I want to love this episode. I really do. And after a good night’s sleep, I might just wake up in the morning and go, “Hey! Kripke’s still got it!” But, dear readers, at this moment, I am at an impasse. On one hand: an afterlife that isn’t sucky and clichÃ©! Ash! Pam Barnes! Mary making Dean sandwiches and pie! Moments of brotherly bonding that don’t include sitting by the side of the road crying into a beer! An angel who isn’t a complete douche! Pacing and character development and arc movement oh my! And all of this written by Dabb and Loflin! (I know!) On the other hand, I turned off the television with the distinct feeling that I’d been emotionally manipulated by a lovely collection of smoke and mirrors to make me think that I’d just witnessed a great hour of television when, in fact, the episode had covered much of the same ground that superior episodes have already addressed (I’m thinking, specifically, What Is and What Should Never Be). So I’ll let you know where I’m coming from on each side and maybe when my alarm clock goes off in eight hours, I’ll be able to settle on one over the other. (Although, knowing myself, I’ll probably remain stuck in the Mostly Satisfied, But Bugged by a Number of Things category.)
In Yay!land: The pacing. Oh, my lord, the pacing. This episode benefited from the myriad of mini-heavens, because just when I was starting to get a little bored, I was swept away to another point in the boys’ memories. Not to mention the AWESOME teaser. Because Dean watching Sam get blown away by a shotgun blast and giving those hunters the equivalent of Clint Eastwood’s “Make my day, punk” speech was the Winchesters at their most badass. Although I’m still rather confused as to why these boys never change their clothes when they go to sleep. They did in Season 1, so there’s precedent, damn it! I can understand not wanting to exploit them for their looks (she says with a giggle), but this is getting ridiculous.
Anyway, we had a lovely collection of Winchester memories — Dean setting off fireworks with 12-year-old Sammy (aww!), Sam getting felt up by his wittle girlfriend at dinner with her parents, Dean getting hugs and food from his mommy, and Sam’s doggie (Bones!) and bachelor pad. Too cute. One of the better moments of the episode was actually Dean’s scene with his mom in the kitchen. Why? Because that was the John Winchester I know and love on the phone, in all of his glory. No, really. I was getting sick of Perfect!Past!John from In the Beginning and The Song Remains the Same. Because Dean’s reaction to hearing his parents fighting on the phone? Pitch perfect. It wasn’t his mom’s death that really messed him up — the kid was bound to grow up way too quickly regardless. And I’m really surprised that Dabb and Loflin, of all people, got it right. To some degree, I think they hit it right on the mark with Sam’s memory of leaving John and Dean as well. As opposed to Dean’s memories, which were all about his family, Sam’s memories were all about being on his own, living a “normal” life. And the night that he left, at that crappy little cabin, was the gateway to normalcy. Note that the memory wasn’t of the fight itself (probably because they couldn’t get Jeffrey Dean Morgan, but let’s pretend that it was for a plot reason instead), but of Sam standing outside the cabin, after the fight was over (presumably), free to start his own life. I guess my enjoyment of the memories had more to do with their flavor than anything else — for the first time in a long time, I felt like I was watching the Winchesters I knew from Season 1/2 in all their dysfunctional, truck-stop glory.
Case in point: Ash! And the Roadhouse! I’ll admit, I sorta cheered when the place burned to the ground in Season 2, but absence makes the heart grow fonder and I can appreciate the concept, even if I wasn’t totally in love with the execution. The Luchador costume was priceless. And Pam Barnes fit right in, didn’t she? Pity Ellen and Jo couldn’t be there as well, but I’ll take what I can get. Pam did make some good points to Dean — if Heaven on Earth is the result of the Apocalypse, then what’s the problem? Heaven seems like a pretty cool place. But there’s gotta be a catch, right? There’s always a catch, especially in the ‘Supernatural’ universe. I will say that I was far more impressed with the writers’ conception of Heaven than I was of their Hell. Fire and brimstone? Been there, done that. I’ve always thought that making Dean relive the worst moments of his life — Mom burning, Sam leaving — would have been a much worse fate than having meat hooks stuck in his appendages. Because Dean Winchester knows what to do with physical pain — he grits his teeth, bottles it up, and moves on. But emotional pain? Helloooo, soft underbelly. (Early Season 4, I also thought that putting Dean in the “future,” with Ruby riding shotgun in the Impala and Sam leading the demon army would’ve been just as effective, but whoopsie, been there, done that, got the shirt [almost]). Anyway, kudos to the writers for taking the emotional route this time. There was much more “showing” and less “telling.”
And then there’s the end. Dean dumping the amulet in the trash. Ouch, man. Just… ouch. (You know Sam pulled it out before he left and will give it back at an emotionally opportune moment.) But here’s where we get to Nay!land because I sat back and went, “Wait a second. Something’s not right here.” Sam gave Dean the amulet as a Christmas gift. It was supposed to be John’s gift, but Sam gave it to Dean because Deadbeat John left them alone on Christmas. So the amulet symbolized their bond — the fact that when their world is bad, the guys are always there for each other. It also symbolized the fact that John was a bad dad, but that’s just my secondary take. It was only this season that the amulet was given “special meaning,” as a tracking beacon for God. I get that Dean dumping the amulet in the trash was his way of giving a giant single finger salute to the man upstairs but, in the process, he also dumped his relationship with Sam, which is not the ending message I think Show was trying to send. It was that Dean’s faith, what little of it there was left, has evaporated because every father figure in his life has let him down. But if that’s the case, what does Dean have left? His brother. The amulet. So as emotionally draining as it was to watch Dean hover over the trash, dangling the amulet over the gaping chasm, deliberating before letting his fingers go lax and hearing the trinket clatter in the metal, I don’t think a consistent message was there to support it.
The old characters suffered a bit from the same problem. Ash was awesome, don’t get me wrong, as was Pam. But they seemed to be there more for the shiny-value; you know, that little voice that goes, “Eeeeee!” when you see a character you haven’t seen in a while? (I’m thinking John in All Hell, Part 2, Meg and Victor in Are You There God?, Jess in Free to Be You and Me, Rufus in Good God, Jo and Ellen in Abandon All Hope, etc.) It’s a little gimmicky. Plus, what’s the message? “Hey, Winchesters? You totally got us killed, but we’re in a better place now, so it’s all okay.” Eh. That doesn’t make it suck any less.
My final qualms about this episode go back to Zachariah and they’re recurring problems I’ve had with the character from the start. For a villain/foil/whatever you want to call him, he’s just not that foreboding. Not imposing. Not scary. Just… a middle aged guy in the suit. And this has nothing to do with Kurt Fuller, because I think he’s doing the best with what he’s got. But time and time again, it becomes clear that this guy just doesn’t get the Winchesters. He seemed like he was going in the right direction with using Mary as his luuurve slave (and it wasn’t clear to me if that was just an illusion or what), but what does he do? Starts punching Dean in the gut. Yeah. Real effective. I just can’t take the guy seriously after he’s utterly failed time and time again. It’s like, “Well, Sam and Dean COULD be in danger, but this is Zachariah, so all we have to do is wait for him to screw up and then we’re home free again. Oh, hey! There’s Morgan Freeman. I mean… Joshua.”
But those really are minor qualms for me and this probably ranks up with The End as one of my favorite episodes of the season. Just… oh so close. So what do you think, folks? Fantastic hour of awesomeness or fluff masquerading as a fantastic hour of awesomeness?