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6.20 The Man Who Would Be King: Freedom Is A Length Of Rope

6.20 The Man Who Would Be King: Freedom Is A Length Of Rope

Sam, Dean, saving Earth:
Castiel's good intentions
Pave his road to Hell.


Episode Summary

Sitting in a garden with early spring flowers blossoming amid the snow, Castiel spoke to God, saying he'd been on Earth for a long time and remembered many things, including seeing the first fish that emerged from the water to live on land and being told by one of his older brother angels not to step on the fish because there were big plans for it. He talked of remembering the Tower of Babel and how people interpreted its fall as a sign of divine wrath, when in truth it fell because the materials used to build it couldn't withstand being piled so high. He remembered Cain and Abel, David and Goliath, Sodom and Gomorrah – and the most remarkable event, which was remarkable because it never came to pass: the apocalypse, averted by two human brothers, an old drunk, and a fallen angel. He recalled them ripping up the ending of the grand story along with the rules and destiny, leaving nothing but freedom and choice. And he wondered if he'd made the wrong choice, and how he was supposed to know what to do. Observing he was getting ahead of himself, he asked to be allowed to tell his story, to tell everything.

Not long after the defeat of Eve, Castiel appeared in the Impala beside Dean, who was driving alone in the night, saying he wanted to check in. Dean asked if he had any word on Crowley being alive, and the angel said he was looking, but didn't understand how the demon could have tricked him. Dean observed Crowley was tricky, but said if he was alive, then killing him was the important thing. Castiel asked if Dean had found anything yet, and when he said no, asked where Sam was. Dean said Sam was tracking a djinn in Omaha and he was on his way to join him. Castiel said he would come if he could, but Dean said he understood, asking only for reassurance that Castiel would call if he got into real trouble. The angel gave a slight nod and disappeared.

Castiel met Crowley in his monster interrogation hideaway, where he was dissecting Eve's body. Crowley reported Eve's brain was dead, but her body was still producing eggs like salmon roe, and he showed that when he stuck a heated metal spike into her brain, a vampire he had chained in the room went into convulsions as if it was the one being tortured. Castiel said Crowley had claimed Eve could open the door into Purgatory, and Crowley said he was confident she could have, if the Winchesters hadn't killed her. He blamed Castiel for them losing their best chance to get to Purgatory, and further complained he had it on good authority the Winchesters were now seriously hunting him. He accused Castiel of being distracted and having a conflict of interest.

Recounting that memory, Castiel observed Crowley had a point because he was conflicted, still seeing himself as the Winchesters' guardian. Remembering the final confrontation in Stull Cemetery where he had bought Dean time by firebombing Michael, only to be summarily destroyed by Lucifer, Castiel said the Winchesters had taught him how to stand up, what to stand for, and what generally happens to you when you do. He noted that in that moment, he was done, he was over – and then the most extraordinary thing happened: he was put back, and learned they had stopped Armageddon, although at a terrible cost. He thought he knew what he had to do next: he healed Dean and brought Bobby back to life, and then harrowed Hell to rescue Sam as he previously had rescued Dean. He acknowledged it was nearly impossible, but said he was so full of confidence, of mission; something he acknowledged now was really arrogance and hubris, because it turned out he hadn't really rescued Sam, not all of him. Watching in memory as Sam looked through the window at Dean, Lisa, and Ben with no sign of emotion and then turned and walked away, Castiel observed that sometimes you're lucky enough to be given a warning, and that should have been his.

In the torture room, Crowley begged Castiel to kill the Winchesters, but Castiel flatly refused and said if Crowley killed them, he would simply bring them back. Crowley threatened to put them where he couldn't bring them back, but Castiel continued to refuse, telling Crowley not to worry about them. Crowley objected that every power in Heaven and Hell who hadn't worried about them had suffered the consequences, but Castiel ordered him to find Purgatory, warning that if he didn't, the two of them would die over and over again until the end of time. He promised the Winchesters wouldn't get to the demon, and Crowley retorted he would tear their hearts out if they did.

