Supernatural’s mid-season finale helped score the CW network its most watched Tuesday in five years. Directed by Thomas J. Wright and written by Eugenie Ross-Leming and Brad Buckner, “Holy Terror” is something of a terror in terms of pacing, but considering the writing duo’s past episodes, which include “Taxi Driver” (8×19) and “I’m No Angel” (9×03), things could be worse.
The ninth episode of the season briefly reunites Dean Winchester (Jensen Ackles) and his younger brother Sam (Jared Padalecki) with the now-human Castiel (Misha Collins) as they investigate the aftermath of angelic incursions. Ezekiel quickly insists that the Winchesters separate from Cas, and our trio is fractured once more, with the remainder of the episode split largely between the reveal about Zeke and Cas’s capture by Malachi (Steven Monroe Taylor).
The meet-up at the crime scene is extraordinarily cute. Cas is clearly pleased to see the Winchesters, and Sam is goofily happy to see him, while Dean glowers. Of course, we know why Dean responds this way, and sure enough, as soon as Cas steps away, Zeke appears and pulls a bitchface. The three wind up at a bar, a scene that makes clear, yet again, the ripple effects of Dean’s decisions and deceptions.
Cas reveals his loneliness and uncertainty when he earnestly says, “It is so good being together again….I hope it’s okay, me joining you.” Zeke has no sympathy, though, and when Cas steps away, he takes control of Sam’s body to chastise Dean. Dean finally questions Zeke’s motivations outright, holding Cas up as an example: “Cas isn’t in good standing with any angel, alright? But here he is, ass on the line, fighting the fight. So tell me, what makes you so special?” But Zeke doesn’t answer, and when Cas returns, Zeke leaves the bar.
The episode’s “Then” sequence reminds us of Dean’s emotional prayer to Cas in the season premiere and that while Dean needs his friend, he’s pushed him away because of Zeke’s demands. And, once more, Dean does as we know he will, telling Cas that they have to separate, but he also tells Cas more about the situation than he has anyone else. Dean ends with, “I don’t feel good about it. But I don’t have a choice.” Ackles and Collins manage to speak volumes here without saying another word. The moment becomes more poignant when we remember that Cas doesn’t know about Dean’s heartfelt prayer; he only knows that Dean has twice told him to leave.
While Dean and Cas are talking, Zeke encounters Metatron (Curtis Armstrong) outside the bar. We finally learn that Zeke is actually Gadreel, imprisoned in “heaven’s darkest dungeon” for allowing evil to enter the garden and “befouling [God’s] cherished creation: mankind.” I’m not the least surprised that “Zeke” isn’t Zeke, but I do wonder at how the episode sets up Gadreel. Are the writers attempting to create sympathy to heighten shock over his end-of-episode actions? (If so, FAIL.) Or will Gadreel play a role in the larger identity theme?
Gadreel apparently chose Ezekiel’s name because the warrior angel was “honorable,” and the suggestion that he seeks redemption and wants nothing more than to be seen as “good” reminds me of Sam’s struggles. However, Gadreel’s response to the angel-free heaven seems off to me. Since Gadreel has had numerous conversations with Dean, can hear angel radio, and has been eavesdropping (moreso than he’ll admit to, I think) how does he not know that the angels were all expelled?
Perhaps most significantly, Padalecki plays Gadreel differently. As carefully as he’s portrayed the nuances of Zeke’s stoicism and Sam’s Samness, Gadreel’s expressiveness – his obvious show of fear and uncertainty – must be significant. That Metatron must convince Gadreel to join him also lends weight to a sympathetic reading, and he only succeeds after emphasizing humanity’s weaknesses, leading Gadreel to acknowledge, “Sam Winchester? It is a mess in here. The brother… I do not know where to start.” [An aside: These lines echo “Slash Fiction” (7x6), and I find the part about Dean particularly interesting since Dean and Abbadon also talk about his state of mind (9x2). As Sam says in “Caged Heat” (6x10), “When angels and demons agree on something...I pay attention.” Just how dark is Dean going to go?
