One recurring theme on Supernatural practically since its inception has been faith, both in the religious and secular sense. Faith and religion are often intertwined, but the show has portrayed these two concepts very differently. The show has not shied away from criticizing religion and in fact has taken a decidedly jaundiced view of those spiritual beings associated with Christianity: God and angels. The negative portrayal of these beings was a deliberate creative decision. Kripke originally resisted introducing angels into the show's mythology because he had the notion "that the only forces for good in the universe were humans" and that "in the humanity lay the power and the ability and those tiny moments of grace which allows good to triumph." Therefore, he decided to characterize the angels as "dicks" and determined from day one "that they were ultimately going to be bad guys."
From the very beginning the angels behaved reprehensibly. From Uriel and Zachariah, to the archangels, Naomi and Metatron, the angels unleashed all manner of horrors upon each other and upon those that Balthazar charmingly described as the "hairless apes." While not all angels shared Lucifer's genocidal hatred of humanity, their sentiments towards humans often reflected a difference of degree rather than kind. In their viciousness and cruel snarkiness, some angels seemed indistinguishable from the demons. Essentially, the prevailing view among even the most benign angels was that humans are inherently lesser beings, undeserving of much consideration.
Even Cas has often behaved like a typical angel: cold, calculating, and relatively indifferent to human suffering. This attitude was epitomized in Season 6, in which Cas was actually the "big bad."
Only after Metatron took Cas's grace, relegating him to fully human status, did Cas finally come to fully appreciate the beauty and value of humanity, in all of its nobility and failings. He expressed as much to Sam in "First Born." This makes him unique among angels.
While a seemingly more benevolent group of angels is currently running heaven under Hannah's leadership, heaven remains a sterile place, devoid of joy and rapture. The souls are at peace, but consigned to a solitary eternity, restricted to just one limited version of happiness. The only exception is that of soulmates, like Jimmy and Amelia, who can spend eternity together.
Supernatural has depicted God only somewhat more favorably than the angels. God did help the Winchesters by transporting them onto the plane after Lucifer was freed and by resurrecting Cas after he sacrificed himself in "Point of No Return." However, in "Dark Side of the Moon" Joshua regretfully informed the brothers that God was done intervening in the apocalypse because it's "not his problem" and that God wanted the brothers to "back off." This harsh portrayal of the deity possibly was intended to be mitigated by the implication in "Swan Song" that Chuck was God, because Chuck was a likeable character who tried to assist the brothers. He helped to scare off Lilith (albeit reluctantly), and he told Dean the locations of Sam's final confrontation with Lilith and of the battle between Michael and Lucifer.
Chuck's narration of "Swan Song" also displayed a genuine fondness and admiration for the Winchesters, and he spoke approvingly of their choosing family above all else. Yet this vision of a more loving God was completely undermined by his last scene in "Swan Song"; he finished his story, stood, and vanished with a smile on his face, seemingly unconcerned that Sam had been condemned to eternal torment and Dean relegated to an existence in which true happiness would forever elude him because of his brother's tragic fate.
That outcome hardly seemed something to smile about or celebrate. Indeed, God/Chuck's attitude was akin to Metatron's in some respects, because he seemed to regard the Winchesters as beloved characters who had admirably performed their roles, rather than flesh and blood people who now had to suffer the terrible consequences of their sacrifice.
While spiritual beings have fared quite poorly in their portrayal on Supernatural, the show has been far more evenhanded in its depiction of people of faith, whether laymen or clerics. For example, "Faith" provided a nuanced representation of faith. Sam and Dean themselves displayed opposing views of faith healer Roy: Sam was willing to believe that he was legitimate while Dean flatly rejected the possibility. Roy's wife Sue Ann was ultimately revealed as the "bad guy" who used her own corrupted version of faith to determine those who deserved to die so that Roy might heal others. Roy, however, was portrayed as a good man who sincerely believed that God had granted him the power to spare the lives of those selected by him through divine guidance.
Layla provided a particularly sympathetic depiction of a person of faith. She maintained her faith even though Roy ultimately was unable to heal her. She told Dean that "if you're gonna have faith you can't just have it when the miracles happen. You have to have it when they don't." Her serene expression of her faith was quite moving, and even though he knew that the faith healings were a fraud, a clearly emotional Dean told Layla that while he was not much for praying, he would pray for her. She deemed this a miracle in and of itself. The very act of faith, however misplaced, was seen as admirable by Dean, and by extension the show.
