8.17 Goodbye Stranger: I Can't Take Any More Lies – From Anyone
Lucifer's lost crypts
Conceal the angel tablet:
Win and lose at once.
Commentary And Meta Analysis
This episode was a game-changer in many ways, and I enjoyed them all. It also harked back to much of the show's history while shining a different light on it, and I appreciated that as well.
In this commentary, I'm going to speculate a lot about Crowley's history, contemplate what's happened to Sam, and delve into the bond between Castiel and Dean.
Haven't Seen You In A Dark Age
Crowley has always seemed to be more than he appeared, and this episode – particularly in his final scene with Naomi and its mention of them meeting before in Mesopotamia – suggested strongly that he may have a much longer history with Heaven, Hell, and Earth than we previously knew.
I'm sure many fans immediately accused the writers of retconning Crowley's identity, pointing to Bobby's painstaking search for Crowley's true identity in Weekend At Bobby's. After all, why would Crowley have released Bobby's soul over a threat to the bones of Fergus Roderick MacLeod if those bones weren't actually Crowley's? Castiel burned a set of bones he claimed were MacLeod's in Caged Heat and apparently destroyed Crowley in the process, but we learned later in Mommy Dearest and The Man Who Would Be King that Castiel had been working with Crowley all along, so he had either lied about the provenance of the bones or he knew that while the bones were MacLeod's, Crowley wasn't MacLeod and wouldn't be harmed.
I think either could be the case, and I believe Crowley has been playing a deep game under deep cover for a very long time. Think about it. From the first time we met Crowley as lord of the crossroads demons in Abandon All Hope, he was plotting Lucifer's downfall and his own ascendancy to Hell's throne. Knowing that, I think it would have been perfectly in character for Crowley to have deliberately planted false information about his earthly origins as insurance against precisely the kind of pressure Bobby sought to apply. We've seen Hell as a backstabbing place with demons constantly jockeying for position and power, competing against each other. Look at Meg, having gone from loyally serving Azazel's plans in Scarecrow, Shadow, Salvation, and Devil's Trap to pursuing her own personal revenge on Dean in Born Under A Bad Sign, and then professing loyalty directly to Lucifer from Sympathy For The Devil on. She was forced to run for her life once Lucifer was re-imprisoned and Crowley assumed power, killing Lucifer's loyal adherents to secure his own position. Look at Casey in Sin City, describing the chaos following Azazel's death as competing factions struggled for supremacy. Look at Ruby in Lucifer Rising, bragging about how she succeeded in her undercover mission despite being hunted by other demons from Hell.
Any demons who learned that burning a demon's bones would kill the demon might have tried that route as a way to kill another demon they weren't strong enough to take head-on. If I were Crowley, I'd have taken a new name as soon as I realized that and got the idea of climbing the power ladder, and let slip false information about who I used to be to hide who I really was. Assuming false names seems common for demons; we still don't know Meg's real name from when she lived as a human, because she's always gone by the name of the first woman we saw her possessing, the spirit we met in Are You There, God? It's Me, Dean Winchester. Casey used her host's name, not her own. Crowley may simply be using the name of the “moderately successful New York literary agent” he told Bobby he was possessing back in The Devil You Know. Or maybe he enjoys borrowing the name of the notorious Aleister Crowley.
In any case, if I, as lord of the crossroads deals, owned the soul I claimed to be and held its power in Hell, who could prove otherwise? Demons lie, and we know they can lie to each other; we saw both Ruby and Meg do it, deceiving and killing other demons. The ghost of Gavin MacLeod wouldn't have recognized the physical body Crowley was wearing in any case because it's the body of a possessed contemporary human; I think Gavin's ghost simply reacted to the attitude Crowley projected and accepted Crowley as Fergus because he behaved like Fergus. And as for why Crowley kept up the fiction that he was once Fergus and released Bobby's soul to spare his bones, well – if he'd admitted the subterfuge and let the bones be torched with no harm to him, his false identity would have been openly exposed and someone seeking to depose him might have gone looking for the truth. As far as anyone knows now – well, anyone except Naomi, apparently – Castiel was the one who lied about the provenance of the bones he burned, and Crowley could still have Fergus's bones safely hidden. Castiel isn't talking to reveal the truth.
