The main outcome of the episode is that Dean's insecurities of old resurface and discourage him so much that, finding a dead end in the search for God, he gives up completely, while Sam actually has a chance to see things a bit more from Dean's perspective which, in combination with the warning by Joshua, helps him deal with Dean and help turn him around in future episodes.
There is an underlying theme here about normal life as well, and how Dean tried to provide it for his own family, while Sam looked for it elsewhere because he had grown up without having experienced a mother's love at all. We see a bit of longing by Sam for what Dean had had.
We knew before from Skin and Shadow that Dean felt abandoned by Dad and by Sam but we find out here that this insecurity actually started way before. It starts with the rocky relationship between dad and mom when he is only three. They fight (they probably fought a lot: it was only a perfect marriage after she died after all), and dad leaves. Dean and mom are left all alone, hurt and abandoned. This is maybe the first time that Dean realizes he does not have a hold over his loved ones. They could leave him at any time without regard for his feelings on the matter. He looks to his mom and sees someone he can take care of and comfort. He sees himself as her guardian, responsible for her, so weak and vulnerable. It's OK. Daddy still loves you. I love you. I WILL NEVER LEAVE YOU. And she calls him her angel and he feels so loved. And then it happens again. This time, Mom dies and abandons him and dad. He has thoughts that maybe he had been a burden to her all along? Maybe she was glad to be rid of him... But he can't wallow in his pain and loneliness because there are two people who need his comfort and protection. Dad and Sam. Just as he did for mom, he comforts dad when he comes back from a difficult hunt(In My Time of Dying). He takes care of Sam - he would have anyway even if dad had not said anything (All Hell Breaks Loose I). He keeps the secret of dad's work until he can't anymore, then comforts Sam the only way he knows how (A Very Supernatural Christmas). He takes comfort in the small happiness, cradling the loneliness he has inside, which Amanda sees and calls him on in Afterschool Special. He does everything dad wants him to, copies everything he does, desperate for approval... desperate not to lose Dad- not to be abandoned again.
But as Sam grows up, Sam starts rebelling against dad and they start fighting - just like mom and dad so long ago. He tries so hard to mediate but it doesn't do any good. It must be something he didn't do right because Sam just leaves. He abandons Dean, just like dad. Just like mom. Then, finally Dad leaves again without saying a word, and Dean wonders ALONE in pain... WHAT IS WRONG WITH HIM THAT EVERYONE JUST LEAVES? Maybe it is because Dad loves Sam more than him(Devil's Trap). Maybe it is because he's not good enough(Dream a Little Dream).
He wants so much just for his family to be together. He goes to get Sam and somehow they end up together again, even though Sam still wants to go back to the normal life he had created for himself. Dean acts on the hope that if they can find Dad, he can get the family back together again. That hope is shattered when dad dies to save him. HIM, the one that was not worth saving. The one that should have died.
If only mom had never died... And when the djin gives him the dream life with mom alive and Sam living a happy normal life he wants to stay, even though he knows it is just a dream. If mom hadn't died, none of this would have happened. They could have had a normal life, and no one would have abandoned him.
But he knows that Sam needs him back in the real world and he CAN'T ABANDON SAM. So he comes back.
He has another chance in In the Beginning to change things. Save mom. And he goes into it with his whole heart. It doesn't matter if all those people they saved as hunters died - as long as he has his family back. But of course he fails.
Then in When the Levee Breaks, Sam abandons him again. This time because he trusts a demon over Dean. Considering the past above, is it surprising that he is so disillusioned by this and that he tells Sam he can't trust him anymore? And yet he realizes in The End that they have to stay together for Sam not to say yes. So he gets up his nerve again and gets back together with Sam. This time, Sam has a few conditions. Conditions on being together. If it means Sam's not going to abandon him again? He agrees. wholeheartedly.
