By Paula R. Stiles
Recap: Recap of season one, beginning with Bobby’s speech about how “there’s a war coming and you boys are right in the middle of it,” and ending with the huge smash-up of the Impala (with Sam driving, a wounded John in the passenger seat and a moribund Dean in back) that cliffhangered “Devil’s Trap” in season one.
Cut to the possessed driver of the semi that t-boned the Impala getting out in the middle of the night and ripping open the driver’s side door of Metallicar. Sam has woken up and aims the Colt at the demon. The demon snarks with great overconfidence that Sam won’t shoot him; that last bullet’s meant for another (i.e. YED). Sam just says, “Wanna bet?” and with a cold smile, the demon blasts out of the driver, leaving the driver on his hands and knees, shocked at the damage he’s caused.
Unfortunately, while this is a good way to begin the season, it also points up the weakness of Supernatural demons as characters – they are literally Too Stupid to Live and annoying as hell, to boot. A few rise above the pack (Meg, YED, Casey, Astaroth, Crowley in season five), but most of them say stupid things that the writers think are funny and “smartass”, and do stupid things solely to advance the plot. This is the Colt and just as Dean showing abject terror every time we hear a hellhound on the soundtrack makes hellhounds that much scarier and more awesome, conversely, having a demon just smirk when faced by a gun that can actually kill it (when so few things can kill this otherwise-immortal being) diminishes the Colt as a holy and terrifying weapon down to just another plot device. If the demon doesn’t give a crap, why should we?
Anyhoo, with the demon gone, Sam tries to rouse first John and then Dean by calling their names, but no dice.
Cut to broad daylight, obviously several hours later, with everyone being medivacced by chopper. Despite the commentary noting that they had a nurse on board as a medical consultant (and it does show in the hospital), they had some whoppers of medical bloopers (like having Dean in a private room when he would be in Intensive Care with a bunch of other patients, so that the nurses could keep a better eye on him).
This scene is the worst. There is no way in hell that the paramedics/EMTs would wait around with Dean while they got John and Sam ready to go. You medivac the most critically injured person(s) first and bring the others in later by other transport (say, one or more ambulances). Since it can take hours to extricate people from vehicles, you’d think Dean might well be long gone on the chopper, with Sam and John still in the car at that point. Also, while they did have Dean with a saline IV, they should also have had him on oxygen (John, too, since he’s unconscious in that scene). The IV won’t do him much good if his brain’s starving for O2. Poor Dean. That Golden Trauma Hour looks long gone, which seems odd. Didn’t Sam say in “Devil’s Trap” that the hospital was only a few minutes away? So, why does it take what looks like six or seven hours for EMS to get there and evacuate even Dean?
But they do seem to have gotten the way-outta-whack blood pressure of a head trauma case right. That would be their medical consultant’s contribution (The problem with RNs is that they generally do not know all that much about emergency medicine in the field, which can be very different – and nastier – than a hospital setting. I used to be an EMT).
Cut to Dean waking up in Shiloh County Medical Center with bed-pan mouth and a big scratch on his head, but otherwise looking pretty good for having been in a massive car wreck. He gets up (strangely, considering the IV and everything in the previous scene, he’s not hooked up to anything) and walks out of his room. He’s dressed in a white t-shirt and green scrub pants and is barefoot, which doesn’t really seem to faze him. In fact, nothing really fazes him as he gets up and walks around, calling for Sam and John. For some inexplicable reason, he is on the Obstetrics Ward, right next to the Pathology room.
This scene is a nice bit of acting from Jensen Ackles, in an episode that is Mostly About Dean. Usually, somebody waking up like that would be played shakier and more upset. It’s a fun way to show Dean as a badass (He’s woken up like this so many times, it’s become no big deal) and also to give us the feeling that something is “off” before Dean’s sleep-logged brain registers the same thing.
Dean goes downstairs, favouring his ribs, and calls to a nurse at a check-in station inside a small office, saying he’s been in a car accident and is looking for his brother and father. She ignores him. He snaps his fingers right in front of her. She ignores him. Uh oh.
