Summary : In the end, "Stairway to Heaven" is a tense, action-packed episode that doesn't disappoint.
Written by Andrew Dabb and directed by Guy Norman Bee, the penultimate episode of Supernatural’s ninth season, “Stairway to Heaven,” doesn’t disappoint. Though at times the episode feels almost too busy, in the end, it delivers a tense, action-filled story that leaves me trepidatiously excited for next week’s finale.
The last clip of the “Then” sequence for “Stairway to Heaven” frames the episode for me. From “Metafiction” (9×18), it’s the scene where Metatron says, “I know something they don’t know – the ending. How I get there doesn’t matter so long as everybody plays their part.” All season, the narrative has emphasized the “part(s)” that everyone plays and raised questions: Are the characters playing their role(s) by choice? Are they fulfilling authorial and/or narrative expectations? Are they acting under their own agency? I think that this week’s episode begins teasing out answers to these questions.
The opening scene is an ice cream parlor smiting that leads to Dean (Jensen Ackles) and Sam Winchester (Jared Padalecki) teaming up with Castiel (Misha Collins). After the title card, we’re treated to a scene in the bunker that reminds me of the brothers’ more playful side. In this case, Dean obnoxiously plays loud music to wake Sam, who instinctively pulls a gun. Dean’s only response? “Nice reflexes. Better hair.” Sam is not amused, and his sleep-deprived grumpiness emphasizes Dean’s wide-eyed peppiness. The humorous moment serves a larger purpose, leaving us to ask if Sam is exhausted, why isn’t Dean? Are we seeing yet another effect of the Mark of Cain?
While Dean packs his weapons bag, the brothers have a conversation about the First Blade. Dean wants to take it; Sam wants it to stay in the bunker. He reminds Dean, “Magic that powerful comes at a price, and right now, we don’t know what that price is.” This has been a truth reiterated in the Supernatural world since day one. But how often has it been considered lately? Dean certainly didn’t when he accepted the Mark without reading the fine print. Dean seems to reluctantly concede the point, and it appears that he leaves the Blade behind.
Dean and Sam meet Cas at the mass smiting crime scene. Even at that point, Cas seems more human than angelic to me. He’s expressive and demonstrative, and his “humanness” becomes more pronounced throughout the episode. The smiting that killed six humans and at least one child horrifies him. Cas says, “I knew [Metatron] wanted a war, but this is abhorrent, even for him.”
Cue Metatron’s (Curtis Armstrong’s) entrance into the episode. At that moment, he’s wearing a coat identical to Castiel’s and posing in front of a mirror. This, plus his extended rant about the Cas Lovefest, suggests that he suffers from a serious case of Cas-envy. Gadreel (Tahmoh Penikett) warns him that Castiel’s forces are winning, but Metatron reiterates that he has everything under control. He reveals that he even knows about Gadreel and Castiel’s meeting (9×21). Gadreel explains, “He spoke. He lied. And I listened. But I serve heaven. And I serve you.” Here, Gadreel’s declaration closely echoes Castiel’s in “The Rapture” (4×20), when fresh-from-heaven’s-torture-Castiel declares to Dean, “I serve heaven. I don’t serve man, and I certainly don’t serve you.” Considering how Gadreel’s “Who am I?” arc has been developed this season, particularly the way it’s paralleled Dean’s at times, I wonder how this will play out.
One of my favorite scenes occurs when Dean and Sam accompany Cas to his command center, where the Winchesters are less-than-enthusiastically received. Hannah (Erica Carroll) appears annoyed from the outset, commenting dryly, “Winchesters – I’ve heard so much about you.” Dean cockily retorts, “What can I say? Cas is a fan.” Judging by her crossed arms and peeved expression, Hannah, however, is not. The angels have been futilely searching for a missing comrade named Josiah, and Sam quickly traces him to a Gas ‘N Sip in Colorado. While I still don’t understand how a roomful of angels didn’t think to trace credit card purchases, Sam’s success gives Dean reason to smugly gloat, “That’s how we do things in the pros.”