Meanwhile, Sam and Bobby had captured Redd, a demon acting as a hunter who had turned a nest of vampires over to Crowley, and questioned him under torture with holy water and non-fatal wounds from the demon-killing dagger while keeping him imprisoned under a devil's trap. Dean told Sam and Bobby about Castiel having dropped in on him a couple of hours before, but reassured them he hadn't told the angel anything. Dean expressed his discomfort at lying to Castiel, reminding the others that Castiel was their friend and had often gone to the mat for them, and refused to believe – as Bobby and Sam did – that he might have been in with Crowley, arguing he could have made a mistake and been deceived by the demon. As Sam and Bobby commiserated with Dean but continued to argue that, if Castiel was working with Crowley, they were effectively dealing with Superman gone darkside and needed to lay in a supply of kryptonite, Castiel watched them, hidden from their sight. Bobby said they had to deal with one problem at a time and the highest priority was finding Crowley before he could crack open Purgatory. Watching, Castiel observed they already suspected him and the worst part was Dean trying so hard to be loyal to the angel with every instinct telling him otherwise.

Redd cracked under interrogation while Castiel watched, revealing he'd never met Crowley but worked through a dispatcher middle-man demon named Ellsworth. Castiel sourly observed Ellsworth was the demon counterpart to Bobby Singer, fielding calls from and coordinating activities across a network of demons as Bobby did with hunters. Knowing the demons would lead the Winchesters to Crowley and Crowley would kill them, Castiel staged a preemptive strike, smiting two demons delivering another monster to Ellsworth and killing the dispatcher as well. He admitted he didn't know whether he'd done it to protect the boys or to protect himself.

Dean, Bobby, and Sam, bursting in on Ellsworth's location, found the house empty and suspiciously well cleaned up. Castiel, again watching them while remaining unseen, mused that he was hiding, lying, and sweeping away evidence, when his his motives used to be so pure. He recalled finally returning to Heaven after supposedly saving Sam to be met by Rachel and a number of other angels who, having seen Castiel destroyed by Lucifer but now brought back alive, believed God had chosen him to lead them. Castiel protested they were all free to make their own choices, saying God wanted them to have freedom. Confused and rudderless, Rachel asked what God wanted them to do with it, and Castiel, looking back on that moment, speculated that if he'd known then what he knew now, he'd have told them freedom was a length of rope and God wanted them to hang themselves with it. He recalled those first weeks back in Heaven were surprisingly difficult, and explaining freedom to angels was like teaching poetry to fish. When he responded to a summons from Raphael, the archangel told him he'd called an assembly and expected Castiel to kneel and pledge allegiance to him. Raphael said Castiel had rebelled against God, Heaven, and him, and now would atone. He said they would start by getting Lucifer and Michael out of their cage and putting the apocalypse back on track. When Castiel refused, saying the apocalypse didn't have to be fought, Raphael maintained it did because it was God's will, and when Castiel challenged him to explain how he could say that, Raphael said it was because it's what he himself wanted. Castiel objected that the other angels wouldn't allow it, but Raphael noted angels weren't built for freedom, but were designed as soldiers built to follow orders. Castiel maintained he wouldn't let Raphael do that, but Raphael, with a negligent gesture, blasted him, badly injured, back into his preferred corner of Heaven and proceeded to warn him that he would either kneel to Raphael the next day, or die with anyone who followed him.

Back in the present day of Castiel's story, the angel watched as Bobby and the Winchesters discovered Ellsworth's lair had been disturbingly well cleaned out. As they wondered what to do next, Dean observed this was the point where they would usually call Castiel for help. He made clear that he hadn't bought in to the others' suspicions of the angel, reminding them of how often and thoroughly Castiel had risked everything to help them and arguing they owed him the benefit of the doubt. Conceding, Sam prayed for Castiel to come, with Dean joining in when nothing immediately happened, but Castiel observed that he hadn't gone to them because he knew they would ask questions he couldn't answer because he was afraid. As the hunters headed out, however, figuring they'd try to find more hunter-demons, they were attacked by three of Crowley's best, and Castiel had to make a split-second decision. He chose to appear and smite the demons to save his friends. To cover his reason for being there, he said he had news; he firmly believed Crowley was alive. Thanking him for the rescue, Dean shamed the others with their suspicions, and both Bobby and Sam apologized to the angel for having doubted him, admitting they'd been thinking him working with Crowley. Marveling that they trusted him again so easily, Castiel tried to make a joke of it by asking if it wasn't absurd of them to think he was Superman gone to the dark side and agreeing with Dean that they could put away the kryptonite, inadvertently betraying how he'd listened in on their conversation before. Looking back, he knew it was all over right then, but at the time, Castiel failed to read the bitter hurt and renewed suspicion in Dean's eyes.

