This week’s episode takes Sam and Dean to that classic supernatural story setting: the haunted house. Rather than focusing on thrills and chills, the story uses the thin veil between the human and spirit world to explore problems with communication. Poor Bobby has been trying hard to let Sam and Dean know he’s there. What he hasn’t been imagining is the Winchesters’ half of that conversation.
Sam and Dean have been grieving Bobby’s death in their own ways. Sam faced what he considered to be the facts and buried himself in work as a way to keep going. Having to fight his soul damage at the same time meant Sam couldn’t surrender to his grief. On the other hand, Dean has been going through the classic stages of mourning: denial, anger, bargaining . . . and this episode opens with Dean moving into acceptance.
In Slice Girls, Sam and Dean argued over the possibility of Bobby being a ghost and leaving them signals. Sam firmly told Dean, “It couldn’t be.” Dean’s stubborn retort was: “Why not?” Sam’s reply revealed where the boys were in their grieving: “Because we want it to be.” Besides reflecting the sorrow they have over the many losses they have suffered, Sam’s comment shows both boys think what they most want is for Bobby to be back, no questions asked.
But time has passed and even Dean is ready to look at the issue logically. In “Party On, Garth,” he agrees with Sam that if Bobby was there, he would let them know. The theme is picked up early in “Of Grave Importance.” Sam asks Dean if he’s sad to let go of the idea of Ghost Bobby. Dean answers, “No, it’s better this way. Even though I wish we could see him again don’t mean that we should.”
What should be a healthy step for Dean has already been undercut by the show: Bobby has not moved on. He fended off his reaper to stay and protect his boys. He isn’t at all pleased at the idea of Sam and Dean letting go of him and accepting his death. And contrary to what the boys believe, he has been trying very hard indeed to communicate with them. He just can’t crack the code to interacting with the living.
Dean’s words let Bobby know he is running out of time. If Dean puts away Bobby’s flask, Bobby will be bound to it and unable to be with the boys. The hunter is a very frustrated spirit. His attempts at communication—thrusting the sword to Dean, pushing his journal onto the floor, finding the Greek paper on the Amazons—have all been too vague to get through to the boys. Bobby needs help and it turns out the place to offer assistance is the old Whitman place.
A haunted house is a place where the veil between the spirit dimension and the human dimension is thin. Even here, communication is very difficult. Bobby has trouble getting the other spirits to talk to him and Annie (a lovely hunter with a history who met her end in the house), never mind get through to Sam and Dean. Annie is finally able to sweet talk a supercilious ghost into giving Bobby advice: to move anything in the physical world, he has two options: get very angry or very Zen.
Bobby admits to Annie he has a lot of anger at Dick Roman, but the Zen route is the safer choice. Unfortunately, Bobby is many things, but Zenlike is not among them. The man is used to being capable and in control of himself. Letting go is not easy for him—and I suspect this may be emblematic of his whole journey. He refused to let go of Sam and Dean when his reaper came for him. I think it is a good sign that Bobby is finally able to find that Zenlike space when he is determined to tell the boys they need to head back to the Whitman place. Not only does he finally find a way to let Sam and Dean know he is there, he finds a way to calm and centre himself.
Communication issues run throughout this story. Dean spends a lot of time on the phone, trying in vain to talk to Annie. Bobby and Annie are themselves trying to communicate with the many fellow spirits trapped in the house, only to find some are disinterested and some are incapable because they have gone insane. The ghost hunters finally find Victoria, a “fancy lady” ghost who is experienced at moving objects and appearing to the living.
The writers have some fun with the communication theme with Victoria, as she takes offense to both Bobby and Dean translating “fancy lady” as hooker. She ends up as the conduit for Bobby to explain what he knows to the boys, though she would rather have polite conversation. Sadly for her, her ability to reach the boys leads to her “death”–which is what? Heaven? Non-existence? Purgatory?
Supernatural has always been a wonderful show for musing on life’s big existential questions. The writers don’t try to arrive at an answer, but rather use the characters to discuss subjects like good and evil, right and wrong—and here, what happens after death. Bobby knows heaven, hell and purgatory exist, all too well. But what happens to the ghosts who stay behind and then are burned? Do they go on to their original destination? Or is the spirit actually completely destroyed, turned to nothingness?
The discussion is important to Bobby and Annie, because Annie wants Bobby to make sure her body is burned. Nothingness sounds good to her. She doesn’t miss the life she led. Annie had no one to love, just a series of foxholes, also known as one-night stands with other hunters (like Sam, Dean and Bobby!). Annie looks a little askance at Bobby’s risky decision to dodge his reaper, because of the probability he will go mad and become a vengeful ghost. She admits the difference between the two of them is Bobby did have people to love—he had Sam and Dean. But is that a good reason to stay tied to the boys?
The question hangs in the air as Bobby and Annie go about their hunt in the same space as Sam and Dean, but in different worlds. The haunted house is a great setting for a really scary ghost story. “Of Grave Importance,” despite delivering a couple of jumpy moments, never builds the kind of scare factor an episode like “Bloody Mary” did. I don’t think that’s a failure, though, as I don’t think the writers were aiming to write that kind of episode.
Instead, they use the haunted house story to set up a series of ghostly tropes. They want to explore how the situations feel from both sides of the veil and how difficult it is to communicate between worlds. Dean taking a shower while Bobby writes on the mirror is a very recognizable horror scene, but we don’t usually get to see the ghost’s frustration at having to work so hard to communicate. Bobby and Annie looking out the window of the haunted mansion as Sam and Dean drive away is another horror story standard—except this time we see how frustrated Bobby is at being tied to the flask. Even when we get a pretty standard Sam and Dean ghost fight, we have the added layer of the danger to Bobby’s spirit—and that is what lies at the heart of this story.
When Sam and Dean return to the haunted house, they can finally see Bobby. His power as a spirit has grown as he learns how to crack the code of living as a ghost, so in this place where the spirit and living worlds touch, he breaks through. The three men figure out why they couldn’t communicate earlier (Sam tried the talking board when Dean had the flask elsewhere), but Dean has more he wants Bobby to hear.
To Bobby’s surprise, given how grief-stricken Dean has been, the elder Winchester isn’t overjoyed to see him. Dean asks Bobby what happened to prevent him from moving on. Bobby testily replies, “I wanted to stay. I need to help.” Needing to help is the Winchester way, so he is surprised Dean is upset Bobby has stuck himself as a ghost. Rather hurt, he says to Dean, “Stuck here with you?” He’s prepared to stand by his adopted sons and battle the Leviathan with them. What could be wrong with that?
Dean, however, is looking at a different future. He tells Bobby, “It’s not right, you know that.” It’s against the natural order, and Dean had a good schooling from Death last season on not interfering with the natural order. But Dean himself and Sam are living examples of going against the natural order, so it would be surprising if Dean couldn’t get past that. The real problem for Dean is revealed by his last words in the episode: “What are the odds this all ends well?”
Dean is worried sick he will have to hunt Bobby down and end his existence. And he cannot wrap his mind around the possibility. He’s already had to deal with losing this man who gave him unconditional love and that was almost unbearable. The idea of having to hunt Bobby is truly unbearable—and Tessa the Reaper told Dean the same thing Crane the ghost told Bobby: all ghosts deteriorate over time and go mad. Bobby is sure he can beat the odds; Dean is doubtful. And that makes this final conversation go a very different way than Bobby expected.
“Of Grave Importance” sets up the final run of episodes for season seven. Bobby considers the battle against the Leviathans to be his unfinished business. I have no doubt he will be useful as the boys go up against Dick Roman. But at what cost? And are the boys willing to pay it?