Regular readers will know I always do a little happy dance when writer Robert Berens’ name appears in the opening titles of a Supernatural episode, and “The Vessel” proved once again that his work is simply a cut above. Weaving together threads and themes from past stories such as the Men and Women of Letters, the Nazi-run Thule Society, and various instances of time travel, this week’s episode was Raiders of the Lost Ark meets Das Boot. But, y’know, with angels and demons.
Having vowed to finish Amara on his brother’s behalf, Sam embarked on some serious research and found that an artifact known as The Hand of God had been stolen from the Thule Society by a French Woman of Letters named Delphine, but lost on the ocean bed when the submarine carrying her to the US was sunk by the Nazis. Believing this object to contain the power of God, Sam and Dean asked Castiel to help them travel back in time to retrieve it from the doomed sub, little suspecting that their angelic pal was actually The Devil in disguise. Literally.
Dean, unwilling to risk Sam’s safety, insisted Castiel take him alone, clearly feeling the need to perform some kind of penance for failing to end The Darkness when he had the chance. Sam was extremely unhappy about this, but conceded on the proviso that Cas would stay by Dean’s side at all times. Oh, my heart!
Once aboard the sub, Dean was quickly discovered, but managed to convince the crew and Delphine that he was indeed from the future and on a mission to recover The Hand of God, which – as it turned out – was a piece of the Ark of the Covenant. Meanwhile, Casifer (the fandom seems to have gone with this portmanteau, although, for the record, I prefer Lustiel) returned to the bunker and to Sam, having been unable to board the sub due to some heavy-duty angel warding. Casifer went through the motions of helping Sam find a way to bring Dean back, all the while knowing he could do it with a pretty simple spell. Sam offered to help the angel power up by having a cheeky feel of his soul, but his earnest little puppy face was too much for Casifer, who revealed his true identity to the horrified Winchester, and then got elbow deep in his spirit anyway, just for kicks. However, Sam’s mojo-juice gave Cas the boost he needed to gain mastery over his demonic squatter for long enough to stop Luci killing Sam, and zap onto the USS Bluefin to collect Dean.
Delphine, it transpired, was carrying the final ward etched into her skin and bonded to her blood, and in order for Dean to escape, he would have to kill her. Dean was hesitant, so Delphine took matters into her own hands and went supernova with The Hand, sacrificing herself as well as the lives of the crew sworn to protect her, and blew a hole the German warship in the process. Lucifer returned Dean to the bunker where he planned to kill both brothers, but Sam managed to draw a sigil in his blood and banish his former bunk buddy just in time. To top it all, the fragment of the Ark turned out to be useless, its magic all used up by Delphine’s stunt.
The episode concluded with Sam and Dean regrouping and deciding to hunt Lucifer and save Cas. Sam told his heartbroken brother that Cas was a willing vessel, but Dean refused to believe it. Clearly traumatised by his experience on the sub, he explained how he’d merely been a witness to the disaster, and even shed a tear in a scene reminiscent of the time he first spoke about his time in Hell to Sam. Sam cradling his cut hand provided another visual throwback, recalling the period after The Cage, and the way he would press the wound on his palm to keep The Devil out of his head.
While Sam’s extremely inspired idea ultimately failed, this rather filmic episode revealed a lot about the state of play, and the mentality of the various players. Lucifer was unmasked and we learnt, via a broken and humiliated Crowley, that he’s not strong enough to take Amara down alone. Sam and Dean are shaken, but their bond is stronger than ever, and they are determined to see this thing through. However, Castiel’s ill-advised decision will clearly be a source of much angst to Dean, who will see it as a betrayal. We also know that even in his absence, God’s power can theoretically be harnessed and used as a weapon.
So with the Winchesters now facing both Amara and Lucifer, and with no angelic assistance on hand, it seems they are going to have to rely on each other like never before. Perhaps it will be a case of better the devil you know as they are forced to team up with Crowley or even Luci for the sake of saving the world, or maybe they will receive divine intervention of a different kind…
Final Grade: B+
+ This episode was ambitious, both in terms of narrative scope and stylistically. The sweeping shots of open water and the claustrophobic settings of the bunker and the submarine gave this a truly unique and cinematic feel.
+ Berens always gives us a layered and nuanced script. He litters his episodes with interesting references, and “The Vessel” was no exception. The multiple meanings of the title, which could be a boat, an ark or box containing a relic, or a human host for a supernatural entity, really underscore the way in which he effortlessly bakes both minutiae and integral themes into each of his confections. I especially loved the historical context given to the female workforce during WWII, or “Rosies” as they were known, as well as all the little references to film, pop culture, and literature. I know my bias is showing, but Berens is just fantastic. Great dialogue, playful, quick-witted use of Meta and nods to other works, and gripping storytelling.
+ Let’s talk about Misha Collins for a second. Every performance in this episode was standout, so credit must also go to John Badham for great direction, but Misha knocked it out of the park this week. Having taken advice from Mark Pellegrino on how to play Luci (“Everybody is a toy to him and he wants to have sex with everything”), Misha turned in a darker and more electrifying performance than I could have imagined. Bravo, sir!
– While it wasn’t quite up there with all time classic episodes for me, I’m struggling to think of a minus point this week. I guess now we’ve seen Dean rocking the sailor outfit, every episode he’s NOT wearing it will hold a vague sense of disappointment from now on!
The notion of the human vessel, and the stripping away of a person’s agency is actually the epitome of horror for me if I really think about it. I guess, because it happens so frequently on this show, it’s sometimes easy to forget how disturbing a concept it is. By having Lucifer adopt a variety of flesh suits to get close to and torment Sam, the show is reminding us of the promise made in “The End” that whatever choices Sam makes, they will always lead him back to The Devil. Considering Dean’s ties to Michael, Cain, and now Amara, it seems the brothers continue to be reluctant pawns for opposing sides of a holy war, and that the Winchesters are both ultimately fighting for control of their own joint destiny.
So what did you think? Was this episode explosive like a depth charge, or should it be consigned to a watery grave? Sound off in the comments or send us your thoughts on Twitter!