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[lots o’ spoilers ahead]
Imagine that you live like a mayfly, growing up in a violent life where people die young and nasty, repeatedly told you are nothing but a blunt tool in the service of other, better folk. Expecting to go out bloody and savage at a young age, unmourned, forgotten almost as soon as you die. Expecting … hoping at some point … that at least it won’t last forever and someday, very soon, you will find peace, even if it’s the peace of oblivion. You are surrounded by people who do all sorts of horrific things to live another day, but you? You’re ready to go pretty much any time.
Now imagine that you are suddenly faced with being dragged, kicking and screaming, out of obscurity, held up into the light, made the light, the barrier, the firewall between Light and Dark, Firewall with a capital ‘F.’ And you start to realize, as you cheat – no, are cheated of – death over and over that your life may eventually end bloody, but it’s going to be a long time. Maybe even geologically speaking. Even to the point where you could outlive the angels, and certainly the demons, you previously thought immortal. That you are too important to die, that you have been given what you’ve seen so many others commit murder, betrayal and far worse to gain just a taste of.
And you even begin to suspect, after so many years of neglect and abuse, that the universe didn’t do this to hurt you. It did it out of love, this making you immortal. And not just immortal – eternal.
Imagine this new truth is dropped on you like a neutron bomb a moment after you thought you’d finally discovered the perfect way to commit suicide.
You wouldn’t feel blessed. You’d feel cursed. You’d feel like Dean Winchester near the end of this episode.
I’m not sure yet if this is a top favorite, but I think I can consider “Advanced Thanatology” a favorite of the episodes so far this season and a genuinely entertaining, thought-provoking, re-watchable one. The episode does a very good job of staying on topic in terms of its central concept. There is Dean, who is profoundly, fundamentally, clinically depressed, trying to party his depression away. There is a young boy Dean tries to save who is snatched from life young and terrified. As in season one’s “Faith,” Dean tries to switch places with the boy, but is simply told that’s not the way things are. Dean’s life is important. The boy’s is just done. There is the loss of his devoted, down-to-earth mother (movingly played by Alisen Down, who was also in season eight’s “Trial and Error”). There is the sinister creepiness of the insane doctor, evoking pretty heavily both Dean’s fears about shrinks last week and the mad scientist doc of season one’s “Asylum.”
I think that’s what makes this central conflict so complex. It’s not just a case of a person who is not allowed to die, or who has become immortal and bored with it. It’s a case of someone who lives in a universe where life is short and hard, a prize taken away before anyone has had enough of it. This person assumes, especially since he is not important enough for second chances or extensions, that his life will be especially short and hard. As Dean puts it this week, “It doesn’t matter. I don’t matter.”
And then, like some lost scion of royalty in a fairy tale, this person is raised from the gutter of human life, by beings who represent eternal concepts, and given a place on Mount Olympus, in the ninth sphere of Paradise, the Empyrean, and told that he can’t die because he is far, far too important to die. Without him, the universe would be toast. And to emphasize this (perhaps just to placate him and give him motivation to continue on), they include his beloved brother in the blessing, a brother for whom he would (and has) died. And then they even bring back his best friend.
This is not a curse, to be singled out, spotlighted, in such a way. It just feels like one to Dean Winchester. Since the climactic scene with Billie is from Dean’s POV, it does indeed seem as though she is cruel in dangling the possibility of death – of many deaths – in front of him, before snatching it away. It’s subtle, but if you mind the signs in the story, especially when Dean glances up after Billie mentions the “shelf” of his deaths (a clever and evocative image of a very esoteric concept), that entire library of Ws is devoted just to him. In addition, two of the “deaths” Billie mentions have already happened to him or been avoided, and the third is in the very next episode. It begs the question of whether, depending on Dean’s choices, any of these deaths will ever prove truly final.
One macabrely amusing moment is when Jessica the panicked red-headed Reaper enters the W archive and blurts out, “Dean Winchester is in the Veil!” Clearly, this is a DEFCON-1 moment for Reapers at this point. Dean has become such an accomplished shaman and psychopomp (not to mention slayer of Reapers and other angels) that not only does he treat his spirit walk as an ordinary event, but his mere presence in their realm terrifies Reapers. Hence the phrase, “advanced thanatology.” It’s also notable that we will soon see that there are people who dreamwalk between worlds pretty often, yet the only time Death gets concerned is when Dean Winchester does it.
