Let me tell you my story. Let me tell you everything.
Thus begins the brilliant and heart wrenching, “The Man Who Would Be King.” But really, so begins almost every story ever told.
From the instant that little Fish (for which somebody had big plans) crawled out of the primordial ooze, and learned to squeeze air past a rudimentary set of vocal chords, we humans have been sharing our stories. We tell stories for a myriad of reasons, but mainly to entertain, to enlighten, to educate and to explain (often in a plea for understanding). That’s what Cas was doing as he spoke to God, and as he pleaded with the Brothers Winchester and Bobby, from inside a circle of fire, from inside a house covered in sigils, and from inside the dirty garage of a scrap yard.
We exchange these tidbits of creativity, and caution, around the dancing flames of a campfire, in a sleek black car on a lonely stretch of highway, or around the flickering light of a TV screen.
We tell our tales in many different ways. Most commonly, we use words. We speak our stories aloud. We whisper them, shout them and write them down. But there are times when our bodies speak instead, through one facial expression. One tug of the mouth, one rise of the eyebrow, one perfect tear on the cheek can all express a lifetime of joy or sorrow, regret or hope.
Sometimes we use pictures to tell our stories. We grab a paintbrush, a pencil or a camera to capture one special moment, or to represent 1,000 words.
And of course there are times we turn to music, the universal language. Think of all that is told in just a few notes, all that is told through “the minor fall, the major lift”.
My paying job requires me to think a lot about storytelling, and music and the relationship between the two. That may be why my brain “hears” every season of Supernatural as a familiar tune, telling the story of love, family, sacrifice, betrayal and ultimately redemption. Some seasons it’s more a country song, full of hurtin’ and pain. Other years, it’s a blues song, conjuring up images of legends and demons past. And of course, it’s also, frequently, classic rock.
The melody of Season 6 resembles previous chart toppers. But this time around, I felt like I was listening to a symphony, with repeating themes and motifs. It built to a crescendo, but ended on one solitary bass note, like a mournful church bell tolling across the months to September.
In the concert hall of my mind, these are the three signature notes for Season 6:
1. Can’t or Won’t
The phrase “Can’t or won’t?” is heard many, many times this year. It jumps out at me, over and over again.
From “Appointment in Samarra”:
Tessa: He (Death) calls us. We don’t call him.
Dean: You make an exception!
Tessa: I can’t.
Dean: Can’t or won’t?!
From “Mannequin 3: The Reckoning”:
Ben: Why won’t you come home? Can’t you just say “I’m sorry” and then come
Dean: I’m sorry. I can’t.
Ben: Can’t or won’t?
And from “Mommy Dearest”:
Bobby: We don’t have the element of surprise ““ we’re still going in.
Lenore: You’re crazy. I can’t help you.
Sam: Can’t or won’t?
I’m fascinated by the recurring “Can’t or won’t?” question. Of course, there are the literal meanings. If you can not do something, it suggests you lack the capacity to achieve it. You can not because you are not able to do that task. Won’t carries a different connotation. It suggests you are capable of taking the desired action, but chose not to. Can’t versus Won’t translates into Ability versus Will. Because of that, the question even carries hints of motivation “I could do it for you, but I won’t. Now, you figure out why that is.”
This “Can’t or won’t” phrase was used so often this year, I found myself saying it before the actors did! Usually great orators and great musicians repeat a phrase, or sentence to stress its importance to those listening. If I had to guess, I think what is significant in this phrase is the element of choice.
Free will and the ability to choose has always been a huge part of the Supernatural plot. Of course as the brothers know, and as Castiel was learning to his shame and chagrin, having a choice doesn’t always mean making the best choice, or the right choice.
Interestingly, in the final 2 episodes there is no verbal chorus of “Can’t or won’t?” Yet it is voiced, but in actions, not words.
In both episodes, we see again that Dean can’tandwon’t stop protecting those few precious individuals who he has let into his heart. Against Crowley’s demands, he races to save Ben and Lisa. He stays close to Sam in the panic room, hoping his presence alone, because he has no other tools at his disposal, might be enough to guide his brother back. As well, in both episodes, Sam also shows that he can’t and won’t stop trying to help his brother.