I do think Crowley is a demon, but rather than being simply human in origin, I wonder if – and here's an odd thought – he might be a monster who made a crossroads deal ages ago and thus wound up in Hell rather than Purgatory. That could explain why he was so focused on Purgatory from early on, and so convinced the Alphas knew how to get there. He's always been odd: a purported crossroads demon who nonetheless doesn't have the signature red eyes, and who appears as red smoke rather than black when he exits a host. I emphatically don't believe he's a fallen angel like Lucifer, because were he an angel, he'd be bound by the rules of getting permission from his vessel, and Mama Tran would definitely NOT have agreed to let him possess her. His possession of hosts has also been characterized by demon smoke, not by the angelic glow we've seen when angels, including Lucifer, took up residence in a body.
If I'm right, I wonder if Crowley's ascent to power began when Azazel's mission to free Lucifer from the cage started with him freeing Lilith from her own prison deep in the pit in order to be able to work at breaking the Seals – something Azazel referred to when he finally managed to speak with the imprisoned Lucifer in the 1973 flashback in Lucifer Rising. We learned from Bela in Time Is On My Side that Lilith claimed to hold all the souls taken in crossroads deals. I suspect Lilith couldn't have held that power when she herself was trapped, so I'm guessing that once she was freed by Azazel, she displaced the then-king of the crossroads – who may have been the only one in Hell to know who Crowley really had been – to build her own power base using the power of bargained souls. Crowley could have set up his Fergus stalking horse and started his own power run after Sam killed Lilith. Being ruthless, quick, clever, and decisive, Crowley could have taken over all the power and spoils Lilith had accrued during her tenure – including the Colt. If he hadn't been the king of the crossroads before Lilith temporarily assumed the role, he definitely took her place afterwards.
With Lucifer once more in charge, however, I believe Crowley was truly concerned for his survival in season five, not having enough power of his own to withstand Lucifer, and he definitely pegged Lucifer's dismissive attitude toward demons correctly. In the beginning, after all, Lucifer had perverted human souls into demons precisely to prove their inferiority and he despised both humans and their debased demonic selves; he would have destroyed them all if he'd been given the chance. Getting the Winchesters to dispose of Lucifer for him was, I believe, Crowley's whole reason for working with them in season five. His partnership with Castiel in season six was focused on mining the power of the monster souls in Purgatory to prevent Raphael and the old heavenly bureaucracy from exhuming Michael and Lucifer from the cage and resuming the aborted apocalypse, doubtless destroying upstart Crowley along the way. I think he was as surprised as Castiel to discover that opening Purgatory unleashed the Leviathan, and season seven saw him scheming to survive the Leviathan threat by whatever means necessary. Season eight revealed the existence of the demon tablet and the threat it poses to demons and Hell, and since preserving himself and his power is still the be-all and end-all of Crowley's actions, securing the tablet for himself moved to the top of the list. Knowing there's an angel tablet just as powerful made trying to obtain it just as vital – especially since the prophet who could read it, unlike those in days of old when the tablet was sealed inside Lucifer's crypt, no longer has archangels protecting him.
And I wonder what happened in Mesopotamia and when … and just who Naomi really is. Naomi and Crowley had no difficulty recognizing each other despite their current vessels/hosts; I hope we learn their history.
You're Damaged In Ways Even I Can't Heal
I was very glad the brothers finally brought the truth of Sam's condition into the open, while also being chilled at Castiel's pronouncement that Sam was damaged in ways he couldn't heal, going all the way down to the subatomic level and even affecting his electromagnetic field. I very much liked the idea raised by Ardeospina on The Winchester Family Business that perhaps the trials are purifying Sam of all the demon taint introduced into his human form starting when Azazel fed him demon blood when he was only six months old and exacerbated by his voluntary addiction to demon blood in seasons four and five.
