Note: Do not read on if you have not seen Season 7, Episode 17 of The CW's "Supernatural," entitled "The Born-Again Identity."
Demons and angels and ghosts, oh my!
From what I've observed in our comments sections and via Twitter over the past few months, Castiel's return has been heralded with both anticipation and dread, depending on which part of fandom you occupy. But to me, "The Born-Again Identity" exemplified all the things that "Supernatural" does best: emphasizing the brotherly bond that holds the show together; highlighting the excellence of the supporting characters; showcasing the dramatic chops of its actors; and proving that an emotional through-line is all it really takes to make a story resonate. The episode didn't overtly advance the overarching leviathan plot (although it was clearly laying necessary groundwork for stories to come). It instead focused on our characters' internal struggles, reminding us that no matter how dire the circumstances, our heroes are always driven by the desire to do the right thing, no matter the personal cost.
We saw Sam, whose sanity was slowly unraveling, finally end up under psychiatric lockdown after five days without sleep. Sadly, no matter how many drugs the doctors pumped into him, his body was unable to rest with Lucifer gleefully popping firecrackers, blaring loud music and misusing a megaphone to keep up the torture. Still, even with his organs failing, his nails breaking and his hair falling out from sleep deprivation, Sam's first instinct was to help a fellow patient, Marin (sympathetically played by the excellent Kacey Rohl, daughter of frequent "Supernatural" director Mike Rohl).
The girl (who bore a slight -- probably coincidental -- resemblance to Ava, another troubled young woman Sam once knew) was being haunted by her dead brother, although conventional medicine had her diagnosed as being psychotically depressed. The two developed a tender, platonic rapport as they bonded over hearing voices, and no matter how much Sam was hallucinating, he was still a hunter first, and was soon able to change her diagnosis and free Marin from her brother's ghost and his fire-starting tendencies.
I found Marin's defeated attitude particularly interesting in regards to the way it mirrored Dean's story this season. In one of her first encounters with Sam, she stated, "I feel like crap ... I just want it to be over," which is exactly the kind of weariness we've been hearing from Dean lately. The only reason the elder Winchester is still fighting and functioning is for Sam's sake -- and, as this episode illustrated, the only times Dean has been able to get fired up and invested in a case have been when his brother is in peril. "Quit being Dali-freaking-Yoda about this, get pissed!" Dean demanded earlier in the episode, but it's Dean who has been feeling apathetic all year, trying to fake his way through life for his brother's benefit. It only makes the brothers' situation more agonizing, since both are barely holding on by a thread, clearly feeling too exhausted to go on, but forcing themselves to serve the greater good as long as they're still breathing, since it's the only thing they know how to do.
Jared Padalecki did some of his finest work to date in this episode, playing Sam's disorientation and soul-weariness with wrenching honesty. His scenes with Marin exposed all of the heart and empathy that's always been at the center of Sam's character, while his interactions with the fabulous Mark Pellegrino were suitably painful. (On a shallow note, it's also hard to imagine anyone making sleep deprivation look better than Padalecki did this week -- the stubble suits him well.)
Dean, as mentioned, was spurred into action by his brother's deteriorating state -- and just as Sam did way back in Season 1 when Dean was laid up in a hospital bed and resigned to his fate, Dean started scouring the web and contacting every hunter he could find to try and figure out a way to save his brother. Instead of locating a faith healer with a "reaper on a leash," a handy gust of wind (another Bobby intervention?) blew a business card out of Bobby's journal that led to a guy called Mackey who had been healed by a man named Emmanuel. One trip to Colorado and case of mistaken demonic identity later, Dean and his angelic buddy were back together, although the artist formerly known as Cas had no recollection of his past.
Or, at least, no memory since the time that he stumbled out of the river "drenched and confused and unclothed" and was found by a nondescript, supposedly Christian woman. The woman, Daphne, apparently managed to marry an amnesiac with no actual identity (and a vessel that's already married to another woman -- yay for polygamy!) a few months after meeting him. Something smelled a little fishy about the suggestion that the pair ended up together because "God wanted her to find me," but perhaps this show just makes me paranoid. Either Daphne's totally disposable and we'll never see her again, Amelia style, or she'll return with some dark intentions somewhere down the line -- though Cas had certainly forgotten all about her as soon as he regained his memories. Such a heartbreaker. There's also something a little icky, in a non-consensual sense, about the possibility that amnesiac Cas was married, given how entirely freaked out he was about the prospect of losing his virginity back in "Free To Be You And Me." But the show glossed over it all so quickly that I suppose we're not supposed to examine any of it too deeply, since "Cas" wasn't technically behind the wheel at the time.
