“Freedom is a length of rope. God wants you to hang yourself from it.”
Ah yes, Edlund.
I’m loving this first time opportunity to break down an episode by examining Ben Edlund the writer vs. Ben Edlund the director. So much so that this review comes later than normal. I really wanted to take my time on this one. There is so much to explore from a a technical point of view, a character point of view, not to mention the weaving parallels between this sad tale of an angel who’s lost his way and how this theme has been used throughout the series. I find it a bit more fascinating this time since the twist shows an almighty angel caught making some very human errors.
“The Man Who Would Be King” no doubt is a Ben Edlund masterpiece. One advantage of being the writer/director is that you’re intimately familiar with the material and the writer’s intent. The disadvantage comes from striving to tell the story exactly the way the writer envisioned on restricted time and budget. Edlund knew he was dealing with a complex narrative script that had to balance a crap load of backstory with an emotionally charged present situation. The back and forth sequences are seamless and don’t require any heavy handed captions indicating now or then, a big credit to the talent of the writer/director.
Ben Edlund the writer has always been the one willing to tackle the big Castiel episodes. No one gets this misguided angel better. He’s also the one that’s contributed most of the development for Crowley as well, so he’s clearly in his prime element here by pairing the two together in this bizarre arrangement. Castiel has been an important supporting character the previous two seasons but this season he’s been relegated to behind the scenes, appearing every now and then at convenient times to help our heroes out of a jam. Now we finally see all that’s been keeping Castiel busy since the events of “Swan Song” and the poor angel has really had it rough.
Ben Edlund the writer is not someone that holds back. When he strives to make you laugh, you end up in a fit on the floor with sides hurting (see “Bad Day At Black Rock,” “Wishful Thinking,” and “Clap Your Hands If You Believe”). When he strives to surprise you, he’ll setup reveals and plot twists to come at you with the velocity of a freight train at high speed (“On The Head of A Pin,” “My Bloody Valentine”). When he goes for the drama, he doesn’t spare the tortured character. The predicament is perilous and gut wrenching. (“The Rapture,” “The Devil You Know,” this one). One part that stood out for me in this particular episode is after Bobby lights the ring of fire trapping Castiel. Dean, Sam and Bobby ambush their supposed angel friend with one accusation after another, none giving the chance to explain or showing a benefit of the doubt. It’s almost like Cass was convicted without a trial and nothing he could have said would get them to understand at that heated moment. There’s nothing more heartbreaking than to see a sympathetic and favorite character caught in that no-win situation with no chance of escape, watching the only friends he ever had turn on him, especially since he’s done so much for these three to survive. Especially when he did what he thought was right. Does the punishment fit the crime? That’s for the audience to decide.
It isn’t just the tear jerking drama though. There’s no absence of that trademark biting humor in this script. There are the numerous gems of lines (my favorites being Castiel’s sardonic quips about other angels), references to Superman (especially as companion “Smallville” closes out its run this week), Ken Lay’s afterlife (political jokes always being a favorite), and the fact that there is a dead on demonic counterpart to Bobby Singer (see how highly regarded he is!), FBI cover and all. The dialogue easily the strongest of the season and almost all of it came from either Castiel or Crowley. Tell me though, why is the Blue Danube Waltz being played while everyone waits in line in Hell? Couldn’t have Britney Spears or Lady Gaga be more effective? Better yet, Jefferson Starship? I sense there was a 2001 theme going there.
Ben Edlund the director, his first appearance for “Supernatural,” wisely stuck with an element that works best in this show. Let the actors sell the emotional story. When I pour through an episode getting screen shots for our photo gallery, I always find a big difference from episode to episode in the quality of shots. Those episodes that rely on emotion to sell the story tend to have a lot more quality screencaps. In this case, I captured far more than average. Betrayal sells big time, especially if your name is Winchester. Loyalty means more to these guys than anything else, including the greater good. Crush that loyalty and there are no words needed. Just forlorn looks and despair. One face tells a story that extends as long as the beginning of times that Castiel so poignantly described in the beginning.
