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Man, I love alternate-reality stories. Who doesn't? Whether it's Jimmy Stewart discovering how his hometown turns into the ninth circle without him to save everybody from everything, or the X-Men finding out that the future actually sucks even harder than the present, there's something so bracing about watching familiar characters get torn to shreds with absolutely no consequences. Alternate realities are nearly always gloomy, and one of the ways they demonstrate their gloom is by killing just about everybody. Why not? Like a Simpsons' "Treehouse of Terror" episode, none of this is for keeps. And if there's anything more fun that building a world, it's burning it right back down.

I had high hopes for "The End," partly because of its "Dean goes into a hellish future of his own making!" angle, and partly because it was written by Ben Edlund, since as we established last week, Ben Edlund rocks. Thankfully, "End" did not disappoint. This is the best episode we've seen of the new season easily, and quite possibly one of the best in the whole series. It establishes a bleak tomorrow five years down the road, where Satan has successfully taken over Sam's body, the Croatoan virus has wiped out a large part of humanity, and future-Dean has turned into, well, a bit of a dick. This was scary, funny, and moving by turns, and a great example of how hard this show can rock.

The plot is simple enough: Zachariah, who's now using some fringe religious follk to track Dean down, has decided it's time to give Michael's reluctant vessel a lesson in saying "Yes." So he zaps Dean five years ahead in time, and leaves him there for three days. Dean runs into some of the infected, called "Crotes," and tracks down the good guys to Camp Chitaqua, where he's promptly knocked unconscious and handcuffed by the current Dean, who's leading the freedom fighters and none too happy to see such a familiar face.

What would you do if you had a chance to see a past version of yourself? Future-Dean tries to show past-Dean that he has to give in, has to let Michael possess him, but of course our Dean ain't buying. Which makes sense, really. I sometimes wish I could go back in time and stop myself from making some of the choices I've made, but it's never a fantasy I can really believe in for very long. Even if I was willing to accept the possibility of time travel, and willing to ignore the potential for paradox, just telling my younger self, "No, don't fall in love with her," or "If you start exercising now, you'll save yourself a lot of trouble down the road," doesn't mean my younger self will suddenly change into a person capable of doing either of those things. (And how mundane those suggestions really are! Isn't that odd; to find your life can be boiled down into advice so boring even Dear Abby wouldn't run it.) Future-Dean says he capable of killing Sam, of taking Michael into himself, but that's only his word—he doesn't seem too good at accomplishing anything, beyond shooting his friends and getting everyone killed. But even if we take him at his word, those are choices he's willing to make only because of the experiences he's had in the five years our Dean skipped. You can't replicate experience in a few shouted dialogs. Learning takes time, and it often takes blood.

Future-Cass seems to understand this. A stoned junkie who spends his time running orgies (with the camp's surprisingly attractive female population, by the by; I guess only hotties were allowed in?), he's given up on everything because the angels have left, and so have his magic powers. Both Jensen Ackles and Misha Collins do fine work in "End," Collins especially. I think he smiles more this episode than in every other episode combined, but it's such a miserable, lost expression. Future-Dean is harder and nastier, sure, but it's Future-Cass who really strikes a chord. Orgies or not, the frustration in his voice when he talks about being laid up with a hurt foot for two months is honest and bitter. Like our Dean, it makes you appreciate the present-Cass a whole lot more.

And there's Satan-Sam. His confrontation with Dean at the climax (right after breaking Future-Dean's neck) put "The End" over the top for me. We get more of Lucifer's motivation—fairly standard stuff, he wasn't too happy when God made Man—and there's some more of that unsettling morality. Satan has yet to yell or threaten in any conventional sense, which means you can't help wondering how unpleasant it's going to be when he finally does break out the nasty. Even creepier is his complete apathy towards Dean's promise of vengeance. Supernatural has developed an uncanny knack for keeping its viewers slightly off-keel. Most of last season was spent juggling uncertainties, and while I have a hard time imagining the show ending with Lucifer triumphant, I'm not absolutely positive that Sam and Dean's reunion at the end of the episode was a complete good. I'm happy to have them together again, and even if it happened quickly, the hatchet burying was sincere and well-earned. But… well, Satan seemed really positive when he said there was no way of avoiding the future, didn't he. He's the Father of Lies and all, but he did seem awfully sure.

Grade: A

Stray Observations:

Next week, we're back to Demon of the Week territory. Huzzah!
-Sign of the Apocalypse: "President Palin Defends Bombing Of Houston."
-Last time we saw "Croatoan" was back in Season 2. Makes me wish I still had the box set.
-I wonder if we'll be seeing Risa, Future-Dean's main squeeze, somewhere down the road?
-Kind of disappointed that there were no dudes in Cass's potential orgy. I just figure a real ex-angel-gone-rogue would swing both ways.
-Words of wisdom from future-Chuck: "Bit of advice: hoard toilet paper."