First, let's examine Castiel.
At the beginning of the season, we watched him be expunged from the Garden and become the new Adam. It was a gradual and painful process that showed him moving from a celestial being to a fragile human being. As the season has progressed over time, we've seen this be explored deeper. Castiel has ended up homeless. He has had to lose all vestiges of his former angelic self, little by little. And yet, he is still on the run from his angelic family. He has also been cast out of the Bunker to make his own way in the world. Castiel has truly taken on the mantle of the new Adam in this episode in so many ways.
Castiel's foray into everyday human life beings most humbly. He is no longer an angel, no longer a wavelength of celestial intent. He is now a sales associate, working in a menial job for low pay doing rather unskilled labor. It is rock bottom from where and what he used to be in every sense of the word. He is an ordinary man trying to make his way the best he can. Much like Adam had to learn how to take care of himself after the expulsion from Eden, Castiel has had to learn how to take care of himself.
There is a quiet dignity in the way he goes about his menial tasks. Castiel takes pride in what he does. He sees a value here in wiping the fountain machines and filling the coffee makers. The former angel finds joy in helping the customers that walk through the door to purchase items---or as he fervently tells the woman purchasing lotto tickets, “Good luck.” Castiel wants to do a good job. He wants to do this right.
In many ways, Castiel sees this as he did his stay in Purgatory. He is atoning for his sins and mistakes. He is trying to make up for what he's done---and the list is rather long. He worked with Crowley behind Sam and Dean's back. He lied about Sam's soul. He took on too much pride when he took the souls of Purgatory and released the Leviathan. His latest transgression in trusting Metatron has left him severely punished---and so he sees this as an opportunity to perhaps set things somewhat right. As limited as he currently is, it's all he can do to show his remorse---and to ask for forgiveness.
Here, he has acquired employment and is wise enough to keep his real name secret. Here he is known as Steve---and Steve is a very quiet and dependable guy who shows up to work and works hard on any task given to him with little complaint. But Steve is just a persona, a mask to the world to hide who he really is.
Castiel has also tried to become more human in his behaviors---illustrated best by his aping of his co-workers with the coffee stirring stick. He may be human, and he may be shedding his angelic nature at a rapid rate, but he still remembers who and what he once was. There's a childlike quality to his actions here---and we can tell that there's something not right by how he acts. He is passing as human and is certainly trying to cope as one---but is he really human?
The former angel's not completely unaware in his new life. He catches wind of a mysterious disappearance---and it's not the first one locally. Not sure how to proceed and understandably not ready to handle it on his own, he calls Dean about what he's read in the news. There is a case in town---a case for a hunter.
Castiel assumes, however, that once he's handed it off to Dean, he can go back to his humble existence cleaning and signing inventory forms and taking care of customers. Dean shows up to rock that boat, and with his appearance we see Castiel transition some.
Dean has long embraced that he is not normal by any stretch of the imagination and tries to convince Castiel that this simple existence is not the answer. After all, Castiel is a “hunter in training” and so he convinces him to join in on the case. Castiel reluctantly agrees, even though he feels he won't be of any help there without his powers. Dean scoffs, telling him, “I've never had any powers.”
This statement is a critical truth Castiel must hear. Dean has always been human---despite the advantages he's had through his knowledge of the supernatural world---and has had to navigate his surroundings with a human's limitations. Castiel has always known the world as an angel, with all that entails. To be so heavily limited---and to have fallen so far on the totem pole---has been nothing short of a shock. But what Dean's really saying here is that even if Castiel isn't angelic anymore, it doesn't mean he isn't useful. After all, Castiel had told Dean, “There's more to humanity than survival, you look for purpose.” He does have a purpose---and Dean is trying to tell him that it's more than simply wiping down counters.
