Supernatural 10:2 “Reichenbach”
By P.S. Griffin
Holy Toledo Saltgunners! This was a magnificent, majestic, masterful episode that contained a Gordian knot of themes and subtext. Let my feeble attempts at unraveling this masterwork commence.
It all begins with the title of the episode, “Reichenbach”, a term that resonates with meaning for old and new fans of the fictional detective Sherlock Holmes. Not being conversant with Arthur Conan Doyle’s original texts or the current BBC iteration, I resort to Google. Lo and behold the word has made its way into the modern vernacular (http://www.urbandictionary.com/define.php?term=Reichenbach):
1. An awful day for the Sherlock fandom.
Let’s substitute “Supernatural” for “Sherlock” shall we.
2. Feelings of intense dark emotion. Usually dealing with grief, sadness, abandonment, uncertainty and occasionally anger. Synonymous with “gutted”.
Yes that really does sum it all up.
“Reichenbach” aptly demonstrates how fans and characters alike are gutted, reichenbached if you will, by news of and their encounters with the entity that is demonic Dean.
Dean Winchester, the man, the icon and the demon is still feeling fine, even if he is starting to realize he may want more than a 24 hour party until Sammy tries to take his new pretty black peepers away. Jeepers creepers indeed!
In “Black” we learned that Dean completes Crowley. It is pretty clear in this episode that Dean pretty much completes himself. That said he is struggling to figure out his new awesome dual life, combining remnants of Dean’s humanity with a dark immortality and addictive bloodlust. His need to make sense of things leads him to tolerate Crowley’s overt manipulations and blatant flirtations, more or less because Crowley both understands Dean’s inherent desire to shield innocents from his bloodlust and provides a suitable outlet for Dean’s newest violent proclivities. Crowley might not complete Dean but he keeps him sane and provides a necessary service.
Even as a demon Dean remains a reluctant hero and perhaps this is why the writers consciously made him a “Knight of Hell”. I think Dean will eventually realize that what he really wants and needs is a greater purpose to feel complete regardless of his supernatural status… well that and the occasional need to cut something with his trusty blade. If Jeremy Carver’s masterful “Black” allowed us to dip our collective toes in this new paradigm, and introduced the season’s themes in broad strokes; then the equally masterful “Reichenbach”, written by Andrew Dabb, starts to fill in the details with a finer brush. Color me gobsmacked that the writer that gave us the tone deaf and pedestrian “Bloodlines” penned this layered, on point episode.
The plot is deceptively straight forward. We open immediately after “Black” with the scenarios for each of our characters continuing to play out to their logical conclusions. Crowley is still looking out for Dean, but starting to look out more for himself and his interests in Hell as well. He oversteps Dean’s clear boundaries in his eagerness to get back to business. They fight, Dean gets rough but not lethal, words are exchanged, and Crowley stupidly sells Dean out in a misguided attempt to hurt him and protect his own royal ass.
This is a really dumb move by Crowley, especially when afterwards the lonely king pines for his denim clad knight to the classic tune “Lonely Girl” as he reminisces over their silly selfies. He longs for the honeymoon phase of their relationship when the two howled at the moon and engaged in whatever other activities caught their fancy. This tells us that Crowley feels real affection for Dean and misses his friend; Dean still trumps Hell in Crowley’s black heart of hearts.
Unfortunately, Crowley’s rash act, the human equivalent of keying the impala and downloading kiddie porn to Dean’s laptop, has made Dean completely reevaluate their relationship. Crowley is dead to Dean now and Crowley may also a dead demon walking as far as Dean is concerned. Before they break up Crowley tells Dean he needs to chose a side; is he human or is he demonic. This is a theme that is echoed throughout the episode for both the characters of Dean and the angel Castiel because of the parallels between their character arcs.
Elsewhere in a small room Cole tortures Sam, shares his sad origin story and tortures Sam some more. He plays the crazy card, however after seeing that Sam will not break, he let’s Sam escape and follows him unseen. Later, Cole has his moment in the arena with Dean and is brutally beaten and taunted, including Dean reciting the infamous Inigo Montoya speech from ‘The Princess Bride”. When he learns the truth about Dean he starts researching demons in preparation for the inevitable rematch.
Sam calls Castiel who is devastated to learn that Dean is a demon, steals a car, and stoops to dealing with Crowley, handing over the powerful First Blade to him for “safe” keeping. This is of course a desperate and unsound decision. There is nothing safe about Crowley.
