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Commentary and Meta Analysis
I've always found time travel and temporal paradox problematic at best, and I've got some issues about it here as well, but I loved a lot of what it gave us in this episode. In this discussion, I’m going to explore the role of Fate, Castiel’s motivations and actions, and the family that wasn’t.
You Don't Have To Be Ruled By Fate. You Can Choose Freedom.
The tension between fate, destiny, and free will has been a favorite topic of Supernatural throughout the series. Angels, demons, and the Fates alike were largely wedded to the concept that destiny was predetermined and divine prophecy laid out the path, but I submit that even they – whether they admitted it or not – exercised free will in their pursuit of their interpretation of prophecy once God was no longer obviously on the scene.
From all we learned in seasons four and five, especially in Lucifer Rising, The Song Remains The Same, My Bloody Valentine, and Swan Song, Zachariah and his angelic ilk, knowing the Michael/Lucifer prize fight prophecy and impatient to attain the angels' paradise on Earth that Michael’s victory was supposed to win for them, deliberately stage-managed events to arrange the conditions specified in the prophecy to bring about the apocalypse. That ultimately included influencing John and Mary to fall in love so they could produce sons of an angelic vessel bloodline, and then tweaking events so those sons would fittingly mirror and spiritually embody Michael and Lucifer. Dutiful, faithful demon Azazel, seeking to free his father Lucifer, did his part by locating Lucifer’s prison and then following his orders to mold Sam into a suitable host by feeding him demon blood and using demons hidden in teachers and friends to prod him subtly along the path. Both Michael’s and Lucifer’s factions thus manipulated events to bring about their prophesied prize fight, each believing they would win. In the end, however, free will triumphed when the Winchesters found a way through their own love, choices, and actions to stop the fight and take both Michael and Lucifer off the board.
We learned in this episode that Fate still has a role to play, even in a universe built by free will. The three sisters comprising the Fates of Greek mythology, the Moirae – Clothos, who spun the thread of life; Lachesis, who measured its length; and Atropos, who determined how death would occur and cut the thread of life with her shears – managed when a life would begin and when and how it would end, but had no influence over what a person did with their allotted time. In Greek mythology, no decision you made would avert your destined time and form of death as predicted by the Fates, but how you lived your life and what you did with it were still up to you. They appeared to play the same roles here.

Supernatural's tweak on the mythos of the Fates was to include them within the pantheon of the Judeo-Christian Heaven – Atropos said God had given them a job, and spoke of having gone to Heaven to get guidance on what they were supposed to do when the apocalypse didn't happen – and to indicate that Castiel's manipulation of the past, by using Balthazar to manufacture fifty thousand new souls out of unsinking the Titanic, usurped the role of the Fates by spinning and changing the lengths of threads of life where none should have existed. I submit that Atropos exercised her free will by concocting fateful ends for all those people she thought deserved to die because they weren't supposed to have lived. Her rage at Castiel, while born initially of his having worked with the Winchesters to render unpredictable the future that prophecy had led her to expect, was focused much more on his sin of having dared to change the past. Having lost the comfortable assurance of knowing what was supposed to happen in the future, Atropos was utterly undone by realizing the past hadn't gone as she knew it was supposed to have happened.
I think that tells us the Fates, like angels and unlike humans (except for those whose memories were shielded by angels), could perceive when time had been altered. Atropos clearly shared Castiel's ability to stop and manipulate time while operating outside it. We saw her stop time in the garage, the travel agency office, and the restaurant construction site in order to rearrange physical things to trigger events that would lead to “accidental” death; similarly, we saw Castiel stop time in order to confront her outside of it and to save the brothers from the falling air conditioner. I presume the Fates were less powerful than angels and couldn't have gone back in time to set things right or this story wouldn't have taken place, because Atropos and her sisters would have set about killing the Titanic survivors long before this episode's story began, but that's a logic problem with the basic concept of the story that I'll address in the production notes, rather than here.
My essential point is that this concept of Fate doesn't contravene the primacy of free will, and supports rather than negates Castiel's comments at the end of the episode about the importance of all of us being able to make our own destiny, being able to choose freedom instead of believing ourselves doomed and ruled by fate. For us as well as for Atropos, that choice brings with it uncertainty, unpredictability, and a lot of discomfort about what our roles should be and what we're supposed to do, but – like Castiel – I still believe it's worth fighting for, and much preferable to giving in to the fatalistic, passive belief that we are victims, that whatever will be, will be, and can't be affected in any meaningful way by what we choose and how we decide to face and deal with things.

