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Commentary 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 – 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 don’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 hadn’t acted as Castiel had expected he would. From the reaction we saw in Castiel’s recollections, I think Castiel was definitely surprised and puzzled by Sam’s aberrant behavior, but not enough to investigate; instead, he simply checked “saving Sam” 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 didn’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 didn’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 couldn’t see a way around it, and despair suggested he was defeated even before he began. He didn’t know what to do, his brother and sister angels couldn't give him advice, and with fear overwhelming his capacity for judgment, he couldn’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 – 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 – especially being not-entirely-Sam at the time – was an entirely different matter.
As to why he lied, both then and later – 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 – 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 – 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 – 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 – the straight-up Michael/Lucifer prize fight – 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.


# Ellie 2011-05-19 02:55
Ben Edlund set out to give Castiel a sympathetic pov and therefore the audience and he certainly achieved that .so job well done I suppose.
# Bardicvoice 2011-05-19 20:56
Glad you could appreciate the effect, even if you're not invested in Castiel! Edlund definitely succeeded in his intent ... :)
# KatieV 2011-05-19 06:15
Thank you Mary for another thoughtful and insightful review. I love reading your thoughts about this wonderful show. I also wonder how much of these underlying themes the writers intended to create when they put pen to paper or was it all there in the collective subconscious and they, like Chuck, are just a means to express them.
Or is that going Uber-Meta?
# Bardicvoice 2011-05-19 20:58
Thanks, Katie! I suspect a number of the underlying themes were in the writers' minds - but I also suspect we often read things into the subtext that they didn't intend, but which prove to be happy unconscious accidents in the long run!
# MB 2011-05-19 09:04
RE the sigils.

I'd like to posit that perhaps it isn't a forgotten plot point. We see Castiel heal Dean at the end of 5.22 and considering the victory they've scored and his mood at the time it'd be reasonable to assume that he removed the sigils then too. The fight was over after all.

Similarly hauling Sam out from Hell could have given Castiel the same opportunity to remove the sigils although this one involves a little more leeway.
# Bardicvoice 2011-05-19 21:00
Thanks for coming and commenting!

I wouldn't be surprised if Cass removed the sigils at some point, thinking them no longer necessary; my only little quibble is that we've never been told or been shown that. We've just seen Castiel turning up in the brothers' presence, when last season, they made a big thing of him not being able to do that. It's just a little quibble, in any case!
# Ginger 2011-05-19 09:08
"Dean's stubborn loyalty and utter devastation at realizing how deeply he'd been deceived, while Jared showed Sam's unfailing awareness of and consideration for his brother's feelings. After the half-season of watching soulless Sam being oblivious of his impact, I really appreciated how attuned to Dean Jared's Sam has been ever since recovering his soul, and how evident Jared has made Sam's desire to minimize Dean's pain."

I am glad you brought this point out. This is exactly what I have been noticing the last two or three episodes, and it is a welcome relief.

I thought the episode was brilliant; too, do I say this...

Your analysis was pretty much how I viewed the episode, but I guess it's just that I am not all that interested in an angel dealing with human emotions, dilemmas; all that stuff, and that story taking center stage in the season. I realize that the resolution to Cas's problems will set the stage for S7's story.

That said, whether I like the direction the show has taken, kudos to Edlund. The episode was amazing, beautifully done, answered questions without tainting Cas as an unredeemable character, and brought him full fledged into the series as a lead.

Thanks for a great review.
# Bardicvoice 2011-05-19 21:05
Thanks, Ginger!

I'm glad you could appreciate the episode even though you don't particularly care for the Heaven/Hell storyline.

I really do appreciate the way we've seen re-souled Sam appreciating his brother, even as we saw Dean appreciating having Sam fully back. I've been loving the renewed brother dynamic, especially given how long it's been missing. Love the Winchester brothers, and always will!
# Clare 2011-05-19 14:27
Really excellent meta, though I think you've left out a very important factor in Cas's choices: his love for Dean, which shone through every time he looked at Dean in this episode. He wasn't prepared to risk *Dean*. The real tragedy is that what he's planning *will* risk Dean.
# Bardicvoice 2011-05-19 21:11
Thanks, Clare! And great point on Castiel's caring for Dean. I don't think the angel fully understands this "feeling" thing even yet, but it's clear how much Dean has come to matter to him. And you're dead right; what he's doing is jeopardizing precisely the one man he most intended to protect.
# Bevie 2011-05-19 14:29
Anything I could say would pale in comparison to your thinky thoughts Mary, so I just want to remind you how very much I enjoy your reviews and metas. :-)

I may not comment on every one, but know that I thoroughly read and enjoy all of them.

