Supernatural University: Demonstration Angel
Even in the Supernatural universe, Castiel is absolutely unique. Oh, every angel is unique, like every person – each one is an individual with its own identity and personality – but from everything we've seen, Castiel stands alone as the only angel ever to die and be restored … not to mention experiencing that more than once. He's done things no other angel ever contemplated, and doesn't behave like any other angel we've ever met. Why is Castiel so unique? What is his purpose? Welcome to a speculative Supernatural University session in myth, theology, philosophy, psychology, and television production!
In my previous meta on angels as a group, I said I think Castiel represents the quintessential angel, the truest vision of what God intended angels to be. In this article, I'll look at Castiel from three very different but inextricably linked perspectives:
In practical television production terms, I'll explore why I think the writers – the show's other gods – designed and introduced him the way they did, why certain things happened to him along the way, and why I believe his initial role expanded largely because of what Misha Collins brought to his portrayal.
In terms of character development, I'll explain how I think he's different psychologically from most other angels we've seen, and postulate that his contact with Dean and Sam caused him to consider concepts he otherwise wouldn't have.
- In story terms, I believe his innate differences, combined with his experience, are why he keeps being brought back from the dead: I propose the show's in-story God may be using him as both an exemplar and a test bed for angel development: God's demonstration angel.
As Seen On TV!
The addition of angels to the Supernatural universe brought both solutions and problems. On the solution side, angels had the power to rescue Dean from Hell, and were the subject of a wealth of lore to be tapped and used in the story. On the problem side, angels had too much power to be either allies or enemies. Where's the peril if your battle buddy can teleport you anywhere, is impervious to harm from human weapons, can destroy most demons with a touch, can resurrect you if you die, and can detonate the equivalent of a tactical nuclear device just by unveiling its normal form? Where's the potential for you as a mere human to win the fight, if your enemy can do all the above?
The solution, as I saw it in part one of this discussion, was to make the angel leaders monsters, but also to make them need the brothers' cooperation, giving them reason not to destroy the Winchesters outright. The second part of that solution was to give the brothers a powerful but imperfect ally whom they could win over to their side to counter the angels' otherwise overwhelming power advantage. I think that drove the initial design of Castiel as an honest, earnest, innocent, genuinely good rank-and-file soldier angel not privy to his superiors' plans, someone who believed absolutely in God and his mission but could gradually be made to see corruption in the system and be converted to the human cause as being more true to God's intent. His power couldn't match that of his superiors, but he provided the essential boost the Winchesters needed to oppose Heaven's bureaucracy in season four.
And that's where I think the skill actor Misha Collins brought to the table prompted the writers to expand and deepen Castiel's role.
Casting on Supernatural appears almost magical. Time and again, the show's casting team picks amazing actors who perfectly inhabit their roles and bring those characters to vibrant, breathing life. In Castiel's introductory scene in Lazarus Rising, Misha conveyed inhuman power, confidence, dedication, and perfect serenity undisturbed by every physical attack on him – and then layered it with the barest hints of surprise, confusion, and curiosity when Dean didn't immediately accept his declaration of being an angel. That transitioned to compassionate understanding when the angel realized Dean's resistance was born of his belief that he didn't deserve to be saved. The subtlety in Misha's changes of expression exposed a thinking process at once both alien and insightful, and it was masterful. That opening performance told the writers they had found in Misha an artist who could bring to Castiel the same level of presence, depth, and versatility Jared and Jensen brought to Sam and Dean. More than anything else, I think that discovery prompted the growth and exploration of Castiel's role, because in Misha's capable hands, the angel provided a new perspective from which to explore, showcase, and celebrate the Winchesters' humanity.
It also didn't hurt that Misha garnered an immediate fan following, but I would submit that was secondary – especially since season four had already been filming for nearly three months before the fans got to see Castiel in action.
