At the end of “Caged Heat” I was torn between two brothers, feeling like a fool. Oh, no, wait, that’s a song. Yet it’s an odd feeling for a Supernatural fan to have to pick sides in a brother war. I mean, we all have our favorite, but that doesn’t mean we dislike the other. Supernatural allows you to root for Dean *and* Sam, but “Caged Heat” left me with a dilemma. I understood why Dean was obsessed with getting Sam’s soul back. I have a younger brother that I would do anything for, especially if his soul was at stake. However, as I mentioned last week, I think the writers have done a fantastic job of making Sam’s reaction completely reasonable. One of the ways they have done this is by making soulless Sam rather acceptable. Yes, there are glimpses of wrongness in him, but for the most part he’s just Sam. An uncaring, sarcastic, impassive Sam, but Sam nonetheless. Granted, he let Dean get attacked by a vampire, but his rationale was far less psychological than I had predicted. Sam is just a hunting machine at the moment. The threat of Sam turning into a destroyed waste of a creature once his broken soul is returned is such a catastrophic threat that who in their right mind would want that?

So we start the episode on slightly unsure footing. Do we support Dean in his quest to restore Sam’s soul and potentially destroy his brother’s sanity? Or do we hope that Sam can find a way to save himself?

To save Sam, Dean has come up with a crazy, albeit clever, solution. He will ask for Death’s help. For this to happen, Dean must first find Death and, really, unless he’s stuck in a tree the only way to find him is to die. So Dean seeks out Dr. Robert (played by Robert Englund), who “stitched up” John Winchester “more times than [he] could count.” When he had a medical license. Now, however, his office is a grotty apartment over a Chinese grocery store. In a telling moment, Dean hands Dr. Robert a letter addressed to Ben and asks him to deliver it if anything should go wrong. Robert is surprised that he doesn’t have one for Sam. Dean replies, “If I don’t make it back. Nothing I say is gonna mean a damn thing to him.” Sadly, given that it’s soulless Sam, that’s probably very true.

Robert successfully stops Dean’s heart, and his spirit walks down to the store and summons everyone’s favorite reaper, Tessa. He begs her to call Death, but she refuses, both because she’s not allowed to and on principal. But Death shows up anyway. While the death of Crowley robbed Supernatural of some of its color, Death’s return made me rather happy. He is a masterly character.

Dean attempts to bargain with Death, promising to return the ring he borrowed last season. Death doesn’t let him finish his thought. “I’m sorry, you assume that I don’t know where you’ve hidden it.” Long pause to let that sink in with Dean, and then Death continues. “Now we’ve established that you have hubris, but no leverage, what is it you want?” Dean spells it out. He wants Death to save both Sam’s soul and Adam. Death makes him choose. The choice is obvious, but it does at least address a potential audience concern that Dean would leave Adam down there without a mention. Death tells Dean that Sam’s soul has been flayed, down to the raw nerve. All the while, Dr. Robert is trying to resuscitate Dean, with the requisite three minutes having passed — to little success of course.

Death gives Dean a bit of a talking to, explaining that Dean’s request that Death chop off Sam’s memory of the hell experience is ridiculous — that the soul can be tortured and beaten but can never be broken– pieces cannot be removed. What he is willing to offer, however, is to put up a wall, of unknown stability, in Sam’s mind that will keep the torture at bay. How long that the wall will hold is unknown. I should mention that Tessa thinks this is a terrible idea. Of course Dean chooses potentially-eventually broken Sam. But it’s not that easy. Death will fulfill Dean’s request, but only if Dean completes a challenge. He must wear Death’s ring for one day — must be Death for 24-hours — and if he fails, if he takes off the ring, then Death will not save Sam. “But why?” Dean asks. “Simple Dean, because. . .” Before he can get the answer, Dean is brought back to life.

Let’s just say that Dean’s attempt to convince Sam this is a good idea does not go well. Castiel and Crowley’s warnings about the condition of his soul have left Sam not just apprehensive, but downright antagonistic about its return. Dean explains that Death can put up a wall, but must admit that it’s not a foolproof solution.