Turns out that Dean was right. Castiel recognizes the terrible crime scene from one he has seen up in Heaven. The angel is a dangerous one, continuing his Heavenly work here on earth. He is a Rit Zien, and as such, he is a “Hand of Mercy,” taking pain and suffering away. Unlike up in Heaven, however, when a battle is finished and those that are mortally wounded need to be relieved of their pain, Ephraim is instead killing humans that are dealing with human suffering be it the extremes of suicidal thoughts or the sting of being dumped publicly in front of the whole school. Ephraim does not discriminate between pain. He senses it, hones in on it, and destroys its source totally.
Ephraim stands in strong contrast to Castiel here. He is unemotional, frightening, and lacks understanding of the human world he has been thrust into. He only has sense of duty and of his role in the Heavenly system. Anything else is beyond his grasp. The human condition is beyond him certainly as he tells Castiel, “I won’t stop until I wash the world clean of all suffering.”
Ephraim is, in many ways, what the angels were like during the early portions of season 4---including Castiel. They were blind to their roles and duties, followed orders nearly without question, and had no regard for what their actions had on the humans caught in their crossfires. Ephraim, being the special class of angel that he is, is doubly hit by all that humanity has to offer and it is an overload that frays all his nerves, making him ratchet up his “merciful” kills if only to ease his own pain.
It couldn't be any different than Castiel's experience here. He thinks he may have a date with an ordinary woman. This time she seems to be just a human being---a single mother who happens to be his employer. She is desperate to go out on a date, and as she exasperatedly tells him about how hard it is to find any nice men to meet, Castiel assumes she must mean him. He readily agrees to meet her at her house for dinner at 7PM---but when he arrives he finds that he is not the date---he's the babysitter.
It sets up one of the most powerful scenes exploring the human condition that Castiel has had to endure so far. He is left alone with the wailing child, unsure of what to do or how to handle the situation. He is barely holding it together himself, after all. He may have convinced the grateful boss that he was staying late for inventory---or she may have just accepted it rather than wanting to deal with it of course---but the truth is he is still very much homeless and struggling. Castiel still doesn't have any idea what it all means or where he should go next or what he should really do. And really, who among us can really say with total certainty that we are doing precisely what we're meant to be it in career or otherwise?
But Castiel seems to do surprisingly well with the baby. He pleads for her to stop crying, and almost as if some human instinct is kicking in, he picks her up, cradling her close. In his gravelly voice, he sings her a lullaby, and the lyrics are striking for who he was and who he's become. He sings softly, “Look at what's happened to me, I can't believe it myself; Suddenly I'm up on top of the world, Should've been somebody else. Believe it or not, I'm walkin' on air, I never thought I could feel so free; Flyin' away on a wing and a pray'r, Who could it be? Believe it or not, it's just me.”
It is a poignant moment for Castiel---a turning point in many ways. As he sits down to hold the baby close, he tells her softly,” Nobody told you, nobody explained, you're just shoved out kicking and screaming into this human life without any idea of why any of it feels the way it feels or why this confusion feels like it's a hairsbreadth from terror or pain. You know, just when you think you do understand, it'll turn out you're wrong. You didn't understand anything at all.” In many ways, we see in this moment Castiel have a major epiphany. It is the very epiphany he was trying to grasp as an angel for years. He finally is beginning to understand what it means to be human, how hard it is, and how tenuous this life really and truly is.
In so many ways, this scene teaches us, too, about our how human experience. It is a simple moment, captured in its quiet. It is a man and a baby, sitting together. There is nothing more beautiful. As we let the dialogue flow over us, however, we absorb those words, and realize their truths. It may be a metaphor for Castiel's own casting from Heaven, it may be a metaphor for the numerous angels cast out alongside him, but in reality it is a metaphor for us as a species. We are thrust into this world left to find our own way. We're left often to find it after failing miserably many times. Castiel certainly has done that as an angel---and yet he could never quite understand why or how to learn from it.
