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: Part 8.2 (Support)
The Born Again Identity 3: The Walk in the Dark
You are dead, surrounded by nothingness. You are alone, weaponless, defenseless. All your hope, your purpose and fight is gone.
Then, from somewhere in the distance, you hear a voice. It’s a familiar voice, the one voice you’re sure to listen to. You lift your head. And, in the direction of that voice, you see the way out. It shines in the blackness, like a dim candle. You see the way home.
It’d be so easy if that were all it took to be born again, wouldn’t it? The voice calls to you; you see the way out; and poof! Suddenly, magically, you’re whisked back into the land of the living. No hard work. No more fear. Just deus ex vox and voila: You are reborn.
But birth is a complicated, messy process. Forgive the graphic metaphor and all, but well, it’s not enough for a mother’s water to break; the baby still has to travel down the birth canal and out into the light. Likewise, it’s not enough to just hear a familiar voice in the Pit of Death –you still have to walk your way back out.
Nobody will grip you tight this time and pull you out. Remember, there are no such things as miracles. If you’re walking out of this, then you do so under your own power, with your own two feet, step by step, however long it takes.
But as you go, the voice gets louder and the candle gets brighter, and you find that’s motivation enough to keep going. With those promises ahead, you don’t dare turn back now.
The rest of “The Born Again Identity” (and the next several episodes, in fact, through the end of “Reading is Fundamental”) are Dean struggling through the Support stage of his Heroine’s Journey in order to be Reborn. Through Emmanuel’s words, Cas’s voice has called him home, and now it is time for Dean to walk toward him, and the way home.
Getting there, however, won’t be easy or smooth, and it will mean a few casualties along the way. It’s as I’ve been saying all along: One man must die so that another may live.
Dean and Emmanuel have been driving all night, and as morning breaks, they pull up for food at a convenience store. Dean tells Emmanuel to wait in the Impala while he grabs supplies. And Emmanuel does – another instance of the man just doing whatever Dean tells him, even without having any particular reason to. It’s not just about open trust, which he has in spades; but to establish that Emmanuel is a nonparticipant in his own life. He has agency, but he chooses not to exercise it. He is a leaf carried by the stream; no matter what, he just goes with the flow.
Remember this when we get to “Reading is Fundamental”, because it’s essentially the same thing Cas tries to do in order to cope with his guilt: He does not run from his mistakes, but neither does he confront them. Instead he makes sandwiches and watches bees and tells dirty jokes about cat penises, and lets the current take him wherever it may.
Dean walks into the convenience store and heads straight to the junk food aisle. He checks his phone. No word from Sam.
Then, suddenly he is attacked by two demons (remember the demon said Emmanuel is already on their radar). The resultant fight scene looks eerily like the one from “Good God, Y’all” – another Sera Gamble episode – where Sam takes on the War-addled teenagers. Except this time, Dean is caught off guard. He’s outnumbered and outmatched, and one of the demons hurls into the wall. Uh-oh. Our guy’s dead for sure, right?
Then there’s a flash of light, and the demon falls down, dead. Dean concludes that Emmanuel has saved him – even calls him “you son of a bitch”, which is pretty much the Dean Winchester Stamp of Approval – and you can see the gears of Dean’s mind grinding away: If Emmanuel remembered how to fight, how to protect Dean in times of need, then maybe he can remember other things too, and maybe this won’t be so bad after all.
But as the demon collapses, it reveals Dean’s savior is none other than Meg, who looks equal parts pleased with herself and annoyed with Dean. As usual.
Frankly, I think it was a brilliant to introduce Meg into this story, especially since Sam is out of commission. As I’ve covered elsewhere, I think she and Cas have a fascinating, even somewhat endearing relationship: at this point in the story, I believe she still has a bit of a crush on him (even though she also thinks he’s a “smarmy dick”) and Cas, well, he doesn’t really know what to make of her, other than that she’s not like any other demon he’s ever met. Yet at the same time, there’s nobody in this world or the next that Dean hates or resents more than Meg. So by pairing her with Dean and Cas – and not just that, but having her act as the voice of reason – Sera can keep the story moving and the inter-character tension fresh, without moving the conflict too heavily into melodrama.
Dean and Meg argue about what to do with Emmanuel. Meg offers to join forces, in order to protect Cas from Crowley. Dean is having none of it, and accuses of her of trying to use Cas to protect herself.
Dean: Help, huh? You mean see if you can’t turn harmless little Cas out there into an angel-sized weapon?
