The Morning After
Stunned. Shell Shocked. Numb… and in awe.
Those are all descriptors of how I’m feeling the morning after seeing Supernatural’s “Despair”. It was a complex finale-level episode, written by Robert Berens and artistically directed by Richard Speight, Jr. So much happened, it’s hard to sort through emotions to even begin to comprehend the ramifications of the episode’s climactic events. It all ended in a cliffhanger of Chuck annihilating life on Earth. How does one process those kind of Endgame stakes? Our heroes didn’t avert the apocalypse this time. They didn’t save the world. They stood by helplessly and watched everyone vanish. You would think that horror would dominate one’s feelings about an episode. If not that, then maybe one (or all) of the other mind-blowing moments:
…We lost Donna, Eileen, AU Bobby, AU Charlie, all the hunters Sam saved, presumably Jody and her family, Garth and his family and all the other characters we dearly love.
…Jack lived through a detonation of cosmic proportions despite Chuck’s best efforts to kill him. Jack also mysteriously lost all his Nephilim powers (Were they used up in the explosion?), but now seems to be able to both create and destroy life.
…Billie died. Yeah, Dean killed Death again.
…Sam, Dean and Jack are all alone, like they never have been before, with no allies or ways out.
All of those shockingly intense events added to the impact of “Despair”, but one unexpected perfect moment of happiness in a beautifully poignant death scene eclipsed them all.
Going into the episode, I thought it was very likely that this would be the week that Castiel died to protect his adopted family. All my theories about Supernatural's ending involve freeing humans from all supernatural influences, both good and bad, so I had braced for the moment when we would lose Castiel. More than that, though, the last day of filming this episode was the day in March, 2020 when Misha, Richard and Alex were on that harrowing plane ride from Vancouver to the Las Vegas Supernatural convention. They all talked openly about how they sincerely felt they were near death when the plane malfunctioned and had to declare an emergency. Misha, though, seemed particularly shaken. He had to go on stage just moments after he arrived in Las Vegas, and you could tell that he was emotionally wrecked. I’d have to go back and listen to his exact words, but I clearly remember him saying he hadn’t slept in the past 24 hours and had just filmed the most emotional scene of his career. He was barely able to contain tears or form coherent sentences, and I (and others) knew then that he was grieving the loss of his best friend, Castiel. From behind-the-scenes pictures shared on Twitter last night, it appears he also gave a goodbye speech to the filming crew.
Even knowing all that, Castiel’s death scene left me in shock. The significance of what he said shifted an underlying tenet of the entire series (more on that later), but how he said it was gripping. Misha’s performance was perhaps the best of his career. As he confessed his deepest emotions to Dean, it was clear that Misha was himself feeling every nuance of Castiel’s words. The tears we saw were both Castiel’s and Misha’s, delivering a moment when Misha gave himself over to Castiel, and the actor and angel shared one heart and soul. Misha confirmed his convergence with Castiel in a tweet that started my tears flowing:
#Supernatural Tonight, watching Cas talk to Dean, I got lost in the story and forgot for a moment that I'm the one who plays that angel and I thought, "He's how I want to be. He's openhearted and he's selfless and he's true."— Misha Collins — VOTE YOUR ASS OFF! (@mishacollins) November 6, 2020
We’ve seen those rare moments before. Jared and Sam’s pleas to Dean of “why don’t you believe in us?” at the end of “Prophet and Loss” was perhaps the most powerful of the series, followed closely by Sam’s total breakdown in “Sacrifice” and Dean’s confession of what happened to him in Hell in “Heaven and Hell”. In all those cases, Jared and Jensen admitted that they couldn’t separate themselves from their characters in those scenes, resulting in emotional breakdowns for the actors that extended long after the scenes were filmed. That was what we saw in Misha in Vegas. Misha delivered Castiel’s emotional catharsis then immediately had to grieve his death, at the same time that he himself had to grieve the loss of his place in Supernatural. The audience felt everything that both Misha and Castiel felt in an absolutely stunning example of the best that a show, a scene and an actor can hope for.
In my review of 15.15 “Gimme Shelter”, I applauded how Misha elevated his performance to be the lead of the show. He delivered that caliber of acting again in “Despair”. He’s always been good, but he was clearly Jared and Jensen’s equal in this episode, and that’s a very high bar indeed.
Truth and New Canon
Now let’s talk about what Castiel said.
Castiel: There's one thing she's afraid of. There's... There's one thing strong enough to stop her. When Jack was dying, I made a deal to save him. The price was my life. When I experienced a moment of true happiness, the Empty would be summoned and it would take me forever. I always wondered, ever since I took that burden, that curse, I wondered what it could be, what... what my true happiness could even look like. I never found an answer. Because the one thing I want... ...it's something I know I can't have. But I think I know... I think I know now. Happiness isn't in the having. It's in just being. It's in just saying it.
