesters, there are often no good decisions, only least bad ones.
The newly revealed Gadreel operates on that principle throughout the episode and indeed it appears throughout the entire first half of the season. He responded to Dean’s prayer so that he could hide out in Sam while he tried to find a plan of redemption for failing to keep evil out of the Garden of Eden.
Ironically, by getting Dean to aid his possession of an unknowing Sam, he turns the younger Winchester into a Trojan horse, getting access to the Winchesters’ warded inner sanctum. That access makes him very interesting to Metatron, the only interesting angel of the new bunch. Curtis Armstrong does an excellent job showing what a master manipulator God’s Scribe is, as he dangles that opportunity for redemption in Gadreel’s face, but requires him to violate Dean’s trust to get it. And Gadreel does what he has to, again betraying his word and introducing evil to a previously safe place.
Poor Kevin pays the price for Gadreel’s need to reclaim his good name, as Metatron tells the angel to steal the tablets and remove the one person who may be able to decipher his spell which made the angels fall. I knew I liked the character, but I didn’t know how much until Kevin lay on the ground with smoking pits for eyes. Osric Chau did a great job keeping Kevin’s youth and innocence while showing his intelligence and determination. Kevin will be missed.
His death served to bring forward one of the most difficult but interesting story threads: Dean’s decision to save Sam without Sam’s consent. The initial decision was inherently dubious. Week by week, we’ve seen how Dean’s lies have been snowballing and how much control he has had to cede to Gadreel. Dean’s been aware of how deep a hole he was digging, and we’ve seen him try to tell Sam the truth, only to have Gadreel insist the truth will cost Sam his life.
In “Holy Terror,” Cas’s information about Ezekiel’s death rips the Band-Aid off the suppurating sore of Dean’s deception. After weeks of his decision roiling uneasily in his gut, Dean finally gets clarity that he has to tell his brother the truth, because he let someone with his own agenda into Sam, turning the younger Winchester into the kind of tool he fought so hard not to be with Lucifer.
Gadreel is an excellent choice to tie the Lucifer story line to the current one. Gadreel is associated with Satan and he too betrayed and was punished by God. Poor Sam is once again a vessel and unfortunately, Dean himself set the events in motion.
The writers emphasize Dean’s culpability through Kevin. Dean asks the young prophet for help, but is mired too deep in his lies to quickly explain why, even when Kevin directly asks him what’s going on. I think Dean knew time was of the essence when he asked Kevin to trust him instead, but he’s also avoiding Kevin’s judgement of his actions. I had an ominous feeling when Kevin told Dean, “You always ask me to trust you. And I always end up screwed.”
To Dean’s horror, both Kevin and Sam end up screwed. Dean tries to come clean with his brother, but it is too late. Dean did what he thought he had to do when he invited Gadreel in, and Gadreel does what he thinks he has to do when he takes both Kevin and Sam out. Dean watches his carefully constructed house of cards flutter to the ground as Gadreel reveals how differently he defines “good guy” than Dean.
That brings me to the intriguing but also worrying part of the story line. What are we to think of Sam and Dean? Last season, Jeremy Carver talked a good fight about maturing the brothers, but did a poor job first explaining why Sam did not look for Dean and then why he recommitted to hunting. The season really only came together in the second half when Sam revealed he still feels tainted and that he needs to know he comes number one with Dean because that belief in him is an anchor he needs to swim against his current of self-hatred.
The finale seemed to answer a lot of questions raised in season eight about the boys’ relationship and how central it is for both. This season appears to be revisiting those same themes, with quite a different spin.
Last season, I wondered where Carver was going with Sam’s arc as he had the younger Winchester decide he could walk away from Dean, the hunting life and all the responsibilities toward saving the world. In a hero narrative, he decided he didn’t need to be a hero. Exactly what role that leaves him in this story was unclear to me. I was relieved in the second half of the season when he took back his hero role and felt he could teach his brother about hope.
Instead, he lost his own, and when Dean told him the Trials were designed to cost his life, Sam was prepared to pay that price because he felt so flawed. I cheered Dean’s ability to reach his brother and reaffirm their bond and Sam’s worth.
This season has been dismantling the power of that scene, piece by piece. Sam still wants to die, only he’s now framing that desire as a calm acceptance, not loss of hope. That leaves me in the awkward position of wondering if I have to embrace that desire for the character if I care about him. It also leaves me wondering why, if Sam is so sure he is ready to die, he didn’t complete the Trials and do some good for the world before he checks out. The finale scene between the brothers loses a lot of the power it had when I felt it brought the brothers together.
Dean’s love and need for his brother in his life is now an issue that may break them apart, and a lot of how I will feel about this season resides in the way the rift is mended, as to some extent I’m sure it will be. The terms are critical for me, though, as the relationship between Sam and Dean is the core of the show for me.
Sam and Dean have always been stronger together than apart. Both heaven and hell underestimated the strength of their bond—and that strength resides in what they offer each other. Sam has always needed Dean’s belief in his humanity and goodness. Dean has always needed Sam to temper the hardness he has developed as both a hunter and a leader. Without Sam, Dean becomes FutureDean, willing to use his friends strategically without remorse to gain his ends.
Sam and Dean are both incredible hunters, but Dean is the one who draws people to him. He inspires trust and love, which in turn means people are willing to risk themselves for Dean. All too often, Dean’s leadership means he has to put people in danger to achieve the group’s goal. Jo’s death was the perfect example of Dean having no good choices, only least bad. And least bad was wrapping a dying Jo in explosives to cause a distraction so Dean and Sam could escape.
Dean knows all about collateral damage and how often the people he loves become just that. He also knows that to save the world, he cannot focus on saving a few. The show does not gloss over the collateral damage in the Winchesters’ lives. The scene in season five when the actual Meg rises from the dead to accuse Dean of not caring what happened to her when he pushed demon Meg out the window was very powerful.
Dean did care—but at the same time, he would do it again. As is so often the case, he didn’t have any other options.
Nevertheless, the hardness involved in those decisions is something Dean both has to live with and fight against. The parts of his nature that value relationships and value hunting are frequently in conflict, yet both are intrinsically part of Dean. And Sam has always been the key to Dean’s ability to balance the duality of his nature, rather than be pulled apart by it.
Sam has essentially been Dean’s grace. Loving Sam gives Dean the power to keep on going when his life seems stripped of all hope, and listening to Sam keeps him grappling with the morality of his decisions.
So this revisiting of the season eight finale is a critical revisioning of the boys’ relationship. Is there anything left that can be viewed as desirable? Does either brother offer the other anything only he can give? What will be left when the fire of anger burns away?
If not, then I question what’s left of the conceit of the show. If Sam truly wants to die or even to leave hunting, that can only play out so long before he has to make that decision. That arc kicked into play at the beginning of last season.
If Dean truly needs to learn to let Sam go and not need him as an anchor in his life, particularly as Sam has let go of him, then the relationship is no longer driving the show. In my view, Sam is interesting and Dean is interesting, but neither is as interesting as their relationship to each other. Like Raylan and Boyd in Justified, they are more compelling together than apart.
I am very much still onboard with this season. The story telling has been a big improvement on last year, particularly the first half of the season. But I do feel the story is raising issues that go to its core, which is a dangerous place to play. Hopefully, everything comes together in a way that leaves Supernatural itself intact.