As Ephraim comes, Castiel also shows that he is willing to stand his ground to protect another human life. The baby has a fever, explaining her crying. To the Rit Zien, this matters not. It is pain, and therefore he will stop it---but not now. Instead, he is there for Castiel. Castiel's pain as a human being is great and like a beacon to an angel like Ephraim. He is drawn to it like a moth to a flame, and he will end Castiel's suffering.
He asks Castiel point blank if he'd rather live as an angel or as a man---showing his clear inability to understand what Castiel is starting to grasp here. We want to live even with the struggles and the suffering because there is a value in life---there is a reason o get up in the morning. There is beauty and splendor around us, even in the mundane. There is hope and love. Humans may suffer every day on so many different levels, but we have learned to be resilient, to bounce back, to keep fighting.
It is poignant that Ephraim's first victims were those that wanted to commit suicide. Some people do choose to end their lives tragically. These two threads in this story contrast one another, showing us the deepest despair as we watch the man at the beginning hold a gun to his own head---and yet the hope when he decides to put it back down. If anything, it tells us that there is a reason to keep fighting, that hope is there somewhere if we're willing to look.
In the other storyline of the episode, we see the human condition explored in Crowley. While not human, it is also apparent that his near cure has had lingering effects.
Unlike Castiel, Crowley was once human before. It's not new to him. He knows of the difficulties, the struggles, the pain that comes with being a human being. In many ways, it's what makes demons so effective against humans when they are topside. They know the triggers, the buttons to push on people to make them suffer even more than they ordinarily would. Because they were once human, they know more than other creatures about what hurts the most. And because they're not able to find relief as humans can---mostly forgiveness---it is why they lash out so violently.
Also, unlike Castiel, none of Crowley's sins as a demon have roots in good intentions. He did his deeds with cruel intent---and much of what he has done is categorized as clearly unforgivable. Some we know---such as his manipulation of Castiel in season 6 or his killing those that the Winchesters had saved, like Sarah, or the various crossroad deals he's made. Others we don't know about. His crimes are a long litany of sin and misdeed and suffering. He did all of these things on purpose with the full awareness that they were wrong. He did these things for his own selfish gain and for his own purposes. Crowley is an evil being bent on committing atrocities.
But what happened in that church has changed so much of his view of those deeds.
Crowley may have had a brush with becoming mortal, but it doesn't mean he won't be difficult when hard pressed to help Sam and Kevin with the difficult translations of the Angel Tablet, however.
Crowley has become more bark and less bite, though. He is lippy and witty and as sarcastic as ever---especially when confronted with Sam. In many ways, even though the Third Trial has long ceased, it must seem like he's still in the midst of it, especially when Sam comes in alone. There's a lot of bravado in Crowley's behavior then, as he tells Sam off or throws the crumpled piece of paper in the nonplussed Winchester's face. Crowley isn't happy, but what is he really hiding? There's more here than surliness at being chained in the Men of Letter's dungeon.
Just how much did that near cure effect the King of Hell?
We start to get an inkling to that in this episode clearly. Crowley has a few buttons that can be pushed. He demands a phone call---one that requires a little blood. He wishes to speak with Abaddon, to try and get her to somehow accept him as Hell's ruler, even if he really can't match his words with deeds. Sam and Kevin don't want to give into his demands, knowing that if they do this now they'll have to give into other demands later on.
But what choice do they have? As Dean pointed out, it's not like Crowley's being kept around for his wit. He is known to be fluent in several languages---which makes sense as a Crossroad's Demon, he'd have to know various languages to make his contracts with his victims after all. He's not doing anything in the Men of Letter's Bunker except stewing, so why not making him earn his keep so to speak?
And so, they allow his call---and in it they get the greatest gift they could have hoped for. Crowley has been angry with them for holding him captive and a reluctant ally as he was with the Wicked Witch, but now he has real reason to help the Winchesters. As expected, Abaddon is not willing to yield to him---and she goes on to do something far worse. She is tearing up his contracts and collecting early. As they say, the enemy of my enemy is my friend---and that is certainly becoming the case for Crowley here.