Meanwhile, Angel in Burgundy (AIB) has been sorting evidence from the crime scene and found a cell phone video of the explosion. They watch as Oren walks into the parlor and smites himself. Visibly appalled, Cas says, “I’m going to be sick” – a very human reaction. Hannah and AIB realize that another angel, Esther, was present and deduce that this was a suicide smiting.
Dean, who’s eyeing Cas speculatively, demands an explanation: “Cas, I know you try to be a good guy, okay, I do. You try. But what you got here – this is a freaking cult…” Dean even brings up “the last time [Cas] had this kind of juice” and how Cas lied to him and Sam (6×20). Dean’s quickness to anger here, particularly since only moments before he was practically taunting Hannah with his and Cas’s friendship, reads like another Mark side effect. And while the ensuing conversation emphasizes the parallels between the past and present storylines, it also shows how different they are. Regardless, their arguing quickly has Sam clearing his throat, just as he did in “Clip Show” (8×22), and ushering Dean and Cas to the privacy of the Commander’s office.
Sam tells Dean to “stow the baggage” and to work the case. Surprisingly, Dean does, though he almost starts another argument when he says that Cas “isn’t going to do jack.” I laughed out loud when Cas retorts with a sassy and decided “No.” Collins delivers the line in the same vein as Cas’s “Nachos, too” retort in “Heaven Can’t Wait” (9×6). Dean seems taken aback, but he listens, and as he often does with Cas, demonstrates that he can talk/argue through issues and reach a resolution. Their relationship is more equalized, whereas Dean often takes a dogmatic approach with his younger brother that just doesn’t work.
Dean agrees to Cas following the lead to Colorado – with Sam. It’s a condition that makes Cas bristle, and he asks if it’s “because you don’t trust me?” Dean says, in a tone that I read as calmly reassuring, “To help.” Dean seems genuine in this moment; I don’t see anything in his language or his expression to suggest he’s manipulating Cas or Sam. That said, the missing-Josiah storyline seems, primarily, to offer a reason to split everyone up. Now, Sam and Cas have the opportunity to discuss Dean, while he has time to demonstrate just how far off the rails he already is.
Cas learns that Abaddon is dead “and then some.” When Cas asks if Dean seems different, Sam says yes. “Effects of the Mark?,” Cas asks. (I heard that as a question, as if Cas isn’t sure. How did everyone else hear it?) Cas is especially bothered by Dean’s suspicion and wonders aloud if Sam shares it. Sam says no, but also cautions that the angels watch Cas like he’s “part rock star, part L. Ron.”
Cas reads the angels’ attention differently, noting, “They’ve put their faith in me.” It’s not a reassuring observation to Sam, who responds, “Maybe that’s the problem. I mean, people have been doing messed up crap in the name of faith – in the name of God – since forever.” At this point, Cas still seems to count himself as angel, and he tells Sam that he simply wants to get “my people” home. It’s not the first time Cas has used the phrase, but who are his people? The heavenly host? Or humanity? Padalecki’s expressions suggest that Sam is surprised by Cas’s self-association. Personally, I can’t remember the last time that I counted Cas as “angel.”
I’m not overly fond of the bowling alley scenes, but they highlight Metatron’s smarmy side and that not everyone likes him. Tyrus outright says, “I hate your face,” a comment that leaves Metatron looking disheartened. We also see glimpses of Gadreel that establish he doesn’t understand why Tyrus prefers earth to heaven. (Gadreel smells “old shoes and alcoholism,” not “authenticity.”) Penikett’s expressions of growing disgust, particularly with Metatron, make these scenes for me. They also establish that Sam now has serious competition in the “bitchface” category.
