12:45 pm EST, December 13, 2018

‘Supernatural’ season 14: How ‘Byzantium’ proved that Jack’s resurrection wasn’t a regression

Supernatural has produced an instant classic in “Byzantium,” despite the death of a fan-favorite character. Here’s how.

The events of Supernatural’s recent episode “Byzantium” could, on paper, feel like a page out of any book from the show’s large library of tales. A central character dies, and one of the other central characters makes a deal to bring him back to life. Round and round and round we go.

Except, for any number of reasons, it’s not like that at all. Not really.

Sure, the cycle of sacrifice and rebirth never stops on Supernatural. Which is fine. It’s a huge part of the show’s legacy. Death, here, is rarely about permanence — it’s about change and consequence — but everything about the way that “Byzantium” handled the death of Jack Kline and the actions and reactions from Sam, Dean and Castiel in the wake of his passing was a positive confirmation that some of the characters’ most famous patterns of problematic behavior have been broken.

These developments have been brewing for a while, but I believe that Supernatural needed to throw this level of trauma at Team Free Will and force them to respond to it in order to prove just how far they’ve come. One of the best ways to track change is to make people handle a circumstance that you suspect they once would have handled very differently, and that is exactly what we saw here.

In the preceding episode “Unhuman Nature,” the Team Free Will track was entirely about trying to heal Jack and, when unable to, trying to help him make the most of his short life.

“Byzantium,” written by Meredith Glynn, continued Jack’s story to its (first) conclusion — he dies semi-peacefully in his bed before the title card flashes, and from there on out, the episode revolves entirely around grieving him and ultimately, finding a way to recover him.

Look, we were all fairly sure it was going to happen. We were warned, and I mean, are you really even a member of the Winchester family if you haven’t died and come back at least once? This is really just akin to Jack having the training wheels taken off his bike, when you think about it. It’s a total Bar Mitzvah.

However, I don’t think anyone was truly braced for the impact of Jack’s first death until we saw how it played out for Team Free Will during this episode. What actually happens on this show is often less important than how it happens, and what the events of “Byzantium” cemented for the show moving forward is so much more than the sum of its excellent parts, in so many ways, for every character.

“Byzantium” is Supernatural at its very finest — a deep dive into its core characters’ hearts and souls, which is where this show should always, honestly, live. And the fact that the show and the actors can wring this wealth of emotion with a character like Jack at the squishy center — indeed the fact that Jack Worked Conceptually at all — is a credit to the incredible achievements on the part of Andrew Dabb, Alexander Calvert, and the whole cast and crew.

“Then it’s gonna be an adventure…”

First and foremost, we need to talk about why the powerful journey of an episode like “Byzantium” was even plausible. We need to talk about Jack. And to talk about Jack, we need to talk about Alexander Calvert, the actor who brings the Winchesters’ “wee nephilim” to life.

Thank Christ they found this kid. I’ve been saying this since Calvert’s first episode, and I feel like I say it so often that I must sound like a broken record, but Jesus. He really is the golden ticket.

None of this would have worked if Calvert couldn’t carry the timeless, ageless innocence that makes Jack so irresistible. This could have gone wrong so easily. Jack could have come across childish or cheesy, or he could have seemed corruptible, changing the stakes of his story almost immediately.

But Supernatural managed to cast and craft the character of Jack in such a charming way that we were all helpless to defend ourselves – and so were Sam and Dean, who finally understood what Castiel had realized about Jack while the baby was still in utero. I truly can’t remember any character ever making themselves so instantly unconditionally loved: we are all a bunch of Rosa Diazes to Jack’s Arlo the Puppy, and Team Free Will most of all.

Consider how hard it must have been to find the story’s ideal salesperson in Alexander Calvert, and trust that he could find and hit these pitch-perfect notes in Jack week after week, a newcomer holding his own against three beloved, hardened and tenured actors, the keepers of characters who mean the world to a die-hard audience often unwelcome to change.

If you’re reading this, you’ve watched the past two seasons, so you know how this all played out. But it really must be hammered home, at this point, just how risky it was to gamble the audience’s acceptance of this idea — of the show’s three adult male leads adopting a child as the communal driving force that they’re all united around. Care about him, Supernatural begged us every step of the way. Love him. Look, they’re going to love him — you need to love him too, or this isn’t going to work.

