"Previously on" montages for serialized shows often give you a good sense of what to expect in the hour to follow. If you see a clip of a character referencing some obscure history, you can be fairly sure that history is going to somehow become relevant in the next forty minutes. And if you see a guest star pop in who you haven't seen in a while, well, you can be reasonably sure they'll be making their triumphant return very soon. Which is why it was a little disconcerting to see Ellen and Jo, the mother/daughter hunting team who died last season, featured so heavily in the refresher before the start of "My Heart Will Go On." This wasn't just a few isolated expository lines, either. We saw Ellen's introduction to the series, and we saw how her and Jo died: sacrificing themselves to blow up some hellhounds. Which leads you think that Ellen is going to be an important part of "Heart," while at the same time reminding you just how impossible that would be.
Ellen does appear in the episode, and she is a fairly important part; and one of the reasons she's so important is that, like Marley in A Christmas Carol, she truly was dead. (As a doornail, which, I have on good authority, is Pretty Damn Dead.) Jo is also referenced as being upright and breathing, although the actress who played her never makes an appearance. When Ellen appears in Bobby's kitchen, carrying a sack of groceries and ragging on him for how tired he looks, nobody acts like it's all that big a deal. So that whole hell-hound incident? Never happened. And while it becomes obvious fairly early on that there's no way Ellen's going to last through to next week, it is nice that the show still remembers her. I still think her and Jo's death was a bad call, if only because it left the show with a painful dearth of solid female characters. Bringing her back now doesn't change that, but it works for some quick, effective emotional investment.
That emotional investment is important. "Heart" is terribly clever, but if it didn't have a sharp sense of the cost of all that cleverness, it would've wound up hollow, unable to carry the weight of the fairly massive ideas it tries to pull off. The pitch, flat out: Cass is in the middle of his war in Heaven, and he decides he could use a few more souls to help the odds. So he sends Balthazar back in time to prevent the sinking of the Titanic. (Balthazar poses as first mate I.P. Freeley, and spots the ice-berg before the ship hits it.) In saving the Titanic, Balthazar creates 50,000 new souls in the present day, which creates a complicated series of events that leads to Ellen and Jo still sucking oxygen. But Atropos, one of the three sisters of Fate, is pissed off, and has started killing off all 50,000 of the should be dead folks in retaliation. Sam and Dean get involved, turns out she's not happy with them either, and wackiness, of course, ensues.
"Heart" is, as is often the case with Supernatural, a hodge-podge of concepts from other shows and movies, although it does the usual fun job of mixing them together in delightful ways. The most obvious debt owed here is to the Final Destination franchise, in which a whimsical Death enacts horrible, Rube Goldbergian revenge on the fools who try and thwart his will. ("Heart" pays direct reference to the franchise's first film with the "stealth bus" lawyer death, but all three kill sequences here could easily have appeared in any of the movies.) It's definitely not the strongest idea in the ep, and while I don't want to nitpick, I'm pretty sure most garage doors aren't weighted, and don't have razor blades for their bottom rim. Still, a sequence of Sam and Dean walking through what might be the Most City Square In America attempting to tempt Fate is hilarious, and a great way to pay off the earlier scenes. Even better, Fate targets the Winchesters twice, and both times, the only reason she's thwarted is that Cass steps in to save them. This show has had problems gauging the power levels of the various deities and legends it plays with, and it was gratifying that, for once, we had someone who really wasn't to be trifled with.
The other debt "Heart" owes is more defuse—basically, we're picking up ideas that time travel fiction has been playing with for decades, from Ray Bradbury's "A Sound of Thunder" to The Butterfly Effect. And while none of it is precisely new (even Ellen's reappearance is something I've seen before, although it's handled very well here; when we start the episode, we're on the unsunk Titanic timeline already), the whole thing plays out well. The most effective aspect is how weirdly casual everything is. Cass's decision leads to the creation of 50,000 new souls, souls which he unceremoniously nullifies when Atropos threatens to put a hit out on Sam and Dean. On the one hand, it's just numbers (the only "death" that really stings here is Ellen's), but it's the sort of brain-hurting concept that most on-going shows wouldn't dare to try. There's also the idea that Fate is especially angry with Sam and Dean for stopping the Apocalypse, because that put her out of a job. It's a weird way to look at Fate, but it fits into one of the big themes of this season: the idea that nobody has any idea what the hell to do after the world failed to end. (Which also works as a running meta-commentary for the series, since show creator Eric Kripke left after last year.)
I wasn't a huge fan of having yet another pretty actress serving as the Monster of the Week, although at least "Heart" didn't end with Sam or Dean "ganking" Atropos. And Cass's various speeches on free will rang hollow, considering the circumstances. I doubt anyone who died on the Titanic could've avoided drowning if they'd just tried to make their own destiny (considering that most of us muggles don't know what Fate has in store for us, how can we possibly find our own path?), and Cass's actions here just make it more obvious how little control anyone really has. He claims he left Sam and Dean with a memory of what was lost to remind them of the importance of choice, but since he was the one who saved them, what sort of lesson is anyone learning? But generally, this was solid. Balthazar got rant about a terrible movie, Dean got to get his customary "bitch" in (seriously, is that in Ackles' contract?), and we got to spend a few more minutes with Ellen. I was never hugely crazy about her, to tell the truth, but those shots of her and Bobby together were sweet, and the thought of him losing that without ever knowing what he had provides the kind of sadness this ep needed.
- The idea of the Fates working for God is hilarious. Also, Atropos was the sister who cut the threads; in a universe where Death has a existing persona, isn't she already redundant?
- Cass claims that never existing is better for those 50,000 souls than whatever awful death Fate had in store. But since this is a reality with a Heaven, I'm not sure that's actually true.
- "You totally Butterfly-effected history!" "Dude. Dude. Rule one: No Kutcher references."
- I didn't even notice they had a different car till Cass mentioned it.
- "These ladies are responsible for how you go down. Literally." Surely there was a better way to phrase this.
- So, why did Fate wait this long to clean everything up?