After two weeks of strong episodes about Kevin Tran and the quest to shut the gates of Hell forever, stand-alone story “Heartache” is a nice sorbet to cleanse our palate while we wait for another arc-narrative episode. The writing team of Brad Buckner and Eugenie Ross-Leming provide a solid episode where the case is of far less importance than the exposition on the state of the Winchester sibling relationship. This is a writing duo who have improved markedly from season one’s disaster of an episode, “Route 666.”

As with prior seasons, Jensen Ackles again has the opportunity to show off his directing skills, which have developed from his earlier outings. While the Ackles-directed episodes are always sound, “Heartache” presented fewer of the non-traditional techniques that he tested out in “Weekend at Bobby’s” or “The Girl Next Door.” Given that much of the storyline also involved his character, the challenge was even greater to produce a seamless finished product. In this he has succeeded. There is also a fun cameo by his father, Alan Ackles, as Detective Pike, who Dean has a verbal banter/conflict with – their showdown has even more levity once you are aware of the familial ties.

The plot of the episode is a bit convoluted, with a series of murders taking place where victims have their hearts ripped out – almost like the psychic surgery in The X-Files. There is quite a bit of gore, with a character in one scene actually eating a heart, after spreading blood on her face. The boys discover that they are up against ka’kau’, the Mayan god of maize, who can ensure immortality as long as there is the twice-yearly consumption of heart sacrifices. Detective work leads them to the “mother” of Brick Holmes, a former football player who died and donated his organs.

Turns out that Brick (Inyo) made a deal with the Mayan god, and had lived life for 1000 years, as long as he continued with the required heart sacrifice. However, he hadn’t planned on falling into a deep and passionate love with Eleanor (Betsey). As she aged, he realized that in his immortality he would have to watch her die, and rather than do that he drove off of a bridge and killed himself. Those who were saved by Brick are all murderers, but are linked to the power of the one who received the heart donation. As a result, the woman who received Brick’s heart was the focal point of the sacrifice – find and kill her, and all of the other organ donors/killers would be stopped. In a fairly quick battle scene the boys dispatch the donors and are on their way.

Yet, as is often the case with Supernatural, the true significance of the episode is the story told through the brothers’ behaviors.

In season one of the show, we had a Sam that re-joined the hunting life to do two things – help Dean find their father and track down the yellow-eyed demon who killed Jess. He consistently proclaimed that once they had accomplished those goals, that he was done – he was out – he was going back to school. It’s not until Dean makes the deal with the crossroads demon to resurrect Sam that things change. In that third season, as Sam desperately tries to save Dean from Hell, he begins to transform into a hunter – and by season four he’d given up any desire to live a normal life.

As Sam transforms into a true hunter, it’s Dean that begins to crave an end to the life. Whether that end is death or through some kind of 9-5 normalcy is unclear. Dean does try. When Sam ends up in the cage, Dean follows through on his promise to lead a regular life and has momentary domestic bliss with Lisa and her son, Ben. The problem here is that even in this banal existence, Dean cannot let go of his previous life – whether it’s the demon traps painted on the floor under the carpet or the maintenance of an arsenal of weapons in the garage, Dean is wired to be on the lookout for supernatural anomalies.

None of this is a surprise. Dean has been tortured by angels, survived Hell, and ripped apart by hellhounds. His exhaustion made sense. But Purgatory has changed him. He’s come back a warrior and the idea of “pure” killing is bandied about often in relation to how Benny and Dean spent their time in Purgatory. Dean is almost manic in his need to track down demons and kill them. As I predicted in the review of last week’s episode, Dean has nothing but hunting and the brother who sits in the passenger seat. He has no home and nothing to ground him. The idea of not heading down the road on a hunt with Sam as his accompanying nomad is terrifying. He is, in many respects, turning into his father.

What he can’t control is Sam’s desire to leave – to find a life with Amelia. Their emotional differences are a mirror of their time in Heaven. Every moment of happiness that Dean wanted to relive was tied to family. His whole life has been about following orders, seeking vengeance, and investing time and energy into the Winchester clan (including Bobby). Sam, however, has never wanted a hunter’s life. A year without Dean and a leviathan threat has not made him nostalgic for nights on the road and life with a brother who’s addicted to hamburgers and whiskey. No, Sam wants picnics and birthday celebrations.

Sam’s memories of Amelia are painted in light and color and are bathed in the potential for happiness. Dean’s flashbacks to Purgatory are all dim, grey moments with the only color being the blood spilled. How this continues to manifest over the course of the season, with the threat of Sam’s departure hanging over Dean’s head, is the arc that I’ll be watching.

We’re back to first season dynamics: Sam has a chance at a future, at escape, and Dean is driving farther and farther down a road of doom.


Random: There are these tiny moments in Supernatural that are so lovely and illuminate how well these two actors, Ackles and Padalecki, know each other, and it translates into their on-screen sibling relationship. A great example from “Heartache”: When Dean takes great pleasure in showing off the app that he bought for his phone, there is an amused, and surprised, glance from Sam. It’s quite fast, but it’s such a real, human moment that you truly believe they are related. It’s a rare moment of joy in a life often filled with death and darkness.