Season five brought the next challenge. A fully-powered, resurrected Castiel committed to the cause would have made things too easy for the Winchesters. To limit his power, the writers had Zachariah and the heavenly bureaucracy block his access to Heaven, forcing him to rely only on himself. That seemed a reasonable strategy, since their earlier attempt to indoctrinate and re-educate him in The Rapture, which we now know involved tampering by Naomi, didn't succeed for long. Building on Castiel's own logic, the writers also gave him his own mission – the search for God – to prevent even his reduced power from being too readily available as a solution to the Winchesters' dilemmas.
The triumphal but bittersweet resolution of Kripke's initial 'brothers-in-fated-opposition' story arc at the end of season five – the brothers defeating fate by Sam both redeeming and sacrificing himself, and Dean supporting rather than opposing or killing him – also ended the apocalypse storyline and left both Heaven and Hell leaderless and in disarray. I think that naturally suggested the new theme that has shaped every season from six onward: power struggles in and between Heaven and Hell spilling over into and affecting the human world.
As the most prominent link between Heaven, Earth, and the Winchesters, Castiel became the perfect plot device for the writers to use to build the new story framework. (Similarly, Crowley was the perfect vehicle to extend the Hell half of the storyline because of both the character's relationship to the Winchesters and the skill and popularity of actor Mark Sheppard.) Castiel's mistakes in trying to resolve conflicts and bring about a new and better order connected the Winchesters to Purgatory and then put them in the front lines against Leviathan. Castiel's collaboration with Crowley, helping to establish the former crossroads demon as the new king of Hell, also set the stage for season eight. His quest for redemption, perverted by Naomi, inadvertently enabled Metatron's coup, and laid the course for season nine.
But enough about Castiel in his role as a narrative tool. What is it about Castiel – apart from being the Winchesters' essential ally – that makes him so unique among angels?
I Am An Angel Of The Lord
Welcome to the psychology portion of this discussion. I submit that Castiel is indeed different from every other angel we've ever met, and that his uniqueness is due to a combination of two factors: his own psychological makeup, which many other ordinary angels may share; and his experiences from the moment he touched Dean's soul in Hell, which are peculiar to him alone. Just for the record, whenever I talk about God in this discussion, I'm talking about the God-within-the-show; the creator as depicted in Supernatural.
One of the most obvious differences we've seen between Castiel and every other major angel we've met – including Uriel, Anna, Zachariah, Gabriel, Balthazar, Raphael, Lucifer, Michael, Naomi, and Metatron – is his social ineptitude. He doesn't 'get' most cultural references or idiomatic speech; he still interprets most words literally, without imagination, despite all the time he's spent with Dean. All of the others absorbed human culture and speech with unthinking ease, but Castiel is very nearly as innocent of human thought patterns as he was the day we met him. Despite Metatron chiding him in Sacrifice as not being the most subtle tool in the shed, we know Castiel is highly intelligent and capable of empathy, so why hasn't he learned to blend in?
The most obvious possible reason is simply that the writers enjoy the running gag of Castiel's social obtuseness; after all, it makes for many very funny moments. Naomi offered another possible rationalization in Goodbye Stranger when she told Castiel his memory had been tampered with more often and from an earlier time than he knew. Perhaps being constantly reset to angelic norms interrupted the learning process.
I'm going to offer a different explanation, one I think also gets to the heart of what sets Castiel apart from every single disaffected angel and makes him an exemplar of angelkind.
I believe Castiel is and always was content just with being an angel and defining himself and his mission in terms of what God long ago decreed – protecting creation – and doesn't share the unconscious jealousy and envy of humanity that corrupted many of his compatriots. Whether they realized it or not (and I don't think they did), I think others, in adopting human speech and learning human culture – however much they simultaneously disparaged it – were trying to make themselves over in the image of the beings God had preferred and set above them, aping the mud monkeys to increase their own perceived self-worth in comparison. I believe that never occurred to Castiel either consciously or unconsciously, and think the core of his failure to adapt to human cultural norms and expression is simply that he sees no need and feels no desire to be other than he is. And since human entertainment culture isn't relevant to his mission, it has no independent value to him that would seem to warrant spending time or effort learning it.
