Supernatural unleashed a powerful finale, as Sam, Dean and Castiel make some hard choices. “Sacrifice,” written by show runner Jeremy Carver, forces our heroes to decide exactly what they are sacrificing and why. What’s really worth protecting when you cannot save everything? Last time the Winchesters had a choice between a rock and a hard place, they saved the world through Sam’s sacrifice. This time, Dean takes the lead and decides family ties are worth more than revenge. The decision fits with the show’s core story, but the actual conversation, while moving, leaves me with some troubling questions—much like the season has done as a whole.
Metatron directs our attention to Samuel Johnson’s meditation on making choices, quoting: “Of the blessings set before you make your choice, and be content.” A look at the larger quote gives us these lines as well: “There are goods so opposed that we cannot seize both, but, by too much prudence, may pass between them at too great a distance to reach either. This is often the fate of long consideration; he does nothing who endeavors to do more than is allowed to humanity.” In other words, we cannot have it all and trying to will not end well. In Supernatural’s world, change is afoot, and choices made determine the direction.
Sam and Dean are committed to the idea of closing the gates of Hell, and they believe they finally can have it all. Sam tells Dean he thinks this time it feels like they will win. However, neither Winchester has questioned whether closing the gates is actually a good thing, theologically speaking, nor if following a path of revenge has ever led them anywhere good in the past. Similarly, Castiel is easily manipulated by Metatron to view locking the angels in Heaven as a good thing, without wondering whether any angel should have the power to do so. Who did God mean to have the ability to pull the giant levers?
Sadly, this look at the ethics of the choices Sam, Dean and Castiel are making gets little exploration of any substance. Dean and Sam seem to think locking the demons away will make hunting obsolete, though there are plenty of other supernatural creatures to cause trouble. It’s also never clear exactly what impact closing the gates will have. Will it affect the natural order of where souls go? Or can reapers still go in and out? Neither Winchester wrestles with these questions as Sam does the trials, and I think the result is the arc not being as compelling as it could have been.
That’s not to say the finale doesn’t take a close look at what is driving the boys. It does, and Jensen Ackles, Jared Padalecki and Mark Sheppard make the most of the powerful scenes they are given. In a connected but mostly separate story thread, we also get a look at Castiel’s desire for atonement and where that leads him.
Badass Cas makes a welcome reappearance in Carver’s episode, though he’s still under Metatron’s influence. When Naomi gives him the choice to believe in her or the scribe, Cas understandably rejects her. She pays a price for the level of manipulation she reached in carrying out the archangels’ orders. Trying to be honest, she fails to lift Castiel’s distrust, to both their detriment. By tapping into Castiel’s need to atone, Metatron proves himself the better manipulator by far.
Carver deftly shows the irony of Cas losing much of his humanity just as the scribe plans to make him human. Cas’s focus on finding a way to forgive himself his transgressions brings out a singularity of purpose that becomes harshness. He has little interest in Dean’s need to support Sam. He raises the stakes of Dean’s “Suck it up” speeches to Kevin by threateningly telling him a prophet is a tool to be used until he is destroyed and he’d better do as Castiel says. Cas is so single-minded that when Dean tries to have a conversation about the possibility he will never see his friend again, Cas only hears the question of whether he is prepared to die. He’s in full warrior mode.
Unfortunately, it is just that mode Metatron finds so easy to manoeuvre. Cas’s friendship with the Winchesters and the impact that makes on his decisions has always given him power. It was his decision not to talk his Purgatory plot over with Sam and Dean that allowed hubris to control him. Now his choice to join Metatron leads not to forgiveness but to a change. Cas will now have a human story, which Metatron will consume when Cas dies.
That theme of change is echoed in Sam’s and Crowley’s stories. Mark Sheppard delivers another fantastic performance as Crowley moves from arrogance to humility. The demon starts the episode so sure of his deal making prowess he mocks the Winchesters right up to the moment Dean snaps a specially warded handcuff on his wrist. Faced with being the third trial to shut the gates of Hell, Crowley growls and snaps and mocks, but his desperate tactic of biting Sam to use his blood to call for help reveals how frightened he is to regain his humanity.
As Sam’s blood changes Crowley (and what a wonderful choice to have him singing Bowie’s “Changes”), Crowley has to contemplate his life. His first disturbing realization is that he may have seized power when Hell was in disarray, but few demons give him the kind of allegiance Lucifer commanded even from the Cage. Only Abaddon answers his call for help and she only does so to discuss a regime change.
Having seen how hollow his dream to be king is, Crowley has no choice but to look at both his future and past, and how uncomfortably they are going to meet when his soul is cured. Sheppard reminds us how sympathetic he can make this demonic man as Crowley humbly asks Sam for his advice on how to ask forgiveness for the unforgivable. He gets no answers, nor do we on how changed Crowley will be next season, given Sam didn’t quite complete the exorcism. I hope Crowley will be affected by the soul searching he did in this episode, and I’m delighted he survived the season to sass again next year.
Jared Padalecki delivers a stand out performance as Sam faces the final trial. The full magnitude of what ails him is first hinted at when he tells Dean he isn’t sure what to confess to complete his purification. With the subject of transgressions and forgiveness raised, Dean can’t stop himself from repeating his list of betrayals from “Southern Comfort.” He may be supporting his brother, but some of Sam’s deeds still hurt. Unfortunately, he misses the hurt look on his brother’s face both then and when Sam overhears his brother tell Castiel he can’t leave Sam to do the exorcism alone without his supervision.