Castiel starts the cross country journey to save Dean with Hannah’s reluctant help. Hannah wants Castiel to chose heaven and the angels. Fearing his growing humanity and mortality, she attempts to make a misguided deal with Metatron to secure Castiel’s remaining grace. Again the decision is desperate and unsound; although in this case Castiel stops it in the knick of time. Castiel’s dialogue to Hannah “It’s my life and it’s my choice, and I don’t want this.” could easily have been said by Dean to his brother. Hannah walks away for now. Sam tells Dean that he’s not walking away without him and by the end of the episode Sam has handcuffed Dean in the backseat of the impala as he drives his brother home to force him to change back into the person he was last season before he changed.
The episode contains a lot of conflicting goals between pairs of characters. These disagreements between friends, family and strangers provide the dramatic thrust of the episode and it’s emotional power. The mirroring between Dean and Castiel highlights that the choices the characters are making are not so cut and dry. We are revisiting the show’s familiar themes of free will and destiny on a personal scale rather than the cosmic, with the right of an individual to lead the life that he or she choses as the crux of the conflict. Not only has the show been rebooted with the brothers switching their place in the mytharc and their roles in the heroic storyline, one of the central themes of the first great arc has been subverted and repurposed.
I submit that being a good brother now means letting your angelic sibling fade into humanity and death if it is their heartfelt choice. And it means Sam should respect Dean’s wishes to remain demonic because he likes what he has become and how it feels. They’re still family regardless of Dean’s immortal existence and Dean still wants a family connection per his recreation of his human life with Crowley, He even still wants to hunt evil per his killing habits. Family doesn’t end with blood and the family business doesn’t end because one brother is meaner, leaner, darker and immortal.
An angel and a human go into a bar, one beer later and before they know what has happened the landscape of the world they saved time after time has changed. AND pesto blammo then they have changed to a human and a demon or proto-demon or demonic immortal. It’s no joke. It’s their life and they earned it through their choices.
Both Dean and Castiel accept who they are, or more to the point, who they have become. Their respective storylines have been built upon two seasons of stories about monsters that value humanity and supernatural creatures living alongside humanity in peace, in harmony and as lovers, friends and associates. Their right to exercise free will and be different is the heart of this new storyline.
Hannah wants Castiel to stay an angel. His connection to humanity, his increasing fragility, and his imminent mortality frighten her. Crowley wants Dean to be demon enough to kill for Hell and human enough to be his friend. Sam wants his human brother back. None of them consider what Dean or Castiel wants because their affection and/or need for their friends and family coupled with their respective values and prejudices colors their perspective profoundly. It’s as if they are all wearing customized glasses. They see what they want to see.
When the two Winchester brothers finally meet Dean taunts Sam by asking how he can decide to save his brother instead of killing him, when he doesn’t know what Dean has done:
Dean: “So what’re you going to do? You gonna kill me?”
Dean: “Why? You don’t know what I’ve done. I might have it coming.”
Sam: “I don’t care. Because you are my brother and I’ve come to take you home.”
It’s true. Sam doesn’t know what Dean has done. We do. We have seen it. Some fans complained because demonic Dean just isn’t very bad. He’s just not EVIL. Jensen Ackles, who is outstanding at channeling Dean’s darker urges, has said demonic Dean is Dean on steroids, Dean without filters. Normal Dean is already a guy who asks himself ” …when is decapitation not my thing” (“Southern Comfort”). Like Dean we know that demonic Dean hasn’t really done anything that is deserving of “ganking”. Even the still human Lester had signed a deal and was on the way to becoming a demon and Sam brokered Lester’s demon deal.
He doesn’t necessarily deserve to be cured either if he likes the disease and is happy with the new Dean. It’s his life and his choice. Sam has made the assumption that the new Dean is a bad thing, at first because Crowley was involved, and now because Dean is no longer just a human or acting like his loving big brother.
Demonic Dean is rougher than human Dean but he’s no DEMON. Not really. Dean continues to play a ne’er-do-well playboy with anger control issues. He’s almost a dark, louche blue collar Bruce Wayne with an even darker Batman lurking beneath the veneer jonesing to give any human garbage a beating and any demon that crosses him a taste of the First Blade. He’s dark and dangerous but way more worthy of the title of knight than any other demon we have seen save Cain in his current iteration, and most humans.
Demonic Dean appears to kill and maim according to a code. He doesn’t hit ladies although his appreciative gaze is now closer to a leer. He only kills demons or humans destined to be demons. Oh, and he’s nobody’s tool.
We know that demonic Dean is pretty much Dean 2.0 because we’ve seen him in action. We just saw him save an innocent! He’s killing demons and enjoying it. Sure Dean is now more hardass, mean spirited if you piss him off, and he has a wee bit of a temper, especially if disrespected. He’s a killer! He enjoys the blood spatter and the violence and the sarcastic barbs! What show have you been watching?