“Great, so playing pretty fast and loose with my life here don’t you think.”

“I’m trying to save your life!”

“Exactly Dean, it’s my life. It’s my life. It’s my soul. And it sure as hell ain’t your head that’s gonna explode when this whole scheme of yours goes sideways.”

Bobby, questioning the deal, asks Dean what he had to promise in exchange for Sam’s soul. Bobby, who’s no stranger to the crazy deals that Winchesters make to save their own, recognizes that there’s something a bit. . .off. . .about the whole thing. Dean confesses that he must be Death for a day and Sam, under the auspices of “clearing his head” tries to get to the ring first and prevent the deal from taking place. I will say, this Sam is far more proactive than Sam-with-soul. Sam agrees to let Dean try to save his soul — fishy!! Dean leaves, but not without asking Bobby to watch Sam.

Of course Sam is not just going to wait for Dean to restore his deformed soul. In a warehouse (I guess Bobby wasn’t watching him that closely) he performs a ritual to summon Balthazar. Sam wants to know if there’s any way — a spell, a weapon, anything — that can keep a soul permanently out of a body. Balthazar is intrigued and when he realizes that Sam’s soul is still in the cage, he’s almost tickled with delight. He then confirms what Castiel and Crowley have said — Sam does *not* want that soul back in his body. Balthazar shocks Sam by saying that he’ll help him with no conditions, which is slightly disingenuous because he gloats about how great it will be to have Sam in his debt. Also, Balthazar’s hate for Dean is making the prospect even more delicious. Here’s the real catch: while the spell ingredients are, for the most part, easy to acquire, Balthazar needs Sam to scar his vessel. To do this he needs to commit patricide. Sam is confused. John, after all, is dead. Balthazar explains, “You need the blood of your father, but your father needn’t be blood.” Oh hell.

The episode cuts between Dean and Sam, building up the tension of what Sam is going to do. For ease of recapping, I’m going to deal with Dean’s experience with Death first and then Sam. But I wanted to mention this because it was a brilliant way to ramp up the anxiety of the situation, especially given what Sam is setting out to do.

Dean, meanwhile, is trying to deal with his new job title, and Tessa isn’t making it any easier on him. Dean doesn’t just get to give people his death touch, but sometimes they have questions, like “why.” Killing the first two are easier than he expected — a criminal shot during a robbery and a man having a heart attack while eating pizza. Well, easy until the second man asks, “Wait, tell me, what it all means?” Dean replies, “Everything is dust in the wind.” He’s completely chuffed with his answer. The man, not so much. “That’s it? A Kansas song?”

The third death is what breaks Dean. A young girl, 13, with a serious heart condition, who is in a hospital with her father watching over her — a father who has no one else in the world. Dean, as anticipated, rebels. Tessa tries to explain that it’s destiny, but Dean says it’s “a load of crap.” He and Tessa fight about how successful his prior attempts at messing with life and death have been, but Dean is adamant. The girl will not die while he is Death. Of course, as we know, and as Dean should know, there are repercussions to cheating death when it’s your time. In this case, the ripple effect is swift. The nurse who was meant to be scrubbing in on the girl’s surgery — a surgery that did not happen as the girl’s heart “miraculously” healed — is killed in a traffic accident. The nurse, who was meant to live for quite a long time, having kids and grandkids, is dead because the little girl lived. Tessa wants him to kill the girl — set the universe right — but he can’t bring himself to do it. Especially when he sees that the nurse’s husband, devastated from her death, gets into his car after coming out of a bar. Unable to stop the man from crashing and dying, as the man can’t see Dean while he’s Death, Dean takes off the ring and saves him, thereby losing the challenge.

