“I’m Nothing”: Castiel in Supernatural 9×14, and His Road So Far
He’s essentially… a perfect machine that has been infected with human qualities. Or you could say he was once a ruthless mechanism and he’s been elevated by human qualities. He’s a hybrid now. That creates as much conflict as it does insight.
— Ben Edlund on Castiel, May 6, 2011
Supernatural 9.14, “Captives”, scripted by Robert Berens, has two compelling storylines running at once. While Sam and Dean discover that Kevin Tran is haunting the bunker, and race to save Linda Tran, who as it turns out is still alive, Castiel deals with the factions of the angels trapped on earth. With the nature of the rift between Sam and Dean in season 9 forcing each of the brothers to confront things about themselves and their relationship, Castiel likewise has an arc concerning identity and questions about whether the ends justify the means. In 9.14, we see the fruition of a lot of the character development, experiences, and changes Castiel has gone through in the past few seasons. As in 9.06 “Heaven Can’t Wait”, Robert Berens’ first script for Supernatural, we see Castiel hit a point of realization about himself. In 9.06, Castiel comes to terms with the struggle of being human, finds value in work outside of being a magically powered warrior, and despite his unhappiness, realizes he wants to live. 9.14 takes things even further in its identity theme.
It hasn’t been an easy journey to get Castiel to here. Throughout it all, Castiel, like Dean and Sam, aims to do the right thing, he makes terrible mistakes, he gets hoodwinked, he takes heroic action, he does harm and does good, and cares so much it hurts. Angels don’t lack emotions, but they’re supposed to regulate them, to be obedient–ruled by command, not by their own hearts. Castiel wasn’t supposed to care as much as he did. Similarly to Dean, he has an overdeveloped protective streak, and doesn’t see his value if he’s not being God’s (dad’s) hammer (blunt instrument). Similarly to Sam, he’s gone down the wrong path for good end goals, worked to make amends for his decisions, and has had his sense of self splintered due to foreign supernatural influences and the after-effects (see for example Castiel’s S7 amnesia/PTSD, and Sam’s Lucifer hallucinations). In season 8 he refuses to let Dean pull him out of Purgatory because he feels that’s the penance he deserves. Once he is pulled out (by manipulative angels), he tries to make amends for his past mistakes by helping people. Due to his angelic nature, Castiel has also undergone an unusual number of variations on himself over the seasons: powered, semi-powered, full-powered, de-powered, re-powered again, and taken on more than one name.
There’s been a consistent motif throughout Castiel’s journey about identity, acceptance, and what it means to have our actions define us. We’ve seen this in a variety of ways, including the Winchesters drawing a being who is an “other”–a supernatural creature, something they would normally hunt–into their family unit. It’s in moments such as Dean’s fond declaration to Castiel in 5/04, The End, “Don’t ever change,” Castiel’s statement during 6×20, “The Man Who Would Be King”, “For a brief moment, I was me again,” or in 8×17, “Goodbye Stranger”, “I’m just me.” During Castiel’s bout with amnesia, in 7×17, “The Born-Again Identity”, Dean tells him, “You just met yourself. I’ve known you for years.” The Winchesters have also stood by Castiel through almost every permutation he’s been through–Castiel is still “Cas” to them, even after the rifts of season 6. The only time that didn’t hold was Godstiel, because in Dean’s eyes, that was the monster who’d destroyed his friend, yet Sam believed the real Cas was still in there, and he was right. Dean later forgives Castiel for his mistakes. Likewise, despite their screw-ups, Castiel seems to have faith in the Winchesters and a belief in their basic goodness.
At the end of season 4, Castiel rebels against Heaven to side with the humans. We learn in late season 8 that the other angels always regarded Castiel as flawed–he’s the one with a “crack in the chassis,” the angel who kept going off-book, refusing to follow along with the ruthless methods of angels. Castiel, it turns out, has been reprogrammed many times over the ages, as other angels attempted to get him to function correctly, and each time, Castiel shook the programming off, as we watched him do in season 4 and in season 8. Castiel has made plenty of his own bad decisions, yet he’s also had to defy efforts to control him, struggling towards making better choices about right and wrong. In season 5, he helps the Winchesters avert the apocalypse, standing up against his more powerful angelic siblings even though he’s temporarily lost his powers.
