The theme of Season 9 of Supernatural seems to be borrowed from its current showrunner’s past – it’s all about ‘being human.’ Castiel struggling to embrace his newfound humanity. Crowley seemingly trying to become more human, for reasons as yet unknown. Zeke, again for reasons unknown, wanting to be human a while longer, by remaining in his human host, Sam Winchester. Kevin proving just how strong and heroic an “ordinary human” can be.
And Sam and Dean, who have always been portrayed as oh-so-very human, with everything that those human flaws entail.
Sam (ironically, since he has an angel on board) feels more human than ever. He’s purged himself of the taint of demon blood that’s plagued him all his life, that sense of being ‘less than’ and impure that we now know was always hanging over his head. (Hold on while I grab my box of tissues….just remembering Sam’s admission to Dean that he never thought he could be the hero because he wasn’t pure, because it just….yeah.) We’ve witnessed Sam’s struggle to believe that he’s as good as anyone else, and a better man than most, despite the demon blood he’s ingested. Sam’s whole journey makes me emotional, because it’s such a human journey. How many of us have lost our way believing we’re “not good enough” or somehow essentially flawed, because of something outside our control? Sure, most of us didn’t have demon blood forced down our throats as a baby, but bad stuff happens to all of us along the way, and far too often we blame ourselves for it. Sam’s journey has been one of healing, and it’s a journey that many of us have taken too. The fact that he feels so human while he’s being influenced by an angel he doesn’t know is inside him is utterly heartbreaking – but it’s also what being human is about. Life has a way of constantly throwing stuff in your path, sometimes just when you’re celebrating having gotten to a good place, and eventually you have to deal with it. I sort of dread that day for Sam.
Meanwhile, Dean is on his own exploration of what it means to be human. Right now he seems to be personifying one of our most common and most painful emotions: guilt. Dean keeps trying to do the “right thing” like most humans do, but (as we’ve all no doubt discovered at some point along the way) lying in order to do it will inevitably kick you in the butt sooner or later. Dean’s guilt – about lying to Sam, about lying to Cas – keeps coming out in ways that make him act like a real jerk. And not the “bitch….jerk” good kind either! When he first sees Cas in line at the Gas N Sip, Dean looks genuinely happy. He’s clearly missed Cas and been worried about him, and he’s also as delighted as a little kid that he’s finally managed to turn the tables and surprise Cas instead of vice versa. (Ackles looks about 10 years old when his face lights up like that, by the way. This is not a complaint.)
Unfortunately, the guilt Dean feels about kicking Cas out of the bunker (apparently with virtually nothing — gee Dean, could you have set him up with motel money for a month or so?) immediately influences their interaction. When Cas is understandably not overjoyed to see the friend who kicked him out, Dean gets defensive. It’s what we all do when we feel guilty – essentially, Castiel’s reaction reminds Dean of what he did wrong. And because he still feels guilty and can’t fix it (since Zeke is still busy ‘fixing’ his brother), Dean gets pissed. Humans hate it when someone reminds us of the not-so-nice things we’ve done! So instead of apologizing and giving Cas credit for picking himself up and standing on his own two feet, Dean starts digging at him. Ouch! Dean Winchester is my favorite character in the history of ever, but it was hard to watch him be such an asshole. I love that Cas didn’t fall for it though; he stands up for himself, is able to feel good about what he’s accomplished and refuses to be belittled for the job he has and the contribution he’s making. And I think that Show is making that point too (thank you, Robert Berens) – everyone makes a contribution to humanity, whether you’re herding sheep or curing disease or pumping gas or volunteering in a shelter. Cas, who has made a point of studying humanity, understands that. Dean does too, but his defensiveness isn’t allowing him to admit it right then. After all, if Cas had been a successful neurosurgeon with a big house and a BMW, Dean wouldn’t have had to keep feeling guilty. He’s irrationally angry at Cas for not giving him that kind of out.
