Note: Do not read on if you have not seen Season 8, Episode 17 of The CW's "Supernatural," titled "Goodbye Stranger."
After an agonizing three-week absence, "Supernatural" returned with "Goodbye Stranger," which turned out to be one of the best episodes of Season 8 to date. Written by Robbie Thompson and directed by Thomas J. Wright, "Stranger" was well-paced, crammed with memorable lines, and showcased some delicious character interplay, thanks in large part to the inclusion of Castiel, Crowley, Meg and Naomi.
As a fan of what "Supernatural's" supporting characters -- especially Castiel -- bring to the show, the episode was a perfect demonstration of how outside perspectives can offer fresh insight into the Winchesters, both in terms of their individual storylines and their brotherly bond.
Throwing Sam and Meg together for an unexpected heart-to-heart about unorthodox relationships provided an excellent opportunity to dig into Sam's current headspace, while the Dean and Castiel scenes once again emphasized the important friendship that the pair have formed -- a beautiful illustration of Dean's evolution as a character. Dean admitting that he needed Cas? For a guy who couldn't even strike up a casual conversation with a witness in Season 1 without making people suspicious or creeped out, and who was afraid to even express his love for his brother without worrying it sounded too chick flicky, Dean has matured into a man who is unafraid to admit his care for the
friends family who have always been the most important things in his life. Even if he still has enough emotional baggage to sink a cruise ship, it's a refreshing sign of tentative growth.
Castiel's brutal beatdown was eerily reminiscent of two of my favorite episodes -- "Point of No Return," in which Cas' smackdown was a kind of tough love to prevent Dean from saying yes to becoming Michael's vessel, and "Swan Song," with Lucifer doing the beating in Sam's body before Dean was able to get through to his brother. While it should be illegal for anyone to damage the national treasure that is Jensen Ackles' face, both episodes, like "Goodbye Stranger," were a perfect study in the show's overarching theme of free will vs. destiny, reminding us that -- even more than the noble desire to do good, it's the relationships we share that truly define us and help us to make the right choices in difficult circumstances (or the wrong ones, as the case may be).
These characters are all motivated by their connections, and no matter how many fake Deans Naomi had Castiel kill for practice, the truth is that Naomi has never experienced friendship or sacrifice or humanity, so there was no way for her to replicate what Dean might actually say to Cas to try and break through his programming, nor what Cas might feel to be faced with the thought of killing the first person who ever taught him that he had a choice about his actions. (Although, given the warehouse full of dead Deans, do we think it's because it took that long for Cas to pull it off "quick, brutal and with no hesitation"?)
Castiel has spent so much time being manipulated, brainwashed and possessed by everyone from Zachariah to the Leviathans that I mostly want to see him with a true sense of agency, able to decide whether he wants to be a hunter or a beekeeper or just sit around and listen to the music inside people's heads without anyone telling him what to do.
It would also be nice to see that agency extend to Dean (and to a lesser extent, Sam), whose life has been defined by his relationships in an arguably negative way, in some respects. Like Cas, he spent his formative years following his father's orders, and much of his life existing only to protect and nurture Sam, to the detriment of his own interpersonal relationships and free will. Over the last few seasons, we've seen him accept hunting as his future mostly because he doesn't believe he has the potential for anything else.
As Meg's conversation with Sam reminded us, Sam still believes that he can have a normal life outside of hunting, and that fundamental aspect of the character isn't likely to ever change. I honestly believe that Dean doesn't want a normal life (he's just cut from that kind of Big Damn Hero cloth) since, unlike Sam, he was restless and paranoid during his time with Lisa and Ben, not reveling in the white picket fence of it all. Dean's time in Purgatory seemed to reignite his passion for hunting and his realization that he is good at it, but it would be nice to see him actively choose that vocation -- not out of a sense of obligation that the world will end if he doesn't, or because he thinks he doesn't have anything else to offer, but because it genuinely makes him happy, which I think it does.