As things get worse and worse and the chances of winning the war against angels and demons become slimmer, Dean still keeps going despite feeling empty inside because of his still shaky belief that Sam feels the same way, and if he does, then he's sure not going to abandon Sam. And this is where we have this episode. The pain and the heartache and sadness we see in this episode ... there are no words.
I'm sorry for the long prose, but I wanted to explain this first before I started so that it would help you see how I view each scene in the episode.
"Knockin' on Heaven's Door" by Bob Dylan (plays after Dean is shot, then a few minutes later during his memory of shooting fireworks with Sam; also played in 2.13 Houses of the Holy)
"What a Way to Go" by Jesse Turnbow(plays in the Roadhouse when Sam and Dean meet up with Ash; also played in 1.03 Dead in the Water)
Dean Family Dedication Theme, Americana Supernatural OST (plays while Dean hugs mom and tells her he loves her)
Now that I'm done with the preliminaries, I have to note here that I love this first scene of the episode. It is one of my most favorite scenes of the show.
We've had glimpses of other hunters before, and how they are after Sam for having brought on the apocalypse. We saw it in Free to be You and Me and then in Swap Meat most recently. Demons are freely giving away information on Sam's role in opening the gates of Lucifer's cage to hunters and witches and of course angels are asking for help from some of the more "fringier sects" of Christianity as well, all toward finding these two vessels who are hidden from view and somehow getting them to say yes, or use trickery in order to get a hold of their bodies. With so many people after them, it is really no surprise that a pair of hunters - Walt and Roy (named after the Disney brothers) - end up finding them and getting the better of them.
When Dean wakes up sensing someone in the room, he reaches under his pillow as if to get in a better sleeping position but really in search of his shotgun. Roy knows exactly what Dean is trying to do, however, because they already took the shotgun from his pillow while he was asleep (wow - Dean must have been fast asleep and Walt and Roy must be super pickpockets).
When he sits up to face them, Sam is already sitting up sleepily in his own bed and they have a pair of guns pointed at them. Dean is quick to recognize the two and Walt and Roy take off their masks once they are "made." They tell Sam his crime - setting off the apocalypse - and shoot him without giving him any time to explain. The shock of this moment - I still feel it on the upteenth rewatch. Sam lying there, hair sprayed all over his pillow, arms raised by his head - is the most shockingly beautiful thing. He looks like an innocent little boy in sleep except for the blood on his chest. And Dean starts to jump up to go to his brother as soon as Sam is shot but, told to stay where he is, just sits there for a moment, staring at his brother's body. Sam's dead. Sam's Dead... SAM'S DEAD. With the anger and desperation of a man with nothing to lose, he turns to Roy, who has his gun trained at his chest. Roy feels a bit bad about killing Dean. He hasn't done anything wrong. It was Sam that set off the apocalypse. But Walt points out something important that everyone knows.
And I'm grinning viciously at the thought of Dean going after these two to avenge his brother's death.
Dean, whether he remembers Zach's words - that if he died he would be brought back anyway - is just a figure of awesomeness as he stares the guy down and basically scares him shitless!
(I love that WHEN)
Walt has to do the shooting for him.
Dean wakes up in his car and goes outside to find young Sam waiting for him with a box of fireworks from the trunk of the car. He gradually remembers this as Fourth of July, 1996. We have a beautiful moment here of them lighting up the opening with their fireworks.
Sam thanks Dean for doing this with him - something dad would have never done (well, they did burn down the field... :P) - and hugs him. Dean is surprised at first, but hugs him back softly.
Then we see Dean laughing as he watches Sam dance around in the fireworks. Suddenly the sound of fireworks turns into the sound of shotgun fired and he sees glimpses of Walt and Roy and how he was killed. And then he is all alone in the dark night - no trace of fireworks and no SAM. I'll tentatively say that Sam disappearing like this seems significant considering Dean's fear of abandonment.
Deep down he remembers what happened, but it takes Cas on the radio for him to admit that this is no dream.