While Cas and Sam head to Pray, Montana, Dean continues looking for the conspirators. As he interviews an angel called Flagstaff, Dean quips that Oren “had a real explosive personality.” Flagstaff voices her disdain for Dean’s methods: “You play a hero but underneath the hype, you’re a killer with oceans of blood on his hands. I hate men like you.” She manages to hit several major, canonical insecurities of Dean’s, and he loses his temper, throwing the table out of the way and flipping her backwards in her chair. Holding an angel blade to her throat, he snarls, “Honey, there ain’t no other men like me.” (Pretty sure much of fandom agrees with you, Dean.) When Dean again demands information, this time, Flagstaff answers: Constantine and Tessa (Lindsey Mckeon).
The episode shifts back and forth quickly here. First, Sam and Cas are trying to break into a building radiating heavenly energy. Meanwhile, Dean apprehends Tessa outside of the theatre; he sees the spell carved into her skin and demands to know where Constantine is. The next scene is a petulant Metatron returning his rental bowling shoes when Constantine appears, declares, “I do this for Castiel,” and smites himself. Then, back to Sam and Cas who have discovered a riddle in Enochian over the building’s entrance: “Why is 6 afraid of 7?” Cas ponders that perhaps it’s because “prime numbers are intimidating,” but Sam answers, “It’s because 7 8 9.” The door opens, and Sam’s phone rings.
Dean’s phone call bridges these scenes. He asks about Cas and then tells Sam about finding Tessa. When Dean holds the phone up so she can “say hi to Sam,” Tessa instead yells, “Your brother’s a psycho, Sam.” Sam looks very concerned, but we don’t see/hear any more details as the call continues off-screen. Sam and Cas aren’t the only ones who recognize Dean’s volatility. As he escorts Tessa into the command center, Hannah, Flagstaff, and AIB are talking about him. Flagstaff says, “I know he’s the commander’s friend, and I know we’re supposed to pretend we like him, but that ape put a knife to my throat.” It doesn’t help Dean’s case that the angels see he injured Tessa, even if he was defusing another suicide smiting.
The angels forbid Dean from torturing Tessa, and Hannah explains to Dean that only Castiel can sanction punishment because “Castiel is the only thing holding us together…Castiel has given us a purpose, but more than that, he’s given us a way to live in peace.” These lines can be read several ways. If nothing else, they clarify that the angels currently “serve” Castiel – and affiliations can change, as Cas, Dean, Sam, and Gadreel demonstrate. Repeatedly during this episode, I thought of Meg’s speech in “Reading is Fundamental” (7×21): “You find a cause, and you serve it. Give yourself over, and it orders your life.” This idea seems particularly relevant in a season where our characters have searched for identity and purpose.
Dean is certainly nowhere near a self-actualized end. The interrogation scene with Tess, whom I read as a mirror for Dean, is particularly interesting. Dean points out the human casualties in these suicide smitings, but Tessa is unaffected. “In the grand scheme, they don’t matter,” she says. Her answer is, essentially, that the ends justify the means. This debatable belief has been a standing season nine theme. Dean, though, doesn’t see the similarity, instead telling her, “you are so wrong.”
Though Sam and Cas are concerned about what’s going on at Headquarters, they continue their exploration of the building. Sam notices writing on the wall – “Only the penitent man shall pass” – and yells Cas’s name in warning. Luckily, Cas still has angelic reflexes, and he escapes the large saw-blades protruding from the walls. Sam mutters, “The Last Crusade? Okay” as he follows Cas past the spinning blades. They find the door, and Cas approaches eagerly, again ignoring Sam’s note of caution. Cas is hopeful because “If we control this door, we can take the fight to Metatron. We may not even need to fight at all.”
Unfortunately, the door leads to a room gaudily decorated with dolphins, balloons, angels, disco balls – and is the cherub statue holding a pie?! Cas reacts to the sight with a Dean-inspired, “What the hell?” Sam finds a mocking note that clarifies Metatron set them up. But that’s when they see Josiah, who’s been “Home-Aloned” with holy oil. Josiah is an example of an angel who doesn’t want to be on earth, and when Cas offers healing, Josiah refuses: “I would rather die than owe my life to you, Castiel. You play at being noble. You play at being one of us. But I looked into your eyes, and I don’t see an angel staring back at me.” I took this as further support that Cas is now more human than angel.
