By Paula R. Stiles
[spoilers ahoy for several seasons]
Tagline: In honour of Lovecraft’s birthday, we check out a case of witchcraft set in New England, where the brothers stumble across a dark corner of the demon Ruby’s past.
Recap: Recap of Dean’s deal, Sam Done Come Back Wrong: Season Three, and Ruby’s seduction of Sam (which actually makes her look even worse than in the context of the episodes).
Home from a boring party in Sturbridge, Massachusetts (which recently got clobbered by a tornado in real life), an interracial couple starts to get frisky. The woman, Janet, puts a temporary halt to it, saying she wants to go freshen up, first. In the bathroom, she’s brushing her teeth, while a white woman somewhere else is working a spell. The other woman chants in Gaelic (Irish, I think), lights candles and cuts herself, bleeding on a used toothbrush. Meanwhile, the wife suddenly discovers a loose tooth, then another and another. She starts to scream and choke on her own blood as the other woman slams a dagger, point-first, onto a table. The husband tries to batter down the door to help his wife. As he goes to charge the door, the lock mysteriously turns and the door opens. His wife is lying on the floor, dead.
Cue title cards.
Cut to Dean interviewing the husband while Sam looks around in the bathroom. Both are dressed as FBI agents. Dean asks the husband if his wife had any enemies, “anyone who would want to hurt her.” The husband, in the wake of protesting that no one would listen to him about her strange death, changes tack and says that she was a lovely person. Dean looks skeptical. Meanwhile, Sam is discovering an odd, small bag under the sink. Sam comes out, just as the husband is hesitating over Dean’s question about enemies…before insisting she had none. Dean wraps up the interview and out the brothers go.
Outside in the rain, Sam shows Dean the bag, called a “hex bag”, which Dean immediately recognizes as the work of a witch. Sam makes a distinction between Wiccans and witches (though it’s quick here and is stated more forcefully in “It’s the Great Pumpkin, Sam Winchester“). Dean expresses his disgust over witches, not least that they are humans who work with the Enemy and “unsanitary” in their habits. Sam figures that whoever killed the wife knew her and had a strong motive, so the hunt’s not entirely a needle in a haystack. Off they go.
Later that day, a woman is gardening when her neighbour arrives at home with a paper bag. The neighbour is the witch from the teaser. The gardening woman calls to the witch, saying she wasn’t at “book club” the previous night. The witch, who acts distracted and confused, waves this off and goes inside. In her kitchen, she pulls a roast turkey or chicken out of the oven. It is rotten, covered with flies, maggots and mealworms. She smiles. It’s not a nice smile.
Later that night, dressed in a black negligee like her unfortunate rival, she sets the meal on her witch’s altar, on top of a design that looks a lot like a devil’s trap. In another part of town, the husband (now a widower) is sitting outside a bar, looking forlorn and eating a burger. He turns on the radio, which plays, “Every Rose Has Its Thorn” by Poison. The witch picks up her dagger and starts reciting in Gaelic, again. She sets a man’s watch on the rotten meal, still reciting. Then, as she stabs the dagger through the meal, she says, “This meal was cooked for you, Paul Arthur Dutton. Now you’re going to eat it.”
In the car, the widower (Paul, obviously) is confused by the sudden change of the song to “I Put a Spell on You” by Screamin’ Jay Hawkins. He sets down his burger, which we see in closeup is leaking maggots, and turns off the radio. Then he picks up the burger and takes a bite (Yuck). He’s a slow learner, so it requires a few chews before he realizes what he’s eating. The radio starts up again as he begins to choke and splutter. Out of the car he goes, onto his hands and knees on the ground. Luckily for him, the Impala races up and out get Sam and Dean. Dean goes to help Paul while Sam looks for the hex bag. He finds it underneath the steering wheel. Taking it out, he burns it. It makes a blue flame. Back at the witch’s house, she’s moving to cut herself and go in for the kill (as it were), when her plate also bursts into flame, shocking her. She drops the knife.
Back at the car, Dean quizzes Paul hard before Paul can quite recover from his near-death experience (and stonewall them again). Paul admits to an affair. He said the woman was “unstable” and blackmailed him, but he broke up with her, anyway, a week ago (It’s possible she put a seduction spell on him, but the episode isn’t so crass and sexist as to give him that kind of out). The brothers demand to know her name. At her house, the witch is flipping frantically through her grimoire (which is in a plastic binder like a recipe book) when a wind blows through the house, extinguishing her candles. Suddenly, three huge, deep cuts appear down the length of each of her arms, one by one, as she screams in pain and horror. She falls down dead on her table, shoving her paraphernalia off as she does so.
