Supernatural University: Sowing Changes, Reaping … Confusion
Gentle readers, I need your help! I have some critical logic and continuity issues with developmenta in the show’s cosmology concerning Reapers. Since I don’t ever want to be unhappy with any aspect of my favorite show, I’m looking for some Canon-Ball Award-worthy solutions to my dilemmas (and if that reference escaped you, check out this post). So this class is a challenge in creative cosmological thinking: can you find plausible explanations that address all my concerns? I’d appreciate it!
Basically, I’m wrestling with decisions in the episodes Taxi Driver and I’m No Angel that
(a) appear to change essential lore about Reapers established earlier in the series; and
(b) suggest Reapers may be a specialty variety of angel, like Cupids or Rit Zien.
I’m going to explain my issues, and then throw open the comments to your hopefully problem-solving solutions!
I started venting about Reapers in my review of Taxi Driver. Let me recap the crucial points here.
Reapers can be seen only by humans who are dead, dying or near death. This limitation on human perception (angels and monsters are different cases) was established right from the start in Faith, and was a key plot element in every story with a Reaper up until Taxi Driver. It drove the Winchesters to go bodiless in Death Takes A Holiday and Dean to contract with a shady doctor to kill and resuscitate him in Appointment In Samarra. The plausible reason for their imperceptibility is my next point.
In their natural form, Reapers have no material bodies, and can make people who do perceive them see whatever appearance – and whatever else – the Reaper chooses to show them. Tessa made that point with Dean during In My Time Of Dying; she told him he had seen her first in her true diaphanous form, and she created the whole illusion of Tessa – including her comatose body and apparently grieving mother – to be able to approach him. The doomed nurse in Appointment In Samarra walked right through Tessa, so it was obvious she had no real physical form on Earth. Death Takes A Holiday confused that a bit because the demons handled their captured Reapers in the funeral home as if their bodies were solid and real, but I wrote that off to a combination of the spell imprisoning the Reapers and to the demons themselves having part of their essence on the same non-material plane as the Reapers and the ghostly Winchesters. Since demons are the remnants of damned human souls, I had no problem with them seeing the Reapers; that made perfect sense. And so did the idea that Death’s personal scythe would be able to kill anything, in whatever form, material or otherwise.
Taxi Driver stood both of those things on their heads by making “rogue Reaper” Ajay both visible to everyone and physically tangible, even driving a cab and eating pizza, and offered no explanation at all for how that worked. The simplest possible logic was that Reapers – like otherwise intangible demons, angels, and some ghosts – had a previously unrevealed ability to possess humans, meaning a rogue Reaper could inhabit a human’s body, but that didn’t appear anywhere in the previous lore.
One possible explanation for that lack – if Reapers were monsters, anyway – could have been that the rules on Reapers changed in season six along with the rules on other monsters as Eve began to reach out from Purgatory to tweak her “children” in response to the pressure from Crowley and Castiel. That would imply the “rogue” aspect of Reapers taking solid human shape and trading in souls rather than simply guiding them was a recent development.
My single biggest problem with that solution is simply that Reapers don’t seem to fit the mold of “monsters” as the show has presented them so far. Monsters – at least in terms of the beings destined for Purgatory rather than either Heaven or Hell – seem to consist of Leviathan, exiled there by God, and all the myriad creatures such as vampires, ghouls, skinwalkers, and the like warped from humanity and nature by Eve. Since Eve claimed kinship with Leviathan according to the Alpha vampire in There Will Be Blood (and appropriately to that claim exuded diluted black goo when Dean poisoned her in Mommy Dearest), that suggests all “monsters” arose from a common Leviathan-related source. They all share one common characteristic: they all prey on humans, particularly by eating them – or parts of them, anyway. The show’s various “pagan gods” have all been portrayed as partaking of that same nature, deriving power from feeding on humans in one way or another. Were they all perhaps influenced by Leviathan?
The show has also seen humans we consider monsters for their actions – the Benders come to mind, as do the show’s version of witches, who sold their souls for power – but full-spectrum, non-altered (as in, non-monster-infected) humans who indulge in evil wind up in Hell. Ghosts and demons are simply remnants of human souls, not distinct monsters, so human rules apply. Angels have now lost all their alien mystery and proven essentially human in their venality, even being transformed into humans when deprived of grace.
But I saw Reapers as different, at least until Taxi Driver. They didn’t prey on humans; they simply collected souls as they died and facilitated their course to Heaven or Hell, as appropriate. Presumably, they similarly conveyed monster souls to Purgatory. We did see two Reapers forced to act outside their bounds: one trapped by Sue Ann LeGrange’s spell into transferring one person’s death to someone else, and Tessa, compelled by Azazel to exchange Dean’s death for John’s. But otherwise, Reapers came across as being neutral, more a force of nature than anything else; agents of the natural order, not monster violations against it. So where do they fit?