Both brothers -- especially Sam -- are currently hunting because they don't really have a choice, so I hope that by the end of this season, or at least by the end of the show, they'll have come to a place where they choose to keep fighting, not because they're forced into it. Still, it was great to see Dean demand honesty from Sam at the end of the hour, and even better for Sam to give it -- the show and the Winchesters work best when the brothers are a united front.
It was also interesting -- if a little disturbing -- to discover that Crowley and Naomi apparently had a little interspecies dalliance of their own back in the day, which helps explain the odd chemistry between Castiel and Meg. I'm not entirely sold on the idea of "Megstiel," both because angels should be disgusted by hellspawn, and because Meg in particular has done some entirely heinous things like possessing Sam and killing Ellen and Jo without remorse, but I do understand the narrative impulse to explore that dichotomy of good/evil from a character standpoint.
As Meg pointed out, she's kinda good (in that she's been more of a help than a hindrance of late), and Cas has been kinda bad this season, which proves that those lines are increasingly blurred in a post-averted apocalypse world. I still think it's kind of icky and a little disloyal, but also a sign of Castiel's growing sense of humanity, and it makes sense that he might begin to feel things that he doesn't understand, and that might not necessarily be good for him, as he becomes more in tune with human emotions. Hell, Sam banged Ruby and Dean hooked up with a man-hating Amazon, so their collective romantic track record isn't the best.
Regardless of where you fall on the Meg/Castiel issue (I think we can all agree that Cas is a magical unicorn of some description), they're both characters we care about in some way, and much like their interactions with the Winchesters, their scene gave us plenty of insight into two familiar but often ambiguous players, both of whom are often pawns but still manage to carve out moments of individuality for themselves.
Meg and Sam's scenes were also intriguing, with Meg's outrage over the boys not looking for her in their missing year acting as a subtle echo of Sam's choice not to look for Dean. As for the reminder that she knows Sam's "sad little thoughts and feelings," it's good that Sam had a chance to talk about Amelia and his year away, since we know it's probably not a story that Dean wanted to hear in great detail. But Meg's question, "You hit a dog and stopped, why?" is something to really ponder -- because if she chose to focus on it, the writers mean for us to do the same. Was Sam looking for the excuse to stop running and take responsibility for what he's done, or is it something more? And is it linked to the fact that both Crowley and his demonic lackey referred to Meg as both his pet and a dog in this episode? Interesting ...
Also: Do we think that Crowley stabbing Meg in the belly was a fatal wound? Now that Bobby is gone, Meg is the longest-running recurring character on the show, so a part of me is suspicious that we'll ever really be rid of her, especially with such an unceremonious send off. Still, if she is gone for good, I'm impressed that she went out fighting for what was right -- and am a little disappointed that the boys did nothing to assist her against Crowley. Not terribly heroic, guys!
Another lingering question: Why does Castiel feel the need to protect the tablet from both Naomi and from Dean? I suspect that statement -- and the magical glow that emanated from the tablet when Cas touched it -- has something to do with Metatron, and I can't wait to see it play out.
Wright's direction was ideal for the hour, and his sense of timing was particularly impressive in the scenes where Castiel's secret conversations with Naomi were intercut with his earthly dilemmas, building to a climactic crescendo as Castiel finally broke free of his programming with Dean's help -- which was heartbreaking and perfectly played by both Jensen Ackles and Misha Collins.
Crowley, too, was well-utilized -- much like Lilith and Azazel in the past, he seems more effective when he's used sparingly and with menace, rather than taking up half of the scenes, and Mark Sheppard once again scored the majority of the episode's best lines. I'm intrigued to see how his relationship with Naomi unfolds.
What did you think of "Goodbye Stranger"? Do you think Meg is gone for good? Will Dean ever part with his first edition of Voluptuous Asian Lovelies, the precursor to Busty Asian Beauties? Why did Sam stop running when he hit the dog? Weigh in below!
"Supernatural" airs Wednesdays at 9 p.m. ET on The CW.