I know. I know how you see yourself, Dean. You see yourself the same way our enemies see you. You're destructive and you're angry and you're broken. You're... You're "Daddy's Blunt Instrument." And you think hate and anger, that's... that's what drives you. That's who you are. It's not. And everyone who knows you sees it. Everything you have ever done, the good and the bad, you have done for love. You raised your little brother for love. You fought for this whole world for love. That is who you are. You're the most caring man on Earth. You are the most selfless, loving human being I will ever know.
You know, ever since we met and ever since I pulled you out of Hell, knowing you has changed me. Because you cared, I cared. I cared about you. I cared about Sam. I cared about Jack. I cared about the whole world because of you. You changed me, Dean.
Dean: Why does this sound like a goodbye?
Castiel: Because it is. I love you.
Dean: Don't do this, Cass. Cass.
Castiel: Goodbye, Dean.
My mouth was gaping open through this whole confession of love. “They’re going to make Destiel canon” I gasped. As Castiel continued, my mind was racing ahead. “What is he going to say? How far will they take this? I can’t believe this. THEY’RE GOING TO MAKE DESTIEL CANON!” I talked with several other people in the late, late night hours and they said they had the same reaction. We were all thrown out of the pivotal death of one of the three primary characters on the show by the meta realization that the canon of the show was going to acknowledge what a faction of the fandom has been seeing/requesting/demanding for years. Oh. My. God. The show went there.
My first reaction when the scene had concluded was that “I love you” could be interpreted either platonically or romantically. As someone who Castiel loved dearly as a brother, Castiel needed for Dean to understand that his self-loathing was entirely undeserved. Castiel’s redemption of Dean was a climax for Dean’s journey – an insightful character summarization befitting the end of the series.
For weeks, the show has been studying who Dean is as a person. From a childhood friend telling him he’s “changed”, to enemies berating him for his anger and rage, people have taken turns characterizing Dean. Sam’s turn was last week when he desperately shouted at Dean,
“Stop! I’m trying to get you to listen!”
Then each brother described Dean from their own point of view:
Dean: Chuck has to die. He has to! Otherwise he'll keep us tap dancing forever, and I can't live like that, man! I can't live like that! I won't!
Sam: I know you feel like that right now, okay. I know you do. But you gotta trust me. My entire life, you've protected me... from Dad, from Lucifer, from everything. I didn't always like it, you know, but... it's the one thing in the whole world that I could always count on. It's the only thing I've ever known that was true.
Dean was in a blind rage in "Unity", desperate for freedom, but Sam got through to Dean, and convinced Dean to stand down. When the crisis was over, Dean reflected on (and reiterated) his recklessness in a heart-felt apology to Sam (in "Despair"):
Dean: Sam, I'm sorry about everything that...
Sam: Dean. You don't have to.
Dean: I pulled a gun on you. It's like I just couldn't stop. You know, we were so close to beating him. It's like I could smell Chuck's blood in the water, and I... Nothing else mattered. It was everything. I just couldn't snap out of it.
Sam: Well, you did. You've snapped me out of worse.
But then Billie continued the narration of Dean’s character flaws, adding her view of his rebellious recklessness:
It's you, Dean. It's always been you. Death-defying, rule-breaking. You are everything I lived to set right. To put down. To tame. You are human disorder incarnate.
Maybe it was Billie’s diatribe, or maybe it was Dean’s recognition of his return to impulsive vendettas (i.e. “Shoot first and ask questions later”) that reminded him again of his failings. Either way, moments before he thought he would die, he offered Castiel his last confession of self-loathing:
I just led us into another trap. All because I... I couldn't hurt Chuck. Because I was angry and because I just needed something to kill and because that's all I know how to do. It was Chuck all along. We never should've left Sam and Jack. We should be there with them now. Everybody's gonna die, Cass, everybody. I can't stop it. She's gonna get through that door. And she's gonna kill you, and then she's gonna kill me. I'm sorry.
But rather than Dean’s view of himself being the deciding argument on his character, Castiel had the last word. Castiel’s conclusion that everyone who ever loved Dean knows that he is motivated by love and a driving, all-consuming need to protect those around him was offered as the final verdict on Dean’s character. Castiel’s last act on Earth was to define Dean as he saw him, as well as to confess how he saw himself. Castiel’s declaration of love for Dean was as much about defining Dean as it was about defining himself.
The intensely interesting aftermath of that character climax is that Dean never replied. Does he accept absolution? Does he reciprocate Castiel’s love? Dean’s silence leaves the final determination of Dean’s character as either a cliffhanger or perpetually open to individual interpretation. We all see what we want to see – especially about ourselves. It all depends on your point of view.