Now officially panicking, Dean rushes upstairs and fortuitously discovers a badly-wounded person on a ventilator in the ICU – himself.
Cut to title cards.
Sam rushes into the room – right past Spirit Dean, of course. He looks horrified at Dean’s comatose body, even as Dean is relieved that he’s okay. Dean tries to get through to him, but Sam can’t hear him. Poor Dean. Figuratively invisible to his family for so many years, he’s now literally invisible.
The doctor, a middle-aged African-American man, comes in and tells Sam that John is awake, which relieves Dean even more. But when Sam asks about Dean’s condition, the doctor has bad news and lots of it. He mentions damage to the liver and kidneys (YED’s torture from “Devil’s Trap”) and worst of all, head trauma from the crash. There’s a lot of swelling (the edema) and signs of massive brain damage. The doctor says that they’ll have a better picture of Dean’s condition “once he wakes up…if he wakes up.” He says that anybody less tough would have died by now, which is a kind way of saying that it’s time to consider signing some organ donor papers in the near future.
Dean is pretty upset with the doctor at being so pessimistic and tries to urge Sam to “find some hoodoo priest to lay some mojo on me”. But Sam, of course, can’t hear him. He instead goes to John’s room, where John gives him an insurance card (made out under a fake alias, of course). John and Sam discuss Dean’s condition and what they’re going to do about it. Sam repeats Dean’s words about the hoodoo priest and then looks confused, as if he can’t remember where he heard them (aha). John obsesses over the Colt, which pisses Sam off and kicks off his adolescent rebellion streak (though in this case, it’s justified, because he feels John isn’t sufficiently worried about Dean). But he still agrees to go find Bobby (whom he called to tow the Impala), clean out the trunk and retrieve the Colt. He also takes a list of ingredients John needs for a “protection spell”. He tries to press John on what YED said in “Devil’s Trap” about Sam (and other kids like him) being “special”, but John claims he doesn’t know what that means. As Sam leaves, Dean watches John’s face and coldly assesses that his father is hiding something.
At Bobby’s (My God. Jim Beaver looks so young!), Sam is in extreme denial about Dean’s condition, but can’t hide his dismay at the Impala’s (“Dean is gonna be pissed.”). When Bobby tries to explain to Sam that the Impala is toast, Sam insists that if there’s even one part left, Dean will want to rebuild it. Bobby lets it go without stating the obvious – that Dean may be toast. Sam can’t handle that reality. Right now, for him, the Impala = Dean, so the Impala must be saved, will be saved, and that’s that.
Trouble starts a-brewing when Sam hands Bobby John’s list and, from Bobby’s reaction, realizes it’s not what John said it was for. Back at the hospital, John is sitting with Dean when Dean comes in and begs him to save him. Dean says that John hasn’t called anyone or made any efforts to help him, that Dean has given him everything he ever asked for and this is the thanks Dean gets? This scene is nicely acted, both with Ackles raging in a way that might seem selfish (but seems entirely just, considering how much of his life Dean has simply handed over to his family) and with Jeffrey Dean Morgan’s enigmatic acting as John. It’s hard to tell if John is largely serene or suppressing great emotion, and this seems to be deliberate.
A lot of fans loved Morgan as John and Morgan is, indeed, a great actor. But he never tried to soften the sharper edges of John’s character and so, we see no great emotion and instead, great calculation. Yes, he seems to love his boys and yes, he seems motivated (in part) by wanting to protect them, but the larger part of his character is tunnel-visioned and machiavellian to the extreme. For John, the ends always justify the means, even if those means hurt his children. It doesn’t help that in the time-travel episodes, when given a choice between each other and protecting their sons, Young John and Young Mary selfishly chose each other every single time. Not even once did they choose their children, even as they did sometimes really questionable things in the names of those as-yet-unborn kids.
Dean is distracted from his rant by a wraith-like spirit that zips past and down the hallway. He chases it into a room where a nurse is lying on the floor, suffering a severe asthma attack. She dies right in front of Dean, who is unable to attract the attention of the doctors and nurses outside to get her help.
