Supernatural: On the Head of a Pin
July 28, 2021 5:28 AM - Season 4, Episode 16 - Subscribe

Castiel and Uriel ask Dean to torture Alastair for information, but when Alastair breaks free, Castiel starts to believe that there may be a traitor among the angels.


Dean: [to Uriel] I want to talk to Cass. Alone.
Uriel: I think I'll go seek revelation. We might have some further orders.
Dean: Well, get some donuts while you're out.
Uriel: This one just won't quit. I'm starting to like you, boy. [disappears]
Dean: You guys don't walk enough. You'll start to get flabby.
Castiel: ...
Dean: You know, I'm starting to think Junkless has a better sense of humor than you do.
Castiel: Uriel's the funniest angel in the garrison. Ask anyone.


The "Angel exorcism" incantation that Alastair used was: "Omnipotentis Dei potestatem invoco. Omnipotentis Dei potestatem invoco, Aborro te ut. Angelum omnium obsequendum domine expuet domine expuet deum adempiremus veritas." Which loosely translates to: "I invoke the power and authority of God. I invoke the power and authority of God. Worship Earth, this Angel in Your service, Lord reveal him, Lord reveal him!"

While Dean is torturing him, Alastair remarks, "It's your professionalism that I respect." This is the same line used in Little Shop of Horrors, spoken by the dental patient in response to the sadistic dentist who is trying to cause him pain. However, the dentist didn't know that the patient was a masochist who was enjoying what the dentist was doing. By referencing this, Alastair may have been trying to indicate that Dean's torture attempts were not having the desired result.

Alastair calls Dean "Grasshopper", which is from Kung Fu, where the Shaolin Master Po nicknamed his student "Grasshopper". This term has come to refer to one who is a novice or a student or disciple, as Dean had been to Alastair.

The title of this episode comes from the expression, "How many angels can dance on the head of a pin?" Some early theologians discussed this question, though some believe it may have been merely a debating exercise, rather than a true academic inquiry for a concrete answer. However, other theologians used this expression mockingly, as an example of questions they deemed useless because it had no practical use. Therefore it became a metaphor for an exercise in futility. Since Dean was forced to torture Alistair without anything useful coming from the act, the metaphor fits the episode -- Dean's foray back into torturing was, in fact, an exercise in futility.

In this episode, we learn that Dean broke the first seal. It was supposed to be his father, John, but he wouldn't break and torture others as Dean did. Alastair says, "And it is written that the first seal shall be broken when a righteous man sheds blood in hell. As he breaks so shall it break." And as the righteous man who started it he is the only one who can finish it.

This episode contains the first use of the "angel blade" which in later episodes/seasons becomes the weapon of choice against both angels and demons. Jensen Ackles has said that it's his favorite prop, comparing it to a fidget spinner.

Jensen Ackles has remarked on a few occasions that the torture scenes between he and Christopher Heyerdahl would have been difficult to film had both actors not trusted each other. Jensen has praised Christopher, and has said he is thankful for the chemistry they had as actors, allowing for them to come incredibly close during face-to-face banter and allowing for them to capture the very raw energy of the story.
posted by orange swan (6 comments total)
Though Castiel changes a lot over the course of the series, his ultra literal humourlessness remains a constant to his last appearance, and is never not a joy.

The way angels get into physical fights in the Supernatural universe has always seemed ridiculous to me. Surely they'd just use their powers to zap their opponents. That said, Anna knifing Uriel was badass.

That torture scene really was a remarkable thing -- very tense and compelling.

Sam's stronger than Castiel? Really? That demon blood must be potent juice. It's not like Ruby would be stronger than Castiel.

Poor Dean. It's not enough that he has to feel guilt over torturing people in hell, but now he has to carry the guilt of his agreeing to do it having started the rising of Lucifer and the beginning of an apocalypse. Pretty heavy stuff for a guy who'd rather be banging hookups and eating pie. That last scene, with him in his hospital bed talking to Castiel, is probably the most down and defeated we ever see him.
posted by orange swan at 5:37 AM on July 28, 2021 [1 favorite]

I can see why Ackles like the angel blades. They're a neat piece of design: simple and clean and elegant looking. Even though they're far from flaming swords, I think they work in the context of the show.
posted by sardonyx at 7:43 AM on July 28, 2021

This is one of my favorite episodes (of the seasons I've watched). There's a ton of gorgeous shots, the way the mystery unfolds, it's such a treat to watch.

