Disease has consumed the headlines in the last month—from the Ebola outbreak to the Enterovirus 68—and as a result we’ve seen fear and concern ratchet up for the nation’s safety, security, and health. But our fear dates much father back. Our fear of disease is perhaps one of our oldest—along with a fear of the dark. Nothing is more pervasive than disease—be it physical, mental, bacteria, cancer, or chronic. It does not discriminate between the affluent and impoverished. And nothing is more dehumanizing. Once someone is infected with the latest malady, they can be ostracized, seen as the monster hiding in plain sight. Supernatural has played with this theme before—most notably with Croatoan and Pestilence. But in “Soul Survivor,” we see demoniacal affliction and fading grace used as metaphors that allow us to have a poignant conversation about the ravages of disease. Most of all, it puts a distinct human face to it. Each character represents an aspect of disease’s effects: Castiel is the afflicted, Demon Dean is disease personified, and Sam and Hannah are the care givers. Through them, we can explore the emotional journey of disease.
First, however, what exactly is disease? It’s definition is rather clinical. The dictionary states that disease is: a disordered or incorrectly functioning organ, part, structure, or system of the body resulting from the effect of genetic or developmental errors, infection, poisons, nutritional deficiency or imbalance, toxicity or unfavorable environmental factors; illness; sickness; ailment.
Now that we know what it is, how does disease corrupt? We know that disease can be spread in various ways. Infections happen through touch, they happen through the air, they happen when bodily fluids mix. The genius of disease is that it has found so many ways to infect us—and most of them seem so invisible to us. It is the specter we all fear, waiting to pounce upon us in order to replicate itself. And it can permeate not only an individual, it can run through an entire population, changing and corrupting them along the way. In many ways, disease’s most powerful weapon is our own fear—and how we can allow it to dehumanize our fellow man—something we see so clearly in “Soul Survivor.”
All of this seems rather cold and unfeeling—and that is a truth about disease. It does not care—it simply is and it does what it must in order to survive and to spread. We’ve feared disease for this reason since we became aware. Even when we did not understand the fundamentals of what caused infection—lacking the scientific knowledge and tools to comprehend how it worked—we could see how disease managed to corrupt a population.
So far, season ten has given us examples of what it means to be human—showing our fragility, our ability to destroy, and our resilience. In “Soul Survivor,” we see them build upon these very themes in a new way. The use of disease is another example of how fragile we humans are. The definition alone gives us an example of how many different ways disease can effect us—and not for the better. And yet, it also allows us to see our own resiliency, too.
So, how does “Soul Survivor” capture this and turn it into a rich metaphor? How does it show our fragility and our resiliency?
When we first see Castiel at the beginning of season ten, he’s resting fitfully in a bed. He’s exhausted and weakened. The angel is coughing often. He’s barely able to stand at times, wobbly on legs far too tired to carry him. He falls asleep at the wheel at one point, nearly sending his car careening into an oncoming semi. Castiel is exhibiting all the physical symptoms of a disease’s ravages. It’s etched in the weariness that seems to have permanently settled across his face. Castiel isn’t simply ill, however—he’s terminally ill. No beating around the bush will wish that fact away.
The disease here is fading grace—stolen from another angel—and as it slowly loses fuel like a star, it will burn itself out and die. Sadly, that means taking Castiel with it, and so he is enduring its death throes as his own. There are no good cures for this either—only temporary fixes. At this stage in its life cycle, we see that Castiel isn’t able to fight or to heal himself. The little bit of grace he has left is barely holding him together now. And he knows it.
Each step we’ve seen him take in his journey to help Sam with Dean shows the methodical decline of his disease. Not unlike a cancer patient watching the sands drain away in an hour glass, Castiel is watching his own time tick down to a trickle. He’s not able to move fast enough to meet the brothers at the bar Sam locates Dean in—and he’s certainly in no condition to make a mad dash to the Bunker to help Sam face down a demonic Dean.
