Life got in the way of a quick review of Supernatural’s “Goodbye Stranger,” which, on balance, turned out to be a good thing. I had time to mull the episode over, and with an episode this good, there’s lots to contemplate. I had a few reservations (shocking, I know), but not about the episode itself, which came together beautifully.
I knew we were in for an exciting and emotional journey from the opening scene. It was chilling enough watching Castiel stalk and kill Dean. Realizing Naomi had run this scenario over and over and over to break Castiel’s attachment to Dean set the tone—and the theme—of the episode.
The phrase “I need your help” runs throughout the story, as different characters try to break through the harsh conditioning preventing them from opening up emotionally. In the beginning of the episode, Dean tries to offer help to a coughing Sam in the Batcave, but Sam cannot admit he needs it. At a basic level, though, he must know he does, because he makes a feeble effort to hide his bloody tissue from his brother.
In a much more disturbing way, Meg looks to Sam, Dean and especially Cas for help escaping Crowley. Sam and Dean remember all too well Meg’s past evil deeds which killed people they love and forced Sam to do awful things, including almost raping Jo. But they have to overcome that conditioning because at this point, they need Meg’s help.
I thought Robbie Thompson did a wonderful job balancing Sam and Dean’s awareness of Meg’s past with their need for her. Meg is upfront with Sam when he questions her willingness to sacrifice humans to aid her chance of escape. With a patented Meg sardonic twitch of her lips, she says, “I am Meg. I am a demon.” Neither Sam nor Dean forget that. Even though Meg helps the boys find Lucifer’s crypt, Dean still gives Meg a cold stare when he hands Sam the demon killing knife. In Dean’s eyes, Sam can use the knife to protect Meg—or protect himself from Meg, whichever ends up being necessary.
Sam shares Dean’s suspicions and fights opening up to Meg when she questions what he was up to while she was being tortured in hell. Perhaps because he can sense Meg would like to leave her demon life behind as much as he wants to leave behind his hunting life, or perhaps because he feels guilty she’s one of the list of characters he didn’t look for, Sam does overcome his conditioned hate for Meg and share his story of his lost love. Far from backfiring, Meg immediately understands meeting someone who reveals a deeper truer part of herself she’d thought lost.
That someone for her is Castiel. I loved the scene in which Castiel binds Meg’s wounds as she flirts with him. Supernatural has always done a superb job of muddying the waters of good and evil when it comes to people and angels. Demons don’t often get shades of grey, although Crowley’s ambivalent motivations have made him a fascinating character over the seasons. Now that he’s lost any pretensions to goodness, the time is ripe for Meg to search for her own lost soul.
Meg and Castiel have been on opposite sides, but both have fallen from grace due to devotion to a cause. Thompson does a masterful job taking a character we have loved to hate and reminding us she started out human. He does an equally good job showing how even Naomi’s conditioning cannot take away the human sense of love Castiel has learned through his association with Dean. In an incredibly sweet scene, the angel and the demon overcome the conditioning of their species to admit they are sweet on each other.
But beyond the lovely if uncharacteristic sweetness of the scene, the care the two show sets the stage for Castiel’s struggle against Naomi’s conditioning. Naomi is sure she has finally removed Castiel’s human sense of love, so he is back to the celestial soldier he was created. But Samandriel told Dean he thought Castiel had always cared too much. Dean didn’t create the capacity for care in the angel; he just helped it grow. Naomi misses the first sign Castiel’s ruthlessness is slipping when he asks about Meg: “Do I have to kill her?”
Naomi thinks Castiel is being tactical, but in fact he’s being emotional. The conditioning has its first crack. That crack gets a lot wider when Dean and Cas face off over the angel tablet. Dean has had his suspicions about his friend since he mysteriously got out of Purgatory, and the two warily circle each other when the angel asks him to hand over the prize. But it never crosses Dean’s mind Castiel would actually kill him for the tablet. Dean’s loyalty to those he considers family goes to his core, and in a scene strongly reminiscent of “Swan Song,” despite being beaten, he pleads with Castiel to remember who he is—family.
Naomi never thought to put those words in her fake Dean’s mouth when she had Castiel practice killing his friend. She was focused on Castiel’s need for forgiveness for his sins. Unfortunately for her, “family” is a powerful word between these two men. Naomi so misreads Castiel’s relationship with Dean that when Castiel fights her command to kill Dean because it doesn’t feel right, she tells him, “Let your vessel do what you know deep down is the right thing.”
This order loses Naomi the fight. She can’t imagine an angel would think saving a human is the right thing, but Castiel made that decision long ago. Cas now has a way to carry out her orders and still save Dean. He can do what he deep down considers the right thing.
