Supernatural: Meet the New Boss
Welcome back Supernatural fans! Let me start by saying that if this season premiere did nothing else, it reinforced the fact that Sera Gamble is a brilliant showrunner and writer, who makes impressive and strategic choices for the show. Proving that last season was no fluke, Gamble gave us an opening episode that moved action along quickly. Gone are the days when a problem would require a three-month resolution. There was immediate gratification after a long summer of pondering the state of the Winchester world. And like all good television shows, the answers offered only served to generate a threefold increase in new questions.
“Once you were my favorite pets, before you turned and bit me.”
It became readily apparent by the end of last season that Supernatural had a Castiel problem. Not an issue of fan adoration or acting. No, you can’t argue that Cas isn’t a fan favorite, nor that the Collins/Ackles interaction wasn’t the highlight of many an episode. The problem was with the character itself — Cas was becoming stagnant. Cas had become the deus ex machina mechanism that saved the Winchester boys from many a tight spot and could provide answers quickly in order to push the narrative to a more fertile place. While much loved, Castiel’s role was to swoop in, make some vague statements, solve problems, and swoop out.
The decision to make Castiel a primary chess piece in the war to win Heaven and open a portal to Purgatory was a brilliant strategic move. It gave the writers something different to do with the character — it allowed them to create entirely new facets to his personality, bringing out a Cas who, by the end, was willing to sacrifice Sam and Dean if it meant he could wrest control of Heaven from Raphael. Who knew that Castiel would be the one to bring down the wall in Sam’s brain — doing the one thing guaranteed to destroy both brothers. Those final episodes allowed for a character depth not really seen before, especially as we watched Castiel’s despair as he calls upon God for guidance in what was his equivalent to Jesus’ Garden of Gethsemane moment.
We all watched in shock in the finale as Castiel opened the portal to Purgatory, assimilated the outpouring of souls, and then, transformed, declared himself God, threatening to smite down those who did not bow to him. Left all summer with the horrified faces of Bobby and the Winchesters, the question seemed to be how the writers would restore the Cas we all loved. For Supernatural, a show that likes to kill the characters that a) we’ve grown attached to and b) they no longer know what to do with, creating a scenario where they have a multiplicity of options for a static character proved that it was a brave new show.
“I hope for your sake this is the last you see me.”
Picking up from the last seconds of the finale (bless the continuity editor for his/her amazing work), the premiere gave us this new Castiel — this new god flush with power and immune to the emotions of the Winchesters. As he unequivocally states, “the Castiel you knew is gone.” The entire scene is pulsing with the underlying threat of Castiel’s potentially fickle behavior. In one moment he is demanding they bow before him and then in the next halting their sluggish prostration, recognizing that it would only be false reverence. Nothing makes the transformation more apparent than Cas’s reaction to Dean’s disdain, as he spits out, “What a brave little ant you are.” The Cas who would do anything for Dean, even striking a death blow against his fellow angels, has been suppressed, if not destroyed.
“You need a firm hand. You need a father. And I am your father now.”
As if to emphasize the complete disintegration of the Castiel with a conscience, we bear witness to his public manifestations. Castiel is not a silent god — a god of the imagination or prayer — no, Castiel is a vengeful god. He embraces his new powers and goes on a smiting spree; the world runs red with spilled blood. Granted, there are moments of wish fulfillment, as Cas destroys all religious leaders who preach sermons of hate; who sow the seeds of disunity by condemning those who do not conform to the rules of a belief system not propagated by God but by hypocritical men; who show themselves to be false prophets, regardless of creed. We cannot help but smile as Cas destroys the equivalent of the Westboro Baptist Church and even Dean agrees that the elimination of the KKK is a step in the right direction. However, Castiel cannot rein in his vengeance. He spreads his net to anyone who does not follow him. In a scene that is cinematically gorgeous, Castiel annihilates the angels who will not pledge loyalty his reign. Castiel is so engorged with power that he begins to burn up — as we saw with Lucifer, his vessel simply cannot contain what is inside. It’s a clever red herring. Watching his skin blister and peel, seeing his hands leave scorch marks on the pews of a church, it would seem that he is suffering the issue that proved most problematic for Michael and Lucifer, a weak vessel, and yet it is so much worse. In a scene reminiscent of good sci-fi horror (like Alien), the souls inside of Castiel begin to pulse outwards from his stomach. Unlike Michael and Lucifer who have a power granted from Heaven, Castiel has stolen his authority. Even worse, he has taken souls from Purgatory — a place filled with monsters.
“I put your needs first. Don’t you understand, I am a better god than my father.”
With Cas becoming a symbol of absolute power corrupting absolutely, the Winchesters fall back on that which has sustained them all these years — the ability of human beings to endure. Bobby, who I consider a Winchester even though he is a Singer, will follow the boys down whatever path they choose, resigned that it might mean his death, remaining a voice of reason if/when they need some kind of guidance. Bobby, who, in contrast to the new Cas, is much more of the father figure that you would hope to find — loving, forgiving, supportive.
Sam is in a dangerous place. Trying to figure out ways to save Castiel, he cannot escape the memories seeping through the broken membrane in his head. Sam is living in two worlds — hallucination and reality. He tries to navigate it silently, not telling his family that anything is wrong, maintaining his stoicism, even after initially collapsing and slipping into a near-coma. Sam stays true to his Winchester roots, keeping his suffering secret to save his brother from this nightmare. Of course this is more than just a nightmare. Sam’s life is at risk, and the hallucinations he suffers are so much more visceral than the post-traumatic stress Dean endured after his time in Hell. Like Dean, Sam dreams of Hell’s meathooks, but Sam also dreams of something coming after him — of ominous whispering and chains breaking through the universe and lynching him. Worst of all, he sees Lucifer — the Mark Pellegrino version, sans melting skin.