Several times, Hannah has tried to inquire how Castiel is really doing. Citing his Winchester training, Castiel replies every time with the standard, “I’m fine.” This is a bald faced lie—one Hannah calls him out on by saying, “You say you’re fine, but you don’t look fine.” Too tired to fight, Castiel replies, “That’s what the humans do. They say they’re fine and even if I—I don’t look it you say I look well and that way we avoid talking about something we can do nothing about.” He hopes that this will put the argument to rest. There’s nothing that can be done about his situation. And besides, stealing more grace would only delay the inevitable at the expense of another angel’s life. Replacing the fading grace he has now would only lead to him doing it again and again and again. To Castiel, that is no life.
But Hannah won’t hear of it. She’s caught, as a care giver, worrying about Castiel. She’s pained by his condition. No, she may not be experiencing the same situation. Her grace is fully intact. She’s still the angel she’s always been, but it’s hard for her to see him this way. So, she pushes back, telling Castiel, “I’m sorry, I just can’t see how Sam Winchester could ask you to drive all this way to help with his brother knowing your condition.”
Like many facing a debilitating condition—especially chronic or cancer—Castiel is looking for something that he can control. He can’t stop his fading grace from destroying him. There’s not much time left to him, so rather than focusing on what he can’t do or how awful this is making him feel, he’d rather find a way to be useful. Many facing these types of diseases feel the same way. They don’t want to be viewed as someone to pity—someone that is too feeble to do anything for themselves. It’s not that he doesn’t care about himself—on the contrary, his determination to rush to Sam’s aid demonstrates that he wants to be seen as useful and needed. It matters not that he’s really in no condition to truly help.
It’s why, when Hannah pushes yet again, Castiel tells her simply, “Sometimes enough is whatever you have.”
For him, he knows that he will have to make do with the grace he has left—and if the last thing he should do is help Sam save Dean, then he will not have lost his fight to the ravages of his condition in vain. He will have left the world a better place and gone down—as he’s been taught to do by the Winchesters so often—swinging. Castiel would much rather do this than “slit some angel’s throat.” To simply steal another’s grace is seen as cowardice.
But Hannah doesn’t agree. As Castiel tells her that they must keep their priorities straight, she tells him, “I’m clear on my priorities—and yours.” For Hannah, she is watching a loved one give up. She tells him that he’s “noble” for choosing to die for his “principles,” but tells him that it’ll ultimately end up being “meaningless.” It just doesn’t make sense to her that he would rather throw his life away in order to save someone else.
There’s no way she can save Castiel on her own. It’s a heartbreaking realization for a being that has been considered one of the most powerful in creation. Angels are supposed to be able to heal. They’re supposed to be able to do almost anything. Instead, she’s watching one decline and burn out—choosing death rather than a second chance. Hannah is still watching, as the care giver, concerned for her friend and would be leader. She can’t fathom why he’s so bent on death when angels need him to guide them. Her emotional journey with him is one full of grief, anger, and disbelief. She is watching him fade away, little by little. Even though he’s physically with her in the car, she can clearly see that he’s dying. Her angry outbursts—cold at times—come from her fear that he won’t last much longer. She’s outraged that not only has Castiel continually lied about his condition with her—-he never told Sam how bad it was before the younger Winchester asked him to come help.
Castiel’s fading grace captures all the pain and emotional strife that not only the terminally ill face—it captures all of that for those that love them, too. Hannah is struggling just as much. His disease—fading grace—may not be able to infect her, but it most certainly does affect her. In the short time that she’s been friends with Castiel, she’s found herself growing to care for him. It’s why she tells him as she heals his wounds, “I just want to help, is that wrong?” It’s why she is so frustrated with him at the gas station in “Soul Survivor.” She tells him, her voice clipped, “You don’t have to be kind.” Her outburst here is rooted not in actual anger at Castiel—it’s rooted in her fear for him and of the disease permeating his body.