By all accounts, angels were created before humans. They had beauty, power, immortality, structure, and mission, and even though, according to Anna in Heaven And Hell, only four angels ever got to see God and be directly in his presence, they all knew themselves to be children of God, purposefully created to be who and what they were.
And then God created humans: small, weak, messy, fallible, mortal beings, liberally endowed with creativity and free will some promptly abused to indulge in selfish, destructive, and evil actions. And God preferred these flawed beings to his perfect angels, commanding the angels to defer to humans and love them as they loved him.
If that's not a situation tailor-made to cause some angels to be jealous of human encroachment on their cherished positions and to envy humans the regard God paid them, I don't know what is. And before you object that angels weren't built to feel such emotions, at least according to what Anna said in Heaven And Hell, I'll point out that Anna was a classic unreliable narrator. At the very same time she claimed angels were built to be perfect stone statues without feelings, she confessed that feelings were what drove her to disobey and flee from Heaven. I'll stipulate that, lacking human-style bodies, angels weren't equipped to feel sensations mediated by human organs, nerves, and hormones – no hunger or sexual lust or orgasm, for example – but by the direct accounts of Lucifer, Gabriel, Anna, Castiel, and Balthazar, among others, they could and did feel other things, including awe, anger, confusion, resentment, doubt, fear, sorrow, and profound non-sexual love.
When we first met Castiel, he was secure in his identity as an angel doing God's work without question. I think his angelic perception of humanity, as expressed in It's The Great Pumpkin, Sam Winchester, was exactly what God intended it to be: “These people, they're all my Father's creations. They're works of art.” Castiel watched humans with simple appreciation for what they were, for what God had made them to be, and he saw them as being beautiful in the way all creation was beautiful. He made no comparison between humans and himself any more than he drew comparisons between fish and rocks or trees and stars. He accepted them as different, but never felt that difference implied he was lacking in any way. He cherished all as the work of his father. To Castiel, God's regard and God's commands were simply facts, the nature of reality. While his simple acceptance denoted a near-total lack of imagination, it also made him immune to the festering resentment that prompted Lucifer to prove God wrong in his preference by deliberately twisting a human soul into a demon to show human corruptibility. And while other angels didn't go as far as Lucifer, many agreed with him and clung to the conviction that they as angels were better than humans; look at Uriel and Zachariah.
None of that changed what God decreed, however: humans were God's favored youngest children. As proof of that regard, humans shared in God's acts of creation in ways angels couldn't. Just look at Heaven itself. Dark Side Of The Moon established that each human soul creates its own version of Heaven, even its own interpretation of such common elements as the Road and the Garden. We saw Zachariah able to twist the brothers' perceptions of the Heaven-space they created – remember what he did to the Winchester house and the vision of Mary, for example – but we've never seen an angel create its own heavenly surroundings. In The Man Who Would Be King we saw both Castiel and Raphael borrowing the trappings of already existing individual human heavens that suited their own natures. I think angels can't create their own spaces because they lack the spark, the imaginative gift for creation that sets humans apart and made them preferred. And that same spark – in the form of the human soul – is the source of the power angels use. Angels need humans, while humans don't particularly seem to need angels.
Even when it came to the angels' attempt to jumpstart the apocalypse and accelerate their achievement of paradise, they couldn't create something new. Instead, they looked at the words of prophecy and simply devised ways to make the conditions specified for inducing the apocalypse happen in their own time, particularly including manipulating the lives of Sam, Dean, and their families and arranging for the breaking of the seals imprisoning Lucifer.
I would say the situation was complicated by the mixed message of God's choice. He declared humans the pinnacle of creation and yet, many humans were cynical, disobedient, dishonest, disrespectful, and ungodlike. To make matters worse, humans who chose selfishness and evil often rose to positions of power and authority, achieving success, while others who followed the precepts of obedience and love conveyed to them by God's prophets were often downtrodden. The angels set to watch over humanity saw evil expanding right along with the human population, and often being rewarded in life. And yet, if humans obeyed enough of the rules at the time they died, they could still achieve Heaven despite prior transgressions. That moral ambiguity must have been especially confusing and galling for angels who compared themselves with humans, found humans wanting, and began to resent God's preference for humans as being unearned, unfair, and unjust. I think that began to breed cynicism in those angels who made the mistake of using a human yardstick as the measure of creation. And the ultimate irony may have been that some of them began to take on negative human attributes, including the desire for power and status, even while searching for a way to express and validate their superiority over humans.