Free will doesn't mean we get to do whatever we want or have things all our own way. Our choices are always constrained and bounded by the choices and actions of others and the laws of physics, among other things. But how we choose to deal with those obstacles and limitations is still up to us. Whether we surrender or whether we fight is in our own hands and our own minds. Whether we curse the dark or feel our way through and look for a light is our choice to make.
Choice matters. Free will is ours, and ultimately matters more than fate. I firmly believe that how I live matters one hell of a lot more than how long I live or how I someday die.
All that said, I suspect we may see Fate again. I was curious about Castiel wanting the brothers to know who Fate really was; I think Castiel expects Atropos to continue watching them, and wanted them to be on their guard. After all, she threatened certain action against the Winchesters if Castiel killed her, but she never promised they would be safe if Castiel left her alone.
I'm Trying To Save The Ones I Have
We heard at least two compelling truths in this episode, one from Atropos and one from Castiel. I think Fate was dead on point when she diagnosed Castiel as being desperate, willing to try anything, even arranging for a knowingly wrongful multiplication of souls to augment his available power, in his attempt to win the civil war in Heaven. And I think Castiel told the simple truth in answer to Dean’s observation that he needed new friends when he responded that he was trying to save the ones he had.

I’m afraid, however, that Castiel may not yet have learned, even with the Winchesters’ sterling example right in front of him, that good intentions can pave the road to Hell. Castiel lying to Dean for the very first time in my memory by claiming the fiasco with the Titanic was all just Balthazar’s whimsical doing was his second clearly wrong step down a very dangerous road – the first, I would submit, having been approving Balthazar using the brothers without their knowledge as decoys in The French Mistake. We’ve known for a long time that lying to and hiding information from each other has always made things worse for the Winchester brothers; I hate to think what will happen when they realize Castiel lied to them, even if they understand that he did it out of shame for what he’d done and why he’d done it. 
I am terribly curious to learn what is going on in the civil war in Heaven and why Castiel is so hard-pressed. Back in The Third Man, when he first told the brothers about the angelic civil war and the weapons missing from Heaven, he admitted he was desperate to retrieve them because, as he put it, Whoever has the weapons wins the war. By the end of Caged Heat, Castiel admitted the war wasn’t going well for him. His alliance with Balthazar in The French Mistake supposedly got him the weapons Balthazar had stolen, but he didn’t try to pursue his presumed immediate advantage by killing Raphael when he had the chance; instead, he let Raphael retreat. Judging by his choices in this episode, that didn’t work out well for him, and his situation remains desperate.


# Merannoeu 2011-04-22 20:12
Great review Mary as always. I just have one comment. Unless I missed it in your review, there was an incident in season 5 where Castiel knows he is lying to Dean and can't hold eye contact. It had something to do with Castiel telling Dean that he would be with Sammy. I think it was in When the Levee breaks.
Anyway, I recall we did get a glimpse of Castiel being less than truthful before.
Mary, I really appreciate your effort in doing this--I always enjoy reading your work.
# Deborah 2011-04-23 14:44
Thanks, Mary, for another interesting and insightful revuew. I loved this episode, for the closeness of the brothers, for the relationship of Bobby and Ellen, for the humor, and for the heartbreak - unknown by Bobby but known by Sam and Dean. I loved the last scene - Dean taking the book from Bobby and covering him with the blanket while Sam watched with a look of such love and sadness. I so love these boys.

However, like Merannoeu, I think that, while Castiel may not have outright lied to Dean before, he has certainly been deceitful before. I wonder if Dean will ever find out that Castiel was the one who let Sam out of the panic room and set into motion the killing of Lilith and subsequent rising of Lucifer. I realize he was most likely following orders and that it happened before he got all the "free will" lessons from Sam and Dean, but he still did something that he has kept hidden from Dean that in my mind was not alleviated by the fact that he eventually helped Dean get to Sam, but too late to stop the opening of the final seal.

Thanks again for another wonderful review. I look forward to reading your review of Frontierland!
# BagginsDVM 2011-04-23 20:18
I do so love to read your interpretation of each episode, Mary!

I really like your thoughts on the angels' confusion without God present to give them the guidance & orders they were so used to receiving. Castiel does seem to be floundering with his newfound authority; he certainly wants to do the right thing, but hasn't chosen the best of a cabinet of advisors if he is listening to Balthazar now, & perhaps other less trustworthy individuals. I wonder where Joshua has gotten off to in his garden. I wonder if he has heard any more from God? Cas needs to know that God is still out there & still cares, if our angel is to get his focus back. He's learned the value of true friendship in his relationship with the Winchesters, but he's risking a lot of damage to that if he continues lying to them. Will Dean extend his "blank slate" forgiveness to Cas once the truth comes out?

It's fascinating & heartbreaking to think of how things could have been different in averting the apocalypse if the boys truly had had the family support they experienced in this alternate timeline. I love your view of how Bobby & Ellen ended up together. What an awesome couple they made!