Angered by his attack on the Winchesters, Castiel stormed in on Crowley, who told him he couldn't have friends any more. The demon taunted that Castiel was using the Winchesters' belief in him to cling to the big lie that he was still good and righteous, saying that a whore was a whore. Furious, Castiel slammed him into a wall, warning that if he harmed a hair on their heads, the angel would tear it all down – their arrangement, everything. He warned he was still an angel and would bury Crowley, and then disappeared.

In retrospect, Castiel said he would have asked himself what he was doing with such vermin, but he already knew the answer. Raphael was stronger than he was, and in a straight fight, he knew he would die. He said he went to an old friend for help, but as he watched Dean raking leaves in Lisa's yard, he thought about everything the man had already sacrificed and that he was going to ask him for more, and hesitated. That crossroads moment was when Crowley first appeared to him, saying he wanted to help and discuss a simple business transaction. When the angel scoffed that he didn't have a soul and couldn't make a deal, Crowley answered that it all came down to souls, saying he was talking about Raphael's head on a pike and happy endings for them all. Castiel said he had no interest in listening to the demon, but Crowley continued to wheedle, asking him to come away and listen for just five minutes, no obligations. Looking at Dean still obliviously doing yard work, Castiel recalled that of course he was no fool and knew what Crowley was, but figured he was smarter and wiser – and he turned away from Dean and went with the demon, while acknowledging later that he'd been prideful and in all likelihood was a fool.

Crowley took them to his re-imagined version of Hell, where in place of constant pain-dealing torment, souls now found themselves waiting in an interminable line, discovering when they reached the front that they were simply returned to the back to wait all over again. Crowley asked what Castiel was going to do about Raphael, and the angel asked rhetorically what he could do other than submit or die. Crowley asked why he didn't resist, and when Castiel responded that the demon knew he wasn't strong enough, Crowley agreed he wasn't on his own, but pointed out there were a lot of other angels ready to follow him because they saw him as chosen by God. Noting that angels needed leaders, Crowley told him to be one, assemble his army, and attack any angel supporting Raphael. Castiel objected that Crowley was asking him to be the next Lucifer, starting a civil war in Heaven, but Crowley dismissed Lucifer as a petulant child with Daddy issues while pointing out Castiel had been brought back by God and asking if His purpose might have been having Castiel lead in Heaven. Tempted, Castiel nonetheless dismissed the idea as ridiculous because of the amount of power it would take to mount a war, but Crowley explained his idea: going nuclear by finding a way to tap the power of all the monster souls in Purgatory. Castiel asked how Crowley would find it when no one ever had, and the demon conceded they would need expert help, slyly referring to the Winchesters as being available and out of work. Castiel instantly refused to involve Dean, saying he was retired, and Crowley said dismissively he knew a bald patriarch he could bring back off the bench, referring to Samuel. Crowley argued the hunters could get them to the monsters and the monsters could get them to Purgatory. When Castiel asked the price, Crowley said half the souls, noting his own position in Hell wasn't that stable and more souls would help him the same way they would help the angel. Wavering, Castiel concluded it was pointless because Crowley's plan would take months and he needed power now if he was to survive, and Crowley sprang the closer: he offered to float a loan to Castiel of fifty thousand souls out of Hell that he could take to Heaven and use. He told Castiel his only choices were going along with the plan, or seeing Raphael restart the apocalypse to destroy everything Castiel, Sam, and Dean had worked for. He said Castiel could save them, that God had chosen Castiel to save them, and deep down, he knew it.

Wishing he could say he was clean of pride at that moment and the next, Castiel recalled returning to Heaven, confronting Raphael, and blasting him away with the power of his purloined souls, announcing to the host that there would be no Apocalypse and that angels were either with Raphael or with him.