Like Layla, Jimmy Novak exemplified a devout person who let his faith in God guide his life. He had devoted a great deal of thought and prayer to his decision to act as Cas's vessel. However, he came to regret this decision. While possessed by Cas, he had witnessed enough questionable actions by the angels to raise serious doubts about the wisdom and value of his choice. His faith, unlike Layla's, was largely portrayed as unwarranted and ultimately harmful. It lead to his own destruction and nearly resulted in the deaths of his wife and daughter.
As in "Faith", the Season 5 episode "99 Problems" depicted how faith can be a double-edged sword. It inspires in some people the deepest expressions of love, kindness and goodness; it inspires others to give free rein to their baser instincts. Under Pastor Gideon's guidance, most of the townspeople were motivated by their faith to work together to fight evil, caring for and supporting each other throughout the ordeal. Others, however, ultimately used their faith to justify the murder of supposedly sinful men, women and children at the behest of the "prophet" Leah, simply because the angels had supposedly decreed it.
Under Carver, Supernatural at times has been less subtle in its examination of issues of faith. Buddy Boyle and his followers who chose to become vessels of the fallen angels in Season 9 were portrayed as misguided zealots who rashly put their faith in the angels; the resulting explosion of one of the would-be vessels was played for laughs. Indeed, most of those who chose angel possession in Season 9, as well as those who quickly hailed Matatron as a miracle worker, were caricatured as gullible fools.
In stark contrast to these depictions of faith was the scene in "I'm No Angel" in which Cas converses with the woman who was in church praying for her gravely ill husband. Like Layla, this woman possessed a strong, tranquil faith that her prayers would be heard. When Cas bluntly tried to tell her that nobody was listening, she calmly told him that his lack of faith didn't cancel out what she believed because "it doesn't work that way." It was a powerful moment, and seemed to give Cas pause. Even though Cas knew that God was in the wind and that there was no one in heaven save Metatron, he seemed to be impressed by, and even envious of, the woman's steadfast belief, rather than dismissive of it.
The depiction of the priest who performed the demon cure in Season 8's "Clip Show" was also nuanced. While he was strong in his faith that he had the power to cure demons and that his goals were moral and right, there was a question as to whether his actions were too extreme, and potentially exacted too high a cost. One attempted cure resulted in the human host dying and the demon escaping. Dean also raised the question of what becomes of the human host after the demon is cured? One of the outstanding aspects of Supernatural is its tendency to raise these types of questions without necessarily answering them. As in real life, the moral issues depicted on the show are often not susceptible to easy, black and white answers.
Unlike that priest, the young nun in "Mother's Little Helper" presented a sympathetic portrait of someone whose faith had simply not been strong enough. When confronted in 1958 by the pure evil that was Abaddon, she was too afraid to do anything but abandon her vocation and leave the convent. She never warned anyone that Josie was possessed by Abaddon, and as an elderly woman she confessed to Sam that this was her greatest shame.
The most thorough portrayal of faith on Supernatural occurred in Season 2's "Houses of the Holy". When they received the script for this episode, Jared and Jensen apparently were concerned that the show was veering too much into religion, but their fears were groundless. The script by Sera Gamble involved no proselytizing or endorsement of religion. Rather, this outstanding episode provided an in-depth exploration of the brothers' attitudes towards faith which beautifully illuminated the differences in their characters.
There are actually four different aspects of faith presented in the episode. Father Reynolds provided a conventional portrait of a person of faith. He was a good man who, when faced with the violence of the surrounding area which resulted in Father Gregory's murder, prayed to God for deliverance from it. As a priest, he understood that not all prayers are answered, at least not in the way one would hope. But he also knew that God would not send an angel to commit murder. In his unwavering faith, he was able to persuade Gregory that what Gregory had done was not God's will, and not the solution that Reynolds had prayed for.
Father Gregory, however, exemplified a person whose faith had been warped. His violent death had transformed him into a vengeful spirit who convinced lost, sinful people to murder those whom Gregory knew to be evil. He was convinced that he was an angel doing God's will by punishing the wicked while offering redemption to those in need of it. Gregory was not completely unsympathetic, since his victims were indeed murderers and child abusers. Yet as Sam reminded him, he had also condemned to incarceration the unfortunate people whom he induced to commit the murders. When Reynolds finally convinced him that he was not an angel and that he had violated the most basic commandment that "thou shalt not kill," a devastated Father Gregory quietly accepted absolution.
When the brothers initially began their investigation, Dean was baffled by Sam's willingness to even entertain the possibility that an avenging angel was involved. Dean refused to believe the lore about angels because he had seen no proof of it, and his frustration grew as Sam stubbornly defended the possibility of angelic intervention. In a beautifully acted scene, Dean finally erupted and derisively demanded, "What's next, you gonna start praying every day?" to which Sam hesitantly, almost defiantly, responded, "I do. I have for a long time." To this, Dean simply muttered, "Huh, the things you learn about a guy." With just these few lines Jared and Jensen conveyed volumes. Sam made his admission reluctantly because he feared Dean's ridicule. But in this instance Dean understood Sam's hesitation, and therefore simply expressed his surprise at Sam's confession. His tone and his expression, however, clearly betrayed his displeasure.
