Page 3 of 5Commentary and Meta Analysis
With this episode, we learned that virtually all the horrific events of this season were triggered by Castiel's mistakes as he tried to deal with having free choice, with each error in judgment piling on the last until the compounding interest brought him here, to the very brink of losing the very things he most sought to save. There are still missing details to fill in and more choices yet to make, but it's clear that if the pattern continues, the end will be bad â€“ and the real tragedy is that it didn't have to be this way. The slim, small hope to which I cling is that it could still be reclaimed, although not without cost.
In this discussion, I'm going to look at Castiel's cascade of bad decisions with regard to both the Winchesters and Heaven, and speculate about how things might have gone had he chosen to deal with his mistakes in different ways.
I'm also going to say up front that I believe everything Castiel said to God in telling his story was the truth as he perceived it, but that's not to say he knows everything that's going on, nor that he's not sometimes lying to himself and thus, by extension, unwittingly lying to God. I think those are both important considerations to bear in mind.
I See Now That Was Arrogance
As I see it, Castiel made several mistakes, but his two most crucial ones were failing to come clean and ask for help when he first realized things were going wrong, and mistaking the forest for the trees every time he did try to talk about things both with the Winchesters and in Heaven. Violating the natural order and making a deal with a demon both pale in comparison to those two. In this section, I'm going to look at Castiel's mistakes with respect to the Winchesters. I'll talk about his problems in Heaven later.
I think Castiel's first mistake was a perfectly reasonable one for him to make. Knowing himself dead and destroyed, he found himself unexpectedly reconstituted and, for the second time since his open rebellion against Zachariah (the first time having been his reconstitution in Sympathy For The Devil after having been destroyed by Raphael), once again reconnected to the full power of Heaven. Under the circumstances, I would have been extraordinarily surprised if he hadn't concluded God had brought him back, especially since, judging by his new and improved comment then to Dean, he found himself even stronger than before. It makes perfect sense to me that he would have concluded he had been rewarded, and believed he in turn was meant to extend that same grace to his allies Dean, Bobby, and Sam. He healed Dean, resurrected Bobby, and proceeded, with a confident sense of true mission, to try rescuing Sam. It may have been the wrong decision, but I can't argue it wouldn't have felt like the right one at the time.
I also think Castiel has ample grounds to be forgiven for bringing Sam back without his soul; I emphatically donâ€™t think that was intentional on his part. I truly believe he didn't understand what had happened at first, and didn't immediately realize he hadn't succeeded in getting all of Sam out of the cage. In laying his case before God in this episode, Castiel said, as he remembered seeing Sam walking emotionlessly away from Dean upon being brought back to Earth, that sometimes you're lucky enough to be given a warning, and that should have been his. The clear implication of him saying should have been was that he didn't take it as a warning then, and thus didn't follow up on his niggling sense of disquiet to learn why Sam hadnâ€™t acted as Castiel had expected he would. From the reaction we saw in Castielâ€™s recollections, I think Castiel was definitely surprised and puzzled by Samâ€™s aberrant behavior, but not enough to investigate; instead, he simply checked â€œsaving Samâ€ off his to-do list, and left the humans to live their peculiarly mystifying lives while he finally returned to Heaven. Once there, I think Castiel quickly became caught up in celestial things and just didnâ€™t think about human concerns at all. The profound peace and joy of his initial return home were rapidly overshadowed first by the realization that other angels didnâ€™t understand how to live with free will and expected him to show them the way, and second by the discovery that Raphael was still intent on reinstating the apocalypse and forcing him to submit. I think he simply forgot all about his small qualms concerning Sam's odd behavior in the press of apparently greater concerns.
And that, I think, was where Castiel made another crucial mistake. I believe he was so overwhelmed by the sheer immensity of the apocalyptic threat and by his awareness that Raphael, as an archangel, had always been inherently stronger than he was, that he let emotion overwhelm thought. He confronted something so huge, so daunting, and so terrifying that he lost perspective. He couldnâ€™t see a way around it, and despair suggested he was defeated even before he began. He didnâ€™t know what to do, his brother and sister angels couldn't give him advice, and with fear overwhelming his capacity for judgment, he couldnâ€™t begin to break the problem down into more approachable, strategic pieces.
His instinct to turn to Dean for help was exactly the right one. Had he followed through on it, I believe everything would have been different. Instead, Castiel chose to leave Dean out of it, and while I believe his compassion for all Dean had already sacrificed was indeed part of his reason, I think this was the one point where he lied unwittingly in his confession to God because he was actually lying to himself. I believe the greater part of his reluctance to approach Dean was part and parcel of his pride and his shame; he didn't want to admit he needed human help and couldn't make it on his own, and he was subconsciously already beginning to suspect he'd made wrong decisions that brought him to that point â€“ wrong decisions he didn't want to admit even to himself. While Dean has made his own considerable share of massively wrong decisions, he learned eventually to admit to them, face up to them, and move on. That's a lesson I believe Castiel has yet to learn.