Back on Earth, Dean, Sam, and Bobby laid a trap in Ellsworth's house, and Dean prayed to Castiel to join them. When the angel appeared, Sam said they'd found a new strategy to get to Crowley, and Bobby lit the ring of holy oil they'd laid out on the floor, trapping him in a circle of holy fire. Dean said they needed to talk about Superman and kryptonite, and Bobby asked how Castiel had known what he'd said, while Sam asked how long he'd been watching them. The questions kept coming – how the demon lair they were in was so perfectly cleaned up, how Crowley had tricked him with the wrong bones. Dean ordered him to look him in the eye and tell him he wasn't working with Crowley, and when the angel had to turn his eyes away, the truth was apparent. When Dean asked if he'd been working with Crowley to get to Purgatory the whole time, Castiel objected he'd done it to protect them. Sam asked how opening a door into monster-land would help them, and Bobby noted just one drop had gotten through and it was Eve, asking what would happen if Castiel broke open the entire dam. Castiel argued passionately that he needed the souls to stop Raphael, saying they had to trust him, but Sam asked how they could possibly trust him now. Castiel maintained he was still himself, still their friend, and then told Sam he was the one who raised him from perdition. Sam observed he'd done a piss-poor job of it, and then, horror-struck, asked if Castiel had brought him back soulless on purpose. Taken aback, Castiel asked how he could think that, and Sam responded he was thinking a lot of things.

Castiel argued Raphael would kill them all and turn the world into a graveyard; he said he had no choice. Dean disagreed, saying he had a choice and made the wrong one. Castiel said he didn't understand, that it was complicated, but Dean countered that it wasn't and Castiel knew that, saying he wouldn't have kept it all a secret if he hadn't known it was wrong. He snapped that when crap like that came around, they dealt with it the way they always did, but what they didn't do was make another deal with the devil. Abashed, Castiel said it sounded so simple when Dean put it that way; then he asked where Dean had been when he'd needed to hear it. Rock steady, Dean said he'd been there, and Castiel remembered Dean working in the yard, unaware as Castiel turned away and followed Crowley. Dean said he should have come to them for help. Castiel halfway agreed, but said it was too late, that he couldn't turn back now. They all heard a storm of demon smoke suddenly converging on the house. Dean argued it wasn't too late, that they could still fix things, but Castiel maintained it wasn't broken, and as the demons closed in, he shouted that they had to run. Reluctantly, they fled, leaving Castiel in the fire circle.

Crowley arrived at the house and extinguished the fire, releasing Castiel. When Castiel repeated his warning about not hurting the Winchesters, Crowley assured he'd heard him the first time and wouldn't harm them. He added he thought they'd proved his point, rhetorically asking why it was always your friends who held you back when you tried to change and improve yourself. Crowley said he saw in them the new God and the new Devil working together, but Castiel ordered him to stop talking and get out of his sight. Departing, Crowley noted the difference between them was that he knew what he was. He asked Castiel what he was, and what exactly he was willing to do.

Dean, asleep on the sofa at Bobby's behind windows marked with sigils intended to keep angels out, woke to find Castiel in the room with him. Castiel said Bobby had gotten some of the angel-proofing wrong, and Dean bemoaned the need for them to have it in the first place. Dean asked why he had come and Castiel said he wanted Dean to understand. Dean cut him off, saying he got it: blah, blah, Raphael. Castiel argued he was doing it for Dean, because of Dean; that Dean was the one who taught him about freedom and free will. Dean cut him off, calling him a child and saying that just because you can do what you want doesn't mean you get to do whatever you want. Castiel said he knew what he was doing, and Dean responded he wasn't going to logic him. Instead, he said he was asking Castiel not to do it just because he was asking. He told Castiel that next to Sam, he and Bobby were the closest things to family Dean had; he said Castiel was like a brother to him, so if he was asking him not to do something, Castiel had to trust him. Castiel asked what would happen if he didn't, and Dean said he would have to do what he had to do to stop him. Castiel said he couldn't, pointing out Dean was just a man while he was an angel, but Dean resolutely said he'd taken some pretty big fish. Castiel said he was sorry, and disappeared even as Dean said he was sorry too.

In the winter garden, Castiel said he guessed it was a tragedy from the human perspective, but wondered if the human perspective might be limited. He asked God, his Father, if he was doing the right thing, if he was on the right path. He pleaded with God to tell him, to give him a sign, because if He didn't, he would do – whatever he must. He sat in silence, looking up, and when nothing happened, hung his head.

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.

Explaining Freedom To Angels Is A Bit Like Teaching Poetry To Fish

When he returned to Heaven, Castiel was frustrated to find angels not understanding the concept of freedom and looking to him for leadership. While I can commiserate with his discomfort at being placed on a pedestal by Rachel and her companions, I think Castiel missed the major point of understanding that freedom brings responsibility with it, and there's a world of difference between being a leader and being a boss. I think he should have been a leader and failed to follow through, and I think the outcome would have been very different if he'd tried.