In season 6, Castiel found himself appointed “sheriff of Heaven” only to discover the archangel Raphael intended to launch a second apocalypse. To stop it, Castiel went down a path that involved lying, teaming up with an enemy, and cutting himself off from people he could’ve gone to for help. Castiel has a strong drive to be useful; if he’s not fixing things, saving everyone, he isn’t sure of his own worth (sound familiar?). He believed the Winchesters had given enough–he watches Dean raking leaves and decides to ally with the demon Crowley instead, not wanting to take Dean away from the solace of a peaceful life. He pulls Sam out of Hell, but accidentally leaves his soul behind, something Castiel confesses later he should’ve realized, but didn’t due to pride–which is also a factor in his season 6 decisions. He’s an angel of lord, a powerful being of energy and light. He’s got this. Insecurity may have also have been a factor–having trouble processing his own emotions, his perception of his place in the Winchesters’ lives may also have been skewed. Although even after Dean’s declaration to Castiel in 6.20, “The Man Who Would Be King”, “you are like a brother to me”, and begging Castiel not to do what he was planning, Castiel is determined to stay on that course. He tells Dean “you’re just a man. I’m an angel.” We know his end goal was good, but the means he chose were hurtful, and he winds up going against what he wants to be, by his own admission, to achieve those goals. After the trauma of season 7, season 8 shows Castiel with a greater self-awareness and understanding, although he still has blind spots, is still impulsive, and still makes questionable decisions.
Season 9 again finds Castiel at odds with other angels, and by the end of 9.14, as in season 6, he’s in the position of reluctant leader. There are a number of parallels between season 6 and season 9, but a number of differences as well. Concerning Castiel, for one thing there is a greater transparency to his story, which we’re seeing more of on-screen than usual. While too many things are still off-screen, told rather than shown, season 9 has been unusually attentive to following the line of Castiel’s story directly. Unlike in season 6, Castiel doesn’t hide his goals or actions from the Winchesters. So not only do we, the audience, get to follow a Castiel-eye-view in multiple episodes (unlike season 6’s somewhat stunt-like Castiel POV episode), season 9 continues season 8’s communicativeness between Castiel and the Winchesters. Most importantly, we get to see how Castiel himself has changed. The season 9 echoes to season 6 seem deliberate–given similar circumstances and temptations, what choices does Castiel make?
In “Captives”, an angel named Bartholomew tries to talk Castiel into reverting to ruthless methods so they can team up against Metatron, and restore the angels to Heaven. “What’s out there for you, Castiel? What do you really expect to accomplish on your own?” Bartholomew asks, and there are a lot of different answers that spring to mind, but likely none of them occur to Bartholomew. Bartholomew tortures the last survivor of a group of peaceful angels he had slaughtered as part of his hunt for Metatron, to try to wring more information out of him. Castiel is reluctant, yet stands by and lets it happen until Bartholomew suggests they kill the survivor, and then Castiel refuses.
Castel: I’m not a murderer.
Bartholomew: You weren’t. Not then. But since then, you’ve slaughtered thousands of angels. You killed Malachi’s man for his grace.
Castiel: Who I was, what I did, that’s not who I am.
There’s a callback to Castiel’s horrified realization once he regains his memories in 7.17, “The Born Again Identity”: “What I did. What I became…” Castiel isn’t denying what he did to Malachi’s follower, he’s referring to all the things he’s attempted to do penance for, things he doesn’t want to keep on doing or allow to define him. In 9.09, “Holy Terror”, Castiel does something questionable–killing a combatant angel to steal his grace. He tells Dean “I did what I had to. I became what they’ve become. A barbarian.” A lot happens in between 9.09 and 9.14, including Castiel finding out what happened with Dean having an angel possess Sam to save his life without Sam’s informed consent, and learning of the death of Kevin Tran at the hands of Gadreel possessing Sam. We also have Castiel witnessing the fallout between the brothers over Dean’s decision. 9.10, “Road Trip”, shows an understanding between Dean and Castiel over the shared experience of having screwed up for a good end goal, and 9.11, “First Born”, has Castiel trying to get Sam to see his own worth. He also explains to Sam that his time as a human in early season 9 changed him, gave him a greater awareness of the value of a life, and made him question the use of ruthless methods. It’s not that Castiel had no regret or emotions before becoming human, but it seems living as a human gave him an avenue to understand better what it all means. Castiel stealing another angel’s grace, becoming the hammer, parallels Dean in 9.11 accepting the Mark of Cain, effectively giving in to becoming the blunt instrument. Both are acts of wartime, involve altering themselves (although Castiel technically is restoring himself to his original nature, he’s doing it via forbidden means), and both carry consequences.
The title of 9.14 is significant. There is captivity of many kinds: Kevin Tran’s spirit caught in the veil between earth and heaven, Linda Tran rescued from Crowley’s storage facility prison, Sam and Dean snared in their own personal and familial issues and cycles they haven’t broken free of yet, while Castiel is caught in another kind of trap. Yet he rejects Bartholomew’s harsh ideology and methods.