Meg: Like you’re taking him caroling…I don’t trust you, either. But I could really use Emmanuel, and he trusts you. So for now, it’s in everyone’s best interests to hold hands and cross the street together, okay?
There’s an interesting role reversal going on here, because even though Meg makes no bones about why she’s here, note that of the two people in the know about Emmanuel’s true nature, it’s Meg, not Dean, who wants to “heal” Cas and restore him to his former self. Throughout the next couple scenes, Meg will continually attempt to “revive” Cas –she’s even the one who lands the “killing blow” to Emmanuel by telling him he’s an angel. Restoring Cas to himself really is what’s best for him, and that means, as self-interested as she is, Meg is also motivated by what’s best for Cas.
Dean, on the other hand, wants to keep Cas in the dark as long as he can, a great (yet understandable) act of selfishness on his part. He wants it both ways: He wants his friend back, without all the bad blood that passed between them. And Meg even calls him on his during the smiting scene, accusing him of keeping Emmanuel in the dark because he’s “enjoying the double dip”. And she’s right, because Dean really is doing Cas no favors – in fact, he’s only placing him in greater danger – by keeping him in the dark to who and what he really is.
But I also think Meg doesn’t quite get that restoring Cas will mean killing Emmanuel – or, if she does, she doesn’t see why it’s such a big deal. To Meg, Emmanuel is nothing more than an alias to be stripped away, like how Superman must strip away Clark Kent in order to fly.
But Dean gets it. Dean understands that Emmanuel isn’t just the Clark Kent that Superman hides behind. He’s not a mask, or a lie, or a shadow cast on a cave wall. He’s not a taxidermy of a human being; Emmanuel is a human being: a man with a life, a “good life”, his life, and it’s distinct from Dean’s and all the baggage that came with it. Emmanuel has what no member of Team Free Will has ever had: a life untouched by Dean, and therefore unbroken by him. And for Cas to live, this man must die.
Sacrificing Emmanuel is not a choice that should be Dean’s to make, or Meg’s, or anyone’s else’s. Dean has argued as much throughout the series (in “Faith”, “Jus In Bello”, and “Time is on my Side” for starters, all of which are Sera Gamble episodes). Dean knows a miracle that demands the sacrifice of an innocent man is not a miracle worth taking.
Yet here, confronted with Emmanuel, I think he is as tempted as he’ll ever be to play God and make that choice between who lives and dies. That Dean successfully manages to resist doing so is a testament both to his love for Cas and his innate goodness. Dean is the Righteous Man, even when – especially when – he thinks he can’t be.
So who really wants what’s best for Cas, Dean or Meg? They both do, sort of, and they both don’t, sort of. I can see both sides. And that’s why I’m so happy Sera brought Meg back into the story, if for no other reason than to underscore just how morally grey this situation really is — as Dean says, “this whole thing couldn’t be messier”.
Dean and Meg come to an agreement to work together. (Not after Meg takes a sly dig at Dean, offering to “jog [Cas’s] memory” – essentially implying that she could kiss Cas in order to restore him to his senses. In response, Dean gives her a look that could wilt houseplants. As she walks out of the store, Meg rolls her eyes and smiles. Yep, she thinks, Dean’s still got it bad.)
They walk outside, where Emmanuel is waiting for them, lost in thought. Emmanuel notices Meg, and rears back in fear when he sees her true face. But Dean grits his teeth and defends her. Emmanuel is still wary, but if Dean says she’s okay, then she must be.
Meg introduces herself:
Meg: Just here for moral support. I mean, after all, we go way back. [pregnant pause] Dean and me. Just met you, of course. But I think we’re gonna be good friends, too.
And here we have one of my favorite shots of the entire series: Meg, grinning up at Emmanuel like a lioness stalking her prey; Emmanuel not getting the joke, but looking kind of grossed out by it anyway; and Dean caught between them, looking for all the world like the jealous boyfriend who’s just caught his worst enemy hitting on his ex. Which, I guess, technically he has.
Shots like these — how you could almost miss the quirk of Meg’s eyebrow, or the nervous way Dean checks Emmanuel’s reaction – really serve to underscore why Robert Singer is such a great director, and why I’m happy he’s still with Supernatural after all these years. I have my problems with the man and his writing, it’s true, but he has a real gift for direction. Somehow, every single time he’s behind the camera, he manages to take an already brilliant script and give it new life and meaning; he always knows exactly what to cut and what to leave in; and he has a real talent for visual storytelling, in filling the holes with all the things not said.