CASTIEL: (on radio) Listen to me very closely. This isn’t a dream.
DEAN: Then what is it?
CASTIEL: (on radio) Deep down, you already know.
DEAN: I’m dead.
CASTIEL: (on radio) Condolences.
I'd also like to point out that this little outing is one more little episode of Dean doing something special for Sam on a holiday, just as he did "Christmas" in 1991. As we see later, and actually before in A Very Supernatural Christmas, no matter what Dean did for him, it never was quite good enough. He seems to have blocked it all from his mind as insignificant or painful. Christmas? who's childhood are we talking about? Thanksgiving? No. That wasn't the real thing. The idea is that Sam has never been able to see the good in the life they had and has always looked for something else.
OK. Back on track. Dean drives down the "yellow brick road" to find Sam and arrives at a yellow house <3 I love the scene of Dean driving, and of the mystical moon and house in the woods. It is just a perfect depiction of Heaven that I sort of wish they had held on to in Season 10 now that I see it again.
Dean goes in to find Sam having thanksgiving dinner with a very forward young girl - and I am totally reminded of Back to the Future and Marty with his mom!!
Dean tells Sam that they are in heaven and Sam is like, Why me?
SAM: No, no. Okay. You… I get, sure. But me? Maybe you haven’t noticed, but I’ve done a few things?
DEAN: You thought you were doing the right thing.
SAM: Last I checked, it wasn’t the road to heaven that was paved with good intentions.
Dean also asks Cas in the previous scene: "How did I get to Heaven?" So even if Sam thinks Dean deserves it, Dean sure doesn't :P
They are wondering why they are reliving these specific memories when Sam has an idea:
SAM: Maybe that’s what heaven is: a place where you relive your greatest hits.
DEAN: Wait, so… playing footsie with brace-face in there? Then that’s a trophy moment for you?
SAM: Dean, I was eleven years old. This was my first real Thanksgiving.
DEAN: What are you talking about? We had Thanksgiving every year.
SAM: We had a bucket of extra-crispy and Dad passed out on the couch.
Dean is not angry here. Just surprised that Sam would have thought of this thanksgiving as one of his "greatest hits." Dean, I'm sure, has many many good memories of more than just footsie with girls a bit older LOL
I don't know who bought the extra-crispy chicken at Thanksgiving but it could very well have been Dean, trying to make the holiday special for Sam. Dad, it seems, was too depressed remembering his wife on these holidays to have the energy to make it a happy time for his boys.
At this point, Zach comes looking for them and they instinctively hide from sight and call Cas on the radio.
Cas tells them that Zach is looking for them to put them back in their bodies. Sam and Dean are all for being found and put back, but Cas then points out that this is a rare opportunity. They should go and find the garden which they will find if they just follow the road, and talk with Joshua.
SAM: So what’s so important about Joshua?
CASTIEL: (on TV) The rumor is, he talks to God.
DEAN: And, so?
CASTIEL: (on TV) You think maybe—just maybe—we should find out what the hell God has been saying?
DEAN: Jeez. Touchy.
CASTIEL: (on TV) Please. I just need you to follow the road.
SAM: What road?
CASTIEL: (on TV) It’s called the Axis Mundi. It’s a path that runs through heaven. Different people see it as different things. For you, it’s two-lane asphalt. The road will lead you to the Garden. You’ll find Joshua there. And Joshua… can take us to God. (The pictures starts to break up badly.) The Garden. Quick. Hurry.
SAM: So... What do you think?
DEAN: I think we hit the yellow bricks, find this Joshua cat.
SAM: (looks surprised) Really?
DEAN: What? You don’t?
SAM: No, uh. I’m just surprised you do. Last time I checked you wanted to break God’s nose, now you think he can help?
DEAN: He’s the only one who can. I mean, come on, Sam. We are royally boned. So prayer? The last hope of a desperate man.