Carver shows how easily emotions and perceptions shift, as Dean’s support takes on tones of disbelief in his brother to Sam. When Dean has to leave to help Castiel, Sam stoically injects vial after vial of his blood into Crowley, resisting the demon’s threats and the man’s pleas with equal strength as he gets frailer and frailer physically. The quest looks set to succeed—until Naomi tells Dean the brothers know no more about the real goal than Castiel did in his Heaven trials.
This time the problem is not that the trials are fake; it is that God demands a sacrifice to complete them—Sam’s life. Dean races to stop his brother from taking the last step to cure Crowley’s soul, only to discover Sam doesn’t necessarily see his life as worthy to be saved.
For only the second time this season, we get Sam’s point of view on his relationship with Dean. He tells his brother the sin he confessed was all the times he failed Dean in exactly those ways Dean mentioned. He feels Dean has looked to other relationships because he’s afraid Sam will always let him down, that Sam is indeed a lesser brother than Castiel and Benny, and Sam can’t bear it.
Dean is horrified to hear Sam’s perception. He has vented his hurt and frustrations over the season, but he always thought his actions showed Sam what place he has in Dean’s life. Indeed, the audience has seen Dean, at Sam’s insistence, cut Benny loose in a time of need, only to ask later to kill Benny so the vampire can save Sam. We saw that he was willing to ask his grandfather to die to save Sam. We saw him accept Sam’s desire to live a normal life, and we saw his own desire to do the trials so Sam could have that life. And Sam has seen almost all of this, too. But his own need for forgiveness clouds his ability to see Dean clearly. Fortunately, Dean is ready to spell out his feelings in a way Sam cannot miss.
He tells his brother none of his other relationships are in place of Sam. Not only are they not in place of him, he is always number one, always. Dean asked Benny to die to save Sam. Dean is not just Sam’s big brother, he helped raise him. Not only did he take over many fathering duties, he was the only mother Sam ever knew. He will never lose that sense of Sam being the center of his life.
Having Dean so clearly articulate how he feels about his brother, Sam is able to let go of the trial, though at what cost remains to be seen. Dean tells his brother they will figure it out, as they always do, and no doubt they will. The set up for next season is very intriguing, as angels fall, Cas and perhaps Crowley turn human and Sam doesn’t know what changes he faces.
The scene between the brothers is a great moment on which to end the episode, and I am very happy to see them both on the same page at the end of the season. But I am not entirely happy how they got there.
For a start, I dislike very much the way Carver has decided Dean blames Sam for being brought back to earth soulless. This is simply the kind of poor writing that has afflicted much of the season. Dean knows Sam had nothing to do with his body being released without his soul. He also knows who was responsible: Castiel. Dean’s anger at Castiel was a big part of season seven and nothing has happened to show why he would slide that understandable anger onto Sam for something he was as much a victim of as Dean. More, actually.
The anger about Ruby I can understand a little more, except Dean’s acceptance of Sam’s choice and ability to see why he did what he did was his major arc in season five. “Swan Song” showed us and Sam Dean did not end up controlled by anger and hurt over Ruby. He had to process those feelings to let Sam know he loved and believed in him. It’s not that I don’t believe he has no residual hurt, but I don’t believe that hurt is a driving force the way it was in season four.
The strongest betrayal Dean is still dealing with is his hurt that Sam did not look for him when he disappeared. That wound is fresh, for both Dean and much of the audience.
I love that Dean reassures Sam he is Dean’s central relationship. I believe Sam needs to feel this because Dean is all his family wrapped into one and really always has been. But I was taken aback when Sam asks Dean if he knows how it feels that Dean looked to other relationships instead of him, particularly when that statement is not unpacked any further.
The parallel to Dean’s hurt over Sam deciding his desire for a normal life is more important than finding out what happened to Dean is very strong. Yet the boys’ talk only deals with Sam’s perceptions and Dean’s reassurances. Dean’s hurt is not discussed, even though his issue is his perception Sam does not put him first.
I am not sure why the talk did not open up to discuss what Dean needs from Sam. Sam spent the first part of the season telling Dean his ideal life does not have Dean as a central figure—or perhaps even as a figure at all. He’s hunting because he feels he has to, but the life with Amelia is what he wants. And that desire is strong enough that he not only walked away from Kevin, he walked away from Dean in a way he never has before. It looked to me like Sam’s decisions were meant to be seen as maturity, as he walked away from co-dependency to his own life.
If that’s not so, and Sam puts Dean number one in the same way Dean puts him, why does that not come up between the two as they finally have a raw and honest conversation? Without Dean’s hurt being acknowledged as understandable, the relationship is left rather one-sided. I can think of theories why Sam didn’t look for his brother—he was afraid he would fail and let Dean down again, for example—but at this point I shouldn’t need to resort to fanwank. Dean needs to understand why Sam did not look for him, and so do I.
I also think the scene had lots of scope for Sam to examine his feelings about Benny and what the younger Winchester demanded of Dean, and I wish Carver had taken advantage of it. I think it would have benefited the episode for Sam to acknowledge to Dean how much he gave up for Sam when he refused Benny’s appeal for help, only to later ask him for something he had no right to ask. Sam spitting out the word “vampire” didn’t seem to take what happened with Benny into much account.
The episode is still very strong—the performances are fantastic and next year’s set up is intriguing. But the issues of the first half of the season do haunt the second half. I’m hoping next year we get a more reciprocal discussion between the brothers. However, as I’m very much looking forward to next season, clearly more worked this year than didn’t.