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Last week, I asked the Supernatural Gods to give us a one-two punch, and they delivered in this episode. I found this a rich and powerful hour of raw emotion – fear, love, regret, and bittersweet joy. I’m going to go through the episode, then do some picking apart. Please bear with me.
Sam’s on the quest to complete the Second Trial to the end of closing the Gates of Hell. Kevin Tran, our current, and rapidly freaking out prophet [he swears he can hear Crowley in his head and that the King of Hell knows where he is], advises the Winchesters that Sam must go to Hell to rescue an innocent soul and bring it back to Earth to make the trip to Heaven. So the boys find themselves a Crossroads Demon (ahhh, just like the good ol’ days – felt like putting on a comfortable pair of slippers to see them do their thing) and get the information they need to get to Hell, via a rogue Reaper who agrees to take Sam, on the condition that the Winchesters will “owe him one.” Dean’s not pleased – he knows Sam’s suffering from these trials, but he can’t go along – it has to be Sam. And thanks to the Reaper, they know the innocent soul Sam has to rescue is Bobby. [Wild squealing from the fans! Yay! Bobby! We missed you so much!!]
Of course, as things happen in the World According to the Winchesters, nothing goes as planned. The rogue Reaper drops Sam off in Purgatory, where he has to fight his way to the back door of Hell. Once in Hell, he has to find Bobby, who promptly punches Sam in the face, thinking he’s another demon come to torment him. Convincing Bobby that he’s the real deal, Sam gets one of the best lines in the episode: “What about … the free pedicure at the Mall of America? You made Dean swear to never tell another living soul how it changed your life.” Bobby’s convinced, hugs are exchanged, there is much bittersweet joy.
Meanwhile, Crowley is pissed beyond belief. “Winchester Jumbo-sized is trying to break into the mothership,” he rants, he can’t find Kevin Tran (which means Kevin really is going off the rails and hallucinating Crowley), and he seems to be surrounded by idiots. A visit to the rogue Reaper gives him some of the story, and he kills the Reaper. Well, at least the Winchesters won’t have to owe him one.
Then there’s Naomi – Dean doesn’t trust her as far as he could throw her, but she has a little chat with Dean and advises him that Sam had to go through Purgatory to get to Hell. Cue brotherly concern. Upon finding the rogue Reaper dead and unable to pick up Sam, Dean calls Benny. That had to be painful, considering how Dean cut Benny out of his life, but like the true brother-in-arms he is, Benny comes to Dean’s aid. He’ll let Dean kill him so he can go to Purgatory and help Sam find the portal back to Earth – he’s not finding his place topside, anyway, and while Dean tells him to hitch a ride with Sam like he did with Dean, we, at least, can see that Benny’s not coming back.
Cue Sam and Bobby fighting in Purgatory, and Benny comes to the rescue. Bobby’s typically Bobby, wondering why Sam didn’t look for Dean for That Year, and he’s horrified that “his Dean” is friends with a vampire. Sam’s getting what Dean saw in Benny, though, holds Bobby back, and they all head for the portal. As Dean did with Benny, Sam recites an incantation and takes Bobby’s spirit into his arm and turns to Benny. But Benny refuses and sacrifices himself so Sam can make it to the portal when more vampires attack.
Back topside, Sam and Dean hug desperately, and let Bobby free. Who’s not ascending. Hellooo, Crowley! He’s pissed, Naomi appears and Crowley seems to have a healthy fear of her, for he disappears before she can smite him. She then releases Bobby to ascend to Heaven, tells Dean, “I told you I could be trusted,” and wings away. Sam recites the incantation to complete the Second Trial and it’s obvious he’s in pain and being affected – again, it’s his right hand that glows and throbs, which leads me to think he’s going to be needing that hand to close the Gates of Hell. Dean buries Benny’s bones in the hopes of getting him back some day, and Sam finally understands that hope. Then, they discover that Kevin’s taken off with all his notes, hidden the Demon Tablet, and what the hell? What do the Winchesters do now?
Why this lengthy rehash? I found almost every instant in this episode to have some import, whether to advance the story or to develop the characters. Everything served a purpose and had an effect. For the boys, lots of emotions were brought to the surface and dealt with, and dealt with in ways that showed a certain maturity. Especially for Dean. His chat with Kevin about sucking it up and living the life wasn’t full of his usual angst. He seems to be more at peace with his life – I think having the Men of Letters’ bunker to go home to has done him a world of good. Not only can he be the elite Hunter to Sam’s developing Man of Letters, he still gets to go home to a memory foam mattress. His soul seems a bit more settled, and maybe, just maybe, he’s starting to think that he, too, can come through this tunnel with Sam and survive. His concern for his brother also has a different flavor to it. His usual distrust of Sam and his inability to believe Sam could pull his own weight has morphed into believing in his brother and wanting to keep him healthy and alive, not just for the sake of the Trials, but for his own sake as well. Not just to continue the family business, but because Sam’s his brother, and a man he’s come to understand and appreciate in his own right. His concern for Sam when speaking with Benny was touching, and mingled with his regret at the favor he was asking of Benny, Jensen Ackles did an excellent job of conveying Dean’s worry, love and regret.