With promises of freeing Gadreel from the Winchesters’ humanity and of restoring paradise and his reputation as “one of [heaven’s] greatest heroes,” Metatron convinces him to join forces. Of course, there is a catch: Gadreel must prove his fidelity by killing someone. He resists, stating, “That is not who I am.” But Metatron knows how this formula works and simply responds, “Yeah. Here’s the first name on your to-do list” before handing off the ominous yellow slip of paper. It’s worth noting that just as Gadreel has had Dean under his control, now Metatron has Gadreel.
On his own, Cas seeks information and is captured by Malachi’s faction. Cas is tortured again, once more for information about Metatron’s spell. When Cas questions Malachi’s strategies, the angel taunts that he is following Castiel’s example, a callback to seasons six and seven and the horror that the then-trenchcoated angel (particularly as Godstiel) unleashed. Malachi orders Theo to kill Cas, who, after being reminded of his failures, simply asks for a quick death. When Theo instead asks Cas to help him curry favor with Metatron, the millennia-old tactician returns. Cas cunningly steals Theo’s grace, smites him, and escapes.
Cas calls Dean from a payphone, and while I love that this scene establishes Cas’s reluctance at stealing Theo’s grace (he calls it barbaric) and Dean’s concern that Cas had to angel-up, it isn’t very cohesive. For instance, Cas tells Dean, “…I got my grace back. Well, not mine per se, but it’ll do.” The scene then shifts to Dean, who responds, “Wait – you’re back? You got your mojo?” Um… didn’t Cas just explain that? I would have chalked this up to Dean simply clarifying the point, but then Cas answers, “I’m not sure. But I am an angel.” What is Cas not sure about? Whether the result of writing, editing, or directing, or a combination of all three, the disjointedness here is distracting.
Dean learns a crucial bit of information in this scene: Cas tells him that Ezekiel is dead. When Dean realizes that a stranger angel is inside of Sam, he goes into a panic and enlists Kevin to find a spell that will power-down an angel so that the vessel can eject it. To this point, Kevin’s scenes have been
fleeting, and the episode’s pacing doesn’t benefit the heavy-handed foreshadowing. At one point, Dean directly tells Kevin, “The clock is ticking.” This comment doesn’t elicit “feels” from me; instead, I find the overt countdown annoying. Another blatant example is Dean and Kevin’s conversation, after they’ve painted the storeroom with sigils. Kevin pointedly asks Dean what is going on, but Dean answers with his fallback, “You’re going to have to trust me…” Kevin sighs and says, “I always trust you. [pause] And I always end up screwed.” Dean’s responds flippantly, “Oh, come on – Always? Not always.” This plays superficially like typical Dean humor, but at that point, don’t we all know that this episode won’t end well for Kevin?
Dean gets Sam into the storeroom, activates the sigils, and launches into a hurried confession; as expected, Sam gets angry and storms out, punching Dean as he leaves the room. Sam then approaches Kevin, and his body language suggests that something isn’t right here. Sure enough, as Kevin tells Sam that he’s worried about Dean, it becomes obvious that this isn’t Sam – it’s Gadreel.
Because Dean didn’t warn him, Kevin has no sense of danger here. When Gadreel-as-Sam gets very close, Kevin looks somewhat confused, but he doesn’t flinch; after all, why should he be afraid of the man who’s treated him like a brother and protected him so many times? Gadreel tells Kevin not to worry about Dean — and then he smites our too-young-to-die prophet.
Dean enters the room mid-smiting and is flung against the wall. He calls out to Sam, but this time, he cannot break through a possession. Gadreel tells Dean, “Sam is no more. [pause] But I played him convincingly, I thought.” He takes the tablets and leaves, dropping Dean to the floor, only feet away from Kevin’s corpse. [If you haven’t read Chau’s response to the episode, do so now. It made me more teary than the smiting scene. #KevinLives]
I do wish that the build-up to this emotional end had been handled differently because even on re-watch, I primarily feel an odd mix of dread and numbness as the storyline rushes to its finish. Regardless of any technical issues, Ackles delivers a sucker-punch of grief, and the last minute of screen time is heart-rending. Everything has been stripped away from Dean: Kevin is dead; Gadreel is in possession of Sam’s body; Sam is we-don’t-know-where; and Cas is off on his own. But is something going to come of all this? Or have we watched Sam, Dean, Cas, and Kevin suffer for nothing?