We’re watching, in Hannah, what so many care givers and loved ones feel everyday when faced with an ill loved one—helplessness. She can’t do anything, and yet she continually keeps asking Castiel if he’s fine, trying to push him into doing something, anything, about his situation. And when he patiently keeps trying to tell her that the only thing that’s important is the “mission” and that emotions are “temptations,” she cant help but lash out at the very person she’s worried about. It’s one of the most difficult things about disease—the way that it ripples outward and claims everyone in its vicinity.
Castiel is clear with her when he says, “No detours of any kind.” He knows that she may go for the second option available in her efforts to save him—one that is worse than the first: The Scribe of God.
Metatron is the only other card on the table for Castiel. If he were to go to the former Scribe and make a deal for his grace in exchange for Metatron’s freedom, he’d have his problem solved. But Castiel knows that is no answer. It would only lead to more problems. He knows that Metatron’s cruel words, “Dead man walking” are true—and while he may not relish the idea of his death nor want it, he knows that they must face the facts. They can’t do anything about his problem, and so he goes about trying to gently nudge Hannah towards acceptance of the facts. He will die and there’s nothing they can do about it now.
That is, until the King of Hell arrives to remedy the situation.
Hannah and Castiel make a pit stop to fill up Castiel’s car. As she goes inside to pay, Hannah realizes the scene is off—it’s far too quiet and there’s no one behind the counter—no one alive anyways. Adina, the angel that managed to flee in the skirmish at the river, has decided to seek a little pay back. She wants to execute them in retribution for Daniel’s death. Holding Hannah at knife point, she waits for Castiel to enter the station to make her moves.
Angry and hurt, she attacks Castiel, pummeling the weakened angel unable to muster enough strength to fight back into the ground. She’s furious and will take anything she can get out of his suffering. But she also wants to target Hannah. While Castiel’s down for the count, unable to so much as crawl away, she resumes her assault on Hannah. She is so preoccupied with beating the other angel that she doesn’t realize that Crowley is behind her until it’s too late. She turns to face him, surely to launch an attack, only to have her throat slit open and her grace poured out into a bottle.
Crowley makes the decision for both Hannah and Castiel. He needs the angel alive so that he can help Sam with Demon Dean—despite being the creator of Demon Dean. His motivations are sketchy—considering the fact that he wistfully longed to go back to that time while resuming his duties. And yet, here he is, leaning over the beaten Castiel and forcing upon him stolen grace that will replenish his fading reserves.
In this way, we see Castiel’s storyline become foreshadow. He’s an indicator that what Sam’s doing in the Bunker will work. He’ll manage to cure Dean. And yet, his foreshadow is far more subtle perhaps. Castiel’s disease has been cured, yes—but temporarily. He’s now strong enough to heal, to kill, to fight back, and to hold back a demon if need be, yes—-but for how long? How long will his remission last?
This is the second time he’s now taken another angel’s grace into his vessel to replace his own—stolen by Metatron. Will this grace wear down faster than the last? Crowley’s actions may have stayed his execution, but Castiel knows that the time is still ticking away—he’s still diseased. He’s not all better. He’s not restored to his former self.
And now, Castiel has to also wonder what Crowley’s true motivations are. Crowley may tell him, “Dean’s become a handful. Having him as a demon has been nothing but grief. Fix the problem.” Castiel’s no fool. He has to know that this is masking some new machination the King of Hell is cooking up. After all, he did put a lot of time and effort into making Demon Dean—now to turn against him seems bizarre. It raises all sorts of red flags for the newly restored angel—but he has no time to ponder this about face from the King of Hell. He must do what he’s set out to do since Sam called: help save Dean.
Besides, Castiel is still very much preoccupied with his own problem. This new grace masks the truth. Underneath the power it provides, it merely masks the fact that he is still the sick and dying angel we met at the beginning of season ten. He’s still fading out, he’s still afflicted.
But if Castiel is the afflicted—-and the foreshadow for Demon Dean—just what is Demon Dean?
