Commentary and Meta Analysis
This episode suffered from the usual problems attendant on being a middle chapter in a story, because while it was the season finale, it definitely wasn’t the end of anything in the narrative. It can’t be judged fairly until we see what happens next, because as it stands, it’s incomplete.
That said, however, it made for one hell of a good chapter. In this discussion, I’m going to look at Castiel’s choices and transformation, and at Sam’s reintegration of himself.
Humpty Dumpty Has To Put Himself Together Again
I loved the concept of Sam having to reintegrate himself after Castiel brought down the protective wall in his mind, and being determined to do it no matter the cost because he couldn’t choose to leave Dean alone. That was a brilliant culmination not just to the soulless Sam storyline, but to the brothers’ estrangement in seasons four and five. The brother bond is solidly back in all its glory after having been tarnished, tested, and stressed to its breaking point, and that bodes VERY well for season seven, whatever else betides.
Sam’s split wasn’t precisely Freudian or Jungian, but it shared elements with a lot of classical psychology. We found Sam split into thirds, but not entirely the classic ones. Instead, his thirds were based in part on memory and in part on self. The narrative Sam was essentially super-ego, Sam’s personal consciousness and awareness both of others and of right and wrong; Sam’s soul, in Supernatural parlance. Soulless Sam was predominantly id and ego – his physical self and drives and his purely intellectual awareness – unrestrained by their missing third; I discussed that back in my commentary on Like A Virgin. Hell-Sam presented something else, something outside our customary categorizations of experience: his memories of Hell.
Narrative Sam was the only one of the three who actually wanted to integrate them all into one. Initially, I reacted with irritation to soulless Sam’s lousy marksmanship and his stereotypical villain’s tendency to talk the hero to death instead of simply shooting him. Then I realized that soulless Sam, intellectually understanding the rules of the game as narrative Sam did not, really didn’t want to “kill” Sam and thus integrate with his ensouled self, precisely because that would have saddled him with a soul. Frankly, I think soulless Sam missed his target – whether intentionally or unconsciously – until he satisfied himself that he was in control of the situation and ensouled Sam lacked the backbone to defeat him, and thus calculated that even if he “killed” ensouled Sam, he would still be able to subdue the soul within himself and drive the body without interference from his soul. Big mistake – but that’s animal instinct, intellect, and calculation without heart.
Hell-Sam really encompassed two things: Sam’s repressed memories of his unbearable existence in Hell, and his fear of what experiencing Hell consciously would do to him. Sam had heard from multiple disparate sources, including Castiel, Crowley, Meg, Death, Balthazar, and even Dean, that realizing his memories of Hell would be a bad thing and would most likely destroy him outright or turn him into a drooling vegetable. Hearing the same from the part of himself that actually knew what had happened to him in Hell had to have been the worst of all. Sam’s courage in insisting on doing it anyway precisely because he couldn’t leave Dean to face things alone just melted my heart, and emphatically declared the end of the rift between the brothers. We’ve always known that Dean was all about Sam; now anyone who doubted has demonstrable, incontrovertible proof that the reverse is also true.
Sam’s appearance at the mansion and the timing of his arrival indicated that he’d woken not long after Dean and Bobby had left, and likely taken either Bobby’s car or another from the salvage yard to follow them. How he managed to drive while combating repeated visions and sensations of burning alive in Hell, I can’t say, but it’s a tribute to his sheer force of will. Even when he stabbed Castiel, he was obviously barely hanging on to being himself, conscious, and upright. I fully expect that he’s still going to be in the throes of his reintegration when season seven begins, and that his problems and challenges with respect to trying not to be overwhelmed by his memories of Hell and dealing with his shame and guilt over the things he did while soulless will feature prominently in the storyline for a long time to come.
I Am Your New God. A Better One.
My immediate reaction at the end of the episode was to quote the old adage about power corrupting, and absolute power corrupting absolutely. I would submit that what happened to Castiel when he succeeded in raiding Purgatory wasn’t anything he’d ever intended, and Dean was right: all that power, all those souls inside him, were acting like a drug, overriding his normal inhibitions and rational processes and sending him on the ultimate power trip. That wasn’t the Cass we know and love: that was Cass on PCP.
I’m certain a lot of fans reacted angrily to Castiel being out of character in proclaiming himself God and demanding worship, but that’s the point: that kind of drug will absolutely change your personality and sidestep your rational, conscious awareness. If you’ve ever tried to deal with anyone as massively stoned and utterly delusional as Castiel was at the end, you know that whoever they normally are has left the building. It has nothing to do with who they are or what they intend; it’s the drug opening the cages in which they normally confine the ugly, arrogant, selfish, vicious aspects of themselves they would never normally let loose.
I’ve talked a lot in earlier reviews about my thoughts along the way on what was driving Castiel’s decisions. While I was wrong about some very major things – I hadn’t guessed Castiel had made a deal with Crowley and was planning to use the power of souls in Purgatory in his war against Raphael in Heaven – I think I was right in most of my analysis of his motivations. And none of them concerned setting himself up as the new God.
