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TV Review: Supernatural – “The Born-Again Identity”

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This week’s Supernatural is a complex mix of story elements coming to a boil. Fortunately, this pivotal episode is in the capable hands of Sera Gamble, who has the daunting task of paying off Sam’s hallucination arc while re-introducing disgraced angel Castiel into the story. As a bonus, the demons have decided they don’t have to play nice anymore and God may or may not have intervened with Castiel (again). The result is a story which mines the best of past seasons while giving the Winchesters hope in dealing with their current Leviathan mess.

I’ll start with Sam’s story. The build up to this episode has been tremendous. The damage to Sam’s soul has been described as unbearable since mid-season six, with the wall Death built as his only chance. Castiel’s decision to break the wall to force Dean’s attention away from purgatory was a death sentence for Sam unless it can be repaired. Sam is really between a rock and hard place, because without his soul, he is not Sam; with his soul, he is a tortured and dying Sam.

Jared Padalecki as Sam WinchesterThis season’s “Hello Cruel World” beautifully set up Sam’s personal hell. His hell memories are so painful, his mind has pushed them underground, only to have them form into a hallucination of Lucifer Sam’s conscious mind cannot control. Lucifer oozes through every moment of weakness Sam has and only the memory of Dean’s love and certainty Lucifer is still in the pit gives Sam the strength to push back. But pushing Lucifer away is only a temporary solution. Our unconscious is powerful and the more we try to ignore its messages, the wilier it gets in delivering them. Damage has to be processed. We can’t run away from our own pain.

Sam tries, though. The episode opens with him running. Running to find a place he can find rest; running into a dealer who offers him drugs to knock him out, running into traffic when even that fails. Sam is out of options. His unconscious is now in control and demanding Sam face his pain. Unfortunately, even Sam, with all his strength and experience, cannot process what happened to him in the pit.

The writer’s choice of agent to push Sam’s descent through madness to death is elegant and fitting: insomnia. At first glance, sleeplessness seems a rather prosaic method after demons and archangels and the Four Horsemen. But in fact sleep is key to our mental and physical health. Without sleep, Sam’s mental health relentlessly deteriorates. After five days, his physical health is quickly following.

Ironically, Sam’s great strength works against him. In a nice call back to Sam’s demon-blood drinking days, his doctor cannot believe Sam is able to withstand the cocktail of powerful sedatives he’s being given. He’s never seen anything like it. Lucifer is the most obvious reason Sam cannot fall asleep. But I think there is more: Sam is also not quite like any other human. He’s the result of thousands of years of careful breeding, topped off with huge amounts of demon blood that changed him forever. In “Swan Song,” that strength allowed Sam to win his mental battle with Lucifer. Here, the same strength is his downfall, as he is able to withstand the sedatives meant to help him sleep.

Jared Padalecki as Sam WinchesterJared Padalecki is simply marvelous in translating Sam’s agony and eventual acceptance of his own death. He conveys the weariness, the rawness of his nervous system, the lack of resources to shut the Lucifer voice down. At the same time, we see the essential Sam still there at his core, trying to help a fellow patient whose brother has anything but her well being at heart.

I understand why the writers put the ghost-hunting story in: it reminds us Winchesters truly are heroes because they will help people despite their own pain and hopelessness. Marin’s story also resonates with a recurring theme in Supernatural: family ties. Marin and her brother loved each other, but that love has turned destructive as the brother cannot let go. His solution is to bring his sister to him, no matter the cost to her.

At what point loves becomes destructive is a theme Sam and Dean have struggled with over the years. Both brothers have refused to accept the loss of the other and the resulting demon deals and alliances carried a terrible cost. Yet that same refusal has fuelled the boys’ ability to triumph over demons and angels alike. In this episode, Sam tries to get his brother to accept Sam is dying, to save Dean the pain of fruitlessly trying to save him. Dean, just like Sam in season three, will not give up. Brotherly love is the Winchesters’ greatest power and Achilles’ heel.

Despite seeing the resonances of Marin’s story with the overall arc, I still question whether the episode has the room to include her story. The actual ghost hunting was by the book and not especially memorable or scary. I think the time would have been better spent in other places in this complex episode.

Though I have loved Sam’s story line and season seven in general, I do think the season has suffered a little from disjointed stories. The stories themselves are excellent, but they tend to appear and disappear from the narrative a little abruptly. We needed to see Sam’s point of view of his struggles a few more times than we did. “The Born-Again Identity” explored the thread beautifully, but every second available to devote to Sam’s rapid descent to madness and Dean’s reaction to it is valuable. The same goes for Dean’s story with Castiel.

Jensen Ackles, Jared Padalecki and Mark PellegrinoDean’s part of the story focuses on the lengths he will go to save Sam. He faces Sam’s advice to just accept Sam’s imminent death with silence. He will never stop looking for an answer. As usual, the reasons are complicated. For Dean, family is the most important building block and Sam in particular is his reason to keep on going. This situation has another nuance, however. Dean is responsible for Sam’s re-souling and he made that decision knowing the soul would most likely destroy Sam.

Dean knows Sam would not have wanted to live as Soulless Sam. Indeed, if Soulless Sam had been the only choice for Sam, Dean may have had to kill him—Soulless Sam was capable of killing Bobby and innocent bystanders alike. But that doesn’t change the fact Sam is now dying in agony due to Dean’s decision. Despite the many losses the Winchesters have faced, Dean will never accept this one.

