I am happy to say Robert Berens’ “Captives” has settled some of my doubts about Supernatural’s story line this season. The episode wasn’t perfect, but it was very good. Berens is an excellent addition to the writers’ room, though I do wish someone on that staff loved writing Sam the way Berens loves to write Cas.

Berens deftly brings into focus the theme I have suspected to be in play all season: free will. The Kripke years explored the idea of free will vs fate for humans. Now that free will has replaced the Apocalypse for people, Carver looks to be extending the concept to heaven and hell. I think the symmetry with the first five years works really well. The angels, including Castiel, have been furious with God for exiting the stage, but his absence offers his angels freedom of choice.

Cas has always been the avatar of that choice among angels, first as a troublesome angel who constantly needed reprogramming, next as a God wannabe and now finally as a leader freely chosen by some of his fellow angels because they like what he stands for. Cas’s arc has been to realize the potential he has always had to restructure heaven, not through hubris or threats, but because he offers an alternative to blind obedience.

A long running question in the series has been who brings Cas back from the dead and why. Berens, and I imagine Carver, offer an elegant solution: God brings Cas back because he is needed, and all Cas’s mistakes have been part of his journey to get to this spot, to be the leader he’s now ready to be.

Bartholomew has been an uninteresting character all season. In fact, the entire angel war story line has failed to grip. The only interesting angels to me are Metatron, Gadreel and of course Cas. But tying Bart to Castiel’s fall into hubris as he fought Raphael is a brilliant stroke. Castiel can see the problems with Bartholomew’s arguments because they are an echo of his own when searching for Purgatory.

Cas Bart
Cas is only too aware of the problems with the end justifying the means. In addition to opening Purgatory and letting in leviathans, he was just manipulated into casting the angels out of heaven by Metatron, who used the same kind of argument. Cas’s entire journey through this narrative has prepared him to be the angel who changes and who brings that change to the other angels. Free will means the ability to make poor decisions as well as good ones. The point is to learn and grow.

I think the same story is playing out in hell. Abbadon is the old guard, ready to rule through force and violence, expecting unquestioning obedience from the demons.  Crowley represents a new order, knowing the strongest leader has the support of his followers, not just the fear.  And like Cas, Crowley has been changed by contact with humans, in ways we haven’t seen play out yet, but I think are to come.

It’s a grand design, and Sam and Dean have their own part of this thematic exploration. They fought for free will for the world and won. Now, they are fighting each other over the right to make choices.

Sam is furious over Dean’s decision to allow an angel to possess him, violating his body and free will in one terrible stroke. Dean’s fear of losing his brother led him to believe the end justifies the means even with Sam’s autonomy—and like Cas did, he’s going to have to realize some things cannot be justified.

However, some things can—Cas killed an angel to take his grace in order to take part in the fight to restore heaven, and that choice doesn’t seem to be staining his gradual ascendance to leadership. The ends appear to have justified those means. Cas is a being with an important purpose, which means his survival is important to the big picture.

And that point to me seems very important when looking at the Winchesters’ personal drama.

This episode convinced me Sam as much as Dean is still on a journey. Last episode’s ending scene between the boys was not intended to be taken as the bare truth from which the boys will rebuild. Sam, not unnaturally given how violated he feels, has been looking at the possession in a black and white fashion which casts his entire relationship with Dean in the shade. Cas and Kevin have both offered a different way of framing the events, though Sam is not yet ready to hear.

Last episode what I found upsetting was the way Sam framed his issues with Dean. His scope was huge with oddly drawn boundaries. Sam holds Dean responsible for his own decision not to complete the Trials, but doesn’t ponder his own hurt and anger at Dean’s friendship with Benny, even though his speech in the church was far more centered on Dean’s relationships than the price of leaving the gates open.

Sam in his anger makes some harsh judgements about and to his brother, telling Dean he’s done more harm than good and his version of brotherhood is the root of their problems. But the story has been complicating that outlook, suggesting the way forward lies with Sam and Dean moving toward each other, finding a middle ground they can both accept.

Dean will need to verbalize to Sam what he already knows in his gut: he was wrong to take away Sam’s power to make a decision about the possession. Keeping Sam alive at all costs is as wrong as keeping Sam’s body and brain alive without Sam’s soul, something Dean knew in season six.

MrsTran ring
But the value of Dean and Sam’s bond is also important. Cas has been acting as relationship counselor to both Winchesters, and his position is that while the ends don’t always justify the means, motivations do matter. Dean’s motivations matter. And Dean’s feelings about family, his need to protect his little brother, are echoed in “Captives” by Mrs. Tran, who knows the danger of ghosts, but will protect her son to her last breath.

Sam has been horrified by Kevin’s death as one consequence of the possession. That death is one reason he told Dean he did more harm than good. Kevin, though, is not focused on blame. His message to Sam is to hold on to what he finds dear, that he is alive and so is Dean and their bond is worth saving. I didn’t take Kevin’s use of the word stupid to mean Sam’s pain is stupid, but rather that he’s allowed it to skew his perspective about Dean’s value in his life.

Kevin boys
I think Berens used Kevin’s ability to forgive to point out the consequences of Gadreel’s possession were not all bad. Kevin died, but Cas and Charlie were saved. And in the big picture, Cas’s survival is important. It’s not fair that Kevin died, but life is often not fair.

I think there’s a parallel to be made with “Faith.” That episode also dealt with the concept of fairness. Why should Dean live while a lovely person like Layla had to die? Why was it important to respect the natural order for her, while Dean was supernaturally cured? The answer is given in the episode:

Well, like I said before, the Lord guides me. I looked into your heart, and you just stood out from all the rest.

What did you see in my heart?

A young man with an important purpose. A job to do. And it isn't finished. 

Roy’s choice truly was guided by God, though the healings were not. Dean’s survival was necessary to the fight for free will on earth. Cas’s survival is now necessary to the fight for free will in heaven. Dean is clearly going to be a critical player in the battle for hell and I suspect will play a role in Cas’s fight as well. I’d like to think Sam’s survival matters to the big picture as well.

Sam has been on a journey out of the story since season eight, which has been frustrating me. He’s either deciding he doesn’t need to be a hero and other people can hunt evil, or he’s thinking he’s only good for sacrifice. What he doesn’t seem to be able to envision is being comfortable as Sam Winchester, Man of Letters and Hunter. I hope his arc will be re-evaluating his own worth and therefore, his survival.

If he does, I think he’ll also see that flawed as Dean’s actions were, the love that drove them is part of what gives the brothers power. Closing the gates of hell had no more guarantee of being a good thing than casting the angels out of heaven. But Sam and Dean together do make a difference. Dean’s gut instinct in the church was right.

Dean bed 
The current story is isolating Dean more and more, which will give power to the Mark of Cain. A Dean who does not have love at his core is a frightening prospect. A Dean without his bond to Sam will have similarities to Sam without his soul. I think Sam will recognize what he’s lost when Dean loses faith in their brotherhood. And he’ll have to decide what he’ll do to save his brother.

Jeremy Carver has a very ambitious plan in place, and I really hope he pulls it off. I’m not completely convinced he will, but I’m much more hopeful after this episode.

Thanks to homeofthenutty.com for the photos.