I love this episode. “Beat the Devil” is about reliving our past traumas when circumstances dictate it. With a rich history of trauma, Supernatural hasn’t always dealt with the emotional aftermath successfully. But that’s the ultimate beauty of the show’s longevity — getting to revisit major moments they didn’t necessarily take the time on before, or, conversely, poorly executed the manner in which the emotional recovery was told (hello season seven!). The episode works, despite its awkward pacing, because it’s a pay off episode. For a good part of this season, Sam and Rowena have bonded over their shared torture by Lucifer. Here, they both are forced to confront their abuser. And boy does it hurt.
It starts with a clever plan to capture Lucifer. A plan made by Sam and smoothly executed by Rowena and Gabriel, two more people coming face-to-face with the person that killed them. Sam’s plan is to slowly drain Lucifer’s grace to hold the rift to Apocalypse World open longer than 24 hours. It’s rather barbaric, but like Sam tells Lucifer, it’s part revenge, part necessity. The upper hand Sam has in this scene is wonderful, but it’s also clear he’s still afraid of Lucifer. His vulnerability in the previous scene isn’t negated because of his confidence here; in fact, it’s a lot like Gabriel’s face at the end of “Unfinished Business” — yes, this is revenge, but revenge is ultimately hollow. Sam, Dean, Gabriel, and Cas go through the rift, leaving Rowena behind. Thus, the first substantial encounter begins.
Leaving Rowena behind by herself feels like an odd move, but it gives Rowena a chance to lord one over Lucifer. She gets in some pretty good gibes, and her last taunt did its job in affecting Lucifer, but the result wasn’t what she wanted. Lucifer breaks free, and just as he’s about to kill her again, she blasts him through the still open rift. This confrontation might not have gone well, but it’s Rowena’s actions afterward that are proof of her continued redemption. Instead of leaving the boys to their fate, trapped in Apocalypse World with the only two arch angels who can open the rift, she cracks open a book to search for a way to keep it open. Her back-and-forth about leaving is in true Rowena fashion, but it’s delightful to see her make this decision to stay on her own.
In Apocalypse World, things get weird. Sam is oddly in a good mood. When questioned by Dean, Sam says he finally feels like they’re accomplishing something. His mood is also brought on by the episode’s cold open — a dream sequence in which Sam and Dean have successfully rescued Jack and Mary and they all sit around the dinner table like a family. Sam can feel that dream in his grasp now. Of course, that’s when things go horribly wrong. We’ve talked before about Supernatural‘s tendency to regard death as trite and reversible. It’s no different with Sam’s death here. It happens too quick, and he’s reunited with everyone really fast. No one, not Dean or Cas or Gabriel or Jack or Mary, has time to come to terms with what’s happened. Sam’s death and resurrection happens all in the last 10 minutes. This quick turn-around renders every emotion expressed by the others seemingly irrelevant. That’s the issue the show runs into when they decide to kill a brother off. But that’s also not what’s important here. This time, Sam’s death affects one important person — himself.
Compare this episode to season 11’s “Red Meat.” Similar circumstances lead to Sam’s injury and supposed death, although it happens in the beginning of the episode (much better pacing allows “Red Meat” to express the proper emotions) — Dean and Sam are rescuing two people from werewolves, Sam gets shot, and the freaked out victim finishes him off in order to save him and his girlfriend. But hey, Sam wasn’t actually dead (even though we definitely saw him stop breathing), and once Sam wakes up, saves Dean, and gets cleared by the hospital, the brothers hop in the impala and drive off into the sunset. “Red Meat” is a great episode, but it’s also only about Dean’s emotions in the aftermath of Sam’s “death.” “Beat the Devil” rightly gives those moments to Sam, and provides a more plausible resurrection, and frankly, a delicious new dynamic in the aftermath. If season 11 put Sam back in the cage with Lucifer as a way to show us what we missed between seasons five and six, “Beat the Devil” is reiterating the events of season seven. But this time, it’s no mere illusion haunting Sam’s every waking moment. Lucifer’s real, and he’ll be the devil on Sam’s shoulder from now on.
A quick note about “Unfinished Business” since I missed it after it aired. Because it was Gabriel’s episode, I wanted to share some thoughts; however, “Beat the Devil” gave me such rich material to think about, my thoughts on “Unfinished Business” aren’t substantial any longer. Here’s a few though:
- The cold open had a great spaghetti western vibe to it, though I’m not sure what that had to do with Norse mythology.
- I love that Norse mythology is actually brought into this episode. We got some of that in the season five episode “Hammer of the Gods,” but it didn’t go into depth.
- It was never really explained how Gabriel being Loki happened. To me, I just figured that because Gabriel left heaven eons ago, his persona as Loki the trickster god just became the actual god. He was the real Loki. But I like the explanation here, that as a way for Gabriel to go into hiding without actually going into hiding, Loki let him take on his face and play his part while the real Loki did whatever (that part wasn’t clear).
- I’m a little bummed the real Loki died here. Realizing Gabriel’s tricks from “Tall Tales,” “Mystery Spot,” and “Changing Channels” were not the actual doings of Loki made him all the more sinister.
- The whole Dean ditching Sam to protect him thing feels random. It’s also the reason Dean took Arthur with him the first go into Apocalypse World, but it feels like it’s been awhile since we had Overprotective Big Brother Dean. Of course, Dean’s proven right a week later.
- What was the point of giving Kevin back to us if just to kill him off?
Stray Thoughts on “Beat the Devil”
- What was up with the weird sexual tension this episode? Part of the pacing problem started with Gabriel and Rowena awkwardly eyeing each other. Too much time was spent on that. And then the thing with Cas and Gabriel as they landed in Apocalypse World. Hello subtext?
- Odd camera angles abound this episode. The cave scene was super disorienting and not well executed. The editing seemed off, too. Dean’s reaction to the appearance of the vampires was really slow. Also, why does it take forever for Cas and Gabriel to join the fight? Except for Sam’s death, I wasn’t sure what was happening. And didn’t that girl’s friend die?
- The two random people they stop to save — seemed pointless, in the long run.
- The vampires looked like actual vampires! Enjoyed this bit of world building.
- Jack’s reaction to Sam’s death was endearing and a great callback to the two’s friendship earlier this season.
- As much as I love the character stuff this episode, the odd pacing really messes up a great opportunity to spend time on Sam and Lucifer’s walk to Dayton. As much as I’ve gone on in this post about this chance for Sam to actually confront the events of season five properly, it could all still be glossed over in the two final episodes. But man, what a set up.
- The confrontation we do get between Sam and Lucifer is magnificent. The scene alone gave some life and energy to Sam I feel like we haven’t had in awhile, and it brought me back to the angry and aggressive Sam of seasons four and five.
- “All I’m asking is you acknowledge the truth. That I was the one who brought you back to life. And I was the one who lifted you from the darkness and into the light.”
- “Hello, son.”