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8.22 Clip Show: When They're All Gone, What Will You Have Left?

How can you fight on
When why you fight is destroyed?
Crowley's leverage ...

Commentary and Meta Analysis

This episode really turned up the pressure on the Winchesters, with Crowley finding the precise psychological lever to pull to hurt the brothers in the worst possible way as leverage to force their surrender. At the same time, it paired Castiel with Metatron in a simultaneous assault on Heaven, rocketing the season toward its end. In this discussion, I'm going to speculate on curing a demon; share concerns about Metatron and his plans for Castiel and Heaven; and look at the effectiveness of Crowley's ploy to blackmail the Winchesters.

But Now You Are A Man Again – And You Have Been Saved

From the moment in The Great Escapist when Metatron announced the third trial as curing a demon, I started wondering what that meant, and whether it was possible for a demon to be redeemed. To me, the implications were mind-boggling, because if demons could be redeemed, might that not negate the purpose of Hell? The ritual that Father Thompson employed also made me curious on several counts. For one thing, it didn't expel or drive out the demon from its human host – the literal meaning of “exorcise.” Instead, through the injections and eventual consumption of “purified” blood – an explicit reversal of what happened to Sam through drinking demon blood – it seemed designed to force the possessing spirit to experience itself through the conscience and moral viewpoint of the person conducting the ritual, and thus feel the need to confess and be absolved of its evil. It left the possessing spirit still in control of the host body, which made me wonder what happened to the hosting soul.

Our very first experience and knowledge of demons came through the first season episode Phantom Traveler. At the time, the lore available to the brothers through John's journal and the other sources they knew suggested that demons needed a weakness they could exploit – for example, strong emotions such as fear or anger – in order to possess an individual. We learned from Bobby in Devil's Trap that demonic possessions had been rare – only three or four a year, tops – until just before the series began, when possessions began to proliferate. We came to understand during seasons two through five that the increase in demonic activity was related directly to the machinations surrounding releasing Lucifer from the cage. The opening of the devil's gate at the end of season two released a veritable army of hundreds of demons, all seeking hosts.

Along with the flood of possessions came the realization that every human was susceptible to possession; it didn't require a large chink in any individual's armor to permit a demon to enter. We learned every human was vulnerable, even those like John, Sam, and Bobby, who – being forewarned – should theoretically have been able to guard against the threat. Even using protective talismans or tattoos wasn't a sure defense, because a forewarned demon could remove the talisman (what I suspect happened off-screen to Bobby in Sympathy For The Devil) or damage the tattoo (as Crowley did to Mrs. Tran by having her arm burned in What's Up, Tiger Mommy?).

I must confess, I always resented the idea that any human could be taken over by a demon and deprived of our much-vaunted free will and self-control. When we learned in The Rapture and Sympathy For The Devil that angels needed the specific consent of their vessels to take over their bodies, I was even more incensed about the apparent injustice and imbalance of demonic possession, until I thought it out.

We learned in Malleus Maleficarum that all demons were simply once human souls twisted and warped by their time in Hell. That meant that demons – as well as those few ghosts we've met who possessed other people, such as Dirk in After School Special and Bobby in There Will Be Blood – were essentially human, free to do whatever they chose. Understanding their existence as disembodied spirits and driven by hate, they were much better equipped than any living human to engage in a purely spiritual fight relying solely on will and intent, and could thus take over physical control from a living soul. It was a “dead human” versus “living human” contest, and on the spiritual/soul level, the dead had the distinct edge in will-driven combat experience, so the demons and ghosts typically won and could move in, imprisoning the body's own conscious soul in some isolated corner of the mind. Despite that, John, Bobby, and Julia – Jesse's mom from I Believe The Children Are Our Future – all demonstrated that a human could eventually reassert control if they were psychologically and emotionally strong enough to keep fighting and could eventually figure out the means. Sam managed the same trick to wrest control back from Lucifer in Swan Song, despite having originally given his consent to the fallen angel.

So that brings me to my questions about (and problems with) Father Thompson's “demon redemption” ritual. From what we saw and heard in the Men of Letters tapes, his ritual focused exclusively on the demon in possession of a human body; it didn't address the body's real owner at all. And instead of appealing to the demon's presumably better human nature or prompting it to repent for whatever acts led it to Hell in the first place, the ritual relied on the use of “purified” blood – the blood of a confessed Catholic priest, presumably cleansed of all sin – injected into the host body to compel the resident demon to feel remorse for and renounce the evil acts it performed while possessing the innocent human host, and to find some redemption that way.

