Supernatural University: “I Did What I Had To” – The Pernicious Defense
In Holy Terror, character after character – from Theo, to Castiel, to Dean, to Gadreel – repeated the same mantra to justify their actions to themselves and to others: “I did what I had to.” We’ve heard it before from many characters in the show, and probably from many people in our own lives. We’ve probably all used it ourselves.
I argue here that we should think carefully about why we’re using it, and generally reconsider saying or thinking it. In many cases, when we say “I did what I had to,” we really mean, “I shouldn’t be held accountable for doing something you perceive as wrong because I’m a victim here too; I did it only because I didn’t have any other choice, and if I’d had a different option you’d have liked better, I’d have taken it.” And in most instances, I submit, that is a lie. Welcome to a psychology and philosophy session of Supernatural University!
I Had To: The Victim’s Excuse
In biological terms, there are very few things we actually must do in order to remain alive. We have to breathe, drink, eat, sleep, and excrete – and that’s pretty much it. In purely biological terms, everything else we do is a choice, not a necessity. (Well, for the species as a whole, procreation is also a necessity – but it’s not something every individual in the species must choose to do in order for the group to survive. End digression …)
We don’t typically think of it that way. We see a whole range of actions as necessities – things we believe we simply have no choice but to do – when we consider the consequences of different actions or of inaction to be so unacceptable as not even to merit consideration. Many times, we don’t even think about them consciously; we’re weighing things against values so deeply embedded within us we just accept them as a given. If we didn’t do what the bully demanded, we’d get hurt. If we admitted we broke a thing, we’d be punished for it. If we didn’t obey our boss, we’d get fired. If we didn’t follow our secular rules, we’d be arrested. If we didn’t adhere to our religious beliefs, we’d be damned.
In each case, however, we are making a choice; we’re valuing one outcome above another and choosing the one most attractive (or least unattractive) to us. As long as we’re clear about that and willing to accept judgment on that basis, we’re being honest with ourselves, and that’s healthy. When we make ourselves victims by professing we had no choice, however, we’re lying to ourselves as well as to others, making excuses to avoid being held accountable by anyone. And that, I submit, is a bad thing because every time we do it, we chip away at our self-image and diminish our power to act. We think we’re persuading ourselves that we have no guilt for our choice because we have no real power to choose, and thus we’re putting that guilt or blame price on whoever or whatever forced us into the situation. But whenever we do that, we’re cheating ourselves.
Think about it. If you believe you’re powerless – if you tell yourself often enough that you never really have a choice, that everything you do is laid out for you – you’re going to convince yourself that’s the truth. You’re going to miss opportunities because you’ll never even see them. Even if you do see them, you’re going to dismiss them as unattainable because you don’t believe in your own ability to act. And then you’re going to be bitter about being held back, about never being given a chance … and that begets a self-defeating spiral. Once you’ve convinced yourself that nothing is your fault because nothing is your choice and you have no choice, you’ll also have convinced yourself that you can never do anything to change that, that you can never take charge and win. You’ll have seduced yourself into a situation where you find yourself doing what others require even if that violates core values you once accepted, because you perceive you have no choice. It’s a trap baited with freedom from responsibility that signs your life over to others.
Don’t fall into it.
Victim’s Excuse In Practice: Theo and Gadreel
I think Holy Terror gave us two good examples of the victim’s excuse in practice: Theo and Gadreel.
Faithless Theo, proposing to change sides and defect to Metatron’s cause, defended doing Malachi’s dirty work of torturing and murdering angels as “doing what he had to.” A pure opportunist seeking to stay alive and on the winning side, he didn’t see his choices as wrong or evil; simply pragmatic number-crunching to maximize his odds of survival. He put all the responsibility for the choices made and the consequences of his actions on the others whose orders he followed by rote, and considered his only choice to be dictated by following the survival path of least resistance. He may have thought that in rebelling against Malachi he was freely charting his own course, but he wasn’t; he was simply continuing to yield to whoever looked like the strongest bully, the one most likely to win.
Gadreel also took the victim’s path. He protested to Metatron that his failure to protect God’s creation against the infiltration of evil wasn’t his fault and that all the things others said about him were lies. What actually happened and what role he played in it remain unknown; I do hope we get to find out. But this is where things get interesting.