Demon Dean is disease itself made flesh. Unlike the other times we’ve seen people in the past sport black eyes—including Sam—Dean is not possessed. There’s no chanting Latin and sending the demon back to Hell. There’s no burning away a binding link as they did with Sam to release Meg. The demon inhabiting Dean’s body is not from Hell. It’s Dean’s soul, trapped inside his own body, twisted and mangled into a new and terrifying form. It’s polluted by what the Mark of Cain and First Blade have done to it—born upon his death at Metatron’s hands. Demon Dean, therefore, is disease personified into a cruel and vicious creature seeking to do what disease has done since the beginning of time: anything it needs to in order to survive.
We see it in the moment that Sam walks into that room and faces his “brother” strapped into the chair centered in the middle of the giant Devil’s Trap in the Bunker’s dungeon. As he raises his head, the shadows fall away to reveal his face. We can see Demon Dean calculating every move he needs to make in order to escape and to eliminate the threat to his very existence. He will say and do anything it takes—no matter the cost. He will destroy, he will infect, and he will corrupt anything and everything in order to survive.
Demon Dean may be disease in the flesh, but he still carries all of the real Dean’s memories and knowledge. He still carries all of Dean’s buried emotions. In this manner, we are seeing how disease can pollute. The real Dean may, on some level, feel some of the things that Demon Dean expresses. He certainly harbors some of these darker desires—as we all do in some shape or form. This new version of Dean—the “lean mean Dean”—is a corrupted version.
We watched Castiel, afflicted with the fading grace, decline physically. Here, in Demon Dean, we see how this can be done mentally and emotionally. Demon Dean doesn’t have the same emotions. He doesn’t have the same inhibitions. The make up of Dean that makes him who he is has been burned away by this demoniacal affliction. Instead, we see his emotional structure altered. Guilt is discarded. Demon Dean knows some of his actions and words have been cruel—he simply doesn’t care. He’s not weighed down with worry or pain. Demon Dean, in his corruption of the real Dean, the disease replicating itself and replacing its host, has chosen to latch onto qualities that suit its purposes. He has transformed Dean into a being with the drive to survive and to corrupt. Furthermore, he takes great pleasure in it.
Demon Dean’s calculating enough to use the intimate knowledge of the real Dean against Sam in an effort to be released. If he thinks it’ll work, he’ll say or do it. He starts by offering to leave Sam alone, that he’ll simply go and live his life some where else. He tells Sam that they don’t have to do this, that he hates needles, that he doesn’t want this—all attempts that are meant to break Sam’s will.
When this doesn’t work, he tells Sam, “Oh it’s the real me alright, the new real me, the me that sees things for what they really are. Winchesters. Do-gooders fighting the natural order. Let me tell you something. Guys like me, we are the natural order. It’s the way it was set up.”
This isn’t Dean talking. This is the disease fighting back. It’s right in his statement about the natural order. Disease, for better or worse, has always plagued us or other organisms on the planet. Blights hit plants. Infections run through herds of animals. Flus afflict everything from birds, to pigs, to humans. It may be cold and clinical in its methods, but it exists in a sense to cull and to control populations—and to replace those populations with their own. We see this in Demon Dean’s own statement to Sam. He is the disease meant to replace Sam’s brother.
But it’ll take much more than this to dissuade Sam from administering a cure. It’ll take adapting to sway the younger Winchester in any way from his chosen path. He’s declared boldly and forcefully already, “I don’t want this!”—only to be told by Sam, “I already figured that out.” It still got a needle shoved into his arm.
