Title: When Miracles Don't Happen
I totally jumped at the chance to sign up for this essay for spn_heavymeta. I mean, my favorite character, Dean, in what is probably my favorite episode, "Faith"? But of course.
For the exact same reason, though, I kept not getting around to actually doing it. It seemed so big. So important. Like I had to do it perfectly right, be totally smart and definitive.
Now we're down to the wire and spn_heavymeta wants to have something posted. So here goes. I watched the episode again. And thought. And rewatched parts of it. And thought. And rewatched. Even going over the final scene at least a dozen times in a row, it still felt like I was only just beginning to see what was there, like it was only just opening up to me and only just starting to make sense. Even though I'm flailing around going "But! Dean's face! That's the best explanation there is!" I'll try to turn the six pages of ramblings in my notebook into a semi-coherent essay. This is really only my opinion, though, and I'm probably leaving all kinds of things out.
"Faith" was written by Sera Gamble and Raelle Tucker, the only women whose names appear more than once or twice in the writing/directing/producing credits on the DVD set. As far as I can tell, that makes them the main female influences among the creative powers that be of SPN. They also wrote "Dead In The Water," "Nightmare," and "Salvation," so they have a good track record on the show. Their episodes are heavy on family dynamics, emotion, and moral dilemmas. They say on the making-of featurette on the DVDs that they didn't expect to be allowed to tell the sort of story they do in "Faith."
"Faith" is one of the episodes where the supernatural creature is controlled by a human being, adding another level of intensity to the plot. The true enemy in this episode is not the Reaper at all, but the emotions that drive people to resort to such things. Desperation, fear, greed, arrogance, hatred, love, righteousness, hope... And the natural forces that are beyond human control at all, time, death, disease... maybe God.
This is the kind of thing that pushes all my "ohhh, deep storytelling" buttons.
But right. Back to Dean. This is definitely an episode that focuses on Dean.
We start in an unconventional-for-the-show opening scene at the climax of a hunt, with Dean and Sam bursting into a house to rescue two kids and zap some monster. After sending Sam off to take the kids outside, Dean goes after the monster and, in the basement of the dilapidated building, ends up in a puddle of water as the monster approaches. He shocks it with the tazer, and gets electrocuted himself, passing out.
I don't think Dean quite realized, here, that the monster had already stepped in the water with him and that he was going to shock himself as well as it, but I also don't think that he would have necessarily changed his action if he did know. The thing was close enough to him that he didn't really have a chance to get out of the way; it was shoot or be attacked. So he did what he always does: he fried the evil sucker.
Then we cut to a hospital, where Sam and the audience learn that Dean's heart was damaged by the electricity and that he only has a few weeks to live. This horrifies and saddens us all, both Sam and the fans. Sam goes in to talk to Dean.
Dean, looking pale and sickly, is lying in the hospital bed watching TV. He tries to joke and says it's alright and is definitely attempting to make Sam feel better. I actually do believe that Dean's alright with dying. Not happy about it, no, but resigned to it. Not frightened into fits or incredibly sad or anything. He knew this would happen eventually. That's the kind of life he leads and that's the price he's willing to pay. This is sooner than he had expected or hoped, but...
I actually want to quote from ElfQuest here, book 4, and this is from memory so it may be a word or two off. "The wolf fights to survive. But death, when it comes, is neither friend nor enemy - it is." And I think that's how it is for Dean, too. He's dying, but that's the way things work. He's dying, but he's dying from an injury sustained while doing his job, while fighting evil and rescuing people, rescuing those two kids. He'd rather it be that than just some disease or something random.
But he's not calm about all of it. It's a slow death - he's not getting better, no way no how, he's over and done for, but he still has to sit there and wait for a few weeks. That sucks, and that part, it gets to him. Too much time to think, nothing to do. He'd rather go quick.
And watching Sam deal with it... Oh, that's the worst. Knowing that he's leaving Sam behind, alone, mourning, unprotected. Knowing that he hasn't found Dad yet, all this unfinished family business. Dean puts so much energy here into trying to help Sam be fine with the situation as much as possible. He's more worried about Sam than himself.
But Dean doesn't call Dad. Sam does, but not Dean. I'm not entirely sure why. I think it has something to do with not wanting to admit a failure to his father, but more just because he's helpless. If he called Dad, it wouldn't do any good. It wouldn't change anything. There's nothing to say, not because there aren't words he wants to get out or to hear, but because none of those words would have a real effect on anything. Although maybe he would have called John eventually, given more time to wait for death.
