Supernatural and Philosophies of Interference: Sam, Dean, and Castiel

Dean, Castiel, and Sam
Supernatural seasons all deal more or less with the same issue: will one or the other brother's sacrifice save or hurt the other?

And yet every season is distinct because the answer to that question is informed by each brother's previous experience as well as the experiences and opinions of those who know them best.

Over the past 9 seasons (I am currently waiting for 10 to come available through my library), each brother--and Castiel--have formed a personal philosophy about life and people: when to get involved, when to stay removed. The philosophy of each morphs with time yet remains true to that character's personality.

Sam, Death, and Dean (Gadreel)
Sam's merciful approach to hunting--we should find out more before we whack someone (I'm rewatching from Season 1)--is intensified into a near libertarian philosophy by season 9. His approach of non-interference/live-and-let-live is obviously helped along, to a huge extent, by, well, causing the Apocalypse, which would send anyone into his personal crawl space. His seemingly inexplicable decision to not look for Dean (between Seasons 7 and 8) is due to an unfortunately linked self-belief: Whatever I DO will make things worse.

This is not exactly libertarianism which claims, correctly, that sometimes inaction is a positive act. Sam's point of view is far more subjective; consider, for example, the heartbreaking request he makes of Death at the beginning of Season 9: if he dies, it will be permanent and "no one will get hurt" by bringing him back.

To a large degree, Castiel--who has also burnt a number of bridges in his pursuit of the right course--agrees with Sam: it's better not to get involved. Castiel, however, is run by a slightly different set of desires, which continually pull him back into the action.

Sam and Castiel (Benny in the background) in Purgatory.
Castiel loves humanity, mortality, Dean, God*, and his fellow angels. The order varies, but Dean is almost always at the top of the list. This would be maudlin except it revolves around a core truth.

Arguing with Castiel, Metatron (played by the marvelous Curtis Armstrong) proclaims:
And the angel tablet--arguably the most powerful instrument in the history of the universe--is in pieces again and for what? Oh, that's right-- to save Dean Winchester. That was your goal, right? I mean, you draped yourself in the flag of heaven, but ultimately, it was all about saving one human, right?
From a military or economic point of view (both legitimate points of view, by the way), Metratron is right--giving up everything for one man might sound noble; from the above mentioned points of view, it is rather stupid.

From the point of view of heaven, however, it is utterly perfect, even Aslan-esque, hence the undisguised wonder in Metatron's voice. He is flummoxed yet impressed, disgusted yet awed. The preservation of one man is worth everything to Castiel. The individual matters!

Dean's philosophy might be best summed up as "sufficient unto the day is the evil thereof." Dean is a romantic pragmatist who deals with whatever is in front of him at the moment. Unlike Sam and Castiel, he doesn't dwell on possible future ramifications as much as problems in the now. Interestingly enough, as C.S. Lewis would argue, this puts Dean closer to eternity than any of the other characters; C.S. Lewis argued that since the past is gone and the future is largely imaginary, the place where real action, affection, and faith occur is in the present.

Dean is run by a constructive desire--to keep his "family" intact. Out of all Supernatural's core characters from John Winchester to Sam to Castiel to Crowley, Dean managed the best to build a functional home-life (Season 6). And he left only when pushed to extremes.

Dean's disappointment in Castiel.
Who constitutes family in Dean's eyes is based, quite frankly, on who Dean decides should qualify. Once that person qualifies, he or she is in forever (his dad, Sam, Bobby, Kevin, Charlie). So, Castiel--who qualifies--is forgiven just about everything precisely because he belongs. (He is  not excused, however; one of Dean and Castiel's best scenes occurs at the end of Season 6 when Castiel tries to explain his betrayal to a furiously hurt Dean. In Dean's eyes, a family member can mess up but that member also has to shape up.) Blood is not automatically a factor: Sam qualifies but Samuel Campbell, Sam and Dean's grandfather, doesn't.

In sum, Sam wants to lead a life that doesn't cause others harm; Castiel wants to save the individual, and Dean wants to keep his home intact, which entails sometimes siding with Sam and sometimes with Castiel (or, rather, entails non-action or action as needed). All three positions have equal merit and the tension between these positions, which develop and expand with each season, create good drama.

*See Dean--I have my own theory about the missing God and Dean's true identity; see above notes regarding Dean's philosophy.


Joe said...

I recently rewatched Supernatural and Alyssa started rewatching about a month ago. We both agree that the problem with starting at Season 1 again is how much better the early seasons are versus the later. We also both agree that the moment Metatron shows up, the series takes a dive.

What's interesting about Dean is how often he's right compared to Sam and Castiel. It's more than black and white, it's that Dean looks at actions, while Sam looks at motives. Judging people on what they do, not what they say or think is, overall, more reliable.

BTW, I believe one reasons the earlier seasons work better is that the producer and writers were willing to kill off characters. It's the Sam and Dean show, not the Sam, Dean, Castiel and Crowley show. They've made the fatal error of falling in love with secondary characters.

Katherine Woodbury said...

I agree that the first few seasons (starting in the middle of Season 1) are superior to the later seasons. Almost all my favorite episodes (with notable exceptions) come in Seasons 1-4.

The problem is that the brother's natural arc, culminating in Season 5 with the brilliant Lucifer/Michael storyline, is neatly paid off by Season 5. If the show was going to continue beyond that (which I'm glad it did), other characters had to be brought in to supply the ongoing internal and external conflicts. All the ordinary, familial, classical, and sublime reasons for the brothers to keep sacrificing had been exhausted.

The other solution would have been to turn Supernatural into some soap opera show about two brothers, their girlfriends, their careers, their neighbors, their pets, their schooling: Thirtysomething, maybe. What's impressed me is how surprisingly focused the writers have kept the show: guys fighting scary things on the road. (One hilarious aspect of the first few seasons is how much the camera man loves that Impala; at one point, I said, "Wow, this is a show about a car . . . and two guys.")

A cast of just four after 9 seasons is fairly impressive!