Not long after, Dean picks her front-door deadbolt and the brother let themselves in. They find the witch in her TV room, an apparent suicide…at least, until Sam finds another hex bag under her table. Sam figures they might have a coven. Dean wonders why witches are suddenly killing each other, as he calls in her death to the authorities, but doesn’t leave a name or number. At one point, he turns around and runs into a dead rabbit, from whom the woman got the teeth for her spell against the wife. Dean is startled and covers it up in outrage over the rabbit’s death, expressing sympathy for it: “Poor little bunny.”
At a nearby house, two women, a delicate brunette with a pageboy haircut and a Yuppie-ish blonde, are sitting sipping tea (Note who appears first), while the husband of one is telling them that their “book club” is just a cover so they can sit and gossip. As the gardening woman comes in, they wave him off and out he goes (The blonde appears to be in charge, ordering the others around). The gardening woman is horrified that they haven’t told him about “Amanda”‘s death. It turns out that Amanda was the dead witch and they are all pretty sure she killed Janet, the wife from the teaser. However, the other two women are not terribly concerned. After all, Amanda was “unstable”, so of course she went and did some bad and stupid things. That’s no need to stop the book club. The blonde (whose husband just left) iterates the advantages so far: Gardening woman’s husband got a promotion and she won a vacation, while the blonde’s pottery business is doing well.
Mollified (or cowed), the gardening woman sits down with the other two. They quickly transform the cheery, Yuppie living room by dimming the lights, throwing a scarf with a pentacle onto the table, and lighting a candelabra with red candles. They join hands and begin to chant in English over an old, leather-bound book, referring to it as a “book of shadows” (witch’s grimoire) and talking about serving a “master”. They, too, are witches and this is the coven Sam was talking about.
The next day, Gardening Woman is digging up worms when she’s approached by the brothers in suits. They note how well her herb garden is growing out of season. Sam introduces them as Agents Bachman and Turner (of Bachman-Turner Overdrive). They claim to be going round the neighbourhood, investigating Amanda’s death. When the woman protests that Amanda committed suicide, they say that’s one possibility, but they still need to look into it. After all, there’s the matter of all that “Satanic paraphernalia” in her house. Just as the woman is looking overwhelmed, the other two from the coven walk up, calling her “Elizabeth”, asking if she’s all right. She insists that she is (looking more frantic about their arrival than Sam and Dean’s presence). The blonde snottily introduces herself to Dean as “Mrs. Renee Van Allen”. Dean is taken aback by the obvious social snub but not very impressed by the title. The third woman (Tammi), the pageboy brunette, talks about how “you think you know a person.” She and Renee flank Elizabeth in apparent solidarity, but is it protection, or threat lest she cave and talk?
Later that night, as the brothers drive down the road, Dean is talking about all the black-magic-useful herbs Elizabeth had in her garden, like wolfsbane and mandrake. He pegs her for a witch. Sam notes that she’s had several mysterious successes lately, as has Renee. Dean figures they just met the coven and they discuss how Amanda must have been punished for “going off the reservation” (not my favourite phrase on the planet). Dean wonders if maybe the brothers should thank the women for policing their own and move on, but Sam says that they are practicing black magic, as well, and must be stopped.
Despite his earlier vehemence, Dean is taken aback by Sam’s implication that they must be killed. After all, they’re human. Also (though the show doesn’t go deeply into this), the brothers do practice plenty of black magic of their own, even if they use it to save humans rather than hurt them. Hunters are very much rivals to witches and not necessarily nicer or morally better. One of the few lines that many hunters (including Sam and Dean) won’t cross, to separate themselves from the “evil” magicworkers, is that they don’t kill humans, even human rivals who practice black magic for personal gain.
Suddenly, the Impala’s engine coughs and dies. The car stops right in front of a young blonde woman. As the brothers get out, Sam correctly identifies her as Ruby, the demon who has been shadowing him all season. Dean has never met her before, but he’s all prepared for her now. He has the Colt. He aims it at her and she snarks back at him (because she’s stupid). She, of course, resorts to her usual tactic of trying to make Dean sound like the stupid one, calling him a host of ugly names in the middle of exhorting Sam to leave town, what with the presence of a powerful demon in the coven. We also learn that witches get their powers from demons. Sam gets increasingly nervous as Ruby goads Dean and Dean grows angrier and angrier, with a really crazy look in his eyes. Dean finally pulls the trigger, but Sam knocks his arm up. Meanwhile, Ruby disappears.