This could have flopped so badly, you guys. It could have crashed and burned and been really embarrassing for everyone involved.

But it didn’t. It was amazing. Calvert’s performance, Jack’s presence, seeing the boys come to terms with all the joys and burdens of fatherhood – these have become some of the most salient aspects of the show, especially after their foster child was left fragile after his grace was stolen.

While Jack doesn’t harbor any fundamental egotism about being forced into humanity, he did struggle with resentment and self-worth when feeling helpless to the cause without his huge amounts of cosmic power, and he had to re-learn his place in the world. But more importantly, he started to get sick — his graceless body wasn’t able to maintain itself and like many terminal illnesses, his deterioration happened slowly then all at once.

Jack’s deathbed scene at the top of the episode was raggedly moving without being melodramatic. It touches on classic tropes about grief — the dying comforting those he’s leaving behind — without feeling overplayed, and his optimistic approach to life and death perfectly encapsulates why his fathers are so fucked up about it.

So when his final words to Sam, who admits that he doesn’t know what’s in store for Jack’s afterlife, literally invoke Peter Pan — the boy who never grew up — Sam’s broken reactionary sob makes every bit of sense. Everything about why Jack matters, about how thoroughly he’s stolen their hearts and ours, and why his presence in the guys’ lives is powerful enough to dictate this type of story for Supernatural, is summed up here.

Jack is, quite simply, the best. Jack’s real superpower is his capacity to make everyone around him into the best versions of themselves, and that is why he was sent to them. That is what he offers, that is why he exist. This is why his untimely death is so desperately unjust.

And so Jack’s death was in and of itself the ultimate proof of life for the character. The way that this episode lands is empirical evidence that the decision to create and continue to include Jack at the heart of the Supernatural was the best choice the show could have possibly made.

“Hey, Mom, it’s me. Sorry to lay this on your voicemail, but…”

As soon as Dean pulled out his phone and called Mary, I was so relieved. Not only does Dean’s voice message serve as the audio track over a passage-of-time montage of the other guys coming to terms in their own ways — over the space of the day, we see Castiel reflecting on his promise to Kelly, Sam packing up and leaving the Bunker, totally uncommunicative — it also allows us to hear Dean being open about his heartache with the one person he was always able to truly be emotionally available to, the one person he’s outright ever told he loves in as many words, and seeking comfort in her.

But honestly, even more significant than Dean’s chance to verbalize and process his feelings — he’s going to get a lot more chances this episode — is the inclusion of Mary in Jack’s death. The show remembers that Mary has spent more time together one-on-one with Jack than pretty much anyone else, when they were trapped in Apocalypse World together. What they shared in those months made them closer than close, Jack is very much one of her boys as well.

If Supernatural was the real world and these characters were a real family, not actors factored in to appear on a certain schedule, Mary would have been called the minute Jack collapsed, and she would have made her way there by the time he was in the hospital, and she would have been at his sickbed.

In the actual real world where we live, Samantha Smith may not have been contracted for this episode, but despite the lack of her physical presence, the show made sure to honor that relationship between Mary and Jack at the time of his death.

It sounds so simple, and it sounds so crucial, but it’s absolutely something that this show and many others could have easily chosen not to make time for onscreen without it being considered to be a particularly big deal. (I’m still waiting to find out if Claire was ever told about Castiel’s death in season 12.)

The fact that this call was used in this way is a sign of the show’s dedication to the relationships within the wider Winchester family, and how constant and present they are.

As mentioned, much of “Byzantium” highlighted the change and growth of the series since its days of transience and isolation, and the fact that in the year of our Lord 2018, Dean Winchester can call his mother to share his grief about a mutual loved one is just massive.

“Tell me you didn’t make a deal!”
“A deal? What? No… I was trying to build a pyre.”

After the boys face the reality of Jack’s death, Sam strides off alone, and while Dean was extremely compassionate about giving him room to process, this quickly turns to Sam needing space to isolating himself and communicating nothing, leaving the Bunker with a bag of gear, deep inside his own head.

