So I’d normally fill this space with a “Shadows” update, but I can’t, not today, because I spent last night staying up WAY too late watching Supernatural with myjusticecake (to those who’ve seen the show, we just watched “The Man Who Would Be King” for the first time), and I brim with too many feels that, well, sorry, I just have to meta for a bit. Hope you don’t mind.
For six months and five seasons, I’ve approached Supernatural as nothing more than a mostly enjoyable, sometimes problematic, and always addictive diversion. While individual episodes stand out – “The End”, “Mystery Spot”, “Criss Angel Is A Douchebag”—most of the time I’ve watched the series with tongue firmly in cheek and eyes ready to roll.
But at some point during Season 6, I feel like the quality of the storytelling skyrocketed. Much of the juicier external drama – the rise of new supernatural powers, Eve’s, uh, “activities”, the civil war – shifted off-screen. As a result, the series’s often heavy-handed storytelling has softened, becoming more subtle and complex. It doesn’t hurt that this season’s narrative has pulled liberally from my favorite storytelling pattern ever, the Heroine’s Journey: from the shattering of Dean’s illusory “perfect world”, to the recurring theme of monsters building “new families”; from the relative unimportance of the external “big baddie” to the overarching narrative dominance of emotional conflict, this is a different kind of story than Kripke & co. told in Seasons 1-5.
And in my opinion, it’s better. Much better.
WARNING: SUPER DUPER SPOILERS FOR SUPERNATURAL SEASON 6, UP TO AND INCLUDING “THE MAN WHO WOULD BE KING”, BEHIND THE CUT.
I’ve written before about how Supernatural is a western, which it absolutely is, but that’s not all – it’s also a mishmash of every delicious Homerian and Aeschylean Greek Tragedy that’s ever survived: Sons who repeat their fathers’ mistakes, the ferocity of brotherly love, noble houses falling, civil wars, what has happened before will happen again. Can you avert your fate? Does God even care? At what cost are you willing to preserve your personal loyalties? These are the questions the show raises time and time again, ones that have somewhat fallen out of vogue in the past three thousand years but which were all the rage in Homer and Aeschylus’s time. If the questions seem fresh, it’s only because we haven’t asked them in a long, long time.
And the relationship between Dean and Cas is also something we haven’t seen in a long, long time. Whether you ship them or not is almost besides the point—almost—because no matter what the label put on their relationship, these two characters share a more profound bond (to use Cas’s words) than anyone else on the show, with the possible exception of Dean and Sam.
That said, of course, at this point it’s pretty much canon that Cas is in love with Dean (from Balthasar to Uriel, everyone seems happy to comment on it—and hell, if it weren’t canon, then Crowley’s offer/temptation of securing “happy endings for all of us, with all possible entendres” would make no sense). Whether Dean is in love with Cas, however, is a trickier situation to parse, and I think one can fairly interpret his feelings either as an intense “band of brothers”-style camaraderie or as a romantic love he’s not willing to let himself feel. Still: I’m reminded of The Iliad. Was Achilles in love with Patrocles? Maybe yes, maybe no, but for the purposes of the story, it didn’t matter one bit.
What initially drew me to the show was the brotherly bond between Sam and Dean, namely how the show did not shy from, shame or otherwise deprecate two archetypically masculine men expressing their love for each other. That’s unusual in modern media, to say the least. Cas and Dean have a different, but no less powerful, bond. While Sam and Dean are like a Janus head, two halves of the same whole facing opposite directions, Cas and Dean are two halves facing each other, like two curves asymptotically approaching a line but never reaching it completely.