I've noted before my belief that angels have always had free will. If they didn't, Lucifer couldn't have rebelled, Gabriel couldn't have fled into the disguise of a Trickster, Anna couldn't have fallen, Uriel couldn't have murdered those in the garrison who didn't share his beliefs, and Zachariah couldn't have decided to help the apocalypse come along sooner when he started to become impatient for paradise. And Castiel couldn't have chosen to upend prophecy to save two brothers and give them the chance to save the world.

That said, it's also true angels were clearly designed and built for obedience. They were given one dramatic example of what happened to a rebel when Lucifer was cast down and caged in Hell, and the fear of similar punishment for disobedience ran deep, at least judging by the way Anna chose to run away and fall, becoming human rather than risk being destroyed for disobeying God, as she described back in Heaven And Hell. On the flip side, Castiel clearly derived great satisfaction from doing what he perceived as his duty, at least until he began to question whether his orders were indeed coming from God or were perversions engineered by Zachariah and the other corrupt middle managers in Heaven. When we first met Castiel in Lazarus Rising and Are You There, God? It's Me, Dean Winchester, he was full of serene confidence, secure in his sense of mission, and comfortable in his angelic role. Only later, in such episodes as It's The Great Pumpkin, Sam Winchester, On The Head Of A Pin, and Lucifer Rising, for example, when he was challenged to contrast God's words and attitudes with his superiors' orders, did he falter and feel doubt. Until then, he was content in his duty and found it rewarding to perform; he reveled in the beauty of creation even when he didn't understand its details. I would say Castiel had been purpose-built and was content in his purpose until he began to have unprecedented reason to question where his orders were actually coming from, and I would guess he was typical of most angels in that regard.

All that started to change when he was assigned by his superiors to pull Dean Winchester out of Hell and shepherd him along the path of prophecy. Close contact with humans began to make Castiel question what he thought he'd known. Frequent contact with Dean in particular – non-believing, brave, suspicious, committed, irreverent, faithful, frightened, stubbornly determined Dean – poked holes in Castiel's certainty and understanding. Even before Anna voiced the questions Castiel had begun to ask, Dean had started to make him ask them within himself. Dean made him begin to doubt the orders he'd been given by Zachariah and his other superiors. And in the end, it was Dean who directly challenged him to take a stand, to decide for himself whether his immediate orders were right or wrong, and Dean who repeatedly inspired him to act by his own refusal to surrender even when logic dictated he had no chance to win.

In all of that, however, Castiel was dramatically different from Lucifer because he never once rebelled against God. He lost faith in Dark Side Of The Moon, when he learned from the brothers' account of their conversation with Joshua that God didn't intend to intervene any more than He already had, but I would argue he still held true to God's intent. He followed the last commands he understood – the loving ones to protect creation and respect humanity – and opposed his superiors' desires to bring about the apocalypse on their own schedule. He died twice for the stand he took, slain once by Raphael and once by Lucifer.

And both times, he was brought back.

We don't know for certain who brought him back, but I think Rachel and her companions were amply justified in thinking it was God. My money would be on God or Death, because I don't think anyone else would have had the power to do it, even if they had a motive. And of those two, I favor God, and the idea that God intended other angels to learn from Castiel's example.

And this is where I think Castiel fell short because he didn't realize or accept responsibility for all the ramifications of his actions. He accepted the immediate consequences – he expected to die when he confronted Raphael and later firebombed Michael – but I don't think he appreciated the ripple effect those actions would have, and he tried to deny them when others pointed them out. He ducked the responsibility of being a leader, without acknowledging he had become a leader by making decisions. And that's where he departed from the Winchesters, because Sam and Dean both understood and accepted during seasons four and five that they had become leaders and the choices they made – both good and bad, both right and wrong – would affect others.

I'm certain Castiel never saw himself as special or chosen, and thus found the adulation of Rachel and her compatriots uncomfortable in the extreme. He knew intimately how flawed he had been, and how much doubt and loss of faith had factored into his decisions. To think himself chosen of God would have been arrogant – but to deny that he had been thrust into a position that forced him to learn things most angels could never have experienced, and to fail to acknowledge that other angels needed his perspective and the benefit of what he had learned in order to come to their own understanding, was short-sighted.