When Cas and Dean find him, curled up next to the Impala along a wooded road, they discover that he’d taken upon himself to try and build Jack’s funeral pyre — but Dean was fearful that his brother had taken a much more dire course of action.

Ooooof. There’s so much here, and it’s all so deeply perceptive.

Let’s start with Sam, and what he was actually doing. He’s in rough shape — I mean, they all are, but Dean’s impressively steady about the whole situation — perhaps understandable, after he followed Jack’s lead about his lifespan last week — and while Cas is also heartbroken, Sam is clearly unstable — a fact which Dean points out while tracking him down.

In framing this, Supernatural firstly shows how Sam needed to handle his feelings with an aggressive physical outlet — his rage-chopping breaks the ax handle after only two logs. We’ve seen Dean punch plenty of walls in his day, but never forget that Sam is also someone with seriously deep and dangerous anger issues.

I always think that part of the reason he has a tendency to repress so wholly is to keep himself contained, because he is brutal when he wants to be — or when he can’t help himself. He’s a bottled-up, explosive kind of guy, and so the fact that he silently took himself out to expend bellicose energy in this constructive way is just so in character that it hurts.

Because secondly, Sam is also someone who cannot live with any circumstance that he’s unhappy about unless he exhausts himself proving that he’s taken action against it in whatever way possible, and he internalizes any defeat as a sign of his own personal failure. Sam taking out his feelings on a couple of tree is actually really pertinent, because it ties his helpless aggression to his coping-through-proactivity.

So yes, Sam was out there by himself trying to do the little that he could to contribute to Jack in some way. What he wasn’t doing was making a demon deal to raise Jack from the dead.

The fact that Dean asks this, frantically scanning the ground, looking for signs of a dug-up crossroads box — is both irrational and entirely understandable, and this dual perspective is just so utterly knowing that it may as well send me to the morgue alongside Jack.

Because on the one hand — of course Sam didn’t. Everything about that journey, for all they’ve overcome — it’s so clear that they would just never do that now. That desperate life-for-life trading is gone — that cycle is broken, the slate is clean. The Winchesters still tote around a ton of baggage, but this tendency is, at least, is — I believe — a thing of the past.

They are so far beyond this, and though such a loss might crush them, they’re hanging on to what they do still have. They’re hanging on for themselves and for each other, because of course, none of them are alone any more.

There’s no more one-and-onlys — a loss can be weathered, is being weathered, by a safety net of loved ones. Losing someone isn’t losing everything any more, no matter how unfair and traumatic it is.

But the thing is, I totally get Dean’s hyper-conscious paranoia, particularly because of Michael.

The thing is, Dean’s deal with Michael was not about giving himself up. Dean’s deal with Michael had conditions of autonomy. It was never about trading himself away. It was never about expending himself to save the others. It was never meant to be a death sentence.

Dean’s deal with Michael was dependent on self-preservation — it was a temporary means to an end that Michael exploited, and that betrayal has put Dean on a path of reclamation. He actually did everything right — he used the resources available, he did not actually sacrifice himself, it did not come from a place of dispensability — but he was taken advantage of.

So while yes, the Winchesters do still make crappy deals as Sam later mentions, all the time, to achieve their goals, they no longer put themselves on the table as the payment price for collection. And the fact that Dean has had a non-fatal bargain so recently and violently broken means I understand why it’s the first thing on his mind, even if it’s the last thing on Sam’s.

Given Michael, a broken “safe” deal of any kind is something Dean’s not willing to risk from anyone, anymore, and he’s certainly no longer willing to play ball flat out trading one loved one for another. Which, of course, also makes this a moment of huge dramatic irony when it comes to Castiel, but we’ll get there in due time.

“We did everything we could, right?”

Deal or no deal, one of the most important parts of “Byzantium” is the way that it shone a light on all the ways the Winchesters have changed for the better, and Jack’s wake is one of the most incredible examples.

After returning to the Bunker, the boys all get drunk at Dean’s direction, and the shared grief — cut together in an all-night whisky-slugging montage soundtracked by the Allman Brothers’ “Please Call Home,” is one of the most powerful scenes that Supernatural has ever offered.

