Supernatural season 9 episode 22 review: Stairway To Heaven

Review Anastasia Klimchynskaya 18 May 2014 - 08:25

The penultimate episode in Supernatural's 9th season is an absolute cracker. Here's Anastasia's review...

This review contains spoilers.

9.22 Stairway To Heaven

In short: Stairway To Heaven was spectacular. 

I was completely blown away by the suspense, tension, humour and characterization of this clever, well-paced, layered episode. Thinking back on it, I realize that there were a handful of plot holes and bad decisions involved in getting the story where it needed to go – and yet, somehow, I was so enthralled by how well the story was told that, for once, I didn’t care about the holes in it. The penultimate episode of the season, Stairway To Heaven creates the atmosphere of tension and suspense that makes the story ready for the season finale; it’s full of cliffhangers that set the tone for the undoubtedly hectic events of next week.

With Abaddon dead, this episode focuses on Heaven, Metatron (the current Big Bad), and the angels rallying against him. Over the past few episodes, Castiel has slowly been building up a following to take on Metatron, and now we finally get an insider’s look at it. As Dean points out, the entire thing looks a bit like a cult, with the angels calling Cas “Commander,” and on top of that, the last time Castiel tried to be a leader, he blew open Purgatory, so Dean’s naturally skeptical. There’s also the inconvenient fact that angels are making suicide runs in Castiel’s name. Coupled with the Mark on Dean’s arm, which makes him see the worst in people, all this naturally causes Dean to jump to the worst of conclusions about Castiel’s intentions, with the result of Dean and Cas bickering like an old married couple while all the bystanders watch awkwardly.

However, despite Dean’s skepticism, it seems that Castiel’s a much better leader than last time. He’s not lying to Dean, he’s managed to accumulate the largest faction of angels, and it’s pretty clear that he’s not the one ordering the suicide-bomber angels to off themselves. All in all, a little surprisingly, kind of reassuringly, things seem to be looking up for Castiel and the fight against Metatron, but it’s a delicate, perilous balance, and the unfortunate angel deaths are threatening to tip that balance.

That’s why Team Free Will splits up, with Dean remaining at Campaign Headquarters to question the angels. That’s not exactly the best of ideas: it turns out that Dean lied to Sam and brought the First Blade. In a heartfelt conversation, Sam makes it clear that despite all the things he’s said this season, he still cares deeply about Dean and the potential effects of the Mark. Despite approaching the matter in the most tactful way possible, though, the conversation is lost on Dean, whose addiction to the Blade leads to a simple mentality of the ends justifying the means. That’s why it doesn’t take him long to get to the bottom of the matter: Tessa.

Tessa has the honour of being on Supernatural all the way since the beginning of season two, where she was the reaper that showed up to collect the dying Dean’s soul. Like reapers in general, she’s always been a fascinating character, serving the natural order of things without taking sides or stances on morality. Unfortunately, this time she wasn’t brought back to be her fascinating self, but to be retconned into a plot device. She’s now serving Metatron, acting as the leader of the angels who are killing themselves in Castiel’s name in order to give him a bad reputation.

In the process, it’s revealed that Reapers are actually angels (which is questionable on so many levels I don’t know where to start), that Tessa has (rather easily and conveniently) been convinced to take a side in Heaven’s battles (despite her job for centuries being that of not taking sides), and that she has a death wish because she can’t bear the pleas and cries of the souls stuck in the veil (despite her job for thousands of years being to ignore the pleas of human souls). Plus, by siding with Metatron, Tessa’s influencing the natural order of things, so one wonders why Death hasn’t gotten involved.

However, sweeping those problems aside, the episode proceeds at an almost breakneck pace to a number of exciting new places. First off, Dean pulls out the Blade, and Tessa quickly seizes the opportunity to kill herself (making me lament, yet again, that another brilliant character was brought back only to die... kind of like Sarah Blake last season). Dean hasn’t’ exactly won himself any angel friends with his behavior, and they naturally turn against him at the sight of the incriminating dead body.