Castiel never could have understood the joined concepts of free will and individual responsibility without the example of the Winchester brothers and the choices – either to obey Zachariah and Michael or decide differently for himself – they had forced him to make. He couldn't reasonably expect other angels to grasp those concepts as abstracts, any more than he had done, but when Rachel met him in Heaven, what he offered her were abstracts. Castiel himself had learned in a hard school of experience, but what he hadn't learned, I think, was how to be a teacher, to share the benefit of those lessons with others. He was so intent on spreading the ideal of freedom that he didn't give thought to the details, nor to how hard it had been for him – and would be for other angels – to come to terms with making choices for themselves, with deciding for themselves whether what they were doing was right or wrong, rather than slavishly following orders. It is so much easier simply to follow orders, to put the responsibility for making choices on someone else's shoulders, than to accept knowing you're the one to blame if things go wrong. I think Castiel thought he'd done enough and was overwhelmed enough with the results of his own choices that he didn't want the responsibility of others looking to him to make more of them. The truth is, however, once you start making choices, you attract attention and become a leader, and if the choices you make look like good ones, people will follow you – and whether you want to be or not, you become responsible for them. He didn't want the responsibility, but he had it anyway, and denying that didn't diminish it.

In rejecting the mantle of leadership Rachel tried to put on him, Castiel protested that each of the angels had to choose his or her own way, that they didn't need leaders any more, but that wasn't right. They still needed leaders, even as Castiel needed Dean, Sam, and Anna to help him think about his role, understand his own importance, and accept his responsibility for action. They made him think about what he believed was right – which he still saw in terms of what a loving God had decreed or intended; acknowledge to himself that what Zachariah and Michael espoused did not fit that vision; and choose to follow his convictions to save the world rather than his orders to destroy it. In essence, he chose to follow the mission he believed God had intended, rather than the orders his immediate superiors had given.

A leader is not a boss, and a goal or mission is not a straitjacket. And failing to understand and act on that is where Castiel let his angelic brothers and sisters down.

I also think his denial of continuing responsibility and his failure to impart his vision and understanding were partially what inspired Balthazar's nihilism. The message Balthazar took from Castiel's rebellion against orders and God’s continuing absence was that anything went: No rules, no destiny – just utter and complete freedom. Dad's not coming back ... You proved to me we could do anything, so I'm trying – everything. What difference does it make? Balthazar lost any view of purpose or intent beyond self-gratification, in the utter depression of thinking his entire life as an angel had proven meaningless. Balthazar demonstrated even more clearly than Rachel that angels, like humans, need a reason to exist; they need to understand where they belong, how they fit in, and that they themselves matter somehow, or they can become both selfish and self-destructive. The other angels didn't have what Castiel had: the realization, through his renewed existence, that who he was and what he had done actually had meaning and relevance. Humans developed religion and philosophy for the very same reasons: to explain why they exist, and to affirm that their – our – existence matters. Angels who had always defined themselves strictly in terms of their obedience to God and Heaven needed to develop a new definition, as Castiel had done for himself, but they needed help to understand and achieve that, even as Castiel had.

Failing to understand that and to provide the leadership and education the angels so sorely needed may have been Castiel's biggest failing, even beyond his betrayal of the Winchesters' faith or his pridefulness in succumbing to Crowley's flattering temptation.

Because I Want It To Be

There was something uniquely appropriate in Raphael borrowing Ken Lay's Heaven. As the chief executive of Enron, Lay was the architect of perhaps the biggest corporate fraud in America – and Raphael is continuing the fraud on both Heaven and Earth perpetrated earlier by Zachariah, who pretended the then-current apocalypse was the will of God. The ultimate irony, perhaps, is that Castiel went on to perpetrate his own fraud, lying to his follower angels as well as to the Winchesters while he secretly cut a deal with Crowley and nearly sold humanity to Purgatory in his attempt to secure enough power to confront Raphael on his own corrupt terms.

When Raphael claimed he had to reinstate the apocalypse because it was God's will, Castiel, appalled at the prospect of such utter destruction and devastation, asked him how he could say that, and Raphael responded simply, Because I want it to be. With that single, chilling line, Raphael revealed himself – and Zachariah before him – to be the ultimate hypocrites, professing divine will as the excuse for gratifying their own personal desires for power and paradise when they believed God was no longer watching them. They had lied deliberately to the angelic host to keep the other rank-and-file angels – like Castiel, once upon a time – in line; just remember Zachariah in Lucifer Rising, when admitting he'd always intended to break the seals, saying, Grunts on the ground, we couldn't just tell 'em the whole truth. We'd have a full-scale rebellion on our hands.