Dean, now visible, stands outside the wrecked car, screaming at the heavens and Tessa to release him and zap him back home. Abandoned, Dean looks around and comes to a realization. Even though he lost, Dean puts the ring back on to tie up loose ends. He and Tessa end up back at the hospital, and Dean, knowing what havoc has been wreaked with his decisions, accepts that the young girl’s life will always be haunted in some way, as the universe tries to course correct. As the spirit of the girl stands between Dean and Tessa, she says she cannot leave her father — that it isn’t fair. Dean, able to answer in a way he simply wasn’t before, responds that it’s not fair, but that there’s a natural order to things. It would appear that he does accept this — that he understands the ripple effect of saving someone from death when it’s their time, but I don’t get the sense that he believes it so whole-heartedly that he would implement it in the decisions he makes about loved ones. I think that if he had to save Ben, even if it meant causing the deaths of other innocents, he would.

Back at the car ranch. . . .Sam decides to fulfill his need to scar his vessel and returns to Bobby’s house.

Okay, now I found this to be a brilliant strategy on the part of Gamble and Singer. It is at this moment that the true impact of Sam’s missing soul becomes apparent. Sam, who I had felt sympathy for (well played writers), was going to kill Bobby? I tried to talk myself out of the situation. “He’s going to kill Bobby?!?!? No, he wouldn’t do that. Nope. No way. They can’t do that. He can’t do that. Oh my gods he’s going to kill Bobby. Holy crap. Okay Dean, I’m sorry I doubted you.” Really, they could just as easily have had Balthazar say that Sam needed to kill someone with the blood of his father and had him try to kill Dean, but even that might not make Sam seem truly evil. (Can he be evil without a soul? Is he just. . .wrong?) I could come up with a list of reasons (a short list though) why Sam would be justified, in his own mind, for killing Dean, but Bobby? Smart move. Having Sam go after the one character that everyone loves (who the hell doesn’t love Bobby?) and who does everything he can for the boys, often to his own detriment (as we saw earlier this season), just demonstrates how far gone our Sam really is — and yes, that makes Dean’s decision the right one. For if Sam is willing to kill Bobby, then no one is safe. Sam without a soul needs to be a dead Sam. It was at this moment, also, when I began to think that the season’s big bad just might be Sam. Maybe the apocalyptic fight between the brothers that I was expecting last year will actually be this season. More on that at the end.

So Sam returns, tells Bobby he’s just been out driving (does anyone in his sphere believe his lies?), and they sit down to a quiet, tense, and anxiety-filled game of poker. When Bobby gets up to grab another beer from the fridge, Sam makes his move. Bobby, however, strikes first with his billy club. He delivers a sardonic Bobby Singer line, “I may have been born at night boy, but it wasn’t last night.” When Bobby’s back is turned to grab some rope, Sam escapes. More tension as Bobby searches his dark house! Why does no one ever have the lights on!?! It’s so X-Files. Bobby locks himself in a closet. Sam finds him and starts breaking the door down with an axe. Luckily Bobby, who is always one step ahead of the boys, has cornered himself in a closet for a reason — trap door underneath Sam! So Sam, who is now trapped in the basement, and Bobby have a conversation.

In his own misguided way, Sam explains to Bobby that he doesn’t want to kill him, but he has too. The line between Sam-with-soul and Sam-without is now complete — they are now two separate entities. He says that Dean doesn’t care anything about him, but only his little brother Sammy that he wants to save from burning in hell. Sam is fine with the other one dying. Unfortunately, Sam escapes through a grate in the panic room and Bobby follows him — only to be knocked out with a steel pipe outside his barn/garage/warehouse.

Regardless of his pleas, Bobby is in real danger. Sam readies the knife to slit Bobby’s throat and drink his blood. Even though it’s a short scene, it’s terribly creepy. Sam has no emotion, no remorse. He’s following a plan. There’s no room for reasoning, because there’s no other solution. His lack of insight, logic, instinct — all things Dean has pointed out throughout the season — make him a danger — a monster. Sam doesn’t seem to understand that drinking the blood of a man who has been a father to him actually makes him the type of monster that he’s so keen to hunt. How brilliant that he is the darkness now — his behavior in this episode has made him a manifestation of evil.