In the meantime, Sam and Cas are on a road trip, having a heart to heart about Dean. Both are clearly concerned about the obvious effects of the Mark on him, and it’s touching to see such unity and concern among Team Free Will. Interestingly enough (by which I annoyingly), despite being clearly knowledgeable about the consequences of the Mark of Cain, Castiel remains tight-lipped about what they might be – making it clear that there are more consequences coming, and also that his silence is a desperate ploy for suspense.

Eventually, the road trip leads to the usual abandoned warehouse concealing a place of power. The place has Metatron’s fingerprints all over it: it’s sealed with riddles and pop culture references, making the place impenetrable to just about every angel but Lucifer (who seems to have had cable down in the Cage), and Castiel, who now gets those references thanks to Metatron’s quick info dump. Even though I’m still partly weeping over the loss of Castiel’s pop-culture cluelessness (and the fact that Dean never got to introduce him to Star Wars), I’m also laughing through my tears. It’s actually kind of adorable to see Cas understand references to Lord Of The Rings and Indiana Jones after not getting them for so long, and Sam’s surprise is the best.

Instead of a portal to Heaven, though, Sam and Cas find a joke: a room that looks like a high school dance and a dying angel. Refusing Castiel’s help, the angel (and mole) says something we’ve heard about Cas many times before: that he’s more human than angel, with a desperate weakness for humanity and certain humans in particular. It’s a line that has important implications for the rest of the episode.

Castiel returns to find a tied-up Dean and an army of very unhappy angels.  To make things worse, Metatron Skype-calls (how quaint) to add fuel to the fire, accusing Castiel of sending angels to die in his name and revealing the truth about Castiel’s stolen Grace to his followers. Predictably, and a little too conveniently, Castiel’s army quickly turns against him, offering him an ultimatum: Dean Winchester’s life or them. One wonders if the angels have actually watched this show, though. Castiel’s rebelled against Heaven, broken through mind control, and fought a war in Heaven, all for Dean Winchester (and humanity, I guess). Predictably, Castiel chooses Dean over the angels.

Despite the predictability of his choice, though, it’s a touching and heartfelt moment. Dean, showing what seem like actually human emotions for the first time this episode, looks betrayed, heartbroken, and subsequently both relieved and disbelieving – either unaware of how much he means to the angel or, in his current mental state, incapable of comprehending something like love. On Castiel’s side, too, the moment is heartbreaking: he desired nothing more than to help his angelic brethren and take them home, and now he’s forced to let them go and watch his attempts at being a leader fail yet again (though less catastrophically than last time, at least).

Unlike the angels, though, Metatron actually has seen the show (or, rather, read the books), because this all proceeded according to his plan. Still obsessed with fiction, Metatron pulls the old writer’s trick of “flipping the script”: setting Castiel up to be almost invincible (which he feels like at the beginning of the episode, with his rebellion going so successfully) in order for his win as he acquires Castiel’s army to look that much more spectacular. In a bout of excellent, metafictional writing, the viewers are taken in just as Metatron intends: they see Castiel ahead at the beginning of the episode, cheer him on, and reel in surprise at the sudden turn of events in Metatron’s favor.

However, though Metatron has read the books, he seems to have missed the subtext, and, with this being the penultimate episode, I’m going to guess that the metafitionality of this episode hinted at how the season finale’s going to go: in the direction of Metatron’s downfall. At the end of this episode, Team Free Will is exactly where Metatron was at the beginning: losing and helpless, while Metatron’s ahead, while Dean in particular is the farthest he’s been from good and human in a while.

That’s what’s going to make it so spectacular when, next episode, Team Free Will pulls a trick out of their hat just like Metatron did. Why am I so convinced? Well, the situation’s rather reminiscent of one four seasons ago: as the Apocalypse was coming to a head, Team Free Will was losing all hope. It seemed like they had nothing, and yet they pulled a victory out of their hat in “Swan Song” through the power of love and having each other. In a heartfelt moment at the end of this episode, Dean sits down with Cas and, for the first time, acts like he’s not being affected by the Blade. “We’ve always been [enough],” he says to Cas, reminding us yet again that Team Free Will has always stood together and succeeded.