As Dean comes back to John’s room, trying to warn his family that there is something killing people in the hospital and they need to hunt it, Sam comes back. He dumps a duffel bag on John’s bed and yells at John about the list of ingredients. Turns out they’re for a summoning spell, not for protection. Sam guesses (correctly) that John wants to summon YED. He believes that John is so set on revenge that he wants to ignore what’s happening to Dean and have a confrontation with YED right there in the hospital. John makes no effort to disabuse Sam of this notion and their fight quickly degenerates into an outright shouting match. Dean can’t be heard to mediate until, upset, he swings his arm and accidentally knocks a glass off a table. This shocks both Sam and John out of their fight, but Dean has something else on his mind: he collapses, flickering, to the floor. Outside, a commotion starts up. John sends Sam to find out what’s going on and the ruckus is coming from Dean’s room. Dean has coded (gone into cardiac arrest) and the medical team is trying to revive him.
Dean reluctantly follows a devastated Sam into the room and sees the problem – the wraith-like spirit hovers over his body. It’s bone-white, with long hair and witch-braids, ragged clothes, all blowing in some otherworldly wind. Furious and scared, Dean charges the creature and grabs it. He’s thrown back against the wall in slow motion as it turns and sees him. But instead of attacking him, it rushes out the door.
Sam, confused, hears an echo of Dean shouting at the spirit, even as Dean chases it out the door. As soon as it leaves the room, it disappears and Dean’s body regains a heartbeat. Sam heaves a sigh of relief.
In the corridor afterward, Dean reassures the unhearing Sam that if he can “grab” the spirit, he can kill it. But when Sam looks around, the camera pulls back…and back…and back…to show us that he is alone in the hallway. It may well be the eeriest shot in the whole show. I’m sure nobody will be shocked to hear that Kim Manners directed this episode.
Now with a purpose, Dean strides through the hospital, looking for the spirit. [In a cut series of scenes, he was seeing a bloody man with bullet wounds repeatedly begging him for help. Though they’re well-done, they didn’t seem really necessary and since the first one also includes a totally-gratuitous shot of a pretty young woman pulling off her shirt to reveal her bra, it’s probably just as well they got cut.] At this point, Dean is distracted by a young woman shouting out in the stairwell at people who can’t see her. She seems relieved when Dean comes up the stairs and it turns out they can see each other. Her name is “Tessa”.
They find Tessa’s body, which is on life support after a botched appendectomy. Dean speculates that they are “spirits close to death” and comes up with several words for their situation. One thing he does not bring up (though the show heavily trades in this later on) is that spirits (specifically, interaction with/control of them) and spirit travel are a central part of shamanistic belief systems. And when he states that they need not just give themselves up to death, but “snap back” into their bodies, he is talking about a part of a classic shaman’s journey in which the shaman “dies” and is reborn following an out-of-body experience. And Dean goes through that journey that in “In My Time of Dying”.
Back in John’s room, Sam is having an interesting experience, himself. He tells John that he felt Dean’s presence and wonders if Dean could be roaming the hospital in spirit form. John, for once, is gentle and supportive instead of being a dick and says it’s entirely possible. When Sam wonders if he’s feeling Dean because of his “psychic thing”, the show wisely leaves this up in the air. Later, it would present Dean as the one who was sensitive to spirits and their presences (not to mention the one who could control them), and much more recently, has implied that Dean’s soul is much more powerful than the average human’s. But it’s entirely possible that what we were seeing in this episode was an intended confluence of Sam’s natural abilities (still knowledge-oriented rather than power-oriented at that point) with Dean’s literally powerful presence.
As Sam leaves to go get something, John promises that he won’t fight the demon until they are “sure Dean’s okay.” Hmm. That sounds very ominous.