Unfortunately, Dean and Cas also perform the “can’t or won’t” duet. Neither could or would back down from his own position long enough to hear the other’s solo. Might things have been different if Dean had given Cas a chance to fully explain his plan? Possibly. But that would assume Cas was willing to explain it. I’m not sure he ever was.
Heading into the season finale, I had wondered if there might be a key change from “Can’t or won’t?” to “Can and will!!!” And I think heard it in one of the closing stanzas. By his actions at the end, Cas says I can and I will open the door to Purgatory. As the new G/god he also says “I’m your new God. A better one. So you will bow down and profess your love unto me, your Lord. Or I shall destroy you.”
That strikes an ominous note, a note of being able, and being willing to make others suffer. That closing phrase lingers on, like the final beat from a tympani.
2. It’s About The Souls
Everyone from Death to Fate/Atropos to the Mother of All herself has said “It’s about the souls”. Every time a character utters it, it’s like a flashing neon sign, saying “Heads up folks”¦ This is important!”
The concept of the soul and its inherent value has been around since John made the deal to save Dean in “In My Time of Dying”. We got a little more insight into the importance of souls in “Crossroads Blues”. However, it’s only in this season that souls have figured so prominently. That’s understandable given that Sam was soulless for half the season, and the ramifications of putting his soul back played out in the final episode.
We received our most in depth analysis of the significance of the soul from Eve/Mary Winchester in “Mommy Dearest”. We got more insight from the discussion in the forest between Balthazar and Castiel in “Let It Bleed”. And then of course, another piece fell into place when Castiel absorbed all those souls in “The Man Who Knew Too Much”.
Before these 2 episodes, I thought the composers might pluck a few of these strings:
– the fact Sam and Dean are soul mates
– the fact Death himself was interested in the souls
– the fact Dean could kill the Whore of Babylon, or stab Zachariah and look directly in his face, as his grace escaped
– the notion that maybe Sam’s soul was the key to the whole Cas/Crowley-find-Purgatory partnership and that’s why it didn’t come back when he did
– the idea that Dean’s shiny-but-tarnished-in-a-few-spots soul would be important too. After all, he sold his soul, not for personal gain, but out of love, to save his brother; he was a righteous man in Hell; and like Sam, he’s a vessel for an Archangel.
But, as is their creative right, the arrangers chose none of those strings, and resolved the chord in their own way. Although, I feel it went a little flat, like a note was missing.
I wanted the souls to be more than just a fuel source. I wanted them to be about love, and my belief that maybe soul-energy is what makes each of us special and unique. Of course, Cas is now powered by monster souls. Perhaps a God powered by the souls of ordinary people who love their families, their friends and their dogs might whistle a happier tune?
3. The Natural Order
This is a third motif that’s been thrown back and forth like a baseball. In “Appointment in Samarra” Death and Tessa both educated Dean in the importance of the natural order, and what happens when you go against it. Fate/Atropos accused Castiel of going against the natural order and wreaking havoc in “My Heart Will Go On”. And even Eve/Mary Winchester talked about the natural order in “Mommy Dearest”. From her point of view it was natural that monsters kill a few humans, and that hunters kill a few monsters.
It makes me think of the natural order of the environmental world. Mother Nature abhors a vacuum, so she does what it is required to restore balance. For instance, you need predators to keep the prey populations healthy. Wolves maintain the vibrancy of moose or deer populations by culling the weak and the sick. Tamper with either side of that predator/prey equation at your peril, because both sides ultimately suffer.
In my musings before watching the finale, I wondered if maybe because the Michael/Lucifer match didn’t happen, perhaps a Castiel/Raphael rumble would be enough to restore the natural stasis of Heaven?
Then, I scrolled back through the centuries, and wondered if a sacrifice would be required to restore the natural order. Tessa and Death both hinted to Dean that he’d thrown the natural order out of whack by being saved so many times. Was Dean going to die one more time to solve the natural order equation, and restore the universal balance? Was an innocent, like Lisa or Ben, going to die to even the scales?