And that leads him to an interesting dilemma: what if the only hope for Sam is the very person who tore down his wall?

Dean leaves no stone unturned as he fruitlessly ransacks his dad’s and Bobby’s journals for hunters to call for help—or so he thinks. But chance—or is it something else?—brings a taxidermy card to his attention with a number on the back. That number leads him to a hunter with some welcome news: he knows a faith healer who is the real deal.

Dean immediately sets off, little knowing the trail will lead through demons to Castiel. This Castiel does not remember his lies to his friends or the deaths he dealt out to angel and human alike. He doesn’t remember tearing down Sam’s wall or taking in Leviathans to become God. All he knows is he was found two months ago by a woman claiming God wanted her to save him. And that he has the power to heal. This Castiel is stripped to his core –and he doesn’t feel to himself like a bad person.

Jensen Ackles, Misha Collins and Rachel MinerDean finds the situation much more difficult. On the one hand, he tells Emanuel/Castiel he finds a betrayal that led to Sam’s current condition impossible to get passed. At the same time, Jensen Ackles does a fantastic job showing the flare of hope in Dean’s eyes when he first sees Castiel. Castiel supported Dean as a friend and ally far longer than he worked against him. He too was family.

Bobby already told Dean family is supposed to break your heart and you suck it up and keep the ties strong. The elder Winchester already worked this through with his brother. Can he do the same with Castiel? The answer is not as clear to Dean this time, but circumstances demand he find an answer.

Castiel’s innocent statement that he does not feel like a bad person hangs in the air for Dean. Does he truly feel like a bad person to Dean? The Winchesters are familiar with how easy it is to step on the road of good intentions and they know Castiel’s overall goal was to stop the Apocalypse from starting up again. Dean also knows Castiel expected to be able to heal Sam and didn’t intend for Sam to die the way he is.

The lies about working with Crowley were a huge betrayal—but then, so were Sam’s lies about working with Ruby. And just to keep things interesting, Dean is given the choice to work with Meg, the demon responsible for so many terrible events in the Winchesters’ lives, including Ellen and Jo’s deaths.

Dean accepts her as an ally because he has little choice. His list of friends has grown extremely thin, so working with Meg is the least bad of his current options. The situation allows Dean yet another view on Castiel’s decisions and whether they are unforgivable.

I like that Dean does not find acceptance immediately and remains wary and hurt. I like even more he nevertheless tells Castiel the angel did the best he knew at the time and, in true Dean fashion, offers the angel back his trench coat to show he never completely lost his faith in their connection. Dean always leads with his heart.

The episode ends with Castiel apologizing to Sam for tearing down the wall and finding a way to shift the hell damage to his own psyche. The angel tells Dean he will be able to handle it, but the immediate effect is for Castiel to take Sam’s place in the ward, locked in pain and hallucinations as Sam had been. If there was any way for Castiel to reach through Dean’s scars and remind him why they fought side by side, this is it. Dean understands sacrifice.

He is still conflicted about Castiel and it shows when he and Sam leave the angel in the psychiatric hospital under Meg’s dubious care. Sam, who knows all too well what Castiel is going through, would like to bring Castiel with them to protect him. Dean pragmatically knows they would lead danger right to Castiel and he’s better off hidden.

But there’s more to Dean’s attitude. He’s not willing to join Sam’s open concern for the angel. He’s still working through his feelings. And it’s here I think the extra minutes devoted to the ghost story line would have been better spent. I wanted to see the expression in Dean’s eyes when he left Castiel.

That quibble does not diminish the power of “The Born-Again Identity.” Sera Gamble crafted a powerful moving episode which paid off Sam’s arc, redeemed Castiel and gave hope to the Leviathan fight.

I can’t wait for the next installment. What did you think?

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About Gerry Weaver

  • Robin Vogel

    Fabulous episode, raw, poignant and heart-breaking. Except for Rachel Miner, who seemed to be phoning in as Meg, excellent performances all around. I liked the inclusion of the mini-ghost case, proving that no matter how much Luci was abusing his psyche, Sam still managed to help an innocent. When Dean was frantically calling around, trying to find help for Sam, I was reminded of “Faith,” when Sam was trying to save Dean’s life (and Dean even mentions it). These brothers will NEVER give up on each other, for better or worse. I was left with a question–what does Meg want with Cas? What are her plans for him?

  • Gerry

    Hi Robin, thanks so much for commenting. I agree, it was a fabulous episode. I too can see the rationale for the ghost case. I just also wanted a bit more at the end with the leaving scene and there’s only so much time. What I really want is cable style 60 minute episodes instead of the network 42 minutes. I’m greedy.

    That’s a very good point about Faith. This season has had a lot of call backs to previous seasons, which both shows continuity and also how far the boys have come. But as you say, they will never get to the point of giving up on each other.

    Now, with Meg–that is the question, isn’t it? In one way, it’s nice Dean has to grapple with who he’s willing to work with, because one point he’s judging Castiel on is working with Crowley (though the lying about it and then hurting Sam muddy that issue hugely).

    On the other hand, Meg has shown over and over she is not a demon with a heart of gold. I’m not sure how Dean would ever forgive Ellen and Jo’s deaths, which Meg was very involved in.

    Very interested to see what comes next!