castiel: our greatest american hero*

So you know how Cas sang to that baby in 9.06 and it was charmingly terrible? Well (and maybe this is super common knowledge and that’s why I haven’t seen much of anything about it but) the song he sang is actually the theme from a charmingly not-totally-terrible TV show called The Greatest American Hero. The show aired about thirty years ago (1981–83), and its theme was so popular that an extended version of the song, under the title “Believe It or Not,” made it to #2 in the Top 40 in 1981.

Twitter informs me Rob Thompson originally had other plans for the scene:


And, sure, “Highway to Hell” would’ve been funny, and there of course would’ve been the connection to Dean we could’ve all snickered about, but I like this choice better. A lot better. So here’s a lot of reasons why.

Obviously there are spoilers for SPN 9.6 “Heaven Can’t Wait” under the cut. 

The premise of The Greatest American Hero is that a nice, regular guy named Ralph has a close encounter of the third kind and the aliens (yes, you heard me, aliens) give him a suit that has super powers and charge him with using it to save the world from self-destruction (it was the Cold War, remember). They stipulate that only Ralph can wear the suit. Luckily, it came with an instruction manual. Unluckily, Ralph promptly loses it and therefore has to figure out how to use suit through trial and error. The suit gives him super strength and speed, x-ray vision, invincibility, invisibility, and a bunch of brain powers like telekinesis, most of which he discovers by accident. My favorite is that the suit also allows him to fly, but he doesn’t know how to land properly so he’s always crashing into things. (Ralph’s landings are the total opposite of the classy Superman hand-on-hip slow land—it’s reliably hilarious.) Because Ralph feels out of control in the suit, he doesn’t particularly like wearing it but he still knows he has to, and for all his foibles he still does his part as “the greatest American hero.” Interestingly, though, his character is never officially dubbed that—Ralph never gets a superhero name.

I rewatched the first two episodes just to make sure I was remembering all of this correctly (I only ever caught bits and pieces of reruns as a kid—I’m not that old), and was pleased to discover that the show takes the time demonstrate that Ralph is a stand-up guy before he gets the suit. A special education teacher (“special education” in the early 80s apparently meaning “those asshole kids with violent tendencies everybody gave up on” not “special needs” learning for kids with developmental differences), Ralph is brave and kind, but firm, respectful, and moral. He also has faith that his students are capable of more than they are given credit for.

You probably see where I’m going with this.

It’s not a 1:1 comparison, but the parallels between human!Cas and Ralph make the choice of “Believe It or Not” pretty poignant. In learning to live without powers, Cas would certainly like to have an instruction manual as much as Ralph could’ve used one for how to live with them. “Nobody told you and nobody explained,” he muses to baby Tanya. “You’re just . . . shoved out kicking and screaming into this human life without any idea why any of it feels the way it feels.” Neither Cas nor Ralph is incompetent—they’re just still getting the hang of things (“I guess that’s just how it is when you’re new at this,” says Cas). Both men feel a responsibility to a cause that is far bigger than themselves and possibly beyond their abilities, and they doggedly march forward, despite the forces working against them. And, like Ralph, Cas was brave and kind to begin with. It might even be the reason they got saddled with their respective situations in the first place.

It doesn’t matter in the grand scheme of Supernatural that Cas and Ralph have some commonalities, but clearly there’s some meaningful overlap here that informs the moment between Cas and the baby. (JFC, I’m only just now recognizing the importance of the fact that it was a baby—a brand new human—Cas shared the seen with. Doh.) And I really love the implication that Cas’s struggle with humanity makes him, in an accidental way, a hero.

So let’s recap those lyrics:

Look at what’s happened to me
I can’t believe it myself
Suddenly I’m up on top of the world
It should’ve been somebody else

Believe it or not
I’m walking on air
I never thought I could feel so free
Flying away on a wing and a prayer
Who could it be?
Believe it or not it’s just me

I don’t think the irony of human!Cas singing lines like Suddenly I’m on top of the world and Flying away on a wing an a prayer is lost on any of us. It’s downright heart wrenching. But it’s the undercurrent of humility in the lyrics that I think fits Cas so well. I can’t believe it myself the song says, and it’s just me. The doubt and perceived meekness in those words is not the same as the reluctant hero trope thats been frickin’ everywhere the past few years (including in SPN), though. Humility isn’t the avoidance or rejection of duty, it’s having a modest view of your own importance or influence in the performance of that duty, and that has always characterized Cas. It’s part of the reason why we get lines from other angels about Cas having been a rebel leader, a legend—we’re never going to hear those things from him because he doesn’t see himself that way. In seasons 8 and 9, Cas accepts that his actions are responsible for the destruction of Heaven, but his guilt overrides any possible positive ways he’s been influential (see: preserving free will on earth) and he seems incapable of recognizing his importance to one particular very stubborn human. Rather than hiding from the fight, however, these days Cas sees it as his duty to help the angels in whatever limited way he can, even if it’s just a road trip to the Grand Canyon. In 9.06 we learned what I think we suspected all along—that humanity, with all its restrictions and emotions, is painful for Cas. And yet, he humbly muddles through, admirably trying to learn and adapt rather than lamenting what he’s lost.