While road-tripping their way back to Sam, the pair was intercepted by a smug, far-too-knowledgeable Meg, who had been tracking them for hours, and had an unnerving interest in "poor little amnesiac Cas" -- ostensibly to keep him out of Crowley's hands, but mostly, Dean assumed, to try and turn him into "an angel-sized weapon." Apparently, there's still a price on Meg's head for her attempt to help the Winchesters take Crowley down, and the sudden resurgence of demons was clearly not a good sign in terms of her longevity. Dean grudgingly took her along to help him fight any further demons they might come across, but he needn't have bothered -- by the time they ran into another cabal of the black-eyed suckers, Cas recovered his angel mojo and took them all out in a stunning and perfectly-executed scene that intercut Castiel's sympathetic destruction of the demons with flashes of his lost memories.
Misha Collins did masterful work in this episode, finding so many subtle nuances between Emmanuel and Castiel that it was a joy to watch him reinterpret the familiar character once again. Castiel, perhaps even more than Sam and Dean in some ways, has had the most pronounced evolution in the show, progressing from a mindless solider to a rebellious freedom fighter to a conflicted demonic ally to a self-righteous god, each version replete with its own unique flavors. While Emmanuel shared a lot of similarities with Castiel version 1.0 -- in his trouble with grasping sarcasm and his naivety -- he still managed to smile more readily than the first iteration of Cas. He was immediately willing to put his trust and respect in Dean, despite his first encounter with the hunter involving Dean clutching a bloody knife and standing over a body on his doorstep. Even the subtle way in which Emmanuel spoke a little more softly was a pronounced difference from Castiel's lower, raspier tone, and Collins pulled the transition off seamlessly.
The best part about "Supernatural's" supporting cast has always been the ways in which these equally well-drawn, charismatic characters bring out different sides of the Winchesters (a fact that Ackles and Padalecki recently noted in HuffPost TV's exclusive interview). And (just as Sam's interactions with Ruby) Lilith and Lucifer have brought out a compelling darker side in our formerly sweet and sensitive younger Winchester over the years, Dean's relationships with Castiel and Bobby have helped soften his edges and allowed him to place trust in someone other than his family. Sam at least got to experience a support system and friendship group outside of his dad and brother when he went to college. Dean, however, never had that opportunity, and I think that's part of why Dean's friendship with Castiel has always been so compelling to me. It's true that Jensen Ackles could probably have on-screen chemistry with a potted plant, but he really brings his A-game when playing scenes with Collins ... in a different, but equally compelling way from his effortless rhythm with Padalecki, since Dean and Cas have such an odd, symbiotic relationship that has helped them both evolve and rediscover their faith over the past few seasons.
The moment in which Dean retrieved Castiel's iconic trenchcoat and gave it back to him was a perfect summation of their friendship -- though Dean has been wrestling with the anger he feels for Castiel's destruction of Sam's wall all season, this episode also made it clear that Dean wants to forgive his former friend. When Cas had a crisis of conscience over all the lives he'd taken in heaven and on earth, Dean still tried to defend his actions even if he disagreed with them, pointing out, "You did the best you could at the time." One could argue that it was simply to get the angel back on track so that he could fix Sam's head, but I give Dean more credit than that.
During our interview, Ackles said that Dean is "obviously elated to see his friend, but what [Cas] had done before he left was something that Dean doesn't forgive easily. So there's a big struggle there with Dean and you'll see more of that play out throughout that episode and throughout future episodes." Ackles played that struggle perfectly this week -- though his story was more reactive than proactive in the face of Sam's meltdown, that understated performance was still the emotional undercurrent of the story, and Ackles' subtle shifts in expression as he tried to downplay his relationship to "Emmanuel" helped convey that internal conflict without words.