When Gadreel first responded to Dean’s prayer, pretending to be Ezekiel and trading on the dead angel’s reputation as a “good and honorable” being, I think he truly was trying to redeem himself and recover his strength while also staying safely concealed from other angels who might still judge him for the actions that led to his imprisonment in Heaven. I think that, even confused and injured as he was, he saw his unexpected freedom on Earth as a second chance. I don’t believe he was planning to hijack Sam’s body from the start; I think he really was trying to remake himself in a better image and erase his status as a pariah, while also gaining in the Winchesters resourceful allies of proven worth. With that as his goal, he resisted anything that threatened it, including Castiel possibly realizing not just what but who he was if Cas – who knew Ezekiel as a comrade and might catch Gadreel out as an imposter – had remained at the Men of Letters bunker.
When Metatron revealed his knowledge of Gadreel, he not only played on Gadreel’s desire to regain his reputation to seduce the angel to his side; he also reinforced Gadreel’s image of himself as a victim, someone unjustly blamed and punished for events he didn’t perceive as his fault. He offered Gadreel a different road to justify himself and cleanse his own name, a noble quest much bigger than just clandestinely saving one man’s life: the restoration of God’s Heaven to all its proper glory. To avert Gadreel’s unease regarding his motives, Metatron even cast himself in a variation of the same mold, falsely – and not very convincingly – presenting his desire to rebuild Heaven to his own specifications and rule it as a “burden” he felt constrained to accept. I believe Metatron’s seduction of Gadreel had nothing to do with Gadreel’s intrinsic worth, but everything to do with the opportunity afforded by his unique placement inside a Winchester and his victim-complex vulnerability to corruption.
I submit Gadreel clearly understood that the proof of loyalty Metatron demanded – killing people on order, starting with Kevin – went directly against the personal redemption he’d been trying to achieve when he responded to Dean’s prayer. “That – that is not who I am,” he said, but Metatron, confident in the hook he’d baited, dismissively told him to decide. Still conflicted, Gadreel returned to the bunker only to discover that Dean intended to warn Sam to expel him, which would have negated all he’d originally said he was trying to do as well as ended his immediate usefulness to Metatron. Rather than trying to persuade Dean otherwise by coming clean with Dean about who he was, what he was doing, why he had lied, and what Metatron wanted of him, Gadreel decided – not as he had to, but as he chose to – to forcibly retain Sam’s body and follow Metatron’s orders despite knowing they violated his own sense of right and wrong. He accepted the view that he was a victim just doing what he had to do in order to survive and serve his bigger mission, so he wouldn’t be responsible for the consequences.
This is where the “I did what I had to” justification is its most dangerous. It’s a simple variation on “the ends justify the means,” and that’s never true. If something good does come from you committing an evil act under orders – say you torture a terrorist and he gives you the means to deactivate a bomb and save other lives – that in no way changes the nature of what you did by torturing in the first place. It just waxes the slippery slope that makes the next evil act so much easier to commit because you persuade yourself that it’s worth it, that it’s okay, that it doesn’t really matter so much. It eats away at your empathy by letting you put up barriers of “I had to do it – so it’s not my fault. And it came out better in the end, anyway.” That makes you callous, not strong. When you see yourself as a victim not responsible for your own decisions, someone just doing what circumstances or superiors require of you even when you feel it’s wrong, you lose who you are by letting other people define and control you.
I Had To Because: The Plea For Understanding
I would propose that not every instance of “I did what I had to” is just the victim’s excuse, however, which is why I started this little discussion by saying we need to understand why we’re saying it. Sometimes – the better times – we use it as the springboard to promote understanding, to help someone see how and why we felt compelled to make a choice with which they disagree. So long as we accept their right to judge our choice differently than we do and we strive both to see it through their eyes and to let them view it through ours, we may all come out richer for the experience.
The key difference is that in this usage, we don’t disavow responsibility for our actions; we don’t claim victim status for ourselves to avoid bearing blame for the consequences of our choices. We don’t assign responsibility and choice to others. We don’t lie to ourselves or to others about being powerless to choose. Instead, we admit to ourselves why we chose as we did, why one outcome was preferable and seemed essential to us even though it wouldn’t have been to others, and then we seek to share that information with those others. It’s not a claim that we were right; it’s simply a statement of who we are and why we think the way we do. It’s an explanation, not an excuse – and we offer it knowing and accepting it might make no difference in how another feels about us.
