“First Born” is a powerhouse of an episode, showing off Robbie Thompson’s narrative skills and fuelled by compelling performances from both the regular and guest cast. Not only does the episode tell its own story beautifully, it weaves together strands from previous seasons to illustrate the overall arc for this one. Free will is the key concept, between the boys and in every realm.

I’m going to discuss free will first, because the whole season is structured around it, as heaven, hell and Winchesters struggle with it.

The first five seasons were a meditation on family and free will, as Sam and Dean fought to define themselves despite being heroes in a tale long set up by cosmic forces. Castiel’s fall from grace signalled his own embracement of the concept, but really, free will had been on the heavenly table ever since God left the building with no warning or instructions. The archangels made sure to obscure that fact from the heavenly host because they didn’t intend to extend free will to the masses. Instead, they intended to rule with an iron rod themselves.

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Castiel has always been allied with God’s view of his creation, and when he seized power in heaven, he tried to walk in God’s footsteps, becoming a vengeful eye for eye Old Testament God. What he didn’t realise was God walked off the playing board for a reason, and that reason I believe was to give the angels the same gift he gave humans: free will. Castiel’s first crack at leadership was inherently flawed, because he didn’t realize he had to let go of absolute power in order to reshape heaven.

With Metatron at the controls, trying in his own way to become the new all-powerful and authoritarian God, heaven is again under siege not only by opposing combatants, but also by opposing philosophies. While the angels struggle with choosing between leaders like Bartholomew and Malachi, Cas remains the wild card. I’m not sure how he will become a player in the war over heaven, but I am sure he will be crucial in its reconstruction.

Cas has always been a troublesome angel, willing to protest against what he feels is wrong, and his reprogramming never stuck. The seeds of free will apparently were always there, sprouting when he encountered the Winchesters and their refusal to bow to fate.

At this point, Cas has also tried to be God and human, and he’s learned from all his experiences. He’s redefined what an angel can be, which makes him the logical choice to extend free will to his brothers and sisters, though no doubt there will be a cost to him.

A very similar struggle is taking place in hell. Crowley, the salesman, has always known the value of buy in. Under his control, demons relied on making deals, keeping their word as a way to lure greedy humans into their grasp. Crowley’s power was based on demons liking the set up because there was something in it for them.

Abbadon is a very different creature. Arrogant and used to power, she rules through fear and violence, crushing demons as often and as easily as she kills humans. She represents the old order vs. Crowley’s new one, and I suspect we’ll see the struggle play out as free will vs. dictatorship, though of course it will be a demonic version of free will. Crowley’s been changed by his touch with his humanity, but he’s still a demon, as this episode points out at the end.

That leaves the Winchesters, who have already saved the world through their insistence on free will on the cosmic scale. It seems, however, there is still work to do on free will between them, and that’s the territory their personal journey is exploring. Thompson expands the mythology to bring in Cain, who has always been a parallel to elder brother Dean.

With free will as the backdrop, “First Born” pairs each Winchester with an unusual partner, allowing each brother to get a different perspective on his troubles.

Sam and Castiel are in the bunker, trying to extract Gadreel’s left behind grace from Sam’s head. The problem is getting enough grace will kill Sam. Thompson creates a similar situation to the one Dean faced with his brother in the season’s premiere. The parallel allows Castiel to try and reframe Sam’s perceptions of Dean’s actions, just as the angel tried to reframe Dean’s perceptions in the last episode. Perception, as Carver mentioned last season, is another key concept.

Cas takes on the role of relationship counselor and his method is one found in cognitive behavior therapy: sort through hurtful feelings to find the thoughts driving them and then examine those thoughts to see if they are realistic.

Sam insists Cas extract the grace needed to trace Gadreel, even at the cost of his life, but the angel refuses. He overrides Sam’s desire, and he does so because he believes Sam is still running toward death as a way to atone for his mistakes in season four.

There’s a lot of support for Cas’s position in the scene. Sam tells Cas being human means settling your debts, and he still has to balance his books. But Cas knows something about the balancing of books, telling Sam he’s the one person whose mistakes have caused more damage than the younger Winchester’s.

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And here Cas shows the impact of his brush with humanity. He connects with Sam at the human level by acknowledging and apologising for the hurt he caused Sam. Sam accepts the apology—and later accepts Cas’s contention that while Sam’s life is not worth more than anyone else’s, it’s not worth less, either.