Dean doesn't want to die in the hospital, so he checks out and goes back to Sam. Sam has found what he thinks may be a cure, and Dean goes for it. He doesn't expect it to work, but he's willing to try. Then he finds out what Sam has in mind, and the real theme kicks in.
Sam takes them to a faith healer, a man who lays on hands and prays. Now, the fact of Dean's atheism has come up before, in "Hookman," but we don't get much more than a passing glance at it there. Here, we peer into all its nooks and crannies.
Dean complains about the faith healer, and Sam says that he's surprised. He'd think, with everything they know about, that Dean would believe in good and in God. Dean only believes in what he has proof for, what he's actually experienced. He says, "I've seen what evil does to good people."
It's the age-old question. If God exists, and God is good and all-powerful, then why is there suffering and evil in the world? Suffering and evil exist, that much is evident. A good and omnipotent God wouldn't allow them, that is the assumption. So the two possibilities are a) God doesn't exist, or b) God is either not good or not potent. And Dean can't believe in b, so he goes for a.
Dean has fought demons, and there was never an angel that came to aid him. Either they don't intervene, or they don't exist. And if they don't intervene, the fuckers might as well not exist, right?
Because it's just not fair to allow evil to happen to good people. But people, oh. He believes there are good people. And in a world with so much arrayed against people, and nothing out there to help them, it may seem bleak, but it makes his duty all the more important, his duty to help and protect. Because nothing else will do it, and he, we, are the only spark in the dark.
Dean stands for fairness, and he won't allow the innocent to suffer.
Of course, Dean also stands for flirting with pretty women even when he's dying. So they meet Layla for the first time, and she says "maybe God moves in mysterious ways."
Maybe. So Sam takes Dean inside and seats them in the front of the tent, and out comes Roy Le Grange, the blind faith healer. He says he can see into people's hearts, and Dean says, or their wallets. He thinks Roy is just out to make money for himself. Roy hears it, and calls Dean up on the stage. Dean reluctantly goes, as Sam pushes him.
Roy calls on the assembled people to pray with him, and arms raised, they do. Roy lays his hand on Dean's head (remember that image, and all the echoes it gives you) and Dean stumbles, sinks down, falls to the ground. But looks much healthier. Then, as Sam rushes to him, he sees.... something. Something that makes him think there's an even worse aspect to all this than just greed.
Seeing is believing.
Dean is checked out by a doctor, who says his heart is fine. Then she makes an off-handed comment about another young man, healthy, fit, who just dropped dead of a heart attack all of a sudden. Dean and Sam argue a bit, Sam says nothing could be going on, he would have seen it too, do they really have to look this gift horse in the mouth? But Dean can't accept it. He has to know the truth.
Sam goes off to investigate this guy's death, and Dean goes to talk to Roy. He learns of Roy's cancer that caused his blindness, put him in a coma, and his wife Sue Ann prayed and prayed. Then, miraculously, Roy awoke and was healed, Lazarus from the dead. Since then, he's been able to heal others.
Dean, he may not like Roy, he may not trust Roy, but he still asks why Roy picked him.
And here's where one of the other main themes of the episode really kicks in: Dean's lack of self-esteem. His doubt.
Roy says he looked into Dean's heart and he stood out from all the rest. He saw a young man with a purpose, a job to do, one that isn't finished. Dean.... that hits him. He gets this look, like oh, he wants to believe that, to believe the word of anyone, even some guy he distrusts, that he's important, worthwhile, that he's got this thing to do.
Because for Dean, he's only worthwhile if he's useful. He's got survivor guilt, he's got protector guilt, and abandonment issues. Ever since he was four, his mother dead, his father become his drill sargeant, and himself become his brother's mommy, all he's done since then is protect Sam, work to appease Dad in everything, help other people, save them, even when so many of them don't know he's doing it.
Even some con man's recognition that this is what he does, and that he does it well, and that it's important, that he's important, even that is almost more than other people give him. Almost more than the people he loves give him. He pours and he pours and he pours it out, and what do they give back?
Dean doesn't believe in God. Dean doesn't believe in himself. No matter what he does, it's never enough, and the bad things happen to good people, and the bad things happen to him.