Just watch Dean’s crushed reaction over Castiel’s silent drop of the head when he asks if he was working with Crowley. Watch Sam’s on the brink of tears expression when he finds out that Castiel was the one who sprung him from Hell. Even Bobby, a trust no one kind of guy, looked like he was losing his best friend when he lit that match. But none of those faces compare to the angel alone in the garden, forced to face his actions and loneliness, desperately hoping someone out there is listening. When you have those kind of weapons at your disposal, the director doesn’t have to rely on much else.
I really like the subtle technical choices that enhance this story, which likely fall on the skilled crew as well as Edlund’s turn behind the camera. I noticed how the scenes in Heaven have an overexposed glow and the scenes in Hell (I love the waiting in line punishment!) a sepia tint. Those choices really help with the seamlessness between numerous scenery shifts. The framing of Castiel’s scenes on the bench, bright flowers emerging through a melting layer of snow, his heart felt and desperate confession to God, is nothing short of gorgeous. Throw in the awesome visual effects in the scenes in the cabin and the droplets of exploded Castiel, plus the special effects in Crowley’s butcher shop and it’s obvious a lot of care went into the construction. This episode even marks the return of the deer head (I’m still trying to figure out the last time we saw that thing).
Lets not forget though what truly sells an episode, the character arc. In this case, Misha Collins is given a chance to soar and boy does he. Not that we’re shocked, we’ve always gotten solid performances from him, but there’s just something different about Cass’ vulnerability this time. Castiel is without those that have made him stronger. It’s the same when Sam took on Lilith alone or Dean took off to say yes to Michael without Sam. You just know that without that backup, failure is imminent. It’s really sad.
Humanity may have been spared when Sam took that plunge into the depths of Hell with Michael and Lucifer, but Heaven got the full brunt of the consequences. I often hear the complaints, “This show is about the two brothers, why waste time with characters like Castiel?” Because, it makes for good drama, that’s why. Just look at the story Castiel shares at the beginning of the episode. His tale goes back to the days of creation. He’s got a bit more mileage than others. I don’t think I’ve ever heard anyone recall the fall of Tower of Babel as, “When it fell they howled ‘Divine Wrath!’ but come on, dried dung can only be stacked so high.”
Put yourself in Castiel’s leather loafers. You’re an angel returning to Heaven after falling, after you, two ordinary humans (okay, one with a bit of a supernatural twist inside him) and “an old drunk” through grit and determination avert the apocalypse. The event that has been foretold an accepted as cannon for centuries and you did the impossible and stopped it. It’s all lollipops and candy canes, right? Parades, a heroes welcome, the rebirth of the salad days. Yeah right, Edlund, remember? Any reason why that story shouldn’t be told, especially when it does profoundly affect Sam and Dean?
Believe it or not, Castiel is a very complex character. He’s a unique angel just because he’s gotten personally involved with humans. Angels in “Supernatural” are one dimensional and mindless while humans are very layered. Castiel has had to struggle with accepting human qualities while living under Heaven’s rules. Very few angels have chosen to do that (I count two I think). Angels cannot grasp even the slightest concepts of human behavior, nor do they want to. When one does, his predicaments are complicated and the answers aren’t easy, no matter what Dean thinks.
No human has had a greater impact on Castiel than Dean Winchester. He’s taught him loyalty, that freedom is worth fighting for, and even if the consequences result in death, it’s all worth fighting for. Castiel’s even learned to be as overprotective of Sam as Dean has been. So Castiel, by making a deal with Crowley, is just taking what he learned from Sam and Dean, right? Desperate times call for desperate measures. Dean dealt with Crowley in finding Pestilence and Death, surely Cass could handle things here and let Dean enjoy his life of retirement. After all Dean’s earned it. I completely understand Castiel’s rationale for making the deal initially. I don’t think he’s misguided.
But wait, by making a deal with a high level demon like Crowley, hasn’t he gone rogue? Sure, but is that bad? Just like with Sam in season four, Castiel is learning the hard way about the road to good intentions. Also like Sam, Castiel still doesn’t believe he’s in over his head. When he confronts Crowley for threatening the Winchesters, he reminds the supposed King of Hell that he’s still an angel. He still believes angels are more powerful than demons. He still believes he has God on his side. He doesn’t think things are broken, yet both Fate and his assistant Rachel have fought back against his actions. Now it’s Dean. Will Castiel not back away from Crowley because of pride? Is it too late?