I don't believe that Castiel is alone among angelkind in not having fallen into the trap of measuring himself against humans and becoming either vain or bitter. However, I would venture to say none of the other angels like him either contributed to the design of the forced apocalypse or occupied positions of authority in the bureaucracy of Heaven precisely because none of them – being content with who and what they were – would have aspired to such roles. Think of Joshua, the gardener to whom God sometimes spoke in Dark Side Of The Moon, or Samandiriel, who said earnestly in What's Up, Tiger Mommy? that angels guarded the souls in Heaven, they didn't horse-trade them. Think of confused, directionless Rachel who became a follower of Castiel in The Man Who Would Be King, but tried to kill him in Frontierland when she realized his abuse of power. I see all of them as embodying core aspects of what God intended angels to be.
I submit that what set Castiel apart from all the other model angels sharing his mindset was being the one who, of all the angels in the garrison laying seige to Hell, seized hold of Dean's soul and drew it out of Hell, and was then assigned by his superiors to remain in close contact as Dean's monitor and guardian. I think it was the combination of his pure angel mindset with the way close association with Dean affected his perceptions that prompted God to bring him back in Lucifer Rising after the first time he was destroyed, and to continue using him as a demonstration case in angelic evolution.
Dean And I Do Share A More Profound Bond
I personally don't think there was any predestination in Castiel being the one angel among the entire garrison harrowing Hell to lay hands on Dean and raise him from perdition. I think that was chance, pure and simple (or impure and complex, as life is), and affected Castiel in ways no one anticipated, least of all his corrupt superiors in the heavenly bureaucracy. But I believe how it affected him relates directly to why he keeps coming back to life when he dies, something no other angel has ever done, at least to our knowledge.
Combining what we learned in Lazarus Rising, On The Head Of A Pin, and Lucifer Rising, it's clear to me that when Castiel's garrison was tasked with assaulting Hell to rescue Dean, Castiel didn't know their orders had been deliberately timed by their superiors to ensure Dean would break the first seal before they arrived. When they fought their way in, Castiel was the one who carried Dean's soul out of Hell and restored his body. I would guess Zachariah assigned Castiel to remain as guardian and guide to keep Dean on the angels' desired course simply because he was the convenient tool already there. And I think that's what started the dominoes falling.
I believe Castiel spoke the absolute truth in The Third Man when he said he hadn't answered Sam's prayers but came immediately to Dean's because he and Dean shared a more profound bond. But I submit that bond has nothing to do with any form of attraction, and everything to do with Dean, the first human Castiel – or any angel – ever truly came to know in-depth, having changed the angel in fundamental ways. Castiel became well aquainted with and deeply valued other people since he began physically walking the Earth – Sam, Bobby, Ellen, and Jo come immediately to mind – but none of them could ever be as close to him as Dean simply because Dean was first, and totally upended Castiel's comfortable universe.
We heard from Anna in Heaven And Hell that the garrison had spent the last two thousand years watching Earth but not intervening, and from Uriel in The Song Remains The Same that they were under strict orders not to come down to Earth, much less take a vessel. Angels were distant from humans, watching but not connecting. They had no basis to understand human passions. When they took human vessels, they didn't acquire human understanding; they just did what they needed to do to obtain permission to use the body, and went about their business. From the rare biblically reported missions they executed, they were accustomed to deference from devout humans who believed in God and were overawed by angels
I posit that Castiel's close association with Dean was unprecedented. Castiel found himself obliged to collaborate with a man who had no religion, no faith, no trust, and no belief; someone rebellious, profane, promiscuous, and defiant. At the same time, Dean was also loving, generous, self-sacrificing and passionately committed to saving his brother and his world; a complex walking contradiction of sinful virtue. Through his example and his words, he forced Castiel to question everything the angel had ever believed – and Dean kept being proven right. Ultimately, challenged by Dean, Castiel rebelled against Zachariah, even facing off against the archangel Raphael despite knowing it would be his death – and Castiel died, and was brought back to life.