Demonic Dean might be colored a darker shade of grey but Dean was always a dark character and a dirty hero with blood on his hands. He’s now a demonic bad boy, bababababad with a bone. None of this matters as long as he is not corrupting souls or killing innocents. Oh and he’s shed his protective big brother hunk of burning love for Sammy persona like last year’s suit. This was exactly what Sam was asking for last season when he decried his overprotective big brother (“The Purge”).
Should we change people with Asperger syndrome because they can’t love us the way we want to be loved. Should we inject homosexuals with the blood of heterosexuals to cure them of being who they are. Supernatural is asking us to apply free will to individual rights, and in the process forcing us to consider whether Sam is right and whether his obsession with curing Dean and his choices along the way are moral. We must also consider Crowley’s and Hannah’s actions in this same light. And of course Dabb has to pander to the feels as the storylines and the plot inches along.
We first meet Dean at a strip joint (Angelz) where he’s being deliberately obnoxious to elicit the bouncer’s attention. This quickly escalates to a classic beat down by Dean, who leaves afterwards visibly sated by the violence.
The scenes with the stripper have a poignancy despite Dean acting like a jerk because the lady is dancing to “Cherry Pie” (Warrant), the song featured in Dean’s angel/demon stripper dream hijacked by the angel Anna in “The Song Remains the Same”, a potent mytharc episode where Dean meets the archangel Michael and helps to save fetus Sam’s life. Anna is also an infamous tender hookup for Dean, and the human Anna ne angel reawakened when Dean Winchester was saved from perdition and from becoming a true demon torturer in hell. All of the associations leave us gutted; it’s a full on reichenbach in a single loaded scene.
BFF Crowley arrives in the nick of time to save some rude teenagers, and direct Dean towards some justified violence. During an innuendo filled tete a tete at their current hangout, the fabulous Flamingo Bar, Dean orders shots for himself and a girlie drink for Crowley who is soon to discover that he’s the bottom in this relationship in more ways than one.
Crowley needs an adulteress killed to fulfill her cuckold husband’s deal, the aforementioned Lester. Dean admittedly needs to kill so he agrees to help Crowley this one time only. This is the second time we have seen Crowley ask nicely for a favor. Both times Dean’s eyes say f… off or I may just slay you with my big bone blade.
In the end, we see that killing the lady goes against his code. He knocks off the deal maker instead because he’s annoying, a loser, and he dared to look down on Dean and try to boss him around. Nobody puts Dean in the corner!
I love that demonic Dean is nobody’s fool and nobody’s lackey, and nobody’s doormat. It’s a refreshing change. Too bad that Crowley didn’t get the message, which has been flashing loud and clear in Dean’s cold black eyes whenever Crowley crosses the line from buddy to boss. Crowley starts yelling because he has lost a soul. Dean gives him a mighty shove causing Crowley to fall in shock and the minions in attendance to smirk. Crowley finally realizes that Dean is bigger, stronger, faster, immortal, not particularly loyal and therefore uncontrollable.
Dean’s just not into Crowley, says that he is not Crowley’s bestie. Crowley says that Dean is the problem: “It’s over. What can I say? The crazy ones…they’re good for a fling. But they’re not relationship material… We’re done. You know what, Dean? It’s not me. It’s you.” Supernatural’s newest ship is torn asunder. Dean gets the bar and Crowley and minions flounce off; unfortunately Crowley in his emotional state plots his revenge.
Crowley immediately finds Moose to betray his former bestie and return him to Sam as if Dean were a commodity or burden or responsibility that can be transferred. Boys please. Dean is a sentient being, not chattel, a magic killing machine that you cannot turn off and on at will, or anyone’s blunt little instrument. As a sentient modern female I feel a wee bit incensed on Dean’s behalf.
Neither Crowley or Sam care about Dean as an individual. Crowley idealized the bromance and generally enjoyed Dean’s friendship as long as Dean was happy to kill for him on demand. Sam wants a return to a status quo and a brother that lived only for him even though he claimed that the relationship chafed and Dean’s love was toxic.
After Crowley’s departure Dean remains at the Flamingo, contemplating Crowley’s advice to choose a bloody side. He hits the first two notes of “Hey Jude” the lullaby his mother sung to him and cuts himself with the blade, watching himself heal. By the time Sam shows up he’s made up his mind. He likes being a demon. He likes the freedom. He likes owing no one but himself. He likes living without guilt and responsibility. After a lifetime of being responsible for Sam, holding his family together, trying to keep the peace, trying to keep the world safe and all the while denying himself Dean Winchester chooses to live for himself.