As he described in The Man Who Would Be King, I do believe Castiel started with nothing more than his earnest desire to bring peace, order, and the new gospel of freedom to Heaven in the aftermath of the aborted apocalypse. When he discovered Raphael was adamant about putting the apocalypse back on track, destroying all Castiel and the Winchesters had striven and sacrificed to save, he was desperate for a way to avert disaster. Knowing himself hopelessly outmatched in a conflict with an archangel, he looked for leverage – but rather than seek advice from Dean, he let himself, out of mingled pride, fear, and shame, be seduced into a partnership with Crowley, telling himself all along he could outsmart the demon and keep his integrity. And each time he might have chosen differently along the way, he kept repeating to himself that the stakes were too high, that he couldn’t afford to fail, and that whatever he did in pursuit of that ultimate goal was justified and necessary because it would avert the greater evil of seeing the apocalypse restarted. I do truly think he wasn’t in it at the beginning for the power in and of itself; I think he sought the power only in pursuit of the goal of preservation. And I think that was still what was mostly in his mind when he opened the Purgatory door.
That’s not to say the lure of power wasn’t there and wasn’t already corrupting him in small ways, however. When he harried Hell in his absolute conviction of mission and rescued Sam, he was admittedly too pumped on his own achievement to heed the niggling voice of his disquiet telling him something about Sam wasn’t right. When he carried Crowley’s loan of fifty thousand souls into Heaven and used them to blast Raphael out of his complacency making his declaration of war, he was juiced up on power and pride, setting himself up as Raphael’s direct opposition. When he successfully touched Bobby’s soul to draw power directly into himself to be able to bring the brothers back from the past in Frontierland, I think he cemented his belief that he’d be strong enough to contain more souls, although he said at the time he never wanted to do that again. And when Raphael, saying he wouldn’t allow Castiel to acquire that much power, phrased it as, If anyone’s going to be the new God, it’s going to be me, I think he planted the seed that shaped the specific form of Castiel’s power delusion.
Unlike Raphael, Castiel was at least torn along the way, uncomfortable with the things he was doing and always aware on some level that they were wrong. That discomfort made him hide the truth not only from Dean, but also from the angels who followed him. He even kept the core of his plans hidden from Balthazar, whose moral code was far more lax than Castiel’s. Balthazar was not only in on but crucial to some of his shadier plots, as evidenced in The French Mistake and My Heart Will Go On, but he didn’t know about his partnership with Crowley or his designs on Purgatory until the Winchesters told him about them here.
I think Castiel’s premeditated execution of Balthazar when he confirmed to himself that Balthazar was lying to him marked the crossing of a line in his gradual corruption. He didn’t accuse Balthazar outright and didn’t ask why the angel had betrayed him to the Winchesters, as he would have in the past; he simply killed him. Knowing Balthazar’s nature, Castiel would have had good reason to think Balthazar likely to be a threat as soon as he knew he’d been discovered, but still; this was his first preemptive strike, his first murder of a friend. Castiel had killed other angels before during the fight to avert the apocalypse and when he himself was attacked, but not like this. His sorrowfully expressed inability to understand why his friends were against him as the lead-in to Balthazar’s execution just underscored his growing dissociation; he was asking about his friends’ betrayal when he was planning a fatal one of his own.
And then he opened the door to Purgatory and took millions of monster souls into himself. I can’t imagine what it would feel like, to realize you had the power within you to do virtually anything. Add to that the absolute conviction that what he was doing was necessary and right – that whatever he was doing was necessary and right – and the power surge could become its own reason for doing anything, just because he could.
Beyond just the awareness of power itself, however, I wonder how much the nature of the souls providing the power might affect it. I suspect this isn’t like electricity, which is the same whether it’s produced by coal, oil, geothermal, water, nuclear, solar, or wind power: I would bet that souls carry with them the essence of their being, whether that is good and kind or evil and malevolent. If that’s the case, Castiel, in absorbing not just pure power but monster souls, may have been further polluted by the souls themselves incorporating murderous evil and infecting him with it. I think Castiel’s obvious relish in contemplating punishing Raphael’s followers severely might have been a strong clue that the monstrous nature of the souls he’d swallowed was affecting him right along with the delusional high of just containing that much power.
If that’s the case, there may be hope that direct contact with other souls – purer souls, Heaven-bound souls like Dean, Sam, and Bobby – might help counteract the taint. And I think Dean was absolutely right in trying to persuade Castiel to let the power go now that Raphael’s threat was gone, to return the souls to Purgatory before the end of the eclipse presumably closes the door again, in the belief that getting rid of the souls and the power might – like coming off a drug – restore Castiel to equilibrium and his right mind. That would be even more crucial if the monster nature of the souls was further distorting the angel’s personality and perception of reality.
For the record, I don’t believe Castiel is lost to us or that he’s destined to be the villain of season seven. I think it’s more likely that Castiel will come off his power high, whether by Dean, Sam, and Bobby getting through to him – I wonder what would happen, for example, if the three of them, led by Dean, refused to worship Castiel; would he follow through on his threat to destroy them, or find that he couldn’t bring himself to go that far? – and persuading him to return the souls, or by Castiel simply losing his hold on the power and the souls under stress and challenge. In either case, I would bet that a lot of the souls would wind up loose on Earth rather than being sucked back through the door, providing a lot of adversaries to hunt – but would they be like demons, possessing others, or take on new monster forms, perhaps not subject to the particular weaknesses they had before? And I think Castiel, stripped of the power overload, would react as Dean and Sam have done before, realizing his mistakes and and resolving to try to make things right both on Earth and in Heaven.
Personal responsibility, bad choices, and redemption are pieces as crucial to the Supernatural story as family, brotherhood, and the clash between fate and free will. I think the whole story of this season was how Castiel, just like Dean and especially Sam before him, chose the wrong path with the best intentions, bringing bad consequences he never intended while believing he was doing what had to be done. And I think Castiel, like Dean and Sam, will ultimately realize and admit his mistakes, and try to make up for them.