Is it any wonder Castiel concluded he had done the right thing and been brought back by God? And that his connection with Dean was a part of that?
In season five, Castiel proceeded on his search for God, only to be disillusioned by Joshua's message and doubt Dean's resolve. Dean proved himself again, denying Michael. Castiel fought on his behalf, pitting himself against Michael and Lucifer to support Dean in his attempt to reach Sam, and died again … and was again brought back, in his own words “new and improved.” What was he to make of that, other than to believe again in God and see Dean as a touchstone?
In the absence of clear direction or orders from God, Castiel again set out to do what he thought would be good – and that's where things went horribly wrong, from season six on. And apart from the obvious narrative use of the angel to create conflict and story, it begs the question, “why?”
You Might Die Trying
I consider God to be the party most likely responsible for Castiel's repeated resurrections because we've never seen any other angel brought back to life. We know angels can resurrect humans – just watch Dark Side Of The Moon for proof, if you must – but so far as we know, every angel other than Castiel who's died has stayed dead. If angels had the ability to resurrect their own the way they can restore humans, the garrison losses Castiel described in Are You There, God? It's Me, Dean Winchester wouldn't have had the emotional impact on him they conveyed, and Castiel would have been able later to remedy the damage he did by slaughtering thousands of angels in Heaven during his Leviathan-induced insanity. That he couldn't and no one else in power did suggests only God could resurrect angels, and didn't, as a rule. Death might have the ability, but we've never seen anything to suggest Death would have any interest in using it.
Castiel's first resurrection after being killed by Raphael in Lucifer Rising/Sympathy For The Devil didn't raise many fan eyebrows, if only because it seemed an appropriate reward for Castiel having stood up to the corruption in Heaven evidenced by Zachariah and his cohort. Similarly, Castiel's second reincarnation in Swan Song – particularly accompanied by the increased power he referenced in his comment about being “new and improved” and demonstrated through his resurrection of Bobby – came across as a reassuring sense that God was still on the case and in the heroes' corner despite the message relayed by Joshua in Dark Side Of The Moon.
Everything after that, however, seemed to argue that Castiel's second resurrection may have been ill-advised, because nearly every choice he made was a mistake. His first known act after bringing back Bobby was to rescue Sam from the cage, but as we learned in The Man Who Would Be King, he screwed up and didn't even realize it; he brought Sam's body back without his soul, and in the prideful flush of his perceived success ignored the troubling evidence that Sam wasn't entirely himself. He admitted he should have realized something was wrong as soon as Sam walked away without even talking to Dean, but he wasn't paying attention. Instead. he went on to Heaven to proclaim the gospel of free will to rank-and-file angels who weren't prepared to hear him, and Raphael – intent on restarting the apocalypse and getting things back on their predetermined track – handed him his ass.
Facing in Raphael's insistence on freeing Lucifer and Michael and restarting the apocalypse the loss of everything he and the Winchesters had fought and sacrificed for, Castiel's next mistake was failing to go to Dean for help and advice. Hesitating to ask yet more of Dean, who had already sacrificed so much, he instead let himself be seduced by Crowley into a partnership with the demon to secure the power of the souls in Purgatory. Never having learned the lessons that might doesn't make right and the ends never justify the means, Castiel found himself on the slippery slope of good intentions gone horribly awry. Once begun, he couldn't figure out how to get off the merry-go-round. Too ashamed to admit his error, he compounded it by lying to and using all his allies, even killing the ones like Rachel and Balthazar who called him out on what he was doing and breaking the wall in Sam's mind just to distract Dean. In the end of season six, in his pride and desperation, he opened Purgatory and absorbed the monster souls within, never realizing their power and evil would corrupt him even further, leading him to lay waste to Heaven in the hubris of thinking himself the new god.
