free will rises

It’s back, you guys! My favorite theme reared its head again in this past week’s episode of Supernatural, so, naturally, you all get subjected to a giant meta post. Comments, questions, additions, and contradictions are always welcome.

This is about free will. It’s about Cas and Dean and free will and choices and consequences and good and evil, because those are all my favorite parts of the show. And it’s about perception because Carver stated somewhere at some point (erm, Comic-Con, maybe? really I’m just quoting this HuffPo review, which you should also read for some nice speculation about Sam, but I remember hearing it somewhere else too) that this season would be about perception—or, more specifically differences in perception—and that was really evident in 8×07. And it’s about guilt. Because this is SPN. There’s always guilt. It’s the driving force of the entire show. (Which is maybe my other favorite part. Because I am a little twisted. And Catholic. These things are not mutually exclusive.)

SO. This gets a rambly. And lonnnng.

It’s not about fault; it’s about will
Okay, so, first, to demonstrate the intersection of these themes, I’ve taken what is perhaps the most pivotal conversation of the episode and illustrated it, not with screen caps because I am not that awesome, but with themey margin notes! I know you’re excited.

Dean: You could’ve gotten yourself killed. Why didn’t you wait for me?
Cas: I didn’t get killed. And it worked.
Dean: And if it didn’t?
Cas: It would’ve been my problem. — because it was his choice; free will
Dean: Well, that’s not the way I see it. — perception of situation
Cas: Hey, everything isn’t your responsibility. — because other people can and do make their own decisions; free will
Cas: Getting me out of Purgatory wasn’t your responsibility. — attempt to alleviate guilt
Dean: You didn’t get out. So who’s fault was it? — perception of blame/guilt
Cas: It’s not about fault. It’s about will. — the warring perspectives
Cas: Dean do you really not remember?
Dean: I lived it, Cas. I know what happened. — idea that experience is pure perception; “seeing is believing”
Cas: No. You think you know. You remember it the way you needed to. — perception is a choice too
Dean: Look, I don’t need to feel like hell for failing you, OK? For failing you like I failed every other God forsaken thing that I care about. I don’t need it. — *ugly fangirl sobbing* But also, what Dean is effectively asking in that last line is “Why would I choose this? Why would I choose to feel like crap?” And, oh Dean. Exactly, bb. Exactly.

So what we’ve got going on here is, of course, Dean expressing his self-reproachment and remorse and Castiel countering it by asserting his position as an autonomous angel/agent. That Dean misinterprets Castiel’s free will as weakness and his own failure is a matter of perception, a very specific and engrained perception. Dean self-defines as a protector and savior (“Watch out for Sammy,” “Saving people, hunting things”), and we hear this in his words to and about Cas several times this season (“I’m not leaving here without you,” “I tried so damn hard to get us out of there,” etc.). He cannot imagine a scenario other than this role and script he’s established for himself. But he isn’t, as Cas points out, accounting for anyone else’s role in that script, or considering the story from their point of view. This is a thing Dean has shown himself to be incapable of throughout the show. He has a distinct inability to really put himself in someone else’s shoes, to understand their motivations/fears/desires—this is most obviously true with Sam. Dean is without empathy, and yet experiences crippling, and memory-altering levels of guilt. Fascinating.

Cas’s side of the story is, of course, much different from Dean’s. “You see, it wasn’t because I was weak. I was stronger than you,” he tells Dean, with just a hint of resentment—because of course Castiel thinks of himself as a protector, too. Specifically, as Dean’s protector. But he also emphasizes his freedom of choice in staying behind: “I pulled away. Nothing you could have done would’ve saved me because I didn’t want to be saved.” What’s interesting is that Castiel’s motivation for staying behind is the same thing that alters Dean’s reality: guilt! Cas “needed to do penance,” because “after the things I did on earth and in Heaven and I didn’t deserve to be out.” Although Cas’s guilt, unlike Dean’s, has a clear grounding—he really is guilty of many crimes, as opposed to the sin Dean is condemning himself for that he didn’t commit—like Dean, Cas’s punishment is self-imposed. No higher power reprimands Cas for his actions. He made the decision to atone for his actions of his own volition. That, in itself, demonstrates his respect for and understanding of this awesome and dangerous thing called free will.