This is, arguably, one of the dumbest things Sam has ever done on the show, even allowing for what happens when they get back to the motel. I also have to add that Ruby doesn’t come across very well in the scene, either. We’re supposed to think she’s winning a battle of wits with Dean, but her use of vulgar language makes her sound like a potty mouth. Part of it is that she’s so clumsy and uncreative about it, and part of it is that it sounds nothing like what someone of her era would use. She is monotonous – everything’s uttered with a sneer, a jutted hip and a cliched curse word. And there’s also the reality that Dean is right about her. So, regardless of how she tries to make it appear, Sam is the idiot in this situation. Her only hope is to fool him into thinking Dean is a moron, and not someone very, very clever who sees right through her.
There’s also a certain hypocrisy in the show with her. Apparently, it’s perfectly acceptable for Ruby to make all kinds of insinuations that Dean is poor, uneducated and probably mentally challenged (and to let Sam off the hook for agreeing with this). Apparently, it’s perfectly acceptable for Ruby and the other witches to call each other “whores” and “sluts” and other nasty things. But God forbid we actually see Ruby that way, even though that’s exactly what she is. She’s a demonic whore, a kind of succubus who is there to seduce Sam over to the dark side, any way she can. I found myself scratching my head when the writers (Eric Kripke, especially, who seemed downright enamoured of this godawful character) talked about how it was misogynistic for female fans to hate Ruby, while having her use extremely offensive language and act in extremely offensive ways. Did they somehow think the language and behaviour would be less offensive coming from a female character?
I mean, if you’re going to use that language, then okay, let’s go there. And it can be effective when used in moderation, or to indicate a huge tonal shift in a character (Dean and “Leah”‘s intense final exchange in the unfortunately-named “99 Problems”). But don’t go there and then back off and act as if you’ve been politically correct all along, that anyone who noticed and saw the character accordingly, is the one who is being offensive. Uh-uh. You don’t get to do that, writers. Own up to what you did.
Back at the motel, the brothers argue. Sam makes some fair points that the enemy of my enemy is my friend, and that Ruby could be a strong ally. But he undermines them by showing little inclination to look at Ruby’s underlying motivations (since, being a demon, she certainly has some, as Dean points out) and questioning Dean’s long-term strategising while ignoring Dean’s questioning of why a demon would help them in the first place. Sam also brushes off Dean’s concerns about recent changes in his behaviour by claiming he’s trying to be more like Dean, just in case anyone thought the writers trying to turn Sam into Dean was a new thing. This shows that Sam doesn’t know his brother very well. Sam then cinches the deal by whining that when Dean “leaves”, Sam will be all alone and miserable. Sam, your brother’s going to Hell not Florida. Try really hard to stop making it all about you.
In the midst of this, Sam doesn’t notice that Dean is looking ill and rubbing his abdomen, not until Dean starts to rock and groan in pain (As someone with far too much experience in abdominal pain, I have to express admiration for Jensen Ackles’ portrayal of Dean’s agony. It looks absolutely real and very hard to watch). Sam starts to freak, first going to Dean and then rushing off, even as Dean is clutching at him, to find the hex bag. Panicked, he admits to his brother, who has fallen to the floor and begun to cough up blood, that he can’t find the bag. So, he goes for the Colt in Dean(?)’s duffel and roars off to the witch’s house. There, the coven is quietly chanting. Sam kicks the door in, scaring them, and threatens them with the Colt.
Back at the motel, Ruby kicks in the door to find Dean on the floor. Dean calls her a “bitch” and tells her to “get in line” if she wants to kill him. She throws him onto the bed and pours something dark from a wineskin into his mouth. Dean chokes, but she keeps squirting until his mouth is overflowing and he has to drink some of it. As she gets up off him, she orders him to stop calling her a “bitch”. In his defense, she’s been pretty bitchy so far, so he’s only being accurate.
After he recovers, she tosses him a saltgun and informs him, while he fumbles through an apology and a retort, that she won’t just stand there and let him shoot at her with the Colt in the future. Which is pretty hilarious when you consider how things eventually turn out between them. She also calls him “shortbus”, which writer Ben Edlund seems to have thought was an acceptable alternative to “retard”, at least coming out of the mouth of a young blonde who looked as if she stole her skintight jeans from her preteen sister and some fake eyelashes and nosebleed-high heels from a drag queen’s dumpster. Shame on you, Mr. Edlund.
Anyway, it is an interesting scene for a couple of reasons. First, Dean is the only one who is hexed by the witches, indicating that they (or, at least, the demon in charge of them) consider Dean to be a far greater threat than Sam. And second, Ruby goes to great pains to save Dean, a person she hates and considers an obstacle to her plans. I think, in her case, that she is looking at it as an “enemy of my enemy is my friend for the moment” kind of thing, as well as trying to save face with Sam. One could argue that she revved Dean up on the road deliberately, but Ruby’s other angry outbursts are never written or played that way. She is portrayed as having a temper that reveals her true motives. And Dean’s really good at getting her goat.
