I’ve often said that Season 7 convinced me of the canonicity of Dean/Cas, and to this day it boggles my mind that so many fans blame Sera Gamble for “ruining” the characters’ relationship. So I thought I’d step through my favorite season, episode by episode, and point out exactly why I’m so convinced their love is not only of the romantic sort, but also very, very canon.
Previously: Out With the Old
Author’s Note: I’ll be traveling for the next several days, so I won’t be able to get to part 2 and beyond for some time, until at least mid next week. But this part’s a little longer to make up for it. So settle in for a book, friends. Hopefully it will tide you over until I get back. :)
17: The Born Again Identity, Part 1
If “Death’s Door” is a masterpiece, then “The Born Again Identity” is Sera Gamble’s magnum opus, her crowning achievement, the one Supernatural episode for which she should be remembered forever. Fine; I’m being a little hyperbolic. But it’s also really that good.
Subtle and complex, darkly humorous and painfully cathartic, “The Born Again Identity” packs in enough content to last three episodes, yet somehow it never feels rushed or forced. Pop culture and literary references abound in equal measure, but it’s also highly self-referential, in that it calls back to almost every other Supernatural episode Gamble ever wrote. Those who’ve carefully watched and re-watched the series are thus rewarded with additional context and deeper meaning for the scenes now taking place. This is fangirl catnip at its most potent. I love it.
“The Born Again Identity” is a love letter to Dean, to Cas, and to everything the Supernatural universe has come to represent. Yet I think it remains one of Gamble’s most misunderstood episodes, certainly one of her most overlooked. If I remember correctly, at the time of airing many fans were disappointed, and I’m not sure why, other than maybe the fact that the reconciliation between Dean and Cas is saved for another episode.
As well it should be. Damage that big can’t be fixed in one go, and besides, this isn’t an episode about reconciliation. This is an episode about death, and fear, and facing both head on, only to come out the other side in one piece, stronger than you were before.
I’ve written before about the Heroine’s Journey as it relates to Supernatural, and I’ve really tried to refrain from discussing it in this analysis, because, lord, aren’t you people sick of me talking about it already? But I can’t hold off any longer. The pull is too strong, and I think you miss much of the point of this episode without at least a basic understanding of what the Heroine’s Journey is all about.
In case you haven’t read any of my equally massive metasplosions on that topic, here’s the Reader’s Digest version:
So we’ve all heard of the Hero’s Journey, right? Well, in recent decades, some literary critics have identified a similar narrative pattern called the Heroine’s Journey, the essence of which is this: a Heroine is stripped of all that she thinks she needs, in order to unlock the power she had within her all along. The concept is patterned after “Inanna’s Descent to the Underworld”, an ancient Akkadian myth, one of the oldest we still know of, and you see it reflected in all sorts of modern stories like Titanic, Alien, American Beauty, Tangled, and my favorite game of all time, Dragon Age 2.
(One brief aside: the Heroine’s Journey is in fact a gender neutral archetype. Just as with the Hero’s Journey, both men and women can take on the Heroine roles, although the bulk of literature obviously tends to favor female characters for Heroine’s Journeys, hence the name.)
The Hero’s and Heroine’s Journeys follow the same basic trajectory, I suppose, but with some key differences, not the least of which is the idea of Descent. A Hero’s Journey is a story of Ascent – you start with nothing and build your way up, acquiring key allies and powers in order to confront your worst fear, which waits for you at the climax of the narrative. Heroine’s Journeys, on the other hand, are stories of Descent – you start with everything, a full suit of armor with which to protect yourself, and you slowly lose the pieces of that armor until you are brought to your most vulnerable point, at which point you then must face your worst fear head on. This is called the “Death” stage, and unlike the Hero’s Journey, it usually happens somewhere in the middle of your story, or at the end of the second act – because after Death, there’s still a lot more story left to tell (specifically: Rebirth).
For this reason, the Heroine’s Journey provides an excellent template for horror or romance stories, or tales about addiction, spirituality, and finding one’s identity – any narrative in which the idea of death/rebirth takes center stage. It’s only natural, then, that Supernatural would employ the Heroine’s Journey pattern to tell the Descent-focused stories of Seasons 6 and 7.