I have to wonder how being compelled to experience external remorse does anything for the soul involved. Where is the free will in that? If a soul wound up in Hell because it did evil by its own choice as a living being, shouldn't it need to feel equally free-willed remorse and repentance for that evil before the soul could be redeemed? If what the demon is feeling is forced upon it through the blood of the inquisitor, how would that be any different from Sam being polluted and influenced emotionally by ingesting demon blood, or Dean being broken on the rack in Hell and induced to torture other souls? Where is the personal redemption? I'm not seeing it.

The argument might be made that, since demons are formed through the torture of human souls in Hell, torturing a demon to force it to feel appropriately human remorse could reconnect it with its humanity and prompt it to repent, but that still feels very forced to me. It would be especially forced, I think, in the situation of people who perform evil because they are sociopaths and don't have what most of us would consider appropriately human responses, including compassion for and an aversion to hurt others. If their psychological and emotional wiring was screwed up when they were human, how would making them feel what they weren't naturally equipped to feel change who they were when they were human and had bodies to go with their souls?

Beyond my whole concept of remorse needing to be honestly felt within rather than imposed from without, my other issue with Father Thompson's ritual is the question of where it leaves the soul that properly owns the possessed body. In most of the possession instances we've seen, the original owner of the body was still present in soul, simply supressed by the demon in possession of the body. The real Meg appeared before her body died in Devil's Trap, for example, and the nurse possessed by Lilith's assistant was allowed to surface in Lucifer Rising. Possessed humans who survived a demon's departure were often left holding the bag after the demons who'd manipulated them smoked out; just witness Jeffrey in Repo Man. There were instances when the human host was brain-dead before the demon moved in – witness Ruby's care in selecting the host in which she finally partnered with Sam in I Know What You Did Last Summer – but that definitely wasn't the norm. We were given to understand that other possessed hosts usually died or were left either insane or in need of long-term therapy, like the folk in The Magnificent Seven.

So – when all this happened, where was the soul of Peter Kent, the man possessed by the demon Father Thompson “cured”? We saw a white soul-light blazing from the eyes of the possessed man after Father Thompson clamped his bleeding hand over the host's mouth; did that just signify the purification of the demon soul residing in the body, or might it also have indicated the passing of the body's resident soul to death and Heaven? The episode itself was unclear, because all of the priest's comments were addressed to the demon possessing Peter Kent, not to the man himself. I would submit, however, that if the priest's ritual killed the body's original occupant while purifying the resident demon soul, it wasn't by nature a “good” thing. And whatever happened, the Winchesters don't know the full story.

Neither do we.

We Ride To The Rescue, Save The Day – Make A Great Story

I wasn't sure what to make of Metatron in this episode. On the one hand, he tracked with the character we met in The Great Escapist – a non-combatant angel on the lam from Heaven overly fascinated with stories. On the other, he went from being a most reluctant helper to a committed angel with a mission that included seizing control of Heaven, which seemed sharply inconsistent with the humble, private, self-effacing image he projected in the previous episode. So – was Metatron in this episode simply doing exactly what he told Castiel, reluctantly realizing the need for someone to close Heaven and assert control to prevent further escalating damage to both Heaven and Earth, or was he either succumbing to grandiose ideas of his own or being manipulated by Naomi specifically to regain control over Castiel? Those are at least three choices here that I could see, and I'm not sure which – if any! – capture the truth.

There are some oddities about Metatron. When Kevin was translating the demon tablet for Crowley in A Little Slice Of Kevin and reading the side notes Metatron had added, he referred to Metatron as an archangel, while in The Great Escapist, Metatron maintained he'd just been a lowly member of the secretarial pool before God chose him to write the tablets. It's distinctly possible Kevin simply assumed so important a role would have been assigned to an archangel, especially with the tie-in between archangels and prophets Castiel alluded to back in The Monster At The End Of This Book, but it's also possible Metatron lied about his status. He displayed great power in snatching Kevin away from Crowley, not only finding Kevin and erasing Crowley's angel-proofing, but manifesting his angelic essence seemingly through Kevin. We didn't see Metatron appear; we saw only the light of angel grace streaming out of Kevin and burning Crowley. We've seen other angels manifesting through their vessels, and archangels beginning to manifest in light, but none that I can recall manifesting through another person entirely.

I don't doubt Metatron would be rusty at hand-to-hand combat, given his thousands of years of carefully quiet undercover life and his decidedly non-athletic vessel, but he's clearly got smiting power to spare and an operational edge in thinking outside the customary angel box. I'm suspicious of his proposed alliance with Castiel because it strikes me that Metatron is using Castiel as his catspaw, letting the younger angel take the risks and draw the fire.

