Supernatural Re-Watch: “Salvation,” “Devil’s Trap,” and dominoes

I got interrupted in my re-watch of Supernatural, and then I was traveling, and then I had that whole Kickstarter thing to run and also the copy-edits showed up for Voyage of the Basilisk, so, yeah. The good news is, this isn’t a blog series I’m attempting to do on any kind of organized schedule, which means if I fall off the wagon for three months, hey. ๐Ÿ™‚

So! “Salvation” and “Devil’s Trap.” Aka the end of season 1, aka not at all what I think they were priming the audience to expect.

Before I get to the plot, though: “Carry On, Wayward Son.” The first time I heard it as the intro for “Salvation,” I was not at all a fan, which is funny to me in retrospect. I didn’t really know it well enough to think about the lyrics, so I was just reacting to the general tone, and it didn’t seem to fit. But when it showed up again at the end of S2, I did a complete one-eighty — its use is kind of perfect. And it just gets better each season, because the irony in it gets more and more painful. “There’ll be peace when you are done” . . . except there won’t be, because they’re never done. (Except maybe at the end of S5, if you pretend the show stopped there. And you’re willing to accept what Dean ends up with as “peace.”)

Anyway, the plot. “Salvation” sets you up pretty clearly for two things: John getting killed in Lincoln, and the boys killing the yellow-eyed demon. That would kind of be the Buffy model of storytelling, where the demon is the Big Bad for this season, and subsequent plot arcs will involve different, stand-alone villains.

Which is not remotely what you get. And that’s kind of awesome.

Negative things first: Meg. Still dislike her immensely. The pattern that leads the Winchesters to Salvation felt like good detective work on a first pass, but in retrospect I continue to see the ways in which that whole aspect of the plot doesn’t hold as much water as I thought. Why is the yellow-eyed demon creating a new crop of kids, before he’s tested the original generation? Why the six-month birthday? Why are so many of the mothers going up in flames — seriously, every single one of them walks into the nursery at the precise wrong moment? Why, still, is their method of death so pointlessly specific? (Not a fan of watching it nearly happen again, either.)

But what works here is the Winchester family dynamic. Now we get the payoff for the strand that’s been running through the back nine, the effort to build up John’s significance to his sons. It’s a short arc, but it’s definitely an arc: he’s less authoritative toward Sam and Dean now, and shows grief alongside his anger when he hears Pastor Jim is dead. He actually admits fault when Dean points out that they tried to call him, and couldn’t get through — though he still says he’s not a fan of “this new tone,” i.e. Dean being confrontational with him. Most significantly, after seeking revenge for twenty years . . . he hands it off to his sons.

They are, of course, the protagonists. But a more conventional approach here would be to have John confront the demon and die, whereupon his sons avenge both him and their mother. The fact that John gives them the Colt and goes to Lincoln is much more original, and makes the change in their relationship meaningful. And the family themes continue when Sam castigates Dean for not letting him go back into the burning house, and Dean says “If hunting this demon means you getting yourself killed, then I hope we never find the damn thing.” He admits openly that John and Sam are the only things he has in the world, and that he’s barely holding it together. The moment doesn’t last long, but it’s an openly emotional one — and that matters, because as Foz Meadows has pointed out, a chunk of the appeal to this show is the way the writers either consciously or unconsciously problematized stereotypical masculinity, particularly in the context of Dean. Far more than Sam, Dean defines himself by his family, and not from a position of strength and authority (the “man of the house”); he may not use the word “love,” but it’s his love for his father and his brother that both keep him going . . . and make him vulnerable.

Speaking of which.

John said in the previous episode that “we’re stronger as a family.” It’s both true, and hilariously false — which is a large part of what makes the Winchesters such a compelling family to watch. The teamwork of the brothers is a key component to their success, both within the story and from an outside perspective, and on the brief occasions where they manage to work together with John it shows the potential to be even stronger. But at the same time, as Bobby points out in a much later season, they can’t wait to sell themselves down the river for each other. They do it again and again — which is a thing one of my friends mentioned disparagingly when talking about why they hadn’t watched the show. From the outside, it sounds like they’re idiots. (In a way, they are.) What I said in response, though, was that it isn’t the plot repeating itself so much as Kripke examining that motif from a bunch of different angles. It’s variations on a theme. And because you get that variation, that repetition with changes, it’s an enormous thing at the end of season five when Dean lets Sam fall into the pit and walks away. You would hate him for that, you would see it as a betrayal . . . except that you’ve seen what happens when the Winchesters won’t let each other go, when they keep dragging each other back from the brink or from hell itself. The willingness to walk away is ultimately the right choice.

In fact, it was the right choice from the start. Season four was ending at the same time I hooked a friend on the earlier seasons of the show, and when we got to “Devil’s Trap,” I found myself exploding with a thought I could not possibly share with her, which was this:

Sam should have shot his father.

When John was possessed and pleading with Sam to kill him, to wipe the demon out once and for all . . . you’re sitting there thinking, no, don’t shoot your father, any time a story presents this choice that’s never the right way to go. Because we valorize squishy emotionality in our storytelling, and so we never want the answer to be the cold-blooded murder of one of the few people in the world that you love.

But look at the dominoes go. Because Azazel didn’t die there, he opened the Devil’s Gate. Because he opened the gate, Lilith got out. Because Lilith got out, Lucifer was freed. Because Lucifer was freed, the fucking apocalypse got started.

All because Sam didn’t put a bullet in his father’s heart.

Sure, Dean would have never forgiven him for it. But how many people died for that squishy emotionality? How many people suffered because Sam couldn’t let his father go, even when ordered to? In the moment, pragmatism might root for him to do it, but you assume that letting John live will somehow turn out to be the right way to go. He’ll be important later on; you’ll be glad he’s still there. But he isn’t, and you aren’t. John sells himself in the very next episode, and Sam’s hesitation knocks over the dominoes for the end of the world.

This is what Kripke did better than pretty much any other showrunner of my experience. Actions have consequences, and the major plots of later seasons grow out of the major plots that went before. This starts with one family’s quest for revenge, and turns into something infinitely larger — and yet not, because in the end it’s still about family.

And since Kripke is evil, it is also about the GODDAMNED CLIFFHANGER. ๐Ÿ™‚ I am very grateful that when I watched this show for the first time, S2 had already started airing, so I didn’t have to wait months to get the aftermath of this ending. Even without the delay, it still packs a hell of a punch, seeing as how the season ends with the Winchesters almost completely failing at everything they set out to do. Their “victories” consist of saving one family and banishing Meg back to hell. Both of which are good things, don’t get me wrong . . . but a Buffy-style finale, this is not.

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