(Side note: I loved that teenage girl who also put Dean in his place with her snarky response to his somewhat silly questions. She only had a few lines, but she acted the hell out of them! Kudos, Mary Galloway! And I do like the way the dickish things that Dean says come back to haunt him – Cas doesn’t want to come hunt with him in part because Dean said he sucked at being a hunter. Learn from this, Dean!)
This episode consisted of two very different story arcs, and it’s always a bit jarring for me to be thrown back and forth like that. It’s part of why I don’t like episodes where Sam and Dean aren’t together quite as much, because that inevitably means we bounce back and forth between whatever each of them is doing. I get that it has to happen sometimes, but I don’t have to like it! The Dean and Cas story was the main story line of this episode, and I feel like newbie writer Berens did an excellent job of telling it. There has always been so much complicated emotion between Castiel and Dean – the ‘profound bond’ that everyone interprets in their own way, including both the actors and the characters themselves. In a sense, that their bond has resisted a concrete definition is part of its fascination. Suffice it to say, it’s compelling and important and invested with strong emotion – I think everyone would agree with that. What’s interesting in this episode is that Berens is exploring that bond as it plays out in an entirely different context. Because, as Castiel himself pointed out, he is different. For Cas, everything is different. Including his relationship with Dean.
When Castiel first appeared, he was a powerful angel. Dean was a mere human. Their interactions were colored by that power imbalance, and by the constant awareness that they were from two different worlds. They were clearly fascinated with each other, and drawn to each other; the way they looked at each other and spoke to each other held an extra spark of tension from that imbalance and fascination. It was Cas who held the upper hand, and most of us got goosebumps when he demanded that Dean give him some respect – and Dean did. (The first time we sat down to chat with Misha was shortly after that episode aired, and he already understood the dynamic between the characters and why fandom had reacted so strongly to Castiel. If you haven’t read that interview in Fangasm, it’s priceless. Thanks entirely to Misha, not the skills of the interviewers…)
The reason this episode was so fascinating to me is because the power imbalance between Cas and Dean has flipped. Castiel is no longer a powerful angel, he’s a psychologically newborn human, struggling to make sense of a world that no longer looks or feels the same. It’s an experience that’s also essentially human, and one that many people have experienced – when you go through a serious trauma, receive a devastating diagnosis, lose a partner or parent or child – these experiences change who you are and how you feel, about everything. They change how the entire world looks, and how you interact with everyone in it. Castiel has gone through a traumatic experience that has changed him completely, and he’s still reeling from it. Dean is now in the wiser, more powerful position. Instead of looking at Cas with a bit of awe and deference, Dean looks at Cas through the eyes of a big brother, relating to him very differently. The affection that Dean has always felt for Cas is still there, but it’s more indulgent now, especially in scenes later in the episode. As Dean lets go of his defensiveness and starts to see Cas more clearly, he lets his affection show, his voice softening and his expression fond as he gives Cas advice on dating. Cas, in turn, accepts Dean’s advice and seems grateful for it.
(And much of fandom is grateful for the gifs that will inevitably appear of Cas unbuttoning his shirt at Dean’s direction)
It’s rare for a Show to have the opportunity to explore one of its principle relationships anew after such a profound (yes, that’s what I meant!) change. Dean and Castiel still care about each other, that much is clear, but that bond between them is played out differently now. And that gives Season 9 a lot to explore!
It also gives Misha Collins a lot to do, and his acting skills were never more in evidence than in this episode. I felt more for Cas in this episode than I ever have, because Berens and Collins made his struggle relatable and real. His quiet devastation when he realizes he’s only there to babysit was heartbreaking. (Though it was interrupted by my ranting at the screen. Who in their right mind would ask someone to babysit like that?? “It’s hard for a single woman to get dates, so if you’re free…” That means ‘would you babysit?’ And really, what kind of person would leave their infant with a guy who appeared out of nowhere and lives in the storeroom, for that matter….but handwaving….)