There's some motivational stuff that doesn't make sense in retrospect, but that's easy enough to forgive for supernatural.
posted by dinty_moore at 9:06 AM on July 28, 2021 [1 favorite]

An angel murder mystery feels like a premise good enough to carry a lot more plot than this gave it (Neil Gaiman even wrote one back in the day.) That’s not a criticism of this episode, which was quite good and not trying to be an Angel Murder Mystery; I think it was more fitting to have the whole thing turn out to be a pointless errand through hell with manipulation as an end goal in itself, that leaves Dean about as low as we ever see him (and Sam, in other ways, not much better.) 

I really like the choice to make John and Dean going to Hell part of a bigger plan. Some demons along the way have pointed out that Dean got better terms than John, and there are a few reasons why Azazel might want John safely in Hell as soon as possible while Lilith would leave Dean (and Sam) to marinate in helpless terror for an entire year. But I’m guessing (and it is just a guess) that John escaping Hell in AHBL II wasn't part of the big plan, and he was still supposed to be in Hell when Dean got there. In that case, when Sam dies in Cold Oak Lilith's been waiting a hundred years for John to break the seal, and it's not happening. Sam probably wasn’t supposed to die, but when he does, she lines up Dean as a back-up plan, and she gives him a year to live, knowing in a couple days the demons will be out of Hell and ready to start breaking seals as soon as either Dean or John break. She has to wait another hundred years in Hell local time to even start in on Dean though, and I guess was betting they might still break John first, which is a thing I’m still sorry Dean has to know about himself. "I carved you into a new animal. There is no going back."

I would be so curious to know what kind of direction they gave the Alastair actors, because that voice is something else and I can't put my finger on what they're going for, except maybe Hannibal Lecter. But yeah, Heyerdahl did a really good job here. 

The fight choreography between Uriel and Castiel is pretty funny. I’m just gonna assume they’re not used to fighting in human bodies and Castiel is hazy on what a punch is supposed to look like. Anna, of course, knows exactly what a knife to the throat is supposed to look like. 

The life expectancy of Black supporting characters up to this point is still like three episodes, this one was also a traitor and a murderer with views on humans the dialogue frames as racist, and this show just cannot stop itself. But tell you what, Uriel's politics land differently than they did in season 4. All you really know here is that God is remote and unknowable even to his angels. Lucifer isn't ultimately the better option for humans, but Uriel's not wrong that God isn't good and isn't doing his job and doesn't care, and they all need to decide what that means for themselves. What Dean and Castiel don't say in the very lonely moment at the end is still true: no one knows, and no one's coming to save you. 
posted by jameaterblues at 4:27 PM on July 28, 2021 [2 favorites]

John Winchester never breaking in hell was really something. He's one of those "larger than life" characters, whose virtues and failings are on a grand scale.

I also liked Anna pushing Castiel to begin to act and think for himself... yet still showing up to save him in the nick of time, because she was keeping an eye on him and was not having shit go down on her watch. She's another character I would have liked to see last longer -- and for that matter, to be put in charge of heaven.
posted by orange swan at 5:13 PM on July 28, 2021 [3 favorites]

SPN (and a lot of other shows) used Riverview _ Hospital as a location.

It had been around since the 1870s - one of the older buildings in the PNW. Throughout its history, it had generally specialized in mental health and at the end of the 21st century ended up housing a lot of the most societally challenging and personally troubled mental health patients with near universal addiction/ drug co-morbidities.

There was some wierdness around the 2010 Olympics, but the facility was closed and mothballed in the early 2010s - and that was more likely than not a part of the nucleus of events and policies precipitating the homeless/ mentally ill/ opioid crisis in Vancouver.

It's gone now but there're new facilities replacing it that want to focus on tackling complex mental illness and addiction, the will that had had lapsed.

"Back in the day" (mid 90s - 1990s) a common theme for "campfire stories" revolved around Riverview patients - both escaped patients and patients still institutionalized. In the late 80s, Riverview gave Coquitlam a terrible and undeserved reputation beyond that Coquitlam was "really really far away (and in the 'sticks')."

In reality, without traffic, Riverview to the Vancouver Public Library in the heart of downtown is less than half an hour by car these days.
posted by porpoise at 1:31 AM on July 29, 2021

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