I think there's no question that what Azazel, Ruby, and Lucifer all did to him affected Sam in ways that fundamentally changed him physically as well as mentally and spiritually. Castiel said in When The Levee Breaks that consuming the amount of demon blood Sam would have to drink in order to match powers with Lilith would change him forever, and warned Sam in Two Minutes To Midnight that he would have to drink more demon blood than he ever had before to let his body withstand Lucifer's presence. I speculated at the time that perhaps the corrosiveness of Lucifer's concentrated evil meant even someone with the right genetic bloodline to be his vessel wouldn't be able to tolerate his possession physically unless they'd been deliberately engineered for it. I'm guessing Azazel's introduction of demon blood to Sam's system at such an early point in his physical development meant that his body adapted to it and incorporated it into his cellular structure, making it part of his biological norm, and I'm betting the lack of such early preparation had a lot to do with poor Nick, who hadn't been one of Azazel's special pre-treated children, deteriorating so quickly once he became Lucifer's vessel in spite of drinking gallons of blood. While Sam went through both voluntary and enforced weaning periods and even one bout of evidently divine detoxification in Sympathy For The Devil to eliminate his addict's cravings, I think the physical changes the early demon blood had triggered remained, even through whatever Castiel did to bring him out of Hell, as we saw in The Man Who Would Be King.
Many quest stories include not just trials to prove worthiness, but also purification to prepare for the ordeal. I had the same thought as Ardeospina: I think the trials would have affected the brothers very differently because their personal circumstances are very different. I won't hazard a guess about what Dean would have experienced if he'd been the one to achieve the first step, but it seems reasonable to me that the physical changes now affecting Sam could be burning out the biological programming the demon blood had introduced to leave Sam purely baseline human, the way he'd been born. Since by Metatron's words the tablets were meant for the protection of mankind, I think it might have been an interesting safeguard to make the spell itself ensure that only a human could achieve it, one free of any demon taint. And I wonder if the same thing might apply to all the tablets, including the angel one.
We're Family. We Need You. I Need You
Naomi's attempt to reprogram Castiel by desensitizing him to the idea of killing Dean through having him kill copies of Dean a thousand times was hideous and terrifying – but I think it was also doomed to fail precisely because there is a profound bond between Dean and Castiel, and Naomi can't comprehend or understand it. And when I say that bond exists, I am emphatically NOT talking “Destiel” or slash or implying that Castiel is more important to Dean than Sam is. That's just wrong. Dean and Sam are brothers who live for and love each other, and that's always going to be true. But it's also true that the brothers had and have personal relationships with others, and those relationships are important. And those relationships happen because what we experience with and through other people changes us, and no one who wasn't part of that experience – not even a brother – can ever fully encompass that change or what it means to us. That applies to Castiel and Dean, Sam and Jessica, Dean and Lisa (and Ben), Sam and Amelia, Dean and Benny, Sam and Amy, and every other non-brother connection you can name.
After thousands upon thousands of years spent watching as life evolved on Earth, being simply an observer, Castiel's first direct experience of contact with a human soul was Dean, and that contact came in the most profound sense possible: Castiel, in the vanguard of angels harrowing Hell, was the one who grasped Dean's broken soul and carried him out of the pit. Having been the one to touch him, he was assigned by Zachariah to shepherd him to his destiny. What actually happened was something very different. From having been an obedient foot soldier in Heaven, an angel properly remote, contained, and dispassionate save for a reverent appreciation of God's creation, Castiel gradually transformed into a being who knew doubt, fear, uncertainty, and pain, and who saw the depth and perfection of the love, beauty, devotion, and willing sacrifice of which the human heart is capable. Dean was Castiel's flawed but true guide to humanity as Castiel had been Dean's guide out of Hell. Dean finally learned to trust and care for someone who wasn't human, and began to contemplate the supernatural as including individual beings who were not simply tolerable, such as Lenore the reformed vampire, but even likeable as friends. Without Dean and the example of his relationships with Sam, Bobby, Ellen, Jo, and all the people they saved and all the people they lost, Castiel would never have rebelled against Zachariah and Michael to take the human side opposing the apocalypse. Without Castiel's help, Dean, Sam, and their family of allies could not have won the fight and ended the apocalypse. They changed each other.