So, Demon Dean turns to some other emotional truth he can corrupt Sam with. He will pull on heavy hitting revelations. We watched him brutally kill Lester—all for calling him a punk ass demon no less—and now we learn the awful truth about how Lester just happened to be in that car in the first place. Demon Dean knows that Sam feels guilt—a concept he understands but does not feel. Disease, after all, has no guilt. It just is. And so, to perhaps persuade Sam to let him go, he tells him about what he knows. Sam was the one that nudged Lester at a crossroads demon in order to summon one. None would answer him—and in his desperation, he offered up another person in order to snag any leads. It cost Lester his soul—and his life—and to stick the knife in deepest, Demon Dean simply states, “Who cares what you meant. That line that we thought was so clear between us and the things that we hunted, ain’t so clear is it? Wow, you might actually be worse than me. I mean you took a guy at his lowest, used him and it cost him his life and his soul. Nice work.”
This makes Sam sway momentarily. After all, he never meant for it to go that far—he was going to stop Lester before he could make a deal. No one was supposed to get hurt in this. It was never Sam’s intentions—and he will carry that guilt with him for the rest of his life.
But Sam also can’t stop. The disease must be dealt with. He can’t turn back now, and so he musters up enough strength to deflect this revelation. He administers another dose of the sanctified blood, knowing it’ll cure his brother from this awful affliction. It’s the only way he knows how to bring the real Dean back from under the black pollution corrupting his soul.
As disease personified, though, Demon Dean doesn’t react to the cure as expected. He wasn’t lying, when he told Sam that he wouldn’t sit in this chair like Crowley and get “weepy.” Instead of becoming more and more mollified, Demon Dean starts to scream in pain, he fights his binding, and he looks absolutely terrified for the briefest of moments. We watch his face closely, and we can see that the cure is starting to work—but painfully.
To try again in an attempt to stop Sam from curing him, Demon Dean digs deep to find the worst thing he can say—something that will be so cruel and so malicious that it’ll push Sam away. He needs to use Sam and Dean’s emotional history against Sam, and so he tells the younger Winchester coldly, “You notice I tried to get as far away from you possible? Away from your whining, your complaining. I chose the King of Hell over you. Maybe I was just… tired of babysitting you. Or always having to yank your lame ass out of the fire, since… forever. Or maybe — maybe it was the fact that my mother would still be alive if it wasn’t for you. That your very existence sucked the life out of my life.”
Instead, it has the opposite results. Sam, angered by this creature claiming to dig up long buried emotions and using them against him, ends up jabbing him with another painful injection.
The cure, over time, leads his blood to boil and makes him look weak. He lapses into and out of consciousness briefly. And with each dose, we see him get worse rather than better. His snarls, his pants, and his face clearly indicate that the cure is attacking the very root of the disease and that it is winning—but at what cost?
In some ways, this cure becomes like chemotherapy for cancer patients. The disease can ravage quite well on its own, but the actual treatments can make the patient feel almost worse than before. It can make them feel like they’re further corrupted rather than made pure. It can make them feel a fresh violation all over again. The adage that sometimes the cure is worse than the disease comes to mind—but only because we’re seeing the actual disease react on the surface level of Dean’s face—we can hear it in his pained screams.
But it also has another effect that neither brother saw. The disease may have been weakened by the treatments, but Demon Dean is able to take his fight for survival to another level. He’s not merely stuck in the chair. Enough of the human blood has replaced his demonic, and he’s able to break free of his binding and the Devil’s Trap.
If the cure is meant to destroy him, Demon Dean will merely destroy the one forcing it on him instead.
A cat and mouse game begins with Demon Dean stalking the halls of the Bunker, invading its space with his physical presence in every hall way and in every room as he seeks his target. Here, we see the metaphor of disease take on a new level. He’s pervasive in his search. The place that was once considered, the “safest in the world” has suddenly become the most dangerous—all because it’s now infected with a disease that seeks violence and death.
This leads to emotional exchanges between the brothers as Sam attempts to lock Demon Dean in a room—but the disease isn’t doing this simply because he knows it’ll hurt Sam to say and do these things. He’s doing what he must in order to survive. When Sam counters yet again with resuming the cure, Demon Dean simply snaps back, “You act like I want to be cured. Personally, I like the disease.” Since he is disease, there’s no reason he would ever want to be cured. It would mean the end of him.