Meanwhile, Dean is, indeed, roaming around the hospital with Tessa, who seems oddly calm and accepting of her fate (compared to her freaking out earlier). Tessa believes in fate and passively allowing whatever will happen to happen (the modern, JudeoChristian/humanist view in which a higher power makes things happen and one has limited control). Dean strongly disagrees, feeling that one “always has a choice” and that he can somehow control and fight back against what’s happening to him (the old shamanistic/animistic view in which one propitiates or learns to control the supernatural forces in one’s environment). This is a very old debate. It’s rather sad that the pagan side of it has been so downgraded as “primitive” and “simplistic” when it is, in fact, much more proactive and vigorous and practical (in terms of dealing with the supernatural or spiritual world) than the more “modern” view. Humans simultaneously loom less large in a shamanistic landscape (Ever notice how humans scarcely appear in the drawings of Paleolithic cave art, but more as handprints and footprints and art of that nature?) and hold more natural power in navigating that landscape. Souls are valuable and resilient, as Death says in “Appointment in Samarra”.
This debate is interrupted when Dean hears another code in progress (as the intercom pages a “Dr. Kripke”). It’s a little girl. When the wraith touches her, she dies. Dean chases it off, but not in time. The medical team calls the code and notes the time of death (In reality, codes can last for an hour or more, depending on the general condition of the patient, how stubborn the team is and how much progress they appear to be making in bringing back the patient). Dean is unnerved by this whole process.
Back in Dean’s room, Sam enters with a paper bag. He pulls out a Ouija board (called a “Mystical Talking Board” to avoid copyright infringement) and sets it down on the floor. Dean appears, very skeptical, but sits down across from him, anyway. Dean doesn’t think he can move the board marker, but surprises himself by doing so with ease. He tells Sam that he is on a “hunt” and then spells out “Reap”. We now know why Dean was unnerved – he realized back in the little girl’s room that the spirit he had been chasing was a Reaper and that’s bad. He doesn’t know how to hunt a Reaper, not successfully, and certainly not as a spirit himself.
Sam gets upset when he realizes that the Reaper must be after Dean. He goes to John’s room for advice, but John isn’t there (By this time, it’s after nightfall). Where’s John? Why, he’s down in the Boiler Room, drawing designs on the floor. That can’t be good. Sam, unaware of Daddy’s whereabouts and activities, snags his journal and goes back to Dean’s room, where Dean (and his body) wonders where Dad is. But Sam skips over this as immaterial and starts hunting through the journal for something to help Dean. “Thanks for not giving up on me, Sammy,” Dean says. Ahhh, remember the good old days, when Sam actually gave a crap about his brother and sometimes did cool and heroic things for him?
Oh, but then Dean sees something in the journal that really pisses him off.
He storms off down the hallway and comes into an empty room, where Tessa is waiting for him in a dark, low-cut dress. She’s the Reaper. She tells him that she has been showing him these hallucinations (He saw in the journal that Reapers could “alter perception”) to persuade him that “Death is nothing to fear.” It is time for Dean to die: “You’re living on borrowed time, already.” This upsets Dean, needless to say.
Down in the basement, John has laid out summoning materials and is chanting and drawing his own blood with a knife. He lights one of those sparkly bowls the show is so fond of having in these scenes and waits. Nothing seems to happen at first. But then he’s rousted by a custodian. Canny, though, John susses out that the custodian is possessed. By YED. And he’s right. He has the Colt and aims it at the demon. But when YED brings in two possessed doctors and asks John if he really thought he could trap him so easily, John says he has no intention of trapping the demon. He wants to make a deal.
Back in Dean’s room, Sam is pouring out his heart to his comatose brother, saying that Dean can’t leave him alone with John. They’d kill each other. On a more serious note, he says mournfully that they have only just got back together and become a team again, brothers again. Dean mustn’t die now.
But if Sam knew where Dean’s spirit really is, he’d be freaking out with worry. Because Dean is with Tessa, his intended Reaper, who is trying to persuade him to go with her. Dean fiercely tells her that he has to stay behind. His father and brother need him, need his protection. Tessa gently tells him that “you’re not the first soldier I’ve plucked from the field.” When Dean says that his family will without him, she admits that’s a possibility, but it’s his time and that’s all there is to it. She reassures him that his death is “a good death, a hero’s death,” but Dean is not at all convinced. He sees it as a defeat and does not care if where he’s going is a good place if that means Sam and John will be left without his protection. He asks if he could refuse to go and she says he could. But then, he would become a ghost, gradually going insane from loneliness and boredom as the world and those he knew changed and died off. Eventually, he would become the kind of monster he had hunted in life. This shakes his resolve.