As Sam and Cas wrap up their investigation, the narrative focus shifts back to Dean’s interrogation of Tessa. While I’ve always liked Tessa (2×1), I wondered why her character was being brought back for this episode; I think her last scene answers my question. As a reaper (which is apparently synonymous with angel now?), Tessa has a direct line into the spirit world, and she explains that she can’t stand the lost souls’ screaming. Kevin first alerted us to the state of the Veil in “Captives” (9×14), and Tessa’s comments suggest that things are only getting worse.
According to Tessa, Castiel gave her a reason to die. Dean doesn’t believe her, and this is the part where Tessa’s reactions become questionable. She’s borderline taunting as she points out that Cas didn’t tell him about raising an angel army. Her attitude actually makes me wonder if part of her mission was to plant doubt in Dean’s mind about Cas. Tessa’s admission that there are other suicide smiters and her refusal to give names because she’d ruin the “fun” says quite a lot about the character. Expectedly, Dean pulls out the First Blade, demanding information. When she sees the blade, Tessa looks shocked and asks, “What have you done?” Dean’s answer is what it’s been all season: “What I had to.”
At this point, I hoped Tessa would share information about the Blade and the Mark. Instead, she smugly says, “Welcome to the Club,” grabs his shoulder, and impales herself on the Blade. By the time Hannah and the other angels burst into the room, Tessa is dead, and Dean is experiencing the rush of using the Blade. Dean is handcuffed to a chair, his mouth duct-taped, when Sam and Cas arrive. All are angry, but before they can hash it out, Hannah interrupts with the news that Cas has a call from Metatron.
The ensuing video call gives Metatron a platform to persuade Cas’s angels to change allegiences. After accusing Cas of sending Constantine, Metatron defends his own actions, claiming, “I did what I had to do. I have always done what I have to do – for God and the angels…What I did was neither good nor bad.” He promises amnesty to the angels and that “I will be their God, and they can be my heavenly host.” The angels remain unconvinced until Metatron mentions Cas’s stolen and fading grace. But what undermines Cas entirely is the claim that “At the end of the day, all [Cas] cares about is himself and the Hardy boys.” After the call ends, Cas defends himself to his people and says that he’ll willingly prove that they can trust him. Hannah decides the test: Punish Dean. Angels restrain both brothers, and Hannah hands Cas an angel blade. “You gave us order, Castiel, and we gave you our trust. Don’t lose it over one man.”
I love this scene. Ackles and Collins convey the emotions of their characters well. Dean seems resigned and sad, while Cas is disbelieving. In the end, of course, Cas chooses Dean. However, Dean’s obvious relief suggests that he wasn’t so sure, which reminds me that (so far as we know) Dean still doesn’t know about Naomi programming Cas to kill him or that he’s the one who broke her mind control over Cas (8×17). Now, though, Dean knows how much Cas values him.
However, just in case there are any lingering doubts among the audience, one last scene of Metatron gloating confirms that the elite unit of suicide smiters was his. He explains to an angry Gadreel that he’s “flipping the script” and explains that revealing Castiel’s true weakness was a strategic move. What is that weakness? “He’s in love” – pregnant pause – “with humanity.”
The episode’s last scene takes us back to the bunker. Dean and Sam have yet another argument about the First Blade. Dean refuses to apologize and calls Sam an infant – which Sam, rightfully, doesn’t appreciate. Dean says that until he knifes Metatron, “This is a dictatorship.” Though these are harsh words, I remember Dean saying something similar in “Family Matters” (6×7). Then, Dean informs a Soulless!Sam, “I drive the bus, I call the shots… because – trust me – you can’t tell the difference.” It seems to me that Dean’s declaration and Sam’s storming off is yet another iteration of the long-standing issues that they haven’t yet figured out how to resolve. Granted, a key difference between season six and nine is that Dean is now the one who “can’t tell the difference.” He just doesn’t know it yet.