The timing is perfect as Dean overcomes his own deep conditioning never to admit vulnerability and tells his friend, “I need you.” The words find their way through the cracks and reach Castiel, who puts down his knife.
Dean’s words may have had a little help. The angel tablet gets dropped in the fight between Dean and Cas, which knocks away the protective layer of clay. When that happened with the demon tablet, the tablet “awoke” enough to transform Kevin into a prophet. Perhaps the angel tablet also had an effect on Castiel as a potential guardian.
In any case, after Castiel drops his weapon, he picks up the tablet, which then definitely shows its power. The angel apologizes to Dean and explains the mind control—but he is not yet finished with deciding how to do the right thing. The tablet appears to need him, and Cas decides he has to put those needs above Dean’s. Breaking the mind control means goodbye stranger, but for the time being, it also means goodbye Dean. And sadly, as it turns out, goodbye Meg forever.
Dean is still sure Castiel is somehow “off the reservation,” but nevertheless, the air has been cleared between the two. He’s still left knowing Sam is hiding his pain and injuries suffered in the first trial, and Dean’s had enough.
In a sign of growth, Dean doesn’t show his feelings through an argument. Instead, he opens up to Sam and tells him he can’t bear any more lies. The brothers have been conditioned all their lives to hide their deepest fears from each other to protect each other—and it’s always hurt rather than helped. Sam hears the pain in Dean’s voice and realizes they need to be there for each other. As Dean says, unblushingly invoking the Rule of the Rudy Hobbit to quote the Lord of the Rings, “I can carry you”—but only if Sam lets him. And Sam does, ending a gorgeous episode of Supernatural. Thank you, Robbie Thompson.
Does that mean I had no concerns this week? No, but for the most part they were more concerns about the future than this particular episode. I did have a couple of nitpicks—why is Crowley’s past being retconned so he’s older than the 1600’s? If this is a deliberate plot point, I’d like it to pay off sooner rather than later. Otherwise, it looks like carelessness, in a script that was not otherwise careless.
I had a bigger issue with the deliberate way the fight between Cas and Dean resembled the iconic fight between Sam/Lucifer and Dean in “Swan Song.” I think that scene was so important to Sam and Dean’s relationship and the ending of that five year story line, it should not be remade by recasting Sam’s part. Despite all the wonderful acting, the staging of the scene felt wrong.
Removing Sam to accommodate Castiel’s story needs is a danger I think this episode has intensified. Redoing “Swan Song” really puts Dean’n’Cas on the same level as Sam’n’Dean—and that is a significant shift in the show. And it’s a problem because Sam has absolutely no place in Dean’n’Cas.
I was glad the episode allowed Sam to point out it was weird for Dean to pray to Cas when he distrusted him. Sam doesn’t know Dean was asking the angel to watch over Sam, but I expect that would not have felt terribly reassuring to Sam. Castiel may regret damaging the younger Winchester, but Naomi has no need to condition Cas so that he will kill Sam if necessary. Evidently, Castiel has no inner barriers to that. Sam and Castiel are not family.
The writing problem this creates is that whenever the writers want Dean and Cas to have a moment, they have to get rid of Sam. I thought it was ridiculous in this episode that Dean would want Sam to stay outside where he was almost sure to have to fight demons, while Dean and Cas went inside the crypt where they had no reason to suspect they would not be alone. Dean’s reasoning made no sense. But Sam had to be gotten rid of so Dean and Castiel could connect with each other.
As Misha Collins has been made a regular for next year, getting Sam out of Dean and Cas scenes could be a much more regular occurrence. The writers have to develop Sam and Castiel’s relationship—and while they are at it, they need to decide why Sam decided not to return to Amelia.
I didn’t like the Sam and Amelia arc, but I was hoping at this point, the writers had decided to go with Sam realizing he never fit his life with the vet and his hunting/MOL life is his real life. I hoped the MOL legacy gave him a place that felt “right” and that his life with his brother did not feel like something he was forced to do, though his heart was elsewhere.
Sam’s talk with Meg dispelled this hope, as Sam again admitted he wanted a life out of hunting and that Amelia had shown him that life was possible for him. If that’s the case, what exactly was the point of the flashbacks in “Hunteri Heroici”?
I think it’s really dangerous for the show to show Sam moving away from seeing Dean as part of his happiness equation as they show Dean admitting he needs Castiel as part of his family. I like Cas, but Sam and Dean are the core.
However, I will put those fears aside for the moment and enjoy the episode for the well-acted, well-written and well-directed story it was.