Looking back across the season, I think Castiel suspected what was wrong with Sam very early on, but I believe he didn't truly know for certain until he delved for Sam's soul in Family Matters and found nothing. Given his preoccupation with events in Heaven, I'm guessing his appearance in The Third Man really was the first time he'd paid any direct, conscious attention to Sam since raising him at the very end of Swan Song. I sincerely doubt Castiel had any firsthand knowledge of most of what Sam did during his soulless year because the angel's focus was elsewhere. After making his bargain with Crowley, Castiel must have learned Sam was hunting with Samuel Campbell under Crowley's orders, but I doubt he'd have taken time to watch or wonder at Sam's actions while he was struggling to oppose Raphael. I think he told mostly truth when he said he'd answered Dean's prayer and appeared at that moment because of the Staff of Moses, and not just because Dean was the one asking. However, I now find it incredibly significant that when Castiel said then he didn't know who had gotten Sam out of the cage and why, he spoke directly to Sam. I'm betting he couldn't have met Dean's eyes and lied to Dean's face, but Sam â€“ especially being not-entirely-Sam at the time â€“ was an entirely different matter.
As to why he lied, both then and later â€“ I still think it was pride and shame, the deadly twosome. He finally admitted here to God that he'd been blind with pride when he went after Sam in Hell, and I think it was also pride that wouldn't let him admit he knew from the start something had gone wrong. He'd made a decision and done something nearly impossible to achieve; he couldn't admit to himself he'd been wrong and hadn't accomplished what he'd thought to do. To admit failure was to court shame and confess to having done wrong, and perhaps to be met with anger, distrust, scorn, or even hatred from his human brother, as well as from his angelic ones. I think Castiel, like a human child resisting confessing error, was afraid to take that emotional risk. And so he lied.
The irony, of course, is that in hiding what he'd done, he eventually reaped exactly the crop he'd feared, all the more bitter for it being all the more ripe. I think if he'd openly admitted what he'd done â€“ if he'd told Dean at the time, I tried to rescue Sam from Hell, but something went wrong and I didn't get all of him; I think his soul is still there â€“ Dean would have castigated him for an idiot but then forgiven him the error in appreciation for the intent, and started trying to figure out how to set things right. And I think Dean would have reacted that way whenever Castiel had come clean, even if he hadn't done it until the events of The Third Man or even later. In any case, however, the result might have been less collateral damage from letting Sam walk around soulless, and less damage to Sam's soul from the amount of time it spent in Hell.
I think a straightforward answer would have gone a long way even here. Trapped in the ring of holy fire, Castiel responded in the worst possible way when Sam, in horrified shock, asked if Castiel had brought him soulless out of Hell on purpose. If Castiel had only said, No! I never meant that, but something went wrong and I was too ashamed to admit it, I think they would have believed him, because that's something all of them could have understood and would have taken as an apology. I think they would have forgiven him for having made a mistake and been afraid to admit it. Both of the brothers have been guilty of the same in the past. Castiel's injured, defensive How could you think that? however, was exactly the wrong thing for him to say, particularly as it implied they were in the wrong and owed apology to him, rather than the other way around.
The other way he erred when the Winchesters finally confronted him was falling back on the argument that anything he did was justified because it was necessary for the greater good; that keeping Raphael from reinstating the apocalypse and destroying the world was more important than anything else. His fear of losing prompted him to the belief that, with the stakes so high, winning became everything and justified anything â€“ but he knew that was wrong even as he pursued it, and the very shame that made him lie about and hide it should have been his clear warning that it was wrong.
If you become what you oppose in order to defeat what you oppose, you lose even when you think you win, because you've lost yourself and given the victory to what you fought.
It may have seemed Dean was making light of the situation and ignoring the real danger when he dismissed Castiel's argument by saying, Blah, blah, Raphael, but he really wasn't. They'd derailed the apocalypse once before in the end by remaining true to themselves, by not playing the game according to anyone else's rules. Here, Castiel let himself be trapped into thinking he couldn't win without finding a way to meet Raphael on his own ground, power to power, and was seduced by Crowley into agreeing to cheat by augmenting his power with Purgatory. He blinded himself to what that would do to him, to Earth, to Heaven, and to Hell. Trying to avoid one apocalypse â€“ the straight-up Michael/Lucifer prize fight â€“ he simply instigated a different one, this one featuring a power grab by Hell, confusion and open civil war in Heaven, and the threat of monsters released from Purgatory all breaking like a flood wave over humanity, upsetting all the machinery of creation and the balance of souls.
Winning isn't everything, and it isn't the only thing. Sometimes, the only way to win is not to play, or to start an entirely new game with different rules.