Having an angel undertake the closing of Heaven troubled me, as did the nature of the supposed first trial. Between Reading Is Fundamental and A Little Slice Of Kevin, we learned the tablets of the Word of God were never meant for angels. Apart from Metatron himself, who took down God's dictation and wrote the tablets, angels can't read them any more than demons could. Metatron's side note referred to the tablets as “the transcription of the sacred word for the defense of mankind.” Given that they were meant for humans, why should it be possible or necessary for an angel to perform the series of acts necessary to close Heaven? Perhaps God counted on a schism in Heaven in which some angels would side with God's human children, but that felt off to me.

Killing a Nephilim as the first task also threw me. First of all, when and how did this angel/human crossbreed come about? By all accounts we've heard, Heaven had strong proscriptions in place against angels taking human vessels, at least until the Winchester apocalypse endgame fully engaged; remember Uriel in his young 1979 vessel questioning Anna about breaking the rules in The Song Remains The Same. What angel would have mated with a human, and why? Unlike the antichrist Jesse, purpose-bred by the demons to play a role in the apocalypse, it doesn't seem likely that some angelic faction deliberately engineered her, because what purpose would she have served? From what we've been given to understand, the angels didn't know what was written in the angel tablet, so breeding her just to create the necessary conditions for the tablet to be used doesn't make sense – unless Metatron himself fathered her. For him to have done so would have given the lie to his claim of not having been aware of any of the apocalyptic events that had gone on.

And it really bothered me that that first key to closing Heaven would be the killing of an innocent. She was living quietly as a waitress, aware of what she was but interested only in blending in and living her life in peace; she posed no overt threat we could see. It admittedly resonates with the closing Heaven mission in two perverted ways: first, because it destroys a simultaneously tangible and symbolic connection between angels and humans; and second, because what except evil would block off Heaven from Earth? If killing the innocent Nephilim truly was the first necessary condition to close the gates of Heaven, I fear the other steps may be even more evil, the flip side of the defensive and redemptive actions being used to set up the closure of Hell.

Another alternative could be that killing the Nephilim had nothing to do with the implementation of the angel tablet; that it was simply a test run on manipulating Castiel. Castiel no longer trusts his own judgment, after all the drastic mistakes he made both on his own and in collaborating with Crowley. He still hasn't learned to bring his troubles to the Winchesters – the current state of his strained relationship with Dean isn't facilitating any change to that situation – and I think he's grasping at the straw of trusting the angel God selected as his scribe, since he can't trust himself.

My fear is that he may be placing his trust, once again, in the wrong being. While Metatron's idea of fencing off the angels to prevent them from causing further damage on Earth makes a certain amount of sense, I don't trust him. Metatron knows far more than he's said; witness his cryptic comment to Dean in The Great Escapist that the brothers would need to weigh their choice, asking what it would take to close the gates of Hell and what the world would be like after it was done. I think he knows both those things – but he hasn't shared them. The brothers are making choices based on incomplete information, and now Castiel is doing the same, taking Metatron's word as an accurate rendition of the Word of God.

If Metatron is, as he claims to be, just a secretary who developed a passion for the stories humans create, he's not the one I would trust to plan a takeover of Heaven. Real life plans rarely work with the clockwork neatness of fiction, and the heroes don't always win. And I have to wonder, if he's as much an innocent as he seemed when it came to the machinations of angels struggling for power, whether he had the sophistication to not by caught and altered by someone as experienced and ruthless as Naomi when he began looking around. For all we know, he could be Naomi's puppet, primed to take a different approach to dealing with recovering Castiel by convincing the angel he would be opposing her. It's Machiavellian in the extreme, but hey – that's Heaven, from all we've seen.

Also, I questioned his story of multiple factions still contesting in Heaven. We know that had gone on before, but Castiel's insanity spread horrific destruction across Heaven; how many factions of any power survived his wholesale purification of his opponents? Naomi has been the only power we've seen in evidence. Is she indeed just one player among many, possibly hanging on by her fingernails over others who would topple her, or was Metatron's picture of conflict deliberately painted to play on Castiel's memories and guilt and persuade him to deal with angels beyond Naomi?

I don't see all of this ambiguity about Metatron as a bad thing; far from it. The uncertainty opens up so many potential options that accurate prediction fails. Is Metatron genuine, manipulating, naïve, deceived, or a puppet? Only the next chapter of the story will tell us what role Metatron actually plays.