Meanwhile, John is trying to trade the Colt in exchange for YED “helping” Dean. YED is balking. At first, John (and we) figures that YED is just holding out for more, even though John has what appears to be the winning hand, but YED seems genuinely reluctant to bring back Dean and only agrees once John is willing to “sweeten the pot.”
Some fans have said that there is never any follow-up to Dean’s storylines, especially show-mythology-related ones. However, in this case, watching “In the Beginning” and “The Song Remains the Same” is very instructive in showing why YED is reluctant and John doesn’t understand why. Later, we found out that YED “met” Dean in 1973 and has known since before Dean was born that Dean would eventually kill him. He just didn’t know who Dean was (so he couldn’t eliminate him as a child). Must’ve been quite a shock when the brothers rescued John while he was possessed by YED and YED recognized Dean as his angel-sent nemesis. And John didn’t know this because the Archangel Michael had mindwiped him before Dean was born.
All in all, YED should’ve just turned John down and let Dean die, but I guess he couldn’t quite resist bagging John’s life/soul and the Colt all in one go. That was his one, fatal mistake.
Incidentally, I must further pause to note that Fred Lehne is really good – first playing the red herring of an ordinary custodian “catching” John where he’s not supposed to be and then switching completely in voice, tone and posture into the Devil himself. It’s no wonder he took the role and made it his own (no mean feat after Morgan’s tour de force as YED in “Devil’s Trap”) and even came back in season six.
Back to the basement: with classic Attic hubris, YED foolishly dismisses Dean as “not much of a threat”. He then moves on to Sam, asking if John knows about Sam “and the other children”. John says he’s known for a while, but he stays on-script, refusing to be diverted from his course, and demands to know if YED can “bring Dean back or not”. YED says he can’t, “but I know someone who can. Not a problem.” But he won’t do it until John gives him one more thing that he wants as much as the Colt, “maybe more.” And John won’t give YED the Colt until he sees for sure that Dean is alive and well again.
But time is running out. Tessa is getting to Dean, who’s exhausted and wavering. When he asks her where she’s taking him, she says she can’t tell him: “I can’t give away the big punchline.” Just as he turns to her and is about to give her his answer, though, the lights start to flicker. Tessa denies that she’s doing it and, as a terrified Dean watches and she screams in horrified denial, black smoke pours out of a vent and into her mouth. When she turns around, her eyes are yellow and her demeanour completely different. “Today’s your lucky day, kid,” she says and puts a hand on his head.
Dean wakes up back in his body, choking on the tube down his throat. Sam, seeing him revive, screams for help.
Later, the doctor tells Dean that his fatal injuries have been healed and he’s in much better shape. Dean thanks him and he leaves. Dean seems tired, confused and sore, but otherwise okay. However, he doesn’t remember anything about his out-of-body experience and questions Sam about being chased by the Reaper. He also feels that something is very wrong, but he doesn’t know what. John enters in the middle of this conversation. Sam gets angry at him and demands to know where he was all night, but John wearily refuses to rise to the bait (for once), saying he doesn’t want to fight, anymore. Worried, Sam asks him what’s wrong, but John just asks him to go get him some coffee. Poor Sam. This is the last time he’ll see his father and he doesn’t even know it.
After Sam leaves, John starts to talk to Dean about how Dean was always a support to him, even when he was a child. John admits that he now realizes he was too hard on Dean and put too much on him. He apologizes. Dean, freaked out, asks him why he’s talking like this. This is an extremely sad scene, as John looks at Dean and realizes that he can’t put Humpty-Dumpty back together again. He’s trying to make up for 23 years of pain and neglect, and probably abuse, in a few moments (having traded his life and soul, in addition to the Colt, to save Dean), and all he’s accomplishing is scaring his son. As Dean would put it in a lesser situation, “Moment’s gone.” And that moment was gone years ago. John can’t undo the damage he inflicted on Dean. He doesn’t even know where to start.