Not all the changes were good. Castiel made horrendous mistakes and drastically wrong choices. Facing civil war in Heaven and fearing the price of loss, Castiel persuaded himself that the end justified the means, and wound up being corrupted not only by Crowley, but by his own stolen power, Leviathan, and the monster souls of Purgatory. He betrayed Dean, broke Sam, killed Balthasar, ravaged Heaven, and unleashed the horror of Leviathan on Earth. Coming to his senses and attempting to atone, he took on Sam's insanity and eventually wound up in Purgatory, determined to stay there to expiate his guilt. And then Naomi chose for her own reasons to make a tool of him, reprogramming him to suit her purposes, compelling him to do things much against his will, even killing Samandriel – until she tried to compel him to kill, not a copy of Dean, but Dean himself.
Dean with his soul, the same soul Castiel had carried out of Hell, the same soul that had changed Castiel forever.
None of the copies Naomi had made could have duplicated Dean's soul. And when Dean was faced with Castiel obviously lying about the tablet and then threatening him, I think he played every card he had, intentionally using all his experience with Castiel to push the angel's buttons one after another to provoke a response. I don't think he ever simply forgave Castiel's actions. Instead, I believe he called up his own distrust and anger to trigger and push a fight, even though he knew from bitter experience in Point Of No Return that he wasn't a match for an angel in hand-to-hand combat unless he had the benefit of surprise. When I watched that scene, I thought he goaded Castiel into beating him and accepted the beating – remembering what had happened with Sam in Swan Song – in a calculated attempt to break through whatever had warped Castiel's nature. When that didn't stop him, Dean played his trump card: his honest admission that he needed the angel. He had told Sam the truth outside when he said he had only prayed to Castiel because he knew Sam was hurt and they needed help; he gave Castiel that pleading honesty dressed in his own absolute helplessness. When Castiel dropped the sword instead of using it, Dean had a momentary hope that he'd succeeded. When Castiel turned and picked up the tablet instead, flaring at its touch into the brilliance of his full angelic aspect, Dean believed he had failed. I think Dean's flinching away from Castiel's touch at the end was his only uncalculated move in that entire fight, betraying his utter despair at the thought that he'd gambled everything and lost it all, including Sam. Castiel healing him marked the return of hope, but Castiel's disappearance with the angel tablet and his cryptic statement about needing to protect it not only from Heaven, but also from Dean, left Dean with more questions than answers.
I do believe it was the bond between them – expertly and very deliberately played on by Dean – that allowed Castiel to reject Naomi's demand that he obey her and kill Dean. I think Castiel touching the exposed angel tablet after that wiped out Naomi's Trojan programming because the tablet itself is God's Word on angels, the codification of every Truth about what makes angels, angels; think of it as the ultimate restoration program, even though it's written in God's programming code which angels cannot consciously read. But while I'm confident it stripped away every piece of Naomi's attempted artificial manipulation, I don't think it reset Castiel to what he was before meeting Dean, because I think Castiel's learning experiences and their effects on him were natural things, the organic consequence of the passage of time and events. God may have created angels with a certain set of base programming, but from everything we've seen from season four on, that initial creation encompassed allowing angels free will and the ability to learn and change. Had free will not existed within angelic creation, Lucifer could never have rebelled, Anna couldn't have chosen to fall, Zachariah and his coterie could never have decided to initiate the apocalypse on their own timeline, and Castiel could never have chosen to disobey his orders and side with Dean in the first place. All those things were evidently allowed by the parameters encoded in the angel tablet on the nature of angels; I think they would still exist in any angel who came into direct contact with the tablet.