Which makes is all the more utterly, terribly tragic that his free will has been usurped by Heaven (again), and he doesn’t even know it.

Heaven’s removal of Cas’s free will by making him a sleeper agent is so deliciously, devastatingly cruel. The idea as a dramatic plot line thrills me, but its implications for Cas sink my stomach. But it is, in keeping with Carver’s promise, a matter of perspective, of who sees what and how. Can Cas be blamed for being an unaware double agent? Will he take after Dean and blame himself for something quite literally beyond his control? Will the Winchesters see it as another betrayal or take Cas’s part as the victim?

What I like about this storyline is that it is very in keeping with Heaven’s justification for the apocalypse during seasons 4 and 5. That Heaven saved Cas and expects repayment—no, exacts repayment—echoes its rescue of Dean. Also, we’re seeing again how Heaven is averse to choice because choice = freedom and freedom = chaos (or, as Cas puts it to Dean in “Swan Song,” the opposite of peace is freedom: “I mean it, Dean. What would you rather have? Peace, or freedom?”) Heaven, like Naomi’s office, is about order. Heaven is a hierarchy, the extreme opposite of chaos. It wants events to unfold according to plan, it wants the easy route. It wants us to keep calm and carry on, no questions asked. Heading into the apocalypse, the angels needed Dean’s permission to use him as a vessel—it was something left to choice, to chance, and that didn’t work out well for them. But they don’t need Cas’s permission, and they’re not taking any chances this time, with whatever scheme they’re onto now. We saw Cas, bless his fierce, rebellious heart, object to Naomi’s interrogation (“Why am I telling you all this?”), and when Naomi explained, he clung to his free will, telling her that no, he won’t do that, won’t be Heaven’s spy. But Heaven doesn’t allow him that choice.

In an interesting, though likely inconsequential, parallel, the biblical Naomi had a perception problem, herself. The name “Naomi” means “sweet,” and in the Book of Ruth, Naomi is Ruth’s mother-in-law. When both of her sons die, Naomi implores her widowed daughters-in-law to leave her, but Ruth refuses and leaves her own homeland to move back to Bethlehem with Naomi. Naomi, upon meeting an old friend in Bethlehem, asks that she be called “Mara,” which means “bitter,” instead of her own sweet name, “for the Almighty has made my life very bitter.” But, you know what lady? That really nice Ruth girl moved a really long way and took care of you and will soon remarry and have a child that she’ll allow you to care for, effectively giving you another son. Soooo, you can choose to be bitter if you want, but I’m thinking there’s a silver lining in there for you, sweetheart.

Perception is a choice too.

Anyway. I’m curious to see where Naomi’s character goes. I would be disheartened to see yet another female angel die, so I’m personally hoping Cas makes a double agent out of her somehow, but it’s too soon to speculate, really.

For the moment, what we know of this Naomi is that she may look like a sleek business woman, but her talk is all military. An “incursion” of angels, she said. “As you were,” she ordered Cas. That last one is particularly striking. It’s a command for soldiers to go back to what they were doing before the authority figure’s presence demanded they stand to attention. And, as Supernatural loves to point out, soldiers don’t have a lot of free will.

So why being back free will now? What’s it got to do with the plot moving forward? Well, for one thing, free will wasn’t just a convenient object lesson during the apocalypse. It was a theme the show built very deliberately and carefully for five seasons, before it got dropped like a hot potato in season 6. (Or, well, the show kinda sorta maybe tried to handle it in season 6, but it was a lot like watching someone do that omg omg hot hot hot dance as they juggle the hot potato on the way to the plate. Season 7 was really where the potato hit the floor.) Remember that Dean had to learn free will first, way before anybody told him he was Michael’s vessel. I was reminded recently of 3.10, “Dream a Little Dream of Me,” where Dean is confronted by his demon self, who speaks all those terrible truths Dean spends the next five years simultaneously rebelling against and stuffing way down deep. “You’re as mindless and obedient as an attack dog,” demon!Dean says. “Do you even have an original though? . . . Dad knew who you really were. A good little soldier and nothing else. Daddy’s blunt little instrument.” That’s how Dean perceived himself, and he had to learn to choose against it, which he began to do, right there in that scene. And then he had to learn to have an original thought, which he did in season 5, and his original thought was pretty much, “Fuck this shit. I’m not doing what you tell me to do.” A.k.a., free will.