Castiel, on the other hand, told us rather clearly how he views himself. The line that makes all the difference in the world (to me) was not “I love you” but rather,
The one thing I want... it's something I know I can't have.
Castiel’s witness speech in “Gimme Shelter” alerted us to how far his journey of self-understanding had come when he expressed his acceptance of himself and his love for Jack. It was a heart-warming evolution in Castiel’s character but it turns out that fatherhood and his place in the world was just the beginning of Castiel’s truth. In a scene that will long be remembered as changing his character forever, Castiel’s "true happiness" came from acknowledging his love for Dean. I see the line above as expressing a bond one feels for the love of their life. Castiel’s tears said that, in that moment, he knew who he truly was, and it gave him great joy to tell that person they had made him happy.
I don’t think it can be overstated how much Castiel’s words mean to many people in the fandom. I have never been a Destiel shipper, so it was something I thought would never happen. The show has always pushed past the boundaries of what’s expected, though. Just as “Despair” upped the stakes of the boys’ battles with the supernatural to new levels, it also ventured into new territory in the realm of relationships and feelings. It again broke through a wall we thought was unbreakable. Forever memorable, Misha delivered that moment with the poise and grace of an angel.
Resets and Jack
We’ve been tracking “reset” as a prominent thread for many weeks. Castiel’s admission could easily be interpreted as a “reset” of his character. Admittedly, that was an interpretation of the thread that I didn’t see coming. Conversely, we correctly identified that Chuck’s erasure of the world was one of the “resets” being foreshadowed. The fact that he was able to execute his plan, though, was shocking. Heroes are supposed to stop that kind of thing!
Jack’s character was also reset back to a more human version of himself. I think that development is still unresolved. Why did Jack lose his powers? Was his archangel grace entirely consumed in the explosion? What’s with plants spontaneously growing then dying in his presence? Is he now the same as Amara and Chuck, both darkness and light combined? It also seems inappropriate to me that Jack, not Castiel, will accompany Sam and Dean to the final showdown with Chuck. Why would their best friend of 12 years be taken off the board before the son who joined them only a few years ago? He must still have a purpose. Billie said so herself.
Billie: The boy is mine. No. Sorry, kid. You're still useful.
So what’s that all about?
Just as Misha elevated his performance, Alex Calvert also dug deep for this episode. His revelation of Jack’s identity crisis (remember that thread from prior week’s?) showed a more mature Alex, able to convey Jack’s emotion through more than just words. He held his own in tough scenes with Rachel Miner, Misha and the rest of more experienced actors.
Based on how far “Despair” took the reset thread with Castiel, Jack and Chuck, my new fear is that we didn’t think big enough in our vision of what will be reset next. What if it isn’t just Chuck who's planning to reset the Earth? What if the writers plan to let him succeed? That would mean that Jack is removed from the equation (killed or goes off with granddad and auntie), Sam and Dean are both killed, and the world we now live in is the reset of their universe. In other words, they died to give us our world – a world without supernatural forces who interfere with free will! Could all our religious traditions actually be a history of a world that came before us? Sam told Jack, “Sacrificing yourself for a cause takes a lot of courage.” Please let that be retrospective insight rather than new foreshadowing! Also, look at how many times Dean said "I can't live" and "I couldn't stop" on top of Billie saying "It was always you, Dean." Given that “Despair” went where we didn’t think it would ever venture to go, I think this new theory is quite plausible!
[I've added a little more to expand my theory... Don't read this paragraph if you don't want detail on the theory. I can clearly see now a resolution in 15.19 that makes the entire Supernatural series, all 15 years, chapters in one of Chuck's book (reinforcing "the Monster at the End of This Book" idea). Sam and Dean make a "deal" with god - he creates a new world that is free of all monsters, free of his influence, and free of the interference of angels or demons. Humans are free also - free to exercise their free will. There is only one world - our world, and humans are on their own. This would be consistent with the agnostic views I've felt were foreshadowed. There aren't multiple versions of his story. Just one. Chuck leaves nature alone because they all agreed that he got that part right. The price of the deal is Sam and Dean's (and Jack's?) lives. Alternately, Jack and Amara work against Chuck and make this happen, but the end result is the same. Their world's destroyed; our world is created. This deal scenario is consistent with Castiel losing his life to a deal, and also all the deals they've made through the years to get themselves out of no-win situations. Then 15.20 is Sam and Dean living in a "dream world" of happiness as their reward. They would have succeeded. Their lives ultimately saved the world, and rid it of all monsters, and there would be peace when they are done. I can totally see this happening now. Add it to the long list of ways this can end, but am I wrong in thinking it's possible - even probable?]