Without getting too deep in the weeds here – it’s another analysis for another time – I will say this: Season 6 follows a Heroine’s Journey for Sam and Cas, while Season 7 is a Heroine’s Journey for Dean.
Throughout Season 7, Dean has had his armor, his defense mechanisms, stripped away piece by piece. He’s lost Bobby, he’s lost Frank, he’s lost the Impala – hell, he’s even lost pie. In the “The Born Again Identity”, he is brought to his most vulnerable point, and forced to confront his deepest, darkest fears. This is his Death stage, and Dean comes out the other side Reborn. (Note that this differs from what I previously claimed was Dean’s Death stage, but hey, that’s what happens when you meta in real-time. I’m allowed to change my mind.)
Dean isn’t healed yet, mind you, not by a long shot – but after this episode Dean will behave and react differently than he did before, stronger, more capable of facing the slings and arrows thrown at him by life and Leviathan both.
What’s brilliant about “The Born Again Identity” (among so many other things) is how it uses Cas’s literal rebirth to mirror Dean’s metaphorical rebirth. One man dies so the other may live, and vice versa. In fact, this episode is like their relationship in miniature, isn’t it, with these two characters pushing and pulling on each other in equal measure, like two tidal-locked moons in orbit around the same planet.
In the past, that planet has been absent fathers, apocalypses, civil wars, you name it. In this episode, however, that planet is Sam. Sam is the cause worth ordering a life by—or a death – and before this is all over, we will see both men will die alternately in order to resurrect Sam.
And, of course, to resurrect each other. Because if there’s one great truth about Dean and Cas’s relationship, it’s this: both men always deserved to be saved.
The episode opens with Sam fleeing Lucifer along a train track in the bad part of town. He hits up a drug dealer for sleeping pills; desperate times call for desperate measures, after all, and the junkie tends to return to his bad habits, one way or another.
But the pill doesn’t help. Just as he’s starting to drift off in the dealer’s car, Sam has a hallucination of a pole crashing through the windshield, aimed straight at his heart. This image calls back to Sera Gamble’s second season episode “Houses of the Holy”, the climax of which featured a man similarly impaled, an act that Dean witnessed and interpreted as a sign from the divine.
This visual reference isn’t a coincidence. “Houses of the Holy” was the first Supernatural episode to explicitly introduce the existence of angels and God’s Divine plan; it was the first time we heard about Michael, for example, and that angels are “warriors of God”. But the episode is also important in that it foreshadows much of what occurs in Season 4 and 5 (which is how Sam got to where he is right now, of course).
The death of the would-be rapist in “Houses of the Holy” is God’s first hint to Dean that explicit signs from God do happen, and that he shall bear them witness – that one day soon, he himself will be gripped tight by his own deus ex machina and raised from Perdition.
Sam, however, did not witness the miracle in “Houses of the Holy”. He only ever saw the false signs, created by the fake would-be angel. The personal connection to the divine that he’d thought he’d found was all just a fraud, and the gift of true faith was meant for his brother, not for him.
And so it would ever be, sadly. Sam is almost universally reviled among the angels for his demon blood and his link to Lucifer; even Cas, for a long time, harbors a love-hate relationship with the man. When the forces of Heaven intervene in Sam’s life, it is only ever to punish or destroy, and not to save or persuade. For example, Zachariah is willing to haggle with Dean, offering anything he can to get Dean to say yes to Michael. He needs Sam to say yes just as badly, but for Sam, Zac only ever doles out stomach cancer and hemorrhages.
This disparity in how Heaven favors the brothers is exactly flipped from the way it is on earth. On Earth as it is in Heaven? Yeah right. On Earth, Sam may be John’s favorite son, but Dean is clearly Heaven’s favorite, and it’s Cain and Abel all over again, two sons caught trying to please an unknowable father, while God’s first children play favorites with His left-behind toys.
