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8.21 The Great Escapist: When You Create Stories, You Become Gods

We can all be gods.
Our minds write our own stories;
Angels, demons, men.

Commentary and Meta Analysis

Ben Edlund never disappoints! This episode was chock-full of information advancing and reinforcing the overall mytharc of the series. I suspect I'll be doing many more analytical pieces during hiatus, because there was too much here for me to deal with in a single write-up. In this discussion, I'm going to look at angels rewriting their roles, the impact of the trials on Sam, and the nature of the trials themselves.

We Were Supposed To Be Their Shepherds, Not Their Murderers

Metatron's description of the archangels after the departure of God echoed what we'd heard from Zachariah in Lucifer Rising: that a cabal of high-ranking angels manipulated events to match the blueprints of prophecy so they could trigger the apocalypse and achieve control of paradise on Earth. It was conspiracy on a grand scale, requiring them to deceive the majority of the angelic host – the angels typified by Castiel, Samandriel, and Anna – into believing they were doing what God had always intended. Listening to Metatron, I kept hearing Zachariah: Our grunts on the ground – we couldn't just tell them the whole truth. We'd have a full-scale rebellion on our hands! I mean, think about it: would we really let 65 seals get broken unless senior management wanted it that way? The apocalypse: poor name, bad marketing. When all it is, is Ali/Foreman. On a … slightly larger scale. And we like our chances. When our side wins – and we will – it's paradise on earth. What's not to like about that?

Now we know for certain that Naomi, like Zachariah, was part of that long-term conspiracy of angels, cynically using others throughout history to further the plot, wiping out any inconvenient memories that made rank and file angels begin to question their orders or command structure. Ion said it here, trying to justify his own betrayal of the ruling angels to work with Crowley: Do you even know what the mission was? They've been in all our heads. … You soldiers, down in the garrison, at least they let you believe the lie. Upstairs, working for Naomi, working in intelligence, we had no option but to live in the dirt. She never reset me completely. I always knew too much. I had to – I had to do my job. Ion knew what the senior angels were up to; he knew intimately how they were manipulating others, because he was part of the manipulating structure. He knew what they were doing was wrong; he knew it was a callous power play. He simply didn't have the courage or the integrity to stand against them, to try to do what was right.

Ion also clearly wasn't the only one of the angels to work in league with demons. When you think about it, both sides had to participate in order to bring about the premature apocalypse. After all, according to the prophecies the angels cited, demons had their roles to play, without which certain necessary events wouldn't have been triggered. For example, Alastair gloatingly and Castiel reluctantly quoted prophecy to Dean in On The Head Of A Pin, telling him it was written that for the first seal to be broken, a righteous man had to shed blood in Hell, and the righteous man who began it was the only one who could finish it. Alastair said Lilith had wanted and needed Dean in Hell because of the role he would play; the angels conveniently didn't manage to rescue him until that first domino had fallen. Crowley's references to a shared history with Naomi speak to me of the two of them having both been involved in all the machinations it took to twist events throughout history eventually to make the Winchesters match the niggling details of prophecy so they could be used as tools to trigger the apocalypse, with both sides – angels and demons – believing they could make the end-times dice fall in their favor. And I'm willing to bet the plot went back generations before Sam and Dean, with multiple attempts having failed because some factor hadn't lined up properly at the time. I think it was the brothers' misfortune to be the pawns on the board when all the plots finally came together fully, including Lucifer finally being able to speak to Azazel and implement the crucial plot-piece of physically preparing his future vessel to be able to contain Lucifer's corrupted angelic essence.

The show has always played with the opposing concepts of free will and destiny, with the angels constantly preaching destiny. Gabriel spoke for them all when he told the brothers in Changing Channels: Why do you think you two are the vessels? Think about it! Michael, the big brother, loyal to an absent father, and Lucifer, the little brother, rebellious of Daddy's plan. You were born to this, boys! It's your destiny! It was always you! As it is in Heaven, so it must be on Earth. One brother has to kill the other. … Why do you think I've always taken such an interest in you? Because from the moment Dad flipped on the lights around here, we knew it was all gonna end with you. Always.