Here I am reminded of that prayer Dean made at the end of last episode. Dean is desperate and is clinging to the possibility that God might help (despite what he said to Cas before).
They go out the front door, intent on get in the car and moving on, but when they get outside, there is no road. It's interesting how Dean's mind automatically tries to find the road in different places. It reminds me of The Dark Tower series a bit - how somethings in one world represent others in another world. Dean finds an old road set he used to have and as soon as he starts playing, they shift to another memory. We pan up and Sam is not wearing his suit anymore, and Dean is also wearing a cute little t-shirt.
And then suddenly, mom is there in the doorway, asking Dean if he's hungry.
Dean sits at the kitchen table as mom pours him some milk and cuts him a sandwich. Looking at them from the doorway, Sam tries calling to mom so see if she can see him - but I think he knows she can't from the start.
SAM: Dean, uh. We should… go. Keep looking for the road.
DEAN: Just… just give me a minute, okay?
DEAN: Sam. Please. One minute.
I see a lot of longing in Sam's face as he watches Dean. His reminder to Dean that they should get going seems to indicate that this is hard for him, watching Dean in a memory with mom. This is what he had always wanted after all. Normal life.
We see mom gently pat Dean on the head and Dean smiling softly... then the phone call, where Mom is talking heatedly with dad.
MARY: (on phone) Hello? … No, John. … We’re not having this conversation again. … Think about what? … You’ve two boys at home. …
DEAN: I remember this. Mom and Dad were fighting and then he moved out for a couple days.
SAM: Dad always said they had the perfect marriage.
DEAN: It wasn’t perfect until after she died.
MARY: (on phone) Fine. Then don’t. … There’s nothing more to talk about.
SAM: What happens next?
Dean gets up and gently hugs Mary and this is where we hear that Dean Family Dedication Theme which just kills me every time.
And this of course is also why Dean loves pie.
SAM: I just never realized how long you’ve been cleaning up Dad’s messes.
As they are searching through the rooms for "the road," Sam finds a postcard that he remembers from somewhere. They next find themselves in Flagstaff, where Sam had lived on his own for two weeks. Away from dad, away from the hunting life, with a pet dog, which I suppose they could never have at home. Dean seems to have a different memory of this time, and it is definitely not happy.
DEAN: Well, you don’t remember, do you? You ran away on my watch. I looked everywhere for you. I thought you were dead. And when Dad came home…
SAM: Dean, look, I’m sorry. I never thought about it like that.
DEAN: Forget it. Let’s roll.
We can of course imagine how thunderous dad had been when he came home and found Sam missing. It reminds us of his reaction in Something Wicked. Sam, who was so happy when they got to the memory, realizes what Dean had gone through then and feels very bad.
Dean is quick to get out of there and they go down to the street to find that it is nighttime outside an old run down cabin. At first Dean doesn't recognize the place or time but Sam does, and he knows that Dean won't like it, after his reaction to flagstaff. He tries to get Dean to go on and find another memory but Dean remembers.
DEAN: Seriously? I mean this is a happy memory for you?
SAM: I don’t know. I mean, I was on my own. I finally got away from Dad.
DEAN: (turning away) Yeah, he wasn’t the only one you got away from.
SAM: Dean, I’m sorry. I just, uh…
DEAN: I know. You didn’t, you didn’t think of it like that.
Here Dean's insecurities come full throttle and it totally reminds me of what the shapeshifter says in Skin:
SHAPESHIFTER: I am your brother. See, deep down, I’m just jealous. You got friends. You could have a life. Me? I know I’m a freak. And sooner or later, everybody’s gonna leave me.
SAM: What are you talkin’ about?
SHAPESHIFTER: You left. Hell, I did everything Dad asked me to, and he ditched me, too. No explanation, nothin’, just poof.
It's a sore spot that has been eating at him for so long. The trauma of his family abandoning him one after the other and the belief that there must be something wrong with him. He must be a freak and everyone is going to leave him in the end.