All of this was first explicitly established in Gamble’s “Houses of the Holy”, and by evoking that episode at the top of this one, Gamble is using a sort of shorthand to take us back to the start. Sam was once tormented by a personal connection to a false angel, and he is likewise tormented here – except now it’s even worse, because Lucifer (the real Lucifer) was an actual angel, not just a ghost; and this leftover psychic connection is very real, and very personal, and something Sam even willingly invited in “Repo Man”. Sam wanted his bunk buddy. Now he must pay the price.
There’s a reason I’m lingering on Sam here, even though this episode isn’t really about him. It’s because Sam’s part to play in “The Born Again Identity” is in providing Cas and Dean a convincing scapegoat – a sacrificial lamb, if you will – worthy of catalyzing their death and rebirth. That’s why Sam’s hunt with Marin is a by-the-numbers salt-and-burn, interesting only in the way that Marin’s dead brother calling out from the grave echoes what’s going on with Dean and Cas. Because this B plot isn’t about Marin. It’s about Sam – demonstrating his innate need, even under extreme duress, to save, to protect, and to make wrongs right. We watch Sam in these moments, brought so low but still so brave; and we see a hero in his finest hour. We see a man who, unquestionably, deserves to be saved.
Sam flees the hallucination, only to get hit by a car. He is taken to a hospital somewhere in Indiana, where he’s placed in a locked psychiatric ward. When he finds out, Dean barges into the doctor’s office and demands to see his brother:
Dean: Psychotic? Come on. I mean, it’s not like the guy’s freakin’ Norman Bates.
At first I thought this was a throwaway line, and who knows, maybe it is. But then I remembered that Dean last alluded to Norman Batesin “Repo Man”, when he asked Jeffrey if “mommy made you stuff birds, put on dresses”. (Norman Bates, the villain of Psycho, was a taxidermy enthusiast who liked to dress in his dead mother’s clothing. Oh, and hold onto that taxidermy reference, by the way. We’ll be coming back to it in a bit.) And the whole point of “Repo Man” is how similar Jeffrey and Dean are, that they’re basically the same person, driven crazy by equivalent losses. Therefore, what Dean admits here maybe without realizing it is that his idea of “crazy enough to lock up” is a guy more like Jeffrey – that is, a guy more like himself.
That one joke speaks volumes about how vulnerable Dean feels right now, no matter how zen a face he put on in “Out With the Old”. And it’s confirmed when he walks into Sam’s room, and he’s in full-blown panic mode. His body language in this scene with Sam is tense, tight: his shoulders hunched, fingers clasped, unable to look directly at Sam for too long. And when Dean sits on the bed, he looks small and entirely collapsed in on himself, like he’s barely keeping himself together. This is a man dangling at the end of his rope.
Dean is already painfully conscious of how much he’s lost: Bobby, the Impala, any sense of home or safe refuge — all those pieces of armor, stripped away by the Leviathan. But when he sees his brother stretched out on that bed, the only thing he’s conscious of is how much he still has left to lose.
When Dean walks in, Hallucifer is sitting at the desk, chatting amiably at Sam while making Cat’s Cradles with a piece of string.
Cat’s Cradle, by the way, is the name of a novel by Kurt Vonnegut – one of Dean’s favorite authors – in which a dangerous substance created during the Manhattan Project called “ice-nine” is released into the world’s oceans, rivers and groundwater. It kills almost all life in a matter of days. Sound familiar? Oh, and the characters in Cat’s Cradle practice an irreverent, postmodern faith known as Bokononism, which reads an awful lot like Cas’s cryptic “I watch the bees” talk. I told you: Literary and pop culture references everywhere in this episode.
Hallucifer says something interesting here:
Hallucifer: I’m just sayin’. Back when you had no soul, you never had to sleep.
Okay, forgive me, but it’s tangent time, because I think this is a really important point. In the Supernatural universe, souls, for whatever reason, require sleep. Presumably, it’s because they need to dream; note that in “On the Head of a Pin”, Dean tells Alastair that even in Hell, he could still dream. The soulless, on the other hand, do not sleep nor dream; at best, like with the angels, they pass through dreams like one might a truckstop, always as visitors and never residents.
In “Swan Song”, however, Cas falls asleep in the back of the Impala. We also see him asleep in “Reading is Fundamental”.
Both moments are quickly swept aside by the momentum of narrative drama, and it’s easy to interpret them as proof that Cas has Fallen and leave it at that. But I think there’s a greater significance here. I think Cas’s newfound need for sleep implies that Cas has somehow developed his own soul – one he may have lost once he regained his Heavenly powers, but a self-developed soul all the same. That in turn suggests a certain fluidity of identity; a self-determination of self that has always been at the core of the Supernatural story. As we know, angels are instruments of creation, and not creation itself. Humans, on the other hand, were made in God’s image, and likewise we create ourselves, through our choices and our actions. Thus no matter his initial species, in creating his own soul, Cas has become truly human. Or, conversely, truly godlike.
That’s why Godstiel was always in the cards for Cas. Once you create yourself, once you become as God, then there’s no going back. Everything that comes after is just details. And the only way out is down: the fall from grace.
Oh, by the way? I hope you guys like tangents. Because there’s many more in store.
Anyway, back to the episode. Dean sits down on the edge of Sam’s bed, and makes him a fateful promise.
Dean: Sam, I’m gonna find you help.
Sam: I don’t think it’s out there, Dean.
Dean: We don’t know that.
Sam: We know better than most. It’s all snake oil. Last faith healer we hooked up with had a reaper on a leash. Remember?
Dean: (gets up). Yeah, Sam. I remember.
Sam and Dean are alluding to the events of “Faith”, another Sera Gamble episode from way back in Season 1, and by far the best episode of that season. (Indeed, Eric Kripke once said it was his favorite episode of the entire show. He has good taste.)
In “Faith”, Sam and Dean are hunting a Rawhead – whose modus operendi is drowning wicked children, of course (I mean, seriously, you guys, ARE YOU SEEING A THEME IN SERA’S WRITING YET) – when Dean is accidentally electrocuted: a shock travels through a pool of standing water right into his heart. It’s irrevocably damaged, with no hope of recovery. The doctors give him a month to live.
Sam takes Dean to a blind faith healer named Roy LeGrange, who seems to be the real deal. And Roy is the real deal, or at least he thinks he is. But the truth is, Roy is being used by his wife, Sue Ann, who has trapped a Reaper and is using its power to cure the sick, while killing those she deems wicked.
Roy’s ability to heal, then, isn’t so much about curing people as it is about transferring life, and so it goes for Dean, who is cured of his heart problem only by giving another man a heart attack. (The man in question wasn’t even named in the aired episode.)
Gamble will explore this kind of body horror in another episode, “The Curious Case of Dean Winchester”, and of course here again in “The Born Again Identity”, when another innocent man – Emmanuel – will be sacrificed to restore Sam’s broken psyche. What we take from these episodes is that there’s a certain conservation of energy about the Supernatural universe. Nothing ever happens for free, and there are no true miracles, because even the hand that raises you from Hell is broken apart in the process.
One man must die to give another life. Remember this, for this is the first rule – the only rule – of faith healers and messiahs and miracles alike. Every deal has its cost.
An important, but easily overlooked, conversation in “Faith” occurs right after Dean discovers that someone has died to give him life.. Livid with Sam and with himself, Dean demands Roy explain why he’d chosen him, of all people, out of the crowd to be healed:
Roy: Like I said before, the Lord guides me. I looked into your heart, and you just stood out from all the rest.
Dean: And what did you see in my heart?
Roy: A young man with an important purpose. A job to do. And it isn’t finished.
Three years before the angels, three years before Cas, a blind faith healer would look into Dean’s lightning-scarred heart and tell him “you too deserve to be saved”. He doesn’t believe it, of course, no more so than he did in the barn that night outside Pontiac – and who can blame him, when the cost of one’s own life is measured out in another man’s death?
But through Roy, God speaks to Dean – for even though Sue Ann decides who the Reaper takes, it’s Roy that chooses who to heal, and he is guided by the Lord’s hand. And through Roy, God gives Dean, if not a hint then a whisper of what is to come. The Lord told Roy to heal Dean, because the Lord had a message for him, and the cure was the message. You have purpose, Dean. You have worth. You deserve to be saved.
And now it’s Dean’s turn to look into his brother’s eyes and repeat the same.
Back to “The Born Again Identity”. Dean looks upset at the mention of Roy, but undeterred. Sam continues:
Sam: I’m just saying…
Dean: What? That you don’t want my help?
Sam: No, I’m just saying… don’t do this to yourself.
Dean: Sam, if I don’t find something –
Sam: Then I’ll die. Dean, we knew this is coming.
It’s clear Sam is resigned to his fate, just as much as Dean was in “Faith”, and now Dean’s the one raging and refusing. As well he should. After all they’ve been through, after all they’ve survived, will he really let his brother be done in by his own mind? (That’s a question, I think, that’ll be explored in more detail next season.)
Sam: When you put my soul back—
Sam: Cas warned you about all the crap it would –
Dean: Screw Cas! Quit being Dalai frickin’ Yoda about this, okay? Get pissed!
Sam: I’m too tired.
Sound familiar? While the exchange itself is a direct role reversal of a dialogue that happens on the drive back from Pamela’s funeral in “On the Head of a Pin”, I think the real significance here is how this conversation echoes the Season 3 storyline, in which Dean had resigned himself to Hell, leaving Sam to get angry on his behalf. This is déjà vu, all over again.
The significance here isn’t lost on Sam, who smiles sadly and musters about the same amount of resistance Dean did back then:
Sam: I’m too tired. This is what happens when you throw a soul into Lucifer’s dog bowl. And you think there’s just gonna be some cure out there?
Dean grimaces and leaves the room without another word. He will find the cure. He has to. He has lost everything else; he cannot lose Sam too. Even if it means sacrificing himself, he will do it in an instant. After all, Dean has done it before; if need be, he’ll do it again. I’m not talking about making demon deals here – Dean’s not stupid enough to fall for that again – but about saving the only thing left in the world that still matters; about finding your cause and ordering your life by it.
Thus Dean begins his search for someone who can help Sam. He calls every name in Bobby’s book, one by one. Nobody can or will help. He scours the internet. Nothing there either. He even begins looking into shady faith healers, but they’re all even more ridiculous than Roy LaGrange, and far less genuine.
Note that during these scenes, several empty beer cans once more mushroom around Dean’s notepad and laptop. He has clearly started drinking again, if he ever stopped; and he has done so with renewed vigor and vengeance.
We watch as Dean crosses off the last name on his list. He is officially out of options. He is out of hope. He goes to grab another beer from the fridge, and maybe decide whether it’s finally time to let go of his rope.
Then Bobby knocks his address book off the table.
A card slides out. Mackey’s Taxidermy, it reads, “Quality trophies. No game too big or small.” (Fateful words, in retrospect.) Dean turns it over, reveals the cell number written on the back. He calls it. What else does he have to lose?
But let’s back up a second, because Bobby Singer told Dean to call Mackey. Not Sam, not God, not random fate or chance, but Bobby Singer, the only reliable father figure Dean ever knew, and the one who descended like Inanna to the Underworld and came out reborn. Seven episodes back, Bobby learned that the only way out was through the door you didn’t want to open, and now he has returned in order to guide Dean to the right path, where Dean might learn this for himself. Bobby is a psychopomp of sorts, come back to share the knowledge that he is gained, as is the duty of Heroines to do.
But now I’m getting all lit-geek on you when I meant to freak out about something far more specific, which is this: Before dying, Bobby had obviously talked to Mackey about his brush with Emmanuel (more than once, perhaps, given how fondly Mackey speaks of Bobby), which means Bobby already knew that Emmanuel existed, and had exhibited behavior that sounded suspiciously like how Cas behaved as Godstiel. He’d probably even knew about the timeframe, with Emmanuel first appearing “a couple months back”.
We also know that Bobby is the kind of guy who cultivates a vast network of rumors and spies and informants, who keeps tabs on everything and everyone, so that he’s the first one to find the pattern in the chaos.
Add it up, and this is what you get: Bobby was looking for signs of Cas. Even while he was trying to get Dean to confront his grief and move on, part of Bobby always believed that Cas would come back.
