Let’s be honest. Supernatural tells a story about fathers. John, the father. God, the father. Bobby and Dean, the father figures. And most recently, Castiel, the father surrogate and Dick, the corporate father.
The Importance of Being Sorry: Apocalyptic Fathers, Broken Angels, and Capricious Board Games
Let’s be honest. Supernatural tells a story about fathers. John, the father. God, the father. Bobby and Dean, the father figures. And most recently, Castiel, the father surrogate and Dick, the corporate father. A viewer can’t really move an inch in the storyline of this show without bumping into a bad father, whether he is human or celestial. I’m not saying anything new, I know. At this point you may think I sound like Sam in “Tall Tales,” with my “bad father, blah blah blah,” but I think returning to the theme of fatherhood is interesting after the season seven episode “Reading is Fundamental” and the controversial board game scene between Castiel and Dean. Actually, I’d argue that it’s a good theme to return to after the entirety of seasons six and seven. But in order to understand the implications of the board game scene, specifically, it is important to review the “road so far.”
Father, Why Have You Forsaken….?
After the aborted apocalypse of the season five finale “Swan Song,” we entered a whole new world on Supernatural, one that focused on a particular commentary about modern life. Or at least that’s how I read it. The sixth season told the story of heaven’s war, after the desertion not of the father, but of the mission. The seventh season continued this storyline, but as Gabriel said in “Changing Channels,” the seventh season told the story of how the Leviathans show “as it is in heaven, so shall it must be on earth.” In the absence of the father, new fathers emerge and take power. And both seasons are very much informed by what occurred in season five.
Remember that much of season five was spent searching for God, or God seemed to be who Castiel wanted to find. For the Winchesters, the search had taken the shape of the Colt, which was a left over symbol of the father, since it was John Winchester’s answer to the problem of demons. And when the Colt failed to kill the devil, when the Colt failed the mission, the search turned to the ultimate father (and weapon), God. Much can, has, and should be made about the comparison between God, the father, and John, the father, but for this article, the real issue comes with the aborted search for God.
The search for God ended in “Dark Side of the Moon” when God’s messenger, Joshua, warned the brothers to turn back from such a quest, to leave God alone. And while many argue that the figure of Chuck is the figure of God, for the boys and for Castiel, Chuck was simply a prophet. For these characters, the end of season five culminated in an experience of abandonment, an abandonment that was enacted by the fight between Michael and Lucifer, in the bodies of two brothers – Adam, the brother who was abandoned and Sam, the brother who abandons. The fight was about which brother would fulfill a vision of the father – Michael’s steadfast loyalty to God’s mission and Lucifer’s willful rebellion against such a mission. I find it a bit ironic that Adam would be the vessel for Michael, as his desire to fight was informed by a personal desire rather than one inspired by the father, unless revenge is inspiration enough. A side note to the article, but important nonetheless, when you think about how brothers, both in blood and in bond, keep trying to in some way memorialize the father in this show, and that includes Castiel.
At the end of season five we can see that all the fathers have left the building; even the father of the text, Chuck, disappears into a voice. And yet when season six begins, we are treated to a montage of Dean acting as father. This montage, accompanied by Seger’s “Beautiful Loser,” frames the season’s storylines to an extent. Dean’s home life and his role of step-in-father, which the show emphasizes more than his role as lover, give us a clue to the disorder of a personal post apocalypse. I would argue that while a global apocalypse did not occur, an apocalypse still took place, except on a smaller and more human scale. Every death is an apocalypse; every person carries a world as his life. When Sam jumped into Hell, he took Sam’s Dean with him, as well as Castiel’s father.
As the sixth season progresses, the story splits into several plots, but all of these plots seem to address anarchy, such as the storylines that follow heaven’s disordered hierarchy, Crowley’s search for purgatory, and even the redemption of Sam’s soul. Anarchy is the absence of an origin – anarchy exists in a world without god, without order. In fact, the word is a configuration of the Greek word, “arche,” which means the first power, among other things. And in the world of Supernatural, the first is often the father. It is no wonder then that in a full blown anarchy, the story would turn towards finding alphas, towards finding other firsts, other fathers, since its own first has abandoned the tale. (Here I could make a note about the absence of Kripke as a meta commentary on the absence of the original.)
In heaven, however, without a father and the father’s mission, the angels are left to figure out how to move forward and we get a somewhat redundant storyline. Castiel, the younger son, the lesser angel, sees hope in the aftermath while Raphael, the older child, the archangel, sees a chance to fulfill the father’s mission, to return the father to his rightful place. In many ways, Castiel is portrayed much like the role of Adam is portrayed, but he also experiences what Sam has gone through. He is a combination of abuses. He is a favored son, looked after, but he is still not among the first or the best sons. He falls quickly into questionable morality at the same time he justifies those choices with rational decisions that are anything but rational. The disintegration of Castiel’s moral character becomes apparent early on in season six; we do not need to see his deal with Crowley to understand how far Castiel has gone for his mission. The scene in “The Third Man” where he reaches into the young boy’s body and touches his soul shows us that Castiel has taken on the mantle of what he sees as a necessary amorality.
Castiel’s “fall from grace” plays out through season six, concluding with one key event that seals Castiel’s break. Now here there be monsters, so go back if you are squeamish. I would like to focus on the scene where Castiel makes the deal with Crowley from “The Man Who Would Be King.” Now, it’s easy to romanticize Castiel’s affection for Dean, and I can see that point of view, but for this reading I’d like to take a different tactic. I think this scene shows how much Castiel looks to Dean as another father figure. Throughout season five, especially, we are reminded again and again of how much Castiel gives up for Dean and how he adopts Dean’s “free will” worldview. He exchanges Dean for God; Dean becomes a type of God to the exiled angel. In “The Man Who Would Be King” when faced with the decision to defeat Raphael, Castiel chooses Crowley’s way and it is interesting that the decision is made as Castiel looks on as Dean performs a very domestic task, raking yard leaves. This scene reminds me of the Joshua scene in “Dark Side of the Moon” with its mundaneness of keeping a garden, of maintaining the earth and keeping out of the business of heaven. At this point, Castiel chooses to leave Dean/God alone, for to choose Crowley is to walk away from God, is it not? I think it also gives us insight into seventh season Castiel’s obsession with the natural world, which I will talk more about later.