Bartholomew and Castiel fight. Castiel gets the upper hand, holding his angel blade to Bartholomew’s throat, but then Castiel lets him go–only to have Bartholomew attack again, and so Castiel has to kill him in self-defense. It’s tragic and somewhat bitterly ironic to see Castiel wind up having to kill yet another angel, especially after Castiel’s declaration about finding a better way. Before Bartholomew attacks Castiel the first time, Castiel tells him “Angels fighting angels has to stop somewhere. Might as well stop with me.” It calls back to a moment in 6.03, “The Third Man” when Castiel reluctantly has to fight against yet another angel, and desperately mutters, “Why won’t any of you listen?”
However, it seems unlikely Castiel will stop trying. In “Captives” we see how he’s learned from past and recent mistakes and his experiences. Bartholomew’s argument is that because Castiel is capable of being a ruthless killer, he should use it–no matter the cost, the end goal makes it justifiable. But Castiel knows the means matter as much as the ends.
“Who are you?” Bartholomew challenges, “What are you now?” and Castiel’s response is “I’m nothing.” Those two words may sound like a denial of self-worth, but that’s not what’s actually going on, although it is a self-effacing line. In denying his right to declare the means justified no matter the cost, or to let the ruthless part of himself be all he is, Castiel, as he did in season 4, rejects being the hammer, and rediscovers himself.
Whether or not Castiel remains powered or not, his millennia of upbringing as an angel are always going to be a part of him, as will the things he’s done and his regret for them. He’s spent time as a human, he already adopted Sam and Dean Winchester as family, and this is a part of him as well. Castiel has developed a wariness of power, in himself and others, for how it’s wielded and its consequences. He’s been Castiel angel of the lord, Emmanuel the healer, Cas the Winchesters’ fallen angel friend, Steve the convenience store clerk–he’s all of those things, and his decisions and experiences and emotions have formed him into who he is.
He’s nothing, except himself, and that’s everything.
*screencaps courtesy of Home of the Nutty
Author: Dot R
Dot has been bouncing around various fandoms for many years now writing essays, episode reviews, commentary, and reporting news and conducting interviews, among other things. Along with being a Marvel, DC, Star Wars, and Supernatural fangirl, she’s also a fan of fantasy and science fiction television shows, everything from Farscape to Killjoys to 12 Monkeys to X-Files to Wynonna Earp. Currently Fangirl at Large covering numerous geek culture related topics, convention news, casting spoilers, show news, and interviews.
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3 thoughts on ““I’m Nothing”: Castiel in Supernatural 9×14, and His Road So Far”
Wow, what an absorbing character study: I really enjoyed it. What a pleasure to read something so fair and evenhanded, the celebrates Cas’s essential goodness and his strengths, while not shying away from his weaknesses and his mistakes.
I’d agree with MOST of this, but I’d have to disagree that Castiel killing Bartholomew was tragic: I found it more triumphant, as redress for his not getting to kill Naomi, who honestly would probably have been even more justifiable meeting the business end of his blade for her abuse. I put it as “learning the difference between resistive and oppressive violence”, and Berens agreed; basically, it was a clear and explicit communication to the audience of this that when Bartholomew offered him a ruthlessly achieved death, even his own, in order to assume his former reputation and step into the position of power Bartholomew holds, Castiel REFUSED, because, as you said, he is justifiably wary of power and its use in a ruthless faction. But, Castiel then shows that doesn’t mean he’s weak or incapable or incompetent, it doesn’t mean he will “submit or die” anymore: he’s learned the middle ground, violence as resistance to control (including one’s own murder) but not as control itself. By killing Bartholomew when there’s no better choice but to do so, Castiel exhibits the fact that he’s no longer habitually violent for just any means, but he’s not so pacifist now that he’ll die rather than raise a hand to anyone (which is a HORRIBLE method to fight the kind of oppression angels are used to both suffering and perpetrating). This is a very important lesson for him to learn, and honestly, for those who hate S6’s parallels, without S6? This would not have happened: he failed, and he learned from it TREMENDOUSLY.
(Ideally, what will now happen is Dean will follow suit, and learn to stop using violent [and violating] methods [and I DO NOT JUST MEAN PHYSICALLY SO] to try to control Sam, and his family in general–including Cas, at times–as a means of controlling all he knows to count as his ‘self’. This will start when he does what Castiel did in this episode, admitting to the victimization, and lack of ability to freely choose as a result of said victimization, that came from his abusive family. I REALLY REALLY HOPE that’s what’s coming.)
Yes Castiel has come along way from the angel we first saw in season 4 the good and the bad this is why i love the charractor so much he is not perfect but now it seems in season 9 his starting to from the mistakes of his path i do hope it will end well for him at the end of the season the guy needs a break for once . I agre e with Andrea im glad he killed Bart he was a monster
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