After watching the finale, I was kind of surprised that the theme of the “natural order” trailed off a bit. (Maybe the left hand got tired of playing all those sad, low notes!) But, on reflection, there is an element of natural order there. I just didn’t see it at first, but it’s the natural order known as The Family.
Humans are not solitary creatures. We can not survive in isolation. We have persisted on this planet because we form groups, usually based on kin, but not exclusively. Those groups provide us with everything from shelter to food to companionship to someone to hear our stories. That last one is just as vital as the others, even though it’s an emotional need, not a physical one.
Family comes up again and again in 6.21 and 6.22. We see Dean’s desperate fight to save his pseudo-family of Lisa and Ben, and his ultimate decision to swipe the slate clean and pretend that family never existed. I think he did that to restore the natural order of their lives (and that’s another article I’ll write.).
We also saw the restoration of the natural order of Sam and Dean’s relationship. Once again, they are brothers who love, trust and are willing to sacrifice themselves for each other. The boys are definitely back.
But, in Castiel we see what happens when a person, in this case an angel, is cut off from his family. Just before he stabs his angelic brother Balthazar, in the back, he says:
“I’m doing my best in impossible circumstances. My friends, they abandon me, plot against me. It’s difficult to understand.”
That’s the moment Castiel lets his pride and desire for power to take over. For him, the natural order was gone. He felt totally cut off from both his heavenly and earthly families, so he just went ahead with his plan, damn the consequences for himself and everyone else.
Like the soul chord, this one didn’t end quite the way I thought it would. And I hope maybe the more traditional idea of “the natural order” will be examined in Season 7.
Still, in my mind, these three little notes of choice, souls and order have been playing in almost every episode, sometimes in the background, sometimes in the foreground. And just like any chord, they are seeking resolution. What I heard in the finale was more the sorrowful darkness of the minor fall, than the hopeful light of a major lift.
As I mused on the symphony of Season 6, the words of Hallelujah, by Leonard Cohen, kept drifting through my mind. Change the names and circumstances, just a bit, and it becomes beautifully, sadly, tragically appropriate. (And someday maybe I’ll have the skills to grab the right screencaps for this song.)
I’ve heard there was a secret chord
That David played, and it pleased the Lord
But you don’t really care for music, do you?
It goes like this
The fourth, the fifth
The minor fall, the major lift
The baffled king composing Hallelujah
Hallelujah, Hallelujah,. Hallelujah, Hallelujah
Your faith was strong but you needed proof
You saw her bathing on the roof
Her beauty and the moonlight overthrew you
She tied you to a kitchen chair
She broke your throne, and she cut your hair
And from your lips she drew the Hallelujah
Baby I have been here before
I know this room, I’ve walked this floor
I used to live alone before I knew you.
I’ve seen your flag on the marble arch
Love is not a victory march
It’s a cold and it’s a broken Hallelujah
Hallelujah, Hallelujah, Hallelujah, Hallelujah
There was a time you let me know
What’s really going on below
But now you never show it to me, do you?
And remember when I moved in with you
The holy dove was moving too
And every breath we drew was Hallelujah
Hallelujah, Hallelujah, Hallelujah, Hallelujah
Maybe there’s a God above
But all I’ve ever learned from love
Was how to shoot at someone who outdrew you
It’s not a cry you can hear at night
It’s not somebody who has seen the light
It’s a cold and it’s a broken Hallelujah
Hallelujah, Hallelujah, Hallelujah, Hallelujah
You say I took the name in vain
I don’t even know the name
But if I did, well really, what’s it to you?
There’s a blaze of light in every word
It doesn’t matter which you heard
The holy or the broken Hallelujah
I did my best, it wasn’t much
I couldn’t feel, so I tried to touch
I’ve told the truth, I didn’t come to fool you
And even though it all went wrong
I’ll stand before the Lord of Song
With nothing on my tongue but Hallelujah
Hallelujah indeed that we will have a Season 7 to hear the song again.