Back when I was about twenty, I read a book called Once a Warrior King by David Donovan. It’s a memoir by a young first lieutenant who served as an advisor in a remote part of Vietnam during the War. Through an unfortunate and unforeseeable sequence of events, Donovan abruptly found himself the highest political authority in that area, with the power of life and death over everyone there. People bowed to him, fought him, admired him and reviled him as if he were the most important person in that region. He discovered that unlike many of his comrades, his job involved as much the impossible task of helping the people he served and improving their lives in a war zone as it did blowing up the enemy.
Around the time I read the book, I was elected to the captain’s position on a college rescue squad that was the second busiest ambulance squad in the state. I found myself going to EMS meetings where I represented the emergency care options of 14,000 people in five towns, as well as transport for a regional neonatal care unit. ER directors twice my age, sometimes grudgingly, treated me as an equal. It was a shock to the system. As one alumnus member bluntly told me, I had wanted a grownup’s job, so it was time to grow up and do it.
A few years later, when I was in Peace Corps in Cameroon, one of my farmers came to me one day and asked if I would intercede for him in a local dispute to our village’s de facto “mayor,” as I was his “patron.” I agreed, though I didn’t think my influence would do much good. To my surprise, the mayor greeted me warmly and readily agreed to my farmer’s request. I had lived in Boubara for a year and a half at that point, and had somehow remained blissfully aware until then that not only was I fairly high up in the village, but I was apparently among the top four officials out of six thousand people.
Were these revelations ego boosts? To a certain extent, though I always felt they were undeserved ones. The position atop a pyramid feels pretty precarious. As far as I was concerned, the position, not the person, was important. Leadership is ultimately about service. If you’re all about the gold crown, you’re missing the point.
These roles also came with huge responsibilities and major real-world consequences, for many people, if/when I screwed up – and I worried a lot about screwing up. I made fully as many enemies as I did friends, simply as a matter of course. They, too, came with the job. I’m sure not everyone I knew during that time think I served well. I’d like to think that some people did, though.
C.S. Lewis puts it brilliantly in his fifth Narnia book, The Horse and His Boy:
For this is what it means to be a king: to be first in every desperate attack and last in every desperate retreat, and when there’s hunger in the land (as must be now and then in bad years) to wear finer clothes and laugh louder over a scantier meal than any man in your land.
Dean has always been acutely aware of the rough side of this equation. He’s taken many blows and won many enemies in his determination to hold by his unique motto: “Saving people, Hunting things: The Family Business.” What he has not understood up to this point is why the fact he came up with that idea makes him more than a rather filthy-minded footsoldier in the endless war between Light and Dark.
I think that Billie is trying to make a point. And as reluctant as he still is to acknowledge that, I think Dean is finally beginning to understand what she means, what Chuck meant, what Amara meant. Jensen Ackles does a really nice job with this as he deadpans a polite “Hmm” every so often as Billie drops bomb after mindblowing bomb of cosmic revelation about his position in the SPNverse. Dean no longer bows to Death. These two are now equals, bargaining with almost amiable hostility over the fate of a hundred souls. It’s even possible that Death now bows to Dean, or soon will.
I’ll admit it. I like Billie. I just thought her previous motivation made her look stupid and petty. So, I was happy to see her promotion rectified that. She’s a worthy successor to the previous Death.
Problem is, Dean is still human and that kind of thing will break your mind. He’s not all right at the end (“I’m pretty far from okay”), by any means, but he does now have the tools to keep going once he sees Castiel at the phone booth, an embodiment of at least one of his prayers answered against all odds. What shape he’ll be in for the rest of the season is a whole other story.
Sam’s had a fair amount of growth in the past few seasons, so it’s interesting to see how he fields what is basically part two (after this week) of trying to talk his brother off the ledge. His performance on that score last week was less than edifying. Not only did he try to bully Dean into group therapy, but he did so on a highly risky case when the two of them needed to be at their most alert and clear-headed. That case turned out to involve an MOTW that has done Dean considerable psychological and social damage in the past. And on top of that, Sam insisted on bringing Jack along. Not his finest hour. This week, he seems to be trying reverse psychology by indulging all of Dean’s favorite quirks, including his paranoia about crazy shrinks, though Dean sees him coming a mile away.
The episode doesn’t spell it out, but it’s gotta hurt Sam’s heart just a little when he hears Dean parrot back to him the cruel speech he served Dean at the end of “The Purge” years ago, about how Dean thought he was doing good, helping, making a difference, but really wasn’t. We see Sam grimace when Dean echoes this speech, clearly having taken it to heart and been wounded near to death with the slow-acting poison of it.
Sam can try to make up for all this with two-word apologies like “I’m sorry” (season four) and “I lied” (season nine), or more elaborate groveling like his speech about trusting the LoL in the penultimate (I don’t care what J2 say about that word; I love using it – penultimate, penultimate, penultimate) episode of last season. It won’t change the fact that more often over the years, he has spoken venom and anger, sometimes even hate, and that his brother is more emotionally primed to register abuse, anyway.