At the kitchen table, Sam, Dean and Castiel share stories about Jack, they share his favorite nougat candy bars, they laugh, they look loving and lost and tender and together.

This montage is allowed to run for about one minute 45 seconds — for those who keep track of such things, that’s longer than the “Night Moves” scene in “Baby.” It’s allowed to linger, and dwell, and breathe, and be. It’s allowed to take up space and time. It speaks to the shifting nature of Supernatural, and represents what the show wants to slow down and spend time on at this point in its run.

It is deeply intimate and it is so incredibly moving, and it exemplifies how seriously things have changed for these men, in terms of how they handle loss. The grief is real, and maybe the worst that they’ve experienced together as a family, but is just so damn healthy.

Dean’s drowsy line as the others head off to bed sums all this up — yes, they did do everything they could in the moment. This loss was, while not exactly natural, something close to it. Though it feels unfair and wrong, it doesn’t come with a side order of self-hatred or blame.

It is, ultimately, as peaceful a loss as possible, and the fact that the guys are able to process it as such is a huge reflection on how they’ve changed, how safe and secure they feel within their family, that they can accept this and survive it and honor the memory of a loved one in this way.

“Who are you?”
“I’m Jack. I’m your son.”

Jack’s time in Heaven is almost too sweet to bear — his own memory that we see is of his first trip with all three dads, on the road to Dodge City back in “Tombstone,” but oh my, how they played me like a fiddle with this one. Despite the retroactively blindingly obvious foreshadowing, I was absolutely unprepared for Kelly Kline, Jack’s mother, to make an appearance here, and it is so sensitively and beautifully done.

I love that the Kelly we first see is a child, with a long-dead dog companion — something about her entire Heavenly experience reminds me of my favorite afterlife movie What Dreams May Come, so that’s extremely high praise, especially as I find Supernatural’s portrayal of Heaven creepy most days of the week.

Kelly’s paradise is one of the loveliest we’ve ever seen, and the way “Byzantium” introduces it to us reminds us of how unaware human souls are that they’re dead and in Heaven. It’s only Jack’s introduction that pulls her back into the consciousness of her life and death.

Until he literally said the words “I’m your son,” I had no idea what was going on — the guys had just been talking about Anubis, so I wondered maybe if the dog was the Egyptian jackal god in some earthly form (Don’t ask. Too much American Gods) — but when I realized what was actually happening, I burst into tears.

The show has really continued to honor Jack’s relationship with his mother, and has taken a number of opportunities to allow the pair to get to know each other or communicate or have closure in some way — in Kelly’s videos, in Mia’s shapeshifting, through Jack’s grandparents — but this was the most special and the most fulfilling, their first real meeting.

And since we are talking about patterns broken for the greater good, compare, if you will, Jack’s relationship with the memory of his mother to that of Sam and Dean with the memory of Mary, before Mary’s resurrection. Jack has loving, supportive parents who helped keep Kelly present in her son’s life, and Jack has also been able to follow his own initiative in building a real picture of his mother. Team Free Will looking after Jack after losing his mom is about as far from John Winchester’s A+ parenting as you could possibly get.

But what’s really important about Kelly is that her devastated reaction when she realizes how young her son was when he died. It emphasizes the narrative wrongness of Jack’s death — and to her, Jack may be assumed to be about 20. Still too young by far — imagine how much worse it is to realize that he was in fact only one or two calendar years old?

It’s crucial that Kelly is there for Jack at this time, and that she’s a part of the discussion regarding resurrecting him — especially when it comes to absolving Castiel of the failure he feels about letting her down. There’s just so much consistent proof that this show and these writers know exactly what these characters need and how to give it to them at the right moments.

Along with smashing old systems, “Byzantium” has set a new standard in what an episode is able to achieve. “Byzantium” is one of those episodes where any passing moment would be lauded as the high point of another random hour of Supernatural, and these moments just keep coming. It keeps surpassing itself with every scene and covering every possible base, but I still couldn’t have predicted this Kelly twist as an element of the episode. Now that it’s happened, I couldn’t imagine it any other way.

“Not doing this — that would be like letting him die all over again.”
“I want Jack back, too, okay? I do. I just don’t trust Lily.”