Dean joins Cas in the research room, and his demeanor changes. As the two talk, they share a warm rapport that I really appreciate. They talk about Cas’s waning grace, though I wish we had a clearer understanding of what will happen exactly if/when it does “burn out.” Cas is so very human in this scene, particularly when he asks if Dean believes that the suicide smiters were not acting under his command. Dean reassures his friend: “You just gave up an entire army for one guy. No, there’s no way that you blew those people away.” Contemplative eye contact ensues, and Cas asks, “Do you really think we three will be enough?” Dean’s answer? “We always have been.” [Insert cheers for Team Free Will here.]
Footsteps interrupt their conversation: Gadreel has mysteriously managed to enter the bunker, and he offers his help in taking down Metatron. I do like that Dean had already assured Cas of his belief before Gadreel’s confirmation that the bombers were Metatron’s. I read Dean and Cas’s subsequent expressions as a mixture of guilty regret (on Dean’s part) and relief (on Cas’s).
In his plea, Gadreel makes the valid point that they’ve all made mistakes, and asks, “At least give me a chance.” With Sam’s reluctant, tentative endorsement, Dean and Gadreel shake hands. And that’s when all hell breaks loose: Dean pulls out the blade and slices at the angel’s chest. Dean appears to completely lose his self control, which is shocking considering how calmly he’d been speaking with Cas moments before. The episode’s last image is of Cas and Sam holding Dean back as he rages.
At this point, I think that it’s going to take both Sam and Cas to rein Dean in – when and how exactly that will manifest, I don’t know. It depends entirely upon just how dark Dean goes and how much havoc he wreaks. In the meantime, Cas has established his priorities, clearly showing Dean and Sam he’s on their side. And Sam is the neglected voice of caution in this episode: Neither Dean nor Cas heed his warnings. Will either man listen the next time?
I do wonder where the continued emphasis on the narrative and characters will ultimately take us. I feel like the “meta-nods” function, in part, as foreshadowing. Metatron clearly fancies himself as creator/writer/God. However, I suspect that what he really knows is archetypes and formulas. For example, when Sam and Cas are in the building, two of the traps set are taken directly from films. Metatron scoffs Dean’s “B grade 80s action movie wit,” yet his own strategy to discredit Cas is one that exists in countless incarnations in stories and film. Has everything, even the encounter with Tyrus that established Metatron as a disliked “nerd angel,” been engineered? Or does the narrative constrain Metatron too? Are we dealing with caricatures and stereotypes or characters with agency? I have so many questions, and I really look forward to seeing how the meta-storyline (no pun intended) unfolds.
Next week wraps up Supernatural’s ninth season, so we’ll see if any of our questions will be answered or if the hellatus will be, well, hellish. Based on the extended promo and the sneak peek, “Do You Believe In Miracles?” may very well leave fandom in need of one. At the least, according to Ackles, it will be an “eye- opener.” Supernatural airs Tuesday at 9 pm EST on the CW network.
- Agents Spears and Aguilera!
- Oren wears a belted trenchcoat and Constantine a plaid shirt- symbolic much?
- Metatron’s insult to Gadreel: “You are such an angel sometimes.”
- The Jesus Christ: Superstar poster outside of the theatre is a nice touch.
- Josiah’s death isn’t like any other angel’s that I can remember – why?
- The angels don’t freak out over Dean having the First Blade or carrying the Mark? Doesn’t that seem odd?
- Cas takes a call from Metatron with everyone listening? That doesn’t seem very smart to me. Also, the angels simply let the Winchesters and Cas go?
- Is Dean carrying the First Blade in his waistband? That cannot be comfortable.
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