Loving You Before Him: Finding Better Angels in Supernatural

“Then he created you….the little hairless apes. And then he asked all of us to bow down before you, to love you more than him.” – Lucifer, “The End”

The character of Castiel is controversial – no two ways about it. Many read the show as a strange kind of love triangle, where Dean’s affection may be split between the two characters of Sam and Castiel, a reading that I think blinds itself to Castiel’s purpose. As I’ve thought about the presence of Castiel, from season four onward, I’ve started to see the angel as integral to the mythos of the show and I wanted to share my reading with you, to get your thoughts but also to offer a generous reading of Castiel that’s not tied to shipping wars on tumblr.

When Castiel first appears in “Lazarus Rising,” he identifies himself as both an angel of the Lord and the one sent to pull Dean from “perdition.” This season also introduces “God” as an active agent in the storyline. Before this season the notion of an active god was relegated to single episodes where demi-gods or pagan gods were generally the villains, such as in “A Very Supernatural Christmas” and before the season five reveal of Gabriel, the episodes with the trickster figure.  However, at the very beginning of season four when Castiel calls Dean to duty, he calls him in the name of a Lord God, a gesture that invokes the Judeo-Christian background against which much of the storyline has taken place. From this episode onward the “Lord-God” slowly becomes a presence in the storyline and to my mind it is not coincidental that this happens concurrently with Castiel’s presence.

In an earlier article, “The Importance of Being Sorry,” I focused on Castiel’s own father issues when it comes to God and I think those concerns are still valid but here I’d like to see how one might read Castiel’s presence as indicating God’s presence in Supernatural. This is a brief essay and uses some examples from the show to make its points, but I invite you to add to it and also to offer your own readings of Castiel that are generous to the character. Lately it has become easy to see him as obstructive and I want to resist that interpretation. He’s here for a reason, so what is the story he’s telling?

The Most Important Commandment

“I gave everything for you.” – Castiel, “Point of No Return”

Throughout seasons four and five we see Castiel struggle with his obligations to heaven and by extension, his fealty to “God.” Since the show decided to portray angels as warriors/soldiers, a notion consistent with one popular narrative of angelic beings, it had to establish the “mission” to which the soldiers were committed. In this case, the show presented the apocalypse as “god’s mission.” The god that emerges seems part Old Testament vengeful and present god as well as part New Testament mysterious and absent god. The multi-faceted (and perhaps confused) nature of god’s character gets represented in the personality of Castiel, who first appears in the story as a violence, an intrusion.  As he evolves through season four he connects to humans, to Dean in particular, in a way that I believe approximates a kind of affection and love that the God of Supernatural suffers for humanity.  

Since the show chooses the Islamic version of Satan’s fall, that he refused to bow before Adam/humanity, it cements the western (and Mesopotamian) roots of its underlying mythos. Now much can be said and argued about Supernatural as a bizarre mashup of religious tales, which would be quite interesting given its purported roots as an “American” narrative, but for the purpose of this essay we should read Lucifer’s fall in opposition not to Michael, but to Castiel, because neither Lucifer nor Michael demonstrate loving humanity above all else. It is only Castiel who chooses the human over the divine. Even Anna, who was determined to stop the apocalypse, chose revenge over humanity by attempting to undo God’s creation rather than by protecting God’s creation. Killing Mary and John would’ve been tantamount to killing the Adam and Eve of this narrative. In fact, every angel we encounter besides Castiel seems to corrupt the commandment that stands at the heart of this story.

Castiel’s journey from obedient soldier to rebel lieutenant mirrors not only Dean’s own journey but also serves as the model for behavior that the initial command “to bow before man” demands.  Throughout most of season four we are led to believe that the apocalypse is God’s command, but as we learn that both Sam and Dean are the “vessels” for the final battle between Michael and Lucifer (and one wonders why they could not fight in their own celestial bodies) we see that the apocalypse is really a story of brotherhood and family and that Michael and Lucifer both misread God’s command. In Michael’s obedience he threatens to destroy God’s creation; in Lucifer’s envy, he threatens to rule God’s creation.

In a way, the final fight scene between Adam/Michael and Sam/Lucifer in “Swan Song” acts to highlight the profound moral lesson of the show. Michael and Lucifer’s relationship is an extreme distortion of the Winchester brotherhood – where instead of “saving his brother” Michael only hears “kill your brother.” It’s the reason that Dean had to say no, in the end. He must remain in his human form as a tangible reminder of what the apocalypse could cost, but further to show that Dean would always choose the humanity in Sam over the demonic in Sam, thus choosing the man, rather than the potential god in the man. And in light of that command, Castiel must be present in the battle. He acts as a material body for god as Bobby acts as the physical representation of the father. And Castiel’s “death” is a way for the show to demonstrate his final act of fealty to the “lord-god.” He stands by as guide, as champion, as companion to humanity and in that final scene, as willing to sacrifice himself for the sake of humanity, a humanity represented in the form of Dean Winchester.

Saving Cain

“You have me confused with the other angel. You know - the one in the dirty trenchcoat, who’s in love with you?” – Balthazar, “My Heart Will Go On”

“The minute I heard my first love story,/I started looking for you, not knowing/how blind that was./Lovers don’t finally meet somewhere,/they’re in each other all along.” – Rumi, translated by Coleman Barks

So the relationship between Dean and Castiel has often been misread, to my mind, as a romantic one. And I can see why. If my argument holds out, which I think it does, then their relationship has the hallmark of many forms of adoration. Christianity (in particular) but the adoration of gods in general often has an erotic element to it. Teresa of Avila, the Song of Songs, Rumi, and other artists and artworks that dedicate themes to worship sometimes depict the mystical quality of prayer as an act of love because one assumes that the love of god is all consuming, both in body and spirit. The Rumi poem is one of many examples of the love for god being portrayed as one for a lover and so if we consider Castiel’s presence as indicating God, then an erotic reading is not “wrong” but it may miss the entirety of the relationship, humanize it in a way that actually distorts its value. Let me explain what I mean here.

In Supernatural, Dean Winchester comes to represent the converted everyman. Unlike Sam, who begins the narrative as chosen, Dean is the ordinary guy thrown into extraordinary circumstances wherein his humanity is his best and most trusted resource. And while the first few seasons of the show portray a world inhabited by super and preternatural creatures, we learn in the second season episode, “Houses of the Holy,” that Dean is a man with little or no faith in a divine. He is a man without a belief in the tangibility of a “lord-god.”

In fact, his spiritual life is unbalanced for much of the series’ run through season three, in a drastic and fundamental way.  Because he only chooses to believe in what he can see, then he only sees the demonic, the unholy, and the supernatural’s threat to humanity. He does not see another side. Imagine that worldview – imagine a world where everything you love is under threat and even moreso, the person you love most is the threat. It is no wonder then when Castiel enters the picture and provides proof of God that the conversion experience is an emotional and contentious one for Dean, one which ties directly to the physical manifestation of that proof – Castiel.

If you compare the Dean of the first three seasons to the Dean of the past five seasons, you can trace a gradual evolution of a man into faith. Simple acts, such as the willingness to pray, provide proof of Dean’s growth as a character. For Sam, prayer is not a catastrophic act. He has faith, even if it’s misguided, because of his loyalty to the idea of fate. Fate, destiny, providence – these are terms that assume purpose in the world, assume an intention, and by extension, a design. For Dean, such an idea is a myth, an intangible and thus unbelievable, outcome. The only commandment he encounters is an abomination of the Cain and Abel dilemma – he must save his brother, either through redemption or murder. And he lives with that fear until season four, when we see the angels come into play. Once the angels arrive the presence of a god that balances out the devil also arrives. And that is why Castiel’s presence is important because he provides evidence of a god that perhaps does give meaning to the randomness even if the logic of this world is kept hidden by an absent god. However, the relationship is not one that should be read by human standards.

Many dismiss the power of platonic love, but indeed, it was considered by its namesake, Plato, to be the highest and purest form of love because it turned the soul towards the divine. I would argue that is Castiel’s place – to turn Dean towards the divine. Now I know many will send out kill orders for me after making this statement, but it is genuinely how I have come to read Castiel’s presence – as evidence of the divine, of the celestial, and its emotional ramifications for a man like Dean who has spent much of his life without a faith in anything other than war.

A Clockwork God

“But what if I’ve made the wrong choice? How am I supposed to know….” – Castiel, “The Man Who Would Be King”

The sixth season episode entirely dedicated to Castiel as a character, “The Man Who Would Be King,” portrays the aftermath of the averted apocalypse. But rather than freedom and free will as joyous turns, Castiel’s world is chaotic; heaven is a place of political struggle and intrigue. One reading of the show is that it was critiquing any form of government that is overthrown and the effect that creates in and on those left behind. However, as a narrative concerning the idea of god, it’s almost a retroactive retelling of how a god that becomes human-like. In this reading, Crowley emerges as a true devil’s advocate, using reason and sense to seduce Castiel. And Castiel falls for it. Some may even say that season six is a stunning indictment of the clockwork universe, the one where God has left the building and abandoned humanity to its own devices and therefore leaving open the way for other gods, other grabs for power, a path we see Castiel follow during season six and season seven.

When Castiel retrieves Sam from hell he commits his first act of arrogance, and that act tells us that his story is one like Sam’s of season four – the path to hell is paved and all. By doing so, he undoes a human choice and consequentially alters the human dynamic – he interferes and the power to interfere infects the rest of his storyline for the season. His is a cautionary tale of god – when we humanize god, a god with an agenda emerges. Castiel’s storyline illustrates what happens when a rogue divinity attempts to direct behavior, especially in the last few episodes of season six and the season seven premiere.

His storyline also mirrors that of Sam’s addiction – addictions are addictions no matter the substance. Both Sam and Castiel become addicted to the idea of power, of changing the course of human events, and thus protecting humanity from the supernatural. But by doing so, both characters lose their moral compass. For Sam, Ruby leads him astray by pretending companionship and using logic and reason to fuel his anger. For Castiel, Crowley performs the same function. And that story turn, too, is important because being influenced corrupts the divine in Castiel. It also reminds the viewer and Dean that Castiel’s strength is in brotherhood, not fatherhood, because in a way, humanity’s (and for Castiel Dean is the representation of humanity) dependence on the divine to fix things actually abrogates free will. In other words, the show knows that the character of Castiel cannot continue to be the deux ex machina he’d become.

Castiel’s redemption, then, is important because it mirrors Sam’s in many ways. Both characters feel fundamentally betrayed by the father, and yet at the same time, take the father’s mission to heart as personal identity. It is not surprising that Castiel would “take on” Sam’s illness in season seven’s “The Born Again Identity.” Castiel’s gravest acts of hubris were against Sam – both pulling him out of Hell without a soul and then causing Death’s mental wall to crumble inside Sam’s mind. Castiel’s amnesia blocked out that crime (and I often wonder if that was not an act of God) until he was confronted with the severity of his choices in the form of a catatonic Sam. Whether possessed by Leviathan or by Lucifer, both characters suffer a psychic vulnerability and both characters look to Dean as the center around which not to collapse. So again, it is appropriate that Castiel’s redemption arc would truly begin with taking Sam’s sins on as his own, and in many ways, this act invokes the Judeo-Christian background. We see one taking on the illness of the other, for the other.

Such vulnerability also explains how Castiel might be subject to manipulation in season eight. His current storyline loops him back toward the divine but through the human. He is finding god through mission, such as in the case of the tablets. His journey back to god is marked by important choices. The choice to remain in purgatory invoked Sam’s choice to jump into hell, and again, Dean becomes the representation of what is being saved in that choice.

Now, here, I’d like to say that I’m not arguing that Sam and Dean’s relationship is the exact mirror of Dean and Castiel’s relationship. It can’t be nor should it be. But I do think that there are many similarities and those similarities are there for a reason. They show us that, read one way, Dean is the archetype for the humanity of the story, that Dean’s place is the center of the narrative and that both Sam and Castiel love Dean because he is the one worth saving.

A Better Angel, Indeed.

The show uses these characters to tell a larger than life story of brotherhood, one that is meant to instruct us on what it means to love the other before ourselves but at the same time warn us that such love can be destructive if it becomes unbalanced. For me Castiel is the show’s way of making god a part of the story without bringing god into the story. He’s also a way to show us how both Dean and Sam have the divine in them – that he acts out their journeys in his own provides an example of the brotherhood of god also being the brotherhood of man. It’s a hopeful tale at times, and at other times it’s a hopeless one as well. But that’s kind of the point of belief, I would say. Sometimes you see the footprints and know you are not alone. Sometimes the water washes them away and you are left without direction and you must find the better angel in yourself before taking the next step. And so I guess my point is that all of these characters, Castiel included, are as human and divine as we are.