It’s interesting, in reading the The Official Season Four companion, a section describing Sam’s actions in that season couldn’t be more true for Castiel right now. It’s a John Barth quote. â€˜Everyone is necessarily the hero of their own life story.” Sam did the work of a demon, but believed he was doing the right thing. Sound familiar? Sam ended up starting the apocalypse. Could it be that Castiel is doomed to make a similar (or the same) disastrous mistake?
Castiel’s biggest crime however doesn’t lie in the deal he made, but in the deception of his friends. He spied on them and outright lied, doing everything he could to cover up his actions. That never sits well with the elder Winchester, but I’m a bit surprised that all three of them turned on Castiel so quickly. Why the quick condemnation of their friend?
Is Dean wrong? Yes and no. Dean knows that there is a lot of grey area in what they do, but to him some things are black and white. They know from experience. You don’t make deals with devils. However, telling Castiel he had to fix this and he could help him, I don’t think Castiel’s refusal is an issue of trust as much as it’s an issue of control. Castiel has become the reluctant leader. He’s been twisting on his own for a while now. He knows he can’t reason with Dean and doesn’t see an out being so simple. Let’s face it, there have been many times that Castiel and Dean have not seen eye to eye. Castiel’s search for God comes to mind. But Castiel reminding Dean that he was just a human and cannot stop an angel, that is the classic Dean Winchester defense mechanism. Castiel has indeed learned from this man. It’s breaking ties with harsh insults. Anything else just hurts too much.
Even if Castiel had accepted Dean’s offer to fix this and do things his way, it would have happened in an air of mistrust. Dean doesn’t easily forget. Dean’s pretty stubborn and getting him to meet on middle ground is hard. He’s usually the one that takes the most convincing to come around, but at times he can be convinced. I’m not sure there’s anything Castiel can do to sway Dean easily, so it might take a change of heart from Sam and Bobby first. If there’s time for that. There are only two episodes left this season to hash things out. But timing is another issue.
One more thing. Has Castiel been like a brother to Dean? Absolutely. Sure it’s not the same relationship as he and Sam, but it’s still brotherly. They’ve saved each other’s necks constantly and would do anything for each other. Dean may not see it now, but Castiel did this for Dean. So Dean could live a normal life, so the apocalypse could stay averted. If that’s not an act out of brotherly love and respect, I’m not sure what is.
I actually felt worse for Castiel with Sam’s reaction than Dean’s. Why Castiel decided now to come clean and admit he was the one that freed Sam from the cage I’m not sure, but Castiel clearly means the truth to be a way to show how much he cares. Instead it backfires and Sam actually accuses him of bringing him back soulless on purpose. Castiel’s hurt reaction is all we need to know that he didn’t do that, but how after all they’ve been through could Sam think from this one lie that Castiel could do that?
I know Sam has been hurt in many many horrible ways in his life and has learned to only trust his big brother, but surely he has to know Castiel better than that. Yes, Cass did screw up and did a poor job in resurrecting Sam, missing the clue that something was wrong out of pride, but does Sam really think he’d be better off in that cage? No, I doubt it. I’m sure Sam will eventually come to reason once he’s had a chance to settle down. Of course judging by the episode summaries coming up, Sam is going to have his hands full. I think if anyone finds it in his heart to forgive first, it’ll be Sam. If anything, because he’s been down that same broken path of good intentions.
So, will all that, it’s time to put in the archives another sordid tale of betrayal and hopelessness. I am curious as to where the story goes from here, but I can’t help but hope that this is a character hitting rock bottom before finding his redemption story. After all, it’s happened many times before! Anything else would just be too damned depressing. In the meantime, we’re going into this unusual week long break in May sad and broken, much like the poor angel waiting for an answer that won’t come.
Overall grade, an A+. You know, I haven’t given one of these all season. Something has always fallen short in each episode. I can’t find anything to be critical of this one, except that it’s very, very sad. When a writer/director achieves in spectacular ways the complex yet somber story he set out to do, that earns heaping praise. I’m not entirely sure this is an episode I’ll watch over and over again, but you can’t deny the mastery. Well done Mr. Edlund.