In Sam’s fantastic last scene in the episode, he comes face to face with Lucifer. After a moment of doubt and fear, he scoffs. The moment is brilliant:
S: “Meathooks, chains, you, it’s not real. It’s just my brain leaking memories from the cage, ‘cause of the wall breaking down. That’s all.”
L: “That’s very good, your little theory, it’s wrong. Sam, this isn’t you going guano, everything else is.”
L: “Everything, from the second you sprung out of that lock box. . .”
S: “That’s impossible.”
L: “No, escaping was impossible. I have to say, I think this is my best torture yet. Make you believe that you’re free, and then, yank the wool off of your eyes. You never left Sam. You’re still in the cage. . .with me.”
Of course Sam is just hallucinating, but what magnificent dialogue. If you’re confronted by the devil, having escaped a cage in Hell, wouldn’t you think this was possible? Wouldn’t the devil have exactly this kind of power? Wouldn’t this scenario be the ideal form of torture? I’m not sure Sam’s brain could have derived a better nightmare — this is truly a moment of pure Hell. And it’s the last time we see him in this episode; he’s broken and disappears. Even with everything else going on, all the conflict caused by Castiel, Sam’s fragile state is not ignored, not forgotten, not pushed into a different episode to be dealt with later. This is a season premiere of almost pure chaos.
Dean. Dean, more than any other character, just endures. Not without despair. He is, after all, human, but he still tries to fight — even if fighting is simply fixing the (once again) destroyed Impala. Of course you have to wonder how much more he can take. The wall in his brother’s brain is crushed and the angel that he considered some form of family has become a monster. While Dean will not give up on Sam, he does give up on Castiel. In an unexpected moment it is Sam that refuses to abandon the quest to save Castiel, the one willing to plead with Cas to return and seek help. It shows just how despairing Dean is. Then again, what does Sam have to lose. He’s not as emotionally invested in the angel — he even stabbed Cas in the back (literally) in the season finale. Every season the writers pile more and more and more upon Dean. He’s our modern Job. I think it would be anathema to the character to break completely and succumb to despair, to abandon all hope, but he’s being pushed as close as possible.
“I have plans for you.”
The quest to bring back Castiel was not all scenes of despair and slaughter. Old friends Crowley and Death were also on hand to lend a dose of sarcasm and gravitas. Ensuring we’ll have more scenes with Crowley this season, Castiel returned him to his position as Hell’s overseer. Again, the writers used this as a moment to show just how far Cas had fallen, for when Crowley wonders why Cas would even want a hell, when he could have all of those souls to further increase his power, Cas responds that he needs “a threat to hold over enemies.” All live in fear of Cas, though Crowley is willing to still play for both sides, delivering to the Winchesters a spell to bind Death.
“Because we said so, and we’re the boss of you.”
The scenes with Death resonate with a sense of future threat. Dean has always been willing to reuse the tools at his command, but this time his reliance on old weapons might bode poorly for what’s to come. Recognizing that only Death has a power beyond God and Lucifer, Dean (with Bobby and Sam) invoke a spell to bind Death, forcing him to do their bidding. As with all scenes featuring Julian Richings, the result is less than what Dean hoped for and far more revelatory.
Continuing with the refreshing trend of almost immediate storyline payoff, Death mistakenly thinks they’ve bound him to rebuild the wall in Sam’s head. He brings to light Sam’s hallucinations, alerting Bobby and Dean to that which they deep-down already knew. . .Sam is not okay. But the real mission — destroying God — brings Castiel to them.
“I know God and you sir are no God.”
With this arrival comes truth. Castiel is no god. He is, as Death calls him, “a mutated angel,” with a vessel that is going to explode. Cas might believe that he can simply repair the body, but Death reveals that Cas has done more than take souls from Purgatory, he’s taken the beasts too. Those beasts are not going to sit idly by and serve as some kind of battery for Cas’s needs. They are not a power to be harvested — they are a power that wants release.
Herein lies the crux of the season. We went into the summer thinking that season seven would be a fight against Cas as a god, but it’s so much worse than that — and so much better because the writers aren’t mired with a single big bad. With Cas/God as the big bad, the show would have had to figure out a way to craft plausible scenarios to drag that battle on, with a foe who could annihilate the Winchesters with the snap of his fingers. Yet in this moment with Death, as we learn that Cas has swallowed the Leviathans, the writers have freed themselves from their God problem and allowed for their own version of a hellmouth.
This also means, for now at least, that the fan-favorite version of Cas is gone. By the end of the episode, even with the portal to Purgatory reopened (with help from Death) and the souls poured back in, Cas cannot escape what he has wrought. The souls might have returned, but the Leviathans refused to give up their hold on the vessel.
In a moment somewhat reminiscent of the season two finale of Buffy, the Cas that the Winchesters know and love briefly returns. He is defeated, repentant, seeking some kind of absolution — he pledges to Dean that he will fix what he has done. There is a tiny moment, maybe thirty seconds, when everything seems like it will be okay, and then the Leviathans take over, saying that they have killed the Cas that we know. Whether that’s true or not remains to be seen. There could be some fragment of Cas buried deep in the vessel. Or he could be gone. One never knows with Supernatural. I am, however, looking forward to seeing Mischa Collins tear things up as a Leviathan, rather than the Winchester’s trusty angel.