DEAN: C’mon! Your heaven is somebody else’s Thanksgiving. Okay. It’s bailing on your family. What do you want me to say?
SAM: Man, I never got the crusts cut off my PB & J. I just don’t look at family the way you do.
They both make interesting points here. Sam is always looking for happiness somewhere else and not able to find it in the situation he is in. And this may also be born from trauma of not having that experience of family like Dean did. He is always looking for that family he lost before he even knew what was happening around him. The ideal family must have been blown out of proportion in his mind. He never thought that normal families might also have their problems - that moms and dads not always got along perfectly-because John always idealized his marriage with Mary after she died.
DEAN: Yeah, but I’m your family.
SAM: I know…
DEAN: I mean, we’re supposed to be a team. It’s supposed to be you and me against the world, right?
SAM: Dean, it is!
DEAN: (after a pause) Is it?
Especially here, at this time, this is what is keeping Dean going. That they are fighting this together. But thrust like he is in his insecurity he again starts to doubt that Sam is really with him.
At this point they have to run again because Zach has caught up with them.
They have lost track of the road and are just running. They are all but in Zach's hands when our mysterious superhero - Ash - finds them and leads them into his Heaven.
ASH!! It's so good to see him again and his all business in front and party in the back<3 He tells them all about the different heavens, describing that they are like Disneyland without the antisemitism.
He also does a cool trick with his beer that make Sam and Dean watch him with their mouths open!
He's been to many people's heavens but when they ask if he's seen Ellen and Jo, he doesn't know that they have died. He does, however, know who would be glad to see them and proceeds to bring Pamela. Of course she has her eyes back and her first words are "It's nice to see you again!"
While Ash tells Sam about his technology, Pamela and Dean sit at a table and talk about heaven, and the apocalypse. This is quite an important conversation too because Pamela proceeds to make a pretty good argument for heaven and giving in to Michael.
PAMELA: Look, Dean, I’m happy. I’m at peace.
DEAN: What? Are you trying to sell me a time share? I mean, what’s with the pitch?
PAMELA: (chuckling) I know that Michael wants to take you out for a test drive.
DEAN: (interrupting) Pamela…
PAMELA: Just saying. What happens if you play ball with them? Worst case.
DEAN: A lot of people die.
PAMELA: And then they come here. Is that really so bad? Look. Maybe… you don’t have to fight it so hard. That’s all I’m trying to say.
I'm assuming here that Pamela knows what is going on because Ash has picked it up on Angel radio, but I think that, combined with Dean's disillusionment and despair, it plays a part in Dean's decision to say "yes" later on.
Ash is ready to show them on their way to a shortcut he has found and they say goodbye to Ash and Pamela. Pamela has a tiny kiss for Dean :P
When they go through the door though, they find themselves back at home and Mom asking Dean what he is doing up. Dean has no patience to pretend this time around and he tries to leave when the whole room shuts them in and mom ...
MARY: Don’t you walk away from me. I never loved you. You were my burden. I was shackled to you. Look what it got me.
MARY: The worst was the smell. The pain, well. What can you say about your skin bubbling off? But the smell was so… You know, for a second I thought I’d left a pot roast burning in the oven. But… it was my meat.
MARY: And then, finally, I was dead. The one silver lining was that at least I was away from you. Everybody leaves you, Dean. You noticed? Mommy. Daddy. Even Sam.
MARY: You ever ask yourself why? Maybe it’s not them. Maybe, it’s you.
