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4x15 Death Takes A Holiday

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  • 4x15 Death Takes A Holiday

    And another great instalment in S4, provided by Jeremy Carver. While Carver might not always have the best grip on the plotting part of his episodes, he’s always a good bet if it comes to delving into the psychology of Sam and Dean, and this week’s episode is no exception to that. Death Takes A Holiday is an excellent follow-up to Sex and Violence in tone and atmosphere, as well as characterisation. I really wished all mytharc episodes this season were this character centric.

    Death Takes A Holiday continues the slow deterioration of Sam and Dean’s relationship, as depicted over the last couple of weeks. They might still work together, but it has mostly become a side by side instead of a with each other, the chasm between them seems insurmountable at the moment. The show has always been dark, but the intimacy, trust and loyalty between Sam and Dean always provided the necessary optimistic core to counter the darkness, and now that their bond is fractured and brittle at the seams, the tone of the show became outright bleak. I have to admit that I find it emotionally draining to witness the downward spiral of the Winchesters, and it’s only the hope that we need to cross the dark valley to come out on the clearing, that keeps my spirits up.

    Despite the depressing direction the brothers’ relationship has taken, I have to admire the slow and consistent forward movement of the character arcs over these past five episodes. Midseason I was under the impression that they changed from a character driven narrative structure to a plot driven one, and I am very happy to find that this isn’t the case anymore. The way Sam and Dean’s motivations were made transparent over the last couple of weeks, step by step, once again demonstrated the excellence of this show when it comes to character development.

    It nearly puts me into a forgiving mood for the fact that even though Dean’s post-hell story made a turn to the better after the midseason two-parter, I still think his trauma is handled in an unsatisfactory manner. The story focuses solely on Dean’s guilt for being turned into a torturer, while it disregards any other facet of Dean’s hell experience, like for example that he was tortured for the equivalent of 30 years as well and that he needs to process that, too. His continuing ability to mostly function normally, without confronting that issue, even if only for the duration of one episode, still doesn’t sit well with me, because it diminishes the gravity of that particular plotline. I can understand that it’s inconvenient for the writers to go there at this stage in the story, but it still remains a weak point in this season.

    Sam: "The normal rules don’t really apply to us, do they? (…) I’m infected with demon blood. You’ve been to hell. Look, I know you want to think of yourself as Joe, the Plumber, Dean, but you’re not! Neither am I. The sooner you accept that, the better off you’re gonna be."

    Over the course of the show Sam and Dean flipped positions back and forth many times, but Sam’s speech about accepting that they exist outside the normal set of rules, has to be the most disconcerting role reversal between them yet. Back in S1 Sam was the one who craved normality and wanted to be your average Joe, while Dean tried to convince him that they are not like everybody else. Granted, Dean wasn’t talking about the natural order back in Skin, but about their place in society, still, his vehement insistence that they are no different from other people is striking, and I think it’s most likely a direct reaction to Sam’s alarming statement. He wants to be normal, because their outsider existence brought them nothing but grief, but most of all he wants Sam to want to be normal as well.

    On the surface Sam’s argument seems to just state the obvious: He does have demon blood in him, but the demon blood is part of who he is ever since he was six months old, and that didn’t hold him back from living his life as a law-abiding, gentle and caring human being. It’s not the blood that makes him different, it’s his approach to it. Sam fundamentally changed his position by fully embracing his demonic heritage, even if he likes to delude himself into thinking that he can remain the same and only has the best intentions in mind. His argument is the strongest hint yet, how much Sam’s latest secret activities with Ruby affected his self-perception. He’s on a power trip, in every sense of the word.

    It was scary to watch Sam using his powers with such a grim determination and arrogant attitude. It clearly comes like a second nature to him by now, he was simply reacting, no conscious effort required. Gone the struggle, the headaches and the hesitation. He is powerful and he knows it and most of all he likes it. S2!Sam would look at his current self and be horrified, insisting on Dean making true on his promise to kill him should he ever turn into something he is not. Far was he from suspecting back then that he would make a deliberate choice to walk in that direction.

    His development is worrying, but it’s also hard to blame him, since there’s really nobody, who presents a better solution at the moment, and he has yet to cross a line. Still, his troubled expression at Pamela’s warning that his so-called best intentions are simply a convenient delusion, indicates that deep down he knows that he is deceiving himself. It’s unlikely though that he will give up on his activities, if it is even still possible, as long as there’s no viable other option available.

    Dean: "Sam, do me a favor? You’re gonna keep your little secrets and I can’t really stop you, but just don’t treat me like an idiot, okay."