And I would submit that is the power Castiel overlooked and ignored, the real power he could have used to oppose Raphael and his faction. Dean laid Zachariah's hypocrisy bare for Castiel, giving him grounds to choose against Zachariah while still preserving his belief in and dedication to God and to doing the right thing in God's eyes. I believe Castiel should have done the same for his brother and sister angels. There is great power in social justice: just look at the American civil rights movement, when peaceful protest and civil disobedience – even when met with force and violence – ultimately prevailed in changing opinions and forcing legal, moral, and ethical change throughout a society. There is great power in truth and understanding, and great strength in numbers fueled by moral imperatives. Zachariah, Raphael, and their faction had kept the majority of angels in the dark about their intent because they feared what would have happened had the bulk of the heavenly host, who believed they were serving God, learned they were being deceived and used by rogues instead. Castiel was armed with the truth – but we never saw him share it, explain to the other angels why he had rebelled, and that he hadn’t rebelled against God, but against corrupt bureaucrats misusing their power in Heaven’s government.

You can fight city hall, but you can’t do it alone. When you’re up against serious, organized power, you build a coalition of your own; you get help. But you don’t accept it from an equally corrupt contractor seeking to line his own pockets and to get you, as a future leader, in his debt and under his thumb. No: you broadcast the truth and publish your proof, and you recruit the support of others like you. Individually, you might not have the power or the resources or the strength, but together, you can make a righteous army. And you can win.

Doing that, though, would have required Castiel to be a leader, to share his knowledge and his vision and his determination, and from what we saw, that wasn’t what he did. He let his fear of Raphael’s strength and of the utter destruction promised by the apocalypse overpower calm, strategic thinking, and then Crowley played on his pride, his hidden vanity, and his fear as if they were strings on his harp.

I don't think it's entirely too late for Castiel to redeem himself, find the right power, and shut down both Crowley and Raphael – but to do it, he needs to recognize that God already gave him the sign he was begging for at the end of the episode, a sign he just didn't want to see or hear because it meant he had done so much wrong. The sign was Dean telling him to stop. The sign was the still, small voice of Castiel's own conscience telling him he was wrong. The sign was the very shame inside him that made him lie and hide the truth.

Production Notes

I think in The Man Who Would Be King, Ben Edlund wrote a nearly perfect episode of Supernatural, and in only his second stint as a director – his first having been the episode Smile Time on Angel back in 2004 – I think he did himself proud. I particularly enjoyed the way he employed camera or actor moves to reveal Castiel as having been watching what went on in a scene, unseen, until another character (usually Dean) moved to uncover the angel having been hidden behind him. It's hard to make clear that a character we can see is invisible to the other characters in the scene, but Edlund pulled it off here. (And I can only imagine the hilarity on set as Jensen, Jared, and Jim pretended to be unaware of Misha during the shooting … here's hoping we get outtakes on the season six DVDs!) The actors commented at the Paley Festival about the fun of having as their director the same man who wrote the episode, who could give them specific direction on what their characters were thinking or feeling, and the passion among all involved really showed on screen.

This was a talky episode with a lot of exposition to deliver, but the beauty of it was, you didn't notice it. Having Castiel speak directly to the audience, with the audience occupying the position of God, worked wonderfully to suck us in as we perceived the things we'd seen and thought we'd known from an entirely different perspective that dramatically changed our understanding. And seeing the Winchesters, Bobby, Crowley, and his own decisions through Castiel's rueful, sad, and now wiser eyes made all of them different.

I think my only real quibble with the script was its total disregard for the Enochian sigils Castiel had burned into the brothers' ribs back during Sympathy For The Devil to hide them from angels. That was a crucial plot point throughout season five – one that even required the brothers to use cell phones to let Castiel know where they physically were, for example, in Good God, Y'All, The End, and My Bloody Valentine – but it totally vanished during season six. I've grumbled about it gently throughout this season so far, hand-waving Castiel's ability to show up whenever required as indicating that direct prayer could trump the concealing power of the sigils, but Castiel showing up in the Impala in the beginning and spying on the brothers unseen pretty much throughout sidestepped that entirely. Perhaps Castiel, being so much more sensitive to human things than other angels, homed in on the Impala in the beginning, knowing Dean would be close, and targeted Bobby as a beacon when he was in the brothers' company, but it's pretty clear the writers are now simply blocking out awareness of the currently inconvenient angel-proofing on the brothers' bodies. Did Castiel wipe out the sigils when he healed Dean and brought Sam back from Hell? Would be nice to know.