Meg stares at Emmanuel. Emmanuel stares at Meg. Dean stares at them both. The music grows ominous, and it’s so incredibly awkward, I love it. Dean fidgets nervously, and—interestingly enough—he checks Emmanuel’s reaction to Meg before allowing himself a frown.
“Alright,” he grunts. “Can we go?”
Before we get back to Dean and Emmanuel, I wanted to take a brief detour to discuss Sam.
So far, I’ve mostly refrained from digging too deeply into Sam’s side of “The Born Again Identity”, because, as I said at the start of all this, the B plot serves mostly to establish a compelling reminder as to why the Lil’ Winchester deserves to be saved. When push comes to shove, Sam is a hero, even when – especially when – he thinks he can’t be, and nowhere is that made more obvious than when he helps Marin here in the hospital
But that’s not the only reason Sam’s storyline matters, because like all good B plots, Marin’s haunting actually reflects back very cleverly on what’s going on in the A plot, although it took me a few watchings myself to pick up on it.
So let’s look at Marin’s story in more detail:
Marin has been in the hole for “five weeks and counting”, but her problems with her brother’s ghost go back much further. Marin’s brother died about a year ago, and soon thereafter, his ghost began communicating with Marin, the person in life he was presumably closest to.
Sadly, her brother’s loneliness eventually transformed him into a vengeful spirit (possibly a foreshadowing for what eventually happens to Bobby). Marin describes it thusly:
Marin: At first it’s like… I knew I was crazy, but… I didn’t really care. I did miss him. But then… he started saying he was lonely. And he started to get mad. And one day he started yelling, and I tried to run but the door was locked. And when I turned around, the whole room was on fire. I barely got out.
Note that Marin’s brother’s ghost had apparently been calling out to her for some time before the fire, maybe even several months—meaning the poor girl had been unable escape her brother’s memory or reconcile her grief, because his ghost just wouldn’t let her move on. Indeed, the ghost had even begun begging her to commit suicide, so that he wouldn’t be alone. In Marin’s words:
Marin: It sucks when it’s your dead brother saying, ‘kill yourself to be with him or he’ll do it for you.’
The parallel here to Dean is striking. For the better part of a year, Dean has been unable to escape Cas’s memory or reconcile his grief, because he sees Cas’s ghost everywhere: in his dreams, in his new friends (like Garth or Jeffrey), and of course in Cas’s symbolic children, the Leviathan, those monsters that crawled inside his best friend, moved his mouth like a puppet, and then split his belly apart.
Dean drinks, and he can’t escape. He buries himself in work and revenge, and he can’t escape. He has one-night stands, and kills monsters, and cuts himself off from his own heart as best he can, and still he can’t escape, until finally, Dean becomes as Jeffrey did – depressed, a wreck, an emotional shell, even suicidal. By the end of “Repo Man”, Dean is so broken down by his own grief that he can’t even distinguish himself from a psychopath. Cas’s ghost might not be literally haunting Dean, but his memory sure is; and as surely as Marin’s brother he calls out to Dean every day, “kill yourself to be with me, or I’ll do it for you”.
Which, of course, is exactly what happens the moment Dean locks eyes with Emmanuel.
To put her brother to rest, Marin and Sam must burn a friendship bracelet that her brother had bled on before giving to her. We don’t question it, because it’s the same old salt n’ burn drill we’ve seen a thousand times before. By consigning an object to the fire, the Hunter returns said object to its owner, and the owner to its rightful place once more. That’s how salt n’ burns work, right? It’s Hunting 101, the most basic and easy act of heroism that the Winchester boys know how to perform.
But rarely are the Winchesters accompanied on a salt n’ burn by the survivors of the departed; the ones to whom this act is most difficult, and most meaningful. The Winchesters might consider these rituals simple and effortless, but to someone like Marin, a salt n’ burn is the hardest thing she’ll ever have to do. In burning her brother’s bracelet, Marin must look the ghost of her dead brother in the eye and not just let him go, but essentially kill him again—except this time, it’s for good. No resurrections, no take-backsies. No miracles.
There is nothing simple or effortless about that.
The ritual of the salt n’ burn is a sort of faith healing, really. One person must die – the ghost – so that the other – the survivor – may live. Heck, the entire profession of Hunting follows the same basic formula, doesn’t it? The Hunter sacrifices his or her life so that the rest of us may live out ours in peace. No wonder the Winchesters have such messiah complexes.