Crowley is a liar, make no mistake, but he has an odd code of ethics. His integrity is very important to him---after all he did tell Gus the Crossroads demon that “This is Hell, we have something called integrity!” He may find loopholes in his contracts as he did with Bobby's, but they're written into the fine print, allowing him to circumvent the deal on the surface. To break the binding contract, however, is sacrosanct to Crowley. It is crossing a line that should not be crossed ever.
Is this strange integrity perhaps the kernel the near cure is latching onto?
It incenses him that Abaddon is destroying his hard work to build Hell over time. She may have doubled projections, but he sees it as folly for growth down the road. After all, who will deal with Hell if they're not going to get their ten long years of fame, fortune, or love? It's the fire that Sam and Dean have been trying to light under Crowley since they brought him to the Bunker and demanded names.
Once the phone call has ended, Crowley is more than willing to read the translated script. Knowing how he honors his contracts, we have little reason to doubt his prognosis about their efforts to reverse Metatron's spell. He tells them soberly, “It's irreversible. The spell can't be undone. The new world order---we're stuck with it.” There's no deception in his face or words. Crowley isn't even crowing here. He's simply stating the facts, honoring his word.
So, if that is the case, then did Metatron omit something or is there a separate spell that can be done to reopen Heaven?
Crowley's reluctant help, here, isn't the shocking element in his part of the story. He tells Sam about the blood for the phone call, “I've had yours stuck in here---can't fault me for wanting a little variety,” and that he wants the prophet's instead. We see Kevin give in and provide it---but later when Sam is putting away the syringes, he notices in a panic that one is missing.
Just what could the King of Hell want with Kevin's blood? Is he making another call to a demon still sympathetic to him? Or is there something else going on?
As Sam rushes to the doorway, he sees Crowley injecting the blood into himself, a euphoric expression crossing the demon's face. Could it be that he wants to sustain the near cure, the shred of humanity that emerged when he was facing becoming mortal again? Crowley asked Sam, in “Sacrifice” how to find forgiveness, and Sam answered by holding up a syringe of his blood and asked, “How about we start with this? ”
Crowley isn't nearly as bare or vulnerable as he was in “Sacrifice” by any means, and yet he seems to be teetering on the edge of great change. As much as we saw his human state affect Castiel, could it be that we're seeing a sliver of humanity wedge it's way deep into Crowley, making him irrevocably different? Could it be that Crowley had hoped to become mortal again---to have a second chance at life and to do it right this time?
We all look for second chances, too---especially when we make a mistake. We call for “do-overs” as children, as if we can erase mistakes and sins. To be on the threshold of that for Crowley has to be worse than torture. He may have to examine his sins in detail---and with little else to do there are probably some ugly ones he is delving deeply in to---but what really seems to bother him is that he wasn't cured.
What does it say about the human condition? Each of us know our flaws and faults. Some of us try to bury them and ignore them. Some of us examine them closely, picking at them until they are raw and bleeding. Some of us are numb to them unless we're exposed to their ugly truths. For Crowley, he certainly has had his exposed to his, and they sting and hurt. He has told the Winchesters, “Honestly, boys. What are you gonna do to me that I don't do to myself just for kicks every Friday night?” And yet, he was so close to salvation, so close to being redeemed on some level---only to be stopped just short of the goal line.
In our lives, we sometimes feel this pain, too. We may have wronged someone, made amends, and yet carry the weight of our guilt as we struggle to let it go. Crowley injecting Kevin's blood here is a physical manifestation of his trying to let go, even if he knows soon he'll be ripping his wounds raw again soon. Crowley wants to let go, but can't---not on his own.
In a weird way, his wanting this so badly rather than just letting the near cure fade and be buried under his demonic nature to be reabsorbed, shows us that we are all seeking the same thing. In so many ways, we all desire to find forgiveness, to find peace. Sometimes we find it, but mostly we find it in fleeting moments that pass all too soon as it will here for Crowley.