While the sequence of Sam pampering/kissing up to Dean is amusing (and Dean passed out on the floor with his tie on his head and a big, pink bra around his neck is a hoot), I’m not sure Sam even knows what to do to make it up to his brother, let alone help Dean heal and become well. It’s a long, uphill battle, to be sure, and it is by no means all Sam’s fault that Dean is this way. John (and Mary’s death, it must be said) had a big hand in it, as well as all the self-inflicted wounds Dean has incurred along the way. It’s certainly going to take a lot more than “bullets, bacon and booze,” even “a lot of booze,” for Dean to pull out of this flat spin.
Admittedly, Sam does have a point about Dean’s “bossiness.” For all his poor self-esteem, Dean has frequently stepped into the role of King with effortless grace and arrogance, literally as if he were born to it. This is played for laughs for a bit in this episode with lines like “What happened to you being nice to me?” and “You are forgiven.” And when Dean is well, relatively speaking, it’s a constitutional monarchy with all of TFW getting a say.
But when things get ugly, shit goes down, and Dean’s mental health goes to a dark, dark place, it becomes, as he himself puts it in season nine, “not a democracy. This is a dictatorship.” And that’s when Dean makes unilateral decisions, such as killing himself to make a spirit walk from which he does not intend to return, simply to rescue Sam from a few angry ghosts that the two of them could probably banish a different way. At those times, Dean’s recklessness (“insouciance” as 2014!Apocalypse Castiel once put it) tips over into self-destructive and suicidal behavior that needs, at the very least, a gentle restraining hand on the arm, as Jody did to Dean in “Patience.”
Finally, this was a properly satisfying MOTW this week. I’m glad the show is once again remembering that it’s supposed to be horror, not paranormal romance. Yeah, it went off into mytharc in the third act, but the first two acts did have a real Hunt that was actively resolved.
That doctor was extremely creepy (notice how he simply tosses Sam aside and goes after Dean, his preferred type of victim?). As unsympathetic as I found Evan (Doomed Teaser Kid), who was composed of unadulterated idiot, I found his death properly chilling. In fact, all of the scenes in the haunted house (a series of sets the show has used many times before, with all sorts of different lighting) were straight-up horror, no chaser, and the twist of the angry, confused ghosts coming after the Brothers after the doc was ganked was disturbing, regardless of our knowing the Brothers would (somehow) get out of it alive.
Shawn’s fate was also horrific and sad. He and Evan didn’t intend to trespass on such deadly territory, but then, innocence and ignorance are not always an effective defense against the dark. His poor mother is left with her lifelong grief, (undeserved) guilt, lots of questions and a dead body, with “closure” being a mocking concept, all underscored by a classic Steppenwolf song about second chances. Shawn and Evan’s slightly wiser friend Mike will live on, also plagued with guilt he doesn’t deserve.
The drill evokes trepanning (on top of lobotomy), a brutally ancient way to deal with both head trauma and depression. The plague masks were also a nice twist. The episode does mention their origin, though some more elaboration seems in order. The bird-like plague mask in the episode dates in design at least to the 17th century (medical historians consider it an early kind of HAZMAT suit), but was intended to deal with a much-older problem – the Black Death, which has tormented Eurasia and North Africa periodically since the 14th century. The Black Death had such a high body count and was so traumatic for the cultures who suffered under it that it contributes elements to most of our horror tales today.
The Black Death tended to kill off medical personnel from physicians to nuns and monks at a much higher rate than the population they treated, which was equally demoralizing for the healers and the patients. The masks were intended to protect physicians from the plague (though their historical efficacy is a matter of great debate), but they also tended to scare the hell out of the patients. It’s probably not much of a surprise that the horrific bird-demons of Hieronymous Bosch’s Garden of Earthly Delights bear a striking resemblance to these later plague masks.
In this MOTW’s case, the crazy doctor also appears to use the mask to highlight his evil intentions and hide his identity, much like the killers in slasher flicks like Friday the 13th, Halloween and My Bloody Valentine. It’s pretty effective in making what was once a human (and is still a human soul) seem eerily inhuman and alien. All in all, an effective recycling of concepts (like the house full of captive ghosts from season seven’s “Of Grave Importance” or the sinister ghost shrink from “Asylum”) from both greater and lesser episodes.
Next: Tombstone: A puzzling case with ties to the Old West gives Dean a chance to indulge his Inner Texas Ranger.
You can find my live recap of “Advanced Thanatology” here.