I do think, however, that the tablet could also compel any angel who touched it to protect it. In the past, we were told archangels protected prophets; since prophets could read the tablets, a compulsion to protect them seems a logical corrolary. All the archangels we knew about are now either imprisoned or dead; Kevin has been singularly unprotected by Heaven ever since the Leviathan took out the ordinary angels who initially intended to take him under their wings. I wonder if Castiel may gain additional power precisely because he has become the tablet's guardian angel; I am certain his new status will isolate him more than ever, because since the tablets were never intended for angels, as Castiel observed back in Reading Is Fundamental, Heaven – even if it weren't being manipulated by Naomi – is out of bounds. I suspect Castiel wound up riding a bus because, even if he managed to hide himself from other angels by using sigils, hex bags, or other magic, he could still be traced if he translocated himself as angels customarily do. Think of someone making himself invisible, but leaving footprints in snow or mud; kind of hard to hide if you leave any kind of trail.
Ultimately, I believe the bond between Dean and Castiel will always exist, simply because they've been through so much together. I don't think at all that means Dean has unconditionally forgiven Castiel for all his missteps, particularly including not noticing that he'd pulled Sam out of Hell without his soul, breaking the wall Death had put up in Sam's mind to isolate his memories of Hell, or having – however unwittingly – unleashed Leviathan on Earth. But by the same token, I don't think Dean could ever simply dismiss his debt to Castiel for having rescued him from Hell, helped stop the apocalypse, taken onto himself the burden of Sam's Hell-born insanity, or having not killed him when he was pushed to and over the edge of his post-Purgatory programming. I think Dean and Castiel will always be linked, and I think that's as it should be.
Despite that, I do think they both have changed in ways that have further set them apart from each other. They've had experiences apart that changed them as much as the ones they shared. Most of Dean's time in and after Purgatory was spent without Castiel; most of Castiel's existence did not include Dean, and that particularly includes everything he did during his power-mad phase.
Even people we know and love can be strangers sometimes.
I have so much more to say, but I've already gone way over time; I know you won't see this until after the next episode has already aired. Shame on me for that. I think many of my other topics will just have to wait for meta during hiatus. In any case, this was an episode I loved and will return to many times. I have high praise for every aspect of production involved in this episode, from writer Robbie Thompson to director Thomas J. Wright to actors Jensen Ackles, Jared Padalecki, Misha Collins, Amanda Tapping, Rachel Minor, and Mark Sheppard, and to all the brilliant crew who designed and built the incredible sets and props, found the stellar locations, lit the scenes, handled costume and makeup, executed visual, sound, and special effects, and performed amazing stunts. This episode was outstanding in my book on every single level. Well done, Supernatural cast and crew!
Every beat of the script felt right and true to me, so major kudos go to Robbie Thompson. I loved the chills of the opening scene; the sweet delight of Dean exploring the treasures of the Men of Letters (the Spear of Destiny – as in, the spear that pierced the side of Christ on the cross??), discovering their stash of classic Asian soft core porn, and sharing his happiness with studious Sam; Dean's ominous discovery of Sam's bloody rag; the two of them launching into the case, with all its weird ramifications; the hilarity (loved the PhD candidate in rollers!) blended with terror and manipulation in the brothers encountering Castiel and discovering his overt mission, while we saw the overlay of Castiel's actions with his simultaneous manipulation by Naomi; the discovery of Meg and the expansion of the curious relationship between Meg and Castiel established from Caged Heat through Reading Is Fundamental and beyond; the brilliance of the intercut scenes between Dean, Castiel and Naomi in the crypt (and Heaven) with those among Sam, Meg, and Crowley outside; and last but definitely NOT least, the lovely scene in the Impala between Sam and Dean where Dean demanded honesty and Sam agreed to provide it. Here's hoping that resolve continues! In addition, I couldn't imagine a better song than Supertramp's “Goodbye Stranger” to sum up the episode; that captured so much more than I could convey without music.