Anyway, the similarities in Marin’s story to the A plot are once again stark. The blood-stained friendship bracelet is a subtle parallel to the (still-stained) trenchcoat that Cas had bled on before “giving” to Dean. And Dean performs a symbolic salt n’ burn by returning the bloody trenchcoat to its rightful owner, and its owner to his rightful place once more.
But of course this is no normal salt n’ burn, because like Marin and her brother, Dean is Cas’s survivor, the one person to whom this action is most difficult, and most meaningful. When Dean gives the trenchcoat back to Cas, he must look Emmanuel, the ghost of his dead angel, right in the eye and kill him, once and for all. No resurrections. No take-backsies. Emmanuel must die so that Cas, and by extension Dean, may live once more.
And as we’ll see, there’s nothing simple or effortless about that.
Back to Emmanuel, Dean and Meg. Team Awkward, sitting in the junker in silence. Much more time has passed, because it is night again, but only now does Emmanuel finally speak up about the uncomfortable silence that has fallen amongst them:
Emmanuel: Is there something I should know?
Meg: I don’t know. Dean?
Dean: No. Meg has that effect. Awkward. You know?
Then, in what is one of my favorite moments of the episode, Emmanuel responds by politely, yet sincerely, commiserating with Meg:
Emmanuel: That must difficult for you.
Meg: Dean’s making a joke, Emmanuel.
Emmanuel: Oh. [chuckles]
Strip away everything Cas is — his memories, choices, self-awareness — and what are you left with? A good man, a kind man; a man who consoles demons about their social anxiety; a man who laughs at jokes that he doesn’t get – a man who travels the country, without hesitation, without fear, using the miraculous powers God gave him, simply in order to ease the pain of others.
And that strikes to the core of what I really love about Cas. Throughout his presence on the show, he has alternately been a warrior, a pilgrim, a messiah, and even a god… but when push comes to shove, he has taken on all these roles for one reason only: because he wants to ease others’ pain (specifically Dean’s). After all, recall what he tells Dean in the climax to Season 4:
Castiel: I see nothing but pain here! I see inside you, Dean. I see your guilt, your anger, confusion. In paradise, all is forgiven. You’ll be at peace.
Cas honestly wants nothing more than for Dean, and all of humanity really, to be at peace; or, at least, for everything to stop hurting them so much. And isn’t that what we define as love, wanting to give another person peace, and comfort, and the absence of pain and fear? Cas loves Dean, he loves humanity. He just flat-out loves.
That’s why Cas survives even as all his brothers pass into the good night; because he alone out of the entire Host understood the reason why God created Man. God didn’t make Man to be divine playthings, like the archangels believed. He didn’t make Man as examples to emulate, as Anna believed. Nor as insults, as Lucifer believed. God created Man to love and be loved in return, and only Cas ever got it, because only Cas had ever had too much compassion and empathy – only Cas had ever had too much heart.
Strip away Cas’s identity, all the roles and memories and innate powers that make him Cas, and what are you left with? Love for love’s sake. You are left with an innate need to soothe, to comfort. To ease humanity’s pain for no other reason than that they are human.
A lost and broken man finds Emmanuel and asks why do I ache? And he answers, with unwavering kindness and understanding in his too-large heart, because you are human.
At his core, Cas is a caretaker, just as much as Dean is. And this is both their greatest strength as a pairing and the source of all their troubles. Yes, their bond is so profound that the two of them will fight the whole of Hell and Heaven and Purgatory itself to keep each other safe from harm… but they’ll also scheme behind each other’s backs, and keep each other in the dark about things that really shouldn’t be secret, for the exact same reason.
The breakdown at the end of Season 6 didn’t happen because Dean and Cas stopped trying to take care of one another. Quite the opposite – it happened because they both tried to take care of one another too much. Each man tried to ease the other’s pain, without ever stopping to consider if or why the other needed such protection. Two caretakers, so caught up in easing each other’s pain that they forgot that sometimes, it has to hurt if it’s to heal.
Team Awkward finally arrives at the hospital, only to find demons guarding the entire perimeter. The “low level demons” that Meg warned Dean about have clearly figured out that this is where Emmanuel is headed, and they intend to use Sam as bait to catch him. If they haven’t yet figured out that Emmanuel is Cas, they’re certainly very, very close to putting it together.
Emmanuel surveys the hospital and asks if Dean has more demon-killing knives. Dean tells him no. Then Emmanuel, clearly worried but not wishing to be impolite, asks Dean what his plan is (Note: this is the first of two critical times that Cas will do so this season).
Meg does the verbal equivalent of rolling her eyes, saying:
Meg: Yeah, Dean. Got any other ideas how we could blast through that?
Dean is starting to realize he will have no other option but to reveal to Emmanuel what he really is, but he calls Meg into a private conversation anyway. Meg refuses to hide her annoyance no longer. Indulging Dean’s self-denial was the only way she was going to get here, yes, but now that it’s go-time, she refuses to do it any longer, because this game he’s playing with poor, dead Castiel is about to get them all killed.
Meg: Sam’s in there. I know you’re enjoying the double dip with your old pal, but –
Dean: You think it’s that cut and dry? Really? You know what he did. And you want to tell him and just hope that he takes it in stride? He could snap. He could… disappear. Who knows?
What Dean says here betrays no sense of blame or lingering resentment toward Cas. He hasn’t forgiven Cas, not yet I don’t think, but neither is he holding the grudge, and what Dean primarily seems concerned about here is losing Cas again. After all this, he’s come too far to lose Cas again.
Emmanuel overhears. He asks Dean to just tell him what he did already, and Dean refuses.
Dean: You’ve just met yourself. I’ve known you for years.
Emmanuel peers at Dean curiously, because actually, no, Emmanuel hasn’t just met himself. Emmanuel still doesn’t know who he is, or what. What Dean means to say is that “you’ve only just met me,” but in Dean’s mind – and in ours – it’s the same thing. Dean and Cas are the same person, the same soul; they’re not even two halves of the same coin, but imprints of one another – one the coin pressed into the palm, the other the impression left behind in the skin. So yes, Emmanuel has just met himself, even if he doesn’t know it yet, because meeting Dean is meeting himself. After all, as soon as Castiel laid a hand on Dean in Hell, he was lost. They both were.
Meg finally loses her patience. She rips off the Band-aid once and for all, and in so doing, sends an angel-blade straight into Emmanuel’s gut.
Meg: You’re an angel.
Emmanuel: I’m sorry? Is that a flirtation?
Meg: No, it’s a species. A very powerful one.
And so begins the end for Emmanuel. Now that he knows what he is, there can be no more Colorado, there can be no more pretty young wives. No more faith healing, or old man sweaters, or jokey names randomly plucked off a website. One man must die for another to live, and Emmanuel’s Reaper has finally come a-calling.
Dean knows the jig is up, and in a defeated voice, he backs Meg up. Meg might’ve landed the killing blow, but Dean wants to end it now as swiftly and humanely as possible:
Dean: She’s not lying. Okay? That’s why you heal people. You don’t eat. I’m sure there’s more.
Emmanuel: Why wouldn’t you tell me? Being an angel – it sounds pleasant.
Dean: It’s not, trust me. It’s bloody, it’s corrupt. It’s not pleasant.
He hates himself for doing this to Emmanuel, for sacrificing a good man so another man live; especially when the man to be resurrected is so flawed, so broken, so real – and someone he wants so badly to be alive. Dean mistrusts his own desires, because there’s nothing he ever wanted for himself that he didn’t break in some way, or that wasn’t taken from him long before its time.
Emmanuel is goodness incarnate, the definition of innocence, and Cas is blood-soaked and corrupt. Why does Cas deserve to live, and Emmanuel deserve to die? Simply because Dean wants it that way? That’s not good enough. That’s never been good enough. Life is about more than the conservation of matter and false equivalences; the whole matters more than the sum of its parts. And as much as Cas deserves to be saved, so too does Emmanuel, and it’s a shitty thing that Dean must choose between them, a shitty unfair thing, the worst choice any man should ever have to make.
Meg twists the knife further, revealing that Dean and Cas were “bestest of friends, actually”, with a knowing smirk towards Dean. This is torture for Dean of the worst kind, like being back in the Pit, in Hell on Earth.
Emmanuel says, in a hesitant voice, “we’re… friends”?
Instead of answering, Dean sucks in a breath. He braces himself for what’s to come.
“Am I Cas?” Emmanuel asks.
Dean cannot say the words, but Emmanuel knows the answer anyway, and even though he doesn’t necessarily know yet what that entails, the scales still fall away from his eyes. This is the moment that Emmanuel dies.
We all knew it would come to this eventually. One man must die to give another man life. That’s the rule, the only rule that matters.
But knowing the rules doesn’t make the game fair.