Given that's my only quibble, though, it's a very minor one! And it's trumped by everything I loved about the story, starting with learning a lot of the truth that's been hidden from us this season, and continuing through Edlund's deft touch in using absurdity to lighten up otherwise potentially unbearable darkness. Castiel's more-than-half-bitter irreverence in recounting the past served not only to add a little levity to the narrative, but to convey just how deeply disaffected the angel had become. In the same moment, Edlund made us both laugh at human pretensions – interpreting the fall of the 37-foot Tower of Babel as a sign of divine wrath – and realize how very hurt and disgruntled Castiel himself was; that was superb. And who else could capture in two sentences the concept of God employing evolution to accomplish His creation (I remember being at a shoreline watching a little gray fish heave itself up on a beach, and an older brother saying, “Don't step on that fish, Castiel. Big plans for that fish.”), and who else would have created a demon twin to Bobby named Ellsworth, in honor of Jim Beaver's role on Deadwood, manning a bank of phones that included bubbling goblets of blood as hotlines to hunter demons? This episode had way too many quotable and memorable lines to count, and truly defined why I love Ben Edlund.

Donald L. Koch, who (as Don Koch) has served as an assistant editor on various episodes of the show since the beginning of season four, earned his first primary editor credit on Supernatural with this episode. Talk about starting with a bang! This was emphatically not an easy or straightforward episode to assemble, but I thought he did a great job. I really enjoyed the intercutting of the scenes from D.W. Griffith's 1916 film Intolerance (thanks to Jim Beaver – on Twitter as @jumblejim – for having identified the source material!) to illustrate part of Castiel's narration of history. And whoever picked the music for this episode was inspired! Running Billy Paul's “Me and Mrs. Jones” under the scene of Castiel and Crowley in the torture/autopsy chamber had me in almost hiccuping hysterics (We've got a thing going on / We both know that it's wrong / But it's much too strong / To let it go now …), and playing Strauss's “The Blue Danube” as elevator background music in Hell was too deliciously torturous for words!

Misha Collins and Mark Sheppard owned this episode. All the way through, Misha delivered on Castiel's inner conflict and confusion, his wonder and dismay at how all his well-intentioned actions could have gone so wrong. Sheppard's Crowley not only chewed the scenery and spat it out – his delivery of those denim-wrapped nightmares just sticks in my mind! – but his deliberate, meticulously plotted seduction of Castiel was brilliantly executed.

While the focus of the episode was on Castiel, Jensen Ackles and Jared Padalecki shone as the Winchesters. Jensen laid bare all of 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 love watching these two actors create the brother bond between Sam and Dean! I also love watching Jim Beaver as Bobby balancing the burdens of knowledge, wisdom, and compassionate affection.

I'm very curious to know more about the nature of souls. Crowley “loaned” Castiel fifty thousand souls to supercharge him against Raphael; did Castiel's use of them burn them out, or are there fifty thousand new – and spiritually undeserved – niches in Heaven? And were the fifty thousand souls reportedly created during My Heart Will Go On intended to repay Crowley, perhaps to try getting Castiel out of his deal, or was that seeming correspondence in numbers a coincidence? Why did Sam emerge soulless out of Hell when Castiel tried to rescue him – did Death or God perhaps intentionally block his soul's escape, in order to highlight and underline the vital importance of souls? How and why are archangels more intrinsically powerful than other angels – or are they? Will we ever know?

My two biggest take-aways from this episode were the need we all have to ask for and accept help from others, and the absolute importance of telling the truth to the people we care about. No matter who you are, as the U2 song put it, sometimes you can't make it on your own, and there's no shame in admitting that and asking for help. This season would have been totally different if Castiel had just revealed himself to Dean when he first realized how lost he was, admitted his mistakes, and asked for help, and if he'd told the complete and unvarnished truth of all he'd learned about their corrupt government to all his brother and sister angels in Heaven.

And it also goes to show that might have been are the three saddest words in the English language.

The icon on this post is by e0wyn . Thank you!



Tags: angel, ben edlund, bobby singer, castiel, dean winchester, episode commentaries, jared padalecki, jensen ackles, jim beaver, meta, misha collins, myth, philosophy, psychology, sam winchester, supernatural, supernatural university, theology

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