And they’ve always succeeded through the one thing Metatron doesn’t appear to clearly see, the one thing that Lucifer didn’t quite get: love. What the angels have always called the Winchesters’ weakness, what Metatron calls Castiel’s weakness – love – has also always been their strength. Speaking of Castiel’s weakness, Metatron says “He’s in love… with humanity.” As both Dean and Hannah point out, though, Castiel lost his entire army over “one man,” which rather makes one wonder whether Dean’s middle name is actually “humanity,” because that makes for a much more accurate version of events. That kind of love, those connections between our three protagonists, have always saved the day; I’ve noted in previous reviews that Team Free Will’s ripped up the script and rewritten the ending before exactly through that, and I have no doubt that they’ll change Metatron’s script as well. That’s my theory, anyway. Don’t blame me; it’s Supernatural that gave me such faith in the power of love and family in the first place.

As in the past, though, there will likely be repercussions, which look like they’re starting with the cliffhanger of this episode. In the final scene, Gadriel, fed up with Metatron’s lies and manipulation, appears to justify the faith Castiel had in him doing the right thing: he comes to the bunker and offers to side with the Winchesters. Both Winchesters have their grudges against Gadriel, and Dean acts on his: spurred on by the mark, he wounds Gadriel, and the final, terrifying shot of the episode is a feral, raging Dean being held back by Cas and Sam. I’m going to guess that Gadriel doesn’t actually die – but, nevertheless, Dean’s behavior demonstrates that our protagonists are in that darkest place before the dawn.

I can’t wait for next week.  

Read Anastasia's review of the previous episode, King Of The Damned, here.

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Disqus - noscript

I really liked this episode. It and the last were the only myth stories of the entire season where I actually paid attention. They made me feel invested with some actual, genuine character moments rather than the parodies more often presented.

I only wish that more attention had been paid to Abbadon and her plot, which seemingly has no bearing on Metatron's side of the story.

(As an aside, it's "Gadreel," not "Gadriel")

I have a feeling that the finale will open with Dean being restrained in the Men Of Letters equivalent of Bobby's Safe Room Detox Chamber (probably where Crowley was kept for a while). I don't think it will last though, and Dean will escape and possibly even go super bad for a while. I do think it is interesting to see what kind of influence Sam can have on him though, after all Cain worked for Lucifer for centuries, training the Knights of Hell and no doubt doing lots of other terrible things. However Cain started down his path with the death of his brother, and so did not have anyone to convince him not to give in to the dark side, Dean still does.

Regarding Reapers, I was also unhappy to find out that they are Angels, I would have much preferred if they had remained a totally separate creature. This wasn't the first Angelic Reaper reveal though, the woman that Cas slept with when he was human was described as an Angel but was referred to as a Reaper.

Plot-holes aside, and that includes the depressingly, less-than-impressive reappearance of Tessa (so much more should be made of that character) I agree that I really enjoyed this episode. Dean's lashing out at Gadreel at the end took me completely by surprise (and by that I mean I kinda screamed) and it's impressive that a show that's been going as long and been through as many rough patches as this one can still do that. (Thank you for the review by the way, you always give what I consider to be a very fair judgement, and one that I always 90% agree with :)

Predictions for next week: obviously someone has to die/nearly die (it's Supernatural after all). Jensen seems to have been genuinely shocked by the script so I'm putting my money on Dean getting so caught up with the first blade-induced-hate he (accidentally?) stabs Cas or Sam. Sam would fit with the Cain/Abel mythology which would make me happy, but then it's kinda obvious, so I feel like Cas might be the more interesting choice, particularly given how they're really plugging the whole Dean/Cas friendship thing.

Did this episode really say or suggest that Reapers are angels, or a form thereof? I thought the implication was more that Metatron had figured out how to reprogram or brainwash them in an unexplained manner.

Either way, they destroyed the mystery and intrigue of the Reapers last season with the Reaper cab driver, who was killed with an Angel Blade. That was rather stupid, especially since it was previously established that Reapers are more powerful than even God and, as such, are not so easily killed.

The writers have a habit of bringing back fan-favorite characters for no reason other than to pander to the fans. It never works because the execution is ridiculous. I hate whenever they bring back a character I like because I know they won't do them justice.

Tessa being an angel is the same as the Force being produced by Midichlorians.

Reapers are not more powerful than God, Death is. In fact even that is not certain, all we know is that one day Death will reap God, not necessarily the same thing.

This is the best description I have heard thus far.

Thanks. :) Now let us all purge this Metatron-induced nonsense from our collective consciousness.

edit: I just rewatched s02e01. Tessa is getting possessed by Azazel. How would that work on an Angel? That's all just dumb.

In Supernatural canon, Reapers are extensions (or avatars) of Death.

And, by more powerful, I didn't mean "stronger," but outside the same laws of existence.

Actually, it feels more to me that reapers being angels is like Darth Vader building C3PO. It just makes the universe seem smaller.

It also doesn't make any sense since God created the angels, yet reapers are meant to be outside of God's jurisdiction.

Thank you - I'm glad you enjoy my reviews! I do my best to give a balanced review, with both a fair amount of skepticism and some suspension of disbelief (it is Supernatural, after all).

I admit, I was expecting Dean to lash out at Gadreel at the end - but only because that scene was in the preview, and with how Dean had been behaving that epsidode, it made sense that that's how he'd react. I agree with you that Dean will likely get caught up in the blade-induced addiction/obsession, though I haven't yet decided myself who he might kill or potentially stab - Sam would make sense, but so would Cas given the Cain/Colette backstory we learned (and I"m of the opinion that there's something romantic enough going on with Cas that he could be Colette). Either way, it'd be fascinating for the repercussions - or perhaps hurting someone he loves would finally bring Dean back.

You make a very good point.

I think everyone's general issues with the whole angel/reaper thing is that, whether or not theyre more powerful than God or whether or not they're actually angels (which this episode seems to imply), the collective use of reapers over the past few episodes has just taken away from what their appeal is: precisely that they're outside any kind of good vs. evil, apocalyptic battles, taking sides, or anything like that that goes on. They faciliate death happening and sometimes Death helps out Dean in order to preserve the order of things...but in general the fascination with reapers is that they're outside the order of things.
Also, I seem to recall Death saying that whether he or God came first is like "the chicken or the egg" mystery. I'm not sure it's possible to say who's more powerful and who came first - and that's part of the appeal. It leaves it as a mystery.
These last few episodes involving reapers, whatever explanations they tried to provide for reapers, took away from that mystery.

Agreed about Abbadon! I mentioned that in my review last week - Crowley got overwhelmingly more screentime than she did, while so much could've been made of her.

I think in general, though, Supernatural's kind of lost the ability to combine myth stories with monster of the week stories, like it did so well in season 5; it's become one or the other, which is possibly why the myth stories feel less tangible and less appealing some of the time. This one, though, felt very human and very real and very psychological, despite the lack of a real monster to hunt.

In regards to the spelling, I've seen it spelled both ways; I went with Gadriel a few reviews ago and stuck with it for the sake of consistency. I think Supernatural did indeed choose the "gadreel" spelling, but this being a Biblical name, either one is technically correct, I think.

Frankly, I feel that there aren't many interesting stories left to tell about the angels or demons without retreating the same issues or expanding the mythology in such a way that it loses some of its mystique.

So much was established in the original mythology and the sixth season that they could have gone in several other, more interesting, directions.

Kali is still alive, remember? The writers could have explored another alliance of pagan deities and the potential of a non-Christian apocalypse.

The Fairies of season six also held a lot of promise.

I also want point out (since I haven't been able to before) that I found the idea that Abbadon is simply a super-special demon rather stupid. When she was first introduced I was excited at the potential for her to be one of the original fallen angels that sided with Lucifer, which would have at least mirrored the current situation with Metatron and The Fall.

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