As Castiel gives into his irrational need to impose free will on heaven and defeat Raphael, we see him assume the position of father, and in a sense, this repositioning happens when he abandons Dean. He replaces the father, and while a classic Freudian move, the consequences of his power grab gives birth to more problems. If we examine the scenes from the season finale of season six and the premiere of season seven, we see that while we were not shown Castiel absorbing the power of purgatory and his godhead, we do see the expulsion of that power, and that scene at the end of “Meet the New Boss” is much like a birth scene. He takes the power of the father and loses it in the birth of the Leviathans, who were themselves abandoned by God. He is a vessel for the Leviathans; his uber paternalness makes him blind to the power of his own womb. In fact, when he finally releases the inhabitants of purgatory, they are ejected in a blast of light that obscures his midsection. The midsection has a very special place in the Supernatural universe. The midsection tends to be the wound inflicted on many women, including Mary, Ruby, and Amy. And I’d take it a step further and note that the black goo that he bleeds could represent the oldness of the womb and the wound. So at the end of “Meet the New Boss” Castiel gives up the power of the father and becomes the broken Eve, giving birth to monsters. That final scene, both a baptism and a birth, shows Castiel sinking into the blackened blood of old wounds, wounds that God has never healed and he, as God, could never heal.
Sorry is the Hardest Word….And Intervention is the Deadliest Sin
When Castiel returns in “The Born Again Identity,” he returns as an amnesiac, a man unaware of his history, of his sins. The gift of amnesia, some might say, is the absence of regret. You cannot regret what you do not remember. Of course, this state does not last long when Dean re-enters the picture. By the end of the episode Castiel’s memory returns as does his regret. His taking on of Sam’s insanity in many ways is an act of redemption – one wall for another. However, this scene brings up a point that the show makes without making, I think.
The hubris of humanity is not that humanity is the favored creation of God. No, the hubris of humanity is its faith in reciprocity. Humans expect and expectation requires involvement. Let us return to the scene from “Dark Side of the Moon” with Joshua for a moment. Two things about Joshua’s warning become clear here. First, God is a gardener. Gardeners tend to the natural progression of growth; gardeners keep the earth; they don’t take the earth. And gardeners know that sometimes gardens die. Second, God does not intervene. The Supernatural god is much like the god of Deism – the clockmaker god, the one who builds the clock, winds it, and then leaves it be. Or at least that’s what we are led to believe. We know differently. Resurrection, as Castiel points out, can be punishment rather than redemption. So God does intervene, but it seems arbitrary and unexpected, one might argue. So when Castiel resurrects Sam by taking on his visions of Lucifer, he takes on his own insanity. He reintervenes in an attempt to undo at least one sin, but in that final act of intervention, I believe Castiel finally learns a lesson. And while he and Sam experience their dark nights of the soul, for Castiel that journey brings him out the other side closer to being like God than he ever could’ve been as Heaven’s leader. He comes out of his trance as a keeper, not a warrior.
And this turn brings us to the “Sorry” scene between Castiel and Dean. This scene explicates, in blatant philosophical terms, the affection of an indifferent god, or the absent father. Dean’s frustration with Castiel is very human. He wants action. He wants regret. Dean is human, probably the most human of them all. Yet Castiel, like Sam in “Defending Your Life,” is not pinned to his regret. In fact, I would argue that Castiel’s actions from Season 6 through the ending of “The Born Again Identity” were more human than angelic. His last act of humanity was curing Sam’s insanity (if he did). It was an act born of regret, not redemption. So this scene with the board game may seem callous. Castiel seems unaffected by Dean’s angst; Dean seems to be yelling at a brick wall. But I think this scene is much like Joshua’s scene. Castiel is telling Dean, through action, that regret is not a natural act. It’s not part of the natural order, as we see again and again through Dean’s deals, Sam’s intentions, and so forth. To regret is to either regret an intervention or a lack of an intervention. So it is appropriate that the board game, “Sorry,” would be present here. It is a parody to regret. The whole game rests on not being sorry, on not regretting. Sorry, like nature, is a game of probability, not certainty. And so it is both fitting and ironic that Castiel would use this game to send God’s message to Dean, a message that free will is the name of the game. Free will is the right to choose the probable or the improbable; destiny is the lack of probability since fate is certain.
This theme is further reinforced in “Survival of the Fittest” when Castiel plays Twister, another game of probability, but also a physical game that makes fun of the contortions humans were not given the power to make. In a way, then, the board game is a hyperlink to the message of the show – the triumph of free will over fate. And when Castiel agrees to help Dean, make note that he resists “aggressive action.” He presents himself as witness, not interloper. However, Castiel cannot quite give up his humanity now, as evidenced by his desire to be forgiven. He still has work to do, as do they all.
In the end, every apocalypse has an origin. Every angel can be humane. And every game is a lesson in free will. Season seven perhaps asks us to recognize that god and nature are never sorry. It is only humanity that twists itself into knots to be so. We are not bound to our fathers’ sins. We are not bound to their absence either. Just as it is the nature of bees to make honey sweet, so shall it be the nature of fathers to make sons regret. As it is in heaven, so shall it be in on earth.