Cas in Season 5 is in some ways like Dean in Season 1, chasing after an absent father, who has seemingly abandoned his children but is really pulling the strings behind the scenes. In some ways, he’s like Season 2 Dean, struggling under the weight of choices made for him; feeling the only choice available to him to sacrifice himself for the ones he loves. In other ways, the weight of inevitability and destiny presses upon Cas like Dean in Season 3, and he struggles against a fate he desperately wants to avoid but cannot see how. But Cas is also like Season 4 Dean, fighting against his brothers, learning what a heavy burden a soul can be. And of course, by the end of Season 6, Cas has transformed into 2014!Dean, the soulless man willing to do anything, no matter how horrible, just to achieve his own goals – if he remembers why he made those goals in the first place.
That is, Cas and Dean are the same person in two bodies. Both are soldiers, trained from birth, who do not know how to process emotion; both have chased after the shadow of an ever-retreating father, struggled to contain recalcitrant brothers; both are loyal, so intensely, fiercely loyal, that time and again, their greatest strength becomes a weapon to be used against them.
It’s no coincidence, of course, that Cas’s soul should be such a reflection of Dean’s, because Dean was the one who taught him how to have a soul in the first place.
In “The Man Who Would Be King”, Cas initially rejects Crowley’s offer by saying, “I don’t have a soul to sell,” but that’s not strictly true, is it? We’ve seen what soulless creatures are like—that is, Sam at the beginning of Season 6—and they are creatures of pure logic and thought, willing to do anything to achieve their goals, yes, but, more importantly, incapable of true emotional connection. And while Cas has indeed proven that he’s willing to do anything to achieve his goal of protecting the Winchesters — including averting the second Apocalypse and starting a holy war in Heaven and let’s not get into the eating souls thing yet because EW CAS FUCK YOU — he’s not emotionless. Quite the opposite, actually. Rebelling for Dean—for a cause greater even than divine purpose—opened the flood gates within Cas, who has now learned that affection, loyalty and love given without thought is meaningless; it’s only with free will that any of it matters a damn.
In Season 4, Dean calls Cas a “dick with wings” and he barely blinks. In Season 6, Dean calls Cas “a baby in a trenchcoat” and his feelings are hurt. His feelings are hurt. How far the mighty have fallen.
But as Flemeth once said, it’s only when you fall that you learn how to fly.
And that’s the thing, isn’t it? Cas has learned to fly, and quite adroitly, because he seized his freedom by the hojos and created his own soul. God didn’t give it to him. He made it. And Cas did it, all of it, because of, and for, Dean Winchester.
Dean taught him how to create a soul from nothing—because isn’t that what he had to do for himself after he rose from Hell? Like a phoenix from ash, Dean had to recreate his own soul after decades of torture had burnt it to cinder. And as Castiel watched him do this, so did the lowly teach the mighty; and as Dean was reborn, so too was the Angel of Thursday: He was brought into being as Castiel but Dean renamed him Cas, and for that, Cas will spend the rest of his existence repaying the favor.
It’s not about who’s in love with who here, that’s really besides the point, because just as Gilgamesh and Enkidu belonged to each other, or Achilles and Patrocles, so too does Cas belong to Dean, just as Dean belongs to Cas. It’s not for nothing that Castiel pulled both Winchesters from the bounds of Hell, but one bears his handprint and the other does not. I mean, Cas had to go farther to yank Sam out of Hell, down into Lucifer’s cage itself, yet somehow Sam remained physically unblemished by Cas’s intervention, while Dean forever bears a reminder that Cas, personally, gripped him tight and pulled him from perdition. Dean bears Cas’s handprint, a permanent “PROPERTY OF” marker, as unique as a soul who made it.
Dean and Cas, Cas and Dean. The Righteous Man in Hell, and the Angel of Thursday. Chuck might argue that they were always meant to find one another; that maybe a capricious god made them from the very beginning to suffer and save each other. Cas has always existed to pull Dean from the pit. Dean has always existed to be thrown in the pit. Cas has always existed to create his own soul. Dean has always existed to teach him how.
It’s all the same, in the end, because the point of Supernatural is that God does not save us. God merely gives us the means with which to save ourselves. And when the world ends, even if by our own hand, if we hold true to each other, and ourselves, then no one is irredeemable, or unforgiven.