In the thirteenth episode of the second season of Supernatural, Dean and Sam are bewildered when faced with a case of a possible angel ordering people to kill people who do undeniably despicable things. Intrigued? Then it’s time for Mark to watch Supernatural.
I’m sure my life would be easier if I believed in God.
I’m not about to say that life as a non-believer is decidedly more difficult than that of a believer. There’s too much here at stake to claim anything like that. It would be reductive. It would ignore religious repression or historical examples of cultural assimilation. It simply wouldn’t be true living in a place where I live. But I know that I have many friends whose belief â€“ in God or a god or gods â€“ gives them a certain sense of comfort that I have never known. I was drawn to the existentialists my senior year of high school, not because I felt that they were logically correct or theoretically sound, but because I felt an affinity towards the emotional core of the idea. It wasn’t hard to make the intuitive leap towards cosmic absurdity when no one in my life at the time seemed to care for me. It wasn’t hard to believe that the universe didn’t care about me. And that’s something that’s been at the center of my own moral fabric for a while now because I’ve been convinced that no one is going to look out for me better than myself.
I can’t say I’m as cynical as I was a decade ago. I have a beautiful boyfriend who I can unequivocally trust and depend on. I have a very small but intense circle of friends who I believe in. I’m pursuing my dream in life, and I’ve never been closer to completing it. But I still feel and live in a world full of a cosmic loneliness. I’ve never felt a rush of peace and grace. I’ve never felt like some higher power was looking down on me and looking out for me. If anything, I felt the opposite: an extreme indifference. A void. A lack of anything certain. That is what makes this hard. I don’t feel comforted by this thought. I don’t feel secure in the thought that I don’t believe in God. I am instead filled with an existential dread that permeates my conscious mind. At any point, it could all fall apart, and the universe would not care.
It’s not difficult for me to see the same desperate hope in Sam Winchester in “Houses of the Holy.” What started off as a silly argument between Dean and Sam in the early parts of this episode morphs into an emotionally heavy meditation on a lot of what I’ve brought up prior to this. Does the universe care what Dean and Sam are doing? Is there a being out there who is invested in the Winchesters ridding the world of evil? And if so, how do the Winchesters deal with the undeniable fact that they have never felt like the world is less evil because of what they’ve done? I don’t think Dean or Sam feel like what they’re doing is pointless, but is there ever an endgame? Or do they just kill what they can and hope for the best?
Admittedly, I didn’t think “Houses of the Holy” started off as strongly as it ended. Initially, I thought it was strange that someone like Dean would be so resolutely certain that some supernatural being did not exist. Likeâ€¦how do you just decide vampires and werewolves and ghosts and spirits and demons are real, but angels aren’t? And even when Sam called Dean out on this, we’re given a fairly standard response from Dean: It’s about not relying on faith. It’s a common argument I’ve heard from countless atheists, you know? Hell, I’m certain I’ve said something similar to this at least once in the last eleven years. But Dean is speaking about this from the perspective of a hunter. He’s been surrounded with lore, myths, tall tales, and urban legends his whole life, and he’s always had to pick out what’s real and what’s a story. That’s part of the job! He can’t always accept everything as real because his life (or the life of someone else) is at stake. Every avenue can’t be pursued at once. So it makes sense that he’d believe in the concrete, that he would rely on his senses in order to make decisions.
Of course, there’s something even more unsettling at work here, and it’s not until Sam reveals that he’s been praying for a while that we get a better sense of the emotional depth of Sam. Sam wants to believe in some sort of God because it would give his life an order or a purpose outside of what was right in front of him. It would make him feel less alone. And I didn’t interpret this as him devaluing Dean’s contribution; Sam even confirms that he’s glad that Dean is looking out for him. But it would mean the world to him if he knew that there was something or someone else who was ready to catch him if he fell. It’s impossible to ignore how this season’s arc â€“ about Sam’s destiny â€“ plays into this. If Sam is destined to turn evil at some point, wouldn’t it be comfortable to know that a God was up there, rooting for you?
This is directly contrasted with Dean’s view of the world, and you can’t ignore that a guy who devoted his life to hunting would be certain that there is “just chaos and violence, random unpredictable evil, that comes outta nowhere, rips you to shreds.” I admit that I relate to Dean more in this instance than I do with Sam. It’s sad to say it, but I’ve suffered through most of my life, and most of the terrible things that happened to me were at the hand of forces that I could not control. I could not stop the wave of random, unpredictable evil done to me, and it’s probably why I’ve drifted so far away from being religious. I can’t justify it. I can’t figure out a way to rectify a world where the abuse and terror I experienced fits in with some divine plan. (And just because it’s happened before on Mark Reads, this is not an invitation for you to rectify this or justify this. Thanks.)
It’s all a confusing thing to go through, and it’s one of the most redeeming things about “Houses of the Holy.” The writers treat this journey for both brothers with respect to their own experiences and for a respect for people in both worlds, those who believe and those who don’t. Plus, THE MYSTERY IS SO GOOD. I didn’t even figure this shit out until Father Gregory was introduced! And even then, the Winchesters still faced a terrible problem: Do you stop a vengeful spirit who is compelling people who do undeniable evil?
Actually, yes. YES. YOU DO. I’m so pleased that the writers definitively said, “HEY DON’T DO THIS. IT’S SO FUCKED UP.” Because this was about misguided vengeance, not justice. For example, what happens to the victim in the second case? No one would have ever found out that that poor thirteen-year-old girl was going to meet up with an adult. Who helps her? Who gives her justice or helps her realize the ramifications of what might have happened? If Dean and Sam wouldn’t have gotten involved, would anyone have even found the dead bodies in Carl Gully’s house? This method provides no closure or justice for the victims, potential or real. It’s vengeance, and it’s not holy at all. And holy shit, that scene where Sam and Father Reynolds is just TOO MUCH. It’s so heartbreaking! Father Gregory believed he was a literal angel, y’all.
So yeah. This was a GREAT episode, and a total surprise. Also, if you like the themes brought up in this episode, I’d suggest the totally underrated flick Frailty. This kind of reminded me of it for reasons. (Heads up, though: It frankly deals with child abuse, so a trigger warning is needed.)
The video commission for “Houses of the Holy” can be downloaded right here for just $0.99.
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