Perhaps Crowley injecting Kevin's blood here is also a cry for help---to guide him on the path to forgiveness and redemption.
Isn't that what really what we're all looking for?
Ashton Holmes brings the chilling Ephraim to life. He is off-putting in his body language and stoic in his facial expressions, instantly making us take notice of his presence. There's a relentlessness about him, and it frightens us all in how he carries himself. We can tell that there's something not quite right with Ephraim just in the way Holmes portrays him, especially when the angel arrives at the school to kill the upset teen girl after her break up. While we're appalled by his actions, we can hear a sincerity in the way Holmes delivers his lines that speaks to the angel's firm belief that he's doing the right thing. There's also a sense of misguided mercy in his interactions with his victims---seen most in his conversation with Castiel. The angel tells Castiel that he was drawn by his pain, and the way Holmes speaks these lines makes us want to for a moment agree with him even though we know he's merely misunderstanding what it means to be human. Ephraim may have only appeared in this single episode, but Holmes made him a force on screen.
Alainia Huffman appears briefly, and yet she steals the scene with her charisma here. She is vicious and frightening here, even though she's only shown taunting Crowley. Huffman makes the performance look fun and easy as she delivers her lines. It's clear that Abaddon's gaining the upper-hand in taking over Hell---especially with Crowley MIA outside the Bunker. The amusement in Huffman's voice sells us on her triumph. We can hear the delight in her tone as she tells Crowley that she's undoing all his deals and making Hell a chaos force to be reckoned with. It may have been a brief appearance, but it was a fun one as always. If anything, it makes us eager to see what the newly minted Queen of Hell will do next!
Osric Chau keeps growing as an actor as Kevin and this episode is no different. He has great chemistry with Mark Sheppard, but the addition of Jared Padalecki to the scenes made them stronger. Chau shows Kevin's steel well, and yet we can sense in his performance here that the prophet is relying heavily on Sam's presence to keep his composure. It's in how Chau has Kevin stand by Sam or glance at the younger Winchester. His angry outburst about Crowley wanting to make a call to Abaddon is understandable, and Chau makes us feel deeply for the prophet's predicament. After all, his mother is dead because of the demon and now he has to give something to get something. Chau has become a bit more subtle in his performances, too, allowing for nuances in Kevin's character to emerge. He's become a much more rounded character, easily connecting with us and the other characters in the room. We can sense that Chau is really starting to know just who Kevin is in this new scheme---post the failed attempt at closing the Hell Gates. We see him pair well with Padalecki's Sam when they're researching as a bond seems to develop between the two characters over the difficult translation task. It gives the character a warmth and humanity that makes him a great addition to the Supernatural fabric.
Mark Sheppard has shown a lot of different sides to Crowley this season and this episode builds on that well. He is still the snarky and manipulative character we've come to know, but there's a difference in him now that shows through Sheppard's acting. He's a bit less cocky. Sheppard shows us on many levels that Crowley's bad attitude is largely an act in many ways, that he knows he's caught in the Winchester's clutches, and that he's lost. Yet, that doesn't mean he won't get something for something, and we see Crowley hold fast to his demands to talk to Abaddon. After the call, we see Sheppard show Crowley's anger well in the tight gestures and determined facial expressions. He may be the King of Hell---or soon to be former King---but he has integrity that shows in how he carries himself oddly. Sheppard shows us how much Crowley has changed when he injects Kevin's blood---the euphoria that crosses his face tells of something profound about the demon. We're left to wonder if he's more changed than he's let on by the near cure or if there's something else at work here. If anything, Sheppard will be able to expand Crowley's character---taking us along for the ride.