    When it comes to his brother, Sam is in a difficult position at the moment. Dean offers Sam an out, twice even. An out of staying with Dean (“Sure you want me going with you?”) and an out of the lies (“Don’t treat me like an idiot.”), and Sam doesn’t take either opportunity to come clear. He is caught between a rock and a hard place. If he admits to having secrets, he also indirectly admits that what he said in Sex and Violence was the truth, rather than the spell of the siren talking. It would render his desperate attempts to convince Dean that he didn’t mean it, null and void. If Sam does not admit to his secrets though, he is hurting Dean and enforcing even further that his brother cannot trust him. Either way, he can’t win. He’s trapped in a cage of his own making and has no idea how to escape the net of lies he spun for himself.

    Dean’s repeated attempts to address their 'verbal sparring' from Sex and Violence, shows at least that they don’t pretend it never happened. Well, at least Dean isn’t, even if it’s only in form of taking sarcastic digs at his brother. I would have expected for Dean to close himself off after Sam’s words, refusing to touch on their hurtful content ever again, allowing them to fester away within him, but that’s not the case. While it is clear that he is disappointed at Sam’s inability to take the opportunity to come clear and build a new foundation of trust between them, he still keeps the possibility of a genuine communication open for Sam, by coming back to the topic over and over again, and that’s positive in a twisted sort of way.

    Anyway, at the moment it seems to me that nothing is further from both Sam and Dean’s minds than deliberately abandoning their brother. They hold on, even if they have no idea how to reconnect. Far and few between throughout the episode, there were moments of care (Sam’s hard tone towards Tessa upon learning who she was, his inquiry about Dean’s concussion) and laughter (learning nifty ‘ghost moves’ from Cole, Dean poking his arm through Sam) and silent team work (bringing the chandelier down together, in order to break the trap that held Tessa) between them. These little glimpses of their brotherly bond made me hopeful that their distance is not irreversible, no matter how fractured their relationship seems to be at the moment.

    Tessa: "You’re the one that got away, Dean. You’d be surprised how little that happens to me."

    I absolutely adored that they brought Tessa back in this episode, not only because I always loved her character and her dynamic with Dean, but it also presented the opportunity to bring closure to Dean’s lost memories from In My Time Of Dying and retrospectively added a new layer of characterisation to Dean’s arc in S2/3. His admission that he felt incomplete for the whole duration of that year and that he wished he’d gone with Tessa for good, lends even more weight to his desperate attempt to justify his sacrifice for Sam’s life to Bobby with the argument of correcting the natural order. It also affirms that one of the reasons for his lifted spirits at the beginning of S3 resulted from ridding himself of this burden of a borrowed life.

    Everything that happened to Dean ever since he came back from that coma, reinforced his belief that he should have died back then. He held on, because he couldn’t bear the thought of what would happen to his family, if he wasn’t around to protect them, and in the end he came back to a dead father, watched his brother die as well and inadvertently facilitated Sam’s descent into darkness. When Dean tells Cole that staying amongst the living is worse than death and that one day his family will be gone, with nothing left here for him, I had the chilling feeling that he wasn’t only talking about his own past, but also about his present.

    Dean’s realisation that the Sam he knew is gone and left him with this stranger, whom he has difficulties connecting to, leaves him stranded and without the purpose that defined his life for almost three decades. The attempt to re-establish the life that he was familiar with, when he came back from hell, failed spectacularly and at the moment he is unable to adapt to the new situation and take control of his life again. The situation is further complicated for him by the fact that he doesn’t know anymore whom to trust and whichever way he turns, the options are equally bleak.

    If he dies, he goes back to hell and eternal damnation, if he lives he might watch his brother self-destruct, or worse, be forced to destroy him himself. He can’t trust Sam and he clearly has no idea how to reach his brother at the moment and change the course Sam has taken. He can’t trust the angels either, because, as Castiel openly admits, they are manipulating him to their own advantage as well. His situation is truly desperate and isolated, and in the end he gets even stripped off his last hope, the hope for redemption.

    Dean "Still, you know, I’ve done things. Horrible things. And someone upstairs still decided to give me a second chance." (…)
    Tessa: "Stop lying to yourself, Dean. The angels have something good in store for you, a second chance, really?"

    In the beginning of the episode Dean argues for the possibility that miracles might happen in this town, which is a striking opposition to his attitude back in Houses of the Holy and shows not only that he came around to accepting the existence of a higher power, but also how much he clings to the thought of having a second chance in life. Tessa’s warning that Dean deludes himself into believing that the angels have something good for him in store, takes Dean’s hope away that the 'miracle' of his resurrection was an act of forgiveness for what he perceives as his sin, the torturing of souls in hell. And all signs seem to point in the direction of Tessa being right.

    Castiel’s admission that they used Sam and Dean as tools in order to capture Alistair, manipulating them into doing their bidding, was disconcerting to say the least. Instead of approaching them openly and just asking for their help, the angels used lies and deceptions to get the brothers to do what they wanted. The only message this kind of behaviour sends to Dean is that despite his decision to rather sacrifice himself than the innocent townspeople in It’s The Great Pumpkin, Sam Winchester, the angels don’t trust him to do the right thing, if they give him a choice. It’s clear that they have no scruples to use whatever means necessary to gain the upper hand in this war, even if that means bending Sam and Dean to their will. The end justifies the means and it’s all about the bigger picture.