We’re so focused on Dean’s self reflection that we don’t immediately realize that Sam is there. Dean knows. Dean interacting with his brother is chilling. I don’t know what Sam was expecting or how he imagined that this moment would play out. Based on his reaction to Dean’s demonic patter, a remarkable bit of acting by Jared Padalecki’s face by the way, Sam is both devastated by what he sees and terrified to face the truth.
In heaven when Castiel confronts Metatron his words prompt Metatron to feign pain and say “Hey, words hurt.” It’s meant to be funny and to mock Castiel because his plain spoken manner doesn’t lend itself to verbal assassination. This is not so with Dean Winchester.
Dean has always been a master at the verbal barb because he is articulate, cunning, ruthless and has an innate gift at reading his quarry. His demonic self has only improved upon his technique. It is shocking to see him toy with Sam before cutting him to his core, and the verbal foreplay continues after he is captured. His final words before the screen goes black makes Sam’s blood and our blood run cold: “And what I’m gonna do to you Sammy, well that ain’t gonna be mercy either.” He knows and we know that it’s just going to get worse. Even though I like this new Dean I can appreciate Sam’s horror.
This episode, as well as “Black”, utilizes the structure of a road movie to explore the various relationships in this episode. Crowley and Dean are in their own twisted version of “On the Road” complete with the homoerotic subtext. Sam and Cole hearken back to western tropes involving manhood, standing by family and revenge. Cas and Hannah are two hapless outsiders exploring the diversity of human existence against the vast American landscape.
All roads eventually lead to Dean, the object of everyone’s attention, everyone’s heartfelt desire. Dean the once virile manifestation of the divine, that swaggering denim clad nightmare, now the rough housing “Deanmon” that demons fear and angels dread. Have I said how much I like this guy. How much he scares me. How much darker and grittier the show has gotten since he came out to play.
The heavy use of road genre tropes is a strong callback to the show’s heyday despite the vast differences in the landscape. Since Supernatural started on the road with Dean luring Sam away from Stanford to search for their father starting his hero’s journey, the return to these basic themes seems fitting for a season that seeks to reboot the characters of Dean and Sam, and revitalize the show by flipped their roles. Instead of saving Dean by molding him into his old image, Sam needs to help Dean realize Dean his new potential as a dark hero, a dark knight for dark times. He really is Batman in his universe. The episode also heavily uses subtextual elements to drown us with context and hammer the intertwined themes into the structure of the story.
Cole and his revenge quest reminds us of Dean with his easy facility and comfort with violence, and methods of physical and psychological torture. His quest to kill Dean even more closely mirrors the Winchesters’ original journey as he learns that the man he believes murdered his Father and left him dying in a pool of blood is a demon. It’s the birth of the new generation of hunter and he’s cut from Winchester cloth. He’s already dedicated the previous ten years of his life in preparation for killing Dean. This is his life’s work.
Cole’s story also serves to remind us of the old school mores of the hunting life. That black and white, revenge fueled hunting ethos of John Winchester, present in the early seasons, is archaic and short sighted. It’s long gone folks.
Cole operates under the old Winchester mindset that elevated revenge to a lifestyle and made the Winchesters judge, jury and executioners without necessarily having any facts beyond the way things look on the surface. Cole wants Dean dead because he THINKS Dean is a killer. Sam and Martin wanted Benny dead because he was a vampire living in a town with dead bodies. Dean used to want to kill all monsters because he THOUGHT all monsters killed. Now he sees that monsters can retain their humanity and respect life. we see that some demons are not necessarily interested in wanton killing or collecting human souls. Dean isn’t. In fact we know that being a demon makes him handle the Mark’s bloodlust in a more ethical manner.
This is why Dean has our sympathy in his battle with Cole despite the fact that Dean enjoys beating Cole and breaking his body and his spirit. We all laughed when Dean mocks Cole by referencing Inigo Montoya. Cole should be the hero but he isn’t because Carver et al. have flipped the SPNverse on its proverbial ass. Metatron throw out the Winchester Gospels to tell his story. Carver has adjusted the fine print on Supernatural’s proverbial bible to tell his.
Sam and Crowley continue to be mirrored in their mutual desire for Dean to be their companion on the road and in life amenable to their needs and interests. For Crowley this means he wants Dean to be demonic enough to kill for the good of Hell and human enough to care about Crowley and stay by his side. Sam wants his brother back human and hunting by his side. Neither stops to think about what Dean wants. Crowley has been arranging kills to keep Dean from losing control and killing without reason. Although framed as being in Dean’s best interest it is definitely in Crowley’s best interest since Dean can and will annihilate him if the Mark’s mindless bloodlust flowers and takes root in Dean.