I love that Cas sang the theme song from “Greatest American Hero”, because it fit so perfectly (and was seriously adorable). An ordinary guy really can be a hero – that’s been a theme of SPN from the start, and we’ve seen it reiterated with Kevin and now with human Cas. It doesn’t take super powers to be “special” or to make a difference. Castiel is essentially going through that awkward adolescent phase that most of us have to endure, so he initially resists Nora’s insistence that he’s special – every adolescent just wants to be the same as everyone else, and that’s all Cas wants too. By the end of the episode, he’s realizing that special doesn’t have to set you apart in a negative way – it can also be a positive. And it’s something that anyone can be, if they have the guts.
Dean also makes progress in the course of the episode. He and Cas work together to save the day and kill Ephraim, and Dean drops his defensiveness enough to see Cas as a person. A human. He eventually apologizes to Cas for kicking him out of the bunker, which is a big step for someone who’s still caught up in guilt and can’t really make amends. Instead of belittling Castiel’s progress, Dean says he’s proud of him. Again, I was struck by what a flip flop this was in their relationship, but it was a tender moment, and Dean clearly meant it. He’s now protective of Cas in the same way he’s protective of Sam, for better or worse. He tells Castiel to stay out of it, to live his life, that Dean and Sam will handle it. How long Cas will be willing (or able) to do that is unclear, but Dean seemed sincere this time.
There were some weird little glitches in this part of the story – Ephraim was on a date with Nora?? Nora was bowling dressed like that?? And of course that implausible set-up to the babysitting misunderstanding. But all in all, the story line worked for me.
Then there was the Crowley and Kevin and Sam storyline. As much as I hate seeing Sam and Dean separated, I do like when Sam gets to interact with Crowley on his own. They have a ‘special bond’ too, though it’s ambivalent and complicated. But their bond has also changed with Crowley’s increased humanity. I’m hoping Show will continue to explore the potential for a changed Crowley, even if it’s a subtle or temporary or partial change – Mark Sheppard certainly has the acting chops to pull that off. And I was happy that the episode left us in a position of “What??” at the end, masochist that I am (how else can you be and love this show??) Why was Crowley injecting Kevin’s blood? Why did he insist that it be Kevin’s? Is he addicted to ‘being human’ and wanting more, or is it for more nefarious reasons? I love that I don’t know!
(Also, that little scene where Crowley calls Sam over and then throws the balled up paper in his face? Omg Jared, that was priceless acting. Give me all the gifs!)
The little bit of Sam and Dean interaction that we got was full of meaning. Dean pulled that “Oh I’m not that smart and I hate research” thing that he uses to his advantage sometimes, almost encouraging people to underestimate him. Ackles can convey so much with just a subtle expression, so it was clear that he really wanted to go check on Cas (and didn’t want Zeke anywhere near him), and so he let Sam and Kevin think he was just avoiding research.
Also, we got Dean in a Henley. Always a bonus.
As always, there were some nice fourth wall breaking interactions between Show and Fandom too. I had a moment of “Why does that strike me funny?” when Crowley called Kevin ‘Short Round’ before realizing that’s because Jared flubbed a line in the Season 8 gag reel and called him that. I love when they give those subtle little shout outs. Some of the cast and crew live tweeted with the episode too. My favorites were VFX coordinator Ryan Curtis explaining that the explosion of pink that Ephraim created when he zapped people was achieved with Pepto Bismol. And Misha’s offhand comment about Jared and Mark.
Misha: There was an alternate ending to that scene where Jared and Mark just made out as the camera drifted off…
Of course there was.
This cap was making the rounds of Tumblr, wondering what caused Osric to suddenly have to fight back a grin. What was Jared doing off camera? Hmmm.
All in all, good job Robert Berens – welcome to the Little Show that Could!
For more from Misha Collins and the rest of the gang, check out our new book Fangasm: Supernatural Fangirls. Order links at top right of this page. And stay tuned for our interview with the adorable Osric Chau!