Zap2it broke the news yesterday that Misha Collins has been promoted back to regular status for season nine, as well as been given the opportunity to direct an episode. My first thought was “Great!” I’ve enjoyed much of Castiel’s story line over the last four and a half years and, goodness knows, the Winchesters can use all the friends they can get.
But I soon noticed I had just a bit of a niggling feeling about the news; something wasn’t quite sitting right. Upon reflection, I realized I’ve had issues with how Castiel has been used over the last two years. The issues have nothing to do with how Misha Collins creates the character—I love the way he imbues the angel with an otherworldly aura. From the moment Castiel unfurled his wings to show Dean he truly raised him from Perdition, I wanted to see more.
I loved Cas and Dean’s story line as they bonded over absent fathers. I loved that Cas fell from grace because he believed in Dean’s vision of free will. Cas and Dean’s friendship has been torn and frayed, but remains essentially intact, and I enjoyed what Cas tried to teach Dean this season as they journeyed through Purgatory. It took nuanced writing to believably posit Dean would forgive his friend for so horribly damaging Sam, but Castiel’s desire for penance feels real, and at this point, no one on Team Free Will has a blameless record.
All of this is to say my niggling feeling is not based on a dislike of the character. I like Castiel. However, I also feel he is a very problematic character. Castiel was created for the Apocalypse story line, which very nicely curtailed his power by having arch angels willing to smite him if he misbehaved. During Season four, it wasn’t clear exactly where Castiel’s loyalties lay as the boys slowly realized the angels were using them as ruthlessly as the demons were. When Cas finally declared himself for the Winchesters, he was in as much danger as they were.
Even with Castiel on the run with the Winchesters, Eric Kripke still had to deal with the issue of the boys having such a powerful ally. The Winchesters need to solve sticky situations by themselves to have credibility as heroes. It does not help the show to have Deus Ex Machina in angel form show up consistently to save Sam and Dean. The boys had enough trouble with agency in season five as they were buffeted between two powerful forces they could not defeat. Kripke found ways to dampen the angel’s power to allow Sam and Dean’s plans and sacrifices to take centre stage, where they belong.
In season six, new showrunner Sera Gamble dealt with the issue of Castiel’s power by creating a civil war in heaven and muddying the waters of Castiel’s loyalty again. It was a problematic solution, because Sam and Dean’s story line did not revolve around that civil war, so all the stresses on Cas happened off-screen, yet his story ended up shaping the season.
I like season six, but I can’t deny there are structural issues with the story lines, and the need to curtail Castiel’s ability to help Sam and Dean was the cause of some of them. And that’s the tail wagging the dog. Castiel should fit into and support Sam and Dean’s story needs, not cause story issues of his own.
Season seven left the writers trying to find another plausible way to depower Castiel, which was so far from easy they wrote him out for much of the season. The eventual solution of transferring Sam’s hell damage to the angel fell into the tail wagging the dog trap, as Sam’s two year long buildup of hell damage ended very flatly, while Castiel was mostly used for comic relief. The show would have benefitted more from concentration on paying off Sam’s arc.
“The Born-Again Identity,” the episode of Castiel’s return, shows how awkward inserting the angel can be. Sam’s cure comes out of the blue, robbing the audience of an emotional scene with Dean as he has to face the price Sam is paying for Dean’s decision to force Sam’s soul back into Soulless Sam. Does Sam blame him or does he agree having his soul is worth dying over? I suspect Sam agrees with Dean’s assessment, but we’ll never know, because the boys did not talk about it.
Instead, Dean’s focus is on Castiel, and again, story awkwardness ensues. Sera Gamble, the writer on this episode and generally an excellent dramatist, wrote two silly scenes in this episode. The first involves Castiel having a wife, forcing us to accept a scenario in which a woman decided to marry a very odd man in a very short amount of time and who is now dangling around the edge of the story, never to return but always to niggle.
The second awkward scene is Dean getting through to Castiel by showing him he carried his trenchcoat all this time in the trunk of his car. That wouldn’t be so bad, except Dean has been stealing a different car a week all year, and picturing him tenderly transferring this coat from one trunk to another, all under Sam’s nose, strains credibility. Supporting actors’ stories should not create story strain.
The rest of season seven constrained Castiel’s power by having the angel develop mental issues as a result of his guilt over killing angels, betraying Dean and hurting Sam. And while that sounds meaty, in fact Castiel was played for laughs, at times to the detriment of the story (Castiel playing twister comes to mind).
Taking up the showrunner mantle for season eight (and hopefully nine and ten), Jeremy Carver had to come up with his own plan for using Castiel effectively. He took a leaf from Kripke’s playbook and created angels more powerful than Cas, able to control him and make him dangerous for the Winchesters to trust. It’s been a good story—except there hasn’t been a lot of narrative space to tell it. Sam and Dean have had their own stories to explore and Castiel hasn’t fit into many of them since Purgatory.
Sam and Dean’s relationship has been battered this season, and understandably, there’s been a lot of attention paid to their stresses. I would argue that despite the many scenes they’ve had, the story line needs more exploration yet to make many of the earlier story choices pay off, from Sam not looking for Dean to Sam demanding Dean cut Benny loose. When Sam and Dean don’t work, the show doesn’t work.
So I understand why the writers elected to drop the Castiel/angel story abruptly to set up the brothers’ relationship repair and Men of Letters story line. The show has needed a real reboot since the end of season five—one that gives Sam and Dean new purpose and agency. The new mythology and history does that. And it’s difficult to set up a story line confirming Sam and Dean as partners and giving them the power to take the battle to the enemy if they include Castiel.
Castiel is so powerful that he robs the story of tension, and it’s very difficult to prevent it from happening, as shown when he easily gathers all the spell components to blast demons back to hell. He also interacts almost exclusively with Dean, which unbalances the brothers. Perhaps next season, Castiel and Sam will develop a relationship of their own, but if not, having Castiel as a series regular means Sam and Dean have fewer scenes together. If the show tries to balance Sam’s side by giving him a relationship of his own, the Winchesters have even fewer scenes together, and that does not improve this show.
I’m left to wonder how Castiel will be used to support Sam and Dean’s story next season, rather than cause story problems. I don’t want to see his character’s needs shape the major arc. I want the writers to craft a season long arc they can thread through all the episodes, rather than having to drop it abruptly because Cas’s power is an issue. And I want Sam and Dean to know they each offer the other something no one else can give—that’s the core of Supernatural.
Will the writers come up with an excellent solution for Castiel? So far, every season has had to start from scratch. I think if Cas is going to be a series regular, the writers have to come up with a more permanent solution so there are no tail and dog issues when crafting stories. One possible answer is to cut off Cas from heaven’s power so he is essentially human, and there is story unfolding this season which would support that.
But would that give us a Castiel we all love to watch? I think Castiel’s otherworldliness is a huge part of his charm and making him human is going to work against that. There’s also the problem of how to work him into the story if he doesn’t have powers—is he going to be a third Winchester riding around in the Impala with Sam and Dean? I think that would throw the show off balance, especially if the writers don’t deepen Cas and Sam’s relationship.
It remains to be seen if all this comes together in a satisfying way. I hope it does. But I am a little leery of Castiel’s impact on the story if the writers aren’t worried, too.