Chez Mrs. Renee Van Allen, Sam is trying to figure out which one is possessed by the demon, while the three women claim that they’re just trying to wish up a better mortgage for Renee. Sam figures out who the demon is by sussing out the one woman who’s not benefited from the coven’s activities – Tammi. He figures it’s because the demon inside her is already getting what it wants: the other women’s souls. ‘Tammi’ weeps and protests a bit, then drops the act with a sigh and shrug. She’s the demon. Sam shoots the Colt, but Tammi just lifts her hand and slows the bullet, causing it to drop to the floor. With another wave of her hand, she slams Sam into a wall. She also mocks Sam, saying that Dean is probably dead now from her hex bag.
Both Elizabeth and Renee look shocked, but Renee unwisely tries to bully Tammi into regaining control of the situation. Tammi just snaps her neck around so that it faces Elizabeth and Renee drops dead. ‘Tammi’ explains to Elizabeth that she is, indeed, a demon inhabiting Tammi’s body. The women, in praying to dark forces, accidentally called one up and now, the demon owns their souls. Elizabeth tries to protest that they didn’t know, but the demon’s not impressed. She says that Elizabeth and the others knew everything they did. Now they’re going to pay.
From his position halfway up a wall, Sam tries to plead for Elizabeth’s life, telling the demon that she has him, so just let the other woman go. The demon isn’t impressed by this, either (though it’s a solid moral point for Sam), pointing out that Sam has no bargaining point. She says that there is a new rival to Sam’s role as heir to YED and “he” doesn’t want any competition. This is a plothole (since Lilith turned out to be a ‘she’) that could have been filled up by the writers later giving us some backstory that Crowley went up against Lilith, lost and wormed his way into her affections as her “lover”. They never did, which is puzzling. It would have been such an easy fix.
A big irony is that the demon talks about serving a different, more powerful master, not understanding that said master will ultimately ride Sam’s body. So, she herself is doomed, unwittingly backing the wrong team and in the same position as the smug humans she preys on. But we won’t see that for another season and a half.
After some gloating, Tammi starts to crush Sam into the wall, slowly killing him. Before she can finish him, though, Dean bursts in through the door with a saltgun. He tries to take aim, but she tosses him over the couch. When he gets up, she slams him into a wall on top of a picture. Then Ruby comes in, her hands up in supplication. She wants to call a truce.
It turns out that Ruby and Tammi know each other. At first, Tammi seems almost friendly toward Ruby, talking about how they both fought their way out of the Pit when the Hellgate opened up at the end of season two, admitting that Ruby was “one of my best”. Ruby curries favour with Tammi and begs to return to her good graces, claiming she lured the Winchesters to the town as a gift for Tammi (Dean is furious, mouthing to Sam that he knew it all along). There’s a definite lesbian vibe between them, especially when Ruby gets close enough to try to stab Tammi with her Sparkly Spork o’ Doom and Tammi grabs it, calling her a “lying whore”.
The subsequent fight scene is one of the show’s better ones. Ruby gives a pretty good fight, but Tammi is much stronger and more practiced, throwing her into a TV and into a knickknack shelf, and braining her with an iron poker (How a black-eyed demon is able to tolerate iron enough to handle the poker is not explained). Meanwhile, Elizabeth, who has been cowering in a corner, sneaks over to the witching table and begins a spell.
Tammi is still focused on Ruby. She tells Sam and Dean that she was the demon to whom Ruby sold her soul when she was human. Hundreds of years ago, Ruby was a witch. Apparently, she went up against Tammi and betrayed her, but lost, so Tammi killed her. Tammi guesses that Ruby didn’t want the brothers to know because it would be “embarrassing” to admit how she damned her soul to Hell. Standing up, Tammi tells Ruby that there are no secrets in the Pit and begins an exorcism ritual that starts out as Irish Gaelic (implying an Irish origin for both of them) and ends up as Latin. However, just as Ruby is being forcibly smoked out, Tammi starts to cough up blood and then hatpins, and the brothers fall to the floor, released. Elizabeth is working a spell. Tammi looks almost impressed. It doesn’t stop her from casually closing her hand and crushing Elizabeth’s windpipe by remote. Elizabeth falls dead on the table.
A second later, though, Tammi is stabbed from behind by the Spork. It’s Dean. Grabbing her by the throat, he stabs Tammi over and over in a savage frenzy until she falls down dead, convulsing in agony. Never turn your back on Dean Winchester. One could argue that this is a pretty savage killing, but, considering how powerful and brutal Tammi has been to that point, understandable. I don’t think one stab would have done it.
Dean gets a dazed Sam to his feet and picks up the Colt. Ruby picks herself up off the floor. She tells the brothers to leave, that she will “clean up this mess.” When they hesitate, she shows them black eyes and snarls at them. They leave.
Later, Sam is cleaning up in the bathroom of the Conquistador Motel, looking rough. Dean is outside. Thunder rumbles and the lights flicker. He looks around until Ruby appears behind him. Dean jeers at Ruby’s attempt to make him believe that “the devil may care.” Ruby lies that she doesn’t believe in the Devil. Dean asks her about Tammi’s story. Was Ruby truly human once? Ruby admits that she was. He asks how long and she says, “Back when the Plague was big.” The Plague was big for about three centuries, so that’s a big window, but whatever. The writers have already said it was five centuries. Ruby then lays a huge piece of show mythology on Dean – all demons were once human, not just her. In Hell, they forget that they were human or what it was like. When Dean goes to Hell, he, too, will forget and he, too, will become a demon. It’s inevitable (This turns out not to be true for Dean, but he’s the exception that proves the rule). I know a lot of people hated this reveal, but I quite liked this idea and found it very logical, a lot like the retcon/reveal about Gabriel.
Dean correctly guesses that Ruby has been lying to Sam. She can’t save Dean from the Pit. She admits this, too. She says that she needed an in to get Sam to talk to her, referring to the brothers as “bigoted” toward demons. Dean is unimpressed. After all, his distrust of demons is well-earned and the demons did start the feud. Ruby praises Dean for the “tough” way he killed Tammi and says that Sam needs to become like that, too, in order to survive Dean’s death. Ruby claims she’s not like the other demons, that she remembers what it’s like to be human. Then she disappears, leaving Dean alone in the parking lot. This is a very interesting scene, in that the first half is about as honest as Ruby ever gets in Supernatural and the second half is almost pure lies and manipulation.
Review: “Malleus Maleficarum” is actually influenced a bit more by the likes of Hawthorne, Poe and (probably most directly) Fritz Leiber’s Conjure Wife (1943), but I’ve already reviewed the other, more-Lovecraftian episodes, as well as how the show addresses the Mythos, and this one is a major episode set in his home territory of New England. Plus, it has some echoes of Lovecraft’s “The Dreams in the Witch House“, in the powerful and manipulative witch, who gets others to do her bidding, even as they think they’re doing something good. That we’re dealing with a lot of men’s fears about female supernatural power is so obvious, it almost (but not quite) goes without saying.
Leiber’s classic novel is about a young university professor who discovers that his wife, Tansy, has been using witchcraft to protect them and advance his career. When he forces her to destroy the items, as a way to convince her that it’s all nonsense, all hell breaks loose, instead, as the other university wives close in for the kill. The novel is somewhat marred by the husband (with considerable indirect help from the wife) saving the day, but Leiber’s never quite able to reverse the original premise that if the husband hadn’t been such a jackass at the start, he wouldn’t have had to save his wife from the effects of her enemies’ witchcraft and his own stupidity (It’s still a great novel). As you can see, “Malleus Maleficarum”‘s sinister and ambitious housewives have at least some ancestry in Leiber’s Tansy and her rivals. There’s also a pretty hefty shout-out to John Updike’s The Witches of Eastwick.
It would be easy to oversimplify and call the episode “misogynistic” because it has negative portrayals of women. However, the episode has several female characters (and only two minor male characters, briefly shown), most of them witches. They run an interesting gambit from innocent victim (Janet) right through several psychos, patsies, traitors, and ambitious Yuppies to powerful, queenly evil (Tammi). For a guy writing about female evil, Edlund does a pretty good job (even if he needs to lay off the insults that rhyme with “mentally challenged”). I’m not surprised that actresses who guest on the show often comment on how much fun it is to get to do action scenes, and act powerful and evil, for once. Not many other shows give them that opportunity.
Marisa Ramirez, in particular, has a lot of fun as Tammi. It’s a very overt performance, so I guess mileage could vary on whether that works for you. But I think Ramirez’s heavy enunciation and exaggerated body language work nicely for a swaggering demonic character who is having lots of fun test-driving her new “meat”, while lording it over her victims with her obvious superiority. She also does a great job of making Tammi seem timid and a wallflower, without making her disappear completely before the reveal, then coming out loud and proud with a lot of sinister charisma. I had no difficulty believing her either as Tammi or the possessing demon, or that the demon was as powerful as advertised. ‘Tammi’ has obviously done this coven con many times before.
Erin Cahill as the wishy-washy Elizabeth and Kristin Booth as the insufferable Renee are also more interesting than the usual hapless redshirts. I’ve known a lot of Renees. God knows New England is lousy with them. And there’s a neat point, when Tammi is crushing Sam into the wall, where Elizabeth seems almost to be enjoying the spectacle, even in her terror. I couldn’t help wondering if Elizabeth’s act of defiance to save the brothers, along with Tammi’s death, might have spared her from the Pit. But considering what happens to all the deal-makers, and Ruby herself for her defiance against Tammi, probably not. The SPNverse can be pretty harsh.