Related to Cas’s humility is the job he’s chosen for himself—sales associate at a gas station and convenience store. It’s not a glamorous job. In fact, we’d call it a humble job. It’s unskilled labor and a largely thankless position, but Cas takes pride in his work. “There’s a real dignity in what I do. A human dignity,” he tells Dean. The show (of course?) immediately attempts to undercut his claim with Nora’s request for Cas to clean the bathroom, and I think herein lies a greater American problem. There isn’t any inherent shame in being a gas station attendant, or a checkout clerk at a grocery store, or a retail sales associate, but those jobs are often looked down on as being for “unsuccessful” people who couldn’t get something better or “make” something of themselves. (Case in point, “A sale associate!” Dean mocks, followed by “This is not you. You are above this. Come on, man!”) And that’s just a little bit crap, isn’t it? Self-checkouts and pay at the pump aside, our largely service-based economy needs people in those positions. I’m not saying our economic situation is an ideal system, but while it is the current system, it might be useful to view all our jobs as a service, no matter what we do—to see it as a group effort to make each other’s days a little tidier, a little safer, a little more informed, a little more efficient. I, for one, am pretty seriously thankful for people who clean bathrooms. (In fact, I used to clean bathrooms myself, come to think of it.) Maybe if we offered an actual living wage for working those jobs we’d stop viewing them as menial, unimportant labor, and maybe the folks who hold those positions wouldn’t be teased for taking pride in what they do and wouldn’t be frustrated by the need to be or expectation they should be elsewhere. . . . Which is not to say anyone working in a service position shouldn’t aspire to something different or that the system needs to be maintained as is. Far from it, actually. If I climbed a little higher on this soap box I could talk about how service positions shouldn’t equal servitude, and how Castiel, as a servant of Heaven who refused to blindly follow orders but now accepts the role as sale associate proudly, could be said to embody the rejection of the servitude system, but I think I’ve already met my tangential righteousness quota for the post. I really only meant to note that human!Cas seeing the value of under-appreciated and under-represented jobs is so very Cas and makes him kind of an underdog American hero. It just also happens to be the most Marxist argument I’ve encountered in mainstream TV in a while. Power to the proletariat, we are the 99%, etc.

. . . And I didn’t even touch on the implications of his being an undocumented worker. Unless he got a social security card with the name Steve? Dean didn’t know that was his current alias, which means if he has some fake IDs, he scored them himself (‘atta boy, Cas). Or maybe Nora’s cool with paying him under table. . . .

Annnyway. Getting back to those song lyrics and their appeal to Cas in his current predicament . . . Although in Ralph’s case the line Look at what’s happened to me references a an exciting, positive development, it has darker overtones for Cas, perhaps as a reference to his stolen grace, which he seems to believe is the culmination of years of mistakes. Compared to feeling like a “poor example” of an angel (ugh, my heart), humanity might be something of a cosmic relief: “I failed at being an angel. Everything I ever attempted came out wrong,” he tells Dean, “But here . . . at least I have a shot at getting things right.” Akin to Ralph and his crash landings, Cas is Flying away on a wing and a prayer as a human. The full experience of free will and range of physical pleasures—which Cas has brought up to Hael and the Winchesters, respectively—do seem to constitute something of a bright side for Cas, or at least a fascinating diversion, which may be how a line like I never thought I’d feel so free could resonate with him. Despite the anguish of his loss and onslaught of unfamiliar emotions, Cas not only perseveres, but defends the human condition in the face of Ephraim’s disdain and mercy-killing crusade: “Earth can be a hard place, but these humans—they can get better. They’re just doing the best they can.” I found it interesting that Ephraim assumes Cas is talking about himself in that statement, despite referring to “these humans” in the third person, as a separate species: “Is that what you think you’re doing, Castiel?,” he taunts, “The best you can?” And then Cas kills Ephraim (with a nice assist from Dean), thereby saving the human race from the wrath (or at least scorn) of Heaven yet again. Our hero.

The writers almost certainly didn’t intend any of these connections, but what does fandom care about authorial intent? Cas as hardworking, humble hero is a fair subject for meditation.

And I really just like that song, okay?

Oh, but we have yet to consider how Cas learned the song to begin with. . . From listening to 80s pop? From watching reruns of the show while working at the Gas-n-Sip? Again, it doesn’t matter in the slightest, but canon gaps are meant to crammed full of speculation, right? That’s what fandom is for. ;)


*I swear I’m not intentionally giving SPN characters faux superhero alter ego names. Pure coincidence, promise.


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