    While Castiel in the end only sees the victory of preventing another seal from being broken, for Dean Castiel’s display of distrust ultimately means yet another betrayal of someone he came to see as an ally, undermining the tentative understanding and fragile relationship he build with the angel in the process. That doesn’t bode well for the future and more and more suggests that the angels will end up as antagonists in the long run. Castiel’s expression of doubts about the righteousness of their orders earlier in the season might still come into play later, but in Death Takes A Holiday he clearly has no regrets about manipulating Dean.

    Sam: "Go to hell!"
    Alistair: "Ah, if only I could, but they just keep sending me back up to this arctic craphole."

    I have to say that I was surprised to see Alistair back, because I was under the distinct impression that being subjected to Anna’s grace had destroyed the demon. Apparently that was not the case though, so that raises the question: What could possibly pose a threat to a demon of Alistair’s calibre, if even pure grace can’t harm him? The only thing that seemed to have an effect on him was Sam’s newly boosted power and wouldn’t it be the kicker if it turned out that Sam is indeed the only one who would be able to best him and, by extension, Lilith? If the angels prove to be powerless against ancient demons like Alistair, Sam’s argument for developing his powers becomes another legit foundation, even if it means to sacrifice his own humanity in the process.

    So far we have only seen he angels at a clear disadvantage in a direct confrontation with demons and the fact that the angels are rapidly losing the fight over the seals doesn’t inspire any confidence either. As a sidenote: It was odd that while Alistair easily got the upper hand over Castiel in Heaven and Hell, the angel had no problems capturing the demon in Death Takes A Vacation. Granted, the angel had the element of surprise on his side, with Alistair being focused on Dean and clearly unaware of Castiel’s presence, still, I have to wonder why Castiel and Uriel didn’t find a way to contain him in their confrontation earlier this season and turned to hand to hand combat instead. It doesn’t seem to make much sense to me.

    What else was noteworthy:

    If I have one serious complaint about this episode, it’s the way Pamela met her demise. As I said before, while Carver is good with mapping out the boys’ psychological state, attention to plot details isn’t his forte. I mean, there’s really no reason why the boys wouldn’t have warded the room where their unconscious and helpless bodies were guarded by a blind woman, in a town they knew demons were on the loose even, with devil’s traps. I accept that salt lines were a no-go, since it would have trapped their own ghosts as well, but devil’s traps would have provided protection against the very things that were after them. They left themselves and Pamela in an extremely vulnerable position and that’s irritating.

    When Sam came back and found Pam wounded he should have gotten her to a hospital and even if they needed to stay in the room for Dean’s sake, he should have at least called an ambulance, despite her objections. They didn’t even make an effort to save her, once Dean was back, simply sitting by, while she bled to death. Granted, the fact that she died within a minute made clear that the wound was fatal, no matter what, but it still doesn’t sit well that the boys were completely inactive. Pam’s self-resigned attitude didn’t make much sense to me either, since she has always been depicted as a strong willed person with a zest for life.

    While I have no problem with Pamela’s death in itself, because I can understand it as a statement of how the war demands casualties on the side of good, thus making the war, which mostly played out off screen over the season, more tangible for the audience, the way her death was handled was completely unsatisfactory. In any case, Pam’s death isolated Sam and Dean even more, depriving them of yet another one of their rare sources of support in their efforts. Her ominous warning to Sam was certainly given more weight by the fact that it were her last words. I just wished the circumstances of her death would have been different.

    On a more positive note, I really loved Cole and thought they once again cast a really great child actor for the role. His grief and hesitation of letting go on the one hand and his juvenile joy over teaching Sam and Dean how to be ghosts on the other hand, were fabulous and came off as very believable. The conversation between Cole and Sam about watching the surviving members of your family grieve over you, was amazingly touching and chilling at the same time. The contrast between Cole’s honest fear and Sam coldly lying through his teeth in order to manipulate the kid into helping him, was a scary parody of Sam’s usual empathic approach towards victims. I had to think back at Sam’s genuine sorrow about lying to the ghost Molly in Roadkill in order to get her to cooperate. I don’t think any of those scruples bothered him with Cole anymore.

    In conclusion: Death Takes A Holiday leaves us in an even more desolated place than before, with Dean stripped off his hope that his salvation from hell served the purpose of a greater good, granting him a second chance and Sam stripped off the delusion that his intentions are pure and that he can use his powers for good. Both Sam and Dean are isolated in their own right, and their inability to reconnect as brothers might very well be the thing that dooms them in the end.
    Last edited by galathea; 15-03-09, 04:42 AM.