But as powerful as Castiel is again, he was unable to fix Sam's wall, and unlike Death -- and without the souls from Purgatory -- he is no longer strong enough to construct a new one. Still, as fitting penance for the pain and chaos he brought down on Sam, Cas decided to "shift" Sam's problem to himself, taking the soul damage inside him with the assertion that he'd be fine. (I'm not so sure about that.) He immediately started seeing Lucifer as Sam had, which lends credence to some fans' speculation that Sam's madness isn't simply mental trauma from all the torture he suffered in the cage, and that perhaps, Lucifer somehow still has a link to his vessel even though he's trapped in the cage. We clearly need to see more of the effect this has on Cas and what the interactions between Cas and Lucifer will be like before we can really understand exactly what Cas did, but since Collins is appearing in at least three episodes this season, and possibly more, I'm sure we'll delve deeper into that situation in coming weeks.
If there's one complaint I had about the episode, it's that the ending felt rushed. We seemed to gloss over Castiel's Lucifer problem, Sam and Dean leaving and Meg joining the hospital staff a little too rapidly, as if the episode was stuffed too full to really give those ideas time to breathe. Sera Gamble did an overall excellent job of balancing Sam and Dean's stories, but I think if the unnecessary inclusion of Emmanuel having a wife had been dropped, and a couple of minutes had been shaved from Sam's time with Marin or Lucifer's (admittedly enjoyable) snarking, the ending would've felt a little less abrupt. I'm hoping that all of those plot points will be furthered in coming episodes, and considering what a juggling act the majority of the episode was, I'm not too annoyed that one or two balls were dropped in the final five minutes.
I am a little dubious that leaving Castiel under Meg's supervision was the smartest decision, since Dean knows that she's got her eye on the "angel-sized weapon" and is gunning for Crowley. But I suppose that "mutually assured destruction" is pretty much the best reassurance they can count on right now. Sam already illustrated at the beginning of the episode that under the influence of his hallucinations, he could get out and get hit by a car while Dean was sleeping. So since they no longer have a panic room in which to lock Cas for safe keeping, a locked mental ward probably is the most secure place. I think it's naive to assume that no demons would be able to track Cas and Meg down to the hospital, given how many of them were killed outside it -- and I don't understand why any doctor would just switch out a Sam-sized patient for a Cas one without commenting on it -- but I suppose such plot-holes are inevitable when you only have 42 minutes to tell a story. A new batch of demons tracking them down will probably be the next logical plot point when we see Cas and Meg again.
I've had a few fans comment on Twitter that they felt Dean's behavior was out-of-character or too brusque when he left Castiel at the hospital. While I'm inclined to agree that his "all our friends are dead" attitude was a little harsh given Castiel's resurrection, I'm choosing to take it as a further part of Dean processing the unbelievable events of the day. He's spent 16 episodes mourning one of his best friends, only to have him reappear. Plus, now that Cas has Lucifer inside his head, Dean's likely thinking that it's only a matter of time until the angel dies again, given what the hallucinations did to Sam. At this point, I feel like both of the brothers know better than to get their hopes up or count on anyone they care about actually surviving long-term, but hopefully, we'll see that sense of hope rekindled in both Winchesters now that Sam is stable again and as Castiel's arc is further explored.
I've also had fans complaining that Castiel somehow "stole Sam's storyline" in sucking away his hallucinations, which I guess I understand on the surface -- because that's literally what he did -- but I don't agree with the mindset behind it. I thought it was one of the show's smartest and most poetic decisions yet, both in allowing Castiel to redeem himself for driving Sam completely insane in the Season 6 finale (an eye for an eye, if we want to get Biblical), and in allowing Sam to get his head back in the game. I'm sure that no Sam fan would've wanted to see Sam die or have him laid up as a gibbering wreck in a hospital bed for the rest of the season, which are the only two possible outcomes I could see if he had continued to have those hallucinations. His body was literally shutting down in this episode, and as Sera Gamble has stated in recent interviews, there's no real way that Sam can ever fully recover from being stuck in a cage with Lucifer -- even if he no longer has the hallucinations, he'll always have those Hell memories, just as Dean has, and those will likely inform his character for the rest of the series. But as with everything the Winchesters have suffered through, they'll both continue finding a way to fight despite everything they've lost, because they're our Big Damn Heroes, and that's what the show is all about.
What did you think of "The Born-Again Identity"? Did Castiel's return satisfy you? What do you think Meg's master plan is? (No pun intended.) Share your opinions, predictions and reactions below!
"Supernatural" airs Fridays at 9 p.m. ET on The CW.