This week’s “Repo Man” is a fantastic episode which crystallizes the overarching theme of the season and kicks the final arc into high gear. Written by the always amazing Ben Edlund, “Repo Man” is classic Supernatural: dark, taut and layered with nuances on where Sam and Dean are emotionally. Their emotional states are critical knowledge. To take down the Leviathans, each brother will have to face his worst enemy: himself.
At the end of last season, Sam opened up his memories of his time in hell. But he did not process the memories enough to integrate them into his psyche and take away their power to hurt him. Indeed, we don’t really know if Sam can—Castiel was convinced the damage was too extreme. Yet Sam survived the taking down of the wall and he survived taking back his hell memories. The question this season is: Can he survive his own repression of not only his pain, but his fear of what it means being Lucifer’s chosen one?
Fittingly, Sam’s unconscious uses Lucifer to symbolize his damage. In “Hello Cruel World, “ Dean tried to convince Sam the Lucifer he sees and hears is not real, but Sam is not able to banish completely his doubts. We’ve seen him pressing on his scar, most notably in “Death’s Door” when Bobby was dying. In “Repo Man,” we get a glimpse of what exactly he’s been trying to repress this season. Sam doesn’t just fear the pain of remembering torture. He fears the part of himself that liked being powerful.
Edlund illuminates Sam’s fears by setting up a parallel story with Jeffrey, the man the boys exorcized four years earlier during a serial killing spree. The killings have started again and Sam and Dean come back to town to tie up loose ends. Sam’s own loose end, Lucifer, is a constant presence for Sam, though he’s able to hide the hallucinations from Dean. Sam’s presented his ability to carry on despite his damage as a good thing. Intellectually, he knows Lucifer is his mind’s representation of painful memories, and Sam thinks keeping them together means he can keep a handle on them.
But Lucifer is a wily bunk mate. Repressed fears don’t go away, they just leak into the cracks of our control, changing shape to fit the situation. Lucifer tries to get Sam to acknowledge him, so he can emerge from the deep and take control, and he uses many tactics. He is sympathetic, funny, irritating, frightening and plaintive, but Sam is able to hold firm. However, when Sam realizes Dean is in danger, Lucifer recognizes the chink in Sam’s armour.
What Sam wants is help and so help is what Lucifer offers. He pokes at Sam’s fear by telling him Dean is probably dead. Sam can’t help but respond by telling this part of himself to shut up. He soon isn’t at all sure he wants Lucifer to shut up, because Lucifer begins to be helpful. Edlund beautifully shows Sam turning over the case in his mind, with his subconscious nudging him toward clues he’s missed. His inner demon is on his best behaviour as he says, “I’ll even help you solve this little Nancy Drew mystery.”
As it turns out, Jeffrey’s demon was helpful, too, teaching Jeffrey how to act on his murderous impulses and not get caught. Jeffrey is very clear that he loved being possessed. He loved the power and he loved his master. He’s also clear the demon chose him because he already possessed the traits to be a serial killer. All the demon did was hone Jeffrey’s own instincts. And that is exactly what Sam fears in his relationship with Lucifer. Was he drawn to power? Did he at some level like being the vessel?
It doesn’t take long before Lucifer is urging Sam to access the violent part of himself to save Dean. When Sam tries to make Havelock spill what she knows, the devil tells Sam, “Hit her. Shake her up. Get this stupid cow to focus.” Sam doesn’t unleash everything Lucifer suggests, but he does allow a very frightening part of himself to emerge as he threatens the frightened woman.
The irony is hunters need to access their violent tendencies to be good hunters. Four years ago, Sam and Dean tortured what they thought was an innocent man in order to find Lilith. In the fourth season, Sam truly thought drinking demon blood would help him avenge Jess and stop the apocalypse. The line between good and evil is not always easy to see, and Sam’s subconscious knows how easy it is to get on the road filled with good intentions.
As soon as Sam engages with Lucifer, he starts down that road. His response to Havelock’s terror her son will be killed is to force her to do a summoning with her son’s cut off ear. He snaps, “Do you want the ear or the kid?” His dark side purrs, “You’re giving me the chills.” In the parallel story, Jeffrey’s demon tells Dean Jeffrey was always evil. He says, “All I had to do was loosen the lid on his jar.” Sam’s lid, too, has now been loosened and he’ll have to face what comes pouring out.
Dean unknowingly crystallizes Sam’s fear when he describes Jeffrey. He says, “He’s a psychopath, Sam, that’s what they do all the time, is act. Act like they’re normal, like they’re not balls to the wall crazy.” Dean isn’t aware just how much his description resonates with Sam, who’s been acting like he’s not balls to the wall crazy for months.
That act is about to end. As his brother sinks into exhausted sleep, Sam’s hallucinations start up in earnest. Lucifer lets Sam know he is now in charge and sleep is a thing of the past. As Sam desperately tries to banish his demon by pressing on his palm, Lucifer tells him, “No, no Sam. No nap for you, Sammy. You let me in. You wanted me, partner.”
Meanwhile, Dean snoozes, oblivious to Sam’s crumbling reality. Dean’s exhaustion symbolizes his own inner demon we’ve seen explored this season. Jeffrey taunts the older Winchester by telling him, “You were so desperate to fix the world back then. It kills you that people keep getting hurt and you just can’t stop it.” The serial killer is able to manipulate Dean by making him feel guilty for how badly he hurt Jeffrey during his “rescue.” Dean has a very hard time living with the violence he needs to draw on to solve individual cases in order to win the big picture battles, especially since the Winchesters never really seem to win.
Dean feels like he is on a treadmill and the only thing that changes is the body count. He despises himself for his ability to kill and blames himself for having the innate ability to be a master torturer. As he told Elliot Ness in “Time After Time,” he’s not sure why he’s still a hunter, and since that’s all he considers himself fit to do, the result is depression.
I think we’ve seen hints Dean is processing his depression as he processes Bobby’s grief. He was able to really enjoy meeting Elliot Ness, probably because he was so far removed from his real life. He’s no longer stuck in his grief about Lisa and Ben, as he’s out in bars again (only in Supernatural would engaging in one night stands seem like a step forward).
Dean has been obsessively focusing on avenging Bobby by killing Leviathans, which hasn’t really helped him find a reason for living. I suspect Sam’s descent to madness will help him find his priorities again.
The only quibble I have with this episode is the unexplained appearance of the devil’s trap on the ceiling. I can’t see how Sam could have put it up in the time he had and I don’t see why Jeffrey would have. I’m not sure if this was an editing mistake (I’m letting Edlund off the hook as he is such a clever writer) or a clue we will find out more about as the season progresses, like the mysterious ghostly happenings around Dean.
What do you think?