I don’t know that I’d put this one in my top ten (the way I definitely would put the one that came after it, “Dream a Little Dream of Me“), but I still enjoyed “Malleus Maleficarum”, both the first few times I saw it and on rewatch now. I especially like the atmosphere (Bob Singer directed this one), the strong and vivid female characters, an unexpected appearance of Dark-and-Important-to-the-Plot Dean, and the creepy, “witchy” music, which gives it a very Halloween-like air. And I love the final scene. Which is pretty good, considering it’s an episode about the origins of the demon Ruby, probably my least-favourite of any Supernatural character, recurring or one-shot. In fact, this is the only episode in which I found Ruby the least bit intriguing, as opposed to unbearable. And it really has little to do with Ruby, herself.
Ruby is foul-mouthed, mean-spirited and a bully. She doesn’t give a damn about anyone but herself. She uses her sexuality, rather than her brains, to get things from other people. Now, I don’t have any particular objections to swearing like a sailor. It has its place. And if some men are going to continue to insist on seeing women only for their bodies, they have only themselves to blame if some women use their bodies to get what they want. But Ruby, unlike Meg, is the kind of female character who takes that way beyond salty and seductive, and comes off like a streetwalking crack whore. She is utterly lacking in class. Plus, well…let’s just say she’s not the sharpest tool in Hades’ shed. Which unfortunately makes her intended victim, Sam, look really dumb. Dean knows she’s trouble simply from hearing about her antics. So, what’s Sam’s excuse?
Plus, in case anyone didn’t notice from reading last week’s review, I don’t like bullies. At all. And I don’t like the way the writers try to mask some really unsavory personal attitudes by putting them in the mouth of a demon. Oh, sure, one can’t write villains, or even heroes, as totally PC and expect anything but oatmeal for characters. But there is a fine line between colourful and crass, especially with a recurring character we’re supposed to see as at least temporarily sympathetic, and the writers have spent far too much time crowing about how awesome it is to get in touch with their “Inner Smartass” through the demon characters to get away with that excuse. So, “shortbus”? Really? Over the line, folks. Not least because it was aimed at a popular character who already gets a lot of insults thrown at him by the writers.
Another problem with Ruby is that her backstory here is that she’s a five-hundred-year-old witch and yet, she sounds like a Valley Girl. A few months after getting out of the Hell pokey. Oh, well, sure, why not? [eyeroll] The show has generally suffered from a lack of imagination when it comes to the demons. Bela the cat burglar really should sound like Ruby and Ruby really should sound like Bela. Only a few of the demons (Both versions of Alastair and Fred Lehne’s YED) sounded much like former souls who had lived up top a long time ago. Considering the revelation in the coda of “Malleus Maleficarum”, that is a problem.
That said, the backstory itself (and how it’s presented) is pretty interesting, even if the writers play along the same uneasy tightrope of ugly racial and gender stereotypes as “A Very Supernatural Christmas” and “It’s the Great Pumpkin, Sam Winchester“. The history of witchcraft in the Massachusetts Bay Colony – which, at the time of the Salem Witch Trials, covered most of what is the now the northeastern U.S., and Nova Scotia – is an ugly one that lasted over a century between 1620 and the late 18th century. Any practices that may have existed were not so much eradicated by the 19th century as the belief in them faded out. With the belief went the desire to prosecute and women no longer feared being charged as witches.
If you look at a map of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, you may notice that people there were going through a whole lot of changes at the time. Some historians have also pointed out a connection between witchcraft accusations and the highly litigious nature of early colonial society (If you were thinking that early Colonial America was a simpler, happier time, think again). Women (and the occasional man) who were accused of witchcraft were often wives or mothers of powerful men, or widows, women who had engaged numerous court battles. Often, before being accused of witchcraft, they had taken their accusers to court for slander, and those accusers were often wives and mothers of less wealthy, less powerful men.
A theory about the Salem witch trials in particular notes that most of the accusers came from Salem Village (now called “Danvers”), while most of the accused came from the wealthier Salem Town. According to this theory, the witch trials stemmed from resentment among those in the village toward those in the town, which was growing far more rapidly and was leaving the village behind.