I didn’t mention it in last week's Thread analysis, but "stop" was used six times in that script. That became significant when it appeared nine times in “Despair”:
Jack: Leave me! I can't stop this.
Castiel: You led Jack through his trials. You know what's happening to him. You can stop this. Please.
Billie: I can't stop it. But there is something I can do.
Sam: Even if I give you the book, what's to stop you from stabbing us in the back? Killing us all?
Billie: Nothing. But you don't have a choice.
Death’s librarian: I put up the warding that you asked for. It should stop the Empty from getting back in here.
Dean: Stop killing my people!
It’s possible that this thread is telling us Chuck will stop what he’s doing. My fear, though, is that it means Dean isn’t going to stop impulsively trying to save “his people” and that will lead to his death, and Sam will die trying to stop Dean. Either that or they die together trying to stop Chuck. Stop, writers, please stop! We can't say any more goodbyes!
Leaving and Goodbyes
I would be remiss if I didn’t stop to acknowledge the amazing performance by Lisa Berry. Her character has evolved from a throw-away reaper to this season’s arch villain. She showed us the commanding presence of a cosmic being that has enough hubris to try to kill god, yet with a warmth that made us love her every time she was on our screens. I’m thrilled she got an opportunity to showcase and expand her talent. I hope to see more of her in years to come.
And I haven't at all talked about Sam. That's because Sam wasn't the focus of this story. This episode was about Castiel and Dean primarily; Sam and Jack secondarily. What was done with Sam was logical. They closed out his Eileen storyline, and remembered that he led the AU hunters when Dean was possessed by Michael. It makes sense that those hunters would respond to Sam's call. It also makes sense that he would need to be the one who looks for and recites a spell to reinforce whatever warding they might be able to create to protect themselves. So it all made sense - but Sam' part in the episode was disappointing. I'll explain why more in the comments below but he definitely felt 4th out of 4 this week. He didn't even get a chance to say goodbye to Cas - and even that was consistent with his prior experiences. When Dean and Castiel had that big fight (I think it was "Rupture"), Cas didn't say goodbye or explain to Sam what happened. When Cas left to find a way to save Jack just a few weeks ago, he again left it to Dean to explain everything to Sam. So not saying goodbye to Castiel was not only consistent with what had happened previously, it mirrored not being able to say goodbye to anyone - Eileen, Bobby, Donna, Jody, Charlie, Garth, and all of humanity. Everyone was ripped away without goodbyes. I let it all go, because, to me, Castiel deserved to be center stage in the episode where he died. After 12 years, he deserved his big exit. He would never have expressed his truth to Dean if Sam had been there. Those two resets were important to him as a character, and to set the board to move forward. No, Sam's role wasn't gratifying in "Despair" but with Castiel's sacrifice completed, we're slowly getting back to just Sam and Dean. I'm content to wait to see them close out the series, alone, together.
There were more than a few things about “Despair” that took me out of the story. Did Chuck just leave the bunker, precisely at his moment of victory? Logically, yes. He wouldn’t want to stick around to get sucked into a black hole designed for cosmic destruction. It would have been nice to have seen him disappear in "Unity", though, because it took me a while to figure out how the boys got from their ultimate confrontation in a hallway to huddling together in the map room. Then Dean is panicked to save Jack when seconds before he pulled a gun on Sam for trying to prevent Jack’s death?
Other things that gave me a moment of pause: Was Bobby’s biggest worry really the latrine? Why were we introduced to a random reaper in Death’s library, and a new love interest for AU Charlie? Were the few lines they each delivered really necessary to move forward the plot? Something also seemed off about Charlie, Donna and Bobby. Those are three actors who usually own their scenes, but in all cases their interactions with the story seemed rushed and gratuitous. They weren’t convincing, which is highly odd when you consider that all three have stellar histories on the show and are actors that I love.
So it wasn’t perfect, but what it did give us far outweighed its flaws (a lesson Cas tried to teach Dean). "Despair" defined Dean and redefined Castiel, leaving behind a bloody handprint on Dean's shoulder that brilliantly bridged Cas' arc with Dean from beginning to end. It changed Jack, killed Death and erased all human life on Earth (well, except three). It also left us with more mysteries to be solved… like, what’s the “new ending” in Chuck’s book, the ending that Billie finds so “interesting”; and what are Jack’s new powers that make him “useful”? It was an epic episode, one that goes on my favorite rewatch list. Even more exciting than all that, it went to places I never, ever expected Supernatural would go. That means that anything can happen in the next episodes. Mind games and dream worlds, anyone?
I raised many questions, and the episodes raised even more, so please share your thoughts below!
Catch up on Nightsky's "Threads" reviews! Links can be found on her writer's page.
Thank you to Forever Dreaming for the amazingly fast Despair Transcript and the Unity Transcript!