At the end of the episode neither brother's expectation had been met. Dean had learned that the man Sam was supposed to kill was indeed evil, and he observed the man being killed in a striking and bizarre fashion.
Sam had learned that there was no angel, just Father Gregory. A despondent Sam admitted that he feared his destiny and what he might become, and Dean reassured him that "I'm watching out for you."
With tears in his eyes, Sam confessed that he had been desperately hoping that "some higher power, some greater good" was watching out for him as well, and that "maybe I could be saved." Dean listened intently, and then quietly told Sam about the man he had been following: "the way he died, if I hadn't seen it with my own two eyes I never would have believed it." When Sam asked what he had seen, Dean answered "maybe....God's will."
This terrific scene is one of my favorites in the entire series. Between the music, the direction and the brilliant acting, it is profoundly moving. Dean was clearly moved by Sam's confession and assured Sam that he would watch out for him. Sam then trustingly confided his deepest fear to Dean. And at the very end, Dean reluctantly allowed for the possibility that Sam might be right to believe in a higher power.
When I first viewed this episode, I was almost as surprised as Dean was by Sam's admission that he prayed every day. I was astounded that the show would add this layer to the character, that it would have this smart, tough, good-looking young man admit to that degree of spirituality. But the more I thought about it, the more the attitudes of both brothers made perfect sense.
Dean's lack of faith as explained in this episode was fully consistent with his character and life experiences. Dean had had a brief taste of a perfect family life, with a loving mother, a doting father, and a sweet baby brother.
Then, in a single act of violence he lost all of it. His mother was dead, his father became hardened and revenge-obsessed, and his baby brother became his responsibility. Dean's childhood essentially ended at age four. John trained him to be a warrior, to be constantly vigilant, to trust nobody, to rely on nobody but family, and above all else, to look out for Sammy. Dean learned his lesson well. At one point in the episode he tells Sam that one of the perks of the job is that they don't have to operate on faith. He revealed that Mary's last words to him had been that angels were watching out for him, but "nothing protected her," and he now knows that there is "no higher power or God, just chaos and violence." With all that he has lost, Dean believes it is up to him alone to protect what he has left. He is unwilling and unable to put his faith in anyone or anything else.
Mary's death had a very different effect on Sam. He didn't remember Mary and hadn't experienced the briefly idyllic childhood that Dean had had. Furthermore, he had no memory of Mary's murder, and John and Dean initially had tried to shield young Sam from the evil that existed. So Sam didn't have the same hatred of evil that Dean had, or feel the same pull of the hunting life as a means of fighting evil. He simply strongly felt that this was not the life he wanted. He had always hoped and strived for a different, more normal life, away from the violence and evil. Prayer is an act of faith, and of the belief that things will work out for the best. Sam was looking for something he had never had, something better, while Dean was clinging to what little he had left.
"Houses of the Holy" accomplished what the best Supernatural episodes do: it used the events in the story to reveal new insights into the brothers' characters. In this case, Sam's and Dean's contrasting attitudes towards religious faith are representative of the way that faith in the secular sense has influenced their characters throughout the series.
Faith and hope often go hand in glove, and while Sam spent much of Season 2 doubting his ability to overcome his destiny, this attitude seemed uncharacteristic of him. Sam has typically been more hopeful and optimistic than Dean. For example, in Season 3 Sam never stopped believing that he could save Dean from hell, while Dean vacillated between hope and despair.
The start of Season 5 saw both brothers in a wretched place emotionally. The events of Season 4 had shattered not only Dean's trust in Sam, but Sam's trust in himself. They both felt helpless to avert the looming apocalypse. However, the revelation in "Free To Be You and Me" that he was Lucifer's true vessel galvanized in Sam a renewed determination. From that point forward, Sam rarely wavered in his belief that he and Dean could succeed against Michael and Lucifer.
Unlike Sam, Dean was plagued by ongoing doubts. Joshua told Dean in "Dark Side of the Moon": "you're losing faith in yourself, your brother." When Dean told Sam in "Point of No Return" that he didn't believe Sam was strong enough to resist Lucifer, Sam was devastated by this lack of faith. But because of his steadfast belief in Dean, he decided to bring Dean along to help rescue Adam. An angry Cas told Dean, "I don't have the same faith in you that Sam does." It was Sam's faith in Dean that ultimately enabled Dean to resist saying yes to Michael, because he simply didn't want to let Sam down. Dean explained to Sam that he was used to thinking of him as a snot-nosed kid that he had to keep on the straight and narrow, but that, "If you're grownup enough to find faith in me, the least I can do is return the favor."