So, instead, he leans over and whispers something in Dean’s ear. And from the look of horror on Dean’s face, it’s not reassuring at all. Then he smiles at Dean and leaves. He goes into another room, pulls out the Colt and lays it on the table, telling an unseen person, “Okay.”
Sam comes back with the coffee and sees John lying dead in the same empty room, the Colt nowhere to be seen. Dropping the coffee, Sam rushes to his father’s side and screams for help, but it’s too late. As Sam later helps Dean into the room, the medical team declares John dead at 10:41am.
Review: Rewatching “In My Time of Dying”, I am strongly reminded of a poem, “The Second Coming“, by William Butler Yeats, famously pillaged for a title by Nigerian author Chinua Achebe:
Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world….
Even more chillingly, but perhaps not so musically, Yeats continues:
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.
Many stories, of course, have reflected Yeats’ words about World War I, Christ and the Antichrist, because hell, they’re pretty famous words, aren’t they? And so true. But few stories have reflected this poem more exactly than “In My Time of Dying”. I’m struck by how the Tell of the writers about how important and awesome Sam is (We saw a strenuous example of it in last week’s retro episode, “Shadow“) is completely undercut by their refusal to have things do anything but tick along quite nicely without Sam. When Sam goes off to college, the only person devastated by his family desertion is Dean (John seems pretty okay with it, albeit pissed off by the lack of control). When Sam dies at the end of “All Hell Breaks Loose, Part 1”, only Dean cannot move on. And after Sam jumps in a hole at the end of “Swan Song”? Well, by golly, it’s Miller Time. And none of the surviving members of Team Free Will really understands why Dean is so broken up over it. Hey, it was Sam’s destiny, his time, so bust out the beer.
Contrast this with what happens when Dean dies (or comes damned close). In “Faith”, Sam finds a healer who is (granted, inadvertently via his evil wife) using a leashed Reaper to heal people, and all hell breaks loose when Dean cottons to this unholy little scam. In “Mystery Spot”, Sam gets stuck in a time loop that affects everyone around him (though, granted, this may be just an illusion), while Dean dies over and over and over again. In “Dark Side of the Moon”, God finally deigns to send a postcard via the Angel Joshua this particular time Dean and Sam come up to Heaven. But most significant is “In My Time of Dying”, where Dean is close to death and Sam and John fight over how (or even whether) to save him. Look how things fall apart. The center can’t hold. And anarchy is romping down the halls, with Sam using Ouija boards in empty patients’ rooms, John dialing up demons in the basement, and YED stalking poor, defenseless Reapers just going on about their appointed rounds. It’s a mess worthy of season two of The Kingdom. Maybe that’s even what Eric Kripke, who wrote this episode, had in mind (though it would be rather subtle for him). And none of it exactly supports the idea of Sam being the Special Snowflake of the Universe.
When you look at it that way, it’s no wonder Death was later intrigued enough by Dean to want to get to know him better rather than sending a Reaper after him (the way the Reaper turned on the Preacher’s wife in “Faith”) to reap his disruptive ass and be done with it (Those who believe that Tessa is somehow more hostile to Dean in “Appointment in Samarra” than other times should rewatch “In My Time of Dying”. She’s always been a bit cold and detached, and impatient whenever Dean balked). When Dean is removed from the earth, chaos erupts among those who knew him (Sam starts screwing a demon; Bobby falls into the bottle). Death talks about how Dean causes “disruption on a global scale”, but like the young girl in “Appointment in Samarra”, Dean is innocent of the decisions that cause this disruption. Sam overrides Dean’s wishes to die a quiet death by dragging him to the faith healer and the faith healer’s wife has leashed the Reaper. John makes a deal with a demon to bring back Dean, after (as Dean admits to Tessa in “Death Takes a Holiday”) Dean had decided to go with her.