I think Metatron gave the lie to that claim when he – the scribe of the Word of God – didn't know who the Winchesters were. Metatron knew what was written in the Word of God because he's the one who wrote it down. If the Winchesters had been recorded there, he would have known them, I think, much the same way all angels knew the names of every prophet. Having hidden himself away, however, Metatron didn't know precisely what Michael, Zachariah, Naomi, and the others with them had done deliberately to create the conditions of prophecy around the Winchester brothers. I think his reaction says a lot about the Winchesters' “destiny” having been artificially engineered by the angels, not scribed as any real part of God's plan. And the brothers having chosen free will to make their own decisions definitely spiked the angels' post-apocalyptic plans.

I do wonder to what extent Naomi's manipulations may have influenced Castiel's choices. She obviously never intended his initial rebellion or his affection for humanity, so his decisions to side with the Winchesters and oppose Zachariah, Michael, and Lucifer were clearly outside her control. But I wonder now if some of his poor choices since then – including teaming with Crowley and raiding Purgatory for souls, accidentally freeing Leviathan along the way, and even breaking the wall in Sam's mind – might not have come about in part because his judgment was impaired by Naomi's mental meddling on the occasions she took him apart and reassembled him, rather than simply through his own misguided thinking. She's clearly been meddling with and reprogramming angels for a very long time; I have to wonder what impact she has had.

I was amused by Naomi's observations that Castiel had always been peculiar. I've been working for a long time on a meta discussion of Castiel on precisely that topic, exploring whether Castiel had been deliberately created to be different, or whether his unprecedented close contact with Dean – starting with carrying his soul out of Hell, continuing through his assignment to guide Dean on his mission path, and flowering into true friendship – had simply triggered changes that could have happened in any angel. Friendship across human and angelic lines definitely wasn't something that angels had contemplated; we've seen most angels being generally contemptuous of humans despite God's command, as described by Lucifer in The End, to bow down to and love humans even more than they loved God.

Since coming into contact with the Winchesters, Castiel has been shown to be unique, and not just in terms of personality: Castiel is the only angel we have ever seen come back from death. In that regard, he's as peculiar as the Winchesters, but he's far more unique. Angels and demons have both been shown to be able to bring humans back to life. Demons could do it through the mechanism of a deal, using the power of one soul to affect another, while angels apparently have the innate ability to repair and re-ensoul a human body; we've seen Castiel do it to Dean and Bobby, and Zachariah claimed that he would just bring Dean back if he died as Lucifer said he would do with Sam. But every angel other than Castiel has stayed dead when they died, and the angels don't seem to have the ability to reverse death for each other as they can do for a human. Only Castiel returns. Is it God, intervening to keep Castiel as a player on the board even while he chooses not to interfere in any other way, or does Castiel represent an evolutionary step that becomes possible when an angel truly befriends a human, treating the human as God intended?

Because These Trials – They're Purifying Me

I was intrigued to hear Sam telling Dean he believed the trials were purifying him, driving out the taint of demon blood he'd carried since he was six months old. Since that was a theory I shared with Ardeospina, I was delighted to hear him say it – and I hope it's true.

The current phase of Sam's mid-trial tribulations – particularly his fever-driven recollections of long-forgotten childhood memories – also goes to the show's theme of perception this season. Remembering things long forgotten, Sam is looking at his life and his brother through different eyes. I was as chilled as Dean to hear Sam asking if he'd somehow been aware of the evil inside him when, as a child, he'd thought he couldn't undertake a quest like Galahad's because he wasn't pure. And while I laughed at Sam's memory of eight-year-old Dean riding a farting donkey on a trip to the bottom of the Grand Canyon, and smiled to think of little Dean reading to even younger Sam, it struck me immediately that those weren't things Dean remembered, at least not without prompting, and indeed, the brothers never even having been to the Grand Canyon was a major point powerfully and memorably made in Croatoan.

I don't think that was a continuity error; I think it was a deliberate choice. And I think it's a direct tie to the season's whole theme of perception.