Maybe This Isn't One We Can Win

Crowley using the Supernatural novels to better understand the Winchesters' emotional and psychological motivations and to pinpoint the very people he could destroy or threaten to destroy to defeat them was diabolically inspired. His use of witchcraft to dispose of at least two of them – Tommy and Sarah – provided interesting insight into Crowley himself, with his comment that his mother had been a witch and he'd learned from her how to use witchcraft against his opponents. Crowley lies like a rug, especially about himself, so who knows if that's true – but what is true is, he knew how to use witchcraft to kill at a distance. And in a particularly brutal and nasty twist, he made the Winchesters his agents in killing Sarah by somehow getting the hex bag into Dean's cellphone; had the brothers not brought that phone within range, Sarah wouldn't have died.

We've seen from the very beginning of the series that saving others is what gets the brothers through the hard days and the dark nights of their souls. Threatening to undo every good thing they'd ever done by killing everyone they've saved is the worst thing Crowley could have come up with; my hat is off to the folks in the writers' room for making Crowley the worst of the worst, and the most ingenious and terrifying of monsters.

As if the brothers didn't have enough guilt, they must now gamble on their ability to close the gates of Hell and banish all demons from the Earth before any more of the people they saved are killed by Crowley and his minions. Whether they succeed or fail, their chief vulnerability has now been exposed; they can't guard the hundreds of people they've saved, and if any other enemy realizes what Crowley did, they're screwed.

I loved Dean's determination to find a way to succeed. Whenever one of the brothers is crushed, as Sam understandably was by Sarah's death, the other is always there to pick him up. They may not know what to do or how to do it, but so long as at least one of the brothers refuses to surrender – even if that refusal, as here, is powered by nothing more than stubborn grit – they will kick it in the ass.

Production Notes

In Hollywood parlance, a clip show is an episode built around clips from previous episodes. It's a favorite trick to save money on a late-in-season episode by reusing existing footage rather than shooting new scenes, and the flashbacks tend to be a staple of shows where a main character is critically wounded and either relives his or her life or is being remembered by others while learning whether he or she will live or die.

This episode used the clip show idea in other ways. We got brief flashbacks to remind us of how the characters Crowley targeted had been saved by the brothers before – a classic trope – but the “clip show” of the title was also fully as much about the brothers finding the old film and audio tapes of Father Thompson's forgotten experiments in alternative, redemptive exorcism. I loved that it wasn't the classic cheat a clip show usually turns out to be.

Writer Andrew Dabb did a lovely job. I had a few issues with the script, but those things were minor compared to the magic of everything that went right. I've already raised my questions about Father Thompson's demon cure and the Nephilim, and despite the devil's trap on the bullet in her brain, the brothers just walking out on Abaddon without having taken additional precautions to secure a demon of her power made me itch. I also wondered exactly how an in-skull devil's trap works on a demon, since it didn't inhibit Abaddon from affecting things outside her skull by issuing telekinetic commands to her boxed hands or from tossing the bullet away once it was removed, but concluded that it simply prevented her from leaving the skull until the bullet was removed. Her ability to affect things beyond herself seemed kindred to Meg's ability back in Born Under A Bad Sign to affect the room despite being under a devil's trap painted on Bobby's ceiling.

All the rest, I really loved, particularly Crowley's insidious cleverness in using the Supernatural books against the brothers and in realizing, after the natures of the first two trials, that letting the brothers anywhere near anything Hell-related might give them what they needed for the third one. If there's one thing I can't abide, it's a stupid villain doing dumb things just to conveniently advance the story, and Crowley is definitely NOT that! Crowley's phone monologues were chilling and perfectly delivered, as always, by Mark Sheppard. I enjoyed Abaddon's reaction to hearing that Crowley – “The salesman?” – was now the King of Hell: I see a power struggle in the offing!

I also liked the way the script finally addressed the tension between Dean and Castiel, with Dean making it clear that a simple apology, particularly without trust, wouldn't be sufficient to make up for all the times Castiel has done the wrong thing in the past few seasons in the firm belief that he was doing right and that the ends justified the means. I appreciated the flip between the brothers here, with Sam – who's made major mistakes of his own – trying to serve as intermediary and pleading Castiel's case. Forgiveness has always played a major role in the Supernatural story, but one key element of it has always been the sense that where broken trust was involved, forgiveness needed to be earned, and wasn't automatic. Trust comes hard to Dean, but his love is also strong; he's always been able to find a balance in the past when he felt betrayed by someone he loved, especially Sam, and I don't doubt that Dean will find a bridge to Castiel eventually, unless whatever the angel does on his Heaven-closing mission bollixes up what the brothers are trying to accomplish with Hell. I wonder if there will be blame and a need for forgiveness on all sides, depending on what happens when those quests either succeed or fail. Castiel shopping for all the things Dean liked in an effort to make amends was simultaneously touching and hilarious.