And one of the bad things happening, Dean learns, is that Layla has a inoperable brain tumor and less than six months to live. She's been coming to Roy, her mother's been bringing her to Roy, hoping she'll be healed. Layla and her mother bump into Dean on the porch, and Layla's mother is so mad at Dean. He's the unbeliever, the outsider, and yet he got healed, and her precious and good daughter is dying. Why do you deserve to live more than my daughter, she asks Dean. Layla's calmer, she's not angry, she doesn't like her mother making a fuss of it, but as they walk away, you can just see Dean thinking that no, he agrees, he doesn't deserve to live more than Layla does.
And suddenly Layla's not just a pretty woman, she's a person in danger, but there's nothing Dean can do to help her. He's useless.
Dean then goes back to the motel and Sam tells him about the guy who died, and how he said he was being chased by something and how the clock stopped and how it happened at the exact moment that Dean was healed. Dean gets really angry. He says Sam shouldn't have brought him there. Sam apologizes, but he doesn't quite see, Dean's not, he's not mad at Sam. He's mad at himself. "That guy died because of me?" Dean just can't stand that. That's guilt. No one else should die to save him. It isn't the right way around.
But Dean's also mad at Roy, once they decide Roy is doing it all by controlling the Reaper.
"The guy's playing God. Deciding who lives and who dies. That makes him a monster in my book." Dean says that there's only one thing to do: kill Roy.
The phrase "playing God" is interesting. Is that what God does? Decide who lives and who dies? Does that make God a monster?
The upshot of it, though, is that by claiming these powers over life and death, powers outside the human sphere, Roy has moved outside the pale and become killable in Dean's estimation. Sam, however, insists that he's still a person and that they cannot kill him, that would make them as bad as he is. Dean eventually agrees, not because it seems he's won over to agreeing, but just to make Sam happy. They go back to Roy's to find the spellbook in order to break his hold on the Reaper.
Sam finds the book, and newspaper clippings about an openly gay teacher (the man who died when Dean was healed) and an abortion rights activist (who just died at the other healing the boys missed) and the protester who's been calling Roy a fraud. Sam tells Dean, on the phone, that he has to stop Roy from healing anyone. Dean says he will.
That's when Roy calls Layla up to the stage.
Moral dilemma: Let Layla die from cancer sometime in the next few months? Or save her and let the protestor dude die now from Reaper? Who is more worthy? Can lives be measured like that? What will Dean do when he can't save everyone?
He tries to convince Layla to not do it, but since he can't/won't explain anything to her, she goes up there. Roy is all set to do his thing.
And Dean does his thing, too. He saves the guy from being killed by the supernatural being. He may want to save Layla, but he can't just sit by and let something like this happen, when stopping things like this is his identity. He yells fire, and everyone evacuates the tent. (When he can't set a fire he just pretends there's one.)
It turns out that stopping Roy doesn't stop the Reaper, and the boys realize it's actually being controlled by Sue Ann, Roy's wife. She tells Dean to get away and stay away, and the police escort him out. He is so pissed when he looks at Sue Ann here, face hard as stone. He hates her for what she's doing.
Layla comes up and asks Dean why he did it, and again he can't bring himself to actually explain (don't tell people about the supernatural unless you absolutely have to), just tells her that this thing with Roy isn't the answer. Layla wishes him luck and walks away. Dean says after her, "Same to you. You deserve it a lot more than me." (Everyone deserves it a lot more than me.)
That's the point where I actually literally yelled out loud at Dean's paused face on my monitor, my hands outstretched in pleading, "Dean! Why do you have no self-esteem!"
If you can't see where this is going...
But first, before that, it goes back to the motel. Sam and Dean are discussing Sue Ann and the stuff she did to bind the Reaper. Sam asks why anyone would do that. Dean gives him this look, duh, that's obvious, how can you not know. "Desperate." And oh yes, Dean does understand that, Dean knows what it's like to be willing to do basically anything for the people you love. He may hate Sue Ann and what she's doing, but he completely understands why.
Or, he understands why she started. She bound the Reaper to keep death from taking her husband. Crossed all sorts of lines to save him. Just what Dean would do.
"But Roy's alive. Why's she still using the spell?" In Dean's mind, now the need is gone, the excuse is gone, and anything after that, all this healing of some and killing of others, is unneccessary, wrong, incomprehensible. And Dean feels bad for Roy, ignorantly believing that God is granting him miracles, unaware of his wife's deception and sin, her betrayal.
