The last time Zap2it visited the “Supernatural” set, Misha Collins was filming his return as Castiel in the episode “Goodbye Stranger,” after the character had taken a short hiatus. During our interview with Collins, he touched briefly on one of the fundamental challenges the series’ writers face when plotting out story arcs for his character.
“The writers are always trying to figure out a way to deal
with Castiel’s character to somehow make it so that Sam and Dean aren’t
aligned with a superhero who can make their lives easy,” Collins told us. “He’s always
encumbered in some way, or going through some weird emotional or mental
strife, or being crazy … or being God. There’s always something that’s sort of veering him off so that he can’t
be that helpful to Sam and Dean.”
The need to either incapacitate Castiel or put him at odds with the Winchesters has taken a significant toll on the character’s overall arc and development. Castiel has been on the show on-and-off for five seasons, now, and will be returning in a full-time capacity for Season 9, but the character is constantly being reset, regressed, or just plain ret-conned, which makes for an inconsistent and underwhelming story.
The problems really began in Season 7. As we wrote following the season finale, Castiel’s character was written out at the beginning of the season, right when it seemed that he finally had a powerful set-up for a strong arc, be that arc a descent into villainy and madness or a redemption from his nearly unforgivable actions in Season 6. He then returned at the back end of the season, an amnesiac who experienced a moment of personal victory before attempting to atone for his sins and landing in a mental institution. His struggles were played up for comedic relief instead of actual storytelling, and then a quick fix trip to Purgatory magically relieved him of his complicated mental issues.
Thus, we began Season 8 with Castiel in Purgatory, still encumbered by the guilt of his actions way back in Season 6, when he went on a power trip, waged civil war in Heaven, and broke Sam’s brain by demolishing the “wall” that protected him from his gruesome memories of hell — a wall that Dean had risked his life to put there.
Castiel felt so guilty that when he had the opportunity to leave Purgatory, he just… stayed. We never really figured out why. There wasn’t any good for him to do there except wallow in self-flagellation, and if anything, it added more guilt to Dean’s plate, which he needed like a hole in the head. The writers had to keep Castiel away from the Winchesters at the beginning of the season in order to force Sam and Dean to figure some things out on their own, but they did it at the expense of his character actually growing.
When he did get zapped back to earth, he was being puppeteered by Naomi, a brand new angel character. She was giving him orders, which he was “programmed” to blindly follow. For half of this season, Castiel wasn’t Castiel, he was just Naomi’s little wind-up toy. Not only did it completely take away his agency, but it altered the angel mythology already established in previous seasons. Suddenly, angels had “coding” and could be programmed and hacked — like robots.
As an audience, we can handle a little ret-conning to drive a story forward, particularly when a show has been on for eight seasons. It’s not ideal, but it happens. Here, though, it not only contradicted the information we have about angels, but it contradicted the foundation of Castiel’s personality, and why the audience fell in love with him in the first place. Castiel was introduced as a soldier of the Lord, who was ultimately so profoundly moved by the Winchesters, and his relationship with Dean in particular, he went rogue and did the unthinkable: He began to exercise free will. This was such a key element to Castiel, fans began calling the Sam-Dean-Castiel trio “Team Free Will.”
That powerful story has all but been erased. In the recent episode “The Great Escapist,” Naomi tells Castiel that he’s always been a rebellious angel. Throughout thousands of years of history, he’s been a discipline issue (they mention that this goes back at least as far as ancient Egypt). Over and over, Naomi has erased his memory, meddled with his “coding,” and reset him to be obedient again. He’s been programmed many times. “Frankly, too damn many,” she tells him in the episode. “You’re the famous spanner in the works. Honestly, I think you came off the line with a crack in your chassis. You have never done what you were told. Not completely.”
In Seasons 4 and 5, Castiel grew to love the Winchesters and forsook Heaven’s orders and destiny and prophecies because of the profound impact their friendship had on him. Naomi’s revelation in “The Great Escapist” pretty much discredits that. It wasn’t Dean that moved Cas. It was just Castiel’s wiring, acting up again, as it always has. For Castiel, there was nothing special about the Winchesters. They’re just the latest in a long line of things that compelled him to turn against his authorities.
The relationship with Sam and, especially, Dean, is not just a major reason why fans love the character, it’s essential to the show. At the most, there are three regular characters on “Supernatural.” So with only three people to deal with, why are the same stories being told over and over?
It goes like this: First, the Winchesters accept Castiel as one of their own. They’re a team. They trust him. Second, Castiel turns against them and does something with dire consequences. He lets Sam out of the panic room to break the final seal, he makes a deal with Crowley to open Purgatory, he breaks Sam’s wall, he takes the angel tablet. Third, he returns to the Winchesters to make amends for his actions. Dean doesn’t trust him. He atones. They accept Castiel as one of their own.
It happens over and over and over, and it’s getting old. Yeah, it’s cute to watch Castiel go shopping for beer and pie to make Dean like him again. Yes, we all say “awww” when Dean reminds Castiel (over, and over, and over) that they’re like family and should stick together. As Sam says, they forgive him “Because he’s Cas.”
But we don’t really know who Cas is. Is he a strong, capable warrior? A power-hungry villain? A self-pitying, sad sack of guilt and angst? A computer to be hacked and re-wired? A confused, bumbling vehicle for comedic relief? The romantic hero who might just be Meg’s “unicorn”? Right now, the only thing we can count on is that he’s a guy who betrays Dean, atones for it, then betrays Dean, then atones for it, lather, rinse, repeat.
In last week’s episode, we saw more of the same. While Sam and Dean are investigating Sam’s final trial to close the gates of hell, Castiel goes out to get pie and porn for Dean. While he’s out, he agrees to help Metatron shut down the gates of Heaven by completing three trials himself — trials that kick off with murdering an innocent. Again, he doesn’t feel it necessary to have a conversation with Sam and Dean about this, despite their repeated begging him to be a part of their team and treat them like family, as they treat him. Again, he doesn’t trust them enough to consult them before he starts killing.
Tonight’s Season 8 finale, “Sacrifice,” will reveal whether Castiel succeeds in locking the Pearly Gates. Since Collins is a regular in Season 9, we assume that if he does “shut down Heaven,” Castiel will remain on earth, which would suggest that one of his trials is getting rid of his grace — the essence of what makes him an angel. (At least, according to what we learn
ed in Season 4. It’s possible that there’s a new twist with all this “coding” we learned about this season.) Heaven would be out of the picture, freeing us from the angel stories that have grown convoluted over the years, and Castiel would no longer be an all-powerful force, freeing the “Supernatural” writers from the trouble of impairing him every year.
Maybe then, finally, Castiel can actually develop in a linear, organic way, instead of being kicked back to square one three times a season.