We see everything that happens to us and the world around us through the eyes of our own experience. Our thoughts, memories, attitudes, beliefs, emotions, and convictions color everything we see and hear, everything we read, everything we react to. Two people watching the exact same event often describe it in massively different terms, precisely because they perceive it differently. Just look at the extreme polarity in Supernatural fandom, which exists despite all of us watching the same episodes. We find in stories what we look for in them – and sometimes what we find isn't anything the writer or the actor consciously inserted.

Did John take the brothers on a trip to the Grand Canyon when they were very young? I think he did, because once Sam started talking about it, Dean also barely recalled it, although he couldn't believe that Sam remembered something from when they were so young. But I'm also thinking that was a memory that had long been lost to both brothers, resurfacing only when Sam's fever dredged it up. Sam might not have remembered it before simply because he was so young – I certainly don't have many conscious memories from when I was four! – but he also might have blocked it out gradually over time because he had long built up walls of resentment against John and the hunting life that made him discount what otherwise might have been good memories. Similarly, if Dean at the time – being young, self-conscious, and painfully aware of looking ridiculous – had been embarrassed about the whole farting donkey incident, he might have glossed over the memory, pretending it never happened, to the point of forgetting it. We can sometimes be very good at dismissing uncomfortable things from mind by changing our mental narrative to exclude or rewrite them.

We can do to ourselves and to each other what Naomi has done to the rank-and-file angels, although when we do it, it's usually without the need for probing tools and torture. We do it simply by repeating our own versions of stories to ourselves until our reality becomes what we remember and believe about what we said, rather than what we actually experienced in the first place. Our perception of the truth becomes our truth – even if that wasn't the truth that other people perceived.

And That's What This Has All Been About, The Choices Your Kind Make

Metatron raised a caution flag Dean wasn't really able to see when he warned that the brothers would need to weigh their choice, asking what it would take to close the gates of Hell and what the world would be like after it's done. Choice has always been at the heart of Supernatural. For all the talk of destiny, everything that has happened in the show has really boiled down to people making choices – right choices, wrong choices, bad choices, good choices, choices that seemed like one thing only to be revealed as another.

Sometimes our choices are made on the basis of wrong or incomplete information; sometimes we can be manipulated into making certain choices by people who know how to play on our desires and fears. But every choice we make has consequences, and we need to be ready to accept and own them.

And closing the gates of Hell may not produce the beneficial result the brothers have assumed. If I were them, I'd be asking Metatron what the Word of God has to say about what the world would be like with the gates of Hell closed.

With that said, I am intrigued by the nature of the trials Sam is undergoing. The first one, killing a hellhound and bathing in its blood, seemed mostly stage setting, establishing a certain minimum level of ability for the quester. The second one, freeing an innocent soul from Hell and sending it to Heaven, was a positive good – although for the trial itself to exist, an injustice had to have happened first, to trap an innocent soul in Hell.

The third trial is the most fascinating to me: to cure a demon. While I, like Dean, don't know what that means, given that demons were made from human souls consigned to Hell, it suggests an aspect of redemption – another key theme running through the show as a whole. Dean, Sam, and Castiel have all gone through stages when they sought some form of redemption, whether to make up for or be absolved from their own perceived wrong choices or to validate a sacrifice made by another on their behalf.

What I have to wonder is, if a demon can be “cured” – and by that curing process, be redeemed – might that suggest that all the souls in Hell could possibly be similarly saved? I always found it interesting that Supernatural's God did not destroy any of his creations. He imprisoned Leviathan and similarly rapacious monsters in Purgatory, and he locked Lucifer in a hidden cage in Hell, consigning to Hell the demons Lucifer had made and later humans who did not merit Heaven – but he did not destroy any of them. Was the reason for his forbearance a knowledge that no sin was unforgivable, that any soul or angel could, with the right circumstance and effort, be made worthy of Heaven?

Was God's ultimate intent that all of his creation find its way to him, however long that might take? And might that argue against closing the gates of Hell, if that closure would eliminate the opportunity for redemption?