Some fans have blamed Dean for being “selfish” in making a demon’s deal for Sam, but regardless of how you feel about Dean’s decision to barter away his own soul to save another, his main motivation is clarified in light of “Appointment in Samarra”. Throughout season two (and even in season one’s, “Faith”), Dean makes clear that he feels his brother and father’s actions to bring him back have upset the balance of the universe. As he tells Bobby in “All Hell Breaks Loose, Part 2”, he was trying to redress that balance, just as he tried to redress the balance by allowing the Reaper to transfer his life force to Layla in “Faith”. Even in season four’s “Are You There, God? It’s Me, Dean Winchester”, he talks about his good acts barely balancing his bad acts.
Dean didn’t disrupt the balance of the world by bringing Sam back; he was unsuccessfully trying to redress a preexisting imbalance that centered around him and the center could not, would not, hold. It makes sense that Death would call him on the disruption, not because Dean is unruly and deliberately disruptive, but because he’s the only human we’ve met on the show who would listen. Every single other human on the show (including Sam and John) would gleefully break rules right and left for their own gain and ignore any warnings from Death that didn’t involve…well….dying.
The Dean whumpage in this episode is, it must be said, sky-high. And Jensen Ackles really took some lumps, too, what with getting to lie for take after take with tubes up his nose. In the shots where Spirit Dean is in the same room as Body Dean, they used a body double with a cast of Ackles’ face on his head. But in many of the shots (as in most of the code scene), it’s indisputably Ackles. I suppose, all things considered, he was more comfortable than usual, running around barefoot in a t-shirt and scrub pants, but on the other hand, what happens to his character is pretty extreme. Dean is hovering near death. This usually signals a clips episode on a show – a bad clips episode. Fortunately, the show gets around this by making it a spirit-journey episode instead and then avoiding the usual pitfalls (like doing a Dante with your dead best friend as Virgil).
It’s interesting that we get a different side of Dean. The badass is relatively low-key and we see Dean’s fears and will to survive (as well as some healthy anger toward John), even selfish in their intensity. And yet, that selfishness is why Dean lasts long enough to be brought back. Also, he does show an altruistic side to it when he tells Tessa that she must let him go back into his body because he needs to save and defend his family. Her reassurances of him also indicate that he is bound for Heaven (and the season five episode, “Dark Side of the Moon”, essentially confirms that Dean’s usual destination is Heaven).
In “In My Time of Dying”, Eric Kripke seems to have learned from the mistakes of “Home” and “Shadow” and toned Sam’s demonic destiny story way down. Part of this is that Sam doesn’t really change because of it this time (although he does change via his efforts on Dean’s behalf), even though we get a rather large and enigmatic chunk of exposition about it via the cellar conversation between John and YED. But as Sam is not a part of this, and never learns about it, that storyline remains static as far as he is concerned and so, his attention is on his relationship with Dean.
Because of his concern for his brother, and his laser-beam focus on saving Dean’s life (which is other-directed), Sam comes across as admirable and loving and heroic and active, even when he’s throwing adolescent tantrums at John. We get why Sam yells at John, even as it distresses Dean (in spirit form or not), because John is acting cold and uncaring from Sam’s perspective. Sam is only standing up for Dean as best he can, at a time when Dean is completely helpless. That’s a perfectly understandable motive for getting hacked off at your less-than-sterling father. See, writers? See how Sam can have negative traits and still come across as completely sympathetic whenever he’s about other people and not picking lint out of his own navel? Think you could get back to that in season six?
Regarding John, I know the lines have long since been drawn on that score and that I’m not likely to convince anyone at this point. I would like to point out, though, that just because John belatedly tries to give Dean an attaboy at the very end of his life does not make him a wonderful daddy (driven home by the fact that Dean doesn’t even believe it’s John giving him praise, that John must be possessed again, which says volumes about the one-sided ugliness of their relationship). It is a common misconception (which, unfortunately, contributes to cultural blind spots about child abuse) that abusive parents don’t love their kids, therefore, any parent who loves his/her child can’t really be abusive. Here, abuse is equated as mustache-twirling evil and anything less, therefore, goes unreported, unacknowledged and uncorrected.