What this fake mom is I cannot say, but what are any of the people that appear in these memories aye? Maybe sort of like the people created by "The Trickster" Gabriel? It is almost like they move according to the memories of the people brought to heaven. Zach calls this "Mary" the "blessed memory of her" which indicates that these "people" are created from memory. This one though is being used by Zach to dredge up Dean's fears and insecurities. The yellow eyes, the reminder of the pain Mary had gone through, the smell (which Dean may have actually smelled - even though he never saw his mother on the ceiling ) and most importantly Dean's fear that people abandoned him because there was something wrong with him. And here my heart is in my throat and I feel every word pierce Dean's heart. It doesn't even matter that they know it is not really her. Sam also sees how devastating this is for Dean - especially after he has experienced all of those memories with him.
Then Zach comes and tries to torture Dean into saying yes.
ZACHARIAH: It’s personal now, boys, and the last person in the history of creation you want as your enemy is me. And I’ll tell you why. Lucifer may be strong, but I’m… ‘‘petty’’. I’m going to be the angel on your shoulder for the rest of eternity.
but just as they seem to be screwed, Joshua comes and rescues them.
JOSHUA: I’m sorry. I need to speak to those two.
ZACHARIAH: (shocked) Excuse me?
JOSHUA: It’s a bad time, I know, but I’m afraid I have to insist.
ZACHARIAH: You don’t get to insist jack-squat.
JOSHUA: No, you’re right. But the boss does. His orders.
ZACHARIAH: (uncertain) You’re lying.
JOSHUA: I wouldn’t lie about this. Look, fire me if you want. Sooner or later, he’s going to come back home and you know how he is with that whole wrath thing.
And we all love Zach having to back down after all that! He disappears, and Joshua takes them to the garden. There, they find that God has a message for them.
JOSHUA: He knows what the angels are doing. He knows that the Apocalypse has begun. He just doesn’t think it’s his problem.
JOSHUA: God saved you already. He put you on that plane. He brought back Castiel. He granted you salvation in heaven and after everything you’ve done too. It’s more than he’s intervened in a long time. He’s finished. Magic amulet or not, you won’t be able to find him.
This finally explains how Cas came back and they were put on a plane - that it was not Lucifer. Joshua also mentions that God is actually on Earth, which would totally be an eyeopener for the first viewer. But, this is also where Dean's final hope is completely dashed.
JOSHUA: I know how important this was to you, Dean. I’m sorry.
DEAN: (emotional) Forget it. Just another dead-beat dad with a bunch of excuses, right. I’m used to that. I’ll muddle through.
And then he also tells Dean what we have been suspecting all along. And by doing so, it is almost like he is telling Sam because Dean sure doesn't need to know this.
JOSHUA: Except… you don’t know if you can, this time. You can’t kill the Devil, and you’re losing faith, in yourself, your brother, and now this?
JOSHUA: God was your last hope. I just… I wish I could tell you something different.
Joshua sends them back to Earth, this time with the memory of having been in Heaven. They wake up with huge gasps of air, blood and holes all over their clothes, but alive.
Dean calls Cas and they are cleaning up their stuff as Cas stands trying to understand God's message. Dean's face here as he watches Cas digest it all is so sympathetic. He knows how Cas feels so much.
CASTIEL: Maybe… maybe Joshua was lying.
SAM: I don’t think he was, Cas. I’m sorry.
CASTIEL: You son of a bitch. I believed in…
Then he turns to Dean and gives the amulet back to him.
CASTIEL: I don’t need this anymore. It’s worthless.
SAM: Cas. Wait.
Note it is Sam that calls him back. He is the only one that is not completely discouraged by it all, and still believes in them.
Dean leaves next - through the door of course - but stops to throw away the amulet on his way out. Sam sighs as he sees Dean leave, possibly thinking "How am I going to keep us going now?" and possibly feeling like crying.
Why does Dean throw it away? The amulet is the symbol of Sam's love for Dean and his present for Dean when he had come through for him that Christmas so long ago. But it was also the symbol of hope, the symbol of a father that both Dean and Cas had put their last hope in. And I also wonder why Sam did not rescue the amulet and take it along but maybe he also could only see it as a symbol of the uncaring father and Dean's despair.