Sam believes that being a demon is the worst thing that could happen to Dean. We have had this beaten into our consciousness repeatedly in the third season masterpiece “Mystery Spot”, in which Sam’s worst nightmare of Dean dying (and going to Hell) is realized over and over again in a perverse spin on the film Groundhog Day. Sam’s mindset from “Mystery Spot”, his guilt over Dean selling his soul to save him, and then later being unable to save his brother from Hell has been detrimental to Sam’s psyche and their relationship because of Sam’s internal compensation for the tremendous guilt that he felt over his brother’s fate. This backstory relates to Sam’s desperation and willingness to get Dean back at any cost.
The show in fabulous form has emphasized Sam’s psyche through set design with the conspicuous Flamingo Bar, where Sam first encounters his personal denim clad nightmare, and it’s copious Flamingo motif, alternating with stars. Flamingos were part of the decor of the “Mystery Spot” hotel room, otherwise known as hell on earth for Sam. The stars probably refer to Heaven and the angel Castiel who was the one that gripped Dean tight and lifted him from perdition, saving him and restoring him in body and soul. The good old days of yore y’all!
On the surface Sam’s quest to save Dean seems noble. However the show wants us to question whether it truly is. Dean is alive, Dean can better tolerate the Mark of Cain and it’s dark urges, which was killing his human self as he lost more control over his impulses. His demonic self isn’t driving him to commit terrible dark urges of murder. It’s the Mark that does that. His demonic nature actually gives him control over the Mark.
Carver the showrunner wants us to ignore the black and white certainties of the earlier seasons and embrace the grey. Grey matters in the new paradigm. Whereas the SPNverse BC (before Carver) has typically portrayed all supernatural beings including those traditionally considered good like angels as the bad guys, the Carver era has worked overtime to tell us that things aren’t black and white. They’re as grey as the purgatory woods where Dean met his spiritual brother, loyal comrade-at-arms and dependable human loving vampire Benny. They’re as grey as the morning the Winchesters left a defenseless, comatose angel in the care of a demon.
Since Megstiel became a thing we’ve added a gentle, hug loving werewolf to the Winchester friendzone. We’ve learned that there are more to werewolves and demons and angels than can be found in John’s journal or Bobby’s books. Supernatural entities of all sorts not only live amongst humans peaceably; they work with humans, live with humans and love humans. This is a brave new world where monsters and demons are people too.
Castiel and Dean are strongly mirrored through their storylines to emphasize this very concept. Both have been transformed, remain straddling two worlds and the sum of their respective transformations is illustrated by their wounds; Castiel, becoming human and facing mortality, can no longer heal his and Dean is now immortal having faced his mortality before being transformed by the Mark of Cain.
Castiel’s story with Hannah mirrors both the Crowley/Dean and Sam/Dean dynamic. He wants to be independent of angel politics and heaven, much like Dean feels regarding Hell and it’s business of claiming souls; and he doesn’t want Hannah imposing her wishes onto him. Hannah mirrors Sam in her desperation to restore her brother to the way he was regardless of the cost. Hannah was so desperate to “save” Cas that she was willing to free Metatron, a big liar, manipulator and killer who cannot be trusted. She doesn’t care. She’s killed angels that were hurting no one because they were free thinkers and free spirits. Likewise Sam in his desperation works with Crowley and gives him a powerful weapon.
The show is being pretty clear that demonic Dean isn’t the worst thing ever. Dean likes the disease and Dean wants to stay demonic. Castiel likes his fragility and the quality of human existence and he has made peace with his fate. They both don’t want the intervention.
If Garth can be a good werewolf, and Benny a veritable saint by dying to save Sam then the SPNverse can survive Dean Winchester being demonic. The show simply needs to give Dean a plausible reason to hunt by Sam’s side. The Family Business itself gives Dean a reason to hunt although HUNTING THINGS (killing things) might now take precedence over saving people at this point.
Sam demonstrated the bravery to withstand brutal torture and face his brother the demon, the only person alive that knows all of Sam’s psychological soft spots. Of course Sam wants to save his brother. The audience needed to see this. However in my opinion, they are deliberately mining his fragile psyche regarding his guilt over Dean going to Hell. Sam the human brother is the one in danger of going dark rather than the black eyed demonic Dean.
So these are my thoughts two episodes in. I apologize for the rambling. The art of unraveling knots requires that one meanders back and forth until the full length of the thread is revealed.