Misha Collins continues to explore Castiel's human experience with an earnest performance here. We connect on many levels with the former angel in this episode as he struggles to fit in, to earn his keep, and to perhaps find love. There's a sincerity in his portrayal that makes us empathetic to his situation. As more of the angel he once was falls away, Collins wisely keeps enough of Castiel's quirks around to keep him familiar in his new mortal state. It's even more endearing when we see him try to interact socially, only to be awkward as he is when he apes his co-workers with the stirring stick or his genuine care for his work. Castiel has been humbled greatly by what has happened since Metatron stole his grace---and that humility is an undercurrent in the performance Collins gives here. When Castiel and Dean visit the latest crime scene, we feel the tragedy in his pose as he bends over the Impala, head bowed low and stance clearly communicating his defeat. Collins sells us on this without saying a word, and when we see his face, we see the anguish in his facial expression. Collins has his best scene, however, when he's babysitting. There's a warmth in his attempts to soothe the baby—all the while trying to come to grips with his own human emotions. Collins makes Castiel's gravely voice oddly soft---all while keeping the voice we know well. It's a heartfelt moment all in how Collins presents Castiel here, and its impact grips us long after viewing. When Ephraim comes, we see Castiel move to defend the baby, but it is the former angel he's there for. Collins shows Castiel's ingenuity in his subtle actions with the rose as he makes a blood sigil in an attempt to banish the angel of mercy. After Dean drops him off at his job, we see Castiel move about the space with a bit of trepidation---as if it is lacking something. Collins puts a lot in that last expression we see, and we're left to wonder if there's something more for the former angel than cleaning the restroom or microwaving nachos.
Jensen Ackles has always had a physical element to his acting---and in this episode we see how well that works to his advantage. His gesturing and facial expressions tell us how Dean is processing any given moment---be it an amused smile at Castiel's predicament, a hand to cover his nose at the disgust found at the crime scene, or the encouragement to the former angel about his “date,” by giving a soft slap to the chest. Ackles makes Dean come to life this way. We also sense in his body language that Dean is running from the situation with Sam and Zeke, and while it's not brought up in this episode explicitly, we can sense it in how Ackles has Dean leave the Bunker in a hurry, his lines delivered with haste to convince Padalecki's Sam to stay and work with Kevin on the tablet. Ackles has great chemistry with Collins, and it showed here, especially in the scene at the school yard when Dean encounters a grief-stricken Castiel. There's a considerate tone in his voice and his posture shifts to show us that Dean is concerned about his friend. Ackles always seems to know just what tenor to take in a scene to convey to us just what needs to be told at that point in the story---and this episode was no exception---be it on the case, helping a friend get ready for a date, or showing amusement.
Jared Padalecki builds on his chemistry with Mark Sheppard in this episode. As we see Sam confront Crowley, we see his steel and his resolve in just how Padalecki carries himself. There's a subtle amusement in these moments, too, evidenced by facial expressions and vocal tones---as if Sam finds having Crowley strung up funny on many levels. But Padalecki also gets to establish a better chemistry with Chau's Kevin, and they make quite the team on screen. Just as Chau made Kevin glance at Sam for reassurance, we see that returned by Sam in Padalecki's performance here. He makes sure to be that presence in the room, the buffer between Kevin and Crowley. Seemingly without trying, Padalecki makes himself look even bigger in these scenes, making Sam a bit more intimidating, too. We also see his great panic at the end, punctuated by his astonishment at Crowley's actions---all without a word being said. Padalecki's best scene in this episode was when he taunts Crowley about his humanity. The way he delivers, “Our last encounter, with Abaddon, she was pretty terrifying, scarier than you've been in years,” is done with punch.
Best Lines of the Week:
Dean: I'm just saying, we're not keeping him chained up for the one-liners.
Kevin: Twenty-four. Don't worry, we've got all of them.
Kevin: In another words a perfect excuse to bail on our research.
Sam: Like it or not, there's still a little part of you that's not a douche.
Dean: Yeah. I mean, my dates usually end when I run out of singles , but, uh, yeah. Yeah, that's something that humans do.
Dean: I said that there was room for improvement!
Dean: Wow. So you went from fighting Heavenly battles to nuking taquitos.
Next week the Winchesters go on an old fashioned ghost hunt---what other ghost will dredge up?