Production Notes

Ben Edlund is one of my favorite writers of all time, and I am extremely glad that he came to Supernatural and stayed. The show fits his quirkiness perfectly, and his mix of the profound and the absurd – usually at the same time – can be magical. I loved the way this script called back to all the previous episodes involving the angels' manipulation of “destiny” and expanded that image to show us the impact it had on some of the angelic middlemen, like Ion, and to indicate that the deception of the garrison involved much more than just angels being too naïve to see what was in front of them; those who began to see too much were tampered with, their minds altered. We understood from what we were shown that Crowley had managed to get to Kevin precisely because he had traitor angel Ion on his payroll. Crowley playing the director of his own little Kevin-manipulation fantasy was a pointed comment on perception. And for all the heavy exposition this story required, I felt the expository dialogue never got heavy-handed.

Director Robert Duncan McNeill did a masterful job in laying out and riding herd on a story that had many simultaneously moving pieces. He hit all the beats of Crowley with Kevin, Dean and Sam with each other and with Metatron, and Castiel with Naomi, Crowley, and Ion perfectly. I never felt cheated of character moments, and yet the story ran like a train and felt as if it ended too soon.

The performances throughout the episode were superb. This episode was particularly a tour de force for Osric Chau, who took us from Kevin's angry, frustrated despair in recording his time-release farewell message through his realization of Hell's deception to the strength of his discovery both of the third trial and the certain knowledge that Crowley could no longer intimidate him. Mark Sheppard's Crowley was a delight to watch, and I loathed Amanda Tapping's Naomi with every breath – they're both achieving their character goals. Playing Metatron, Curtis Armstrong was handed an enormous amount of exposition, but managed to deliver it as real dialogue fueled by his fascination with humanity's godlike creativity. By the end of the episode, my sense of Metatron was an anthropologist gone almost native.

Jared Padalecki has thrown himself into a Sam being reshaped by the trials. I loved his half-delirious, little-boy-memory self, and how he never lost his determination to pull his weight and forge forward. The look on his face when Sam asked whether he had somehow known even as a little boy about the evil inside him was killer. The idea that Sam would start to resonate with the Word of God and hear Metatron's angelic voice was a neat one, and I enjoyed the way Jared played it, with Sam being almost deafened by the vibrations only he could hear. Jensen Ackles's portrayal of concerned older brother Dean is masterful. He can convey more with a look than other do with pages of dialogue. I thoroughly enjoyed Misha Collins playing Castiel on the run, and then facing off against Naomi, Crowley, and Ion. After all his own trials, Castiel has finally rediscovered his sense of self and mission, and I look forward to seeing where the angel goes from here, now that he has reunited with the Winchesters. I do wonder how he managed to drop himself precisely in their path, but I can wave that question aside.

The sound, special and visual effects teams outdid themselves with this episode! The sequential Biggersons were a set design and VFX coup, as was Crowley's “Hell soundstage” containing the boat set and his transforming demon actors. The idea of Crowley melting down an angel blade and recasting it into bullets was inspired, and the VFX crew delivered on the results of shooting an angel with those bullets. Crowley digging the angel tablet out of Castiel's body was a gross but well done combination of practical effects makeup and VFX, and so was Castiel pulling the bullet out of his body and forcing it into Ion's eye. Wow! And all season, the sound crew has done amazing things with the depth of the sound field and the placement of sound effects. If you're not listening to this show on a set of surround sound speakers or through a good headset, you're missing a crucial aspect of the show.

Good stories take us out of ourselves and put us into other universes. When we watch an episode of Supernatural like this one, we can be escapists getting away from the problems of our personal worlds, much the way Metatron fled his angelic troubles to become absorbed instead into human fiction. But great stories can also take us deeper into ourselves and enhance our understanding of and connection with others, as Sam and Dean managed to force Metatron to become involved by personalizing Kevin's story and their own.

Perception can be everything. And if we open ourselves to it, our perceptions can change, and we can become better, more focused, more involved, more caring people.

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December 2015

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