Sam, too, has matured. He made his way through Hell without flinching, and if ever there was a time to flinch, that was it. Would he run into Crowley? Or, God forbid, bump into Lucifer’s cage? He remembers his soul’s year in hell, and it couldn’t have been easy to be back in that nightmare, but he plunged forward to find Bobby. He didn’t get defensive with Bobby about not looking for Dean during the Purgatory Year but held his ground, and he was quick to realize what Dean saw in Benny just from his brief conversation with him in Purgatory. And being in Purgatory itself – well, that certainly opened his eyes to what Dean must have suffered for that year – paranoia and fear and a wasteland of black and grey and red blood. And Sam was there for only a few hours.
So now both Sam and Dean have visited the big three vacation spots – Heaven, Purgatory and Hell. I still believe Sam will close, or attempt to close, the Gates of Hell. It’s only fitting, considering Lucifer and his year of soul torment, and it’s a redemption for him. Dean, on the other hand, may think closing the Gates of Heaven is an equally good idea (he’s really not fond of any angels except Cas, so Cas spiriting away the Angel Tablet was necessary) and that would be his job as the Righteous Man and Michael’s Vessel. But I think the Winchesters need to realize that the world needs both Heaven and Hell to remain in business. Without the struggle between light and dark there is no growth, only stagnation, and the world that could come of both sets of Gates being closed might be one worse than the one had the Apocalypse actually occurred. As Cas said, it’s about freedom, free will, and if the opposite poles of life are taken away, where can mankind make a choice? Seriously, have the boys not yet realized, after all this time, that they themselves have, at one point or another, been the avatars for good and evil, and it’s only through their choices, their free will, that they broke from their predestined roles?
I’m also thinking there’s some Divine intervention going on, here. For Sam’s Second Trial, they found a rogue Reaper who just happened to be the Reaper who took Bobby, an innocent soul, to Hell and tells the Winchesters about it. Lucky for Sam, for how else would he have been able to determine which soul was innocent amongst the billions downstairs in Hell? And look, Bobby’s cell door was open – how fortuitous. And Benny’s not fitting in topside? How lucky for Dean to have such a good friend who’s willing to make the sacrifice to go back to Purgatory – and *wants* to go back to Purgatory, and help save Sam and Bobby at the same. I will not say that Naomi had anything to do with these serendipitous occasions, but I’m certainly of the idea that the boys were getting some kind of help. Crowley sure as hell wouldn’t help them (pun intended), the angels are all working with their own agenda, so … God? Maybe that means we’ll see Chuck again.
Amanda Tapping as Naomi has been a delight so far. She’s clearly an Angel with an Agenda (aren’t they all) and her half-truths are aggravating (as they should be) and provoking. Without sharing that Sam was in Purgatory, Dean would never had known to save him via Benny’s sacrifice. And, of course, it’s a fandom squee to see her, after her great work in Stargate SG-1, Stargate Atlantis, and Sanctuary. I’m sure we’ll see more of her, and I’m certainly intrigued by her methods – she greatly resented Crowley calling her a bureaucrat, but so far, that’s what she’s been. Granted, a sadistic paper-pusher, but a paper-pusher nonetheless. Or at least, that’s what the writers are trying to hide her behind. She said she’s a warrior, like Dean, so I’m thinking we’ll see something huge and powerful from her later on. And as we’re getting close to the end of Season 8, we might see that power sooner rather than later.
The writers certainly left the door open for Bobby and Benny to return, which is rather a huge relief, particularly for Bobby. He was the boys’ center and foster-father for so long, the show seemed to have lost a lot of its heart when Bobby died. To see him again was beautiful, yet painful, and I like (and appreciate) that there’s hope that we may see him again. If Samuel could be pulled out of Heaven, why can’t Bobby? And Bobby challenging Sam (and, therefore, Dean as well) to storm the castle and get him out … well, that could be a foretelling of things to come in Season 9.
I find it interesting that the writers have been naming their episodes for previously established TV shows and movies, i.e., last week’s “Freaks & Geeks,” this week’s “Taxi Driver,” and next week’s “Pac-Man Fever” (yay, Felicia Day again! Hope she doesn’t get killed off like all the other interesting women in this series). My last thought is … who really is the Taxi Driver? The easy answer is the rogue Reaper. But if you know anything about the movie “Taxi Driver,” you might agree with me that it’s Benny. Benny, who no longer had a place topside, who didn’t fit in with vampires or humans, who tried to do right by Dean and Sam, even though Sam was initially horrified that his brother had befriended a vampire. Benny went out in his own sort of blaze of glory, choosing his own path, and finding that Purgatory was the only place he might still have a place – fittingly, a place between Hell and Earth, even as he couldn’t find a place between vampires and humans.
Next week looks to be another respite from the main drive of this season, but I can’t complain when it’s Felicia Day’s Charlie. After that? I think things are going to get seriously heavy-duty. There’s a prophet to find, a final Trial to complete, possibly Hell’s Gates to close, and who knows what Naomi has in mind concerning *that*. And I’m concerned for Sam – if he doesn’t complete all the trials, what happens to him? Cas said Sam’s damaged on a level that even he can’t heal. Kevin’s got to be found, stat, and translating that tablet. But what we do know is that the brothers actually seem closer than they’ve been in a long time – and that’s a fortifying thing to see.