Despite the apparent closure mentioned above, Sam Winchester is not a person who accepts defeat easily. He tends to have two default settings – literally walk away from a problem and completely avoid dealing with it, like in season 8, or do everything in his power to be proactive about handling it in any way he can – occasionally to the point of manic single-mindedness, in, say, “Mystery Spot.”

So it was not at all surprising that Sam would be the instigator of Jack’s salvation — however, precisely because of the growth and healing mentioned above, the approach taken here is very different to certain desperate and toxic measures of the past.

Would that we all possessed the power of Sam Winchester’s brain in a liquor fug — he manages to excavate both a potential resource and a person who may be able to use it, and, with these two tools in their arsenal, maybe, as he puts it, maybe they can pull off a miracle.

Sam’s determination here, while driven, is level and logical — it’s something that he needs to try before he can fully accept that he has left no stone unturned in trying to solve the problem and let go.

He still has a way to go in being balanced about his burdens, but his attitude — “I should have tried harder, I should have done more” is honestly a level of culpability that most born leaders can empathize with — a consistent responsibility for everyone in their care. It’s sort of a heavy is the head that wears the crown situation, but to Sam’s credit, his miracle-making is very measured.

Sam’s memory of Kevin’s angel tablet translation is just one of this episode’s many shining threads of overlooked show history woven back into the tapestry of season 14. Lily Sunder is, of course, another, and what an absolutely perfect character to include — an expert in angelic magic who is also motivated by grief over a lost child.

Lily couldn’t have been a better contributer to this episode if she was written specifically for it — in fact, if she had been, it would actually feel contrived.

This is another of “Byzantium’s” many accomplishments — the careful plundering of the show’s back catalog to find all the necessary pieces and place them delicately in an order that feeds the current story in such a special way.

It’s so carefully done. It doesn’t feel “convenient” — it’s entirely organic — and it is proof of Glynn’s encyclopedic knowledge of Supernatural’s entire history, as well as the depth of her personal care when it comes to servicing the current story.

In portraying Dean’s reaction, “Byzantium” also remembers “Lily Sunder Has Some Regrets” in a different way. It remembers that Sam had a very different experience with Lily — they had that huge hotel-room conversation about her life choices, which Dean was never a party to.

Sam gets Lily, in a certain way, and all Dean knows is that Lily tried to kill Cas, which seems to be where his distrust of her allyship is coming from. This kind of handling is important — all too often, shows will reinvent an angle whenever convenient, without remaining faithful to prior learned perspective, and a look back by the audience quickly proves that sloppiness.

Not here. Not only is Lily’s origin story majorly significant to this episode, she is recieved differently by Sam and Dean, staying on track with their individual prior experience with her — and so Dean coming to terms with Lily and her motivations becomes a side arc that “Byzantium” spends time on as well.

“If we don’t meet its demands, Heaven will fall. 46,750,000,000 human souls will be cast in the wind.”

The great thing about the black gooey disaster that Castiel finds in Heaven is that it gives us a real narrative reason why Jack needs to survive — a reason better than “we want him back.”

As much as we DO want him back, the Winchesters cannot be allowed to just resurrect every loved one every time they die — all that incredible growth would be wasted. That’s not how the world works. Part of their healthy progression has to include handling loss, permanently.

So even though Sam calls in Lily and Cas heads upstairs specifically for “selfish” aims, the ultimate reason that Jack needs to be saved and brought home is much more utilitarian, and that is amazing.

Naomi is ultimately not wrong here, in terms of her moral compass — she’s just a Lawful Good to Cas’s Chaotic Good (full of pesky free will, that one) so while yes, Cas knows that her point is valid, he’s going to do what Winchesters do and think outside the box, find another way — and ends up saving both Heaven and Jack.

Heaven is one thing, but it’s not particularly fair for Jack to go to the Empty — he’s a graceless nephilim with a real soul and his own dear little paradise — so when the Empty poses a threat to the stability of Heaven itself, the fact that Jack needs to be brought back to life to save those 46 billion souls and prevent what fandom has been calling the “ghost apocalypse” is really fitting.

It glorously feeds his whole Christlike character arc, but it also creates an unspoken caveat for the audience: no, the Winchesters do not get to regress into old habits as much as they think they do.