Earlier, Sam pleaded with Cas,” Please help me to do one thing right.” Cas’s reframing manages to shift Sam from seeing his death as a necessary part of atonement. However, he’s not ready to do what Cas thinks would also be the right thing: reaching out to Dean. Wisely, Cas doesn’t push the matter. If the brothers are to come together, it has to be by their own free will.

Even after acknowledging he sees his death as balancing his books, Sam is still very angry with Dean. I think that’s because there are two issues with what Dean did. One is overriding Sam’s consent to save his life. Sam’s anger on that point may have lifted a little due to Cas pointing out Sam’s own distorted thinking on the value of his life.

But there is a second issue and that’s the lies Dean told. Interestingly, Cain was punished by God for two things: killing his brother and lying to God about the deed. Dean’s story differs from Cain in that he saved his brother, but he too lied about what he did. I believe that is what Sam is struggling to forgive. Dean’s lies are bound up in his belief he needs to protect Sam and that he knows better than Sam how to do that. Sam needs to feel Dean accepts him as a capable adult. The relationship needs rebalancing, which I believe is the point of the boys’ personal arc this year.

The parallel between Dean and Cain gets a lot of play this episode, but their differences are as interesting as their similarities. Cain killed his brother to save him, as John Winchester charged Dean to do if necessary. This season, Dean saved his brother instead, meaning in this story, Abel is still active in the narrative. I don’t think the writers intend to retell Cain’s story, but rather to show how Dean responds to similar pressures.

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We pick up with Dean drinking in a bar, contemplating picking up a waitress. His headspace is dark—this Dean is very like futureDean in “The End.” Little of the caring side of the elder Winchester is visible. Instead, the hunter is in full view, ready to do what he must to get his revenge. The story has a clear parallel to seasons four and five (and for this insight I thank the very perceptive bookdal for her comments on twitter!) as well as Cain and Abel.

The twist is Sam and Dean have switched places. Sam is working with an angel and wondering if he can forgive Dean, while Dean is working with a demon to get revenge.  The thread that connects the stories is whether the brothers are stronger together than apart.

The narrative raises the question during Cain and Dean’s confrontation. Cain asks Dean why he saved Sam. Dean replies, “ Because you never give up on family. Ever.” The first man pointedly responds, “Where’s yours now then?”

It’s a good question because if Dean’s revelation during “The End” that he and Sam keep each other human is valid, Dean is going to need Sam very much indeed. Just as Sam still sees himself as tainted, Dean still sees himself as valuable only as a blunt instrument, a killing machine. Even Crowley tells him, “You are worthy. Your problem, mate, is nobody hates you more than you do.” Dean has as much of a problem with distorted thinking as Sam does, and unfortunately, that makes him as reckless with his choices.

Cain offers to transfer the Mark of Cain to Dean so he can use the First Knife. He also tries to tell Dean the price, but Dean has no interest in hearing it. He expects a price; he feels he deserves the price, whatever it is. He’s on a mission to punish himself not just for his specific mistakes with Kevin and Sam, but for being who he is.  Unfortunately, that means he’s accepted a burden that has the capacity to allow his dark areas to take him over.

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Cain became a demon when he received the mark, the worst of the lot according to Crowley. We know Dean is capable of very dark things. He was Alastair’s protégé in hell. There is a duality that shapes Dean, hunter and caregiver. The Mark of Cain is unlikely to magnify the power of the caregiver, the part of Dean that chose to save Sam rather than kill him.

Having killed his brother, Cain had no one to try to bring out his humanity until he met Collette. Her unconditional love and forgiveness of his sins saved Cain from his demonic nature. I suspect we’ll see Dean follow Cain’s dark path as he loses more and more of his humanity.

Unlike Cain, he doesn’t have to rely on meeting a Collette to save him. It makes more narrative sense to have Abel/Sam realize he can forgive his brother and that Dean’s insistence you never give up on family is as powerful now as it was in season five.

This season also seems to be picking up narrative threads from season eight. Not only does Sam have to revisit why he chose to live, he’s also going to have to decide if he will try to save Dean. My guess is the answer will be yes.

That yes should result in that needed rebalancing of the brothers’ relationship. Sam saving Dean will not only show Dean through actions he is loved, something Dean has trouble accepting even from Sam, it will also show Dean he and Sam are on the same playing field, helping each other through their weak areas. I think the struggles this year are building to the boys truly choosing to stay together by their free will, rather than fear of who they are without each other.

It’s been a tangled narrative web to get to this point! This season is shaping up to be a hell of a ride.