But Dean’s a curious case. For all he is free will’s champion, Dean doesn’t see that he often tramples or denies the free will of others. Free will doesn’t mean Sam and Cas have to do what Dean thinks they should, for example. And that’s a tension we’ve already seen put into play this season with Sam’s seven hundredth bid to leave the hunting life behind and Dean’s refusal to let him go. There’s a life lesson to be learned here for Dean, and Cas got the ball rolling when he showed Dean that it was his choice to stay and that there was nothing he could have done to save him. And, let me tell you, as someone who is in contention with Dean for the Guiltiest Conscience Award, having someone point out the obvious or demonstrate how irrational or illogical guilt is in certain contexts goes a lonnnnng way to helping differentiate between what I am and am not supposed to feel bad about—guilt is a hard thing to have any kind of perspective on. An outside point of view is necessary. In fact, empathy is necessary. So it was really satisfying to see Cas try to give Dean that. Whether or not Dean will have truly listened remains to be seen. But he looked shaken enough that he might actually try. And, omg, that would be catharsis! FINALLY.

There are other little ways perceived guilt and free will have been snuck into 8.07. This exchange between Dean and Cas, for example, carries some interesting weight:

Cas: I’m dirty.
Dean: Yeah, well, Purgatory’ll do that to you.

I mean, sure, yeah, *snicker snicker snicker* Cas called himself dirty! But what actually gets me here is the way Dean responds—his words are light, but his tone is not. He’s not talking about just the mud and monster blood. There are undercurrents of regret and recognition and even a little bit of resentment. The implication is that Dean feels dirty too, and he’s not talking about the kind of dirt that washes off. He’s double-talking about his conscience, which, to his eyes, is black with guilt. Specifically, the guilt of not having been able to save Cas.

In rewatching the episode, I also realized that Crowley raises the specter of free will when he greets Cas:

Crowley: Which Castiel is it this time? I’m never sure. Madman or megalomaniac?

That’s a hurtful dig for a couple of reasons. First because Cas feels really, really bad about that megalomaniacal stint. Even before he tells Dean so in this episode, we knew that to be true because of his pledge to makes amends in 7.01 and his despair over his crimes/sins when he regains his memory in 7.17. So Crowley’s mining that pain and simultaneously mocking him for losing his marbles. But, here’s the thing about Cas losing his marbles—he didn’t really. He probably really was catatonic for a little while, but crazy? Nope. Not really. Cas chose to be a madman. He opted out of reality so he could opt out of the fight and, likely, out of the pain of facing his guilt. But his antics—his communion with the bees and all that BS—that was an act of free will. It was dereliction of duty. It was self-preservation. And it was a choice. That’s made clear by how quickly and easily he “recovers”—especially since the majority of his “symptoms” seemed to alleviate the moment Dean showed him some forgiveness. (Guess Cas needed a little outside perspective on his guilt, too, huh?) In contrast, Cas didn’t choose to be the Godstiel megalomaniac, but he did make the decisions that led him there, which demonstrates guilt over the abuse of his power, and his free will.

On a more “macro” scale, as Crowley might say, free will may play a role in this closing-off-Hell business, too. Because closing off Hell means closing off temptation, and without temptation, is there really free will? Isn’t the point of free will—the way we develop character, rack up moral brownie points, earn our spots in Heaven—having many options, some of which are wicked or lazy or wrong and choosing the right one anyway? How can we do that without demons on our shoulders pointing out all those delicious things we want but shouldn’t have? We couldn’t. And that sounds like a something Heaven would be very interested in seeing come to pass. Because as far as Supernatural‘s Heaven is concerned, choice just gets in the way. And, using season 6’s logic, the more souls Heaven possesses, the stronger it is, right? Not to mention that a world without temptation—without choice—would be, well, Heaven on earth.

In sum, I have no idea where things are going. But, for the moment, I like what we have right now. (Though I expect to be disappointed on Wednesday—I don’t mind the funny one-off eps, but comic-relief!Cas undercuts all that delectable character work and drama. Grrrrr.) I am curious to see where we go and how, or whether, these themes play out over the whole season. As always, here’s hoping.

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