Just as he’s about to bury the knife into Bobby’s throat, Dean grabs his arm and stops him. Delivering a pithy Dean line, “Hi Sam, I’m back” before knocking him out with killer punch.

But now Dean’s at an impasse. He has no solution for retrieving Sam’s soul and with the attempt on Bobby’s life, Dean knows he can’t be let free. He and Bobby both know they need to confront the idea of killing him, but neither one wants to articulate that.

Surprise! Death is waiting upstairs with a bacon hot dog for Dean. No that’s not a weird euphemism, he really did bring hot dogs from a place in L.A. Death watches Dean turn the ring over and over in his fingers and says, almost with a compassionate understanding, “Heavier than it looks isn’t it? Sometimes you just want the thing off. But you know that.” Dean is just broken by this point. He can barely look Death in the eye as he admits to defeat, to breaking the natural order. Death asks him, if he could do it all over again, would he kill the little girl straight away? Dean says yes, which surprises Death, but Dean’s response is that he would have saved the nurse. But Death sees it as something more complicated. He believes that Dean has now seen behind the workings of the human condition — that he’s seen the natural order of things and realized the consequences when that order is disrupted. Death goes on to say what Dean needs to hear, “This is hard for you Dean. You throw away your life because you’ve come to assume it’ll bounce right back into your lap. The human soul is not a rubber ball. It’s vulnerable, impermanent, but stronger than you know, and more valuable than you can imagine.”

As it turns out, Death has planned this as a life-lesson for Dean, to see what decisions have to be made on the other side. Now he’s going to go save Sam’s soul. Dean wonders why Death would do that for him. Death’s response is fascinating, and points to something much larger in our future. “I wouldn’t do it for you. You and your brother keep coming back. You’re an affront to the balance of the universe and you cause disruption on a global scale. But you have use. Right now you’re digging at something. Intrepid detective, I want you to keep digging, Dean. . .it’s about souls. You’ll understand when you need to.”

So with a 75% chance of the wall working on Sam, Death goes down to hell, rescues Sammy’s soul, and shoves it back into Sam’s unwilling vessel. “Now Sam, I’m going to put up a barrier inside your mind. It might feel a little. . .itchy. Do me a favor and don’t scratch the wall, because trust me, you’re not going to like what happens.”

Sam begs them not to do this, but no one listens — not Dean, not Bobby, not Death. And as Death shoves Sam’s soul back into his chest, with Sam screaming in agony, the episode ends. . . .

Brilliant. Just bloody brilliant. Every time I watch I get goosebumps. And I hope this means we get to see more of Death, because Julian Richings is fantastic. Plus it’s fun to watch him interact with Ackles. There aren’t many people in the Supernatural universe that Dean fears, but you can see in the episode just how much Death scares him.

Also, even knowing that Sam had almost killed Bobby, and that he was a threat to everyone we know and love, I couldn’t help but feel a bit badly for him, tied down and screaming in pain. Just a little. Not that much.

Oh souls! What do you mean for this show??? What is your value? What entity is trying to utilize you, besides Balthazar? How are you figuring into the battle in heaven? And what is going to happen to Sam?? I still believe that the battle between Sam and Dean will happen — will it be a brother apocalypse? The wall in Sam’s mind has to break, but what will be the consequences? Will it be the break that pushes him fully darkside? Will he side against Castiel in the battle for heaven? And can anything catch a ride on soul? Is Sam somehow infected with Lucifer? Or Michael??

The CW released a new promo poster for the show this week, prior to tonight’s pre-emption, and it clearly points towards another celestial battle. Dean with a halo shaped light over his head, slightly elevated above Sam, who is wearing a red shirt with a snake coiled around his arm, his eyes glowing. Heaven and Hell in battle once more? The boys no longer potential vessels, but human warriors for the respective causes? Regardless, I don’t think things look that good for our darling Sammy.