This is all echoed pretty neatly in “Malleus Maleficarum”, whose title derives from an infamous late-15th-century manual (translated as “Hammer of the Witches”) on how to uncover and prosecute witches. Ben Edlund did his homework on this episode. We have a trio of ambitious housewives, bored and petty, looking to advance themselves at the expense of others. That their luck and magic harm others doesn’t matter to them. In a competitive, aggrandizing, rapidly developing society, you’re already looking at win-lose as the operational goal. They are even ferociously competitive with each other, as evidenced by the apparent hierarchy within the coven, Elizabeth’s fear of the others, and the brutality with which Tammi deals with “witches who get voted off the island“. Underneath their nice, neat facade lie worms and rot. Perhaps not as subtle or original an image as it was in Blue Velvet, but it still works. Things haven’t really changed that much since our Puritan ancestors came to New England.
The episode is helped by some good acting, especially from Marisa Ramirez in the pivotal role of Tammi, and a great fight scene between Tammi and Ruby. While it’s never said on screen, both the sides and the season three companion give her demon a name – Astaroth. It’s possible that it was left out due to it being a steal from Milton, and the demon in Milton being male. However, it fits pretty well when you consider that Milton was…well…wrong about the gender of Astaroth. It is now believed that this “demon” was originally a female Near Eastern deity, Ashtoreth (also: Ishtar or Astarte), who was a fertility and warrior goddess. One of her symbols was the crescent moon and she was not-infrequently portrayed wearing horns. Needless to say, she was worshiped by women in the Ancient Near East, so a demon with her name can be seen as quite the recruiter among women.
Tammi was a great villain and I had mixed feelings about her death. On the one hand, she was great fun. On the other, she was far too smart, evil, aggressive, and powerful to justify the writing of her confrontation with the brothers as one from which either side would walk away alive. In order for Tammi to be properly shown, it had to be a fight to the death. Dean’s stabbing of her also reminded us that the brothers don’t always prevail because their souls are clean and their hearts are pure. In Dean’s case, certainly, he often wins because he is even more violent and savage (not to mention sneaky and treacherous) than his enemies, and not at all hesitant to put them in the ground before they get him, first. No false chivalry from him. If Sam had not fouled his aim, Dean would have even have gotten Ruby and things would have been pretty different down the road.
This brings us to a problem with the concepts of demons being former humans and the horrors of Hell. With the sole exception of Dean, everyone who goes downstairs in the show deserves it. I can hear the outcry now: that Sam didn’t deserve to go into the Cage and neither did Adam. I want to point out that it’s only fanon that states they didn’t deserve it. Absolutely nothing in canon says this. And while it does seem like a harsh and unfair punishment, I’d like to point out that the few demon backstories we’ve heard had their share of unfairness, too. I mean, did that painter in “Crossroad Blues” really deserve to go to Hell? He didn’t hurt anybody. He only made a deal. And the doctor actually helped people, while Evan (who eventually didn’t have to go) traded his soul to save his wife. So, not everyone who goes downstairs in the show is a one-dimensionally eeeevil person.
But Sam and Adam both betrayed family. Sam betrayed Dean with Ruby and Adam betrayed both Sam and Dean to the angels. And if you know your Dante, traitors in Inferno get the lowest circle, down with Satan. In the whole show, the only person who goes to Hell and is explicitly portrayed as not deserving it is Dean, the “Righteous Man”, to the point where it’s a huge plot point.
Why is this important? Because a major part of Sam’s post-Hell storyline is that his hell was the worst hell ever, worse than anyone else’s. By implication, this includes Dean’s hell, and the writers even tried to tell us in season three that Sam alone upstairs would have a worse time than Dean downstairs, which is ludicrous. Alive and miserable is always better than dead in Hell. And if alive can be worse, then why can’t Dean’s year without Sam be worse than Sam’s time in the Cage?
The idea is that Sam’s time in the Cage was longer than Dean’s hell and that it was more intense. But there are problems with this. First of all, the 120+ years Sam was in the Cage are small potatoes compared to the time in Hell, period, most of the demons we encountered in season three alone had served. Ruby and the Sins had both been downstairs for five centuries, for example. Sam’s year-and-a-few-months translates to less than one hundred and fifty years. In contrast, both Ruby and the Sins were way down south about sixty thousand years. I don’t care how intense Sam’s torture was in the Cage (and we’re not even getting into the fact that Adam is still there); five hundred times as long has got to be worse. That’s not even getting into Lilith, who was probably downstairs for thousands of earth years, which translates into hundreds of thousands of hell years.
Then there’s the intensity. Sam was “hate-banged” by two angry archangels, but he wasn’t the only one they were torturing and he wasn’t their only diversion. They also had Adam to torture and each other to fight. In contrast, Dean was locked up in the worst part of the Pit, where Hell’s greatest torturer had one single goal for forty hell years – to break Dean and force him to shed blood. Again, that’s got to be worse.