In this usage, it never stands on its own. It’s always accompanied by self-awareness and self-reflection, and most often by words and actions intended to invite and enable others to share our perspective, if they’re willing. I would submit this is a much healthier thing than the guilt-avoidance of claiming to be a victim, but it still has its dangers.
The Difference In Practice: Castiel And Dean
I would posit that both Dean and Castiel used “I did what I had to” not as an excuse, but in the context of a plea for understanding. Let me explain.
Captured and tortured by Malachi, after similarly being rendered helpless and then killed by the Reaper wearing April’s guise back in I’m No Angel, Castiel fully expected to die again. Offered the unexpected opportunity by Theo’s defection to choose differently, he calculated that reacquiring angelic strength was the only way he could survive, escape, and attempt to make amends for his previous error of trusting Metatron. Inspired by Metatron’s unprecedented theft of his own grace, he tried Metatron’s trick to siphon off Theo’s grace and take it as his own, and it worked. He smote Theo’s human vessel and whatever of Theo remained in it, and then killed Malachi’s guard angels to gain his freedom.
When he called Dean to warn him about Ezekiel’s death, Castiel didn’t tell Dean what he had done to regain angelic ability; he simply said, “I did what I had to.” But he didn’t leave it at that. He went on to acknowledge, “I became what they’ve become: a barbarian.” His shame and self-loathing were apparent. He wasn’t excusing himself for what he’d done; he wasn’t shifting the responsibility or blame for his choice onto Theo or Malachi or Bartholomew, or even onto Metatron. Yes, he blamed Metatron for deceiving him, he blamed Malachi and Bartholomew for perpetuating civil war, and he blamed Theo for willingly doing Malachi’s dirty work, but he nonetheless held himself accountable for his own actions. He had resigned and steeled himself to die for his beliefs and his mistakes, but when Theo’s defection gave him the opportunity to choose a different course of action, he took it, even knowing it was evil. I daresay he consoled himself with the thought that he’d done worse before and that what he did now was the only chance he could see to survive long enough to try to make things better, but he didn’t try to tell himself that what he did was right. He consciously valued his survival and his desire to save other angels like Muriel and atone for his previous mistakes over keeping the moral high ground by accepting death before dishonor, and so he knowingly and deliberately chose dishonor. And he’ll flagellate himself for it.
Two wrongs don’t make a right, but I can understand Castiel’s choice. And I don’t think he’ll protest if others judge him harshly for that choice; I think he’ll accept the blame and take what punishment any more just and uncorrputed angel such as Muriel might mete out. And because of that, I don’t think he was just using the victim’s excuse.
Dean, in finally coming clean to Sam – well, to whom he understandably thought was Sam – about what he had done in tricking Sam into saying yes to being possessed by an angel, also said, “I did what I had to.” But I would submit that he, too, wasn’t simply excusing himself, but instead pleading for understanding concerning why he couldn’t conceive of making a different choice. He knew what he had done was fundamentally wrong, but he still couldn’t accept Sam dying. He confessed that Sam being messed up messed him up too; an honest echo of the “There ain’t no me if there ain’t no you” argument that had persuaded Sam to say yes to Dean/”Ezekiel” in I Think I’m Gonna Like It Here. To Dean, having Sam alive was essential to his own life, even if Sam was furious beyond forgiveness. Dean obviously hoped and bet all his future happiness that “Ezekiel” was trustworthy and that Sam would be willing and able to understand the depth of his desperate need and eventually grant him absolution out of love, as he had done before when Dean sold his soul for Sam’s life back in season two, but Dean also accepted that just having Sam alive would be worth even a lifetime of his bitter resentment. A chance at Sam’s survival seemed worth the price of gambling on an angel’s honesty and goodwill and a brother’s just anger. Dean didn’t put responsibility for his choice on anyone else. He didn’t deny that there was a choice; he just tried to express why he saw only one option as being acceptable to him.
That decision has now backfired on him in spectacular fashion, resulting in Kevin’s death and putting Sam into even worse danger. Dean’s options weren’t good in the first place, and they’re even less so now; he won’t be forgiving himself any time soon. The specter of this decision will hang over each successive one he makes as he tries to get Sam back and repair his brother’s trust while dealing with his own guilt for all the harm that’s come to Sam, Kevin, and Castiel because he rolled “Ezekiel’s” dice. There’s little to no chance Dean will forgive “Ezekiel” for what the angel has done, but he won’t try to deny his own culpability, either. I just hope his tunnel vision focus on saving Sam and avenging Kevin won’t blind him to the full array of choices available to him and lead him again down an “I did what I had to” path.