Dean's faith in Sam faltered again when Sam wanted to say yes to Lucifer and jump in the pit. Oddly, it was Death who convinced him to trust in Sam. In "Two Minutes To Midnight" Death told Dean that he would give Dean his ring on the condition that he allow Sam to jump into the pit, because Death knew that Sam could do it. Consequently, Dean told Sam that he was on board with the plan although it went against every fiber in him, because watching out for Sam was "who I am." Dean then added that if anyone could do it, Sam could. Ultimately, it was Dean's presence at the cemetery and his strong faith in Sam that enabled Sam to overcome Lucifer.
Old habits die hard, however, (and show runners change!) and Season 8 provided further evidence of the brothers' contrasting tendencies regarding faith. In "Trial and Error" Dean confessed that he had resigned himself to a bloody end, gun in hand, while Sam admitted that he did see a light at the end of the tunnel and was hoping to take Dean there with him. Sam didn't view the Trials as a suicide mission and he implored Dean to have faith in him and to trust him to complete the trials: "I believe in you Dean, so please, please, believe in me too."
In "Man's Best Friends With Benefits" Dean betrayed doubts about Sam's ability to complete the Trials, and Sam accused him of only being able to trust in himself. At the end of that episode, however, Dean told Sam that if he said he was good, then Dean would back him one hundred percent. He reiterated this in "Clip Show" when he told the priest that Sam had accomplished things that Dean had thought impossible, and that "there's not a doubt in my mind that he's going to cross that finish line."
However, in "Sacrifice" Dean once again expressed some doubts about whether Sam would succeed. He reminded Sam of the times he had let Dean down, and he told Cas that Sam needed a "chaperone" to complete the demon cure. I loved the brothers' scene in the church at the end of "Sacrifice", but the dialogue indicated that Dean continued to struggle with placing his faith in Sam. A distraught Sam confessed that his greatest sin was the many times he had let Dean down, and that he couldn't do that again. Yet the gist of Dean's impassioned response was NOT that he had complete faith in Sam, but rather that there was nothing he would ever, or had ever, put before Sam. It was as though they were having two different conversations: Sam was talking about faith and trust, and Dean was talking about love.
In Season 9, it was the very strength of Sam's faith in Dean that heightened his feelings of betrayal and anger over the Gadreel possession. Moreover, it was the loss of Sam's trust in him that largely precipitated Dean's despair and his downward spiral in Season 9. Neither brother exhibited much belief in the other during the remainder of that season.
However, the theme of faith recurred throughout almost the entirety of Season 10, and many episodes exemplified the stark difference in the brothers' attitudes on this issue. Time after time Sam exhorted Dean to keep fighting to find a cure for the Mark of Cain because Sam was convinced that one would be found. Yet these entreaties fell on deaf ears because Dean had given up, and he wanted Sam to give up as well. Right up until the last few minutes of "Brothers Keeper" Sam continued to beseech Dean to keep searching for a way to overcome the Mark. Then, in what would have been Sam's final words to Dean as he awaited his death at Dean's hands, he poignantly expressed his belief that Dean would one day find his way back and would remember "what it was to be good, what it was to love." And just as in "Point of No Return," Sam's faith in Dean got through to him.
Everything that has happened to Sam and Dean from a young age forged their characters and the degree of faith and hope with which they regard the world and each other. Sam is the younger brother with an almost unwavering belief and trust in his big brother; he continually strives to be worthy of that same trust from Dean. Sam believes that their faith in each other will enable them to reach that light at the end of the tunnel. Dean is the older brother who sometimes has difficulty seeing past the evil that has dogged them their entire lives, and that he believes has destroyed any possibility of a normal life. He also continually struggles to reconcile his instinctive need to protect his little brother with his desire to place his faith in Sam. But if the Winchesters have learned anything from their trials and tribulations, it's that they are their best, strongest selves, and can overcome any evil, only when they are truly united. Hopefully those are the Winchesters we will be seeing in Season 11.
Editor's Note: I have often reflected on how Supernatural presents faith and religion. Samandean10 exploration of Supernatural's history with these subjects presents both its use and exploitation of the spiritual interpretations of these words, as well as how it presents the brothers' faith in each other as a substitute for conventional constructs. What do you think of its presentation of faith, angels, religion, God and ultimately the brothers' bond as their primary support system?