Well, sorry, but most abusive parents (like most parents in general) do love their kids. That just doesn’t stop them from abusing and neglecting them. Love doesn’t conquer all, sorry, and the fact that you screwed up your kids with the best of intentions does not somehow make them less screwed up. In the upshot, you end up with kids who are, if anything, even more confused because they don’t understand why their parents are such jerks. And yet, Daddy and Mommy apparently do love them. So, if they do, why hurt them? Often, the parents blame their own faults on their children, the children internalize that blame and, while most people don’t grow up quite as screwed up as Dean Winchester, a Dean Winchester is what resulted here.
Sam, strangely enough, doesn’t seem all that screwed up at this point in Supernatural. After all, he’s only 23 and adolescent rebellion is still a part of his dynamic with his family. He appears to have escaped most of the effects of John’s abuse, largely because Dean protected him by ending up parentalized and giving him unconditional love. We later find out that Sam has his own elephant-sized issues, but they are still not as crippling as Dean’s. And no amount of “love” from John (as he screws up both his sons’ lives with a devil’s deal and then drops dead on them without explanation) can fix either son. Whenever I think of Dean and his father, I think of that evil experiment in the 1950s involving monkeys and terry-cloth “mothers”. Dean strikes me as one of the monkeys who got a wire mom, while Sam got a terry cloth mom. Both ended up screwed up, the difference only being a matter of degree. Jeffrey Dean Morgan is very good at presenting us with a complex human being who made mistakes and did what he thought best, but when you see the carnage he left behind…it’s hard not to think that a year in Hell was skating off easy.
Dean: Sammy! You look good…considering.
Dean: Oh, come on. You’re the psychic. Gimme some Ghost-Whisperin’, or something!
Dean: Come on, Sam. Go find some hoodoo priest to lay some mojo on me.
Sam [seeing the Impala]: Dean is gonna be pissed when he gets back!
Dean: I full-on swayze-d that mother!
Dean: You ever hear of an “out of body” experience?
Tessa: What’re you, some New-Age-y kind of guy?
Dean: You see me messing with crystals or listening to Yanni? It’s actually a very old idea, got a lot of different names: ‘bilocation’, ‘crisis apparitions’, ‘fetches’. I think it’s happening to us. And if it is, then it means we’re spirits of people close to death.
Sam: Dean, you gotta hold on. You can’t go, man, not now. We were just starting to be brothers again.
Dean: [My family is] kind of in the middle of a war and they need me.
Tessa: The fight’s over.
Dean: No, it isn’t.
Tessa: It is for you. You’re not the first soldier I’ve plucked from the field. They all feel the same: they can’t leave. Victory hangs in the balance. But they’re wrong. The battle goes on without them.
Dean: But my brother, he could die without me.
Tessa: Maybe he will. Maybe he won’t. It’s an honourable death, a warrior’s death.
Dean: I think I’ll pass on the 72 virgins, thanks. I’m not that into prude chicks, anyway.
Tessa: That’s very funny. You’re very cute.
Dean: There’s no such thing as ‘an honourable death’. My corpse is gonna rot in the ground and my family is gonna die!
YED: It’s very unseemly, making deals with devils.
YED: Why, John, you’re a sentimentalist. If only your boys knew how much you love them.
John: It’s a good trade. You care a hell of a lot more about this gun than you do Dean.
YED: Don’t be so sure! He killed some people very special to me.
John [to Dean]: You know, when you were a kid, I’d come from a hunt. And after what I’d seen, I’d be…I’d be wrecked. And you…you’d come up to me and you’d put your hand on my shoulder. You’d look me in the eye and you’d…you’d say, “It’s okay, Dad.” Dean. I’m sorry.
John: You shouldn’t have had to say that to me. I should have been saying that to you. You know, I put…I put too much on your shoulders. I made you grow up too fast. You took care of Sammy. You took care of me. You did that. And you didn’t complain, not once. I just want you to know that I am so proud of you.
Dean: Is this really you talking?
John: Yeah. Yeah, it’s really me.
Next week: Death Takes a Holiday: The brothers investigate a fourth-season case where people, whose time on earth is up, won’t die.
In the New Year: Like a Virgin: On January 28, Supernatural returns with a cracky episode about a dragon that kidnaps virgin girls and brings them to its lair.