I’ve always considered the “I did what I had to” argument a pernicious one. Even when it’s used to plead for understanding, validation, and forgiveness, not simply to shift blame for the consequences to someone else for putting you into a situation where you saw only one viable course of action, it carries the danger of leading you down a path where each successive decision takes you further away from who you are. Once you’ve rationalized and accepted for whatever reason that you have no other choice, it’s easier to keep accepting that than to change course down the road. That can make you a victim by sapping your energy over time and closing you off from seeing and evaluating other options.
There are times when all our options suck and we don’t have good choices available. I won’t deny that. But here’s my advice. If you’re in that situation and have to make a decision, be honest with yourself about why you make the choice you do, and acknowledge that it is a choice. Figure out your priorities and what drives you toward them; knowledge is power. If you can, share them and your dilemma with people you trust; others may be able to help you see options you just weren’t in a position to perceive on your own, or point out flaws in your reasoning that might alter where you come down. When you try to explain your decision to someone else, help them understand why you made your choice, but don’t get defensive or insist you were right; be open to understanding why they may disagree with you, because even if you don’t agree, what they say might help you refine your course or make better future decisions. Don’t be afraid to admit an error if you realize you made one; course corrections are easier the sooner they’re made, before you’ve acquired too much inertia or momentum.
But whatever decision you make, own it, because if you don’t, someone else will own you.
I haven’t been able to do episode reviews lately, but that doesn’t mean I don’t have thoughts!
In terms of the show, I hope we might see Gadreel reconsidering his alliance with Metatron, repenting his actions, and pursuing the redemption he seemed to be seeking when he first answered Dean’s prayer. Redemption has been a recurring theme throughout the series, and frankly, I find it a more interesting and compelling story than just another fall into villainy. I don’t know how Gadreel could possibly atone for murdering Kevin – I’m certainly not inclined to forgive him for that, even if they find a way to bring Kevin back! – and hijacking Sam, but I wish he would come to his senses and resist being used by Metatron.
Preferably, I’d like to see Sam bring Gadreel around from inside. I didn’t believe Gadreel for a second when he said, “There is no more Sam.” Man, Sam fought Lucifer to a standstill in Swan Song; I have to believe he could match wills with any angel and come out on top. Admittedly, Sam went into that fight aware, fully conscious, and with determined intent, but I have faith in his strength of soul. I could see this challenge as the means through which Sam finally comes fully back into his own, reintegrating himself and committing to a positive and purpose-driven life in a way he really hasn’t since that deliberate Swan Song sacrifice. I know Jared’s been having a ball playing the complexity of other characters in Sam’s body, but I long to see Sam being Sam again – and this time not addicted, not soulless, not crazy, not uncertain, not driven, not aimless, not overwhelmed, not crippled, and not possessed. I’d love to see Sam pull off a win that grounds him in his worth and satisfies his need to make a difference, to be of consequence to others in this world. I’d love it if Sam’s moral center led Gadreel to rediscover his own, and finally healed them both.
Hey – I’m a romantic, a humanist, and an optimist; what can I say?
I also hope the writers address Castiel knowing there’s an “angel exorcism” that a third party can use to drive an angel out of its human vessel; Alastair was using it on him in On The Head Of A Pin when Sam intervened. Dean was unconscious at the time, so there’s no reason he would know about it, and Sam may very well have thought Alastair was torturing Castiel, not trying to evict him, so it would make sense that he didn’t write notes on it. Castiel never had the opportunity to try it against angels who came after him; they’d have killed or silenced him before he got the first three words out of his mouth. Dean also never told him Sam was possessed by an angel who might need eviction, so Cas had no reason to mention it. For all we know, given that we only saw it once, the incantation might even require demon power to work. But I really hope that particular loose end gets tied up with a reasonable explanation!
I’ve got a few other meta I hope to complete soon, including thoughts on Reapers and angels; positive lessons from human Castiel; and how and why I think Hollywood expectations for hero franchises are bad things for TV shows and movies. Wish me luck and writing time!
Oh, and Happy New Year!