Director Thomas J. Wright did a masterful job weaving together the separate stories of the brothers, Abaddon, and Crowley on one hand and Castiel and Metatron on the other. The handheld black-and-white footage from the past was a great touch. And as a huge fan of the Impala, I had to applaud her beauty shots on the brothers' arrival at Jenny Klein's bakery shop. The rapid-fire intercuts between Crowley and the brothers and between the brothers' story and the angel one were a great combined effort by Wright and editor Donald Koch, especially in the scene where the brothers were searching so desperately to save Sarah while Crowley taunted them.

Jerry Wanek and his team just keep making the Men of Letters set ever more spectacular. Now we have rooms full of storage files and a dungeon with spell-worked chains designed to hold demons, and possibly other supernatural creatures. I love the resources the MOL bunker gives the brothers, and I hope the show doesn't blow it up any time soon! The VFX crew outdid themselves with everything from the funny “666” incoming calls and devil emoticons from Crowley to the spell effects on Tommy, Jenny Klein's charred and smoking corpse, the Nephilim's glowing silver eyes – subtly different from an angel's – and the incredible sequence of Abaddon freeing her hand to dig the bullet from her skull. The combination of practical FX, makeup, and VFX on Abaddon was impressive; I'd love to have been in the production meetings when someone said, “So then Sam sews Abaddon's head back on, and when the guys leave, her disembodied hand comes out of the box, jumps to her shoulder, and reaches up through her palate to dig the bullet out of her brain!” Where else but Supernatural … The location crew gave me a good laugh when I recognized the location where the brothers reassembled Abaddon as being a milking barn; my first thought was, “since when is a dairy barn consecrated ground?” Good thing the script covered consecrating the ground as the next step after putting the demon together again! The Pennsylvania Dutch hex signs on the barn extrior were a nice touch.

All the actors' performances were spot-on. Misha Collins beautifully captured Castiel being hurt that Dean ignored him, resolving to get back into his good graces, and then trying to deal with all of Metatron's revelations, including the struggle of whether to trust him or not. Curtis Armstrong brought a rumpled earnestness to Metatron – Marv – that just underscored all the moments I didn't trust him, wondering if he was a player or was being played. I had to laugh when he told Castiel in the convenience store to put the virgin down; that was just so perfectly droll! I loved Taylor Cole's Sarah from her first appearance in season one, and while I was sorry to see her brought back only to die, I was very glad Dabb made her death so meaningful. In her brief scene with Sam, we saw how she had grown and moved on, and saw her recognize the same in Sam. I thought her recognition of Sam's maturity and new focus was exactly what he needed; too bad that was followed immediately by her death. Cole and Jared Padalecki had great chemistry eight years ago, and they both still had it now. Crowley couldn't have picked a better bullet to aim at Sam's heart. Jensen Ackles gave Dean an understandably cold anger toward Castiel but unwavering warm support for Sam. The brother scenes are always the best ones in this show, and this episode did not disappoint in that regard.

I will confess two cheap thoughts during the episode. I applauded the shout-out to Supernatural writer Jenny Klein, for whom a certain now-defunct character was named. In a very different vein, I hoped that making caramel apple crepes in Ojai was all we'd ever see a certain Eugenie do on the show again, since I am definitely NOT a fan of the writing team of Eugenie Ross-Leming and Brad Buckner. I'm sorry, but that's how I feel.

We have only one more episode left in season eight, and I'm certain we'll be left hanging and screaming for a resolution to mysteries and suspense in season 9. What is Metatron's game? What will happen as Metatron aims Castiel at Heaven? What is Naomi up to? What information is Kevin finding? Will the brothers find out what their world would be like in the aftermath before they try closing the gates of Hell? Could the brothers “cure” Crowley, of all demons? Will Abaddon try to take over Hell, or more?

Clip Show left us with many more questions than answers, and those questions provide many different avenues the story could follow. I don't know where it's going, but wherever it is, I'm buckled in and along for the ride!

I apologize for being so late to post this here: all the problems with LJ lately made putting long things up particularly hard!

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December 2015

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