Despite being wonderful, the script wouldn't have worked as well without very capable direction and editing, as well as masterful acting. Thomas J. Wright's previous outings on Supernatural were Repo Man and Bitten, but I also particularly remember him from three amazing episodes of Dark Angel back in 2001 and 2002, including my first ever encounter with Jensen as Ben in Pollo Loco, and two defining episodes for Jensen as Alec: Proof Of Purchase and my all-time favorite, The Berrisford Agenda. I love the way this man tells a visual story, and how he gets the best, most nuanced performances from his actors. I've been blown away by Jensen in every episode Wright has directed with him, from both series. Just watch the whole scene between Jensen and Misha as Dean very deliberately goads Castiel into beating him almost to death; while the scene – quite deliberately, I think – recalls both Swan Song and Point Of No Return, the feeling of Dean's intent is totally different than it was in those previous episodes, and that shows. It's a brilliant combination of direction, performance, and editing, particularly in the way the beating is intercut both with Castiel's interactions with Naomi in Heaven and with the conversation between Sam and Meg outside the warehouse. I was rapt in the episode while I watched it the first time, and I was agog with appreciation at how it was executed when I watched it again to catch the technical details of its production. Holy crap! I really appreciated the work of editor Nicole Baer in hitting all those beats.
I also have to call out one particular shot that I really loved: the virtually 3-D perspective on Sam taking the demon-killing dagger from Dean's hand. That was just too cool for words.
I continue to love the design of the Men Of Letters' bunker set. The Frank Lloyd Wright-style architectural details simply delight me. The sense of peace and harmony it seems to instill in Dean and Sam probably has something to do with my pleasure. The basement town model was a work of art, and Lucifer's bunker was full of delicious details I'd love to examine.
All the actors brought their A-game to this episode. I hated to see Meg finally go; she was the longest surviving villain we've met, the only one to reach all the way back to season one. While I initially missed Nikki Aycox when we met Meg anew in season five, I came to enjoy Rachel Miner's snarky take on her. Her scenes with Misha Collins as Castiel were oddly appropriate, considering how inappropriate their characters' relationship was! An intrinsically asexual angel confusingly in a gendered human vessel mixed with an aggressively sexual demon made for comedy gold – and for a gently peculiar, unconsummated affair. I also enjoyed the way Meg brought out the ambivalence of Sam's relationship with Amelia, pointing up its shallow directionlessness in contrast with the genuine core of Sam's deep desire to achieve a normal life far removed from monsters and hunting. I think Sam's experience with Amelia taught him that he could have a normal relationship, complete with messy details – but also that normal relationships don't necessarily endure even when they aren't ripped apart by supernatural forces. I had to laugh at the way Meg's irritation over the brothers not having searched for her during the year she spent being tortured by Crowley mirrored Dean's anger at Sam not having looked for him, albeit without the same level of justification; no matter how much Meg had helped them, she had always done so for her own advantage, not out of any concern or feeling for them. Rachel Miner and Jared nailed the uneasy alliance of Sam and Meg beautifully.
And what can I saw about Mark Sheppard except that he is Crowley, whenever he wants to be? I will regret the day Crowley slips up – assuming he ever does. Amanda Tapping's Naomi reeks of menace, but also of fear; I wonder what we'll see when we manage to glimpse more of Heaven than her sterile office with its walls adorned with programming punch cards and crosses. The lighting change in her office at the end felt like sunset in Heaven, and not a peaceful one; more an ominous sky suffused with blood and bruises and the threat of storms.
The makeup department is entirely too good at delivering Dean beat to Hell and gone. And speaking of Dean – the VFX crew did an amazing job throughout, but especially on the end of the teaser with that image of a warehouse full of a thousand dead Deans, and on the scene of Castiel touching the angel tablet and being flooded with brilliant grace. Wow!
As I noted, I have more to say, but no time at the moment to say it. I'm on tenterhooks for the rest of this season, and for what season nine will bring; I think the show right now is on an amazing creative roll, and however much it scares me, I can't wait to see where it goes. Especially when this is what the episode left with us to think about: