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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