Supernatural – Season 11 Episode 17
Supernatural explores the idea of death being a credible threat to the Winchesters again after it being more of an inconvenience for so long.
Longtime viewers of Supernatural will be fairly used to seeing Sam and Dean die. Sometimes it’s played for drama and other times it’s played for laughs. Both are valid because we know it’ll never be permanent as the show works on the bond between the brothers so they will never be split apart for too long.
Earlier in the season Billie the Reaper made a threat that with Death gone there was nobody around to keep the brothers alive so the next time they died it would stick and there would be no coming back. It was a refreshing thing to hear as having the brothers deal with their mortality after being used to it not really applying to them feels fresh. It has been left dangling as a thread since then but having it explored here worked fairly well.
It all starts out seeming fairly routine for the brothers as they are fighting werewolves until one of the gets lucky and shoots Sam who immediately falls to the ground. Immediately the significance of the injury is made clear as the camera lingers on Sam as he falls to the floor and Dean takes it very seriously. Jensen Ackles does an excellent job putting across the fear and desperation Dean is feeling in that moment. He is desperate to make sure Sam doesn’t cross over into that void because he needs his brother around.
Unfortunately the werewolves are still on his tail so he has to deal with that as well as an injured Sam. It’s a lot for Dean to have to manage and it’s clear that he doesn’t really know where his priorities should be. Does he protect the people or protect his brother? It starts to look likely that he won’t be able to do both so he is more than a little frantic at the prospect.
It all gets worse when Sam appears to die and Dean just looks lost. He still has the mission of protecting the people with him but the prospect of doing all of that and then continuing on with his mission without Sam terrifies him. This is the first time that he truly feels as if he has lost his brother and Ackles perfectly puts across Dean’s inability to comprehend that.
Once he safely gets the people to a hospital the prospect of life without Sam starts to sink in and Dean immediately reverts to old habits. He overdoses on pills so that he can die and appeal to Billie for Sam’s life. Billie of course isn’t at all interested and even refuses to make a deal. It all feels oddly familiar as Dean offers his life in exchange as well as pointing out that he can’t stop Amara without Sam which will negatively affect the Reapers eventually. It’s a powerful scene as Dean is pushed to the limits of his desperation with his arguments completely falling on deaf ears. Billie is cold and uncaring and takes pleasure in telling Dean that Sam isn’t dead so he has killed himself for absolutely no reason.
It might seem like a bit of a cop out to have Sam come back to life so suddenly but I can’t see any other way for the show to explore this idea and not actually kill one of the brothers. It’s important that Dean believes Sam is dead and has to figure out what to do about it. The emotional connection to the situation was real for Dean and that’s what is ultimately important.
The reveal of Sam being alive was nicely positioned to parallel Dean’s death. Thematically it was as if Dean was trading his life for Sam’s which is what he tried to do. It was also a nice trick to have Dean’s sacrifice be shown as meaningless to the audience just as he made it. There was real tragedy in that moment that was handled well.
Once Sam and Dean are reunited in the land of the living the wrap up of the episode feels somewhat clumsy. Sam asks Dean what he did in the period that he thought Sam was dead but he doesn’t get an answer. Again, Dean falls on old habits when faced with something like this. I would have liked to see further exploration of the idea of mortality. Maybe Dean and Sam could both have spoken to Billie when they were near death and she could have toyed with them by letting them believe that the other was dead and there was nothing they could do.
I did like that Sam was almost killed by something fairly mundane. It adds to the tragic aspect of the narrative when Sam is taken down by something low level after going toe to toe with some of the most powerful beings that anyone can imagine. Extra urgency was mined from the fact that Dean was so overwhelmed by all of his responsibilities that it largely made up for the lack of threat level from the Werewolves themselves.
Some of the structural choices didn’t really work for me. Flashing back to 48 hours before the main plot didn’t really work for me as there was no need to see how they came upon this case. The reasoning behind it wasn’t profound or interesting as they wanted to get out and clear their hears with a simple case. That’s something they have been doing for the past few episodes so I would have been willing to buy that they are simply on another case and fill in the blanks from there.
A powerfully acted episode that explores how Dean would react to losing his brother on a really simple mission. Jensen Ackles’ acting is really powerful throughout the entire episode as he tries to figure out how to get out of the situation as well as live his life without Sam in it. It’s all wrapped up a little quickly but it’s really compelling while it lasts and proves that death is a credible threat in this show once again.
- Jensen Ackles’ powerful and varied performance
- the exploration of death as a threat for the brothers once again
- the story wrapping up in a slightly clumsy way