Thank you
# Bardicvoice 2011-05-19 21:11
Thank you very much, Bevie! *Hugs*
Maria G
# Maria G 2011-05-19 17:23
How and why are archangels more intrinsically powerful than other angels – or are they? Will we ever know?

I believe they're following religious canon when it comes to Archangels. They're far more powerful than Angels because they're higher in rank. Angels deal with individuals (hence the term "guardian angel") and the delivery of messages, whereas Archangels deal with large groups, nations, etc. Logic would indicate you'd need more power to deal with more people.

Just my 2p.
# Bardicvoice 2011-05-19 21:17
Thanks, Maria! Nice points!

I grew up Catholic, so I know the doctrine; my question was aimed more at how the show's cosmology encompasses the relative powers of angels. If angels draw power from souls, I'm curious about how archangels get more than others - and whether it's possible Castiel may now have more access to power than he had before he was brought back in Swan Song. I more than halfway wonder, especially after Castiel's comment then that he was "new and improved," whether he might have gotten an upgrade to archangelic status without realizing it. Wouldn't that be a kick, if he was now actually a straight power match for Raphael, and just didn't realize it, limiting himself simply because he was accustomed to thinking himself intrinsically less powerful? Hmm ... more thinking is required, I think!
# MB 2011-05-20 08:30
How and why are archangels more intrinsically powerful than other angels – or are they? Will we ever know?

I believe they're following religious canon when it comes to Archangels. They're far more powerful than Angels because they're higher in rank. Angels deal with individuals (hence the term "guardian angel") and the delivery of messages, whereas Archangels deal with large groups, nations, etc. Logic would indicate you'd need more power to deal with more people.

Just my 2p.
I don't think this is necessarily true. I'd accept that the archangels are the top of the tree however Cupids are meant to be higher than angels but they've made it clear that the Cupid(s) on SPN are below Castiel's paygrade.
# CitizenKane2 2011-05-19 23:04
This is another great article. It was quite heart breaking in some parts, and I guess being confronted with hard truths can have that effect.

I especially liked the way you concluded the article - the effect of the last sentence and the accompanying picture was devastatingly sad.

I did wonder (and commented on another article) why didn't Castiel seek out Joshua to see if God had any views on the matter (c.f. Dark Side of the Moon).
# Bardicvoice 2011-05-20 18:22
Thank you; glad you liked! Thank Alice for the final photo - she's the one who supplies the pictures, and she ALWAYS nails it!

I suspect Castiel didn't seek out Joshua because he didn't want to get the same answer the boys did back in Dark Side of the Moon - that God didn't think it was his problem. Poor angel ...
# BagginsDVM 2011-05-19 23:51
Awesome episode, awesome review!
Gosh, not much that I can add to what you've presented for us to ponder! Castiel's story of the fish crawling onto shore definitely caught my attention, for that's always been my view of evolution, having learned in Catholic grade school that God set evolution in motion.
I like the idea that angels have always had free will too, but just never had the need or desire to explore it until they had more direct contact with humans.

Oh, Cas! I just wanted to smack him upside the head while giving him a big hug at the same time. I agree; he just hasn't realized that the sign he was asking for was the man standing in front of him, telling him to stop.

Misha, Mark, Jensen, Jared, Jim...TV just doesn't get any better than this!

# Bardicvoice 2011-05-20 18:23
Thanks, Dawn! I'm with you; I always wondered about people so literal-minded that they couldn't contemplate God having chosen evolution as his mechanism of creation.

And I definitely agree that TV doesn't get better than this!
# Carla 2011-05-21 11:17
"And it also goes to show that might have been are the three saddest words in the English language."

This is truly sad. It reminds me of a brazilian poet called Manuel Bandeira. In one of his poems, there's a verse that says "Uma vida inteira que podia ter sido e não foi", which is something like "A whole life that might have been and was not."
I think it fits really well Sam and Dean's lives.

Great review as always, Mary!