Now, if this is true, why don’t we feel more pity for the demons? Well, we sort of do. I know that when Ruby made that statement at the end of the episode, I did think that was pretty harsh. It was the only time in the entire show I felt any emotional connection to that character (and then they had to go and ruin it in “Jus in Bello”. Okay). On the other hand, we know that people usually do pretty bad things to others in order to get a ticket down south. But what really makes us unsympathetic toward demons is that they don’t come back all reformed. Nope, they actually come back even dumber morally than when they went downstairs. They haven’t learned a thing. They’re all raring to screw people over even more than before they died, to do a number on all the baby souls who still have a possibly happy eternity in Heaven ahead of them. They make vengeful spirits look kind and gentle. Some monsters can be sympathetic but not demons.
And because of all this, we feel that demons “deserve” whatever fate awaits them at the hands at hunters. We only care about their innocent hosts. Ironically, I think the writers shot themselves in the foot with the Sambot storyline because Sambot also came across a lot like a demon. Even now that Sam is back, it’s hard to care about his state of mind because of the ill-considered insistence on his Hell being awfulawfulawful (with only some lousy CGI shots of flames and a boring dream journey to illustrate this), because he was such a psychopath when he had no soul, and because it was stated (and shown) at various points throughout the series that he kind of deserved to go to Hell. The only real difference between Sam and demons at this point is that he appears to still have his humanity and still want to help others, if only he’d stop whining long enough about his own suffering to do it. So, the jury’s still out on his redemption.
Dean: I hate witches. They’re always spewing their bodily fluids everywhere. It’s creepy. You know, it’s downright unsanitary.
Dean: Why does the rabbit always get screwed in the deal? The poor little guy.
Dean: This doesn’t exactly look like the TV room of a bright and stable person, you know?
Dean [on the phone]: I’d like to report a dead body, 309 Mayfair Circle. My name? Yeah, sure, my name is – [hangs up]
The Coven: Book of Shadows, we kneel before you. Let us serve your master as you serve us.
Dean: Did you have any idea about her practices?
Elizabeth: I’m sorry. What kind of practices?
Sam: Well see, her house was littered with satanic paraphernalia.
Dean: A regular Black Sabbath.
Elizabeth: No, the…but she was an Episcopalian.
Dean: Well, then, we’re pretty sure she was using the wrong bible.
Dean [to Ruby]: Hey, hot stuff, we can take care of a few kitchen witches, thanks.
Ruby: I’m not talking about witches, you jackass. Witches are whores. I’m talking about who they serve.
Sam: Demons. They get their power from demons.
Sam: Look, Dean, you’re leaving, right? And I gotta stay here in this craphole of a world, alone. So, the way I see it, if I’m gonna make it, if I’m gonna fight this war after you’re gone, then I gotta change.
Dean: Change into what?
Sam: Into you. I gotta be more like you.
Dean [to Ruby]: You wanna kill me? Get in line, bitch.
Ruby [pouring an antidote down Dean’s throat]: Stop calling me “bitch”.
Tammi [to Sam]: Nice dick-work, Magnum.
Tammi [to Elizabeth]: Funny story, actually. You remember all those dark, demonic forces you prayed to, when you swore your servitude? Just who did you think you were praying to? What did you think it was? Make believe? Positive thinking? The Secret? No, it was me. You sold yourself to me, you pig. All I had to do was bring one good book to Book Club and you ladies lined up to kiss my ass.
Elizabeth: No, no, we didn’t know –
Tammi: Oh, yes, you did. You knew every step of the way and now, your everliving souls are mine.
Tammi [to Sam]: Comments? Questions? Hmm, Sammy Winchester. Wow! Right here in our little town. You know, my friends and I, we’ve been looking for you.
Sam: Why? Oh, right, ’cause I’m supposed to lead some piss-poor demon army.
Tammi: No, not at all. You’re not our messiah. We don’t believe in you. But there’s a new leader rising in the west, a real leader. That’s the horse to bet on, Sam, the one who’s gonna tear this world apart. Thing is, this demon, he doesn’t like you very much, doesn’t want the competition. [starts to shove Sam through a wall] Nothing personal. It’s a PR thing, so…buh-bye.
Ruby [to Tammi]: Let me serve you again. I’ve wanted it. I’ve wanted you for so long.
Tammi: You were one of my best. But then again, you always were a lying whore.
Ruby: The answer is “yes,” by the way.
Dean: I’m sorry?
Ruby: Yes, the same thing will happen to you. It might take centuries, but sooner or later, Hell will burn away your humanity. Every hellbound soul, every one, turns into something else. Turns you into us. So, yeah…yeah, you can count on it.
Dean: There’s no saving me from the Pit, is there?
Next week: Hell House: Sam and Dean investigate a haunting in Texas and tangle with a couple of amateur ghost hunters.
You can watch (or download) this episode, in standard or HD definition, on Amazon.com.