The Angel Connection
The show as aired has never explicitly said this (unless I missed a script reference somewhere), but Taxi Driver and I’m No Angel both seemed to me to suggest Reapers may be a variety of angel. For example, look at the angelic light VFX used during the deaths of Ajay, Maurice, and April, all slain by angel blades, and note that April boasted of the real human woman not having minded the Reaper entering her.
There are some merits to that concept. One is the whole function of Reapers as psychopomps, escorting deceased souls to their proper destination. The show established in season six that human souls are the power sources for both Heaven and Hell. With God as the architect of that system, it makes sense that he’d have incorporated a means to ensure souls went where they belonged. He used angels as his servants for other duties; why not a dedicated type for the Reaper’s job, as Cupids were dedicated to engineering certain human connections?
Based on everything that happened before, however, I have problems with accepting Reapers as a subset of angels. Here are my particular sticking points.
Reapers answer to Death, not to Heaven. It’s very curious to me that any angels would have been designed to exist outside Heaven’s control, being instead under the command of Death. (Of course, it also doesn’t make any sense to me that angels, demons, or anyone could offer a Reaper anything of value to encourage it to go rogue and disobey Death … I wouldn’t!)
Demons can’t possess angels. This is a real killer for me. Back in In My Time Of Dying, Azazel possessed Tessa (despite her lack of a physical body!) to use her ability to save Dean. We have never seen anything to suggest that a demon could possess an angel, so Azazel taking over a Reaper argues to me that Reapers aren’t angels. As a rule, demons have been weaker than angels; only the most powerful demons, such as Alastair, could withstand smiting by Castiel, an ordinary angel. Even Lilith, the first and most powerful demon known, fled in The Monster At The End Of This Book when threatened with the power of an archangel. Demons also had no ability to kill angels until the angels’ own swords became known and available through the civil war in Heaven. It makes no sense that a demon could possess a Reaper, if Reapers were angels. For that to work, Reapers would have to be uniquely weak angels.
Unless dealing with very special people (like Jimmy Novak, who could hear and understand Castiel to be persuaded into possession) or appearing only in dreams, angels must take human vessels in order to communicate with other humans; perceiving an angel’s true form burns out a human’s eyes. For Reapers to be able to do their work, humans have to be able to see them; if they were angels, that would depart from the usual trope of humans not being able to tolerate the sight or voice of an angel unless its grace is shielded within the body of a human vessel. This is a weaker argument than the other two, if only because it’s possible that humans on the verge of death might be perceiving Reapers – and could perhaps perceive angels – spiritually, rather than physically, thus removing the limitations on a human’s physical senses.
If Reapers were angels, Castiel would have known about them as he knew about other angel types, including archangels, Cupids, and Rit Zien. And if Castiel knew Reapers were angels and what they did, why wouldn’t he have known that Reapers knew the way to Purgatory? And why wouldn’t the angels have used Reaper access to Hell at need – for example, to rescue Dean without having to harrow Hell in force? One of the reasons I simply can’t enjoy Taxi Driver with my brain engaged on the story is, it makes a mockery of the whole premise of season six’s search for Purgatory, not to mention dismissing and negating all the struggle and sacrifice in every other story involving our characters with Purgatory and Hell. To me, it simply doesn’t make sense.
Castiel and the Winchesters are warded against angelic detection, unless they pray. In I’m No Angel, Bartholomew engaged the entire network of rogue Reapers (and just how many of them could there possibly be? Death doesn’t strike me as either tolerant or incompetent …) to find Castiel specifically because angels had lost the ability to locate him after Cas got himself tattooed and vanished from angel radar. That argues Reapers aren’t angels, particularly since different Reapers succeeded in finding both sets of targets – Castiel and the carved-rib Winchesters – when Bartholomew’s angels couldn’t. Reapers clearly can find the dying unerringly because that’s their purpose; but since neither Cas nor the Winchesters were dying or near death when they were found, it strikes me that a Reaper’s presumed special talent for finding souls wouldn’t have overridden the targets’ anti-angel warding, if Reapers were angels.
And so my question remains …
Just what, exactly, are Reapers, and why are they apparently different now than they used to be?
Can you help me find satisfying answers that will make me happy? In case you haven’t guessed, I get cranky when I can’t make logical sense out of something. This probably means I think about irrelevant, intangible things way too much, but I’ll admit that’s one of my intrinsic character flaws. Still, I don’t like being cranky, so I need help.
Can you toss me a Reaper Canon-Ball?