Season nine has continued Supernatural’s “meta-madness” tradition with particular emphasis on stories and identity. Metatron himself says in “Clip Show” (8×21), “[Storytelling] is the true flower of free will…When you create stories, you become gods of tiny, intricate dimensions unto themselves…so many worlds!” This fits nicely with the narrative’s push for Sam, Dean, and Cas to write their own stories rather than respond to “programming,” and I still believe that season nine has tremendous potential.
However, the season hasn’t been unified, and I’m not as confident in its intent or ability to resolve the “Who am I?” arcs as I’d like to be. “Holy Terror” sets up Cas, Dean, and – surprisingly – Gadreel, with each saying, “I did what I had to” as explanation for, respectively, stealing grace, angeling Sam, and killing Kevin. I’m hopeful that the second half of the season tackles this self-justification and plunges our characters into revision-mode. I also hope that we get Sam back – and soon.
The preview for “Road Trip” (9×10) reveals that Dean and Cas get Gadreel back to the bunker and that Dean will bargain with Crowley (never a good sign). I question how much darker things are going to get for Dean? Can he and Sam break their codependency? When Sam finally does reappear, how will he react to learning about Gadreel and how his body was used to kill Kevin? Will Gadreel’s storyline persist past “Holy Terror” or will he be discarded? And how will Cas reconcile his human bonds with his angelic loyalties? Will he choose to be human?
If these storylines are dropped, then we’ll be left where we’ve been before, with our beloved characters (and the talented actors portraying them) flayed open only to be boomeranged back to status-quo. (See season 7.) If that happens – again – then Kevin Tran will have truly died in vain.
“Road Trip” airs on Jan. 14th on the CW network.
- Regarding the opening bar massacre: When the angels fell, did their blades fall with them? Because they all seem to be armed…
- If the fallen angels still leave scorch marks (see the bar floor where the initial massacre takes place), then how in the world did Cas and Dean explain Ephraim’s scorch marks to Nora in “Heaven Can’t Wait”?
- Did Zeke and Dean really have a conversation that lasted the time it takes to drive 50 miles?
- At the bar, Cas tells Dean, “You once told me, you don’t choose what you do. It chooses you.” When did Dean tell Cas this? It doesn’t fit the Team Free Will philosophy, and if it’s out there, in “canon,” I want to know which episode.
- Writers’ should avoid self-referential jokes about a scene of extremely dubious consent. No matter why it was used, it’s awkward and tasteless.
- If Gadreel had been imprisoned, how did he know about Dean and Cas? After all, he tells Dean in 9×01, “…we believe in Castiel – and you.” Are the two that famous in heaven? Or is Gadreel simply that clever and manipulative?
- This episode has another “born again” reference – bikers this time instead of virgins (9×08). I wonder if the “born again” theme is intentional? It would tie in well with the idea that our characters have to make decisions about their identities…
- In his last conversation with Dean, Kevin mentions that the spell for shutting down angels comes largely from an old Men of Letters book instead of the angel tablet. He doesn’t specify which book, but I’m betting that it plays a role in sorting this heavenly mess.
- The sigil on the storeroom wall responds to Dean’s blood, so what did Gadreel modify about the spell and to what end?
- Who’s next on Gadreel’s “honey-kill” list?
- At the end of “Holy Terror,” Dean’s now lost everyone he’s had a paternal connection to: Ben (6×21), half-Amazonian daughter Emma (7×13), Kevin, and Sam.
- Everyone was live-tweeting this episode: Jared Padalecki and Jensen Ackles, Misha Collins, Osric Chau, and the newly crowned King of All Fandom, Orlando Jones.