I’ve long thought Supernatural is one of the best written shows on television. My faith has occasionally been tested by certain writers, episodes or arcs, but never by Ben Edlund, in my opinion the best writer on the show. Edlund is known for his creative, some might say wacky, episodes, but his genius lies in the way he never forgets characterization or theme in his pursuit of plot. He’s also known for his love of meta, and in this week’s wonderful episode, he weaves together a gorgeous tapestry of characterization, themes I feared long dropped, and meta discussion on the nature of story.
“The Great Escapist” gave me so much to ponder, I watched it three times before writing this review—and I still benefitted from a discussion with Alice Jester of The Winchester Family Business to nail down a couple of key plot points. Edlund has so much going on, he leaves space for the audience to put together some clues rather than dramatizing every plot point. For example, I was at first unsure how Crowley had managed to penetrate the demon wards to grab Kevin and plunk him down in an imitation of Garth’s hideaway boat. The clue is Ion’s secret alliance with the King of Hell, revealed later in the episode. The boat was not warded against angels. This is a dense script.
But Edlund has always handled continuity very well. Given some of the errors a few writers have made this season, I don’t mean to downplay the care Edlund takes, but the real treasure in this episode is the way he picks up themes that seemed forgotten and weaves them into the myth arc in a completely satisfying manner. He even tries to correct a few of those previously mentioned errors along the way (though I remain confused why the boys didn’t bring Kevin to the bunker to protect him and make sure he ate).
I’ve always viewed Sam’s journey as fighting to define himself rather than be branded by fate. His demon blood is a key element in his story and one I have been waiting to see Sam grapple with once he escaped the Cage. I didn’t mind the demon blood arc being suspended while Sam was fighting for first his soul and then his sanity, but now he has all his pieces back together, it seems a necessary part of his story for Sam to figure out who and what he is now he is no longer Lucifer’s vessel.
I think Sam has always felt driven to prove he is a righteous man, the way he knows Dean, despite his flaws and his guilt, is. His fear is the demon blood given him as a baby tainted him forever, meaning he has to fight evil from within as well as without. Sam’s original strategy was to try and run from his past, to embrace normality as his path to righteousness. But that also meant denying he was a Winchester, denying his family ties, which cut him off from the love he needs to help him in his fight for self-definition.
In both “Skin” and “Defending Your Life,” Sam admitted he didn’t actually fit the version of normality he created at Stanford, which makes sense if he’s trying to run away from something in himself. So I found it very jarring when the writers in the first half of this season appeared to be using that version of Sam as the essential Sam, a Sam who was drawn into the supernatural against his wishes and wants only to return to his real life. Despite what looked to me like clear indications he should, Sam has yet to look at his life with Amelia as perhaps idealized. Indeed, he now defines her as his unicorn and, Men of Letters legacy or not, he tells Meg he still wants a life as far away from the supernatural as possible.
What the Amelia arc has lacked to me is a recognition of Sam’s past, of what shaped him, of why flight looks so good to him. It lacked an awareness that this flight means there is no room for Sam’s identity as a Winchester or indeed room for his brother. And on this show, Sam and Dean’s tie has been the key to their strength in holding on to who they are.
To my huge relief, in this episode Edlund firmly takes hold of the narrative reins and brings Sam’s demon blood back into the story. Previous episodes established the trials are taking an increasing toll on Sam, and now we find out why: Sam is being purified.
It’s a painful process, but the light in Sam’s face when he tells Dean shows he considers the pain worth the cost. Sam’s known at some level since he was young he has something very dark inside him. He’s been afraid of taking on quests because he feels he would fail the test of purity for which Galahad was known. That fear makes much more sense than a Sam who fears the supernatural and wants a normal life to feel safe.
It remains to be seen whether Sam can really burn away all his past or even whether he should. Metatron tells Dean these trials are ultimately about the choices made and what they reveal. Does seeking revenge ever lead to a good end? Does the earth need a heaven and a hell? I suspect Dean will be instrumental in answering those questions, as Sam embraces his purification. I hope Sam’s introspection will include whether he still needs his idealized vision of normality once his demon blood is truly gone.
Speaking of Metatron, Curtis Armstrong enters the story with a splash, as he explains how the ability to tell stories lends humans a Godlike power. Edlund has often used meta as a way to take a humorous look at both making and watching stories, but here he’s more serious. Metatron is entranced by the stories people tell, creating worlds upon worlds, just as God did. But he’s missing the details of his own story, as Sam rather huffily points out.
The Winchesters are the protagonists in the heaven/hell saga, but the demons and angels have the same ability to tell stories and make decisions as the humans do. Crowley revels in his direction of his demons to accomplish his plots. Naomi has no compunction about forcing angels to take part in the archangels’ story, rejoicing in the power of the author to direct her characters as she pleases. If God wants humans to consider the impact of the stories they tell, surely angels and demons should do the same?
Sam and Dean convince Metatron he has to take an active part in his own story again. The angel rescues his prophet in the nick of time, only to send the Winchesters on to their next chapter with a surprise reveal: Sam has to cure a demon.
I love the implications of the final trial. Sam and Dean are driven by an understandable need for revenge, but the trial seems to require forgiveness on some level. Demons once used to be human, and both Sam and Dean could have ended up as demons themselves had they not been rescued from hell. This trial is a very different kind of test than killing a demon dog and I suspect one more centered on defining who and what you are. I love Ben Edlund.
Castiel has his own challenges, as he learns he’s been an unwilling participant in what he considers a repugnant story. Heaven’s secret society has been brainwashing and reprogramming angels with an aim to taking over the universe, not shepherding humans. Ion’s response to this knowledge is to decide nothing matters because there’s nothing to choose between heaven and hell. He sees a nihilistic story. Cas decides this story matters more than anything else, and he needs to take on a hero’s role, as he apparently has done before.
Indeed, we find out Cas has always had the capacity for the free will and empathy he chose during the Apocalypse crisis. His interactions with Dean were still very important as the reason he struggled past his conditioning, but Dean is not the foundation of his choice of free will. Cas’s story goes back much further than that. I do have to wonder why the archangels assigned their most troublesome angel to shepherd Dean, but perhaps it was a sign of their arrogance, which led to their downfall.
I think the choice to give Cas a bigger canvas to play out his decision about what kind of angel to be is a wise one. Since Castiel will play a bigger role next season, he has to interact with more characters than Dean in a meaningful way. I think Edlund’s filling out of the angel’s history gives him just enough separation from Dean to give him more agency, without sacrificing his friendship with the elder Winchester. I may have to eat my words, given the ominous title of the finale (“Sacrifice”).
Supernatural continues to raise the bar as it races to the finale. I hope the final two episodes maintain the standard of storytelling we’ve seen in the last two weeks. I agree with Metatron in thinking the ability to tell stories is a wonder, and when this series is at its best, it is truly wonderful.