The parallel, of course, the one Dean just doesn't see when he says things like "May God save us from half the people who think they're doing God's work" is that Dean and Sue Ann do the same thing for the same reason, holy crusaders both of them. Sue Ann destroys evil and immorality, to protect the righteous and innocent, to save people. Dean destroys evil and immorality, to protect the righteous and innocent, to save people. They just disagree on what evil is.
Does Sue Ann have a right to decide who/what lives and dies? Does Dean? Are they not both priviledging their own judgement and playing God? Are we not all doing so? Sam said that killing Roy (when they thought he was doing it) would make them just like him, but they already are. They are.
The boys go back to, again, stop Layla from being healed.
This time, while Sam is locked in the cellar, Sue Ann sends the Reaper after Dean. Roy puts his hand on Layla up on the stage in the tent, and out in the parking lot the Reaper puts its hand on Dean. And Dean lets it.
Because while he won't let one person die to save another he'll let himself die to save someone else. And Layla, as he's said, deserves it more than he does.
John and Sam can go kamikaze out of anger and pain and a desire for revenge. They'd die to kill, go down so long as they take something else with them.
Dean will die to renew, lay himself down for you. Greater love hath no man. Let not this cup pass from him, but let him drink deep. (His mother's done it, too.) It's all about self-sacrifice.
But Sam stops it and the Reaper kills Sue Ann and leaves. Dean does not die.
They return to their motel and are later packing up to leave. It's the triumphant climax, right? The danger is gone. The evil was vanquished. They won. Didn't they?
Or not. Dean is unsatisfied. See, he didn't manage to save Layla. She's still going to die. Dean's still helpless against it, against cancer and against old age and against death itself, which was only chased off for a bit. Dean's still powerless and useless and worthless and he's fretting. He's failed. He'll never beat this stuff.
Then - I seriously love this scene - Layla shows up. And I seriously love, too, that it's so un-sexual, that they talk about ideas and feelings and stuff just as two people. Oh, Dean.
Layla mentions that she went back to Roy. He laid his hands on her, and nothing happened. Dean says he's sorry. He means it more literally than she knows. He says, when she mentions that Sue Ann is dead, that Roy's a good man who didn't deserve any of this. "It must be rough. To believe in something so much, and have it disappoint you like that."
What disappointed you so much that you don't want to believe, Dean? Was it God? Life? Your family? Or are you just worried that you're such a disappointment to someone such as your father? (I, personally, think the reason Dean doesn't believe in God is that he's too busy worshipping Daddy to have room for another deity.) If he doesn't open himself up (no chick flick moments) he can't be hurt, like when he hits on women in the ways designed to drive them away and make sure he doesn't risk intimacy. Fuck it, Dean's not giving God any (more) chances to break his heart, considering all God hasn't done for him so far.
Layla, though, is okay with not being healed. She has real faith (unlike her mother). "If you're gonna have faith, you can't just have it when the miracles happen. You have to have it when they don't."
She then places her hand on Dean's forehead (a visual parallel of both the Reaper's killing gesture and Roy's healing touch). Benediction. Absolution. A touch and that's the true healing moment? The moment that shifts and changes him more than up on Roy's stage?
She says goodbye and starts to leave.
Dean gets in one last comment. "Uh, you know, I’m not much of the praying type. But I’m gonna pray for you."
She takes it on face value: say prayers and you'll be in them.
I think it's not quite that. It's more like, pray FOR you, get the glass of water FOR you, this gift is FOR you. I'm doing it for you. Dean didn't save her. Dean can't do anything real for her, except this one last gift: to tell her that he'll pray. He doesn't believe it will have an effect on anything, no efficacy to the prayer, but it means he's doing something, giving something, at least. He's slightly, slightly, a hair less useless, and therefore a hair less worthless.
"That's a miracle right there." Layla leaves, and we fade out and end episode on Dean's face.
I think Dean would love a miracle. He'd love it. But he still can't believe God would go to that sort of effort for him. And what's more, why this miracle? Why not give him any of the things he wants? And really, what's so good about all those people dying just to get Dean to end up praying? Why not save someone else? Dean believes in saving people.
I'm totally half-asleep here, so that last part may be fairly incoherent. I can't really think of a way to wrap this up. The deadline is in 20 minutes. Night, all.
Episode transcript: http://supernatural.oscillating.net/scripts/transcripts/supernatural-112.htm
Episode credits: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0713614/