When he finally realized his folly and begged the Winchesters' help, he was too late to prevent the rise of Leviathan, and apparently died a third time when the monsters burst from him in the reservoir in Hello, Cruel World. Despite that, he reappeared again alive and well in The Born-Again Identity, albeit without his memory and believing himself to be human. Upon regaining his memory, he realized the magnitude of his sins and set out to repair what little he could, including taking on Sam's insanity as partial penance for having broken the wall in Sam's mind.
Coerced back into the fight in Survival Of The Fittest to use his knowledge of Leviathan to help the Winchesters kill Dick Roman, he welcomed his resulting bitter sojourn in Purgatory as penance for all he had done wrong, and refused the escape Dean planned for him. Naomi extricated him for her own purposes, stripping his memory along the way, and used him throughout season eight to spy on and attempt to manipulate the Winchesters until touching the angel tablet broke him free of her control. I would submit Naomi's rescue wasn't a resurrection, because it seems Castiel and Dean were both drawn into Purgatory body and soul – or in Castiel's case, Jimmy's body and Castiel's grace-endowed spirit, since angels don't have souls – rather than dying to get there. Come the end of the season, deceived by Metatron, Castiel again did exactly the wrong thing in pursuit of the right reasons, and inadvertently enabled Metatron to take over Heaven and exile all the other surviving angels – including Castiel – to Earth.
That's Castiel's history in a nutshell, but especially with all his missteps, it doesn't explain why he alone among angels keeps being brought back to life. Here's my speculation.
I wonder if the show's God may be using Castiel as a practical demonstration test bed to teach angels about the uses and misuses of free will, which I believe angels have always had (how else could Lucifer have disobeyed, otherwise?) but rarely used, and generally used poorly – at least judging by Lucifer, Zachariah, Naomi, and the like. If one accepts the notion that God is omniscient, God already knows everything that's going to happen, so God has nothing to learn from constantly bringing Castiel back to make more mistakes as he explores this whole concept of self-direction and free will – but angels, who have always been accustomed to simply taking and executing orders from those above them in their hierarchy, have a LOT to learn.
As to why Castiel keeps being brought back when he always just seems to fail and do the wrong thing, I would say we often learn more from our mistakes than we do from those times we get lucky and make the right choice the first time around. We never appreciate the experience, being ashamed of, frustrated, and embarrassed by being wrong, and it often costs us even more to fix, but the lessons we learn stay with us. That said, we sometimes learn the wrong lessons and perpetuate our errors – lying about and concealing problems come to mind – until another situation, or perhaps another teacher, forces us to take another look.
I wonder whether God might someday intend that angels partner with humans in the protection and further development of creation, with both distinct groups understanding and accepting who and what they are, playing to their strengths and offsetting each others' weaknesses. And how's this for an interpretation of paradise: humans and angels together figuring out how to redeem all the souls in Hell and beneficially transform the monsters in Purgatory? I don't believe the show would ever really go there, but it could foreshadow and aspire to it.
For anything like that to happen, angels and humans would need a much better understanding of themselves and each other. I think Castiel and the Winchesters represent the first step along such a possible path. And while I have reservations about the shape of season nine, with thousands of angels fallen to Earth, I could see how that might, however perversely, be another step along the way, forcing more angels to learn a better understanding of humans from a very different perspective than the one they always assumed.
Whatever the show's real plans may be, I want to close this with one final thought.
Every aspect of Supernatural, including the entire angel storyline, has always emphasized the importance and the triumph of the human heart and soul over perceptions of difference and the machinations of power. Castiel's transformation from remote soldier to ally and awkward friend is part and parcel of that. The Winchesters making the angel part of their extended family speaks to the strength that comes through the acceptance of diversity. Humans and angels have different viewpoints, different strengths, and different weaknesses – but with understanding and effort, a willingness to forgive and to learn, those can complement rather than oppose each other.
And so can we.