Warning: extreme nerdity ahead.
What’s happening in this picture?
With no other information, you can ascertain that Right person (R) is threatening Left person (L). You know this without me informing you of any context to the image. Is R the hero threatening L to step away from the doomsday device? Is L the villain about to execute the innocent victim, R? Is it a big misunderstanding and they will shortly be friends? Or will it become a tragedy? You don’t know for sure, but R is definitely threatening L.
But imagine for a moment we could use the powers of time to reach back and pluck an ancient storyteller from the past. Would Homer or Plato really grasp what is happening in the image? They might get close to the idea from the body language, but they might also interpret it as R giving L a gift and L being very excited over the present. Why? Because there is a gun in the image and to them the gun is without context, they do not understand it in the same way that you, the modern reader, does. They might see it perhaps as a wand but a wand wielded by R could bestow blessings or curses.
In storytelling, there is a rule of thumb that one should show the audience a plot/emotion/etc rather than telling them about the plot/emotion/etc. However there is an asterisk to this in regards to speculative fiction (fantasy/sci-fi). In those stories the audience will typically not have any context for what’s happening, we are like the ancestor looking at a gun. We might get the right answer as to what’s happening in the scene, but without authorial input there’s no way to tell which of the myriad answers is the right one.
Previously we saw that the first half of S8 sinned against Sam by violating the foreshadowing and growth his character had undergone in the previous seasons. The last half of S8 sins against storytelling by telling the audience nothing (this is the single biggest flaw that Carver will repeat through his years).
This isn’t to say that the goal of late S8 was bad. It was the first real time the Winchesters took an active role against their enemies which was a logical character step. After the previous 7 years, why wouldn’t the boys think it was time to solve some problems permanently? The problem is, what does “seal the Gates of Hell” mean? What will be its consequences? In episode 8.17, Castiel says, “You’re damaged in ways even I can’t heal.” to Sam. How does that work? A body damaged beyond healing doesn’t seem like one that should be functional. And why would the trials “damage” someone? In episode 8.21, Sam says, “Because these trials… they’re purifying me.” but what does that mean? Is Sam being raised on demon blood and having played host to Lucifer what’s making him damaged from the purification? If Dean or someone else was being “purified” would they still be “damaged in ways even [Cas] can’t heal”? Is there any downside for the wider world if Hell closes? Is there a time limit on the trials? What if they spread the trials out over the course of multiple years? What if a different person did each leg of the trials?
Now I can already hear some of you furiously typing up a response (and probably not reading this paragraph) but for those who are still here reading: the point is that there’s no definitive answer. Every commentator could leave below a different explanation of the questions raised by the trials and “Gates of Hell” and every explanation would be equally valid because the story never tells us what’s happening. It only shows us something for which we have little-to-vague context for. For a comparison, let’s play the image game again. First, an image from S8 thanks to the SPN wiki.
Now, an image from S5.
If we were to poll dozens of SPN fans and ask them to interpret these images and explain what is happening, which one would have the most consistent explanations?
Because in one story, the audience was shown AND told what was happening. We knew what the stakes were. The audience has full context and understanding to go with what is shown. With the strongest storyline of S8, the audience is given none of this. The story provides no context and there isn’t a reservoir of common cultural knowledge or external reference that can be drawn upon for greater understanding.
So we are left to flounder in confusion.