Castiel’s contract with the Empty is very much the kind of deal that Dean was freaking out about at the start of the episode, but it taps into something very different, a challenge that’s going to be at the core of his character journey from here on out.

What the Empty represents and what Cas is now forced to fight for is going to be something of a paradigm shift for the show, and that situation needs to be explored from a different perspective to the one this article is taking, but I can already tell that the mid-season finale airing tonight is going to touch on that, so more on that soon.

Regardless of that, I’m glad that “Byzantium” was constructed in such a way that Jack’s resurrection served a serious cosmic purpose — it’s so in line with that everything he is, and so conscious of everything the show should be.

They’re getting Jack back because the universe needs him to be alive, NOT because they get to play with life and death on a whim, as Billie, or Death, is so frequently frustrated by. And even so, there is a cost – a huge one.

This is a lesson the brothers are yet to learn. They don’t know the truth about what happened in Heaven yet, but we, the audience, know it, and so we know what cards the show is putting on the table, even if the Winchesters can’t see the whole hand.

“Care to try your luck again?”

Supernatural season 14 has been intentionally full of false starts, and “Byzantium” is no exception — Sam’s first plan, involving the angel tablet translation, proved fruitless, and although Lily believed her own magic would do the trick, her side of the bargain — entry into Heaven, to be with her daughter — was not an easy one to fulfill. Enter Anubis — a god from another pantheon, on loan to Heaven as their resident judge.

Somewhat similarly to his father Osiris, Anubis is tasked with calculating the ascension or descent of human souls, but he’s a very different manner of being. His introduction to Supernatural sets up an interesting new angle on the lore of the afterlife — while Osiris only judged certain people as part of a certain ritual, Anubis is responsible for the everyday up and down allocation of the dead.

Except he isn’t really responsible. He’s just the administrator, and when his abacus proves that Lily is destined for Hell and No-Stone-Unturned Sam demands that he change it, he reveals that he’s not able to — trapping him was yet another dead end, and summoning him initially seeming entirely ineffectual.

However, what he reveals to the group sets up a huge new piece of canon that helps save one soul in “Byzantium” and might play a big part in however the discrepancies between those troublesome locales eventually comes to a head.

“God doesn’t decide. I don’t decide. You do, each of you, your individual choices all tallied up at the precise moment of your death. Keep me here. Try and kill me. It is not going to change Lily Sunder’s fate. But it might change yours.”

Much like what we see on The Good Place, salvation and damnation seem to depend on the individual’s behavior, measured by a cosmic force beyond any conscious control — or perhaps on how the individual carries their choices. The ideas introduced here are both comforting and terrifying, and they must — simply must — be revisited.

Lily Sunder’s own story comes to a fitting end — despite her initial condemnation, or perhaps because of it, her rescue of Jack earned her the “points” she needed to get into Heaven, which Anubis, who, like many gods of death, is a benevolent fellow, clearly suspected might happen, as he pulled her into his office for recalculation.

Lily used up her life force saving someone else’s child — a nephilim no less, like her daughter was labelled and unjustly slain, and she did it because it was the right thing to do. She did it knowing that it would kill her, and she did it knowing that she was going to Hell. It was an act of pure good, which in turn weighed in her favor and sent her to Paradise — a boon she did not expect, and one last message to the audience that Jack being brought back was part of the necessary order of the universe.

“Byzantium” is a behemoth in so many different ways — Jack’s cosmic right to life is really only one element of it. The aftershocks of what this episode both shattered and solidified — well, the full extent of the “damage” is still unknown. But we can rest easy knowing that — nephilim powers or no, Jack’s survival is paramount to the survival of the universe, and his resurrection in no way negates the healthy growth of how the Winchesters handle grief.

Juggling all these elements, finding ways to make these events seem earned while not allowing other earned developments that on the surface seem contradictory to disintegrate, must have been incredible difficult for the Supernatural writers to pull off. But given the episode’s reception — and ratings, the highest so far this season — it’s worth the struggle. “Byzantium” is going to keep fans — including this one — talking and thinking for years to come.

The ‘Supernatural’ mid-season finale airs tonight at 8/7c on The CW

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