It reminds me of Season 1’s “Dead in the Water”, another Sera Gamble episode (and her first for the show), in which a woman walks into a lake and never comes out. (Sound familiar?). Sam says the following:
Sam: People don’t just disappear, Dean. Other people just stop looking for them.
Bobby never stops looking. And neither, in his own way, does Dean. Dean carries a bloody trenchcoat from car to car, while Bobby keeps tabs on roaming faith healers, and both men keep holding on in their own ways, unable to let go. Bobby and Dean are the same now, united in their loss; they both know what’s it like to lose the love of your life, and to foolishly wish they’d come back, if even for just five days, if even as a monster.
So why didn’t ghost!Bobby bring Mackey to Dean’s attention earlier? We don’t know. Maybe he was afraid this was all nothing. Maybe he was afraid it wasn’t nothing, that it might be Cas, just still gone darkside. Bobby ain’t no idjit, after all. That’s why I think the timing here isn’t coincidental, that Bobby is just as desperate as Dean is, and it’s that desperation that gives him the juice to knock the book off the table. For Bobby will do anything to save Sam – even send off his favorite son potentially straight in the direction of the man who broke his heart.
When Mackey calls back, he tells Dean that he “[doesn’t] believe in much that don’t suck your blood” (nice vampire reference, by the way; Gamble also wrote the brilliant Gordon-centric “Bloodlust” and “Fresh Blood”, which established Dean’s complicated relationship with vampires). But, says Mackey, Emmanuel passed every monster test in the book. As far as he can tell, Emmanuel is “the real deal”, and that the best way to get to him is through his wife, Daphne. (Another Roy LeGrange parallel.)
Listening to this, Dean’s face falls. His mouth hangs open. There’s a curious mixture of hope and dread on his face. He knows something isn’t quite right about all this.
And yet, next we see of Dean, he’s at Daphne Allen’s house.
This is a big deal. A big fucking deal. Like, pause the episode and flail about for about five or ten minutes big deal. Because as I established before, Dean knows the rules of faith healers better than anyone. He knows one man must die to save another’s life. Yet he goes anyway – not only that, but he goes instantly, without hesitation. It wouldn’t matter to Dean if Daphne had an entire army of Reapers at her beck and call, he has to save Sam. He is that desperate. He is that vulnerable.
One last thought on Mackey, though. Mackey is a taxidermist, a choice of profession that is anything but accidental, because taxidermy is the art of stuffing dead animals so that they look alive. Their outsides are beautiful, even life-like. Inside, however, there’s nothing, not even meat, just stuffing and empty space. The shell remains, but the life that once animated it is gone forever.
This is the second explicit reference to taxidermy this episode has made, and it is no coincidence, because that’s exactly what Emmanuel Allen will turn out to be: a taxidermy of an angel, all shell and cotton stuffing, no spark of the angel Dean loves left inside. Not even Cas’s vessel, Jimmy Novak, remains. Emmanuel is truly tabula rasa, the slate wiped clean.
Until he goes to Colorado, Dean still thinks that the worst thing that could’ve ever happened already did when Cas walked into that river, Jimmy’s skin bursting apart at the atoms, unleashing the ice-nine he’d unwittingly harbored inside.
But Dean’s about to be proven wrong. Very wrong. Because dying is never the worst part. Cessation is. When confronting mortality, we tell ourselves that it’ll all be okay, that there’s life after death, that the ones we love never truly leave us, and so on. But what terrifies us beyond all expression, beyond even comprehension, is the possibility that we’re just lying to ourselves; that after death there is no rebirth, there is only nothingness, and void, and the end of all things. That one day, even love ceases to matter. That everything we are and hold dear ceases to exist.
And when Dean finally looks into Emmanuel’s unregistering gaze, he’s forced to confront this stark, universal terror, the one all of us share. He looks into Emmanuel’s eyes and realizes that the angel he loves might truly be gone this time, forever, with no hope of return. No more deus ex machinas. No more last-minute resurrections. Just stuffing and empty space walking around in Jimmy’s skin.
This is the moment that Dean dies.
Next time: The Born Again Identity, Part 2